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August 31, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Grab Bag

by Jim Baker

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A Celebration of Ignorance

Here's a question for you: What do you when you don't know a lot about a subject? Do you:

  1. Attempt to find out more about it?
  2. Keep mum on the topic so that nobody realizes your ignorance?
  3. Attack it and brag to the world that not only are you blissfully unaware of what it's all about, you think it's stupid and worthless?

When it comes to sabermetrics, alas, a number of mainstream media people continue to choose 'C' instead of the other two choices. This amazes me. There are countless subjects about which I know precious little, and I always opt for A or B. There is a quote that I always heard attributed to Winston Churchill, (and here I am willing to use A and admit that I am not certain of this), and it goes like this: "Better to say nothing and have people assume your ignorance than open your mouth and confirm it."

I don't expect everyone in the baseball world to embrace sabermetrics, but I would expect professional journalists who are bent on attacking it to do so based on its failures, not on its mere existence. Dismissing it out of hand is nothing short of disappointing coming from the highest-paid people in the profession. I'm willing to listen to any sound argument based on facts and research, but what we get instead is hollow condescension.

What amazes me is that their editors tolerate this. A revolution in baseball analysis has been taking place for a quarter century now, and writers and commentators at some of the most widely-read and widely-watched media outlets in the country not only don't understand it, they refuse to do so, and get paid to celebrate this shortcoming. Would editors tolerate the same from their science writers? From their economics staff? This puzzles me to no end. If I were the editor of a writer who dismissed VORP or the work of Bill James, I would demand to know on what grounds they were doing so. "Why do these metrics fail in the face of the traditional numbers to which you remain beholden?" I would ask them. If they could answer that question successfully, I would be sated, and let them continue working in my sports department.

The problem, of course, is that they can't.

The Freshmen Class of 2007

For some reason, I think the word "frosh" is one of the funniest terms in the entire English language. In any case, the frosh of 2007 are almost done with their first season, and I thought we'd check in on their progress. What follows are the combined VORP of the top 30 ranked rookies according to BP's database. One thing to keep in mind is that not all of the pitchers included are necessarily pure rookies. Some may be slightly over the limit in terms of playing time or time spent on rosters. Regardless, this is still a decent measure of the amount of young talent that has been injected into the game in a given year. It is highly unlikely that this year's group will surpass the showing of the class of 2006.

First, the pitchers. Although 2006's accomplishments are out of reach, they could well end up second, surpassing the achievements of the class of 1999. If they stopped right now, they'd already be ranked fifth in the last 10 years. Keep in mind that the Class of 2006 was at 611.6 at this time last year, so this year's group could well crack 700. September is a good time for newcomers to throw up points with the rosters expanding tomorrow.

Year: Total VORP
2007: 581.6 (through August 29)
2006: 820.8
2005: 555.2
2004: 500.9
2003: 602.9
2002: 560.0
2001: 531.9
2000: 595.4
1999: 688.5
1998: 526.7

Turning to the position players, we find a similar situation. Overtaking the showing of last year's group is not likely, but a second-place finish for the years of the last decade is a strong possibility:

Year: Total VORP
2007: 386.4 (through August 29)
2006: 565.2
2005: 427.5
2004: 377.6
2003: 409.9
2002: 301.9
2001: 401.0
2000: 326.0
1999: 457.7
1998: 329.9

Ryan Braun is headed for the best rookie showing since Albert Pujols put up a 74.9 in 2001. Let us not forget that Braun did have a late start-he's going to end up with about 50 fewer games played than Pujols had in 2001.

Where are they now? Pitcher version

Last time out, we looked at the offensive players who landed in the VORP top 10 in 2006, and how they were faring with 80 percent of this season gone. This time, let's take a look at the pitchers:

  • Johan Santana (79.6/53.9): Santana is currently fifth overall in VORP, his lowest standing since his first full-time season as a starter in 2004. Not that he's doing anything wrong, it's just a number of pitchers have matched his level of excellence this year. He's still a good bet to finish with the highest figure in the American League, as he's just a nose behind Kelvim Escobar, although Erik Bedard and Dan Haren are right there with him. His four-season total is just below 300 total VORP. In looking at the top 200 seasons pitching seasons since 1959, Santana's 2004, 2005, and 2006 seasons all qualify. The threshold for inclusion on this list is 64.7, a reasonable number for Santana to achieve this year. Landing in the top 200 in four consecutive seasons is a fairly rare feat, unless your name is Greg Maddux:

    Four-Year totals: Pitcher, seasons
    387.1: Pedro Martinez, 1997-2000
    358.7: Randy Johnson, 1999-2002
    344.3: Sandy Koufax, 1963-1966
    341.9: Greg Maddux, 1994-1997
    340.8: Greg Maddux, 1995-1998
    332.7: Greg Maddux, 1993-1996
    329.5: Greg Maddux, 1992-1995
    314.9: Kevin Brown, 1996-1999
    309.3: Kevin Brown, 1997-2000
    287.4: Dave Stieb, 1982-1985

    Other pitchers have at least four top 200 seasons, including Roger Clemens (10), Mike Mussina (six), Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver (five apiece), and Curt Schilling (four), but these did not come in four consecutive seasons. Should Santana add the requisite 10.8 to his VORP to make this list, he will enter it at the bottom, right around Kevin Brown's 1997-2000 run. Remember, too, it the Twins had put him in the rotation at the start of the 2003 season, he'd be working on his second entry on this list, not his first.

  • Roy Oswalt (72.4/51.6): Currently ranked eighth overall. He's basically repeating his 2006 performance, except that he's walking a lot more batters this year. In 2006, he walked 1.55 men per nine innings. This year it's up to 2.67.
  • Brandon Webb (68.9/54.7): Webb is fourth behind Jake Peavy, Brad Penny, and Escobar. Dontrelle Willis got the hardware in 2003, but Webb is getting the better career since losing out on the Rookie of the Year Award that year. Webb had a 7.4 to 5.8 edge in WARP3 that season, but Willis made a much noisier splash. Since then, Willis has had the best single season (11.1 in 2005), but Webb has been more consistent, and holds a 38.7 to 31.4 career edge.
  • Roy Halladay (68.0/41.2): It's not shaping up as one of Halladay's best seasons, but any team in baseball would welcome it in their rotation-he's ranked 19th.
  • Chris Carpenter (67.8/NA): Had Carpenter not been shelved after one start, can a case be made that the Cardinals would be leading the National League Central right now? It's an easy point to argue if you swap a typical Carpenter effort for the combined shenanigans of Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, and to a much lesser extent Mike Maroth. It's not that simple, of course, as Carpenter wouldn't have absorbed all 38 of their mostly ill-fated starts. Still, though, he would have taken enough of them to make up the current three-game deficit with the Cubs.
  • Bronson Arroyo (64.9/18.6): One of the big surprises of 2006 has-surprise!-returned to doing exactly what he did in 2004 and 2005. Ranked an even 100th at this writing.
  • John Smoltz (61.9/45.4): Ranked 15th, Smoltz is achieving that while dealing with one of the highest BABIP figures of any starter in the top 100, and which to a great extent can be a matter of luck or shoddy defensive support:

    
    Pitcher         Team   BABIP   Rank
    Felix Hernandez  SEA   .347     55
    Scott Kazmir     TBA   .340     35
    Andy Pettitte    NYA   .323     25
    Bronson Arroyo   CIN   .323    100
    Smoltz           ATL   .322     15
    
  • Chien-Ming Wang (54.6/38.4): Was ranked 24th before yesterday's seven shutout innings against Boston. He's now 16-6; if Wang can manage to spend his entire career with the New York, he could well end up with the kind of career winning percentage that Yankees Spud Chandler, Whitey Ford, and Ron Guidry had before him.
  • Carlos Zambrano (53.8/31.6): This is shaping up as Zambrano's worst season since establishing himself in the rotation in 2003. He's ranked 42nd in VORP. and is still walking too many opponents. With 82 free passes, he's currently fifth in the majors behind Daniel Cabrera, Noah Lowry, Doug Davis, and Chad Gaudin. While Zambrano has been credited with 14 victories and could set a career high in that category with a decent September, the Cubs' lead in the division would be a more comfortable one had he pitched as well this year as he had in 2004 to 2006.
  • Francisco Liriano (51.0/NA): How good was Liriano last year? Consider that he landed in the top 10 with just 121 innings pitched while everyone else had at least 200. When last we saw him, he was doubled over on the mound holding his prized left arm in a peculiar manner. It is at moments like that I hate baseball, or fate, or something.
  • Related Content:  Greg Maddux,  Rookies Of The Year,  Rosters

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