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July 14, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Flatliners

by Jay Jaffe

In this week's exercise of 'Pair Up in Threes,' we'll discuss how projections are not destiny. At a team level, our PECOTA-based forecasts are a shorthand for a wider range of probabilities centered around the won-loss records we trumpet at the outset of the year. For as much as we put into them, and for as well as they've done over the years, they're not on target every single time thanks to injuries, bad luck, and mismanagement. It happens, because as the not-so-great skipperJoe Schultz once said, "It's a round ball and a round bat and you got to hit it square."

As the rest of the baseball world sets its eyes on St. Louis for tonight's All-Star Game, it's time to give an undignified burial to these three teams, all of whom PECOTA saw as potentially playoff-bound back in April, and all of whom have seen their Playoff Odds come close to flatlining.

Diamondbacks
PECOTA forecast: 88-74 (.543)
Playoff Odds: 34.7% Division/10.3% Wild Card/45.0% Postseason
Actual: 38-51 (.427)
Playoff Odds: 0.0/0.2/0.2

What Was Supposed to Happen: Though the late-spring additions of Manny Ramirez and Orlando Hudson made the Dodgers the NL West's favorites, the Diamondbacks looked to be strong contenders for both the division flag and the NL Wild Card spot. In Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, they were projected to have the best one-two punch in the game, and the rest of the rotation didn't look too shabby either, with the electrifying Max Scherzer (ranked 11th overall in raw SNLVAR, a figure that needed downward adjusting based on workload) accompanied by inning-eating stalwarts Jon Garland and Doug Davis. While a bullpen led by closer Chad Qualls and set-up man Tony Peña was nothing special, the staff as a whole was projected to rank sixth in the league in run prevention, no small feat given the hitter-friendly environment in which the Snakes play. The lineup, featuring breakout candidates Justin Upton and Chris Young, looked rather middle-of-the-pack, though with every projected regular except for Eric Byrnes younger than 29, it at least appeared that time was on the unit's side.

What's Happened: The Diamondbacks got off to such a horrendous start that they fired manager Bob Melvin on May 8, when they were 12-17, already trailing the Dodgers by 8½ games. Webb lasted just four innings on Opening Day before landing on the DL with shoulder bursitis, and with seback upon setback, he has yet to appear in another game. Even without him, the rotation has been respectable, ranking sixth in SNLVAR, with Haren leading the league, Davis ranked 16th, and both Scherzer and Garland in the top 35.

The bullpen, however, has been a catastrophe, ranking second-to-last in WXRL and carrying a 5.92 Fair Run Average. Qualls is the only reliever with a Fair Run Average below 4.96, and aside from mop-and-bucket man Leo Rosales and shortstop-turned-moundsman Josh Wilson, the only reliever in the black in Adjusted Runs Prevented. In other words, viurtually everybody between the starter and the closer is throwing gas in the direction of the fire.

As for the offense, it's sixth in the league in scoring, just as forecasted, but once you adjust for park, that's not so impressive; they're 13th in the league in EqA. Upton's slightly ahead of his weighted mean projection (.297 to .287), and Mark Reynolds, Felipe Lopez and Stephen Drew are all the general vicinity of theirs, though Reynolds is poised to shatter his projected homer total (he has 24 of the 29 needed). Young, on the other hand, ranks among the game's biggest disappointments; he's hitting .196/.289/.369. Byrnes makes the list of PECOTA underperformers as well; it's probably for the best that the team's highest-paid player is out until at least August due to a broken metacarpal. Conor Jackson struggled mightily before going on the DL in May with what was finally diagnosed as Valley Fever, and Chad Tracy's been a replacement-level disaster filling in for him at first base.

Where Do They Go From Here: Expect the perpetually cash-strapped D'backs to pare payroll where they can. Haren's signed through 2012 with an option for 2013, but he isn't going anywhere. Davis will be a free agent at year's end, and may be traded if the team lowers its demands; it's difficult to imagine the Snakes being so bold as to offer him arbitration given the industry's trend of shying away from that. Qualls should attract attention on the market as well.

Glimmer of Hope: Webb won't have surgery yet, and there's still some hope that he'll be able to take the mound in September, which could help them figure out whether or not they should pick up his $8.5 million option for next year. Beyond that, the release of Tony Clark gives them a chance to see what, if anything, they have in Josh Whitesell, and between Byrnes' injury and Young's ineffectiveness, they're getting a long look at Gerardo Parra in the outfield.

Athletics
PECOTA forecast: 84-78 (.516)
Playoff Odds: 39.6/2.1/41.7
Actual: 37-49 (.430)
Playoff Odds: 0.4/0.0/0.4

What Was Supposed to Happen: The A's collapsed last year after a strong first-half showing, but between a strong offseason and the Angels' injury woes, Oakland still projected to win the Mild Mild AL West, albeit with a record barely over .500. Thanks to the additions of Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera, the offense was ticketed for an eighth-place finish in the league, no shame given the team's pitcher-friendly dwelling. More questionably, a pitching staff which called Dallas Braden its Opening Day starter was forecast for fifth in the league in run prevention as five-star prospects Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and four-star prospects Vin Mazzaro and Gio Gonzalez were expected get up to speed quickly, helping the team overcome the loss of Justin Duchscherer.

What Has Happened: The pitching hasn't been great; the A's staff ranks ninth in run prevention, and seventh in combined win expectancy (SNLVAR + WXRL). Braden's been outstanding, ranking seventh in the league with a 3.12 ERA and 11th with 3.4 SNLVAR. Josh Outman made a strong showing before being lost to Tommy John surgery, and Cahill, Anderson, and Vin Mazzaro have all cracked the league's top 50 in SNLVAR (ahead of Joba Chamberlain, among others).

The real trouble is that the A's have fielded the majors' worst offense by team EqA. Holliday's power has evaporated in the move to sea level (.276/.373/.419 with just eight homers, and none since June 5). Giambi (.192/.331/.365) and Cabrera (.262/.299/.345) have been awful, Eric Chavez went on the DL and under the knife for the umpteenth time after just 31 PA, and Jack Cust, Mark Ellis, and Travis Buck have all disappointed. In all, just four of their 12 hitters who have at least 100 PA have managed EqAs above .260.

To some extent, that underperformance boils down to bad luck. Oakland's .281 BABIP is the league's lowest, but their line=drive rate (19.3 percent) is the third-highest. Using BP Idol finalist Brian Cartwright's BABIP estimator (15 * FB% + .24 * GB% + .73 * LD%) with the team batted ball data available at Fangraphs, we can see how askew the results are:


Team         LD%    GB%    FB%   IFFB%   HR/FB  xBABIP  BABIP  Diff.
Indians     19.8   43.7   36.6    9.0    11.4    .304   .306   .002
Athletics   19.3   42.1   38.7    9.2     7.5    .300   .281  -.019
Rays        19.7   39.5   40.8    7.8    11.6    .300   .318   .018
Yankees     19.0   43.7   37.3   10.1    13.9    .300   .297  -.003
Twins       18.2   45.6   36.2   11.2    10.9    .297   .308   .011
Angels      18.3   44.9   36.8    8.9     9.7    .297   .322   .025
Orioles     18.4   44.0   37.6    9.7     9.4    .296   .297   .001
Rangers     19.0   39.4   41.6    8.2    13.8    .296   .292  -.004
Blue Jays   18.9   39.7   41.4   10.6     9.0    .295   .299   .004
Red Sox     18.8   39.2   41.9   10.4    10.7    .294   .302   .008
Royals      17.4   46.5   36.2   10.5     8.9    .293   .292  -.001
White Sox   17.8   44.0   38.2   11.1    11.3    .293   .294   .001
Mariners    17.0   44.6   38.3   11.6     9.0    .289   .295   .006
Tigers      16.5   44.3   39.1   11.3    11.5    .285   .292   .007

The A's are 19 points short of their expected BABIP, the largest gap by 15 points. The only real clue to their futility is that they've also got the league's lowest HR/FB rate by a wide margin; it's as if somebody stuck an extra warning track out there for their would-be home runs to die. Such a problem isn't plaguing the A's opponents, whose fly balls are leaving the yard at a 9.0 percent clip.

Where Do They Go From Here: The cost-conscious A's are likely to salvage what they can once again. Holliday will be traded by the deadline, because the A's aren't likely to offer him arbitration when his salary is already at $13.5 million. Cabrera could fetch something, particularly if he continues his four-week hot streak (.347/.343/.480, and yes, that's 99 PA without a walk). Mid-season pickup Adam Kennedy has been one of the few above-average performers in the lineup, and could offer someone some pop at second base. Russ Springer has arm, will travel. The likes of Giambi, Cust, and Bobby Crosby probably have little value outside of Oakland at their current levels of performance.

Glimmer of Hope: The rotation, while not uniformly impressive, certainly has some quality young arms around which Billy Beane can build, and they'll have the opportunity to work through their growing pains far from the pressure of a division race. They may be encouraged to take longer looks at Daric Barton, Aaron Cunningham, Travis Buck, and other players from a farm system which topped our preseason rankings. Plus, they've got about $40 million coming off the books this winter, which never hurts.

Indians
PECOTA forecast: 86-76 (.526)
Playoff Odds: 34.4/3.9/38.4
Actual: 35-54 (.393)
Playoff Odds: 0.2/0.0/0.2

What Was Supposed to Happen: Projected to win 92 games last year, the Indians instead stumbled to a 41-53 first-half start in 2008. Despite outscoring their opponents by eight runs during that stretch, they couldn't overcome injuries to Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, or the collapse of the bullpen which took them deep into the 2007 postseason. They finished strong, however, going 34-21 over the final two months, and came into this season as favorites in the AL Central again, although at 86 wins they were hardly a predicted powerhouse.

Centered around Grady Sizemore (.301 projected EqA), the Tribe's offense was expected to be the league's third-highest-scoring lineup, with winter acquisition Mark DeRosa, a full season of Shin-Soo Choo, and returns to form from Hafner and Martinez providing a boost for a unit that finished with just a .261 EqA last year. The rotation behind Cy Young winner Cliff Lee was a much shakier proposition, with retreads Anthony Reyes and Carl Pavano hardly impressing PECOTA more than in-house options Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Zach Jackson, to say nothing of Fausto Carmona, who went from winning 19 games with a 3.06 ERA in '07 to eight wins and a 5.44 ERA in '08. As for the bullpen, PECOTA was cautious about the prospects of Rafael Betancourt and Jensen Lewis returning to their 2007 forms, though it held out better hopes for Rafael Perez and free-agent closer Kerry Wood. In all, the staff was projected to be the league's seventh-best run prevention unit; nothing to write home about, but not a write-off either. The main problem lay in non-Lee starters' inability to miss bats; none of them projected to strike out more than 100 hitters or reach even the modest rate of 6.0 Ks per nine; young southpaws Scott Lewis and David Huff, with all of four major league starts between them, were the only ones projected to come in above 5.5.

What Has Happened: Hafner, Martinez, and Choo have all delivered EqAs of .300 or better, helping Cleveland's offense overcome the elbow problems that cost Sizemore three weeks on the DL and have limited him to a .235/.324/.452 showing. In all the team is fifth in the league in both scoring and EqA, more or less holding up their end of the deal.

The staff, on the other hand, has been a total disaster, ranking last in both run prevention and win expectancy. Lee's the only starter with an ERA... hell, a table's worth a thousand words:


Pitcher         GS   SNWP    ERA  PecERA   Diff.
Cliff Lee       19   .604   3.47   4.20   -0.73
Carl Pavano     18   .488   5.13   5.61   -0.48
Fausto Carmona  12   .330   7.42   4.74    2.68
David Huff      11   .410   6.71   4.45    2.26
Jeremy Sowers   10   .399   5.77   5.20    0.57
Anthony Reyes    8   .392   6.57   5.47    1.10
Aaron Laffey     5   .537   4.24   5.49   -1.25
Tomo Ohka        4   .354   6.40   5.96    0.44
Scott Lewis      1   .288   8.31   4.62    3.69
Zach Jackson     1   .105   9.35   5.85    3.50

As you can see, this wasn't a particularly impressive lot to begin with, and by and large they've failed to meet even those meager expectations. Aside from Laffey, who's back from a six-week stay on the DL following a questionable shift to the bullpen, Lee's the only starter with an ERA below 5.13, and the only one who's given them a better than 50 percent chance of winning given average offensive and bullpen support. Reyes recently underwent Tommy John surgery, while Lewis has been sidelined by elbow woes since his lone start in early April. Carmona was banished to A-ball, while Ohka has shown that even the undead can find employment on this staff.

If you think that's bad, get a load of the bullpen. Of the 12 relievers who have pitched at least 10 innings of "relief," only Betancourt (0.9 WXRL) and Matt Herges (0.5 WXRL) have been appreciably above replacement level, and the latter was just released so they could add... Winston Abreu? Wood's blown four of his last 11 save opportunities, which are fewer and further between these days. Perez has been riding the Columbus shuttle with an 8.88 ERA, as has Jensen Lewis, who's allowing more than two homers per nine.

Where Do They Go From Here: Like the other teams here, the Indians are sellers at the deadline. Lee and Martinez are drawing the most interest, but the team appears disinclined to move either; both have reasonable options next year ($8 million and $7 million) which shouldn't be impediments to rebuilding. Pavano and Betancourt will be likely be traded, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team cut their losses with Wood. Meanwhile, Jake Westbrook should return from Tommy John surgery sometime in early August, which could provide a bit more stability to the rotation.

Glimmer of Hope: General manager Mark Shapiro has declared that manager Eric Wedge's job is safe for the rest of the year, but the curtain could come down on this era at season's end. Wedge has been at the helm for seven years, while the team has finished above .500 just twice, and has fallen on its face early in three of the past four years, with excruciatingly awful bullpens a trait common to those disappointing teams. It's a good guess to suggest that Wedge has lost at least some of the team in the clubhouse given the past two years' struggles, and if nothing else, his continued presence is a public-relations problem that suggests the organization accepts such mediocrity.

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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