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January 9, 2013

Skewed Left

The Worst Parts of Last Season's Best Teams

by Zachary Levine

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Last week’s piece looked at the Baltimore Orioles and how their offseason and the difficulties facing their roster doused some of the excitement generated by the first playoff team in Camden Yards in 15 years.

Today continues this ballpark-half-empty view of the baseball world, as many of last year’s playoff teams made it to October despite some pretty serious shortcomings. Of the 10 flags that will be raised this April (assuming we’re really giving them out to the Braves and Rangers for their nine postseason innings), at least half covered up a flaw that was so glaring that the team was last in its entire league in a certain category or at a certain position.

Some began to address the problems in the moment with various in-season levels of success, while others waited for this offseason and some still have work to do. Here’s a breakdown of the worst of the best and how these contenders have tried to fix their biggest holes.

Athletics catchers were last in the AL with a .221 TAv
What they did about it: They rebuilt the position on the fly, shedding the empty .218 average of Kurt Suzuki in favor of giving time to the slightly more robust Derek Norris and bringing in the guy who is actually their best present offensive option, George Kottaras.
What they still need to do: Norris has to develop quickly at age 24, because there still wasn’t a lot there last season. He has better on-base skills than Suzuki, but the strikeouts he exhibited last year—66 in 232 plate appearances—don’t appear to be fluky. The result was a .201/.276/.349 line that should improve with age and batted ball happenstance to the limited extent that the strikeouts allow it. He should mature into a better offensive option than they had for most of 2012 and is cost-controlled for a long time, making him an outstanding value if the defensive position suits him going forward.

Tigers second basemen were last in the AL with a .213 TAv
What they did about it: They figured they addressed this weakness last July with the highest-profile deadline fix on this list, acquiring Omar Infante as part of the package with Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins…
What they still need to do: …Problem was, it didn’t really work. Infante doesn’t walk at all (21 free passes in 588 plate appearances between the two teams last year), and he doesn’t hit many home runs. So when his BABIP dropped from .307 for Miami—matching his career figure—to .269 with Detroit, his production cratered as well. The time with Detroit was his least effective prolonged stretch since leaving the Tigers the first time. The Tigers won’t be last again this year, but let’s hope that Jim Leyland has shelved for good his recurring temptations to view Infante as a No. 2 hitter, especially in that lineup.

Tigers designated hitters were last in the AL with a .257 TAv
What they did about it: They waited for Victor Martinez to get healthy, because 151 games of the Delmon Young experience wasn’t doing anybody any good.
What they still need to do: Yes, the Tigers won their division and eventually reached the World Series despite league-worst offensive production from two of the nine positions. Guess it helps to have the MVP. When Martinez was healthy, he was a fairly consistent three-win player his last three years. If the explosion is still there in the surgically repaired knee, the Tigers will make big strides at DH. Even if Miguel Cabrera regresses, the Tigers ought to outdo their 2012 production, which was sixth best in the AL with a bizarre mashup of extreme hot and cold.

Reds center fielders were last in the NL with a .227 TAv
Related: Reds leadoff hitters had the lowest OBP in the NL at .254
What they did about it: In the most prominent offseason fix to fill a black hole position, the Reds acquired Shin-Soo Choo as part of a three-team deal with the Diamondbacks and the Indians.
What they still need to do: They somehow need to complete a 1-9 Sudoku puzzle with a pair of nines and no eights. Center field isn’t exactly an easy position to play, but in my favorite Choo stat, the Indians played Austin Kearns and Choo together four times in 2010 with Trevor Crowe out, and each time it was Kearns who played center field. But now Zack Cozart can go way, way down in the lineup where he belongs and should have been last year. What would have been the problem with a lineup that started Phillips-Votto-Ludwick-Bruce?

The Braves had the worst-hitting bench in the NL with a .217 TAv
What they did about it: Braves pinch-hitters hit .158/.237/.239 last season, a truly remarkable effort. Here’s the breakdown of the eight players who had at least 10 plate appearances in a pinch, with the eight accounting for 85 percent of the opportunities.

Player

PA

BA/OBP/SLG

Current status

Eric Hinske

62

.140/.210/.228

Gone, Diamondbacks

Juan Francisco

46

.122/.217/.195

Here, starting 3B?

Tyler Pastornicky

27

.200/.333/.350

Here, Class AAA?

Matt Diaz

27

.192/.222/.192

Gone, Yankees

Reed Johnson

15

.357/.400/.429

Here

Lyle Overbay

14

.071/.071/.071

Gone, free agent

Jack Wilson

12

.111/.200/.333

Gone, retired

Chipper Jones

10

.375/.500/.875

Gone, grilling/fly-fishing

So if Pastornicky loses out on a roster spot to Andrelton Simmons and a presumably healthy Paul Janish, and if Francisco fills the Chipper void at third, then seven of these eight players won’t be mainstays on the Braves bench next year.
What they still need to do: Part of this was small sample size, with the total of 250 pinch-hitting appearances really just about a 10-week total for a truly everyday player. However, look at our depth chart guru Jason Martinez’s projection for the Braves bench in 2013. It doesn’t look pretty, does it?

The Orioles were the worst base-stealing team in the AL at 58-for-87
What they did about it: The Orioles were last in the league in both stolen bases and in percentage, but unlike the Braves bench, most of the culprits are still here. Adam Jones was okay, 16-for-23. Nate McLouth, an underrated base-stealer in efficiency if not proficiency, was excellent at 12-for-13. The rest of the team was pretty poor, stealing 30 in 51 tries.
What they still need to do: Buck Showalter needs to get some control of one of the few areas where he can have direct and somewhat measurable control. There’s no reason that Robert Andino (a poor base-stealer in Triple-A too), Chris Davis, and Mark Reynolds should have had the 19 attempts necessary to go a combined 8-for-19 on the bases. The Orioles had the second-fewest stolen base attempts (behind only the Tigers) last year, and they should have even fewer in 2013.

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

Related Content:  Playoff Teams,  Contenders

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