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May 16, 2012

Punk Hits

Running Hot and Cold

by Ian Miller

Today, Ian Miller joins our team. Ian previously wrote a ProGUESTus piece about minor-league baseball, and he blogs and podcasts as one half of Productive Outs. A Punk Hit, according to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, refers to a base hit that is softly struck but placed well.  

We’re roughly 20 percent of the way through the 2012 baseball season, and I have to file a column for Wednesday. That means that it’s the perfect time to take a look at this year’s leading out-of-the-gate over- and underachievers!

As of this writing, the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles hold the best record in baseball at a gaudy 24-11. That’s good enough for a .686 winning percentage. No one guessed the Dodgers would be this good. In fact, only two of the 27 luminaries here at Baseball Prospectus thought the Dodgers would even win the NL West. (Premature congratulations to Bradley Ankrom and R.J. Anderson!) In fact, they’re the only team in the NL West with a positive run differential, scoring a cool one run more per game than their opponents.

At the other extreme are the lowly Minnesota Twins, who, coming into the weekend, were the only team with a win total still in the single digits. They bested the Jays on Sunday to vault into double-digit wins, and enter Tuesday’s action with a record of 10-25—a .286 winning percentage. The consensus among my BP colleagues was that the Twins would finish last in the AL Central, and no single writer picked them to finish better than second in the division. They’re being outscored by almost two full runs per game

But are the Twins really that bad? And are the Dodgers really this good? The answer, obviously, is “who knows?” But since this is Baseball Prospectus, we’re going to try anyway. Fun times ahead, dear reader.

Adjusted Standings
Let’s first take a look at Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings, which ... uh... adjust for everything from projected run totals to quality of competition. Clay Davenport broke down the adjusted standings several years ago when they were first launched, explaining the differences between first-, second-, and third-order winning percentages. If you’re not already familiar with these concepts, this would be a good time to familiarize yourself with ‘em.

Here are all 30 teams sorted by third-order winning percentage, from worst to first (so the Twins appear at the top). Right away we see that even in this alternate reality where all random variation has been banished, the Twins are still terrible—but not quite as terrible as they’ve been in real life. Minnesota gets an additional 1.9 wins in our imaginary Adjusted Standings world, which is still good (?) enough for last in the majors.

To find the Dodgers in our adjusted standings, you can either scroll down toward the bottom of that list or sort in the reverse order. In this adjusted reality, we see that the Dodgers are not, in fact, the best team in baseball! Once we’ve adjusted for luck and strength of schedule, the Dodgers give back 2.3 wins and are fourth in the bigs with a .620 third-order winning percentage.

Conclusions, so far:

  1. The Twins are really bad, but not quite as bad as their record would indicate.
  2. The Dodgers are really good, but not quite as good as their record would indicate.

So What Happened to the Dodgers, and What’s Going to Happen?
Explaining the Dodgers' hot start isn’t quite as simple as yelling “Matt Kemp” and dropping the mic, although that’s tempting. After all, Kemp ranks third in all of baseball in VORP. But look down that list a few more places to line 9, and you’ll see one A.J. Ellis, Dodgers catcher and, until recently, no. 8 hitter. Ellis has come out of nowhere to post 13.7 VORP in 27 games, tying him for eighth with Austin Jackson, one spot ahead of Joey Votto, and first for catchers in either league. Perennial hot starter Andre Ethier is a little further down the list at no. 30 with 10 VORP. Mark Ellis is also providing above-average production at second base, coming in with 5.2 VORP.

The weighted mean of A.J. Ellis’ PECOTA forecast is 15.7 VORP, and if he keeps up his current production, he should achieve that by this weekend. Right now he’s “on pace to” (there’s that phrase again) outperform even Matt Kemp’s 90th-percentile PECOTA projection. But we all know that A.J. is due for some serious regression for several reasons:

  1. He’s currently sporting a .383 BABIP, which is way out of line with his career numbers, and everybody’s career numbers.
  2. Ellis is a 31-year-old catcher, so we would expect him to wear down as the season progresses.
  3. His recent move out of the eighth spot in the order should see him drawing fewer walks.
  4. He’s had just over 350 big-league plate appearances spread over parts of five seasons, so it’s possible that opposing pitchers will find ways to get him out.

Matt Kemp had already cooled after his blistering start, and now he’s on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury. Ethier and Mark Ellis’ numbers are theoretically sustainable, but Ethier is known for fast starts and September slumps, and Ellis is 35 years old with a colorful injury history.

But the bigger issue for the Dodgers might be their pitching. So far, run prevention has been a great strength: their current run average (RA) is 3.38, second-best in the NL. But they may be due for some regression, given their unnaturally low team BABIP (.270). The Dodgers' defense has a 3.85 PADE, which is second-best in all of baseball as of this writing. I don’t think anyone, even the most devout Dodgers fan, would claim that the Dodgers' defense will continue to convert batted balls into outs at that rate. Their defense in general is probably above average, but not nearly that good. So once a few of those balls start finding holes, we can probably expect that FRA to creep up—even with Clayton Kershaw starting every fifth game.

Now, About Those Twins...
It’s not a whole lot of fun to read about why a terrible team is terrible, but I’ll do my best to make this interesting. (Justin Morneau made a really terrible deal with the devil! Joe Mauer has succumbed to the famous Head & Shoulders spokesman’s curse!)

Mauer has actually been pretty good this year, putting up 3.1 VORP and a .289 TAv. Morneau, on the other hand, has been downright awful, logging -1.8 VORP before hitting the 15-day DL with wrist inflammation. Chris Parmelee (who has just been sent down to make room for Justin Morneau’s return from the DL), Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, and Trevor Plouffe join Morneau as everyday players in negative VORP territory, with Denard Span and Brian Dozier barely putting up positive figures. Josh Willingham has been the only bright spot in the lineup, outperforming even the most optimistic projections with 12.4 VORP and a .359 TAv.

So some of those guys will get better, probably. If Mauer can stay on the field and Morneau comes back healthy (although there may not be a bigger “if” in the game), they’ll put up some numbers. But even some positive regression from the position players won’t be enough to overcome what’s looking like a historically bad pitching staff.

In fact, it’s tough to find a stat in which the Twins pitchers don’t come in dead last in baseball. (They’ve actually given up fewer earned runs than the Red Sox, though. So they’ve got that going for ‘em!) FRA, VORP, ERA, SO... The Twins are the only club with fewer than 200 strikeouts, and they trail the next-worst Athletics by 30 Ks. On the plus side, they don’t walk a lot of guys: they’re first in all of baseball with a paltry 84 walks. (Or, as Jonathan Sanchez calls it, a pretty good month. Hey-yooooooo!) But they also lead the majors in home runs allowed with 46, so hey, maybe go ahead and walk a few more guys.

Scott Diamond is the lone bright spot in a rotation desperate for … well, for anything, really. He’s been outstanding in his two starts so far, notching two wins and a 2.55 FRA. Brian Duensing has been extremely effective in relief so far this year, and it’s very possible he’ll be moved back into the rotation again. Not that there are great expectations for him if he does.

Beyond that, there’s not much to get excited about, save for some theoretical chance at redemption for Francisco Liriano. “Awful” doesn’t begin to describe his performance so far this year: he’s 0-5 with a 7.15 FRA. He’s been demoted to the bullpen, at least temporarily. But if he can get it going again (an “if” on par with the Morneau health “if”), Liriano could still contribute, even if he never regains his 2006 or 2010 forms. With a system bereft of big-league-ready starters, Ron Gardenhire will have to continue to mix and match the arms he’s got now.

So, in Conclusion:
Ultimately, none of us knows what’s going to happen, but in looking at the data, I don’t see a scenario in which the Dodgers' hitting, pitching, and defense remains as good as it’s been. But with the Diamondbacks and Giants both suffering key injuries and looking somewhat lost, the NL West is still completely up for grabs, and the Dodgers have just as good a shot at it as anyone. Health and injuries, as always, are the biggest unknowns. If Kemp’s hamstring injury ends up being significant, that could spell the end of the Dodgers’ run right there.

At the other extreme, the Twins will almost certainly finish last in the AL Central, and have nothing to look forward to but excellent draft position in 2013 and the eventual ascension of Miguel Sano (no small thing, mind you).

Now be sure to bookmark this article to taunt me in four months when all my projections end up completely upside-down.

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

8 comments have been left for this article.

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