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June 17, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Conquering the Cubs

by Jay Jaffe

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At the outset of the season, the Cubs were forecast to be the National League's best team, but they've endured a litany of injuries and a few key underperformances. At this writing, they sit in fourth place in the NL Central, playing .500 ball (30-30) and trailing the division-leading Brewers by 3½ games. Earlier this week, our staff turned their attention to what's wrong in Wrigleyville and where the Cubs go from here. In today's edition of "Pair Up in Threes," we examine the trio of contenders above them, a crowd that should make for a fair share of Midwestern mayhem over the course of the rest of the season.

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Stats Status
Projected Record and Playoff Odds: 83-79, 18.5% Division/10.0% Wild Card/28.5%
Total Actual Record and PECOTA-based Playoff Odds: 36-29, 40.8/10.7/51.4
Offense: .265 Equivalent Average (11th), -5.7 Equivalent Baserunning Runs (25th)
Defense: .484 Starters' Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (25th), 3.46 Relievers' Fair Runs Allowed (3rd), 1.39 Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (4th)

How They're Exceeding Expectations: At the outset of the year, the Brewers didn't appear to have a tremendous shot of repeating last year's trip to the postseason, their first such journey in 26 years. They ranked just 12th on the pre-season edition of the Hit List, with the seventh-best projected record in the league. Even with the free-agent defections of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia, the team projected to stronger on the run prevention side (sixth) than on the scoring side (ninth), an admittedly counterintuitive result given the fact that six of the lineup's eight regulars are between the ages of 25 and 29, or within what ought to be their statistical prime.

The Brewers stumbled to a 4-9 start, but since then, they've put up the league's second-best record, even with a recent 2-6 skid. Their turnaround largely coincides with the arrival of 41-year-old Trevor Hoffman, the former Padres closer who spent the season's first three weeks on the DL. Since returning, he's yielded one run in 20 innings, converting all 16 save opportunities while allowing just 13 baserunners, a performance good enough for seventh in the league in WXRL. LOOGY Mitch Stetter and a pair of free-talent pickups who have worked their way into meaningful roles, Todd Coffey and Mark DiFelice, are in the league's top 30 as well. As a unit, the Brewers' bullpen fourth in the league in that category, a major reason why the team has exceeded its third-order Pythagenpat record by 4.8 games, the league's second-best mark. Though they've lost five straight one-run games to fall to 10-12 in that category, they're 16-8 in games decided by two or three runs.

While the rotation's been shaky (more on that momentarily), the staff as a whole is getting plenty of help from a defense which two seasons ago ranked third to last in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their impressive ranking is nothing new, actually; they were 10th last year with virtually the same lineup, the outcome of a chain of events which saw the arrival of center fielder Mike Cameron, the move of Bill Hall from center to third base, and of Ryan Braun from third to left field. The sudden loss of Rickie Weeks for the season hasn't changed things much; this remains a quality unit that has been helped by the fact that the pitchers are allowing the league's third-lowest line-drive rate as well as the third-highest ground-ball rate. Whether they can keep that up remains to be seen, but it's certainly easier to do so than maintaining a high Defensive Efficiency in conjunction with a high line-drive rate.

Meanwhile, the lineup as a whole has been a bit better than expected, overcoming a low batting average (.251, 12th in the league) to rank fourth in scoring. Amid a unit in which a few overachieving boppers are making up for some slow starts elsewhere, it's worth noting that the team's platoon split isn't quite so pronounced as last year, when their performance against righties was 68 points of OPS lower than against lefties. This year it's 40 points:


      ------vs RHP-------     ---vs LHP----
Year   PA%   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
2008  78.9  .246/.317/.421   .269/.348/.458
2009  77.2  .249/.331/.410   .255/.351/.430

That gap has actually widened from 15 points of OPS over the past two weeks (as a previous version of this article sat on my back burner) even as lefties Craig Counsell and Mat Gamel have soaked up at-bats that used to belong to Weeks and Hall; Hall's more or less lost his job because he's hitting .171/.258/.279 versus righties. Prince Fielder's having a monster season (.298/.425/.592), and he remains the lineup's sole full-time lefty.

How They're Falling Short of Expectations: The rotation has been an outright disappointment. While Yovani Gallardo has emerged as the staff ace (he's sixth in SNLVAR), the unit as a whole ranks a lousy 12th following a four-week stretch in which they've been torched for a 6.26 ERA while yielding 1.8 homers per nine and delivering just five quality starts out of 26. Gallardo is the only starter with a park-adjusted ERA better than the league average or a Support-Neutral Winning Percentage above .500. Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper have been just lame enough to be shy of LAIMs (league-average inning munchers), David Bush has been hammered for an 8.64 ERA and eight homers in his past 25 innings, and Manny Parra was banished to the minors with a 7.52 ERA through 13 starts. Because of offdays, the team won't need a fifth starter until June 27, so they'll go to a four-man rotation in the interim.

Going Forward:: If the Brewers are going to make the playoffs again, they'll have to shore up the rotation soon. Seth McClung remains an in-house possibility, but manager Ken Macha is loathe to remove him from his long-relief role, where he's kept the team in many a ballgame after a struggling starter has petered out. On this staff there have been no shortage of those. They're likely to add an arm from outside the organization for an arm one way or another.

They'll also need J.J. Hardy to turn things around. Coming off of a strong 6.8 WARP season, he's been a disaster, hitting .212/.292/.325 even after snapping an 0-for-30 skid on Monday night. Back spasms may be a cause of his woes; he alternated a frigid April with a torrid May but has hit just .169/.231/.183 since missing four games late that month. Macha recently dropped him to eighth in the lineup, but says his shortstop's not in jeopardy of losing his job. Without some improvement from Hardy, however, the Brewers can't even begin to entertain the possibility of using shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar as part of this year's Sabathia-sized deal. Furthermore, Escobar may figure in the team's second-base solution, which is currently being held down by Counsell and Casey McGehee, both of whom are performing well over their heads.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

Stats Status
Projected Record and Playoff Odds: 82-80, 14.7/8.6/23.3
Actual Record and Playoff Odds: 34-30, 21.1/9.3/30.4
Offense: .263 Equivalent Average (12th), 4.1 Equivalent Baserunning Runs (6th) Defense: .532 Starters' Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (9th), 4.37 Relievers' Fair Runs Allowed (12th), -0.39 Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (16th)

How They're Exceeding Expectations: The Cardinals were projected to rank a middling ninth in the league in run prevention, but instead they're fourth. They've gotten strong work from both ends of the staff, which rank fourth in SNLVAR and fifth in WXRL, respectively. The rotation has been a particular surprise, given that Chris Carpenter missed five weeks early in the year, and that Kyle Lohse has tossed just two innings since May 23. Save for Todd Wellemeyer, every starter who's taken the ball more than once-including fill-ins Mitchell Boggs and Brad Thompson-has an ERA below 4.00 and a Support-Neutral Winning Percentage above .500. The bullpen has survived Tony La Russa's early closer-by-committee threat via Ryan Franklin's 15-for-16 performance as the pen's top dog; he's fourth in the league in WXRL, with four other relievers in the lower third of the top 50.

As noted several weeks back, the staff's main problem is that they don't strike many hitters out; they're 14th in the league in K rate. They'll continue to walk a tightrope because they're below-average defensively, but at least they've improved to fifth in their rate of converting double plays, an important consideration given that they generate more ground balls than any other team in the league. On that note, they do a very good job of preventing homers, with league leader Joel Pineiro spurring them to the NL's third-lowest rate.

How They're Falling Short of Expectations: The offense was expected to be in the middle of the pack, which it certainly is, but it's really the case of Albert and the Seven Dwarves. Señor Pujols has put up an NL-leading .370 EqA, more than 100 points higher than any other Cardinal. Colby Rasmus is next at .267, a performance that's right at his PECOTA weighted mean projection, but he's been helpless (5-for-43 with a 411 OPS) against lefties, and Chris Duncan's .261 EqA is a drag for a corner outfielder with a leaden glove. Ryan Ludwick is a long way from last year's 37-homer, .324 EqA breakout, having fallen to .258 by hitting just .173/.214/.231 since his return from a hamstring injury. Rick Ankiel's at .258, as is Yadier Molina, and Skip Schumaker is at .246, which doesn't speak terribly well given his subpar play at second base (-8.9 runs according to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, -4 runs according to our older-school FRAA numbers).

Third base has been a particularly gaping hole in the team's lineup. With Troy Glaus probably done for the year before he even got started, the team's solutions for their hot corner conundrum-mainly Sloppy Joe Thurston and Brian Barden-have hit a combined .230/.303/.341. David Freese and Joe Mather, two prospects suspects who at points during the spring appeared to be appropriate stopgap solutions, have been slowed by injuries while down on the farm; the former is out until at least mid-July after undergoing ankle surgery in late May, while the latter has hit .250/.293/.444 in June after returning from surgery to remove a cyst, not terribly impressive, but a damn sight better than the .150/.211/.210 he hit prior.

Also, it's worth noting that while the four Central contenders all face similarly middling schedules the rest of the way, the Cardinals hold a slight advantage relative to the other contenders, in that they're 6-3 against the Cubs, while the other two teams here are 3-3.

Going Forward: The team's latest stroke of genius is to use Khalil Greene at third base. Currently on a rehab assignment as he works his way back from a DL stint forced by an anxiety disorder, Greene's never played an inning at third in the majors, and he's currently hitting an anemic .200/.287/.295. Short of trading for Mark DeRosa or Miguel Tejada, scaring Greene straight with some close-range line drives seems to be the order of the day, all in the name of accommodating the admittedly solid work Brendan Ryan and Tyler Greene have done in his absence-.260ish EqAs that are well beyond their reach as far as PECOTA's projections are concerned. Yeah, that's a tenable plan.

Still, the usual heap of credit is due La Russa for mixing and matching his assorted spare parts to keep this roster in contention. Consider the fact that TLR's most frequent lineup (with Thurston at third and Duncan/Rasmus/Ludwick in the outfield) has been written in just four times. This team has a glut of outfielders and utilitymen for whom everyday use is a stretch, and this roster could use some relief, particularly via a deal for a bigger bat for the hot corner.

As for the rotation, Carpenter has pitched like an ace when he's been available, and he's put up a 1.98 ERA over his six starts since coming off the DL. That's his longest stretch of injury-free activity since the 2006 season, so while all systems are as go there as they're ever likely to be again, there are still plenty of fingers to cross. Lohse, meanwhile, is out until after the All-Star break due to a strained flexor tendon, and Will Carroll is on record as expressing concern that there may be more to his injury than indicated. While Thompson remains a suitable stopgap at the back of the rotation, some insurance may be in order.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Stats Status
Projected Record and Playoff Odds: 82-80, 12.1/7.6/19.7
Actual Record and PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds: 31-31, 10.4/5.9/16.3
Offense: .247 Equivalent Average (25th), -2.8 Equivalent Baserunning Runs (16th)
Defense: .533 Starters' Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (8th), 3.83 Relievers' Fair Runs Allowed (4th), 1.18 Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (5th)

How They're Exceeding Expectations: The Reds were expected to rank 11th in the league in run prevention, but as it turns out, they've got one of the league's best units. They're fifth in the league in runs allowed per game (4.29), no small achievement in such a hitter's park. Even more impressively, they're second in combined win expectancy (SNLVAR + WXRL) even with ace Edinson Volquez throwing just one inning since May 16. Johnny Cueto, thanks to a bit of luck and some genuine improvement, has built on last year's promise to lead the league with a 2.17 ERA. He recently reeled off nine quality starts out of 10, and ranks fifth overall in SNLVAR. Aaron Harang has rebounded from an uncharacteristically lousy season to rank 13th in that category. Meanwhile, the Reds have five relievers in the top 40 in WXRL, headed up by closer Francisco Cordero, who ranks 12th; he's 15-for-16 in save opportunities.

As good as that all looks, the staff's overall performance is well ahead of its peripherals. They're just 13th in the league in strikeout rate, 10th in home-run rate, and eighth in walk rate. The 0.62 run gap between their FIP (4.48) and ERA (3.86) is the majors' highest. They owe a lot to a defense that's the league's most improved in terms of both raw Defensive Efficiency (34 points) and PADE (five percent). Though the return of Alex Gonzalez, the arrival of Willy Taveras, and the loss of Edwin Encarnacion have done the offense no favors, they've been mighty helpful in turning batted balls into outs. Cueto (.244, third lowest among ERA qualifiers) and Volquez (.222) have particularly benefited.

How They're Falling Short of Expectations: Perhaps it's unfair to say that the offense is falling short of expectations; they were forecast to rank 11th in the league in raw scoring, and they actually rank 10th. Still, that's a piss-poor showing given their home park. Of the 11 hitters with at least 120 plate appearances this year, just four-Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Hannigan, and Laynce Nix-have EqAs above .260. Votto's on the DL for reasons related to the inner-ear infection which has limited him to 11 games in the past six weeks, Hannigan's the backup catcher who's benefited from his absence (with starting backstop Ramon Hernandez shifting over to first base), and Nix is the guy with an extra Y in his name and a career .230 EqA in 930 PA coming into this season. Basically, their best hitter is sidelined indefinitely, and they're getting below-average production from both outfield corners (including still-disappointing right fielder Jay Bruce), and sub-replacement level production in center field (Taveras) and at third base (Adam Rosales).

That outcome certainly owes a bit to bad luck, though in the grand scheme of things the Reds have little to complain about, ranking 29th in both days and dollars lost to the DL. Dusty Baker's ability to fill out a lineup card is one of the real culprits in their woes, as the team's 1-2 hitters are hitting a combined .231/.291/.347. Hell, the leadoff hitters-the deathless Taveras, with a bit of Jerry Hairston Jr. and Chris Dickerson-are hitting a combined .231/.279/.302, which is only a few seeing-eye hits better than the number nine spot (.190/.261/.290)!

Going Forward: Taveras broke an 0-for-32 slide last night, and while Dickerson may not be a world-beater, his .240/.364/.362 line looks like Rickey Henderson next to Wee Willy's .228/.281/.286. At the very least, he should be starting in center field and leading off against righties. Not that it would kill GM Walt Jocketty to do something besides watch this offense bleed out, which is exactly what it's doing; the team is hitting .202/.284/.303 this month while averaging 3.3 runs per game. With Encarnacion dealing with a wrist injury, a return to productivity is no guarantee. Alas, the Reds face financial constraints, which make a major move a longshot. Even so, Mark DeRosa would make a particularly useful pickup, and there's probably a bargain to be had in sifting through the Nationals' bin of irregular outfielders.

Help could come from within. Center fielder Drew Stubbs, their first-round pick from 2006 and now the team's third-best prospect, is hitting .306/.392/.429 at Triple-A Louisville. Todd Frazier, their first-round pick from 2007 and now their second-best prospect, is hitting a searing 331/.377/.508 at Double-A Carolina; he can play left field, first base, third, and shortstop, though not necessarily well. Homer Bailey has gone 6-5 with a 3.13 ERA and 8.1 K/9, and might either augment the pitching staff or serve as fodder for a deal which minimizes the amount of salary the team has to take on. While none of these solutions is perfect, at least the Reds have options, not to mention a shot at their first .500 record since 2000.

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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