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April 23, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Tiger Beat and Ranger Danger

by Jay Jaffe

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Tiger Beat

After an 0-7 start, the Tigers have leveled off, going 8-6. Nonetheless, they're still in last place in the AL Central, and looking very little like the team that we projected for 91 wins and strong contention for both the Central crown and the wild-card slot, and more like their near-historically hapless 2003 squad.

The Tigers' problems have come on both sides of the ball. Through Monday--the team's 10-2 romp last night over the Rangers isn't included in any the following stats, though it brightens the picture a bit--their offense ranked 10th in the league in scoring at 4.1 runs per game, but some of that is an illusion. Taking park effects and run elements into account, they were actually fourth in the league in Equivalent Average, and second in Adjusted Equivalent Runs according to our Adjusted Standings. Factor in the absence of Curtis Granderson and the injury to Gary Shefffield, and at least the offense has some mitigating factors as they lag behind expectations.

Not so with their pitching. The Tiger staff as a whole is allowing 5.9 runs per game, which is dead last in the AL by about two-thirds of a run, and it's the worst even in terms of Adjusted Equivalent Runs as well. The absence of Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya in the bullpen shows, as the unit has been flat-out bad; their 5.98 Fair Run Average ranks 12th in the league and their -8.9 Adjusted Runs Prevented is 13th, though they're actually eighth in Reliever Expected Wins Added because of context. They've allowed more than 10 runs four times, and four times they've lost by at least six; within a win expectancy framework, those extra runs don't mean much, as the team is already numb to the beating. The staff's 0.78 Leverage score further confirms that there's been a lot of mop-and-bucket action thus far. Cleanups in Aisle 12? The Tigers lead the league.

The real problem is the rotation, however, where the starters' performances have been nasty, short, and brutish: they're last in Fair Run Average (6.14) and Support-Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement (-0.2), and second-to-last in innings pitched per start (5.35). In their first 20 games, they managed only one outing of at least seven innings, and just two quality starts, one by Kenny Rogers in the season's second game, the other by Armando Galarraga on April 16. Justin Verlander finally added another last night, but you won't need a second hand to count their quality starts until at least the weekend.

Turning from that crude measure to the more sabermetrically sound Support Neutral Winning Percentage, a rate stat that tells you how often a team would win a game given the starter's performance plus average offensive and bullpen support (SNLVA_R + .50, discussed in this space last season), here's how the Tigers rank; we'll throw in some of the other metrics that have been under discussion as well:


Team   IP/GS SNLVAR  FRA_s   SNW%
CHA     6.09   2.4   3.87   .549
SEA     6.44   2.7   3.72   .545
OAK     5.80   2.5   3.87   .537
MIN     6.00   2.1   4.05   .521
TOR     6.24   2.2   4.15   .518
CLE     5.98   1.9   4.88   .511
KCA     6.14   1.8   4.32   .505
ANA     6.27   1.8   4.46   .500
TEX     5.65   1.8   4.60   .499
BOS     5.73   1.8   4.45   .498
BAL     5.53   1.2   5.08   .471
NYA     5.07   1.2   5.47   .468
TBA     5.63   0.4   5.77   .428
DET     5.35  -0.2   6.14   .399

In other words, with all else being equal, the starters have been giving the Tigers only a 40 percent chance of winning. While we're here, note as well the two teams above them in the rankings. The vaunted Rays rotation has actually been worse than last year (5.55 FRA, .486 SNW%) despite slightly above-average Defensive Efficiency in the early going--.699, compared to the league's .695, both using the reached on error version of DE not included in our stat reports [1 - (H + ROE - HR) / (PA - BB - SO - HBP - HR)]. Then there's the Yankees, who through Monday have been getting just 5.07 innings per start from their staff, including less than four innings from the Philip Hughes/Ian Kennedy tandem, a performance that's no small part of Hank Steinbrenner's pining for Joba Chamberlain to join the rotation.

While we're at it, let's take a look at the NL:


Team  IP/GS SNLVAR  FRA_s   SNW%
SDN    6.27   3.9   3.53   .604
ATL    5.26   3.2   3.28   .577
ARI    6.02   3.1   3.40   .572
NYN    5.85   2.9   3.54   .570
SLN    5.97   2.9   3.70   .555
MIL    5.89   2.5   3.96   .540
LAN    5.41   2.0   4.20   .518
CHN    5.62   1.8   4.42   .506
HOU    5.49   1.9   4.69   .505
PHI    5.94   1.4   4.83   .481
SFN    5.45   1.4   5.04   .477
CIN    5.65   1.2   5.44   .467
WAS    5.45   0.9   5.55   .453
COL    5.62   0.7   5.54   .444
FLO    5.21  -0.2   6.32   .398
PIT    5.28  -0.6   7.02   .378

That's a frightening performance from the Pirates' rotation, but we'll save their woes for another day. Turning back to the Tigers, unlike the bullpen, the rotation didn't appear to be a problem coming into the season. Yes, there was some concern as to whether Jeremy Bonderman's late-season elbow troubles would carry over, whether Dontrelle Willis could make the jump to the tougher league, and whether the 43-year-old Rogers could stay healthy. But as a unit, only the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox were projected by PECOTA for a lower rotation ERA than the Tigers' 4.36.

If there was a warning bell to be sounded by the rotation's projection, it would have been in their rather unimpressive 1.98 K/BB ratio, good enough for just 10th in the league. Sure enough, throwing strikes has been a major issue thus far, as Justin Verlander (14/12 K/BB), Jeremy Bonderman (10/14 K/BB) and Kenny Rogers (9/12) haven't found the strike zone consistently. As a group, the starters have whiffed just 5.4 per nine innings while walking 4.8 per nine, and that doesn't include an MLB-high 11 hit-by-pitches. Factoring those in, and excluding intentional walks, here's what the AL rankings look like in what we'll call Adjusted Strikeout to Walk Ratio:


Team   AdK/BB
MIN      2.26
CHA      1.95
SEA      1.90
TBA      1.87
TOR      1.83
KCA      1.81
OAK      1.77
ANA      1.71
BOS      1.48
CLE      1.48
NYA      1.29
TEX      1.06
DET      0.98
BAL      0.93

In other words, Detroit's starters have unintentionally walked or hit more batters than they've whiffed, a surefire recipe for disaster. Even if you exclude Dontrelle Willis, who walked nine men and struck out none in his five-plus innings of work before taking up residence on the DL, the team would rank no better than 11th in the league. Blech.

Ranger Danger

As bad as the Tigers have been, they at least have a track record of recent success to suggest optimism for a turnaround. As I discovered while conjuring up a recent Hit List, there's one team with a profoundly awful track record when it comes to its starters, one that goes back more than a decade. Consider this:


Year    W-L   SNLVAR Rank   SNW%  FRA_s  FRA+
2007   75-87    6.8   14   .444   6.25   0.79
2006   80-82   14.3   12   .491   5.41   0.92
2005   79-83   11.1   12   .475   5.47   0.88
2004   89-73   13.8   12   .485   5.65   0.92
2003   71-91    4.9   14   .433   6.54   0.78
2002   72-90   12.0   13   .477   5.58   0.92
2001   73-89    5.4   14   .435   6.39   0.77
2000   71-91   13.1   14   .476   6.20   0.88
1999   95-67   15.2   13   .490   5.94   0.91
1998   88-74   11.5   13   .471   5.93   0.88
1997   77-85   13.1   12   .482   5.64   0.91

Rank is the team's ranking in the American League in SNVAR, and FRA+ is to Fair Run Average what ERA+ is to Earned Run Average, an index relative to the park-adjusted league average (and yes, it's my civic duty to coin at least one new stat a week in this space simply to torment this guy). In other words, this team hasn't had an above-average rotation, one that gave them at least a 50 percent chance of winning based on average offensive and bullpen support, since the days of the 28-team major leagues.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Texas Rangers. And yes, they've been worse than the (Devil) Rays since the latter's inception when it comes to starting pitching. In some ways, they've been even worse than the Rockies, a team that faces even more obstacles, environment-wise, in assembling a staff. Since 1998, the year Tom Hicks bought the club:


Team  WPct  SNLVAR  FRA_s   FRA+
 TEX  .490   108.1   5.93   0.84
 TBA  .400   136.0   5.71   0.87
 COL  .460    97.6   5.79   0.86

The Rangers have had a few years of competitiveness within this decade of rotation futility; they even made the playoffs in 1998 and 1999 despite their woes in this department. But a big reason why they've averaged just 79.4 wins per year in that span is right there in front of you. They've done an absolutely horrendous job of developing or acquiring starting pitching during this era. Within the franchise's top 50 seasons for starters according to SNLVAR, the highest-ranking one in this span is Kenny Rogers' 2002 season at #15. Among current staffers, Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla both crack the list, at #45 and #48, respectively, for their 2006 campaigns. Throw in Ryan Drese's 2004 at #17 and we've completed the list of starters who crack their top 50 since the days of the Clinton administration. Currently Millwood and Kason Gabbard rank in the AL's top 10, but if we're going to marvel at the altar of small sample sizes for the moment, it's only fair to note that former Ranger prospect John Danks is right there as well, and Galarraga is 21st. Oh, and in the NL, Edinson Volquez is fifth and Chris Young 35th, the latter coming off of two top ten finishes in that category.

That may seem like piling on, but at the moment it's far from clear that the Jon Daniels administration--now two and a half years old--is any better at building a rotation than predecessor John Hart was. In this year's BP annual, Steven Goldman explored the long and sordid history of the Rangers' status as a real estate concern or billionaire's toy rather than a competentl-run competitive ballclub. There are things to like about the job Daniels has done in rebuilding the farm system via last year's fire sale--Kevin Goldstein ranked them third in this year's Organizational Rankings--but the team still has a long way to go to overcome its legacy.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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