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April 27, 2007

Prospectus Today

Overreaction

by Joe Sheehan

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April is annoying.

I do some regular radio hits on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a week ago when I did them (in St. Louis, Las Vegas, and College Station, Texas), the main topic of discussion was the Phillies. The Phils had started out 3-10, Charlie Manuel had just sent Brett Myers to the bullpen to the consternation of the world, and the calls for his head were growing shrill. The thing is, the Phillies weren't underperforming because of decisions Manuel had made; they were playing poorly because Chase Utley and Ryan Howard hadn't hit well, and because their bullpen had, for the most part, been disastrous.

Nine days since that news cycle, the Phillies are 9-12, having won six of eight on the heels of a good run through the rotation, a nifty 30 AB stretch by Utley (.433/.469/.867), and good bullpen work in front of a shaky Tom Gordon. Now no one is calling for Manuel's head, no one is shoveling dirt on the Phils, and the chattering classes have moved on to fret in the Bronx. The Phillies are the exact same team they were nine days ago-with a flawed, top-heavy roster-they've just got a better record than they did at that point. Had they gone 6-2 and then 3-10, no one would have noticed. The results of two weeks of baseball mean absolutely nothing in the course of a season.

Another team that has divided its first 20 games in an interesting manner is the San Francisco Giants. Once again, the first 12 games of the season caused an overreaction. I said on the air-I think it was the Las Vegas show-that although I had thought the Giants were a .500 team in the preseason, I now thought they'd struggle to reach even that mark. I made that comment 17 days into a 183-day season, and you'd think I'd know better. The Giants haven't lost since then, and now lead the NL West after an eight-game winning streak, including a sweep at Dodger Stadium. Barry Bonds went nova, and the pitchers allowed two home runs in 66 innings, which is how you give up just 19 runs in eight games while posting a 36/30 K/BB.

The Giants aren't as bad as 4-8 or as good as 8-0. They are what they were leaving the Cactus League: a team with one clearly above-average hitter, a ball-in-play staff fronting a subpar defense, and far too many players who remember the heyday of Lee jeans and untied Adidas. That they struggled in the season's first four series shouldn't have caused me to go on the air and decide to change my opinion of them. They'll be on the fringe of the NL West and wild-card races all year long, their chances hinging heavily on how many innings they get from Tim Lincecum and how many ABs they get from Bonds.

I'm not sure why I made these mistakes. For years, I've been pounding the idea that two weeks, four weeks, even eight weeks of baseball is as likely to be deceptive as it is informative, so much so that a number of you are likely clicking over to Hit List or Lies Damned Lies or Paris Hilton-you know who you are-rather than continue reading another rant about this. I'm writing about it again today as much as a self-flagellation exercise as anything else, I guess. I'm annoyed with myself for making stupid statements on the air, for falling into the instant-analysis trap, rather than sticking to my guns and repeating the mantra-it's just not enough time to reach conclusions. Doing radio is fun, and to be blunt, pretty important to both the business side of BP and Joe Sheehan. Doing it poorly, however, serves no one.

Is there anything that can be gleaned from the season's first four weeks, any real information that might be useful in figuring out where we stand? I hesitate to dip my toe in these waters, but I will say that I've noticed the following things that I suspect may be useful going forward. The threat of confirmation bias is present in much of this, but I'm comfortable with saying…

  • Parity, 1980s style, is back in a big way. There are only three or four very good teams-the Red Sox, Indians, Mets, and maybe the Yankees-and just a couple of truly bad ones, the Nationals and Royals. The 24 teams between those two groups are just a mess, and delineating various virtues from among them a nightmare. We're going to spend the year overreacting to the ones that string together six-game winning or losing streaks, when that just won't mean all that much.
  • The Cubs' problems are greatly overstated. They have managed to underperform their indicators by more than a win a week, and that won't last. Just two NL teams have a better run differential than their +13, and I expect they'll be leading the NL Central by the All-Star break.
  • The hot trend in baseball, wrapping up players for a long time before they can reach the market, is the only rational way of spending the extra money coming into the game. It adds some risk for the teams, but consider that the competitive market for talent last winter priced Gil Meche at $11 million per season. The Cubs, it is rumored, may sign Carlos Zambrano for $16 million per before he gets out there. For virtually any player of value, a team will be better off locking him up rather than allowing competition for his services. This is a sharp reversal from the talent market of 2002-2004.
  • For sheer entertainment value, it's hard to beat the Devil Rays. They feature some of the most exciting, young, watchable players in baseball in Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes, and Scott Kazmir. They also have a bullpen that means no game is ever quite locked up. Well, unless they can get Al Reyes into the game…

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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