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October 2, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Hunting High and Low

by Jay Jaffe

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Despite a dearth of stretch-drive drama, the 2009 season has been full of thrills and chills. While the ability to appreciate them certainly doesn't require an overt appreciation of statistics, what follows are five highlights and five lowlights of a particularly sabermetric bent (all stats through Wednesday):

Highs

1. The Triple-Slash Triple Crown: With his .366 batting average, .441 on-base percentage, and .594 slugging percentage, Joe Mauer leads the league in all three triple-slash categories, a feat that has been accomplished just 15 times-five of them by Ted Williams-and of course, never before by a catcher. In the Wild Card era, only Barry Bonds (twice) and a pair of pre-humidor Rockies have achieved the feat. En route to his third batting title, Mauer's .376 average while playing catcher beats Bill Dickey's single-season record of .362, though Mauer's .357 EqA has fallen behind Mike Piazza's .362 mark, the record for spending the majority of their time wearing the tools of ignorance.

2. Albert Being Albert: While Mauer's exploits surprise us, those of Albert Pujols run the risk of seeming routine. Pujols is on track to wind up leading the NL in EqA for the fourth time in five years, and his .371 mark (in the "adjusted for all-time" flavor) marks the second season in a row above .370. The .348 EqA he's compiled since debuting in 2001 ranks as the 10th-best nine-year span in history:


Player            Years       EqA   EqR
Barry Bonds      1999-2007   .389   1058
Babe Ruth        1919-1927   .365   1241
Ted Williams     1941-1952   .364   1071
Mickey Mantle    1955-1963   .361   1142
Frank Thomas     1990-1998   .359   1185
Mark McGwire     1992-2000   .358    902
Ty Cobb          1909-1917   .354   1193
Lou Gehrig       1927-1935   .350   1283
Rogers Hornsby   1920-1928   .350   1161
Albert Pujols    2001-2009   .348   1251
Stan Musial      1943-1952   .345   1252
Willie Mays      1956-1964   .343   1278
Hank Aaron       1956-1964   .342   1281
Edgar Martinez   1992-2000   .340    963
Willie McCovey   1966-1974   .340    936
Johnny Mize      1936-1944   .340   1060

Furthermore, on the career EqA list, Pujols' .348 mark ranks fourth all-time behind Ruth (.363), Williams (.359) and Bonds (.354).

3. Big Zack Attack: Thanks in no small part to his limiting opponents to two earned runs across his last six starts, Zack Greinke's 2.06 ERA and 213 ERA+ both rank as the third-best marks since the calendar flipped to the 2000s, behind seasons from Pedro Martinez (1.74 ERA, 291 ERA+ in 2000) and Roger Clemens (1.87 and 226 in 2005). Greinke's 9.4 SNLVAR is the highest since Johan Santana's 9.6 in 2004, and with one start remaining, he could surpass both Santana and Randy Johnson's 9.7 for the highest mark since Pedro's 11.5 in 2000.

4. The Halo Effect: En route to their fifth division title in six years, the Angels have a shot at beating their third-order Pythagenpat projection-the number of games they'd be expected to win given their hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, and outs of all kinds, as well as those of their opponents, all adjusted for park, league, and quality of competition-by 10 games for the second year in a row, an unprecedented accomplishment (they're at 9.0). Such overachievement is owed in large part to strong high-leverage performances both in the bullpen (which has overcome some early-season hiccups) and at the plate, but it has become routine for the Angels during Mike Scioscia's tenure. At a minimum, these Angels will become the first team ever to top their projection by at least eight games for the third straight year.

5. Ranging Afield: While they can't match the achievement of the record-setting, pennant-winning 2008 Rays, the Rangers' 30-point improvement in Defensive Efficiency-largely due to the installation of 20-year-old rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus, who made the jump straight from Double-A-has enabled them beat their PECOTA forecast by 16 wins and counting. In doing so, they've turned a well-stocked organization which hadn't posted a winning record since 2004 into a contender.

Lows

1. Hell With the Lidge Off: One year after converting every save opportunity that came his way in the regular season and postseason en route to the Phillies' World Championship, Brad Lidge has not only blown 11 saves and posted a 7.34 ERA, he's set a single-season record for the worst WXRL of any reliever since 1954 (which is to say ever); he's 3.3 wins below replacement level. Speaking of replacements, the Phillies head into the playoffs in the awkward position of still auditioning potential successors.

2. Our Long Nationals Nightmare: When they fired Manny Acta at the All-Star break with a 26-61 record, the Nats were on pace to become just the second team since the 1962 Mets to post a winning percentage below .300. Despite improving considerably on interim skipper Jim Riggleman's watch, they've crashed through the 100-loss barrier for the second year in a row. They're there in large part because of spectacular underachievement; at this writing, their 12.6-game deficit beyond their third-order Pythagenpat is the sixth-worst mark of all time.

3. The Red Menace: The Reds were 27-23 and still in afloat in a crowded NL Central race on June 1, but they lost 45 of their next 68 games in large part due to Dusty Baker's stubborn insistence on batting Willy Taveras either in the leadoff or number two slots in the order. Taveras hit .216/.230/.243 during that two-and-a-half month nosedive before mercifully going on the DL with a quad strain. In what Baker must have read as an unrelated coincidence, the Reds averaged 3.6 runs per game during that stretch. For the year, the Reds' leadoff hitters produced the majors' lowest OPS via a .253/.299/.346 showing, and their two-slot hitters were scarcely better (.237/.303/.362).

4. Two Aces and a Cast of Thousands: Projected to contend in the NL Central, the Brewers didn't properly reload following the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets from last year's wild-card winners and instead will instead finish under .500 thanks to a rotation that ranks last in the NL in ERA (5.31) and second-to-last in the NL in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.440). Take away ace Yovani Gallardo and the numbers are far worse: 5.73 and .413. For the Indians, who were projected to win the AL Central but instead crashed and burned to the point that it finally cost manager Eric Wedge his job, their rotation ranks second-to-last in the AL with a 5.16 ERA and a .465 SNWP. Aside from Cliff Lee-traded to Philadelphia in late July-the Tribe starters are at a similarly wretched at 5.57 and .430 for the year.

5. Bombing in Beantown but Booming Beyond: The AL's dominance over the NL continued in 2009, as the Junior Circuit took the upper hand in interleague play for the sixth straight year. If you're looking for a rather hyperbolic illustration of the difference in quality between the two leagues, consider the performances of John Smoltz and Brad Penny while pitching for the Red Sox (6.23 ERA and .403 SNWP in a combined 32 starts) with their stretch-drive showings for NL contenders (3.39 ERA and .591 SNWP in 13 starts) after escaping the piranha tank of the AL East.

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

5 comments have been left for this article.

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