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May 7, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Cinco do Samplo, NL

by Jay Jaffe

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Editor's Note: This was written yesterday for ESPN.com, so it wasn't composed with the Manny Ramirez situation in mind. No doubt with a heavy heart-Jay's a Dodgers fan, after all-he will be elaborating on what the slugger's suspension means for the NL West shortly.

Yesterday I took a stab at gauging the significance of the results from the American League's first month of play using two tools to estimate final winning percentages, one our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds Report, the other a historically based formula derived by Rany Jazayerli which incorporates a team's record to date as well as their previous three years' results. I also noted that Rany's study suggested that not until the 48th game does a current season's results become more predictive of the final outcome than the historical projections do. In other words, it's too early to draw hard conclusions, but we can certainly glean hints from what's transpired so far.

Here's how the NL looks according to the two estimates, based upon the results through Tuesday, and sorted by the Odds method:


NL East       Odds   Hist
Phillies      .549   .552
Mets          .543   .521
Braves        .500   .461
Marlins       .462   .516
Nationals     .424   .390

NL Central    Odds   Hist
Cubs          .580   .540
Cardinals     .546   .548
Brewers       .535   .533
Reds          .511   .491
Astros        .419   .484
Pirates       .406   .447

NL West       Odds   Hist
Dodgers       .615   .576
D'backs       .516   .477
Giants        .486   .479
Padres        .441   .456
Rockies       .438   .461

Above all, the early results offer a serious reality check to two teams who were projected to finish first in their divisions by comfortable margins, the Mets and Cubs. They also suggest that the Dodgers may well run away with the NL West title.

The Mets, who have infamously punted playoff spots on the final day of the past two seasons, appear bent on sparing their fans the late-season heartbreak this time around. While their offense ranks fourth in the league in Equivalent Average and the rebuilt bullpen has been effective as advertised, the rotation aside from Johan Santana has been a disaster, ranking 14th in the league in SNLVAR. Even with their new home playing as Petco Park East, no other starter has an ERA below 5.20, and all have issues. Oliver Perez has been sent to the bullpen in search of the strike zone, Mike Pelfrey has dealt with the Verducci Effect, forearm tendonitis, and control problems of his own (6/13 K/BB), John Maine has been erratic in his return from shoulder surgery, and Livan Hernandez remains the game's biggest palooka. Worse, no cavalry is riding to the rescue; Tim Redding has yet to pitch, Freddy Garcia has already been released, and Jon Niese has been shelled for a 6.55 ERA at Triple-A.

Luckily for the Mets, their NL East competitors have very real problems of their own. Though the Phillies have overtaken the Mets according to the Odds Report and slipped into first place for the first time all year on Tuesday, start with a rotation that's last in the league in SNLVAR, yielding 2.3 home runs per nine and carrying a collective 6.54 ERA, with nobody below Brett Myers' 5.35. Ace Cole Hamels has been limited to just 17 1/3 innings due to elbow concerns and a variety of on-field mishaps. There's concern at the other end of the staff as well, with Brad Lidge's balky knee limiting his availability and effectiveness.

Elsewhere, the current model of the Braves has more in common with the post-dynastic editions that have lowered the bar than with the Wild Card contenders foreseen by PECOTA. Their pitching has been a plus thanks to off-season acquisitions Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, but their offense is eking out just 4.0 runs per game, with Brian McCann sidelined by vision problems, Jeff Francoeur quickly reverting to his hacktastic ways, and Garret Anderson predictably DOA. The Marlins bolted out to an 11-1 start, but have received naught but a steady regimen of reality therapy since.

In the Central, the Cubs were forecast to be the league's top team, with the largest cushion of any division winner. Injuries have deflated their cushion, however, while preventing the team from approaching full strength. Milton Bradley and Geovany Soto are hitting a combined .149 while dealing with lingering groin and shoulder injuries, Derrek Lee only recently crossed the Mendoza Line after battling a bulging disc in his neck, and now Carlos Zambrano has gone on the disabled list due to a hamstring strain. Not all of their problems are due to injury, though. Ostensibly healthy pitchers such as Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Carlos Marmol-all keys to last year's success-have pushed the Cubs to the league's fourth-highest walk rate. The team may survive thanks to the game's softest schedule, but there's room for doubt.

As noted last week, the Cardinals' performance stands out among the season's early high-flyers, as they've asserted themselves while facing the league's third-hardest April schedule. Their offense, which was ticketed for the middle of the pack, is second in the league in scoring, and beyond the predictably awe-inspiring performance of Albert Pujols (.337/.449/.705), they've gotten plenty of production from expected sources such as Ryan Ludwick and Chris Duncan, as well as unexpected ones like Yadier Molina and third-base fill-in Joe Thurston. The staff, faced with overcoming the loss of Chris Carpenter yet again, ranks in the top three in both walk and homer rates, though their inability to miss bats is a liability for a team whose makeshift infield features converted outfielder Skip Schumaker kicking around at the keystone. The Brewers remain a threat in the division thanks to Yovani Gallardo picking up slack left by the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Indeed, the rotation as a whole has put together more quality starts than all but one other team, while the bullpen survived Trevor Hoffman's absence during the first three weeks.

As the Mets and Cubs have faltered, the Dodgers have asserted their claim as the league's top team. With Manny Ramirez picking up where he left off despite protracted contract negotiations and hamstring troubles, they lead the majors in EqA (.284) as well as run differential (+48). Earlier this week they tied a 98-year-old major league record by winning their first 12 home games of the season. Their rotation is patchy enough to embrace Jeff Weaver's return, but ace Chad Billingsley and closer Jonathan Broxton have both recovered from last fall's physical and psychological wounds to dominate the league. They may open up a 10-game lead before the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb returns from the disabled list, and the Odds Report suggests that they could win the division by a double-digit margin.

On the other hand, the Dodgers' hot start won't reach the threshold which Rany identified as making a team a virtual lock for the postseason after just 30 games. They and every other team will have to play out their 130-something remaining games to answer the nagging questions we still have about the 2009 season. It's a tough break, but we should all try to enjoy it.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

2 comments have been left for this article.

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