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February 22, 2011

Changing Speeds

Setting the Line

by Ken Funck

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Around this time of year, our old friend Joe Sheehan was wont to write a column about value bets for the upcoming baseball season, looking at the Vegas betting lines for team records and trying to discern where statistical analysis could help a bettor find an edge against the house. It was always one of my more favorite pieces of the year, since I’ve always been interested in such things, and more to the point, I’ve always thought it would be fun to let loose my internal Ace Rothstein and determine where the line should be set.

In that vein, I’ve decided to run a little contest to see which of our readers can best select the Over/Under for a number of player performances in the upcoming season. Below you’ll find two Over/Under lines for each team in the American League, generally about players who I think will be either key performers or interesting to follow in the upcoming season. Next week I’ll publish two lines for each National League team. What you’ll need to do is pick whether you think each player in question will perform at a level “over” or “under” the line I give. After next week, there will be 60 lines in all.

I haven’t worked out how best to have you submit your picks—as you may well expect, our tech staff is occupied with other work at the moment—but I can give you that information next week. At the very minimum, I can provide a spreadsheet for you to fill in and e-mail back to me. Since the winner of this contest won’t be known until after the season, I plan on putting up a free copy of BP 2012 as the grand prize for the winner(s). Doing this is sort of a “pay it forward” thing for me, since I was lucky enough to win a copy of BP 2008 in Derek Jacques’ “Rock The Vote” contest several years ago; had Derek not run that contest, I likely wouldn’t have entered BP Idol or been writing this today.

A few words about what you’ll see below. Professional oddsmakers set lines based at the point where they believe they will get the same amount of action on both sides of the line, not on what outcome they feel is most likely. That’s not what I’ve done. These lines are based mostly on what I think is a reasonable expectation of what a given player will do, liberally seasoned with my own biases. Some are obviously more “out there” than others. Also, I’ve provided the PECOTA or Depth Chart predictions for comparison’s sake—counting stats (including advanced metrics like WARP and VORP) are taken from the Depth Charts, while rate stats come from the February 7 Weighted Means.

Without further adieu, let’s start by looking at that least populous of divisions, the AL West:

AL West

Angels

PECOTA Prediction: 78-84

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Vernon Wells

HR - Salary

0

-5

Under

Dan Haren

WARP

5.0

4.5

Under

Wells is due to earn $23 million next year, and my line is set at his earning a cool million per home run. If you expect him to hit more than 23 home runs, pick the Over. PECOTA is projecting 18 home runs, and is thus taking the Under. A more interesting but less easily verified over/under would be the number of seconds of hard thinking the Halos’ new OBP-challenged left fielder will need before deciding not to opt out of his contract after this year and settling for the remaining $63 million he’s owed through 2014. I’d set the line at zero.

Dan Haren has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last few years, but never seems to get the respect he deserves—not even from PECOTA, which projects him for a solid-but-unspectacular 4.5 WARP in our Depth Charts. I’m setting the line at a more robust 5.0 WARP, but I’d probably still bet the over myself. Pitching in the same division as the Mariners and their noodle bats has to count for something.

Athletics

PECOTA Prediction: 83-79

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Daric Barton

TAv

.290

.270

Under

Trevor Cahill

FRA

4.10

3.97

Under

As a first baseman with little power, Barton gets about as much love from fantasy players as a man carrying around a severed head in a box. Nevertheless, his high OBP led to last year’s impressive .298 TAv, and this year it wouldn’t surprise me to see him better that.

Last year Cahill was an elite starter with a pedestrian strikeout rate, two clauses that rarely stroll hand-in-hand into the sunset. I expect Cahill to struggle even more than PECOTA does, though by no means is he going to be a huge disappointment—he’s going to have a season like 2010 again, but this year won’t be one of them.

Mariners

PECOTA Prediction: 70-92

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Jack Wilson / Brendan Ryan

OBP

.285

.289

Over

Michael Pineda

Starts

25

18

Over

Brendan Ryan must emit some strange radioactive field that causes odd personnel decisions to follow him around. His glove was valuable to the Cardinals and their ground ball-inducing pitching staff, but St. Louis replaced him with a more reliably productive offensive force named… Ryan Theriot? Then again, with Jack Flash already in the fold (at least for this year), the Mariners were one of the teams that would seemingly benefit the least from Ryan’s intricate leatherwork. In any case, if both are in the lineup at once, Wilson and Ryan are going to stack outs like cordwood, and I expect their combined OBP to be around .285. Dustin Ackley can’t get here soon enough.

On the other hand, Pineda is here now, and I expect him to announce his presence with authority. He’ll be the best non-Felix starter on the staff, and will only be stopped from 30 thirty turns out of injury concerns.

Rangers

PECOTA Prediction: 84-78

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Adrian Beltre

TAv

.275

.270

Under

Brandon Webb

Starts

10

17

Over

Only twice in the last decade has Beltre managed to post an OBP over .330, but you can’t argue with his timing. No one expects him to duplicate last year’s .310 TAv (well, at least no one reading BP expects that), but even .280 would be better than all but his two big contract years. He’d best keep flashing his +5 Glove of Doom for the length of his Texas stay, or he’s not likely to be worth his five-year, $80 million contract.

Few pitchers are more effective or more enjoyable to watch than Brandon Webb, and if he’s healthy he’ll be the steal of the offseason—but I’m not about to bet on it.

AL Central

Indians

PECOTA Prediction: 74-88

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Carlos Santana

TAv

.280

.301

Over

Justin Masterson

FRA

4.75

4.63

Under

Santana’s brief debut left us all hoping for more, and I expect he’ll be one of the league’s best backstops for a long, long time. However, he’ll need to show me he can stand up to the daily grind of catching in the major leagues before I can start buying into superstar numbers. Full disclosure: I hope I’m wrong.

Masterson is a favorite of mine from way back, and there are some who expect him to take a big step forward this year. That’s not about to happen until he figures out something to help him retire left-handed hitters—a better changeup, a cutter, voodoo, breathing through his eyelids like a lava lizard, pretty much anything that can help him keep runners off base.

Royals

PECOTA Prediction: 74-88

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Billy Butler

Avg.

.310

.294

Under

Kila Ka'aihue

HR

20

30

Over

Much like the tsunami that destroyed Alexandria in the fourth century, this Royals season feels like that moment when the water briefly rushes out of the harbor before the giant wave hits. Your team will soon be swimming with top prospects, Royals fans, but you’ll have to be patient just a little bit longer. In the meantime, you can enjoy yourself watching Billy Butler sting the ball all over the yard, and hope that the Kila Monster can earn his keep before being swamped by younger, more obvious talents. These two players fall squarely in PECOTA’s two most frequently mentioned blind spots: players that hit for high averages, and TTO heroes. I get the feeling Butler could hit .300 while wearing a tuxedo and carrying a martini tray, while Ka’aihue’s playing time may suffer from an impatient organization that has never fully bought into his value.

Tigers

PECOTA Prediction: 83-79

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Rick Porcello

FRA

4.50

4.78

Over

Brandon Inge / Jhonny Peralta

TAv

.250

.249

Under

Porcello backers like to point to his second-half improvement as evidence that the former wunderkind is ready to make good on his promise. I still don’t see enough ability to miss bats to make him anything more than a solid third starter.

The Tigers had about twenty gajillion dollars come off the books last offseason, so it was surprising that two of their first moves were to re-hire the aging out-makers manning the left side of their infield—their combined TAv should be around .250. I expect the front of Detroit’s rotation to keep them in contention all year, but I can’t help feeling that Dave Dombrowski didn’t get as much bang for the buck this winter as I had expected.

Twins

PECOTA Prediction: 83-79

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Delmon Young

TAv

.270

.263

Under

Scott Baker

Baker VORP/ Greinke VORP

1

0.64

Under

I’ve written a fair amount recently about the Twins, so my berry-picking friends in Minnesota shouldn’t be surprised to see that I’m not expecting that whole “Delmon Young: All-Star” thing to come to fruition. PECOTA is even more pessimistic than I am.

Conversely, I’ve been quite bold in my support of the “Scott Baker: Almost As Good As Zack Greinke” thing, so here’s a gimme for everyone: I’m going to set the over and under on Baker’s VORP total at Zack Greinke’s VORP. Let’s see who’s laughing come September.

White Sox

PECOTA Prediction: 82-80

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Jake Peavy

Starts

15

26

Over

Paul Konerko

HR

25

30

Over

The Pale Hose will likely need a healthy Jake Peavy to run with the Tigers and Twins this year. Our new injury guru, Corey Dawkins, mentioned yesterday that Peavy is recovering well from his latissimus dorsi detachment. I don’t really know what “latissimus dorsi” means, but I sure know what “detachment” means, so color me skeptical about Peavy’s durability this year.

Konerko was a monster last year, he plays in a great hitter’s park, and I truly believe he’s a player whose leadership actually makes his team better. On the other hand, last season felt more like a swan song than a comeback to me, and I’m looking for a pretty steep drop-off.

 AL East

Blue Jays

PECOTA Prediction: 76-86

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Jose Bautista

HR

25

36

Over

Yunel Escobar

WARP

4.0

3.7

Under

As much as I’m tempted to set the Jose-Bot’s line at 18 home runs—the same number as Brady Anderson in his first post-ridiculous season—I think he’ll continue on as a legitimate power source. The only way he’ll be worth his new contract, however, is if he stays at third base.

Two of Alex Anthopoulos’ best moves last year were signing the underrated Alex Gonzalez to a cheap one-year deal, then flipping him for Escobar before A-Gonz turned back into a pumpkin. I’m expecting Yuni to produce like his peak Atlanta years.

Orioles

PECOTA Prediction: 81-81

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Matt Wieters

HR

.275

.268

Over

Adam Jones

WARP

.275

.268

Under

It wouldn’t be a prediction contest if we didn’t have to take a stab at Mr. Wonderful, right? I’m one of the last remaining Wieters believers, so I set the line at “only” .275 knowing that haters gonna hate. This is the year he finally starts making good on some (but not all) of his minor-league promise.

As for Jones? Ditto.

Rays

PECOTA Prediction: 84-78

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Manny Ramirez

TAv

.280

.300

Over

Jeremy Hellickson

FRA

4.00

3.86

Under

I guess I wouldn’t be shocked to see Manny put up a .300 TAv—after all, he’s arguably the best right-handed hitter of his generation—but his total lack of power in Chicago last year put a scare into me. Meanwhile, I’m about as high on Hellickson’s future as anyone you’re going to find, but I don’t think he’s quite ready to put up a sub-4.00 FRA while pitching in the junior circuit’s Division of Doom. Next year, definitely.

Red Sox

PECOTA Prediction: 93-69

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Dustin Pedroia

HR + SB

35

28

Under

Josh Beckett

FRA

4.00

4.30

Over

Here’s my theory on Pedroia this year: After sitting out the end of last season, he’s probably so wired with manic energy he won’t be able to contain himself on the basepaths or at the plate. While that won’t be good for his batting average and OBP, it’ll sure help his steals and home-run totals.

I’m not sure if Beckett will ever be healthy enough to be the Josh Beckett of old, but I’m willing to give him one last season to at least out-perform Jeremy Hellickson.

Yankees

PECOTA Prediction: 92-70

Player

Category

Line

PECOTA/DC

Pick

Jesus Montero

PA

200

250

Over

Curtis Granderson

OPS vs. LHP

650

N/A

N/A

Few off-season topics have been as deeply discussed as the question of when Jesus Montero will be up for good. My take is that Russell Martin will play well enough to keep Montero on the farm until the All-Star break; after that, they won’t be able to ignore his monster numbers and will call him up even if they don’t have an everyday job for him.

Much has been made in the mainstream press of Kevin Long’s in-season re-tooling of Curtis Granderson’s swing, and of Grandy’s subsequent success against left-handed pitching. Much has also been made in sabermetric circles about the fleeting nature of extreme platoon splits, and how most outliers are more likely due to random chance than true skill level. I’m not quite buying what either group is selling—as much as I like Granderson, I don’t think he’ll ever hit lefties at a productive rate.

 Next week I’ll run out some lines for each NL squad, and provide information on how you can participate in the contest. 

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

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