Spring training is nearly over, but each team still has some nagging questions to answer.
In five weeks of bouncing around the country while watching spring training—or at least the news of it—I've compartmentalized the sore shoulder-driven roster dramas and other mundanities to the point that I'm left with one nagging question for each team, one loose thread that I can't resist tugging upon as the season nears. Showing my blatant East Coast bias, today I'll run down those loose threads from the near coast, working my way westward next week.
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Detailing some of the major panels at the first SABR Analytics Conference and soaking in some spring training action.
I can't do full justice to my trip to Arizona to participate in the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference, which took place from March 15-17 in Mesa, Arizona. Five days in all, part work, part working vacation—and rarely just vacation—the trip was pure sensory overload, a full immersion in a corner of the baseball universe with which I am quite familiar, but one whose size and scope have grown larger than I ever imagined. I couldn't possibly absorb it all, but what follows here and in the second installment is my best attempt to capture some of what I experienced.
How do the junior circuit's rotations shake out when offseason additions are tallied?
Two years ago, the Rangers made a bold gambit that helped end nearly a decade of rotation-driven futility, shifting reliever C.J. Wilson to the starting five and bringing former supplemental first-round draft pick Colby Lewis back from Japan. Both pitchers did what Ranger hurlers of recent vintage had not: miss bats. In 2010, the two pitchers combined for 366 K's in 405 innings, helping the Rangers jump from 12th in the league in strikeouts to fourth. Helped by other upgrades—shortstop Elvis Andrus keyed a defensive turnaround—they won the AL pennant, and last year they repeated the feat.
Which teams have the strongest starting rotations in the senior circuit?
Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the Baseball Prospectus annual stop at Washington DC's Politics and Prose bookstore. As I joined Steven Goldman, Derek Carty, and Adam Sobsey in the question-and-answer session with the 125 or so attendees—yet another packed house that lived up to our past history there, for which we profusely thank our DC-area readership and the store—the most apparent difference from years past was the bona fide sense of hope the audience had about the Nationals.
Pitchers continue to get injured while batting, so should baseball continue to require NL pitchers to hit?
I'm not known around the Internet as the world'sbiggestA.J. Burnettfan. During last Wednesday's BP roundtable, I even dusted off an old Simpson's riff: "I'm a well-wisher in that I wish him no specific harm." Now, to set the record straight, any voodoo dolls I may have referenced over the past decade or so for any player exist only in my breathlessly hyperbolic narratives, and I would never actually wish injury on a ballplayer, particularly not such an injury as befell Burnett later that day. The recent trade that sent the enigmatic righty from the Yankees to the Pirates mandates that he practice his hitting and bunting, and unfortunately, a less-than-stellar bit of work on the latter sent a ball into his own face, fracturing his right orbital and necessitating surgery. Fortunately, it does not sound as though he suffered a detached retina, which could have threatened his career.
Does a new set of stats reflect much of a change in who could stand to upgrade in left field?
Last week, I explored the majors’ surprising downturn in offense from left fielders, a result counterintuitive to our understanding of Bill James’ defensive spectrum, which runs DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C. The positions to the left of the spectrum, which require far less defensive skill, are the ones where offensive production is supposed to be the highest, yet left field has been engaged in a decades-long battle for offensive supremacy with right field—which requires a stronger arm for throwing to third base—and this past year slipped behind center field for the first time since 1966. I placed the major reason for the downturn at the feet of teams attempting to copy the 2005 White Sox, who used Scott Podsednik—a center fielder to that point in his career—in left field, and attempted to show how the defensive gain supplied by the speedsters did not outweigh the loss of offense. I even got to talk about the phenomenon on television.
What kind of production do teams receive from players tabbed to replace superstars?
Earlier this week, Mariano Rivera arrived at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, and caused a stir by strongly hinting that the 2012 season would be his final one. The 42-year-old, who has served as the Yankees’ closer since 1997, has shown no signs of slippage, with four straight seasons of ERAs under 2.00 backed by stellar peripherals—strikeout and walk rates better than his career numbers, even—and high save totals. Late last season, he surpassed Trevor Hoffman as the all-time saves leader, and with five World Series rings in hand, the only real challenge that remains is for him to convince manager Joe Girardi to allow him a cameo in center field.
The corner outfield spots are known for production, but one field has been far more dominant in recent years.
My working theory was that it began with Scott Podsednik. In December 2004, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams sent slugging left fielder Carlos Lee to the Brewers for a three-player package that included Podsednik, who was coming off a so-so season as Milwaukee's center fielder. He had stolen 70 bases and bopped 12 homers—a nice return in the fantasy realm—but had hit just .244/.313/.364. His .237 True Average was hardly anything to write home about, and here at BP, both Christina Kahrl and Joe Sheehantossed aroundphrases like "as a hitter plugged into left field, the nicest thing you can say is that he makes a great part-time center fielder." At the time, the Sox were set with an All-Star caliber center fielder in Aaron Rowand, 27 and coming off a breakout .310/.361/.544 campaign, which didn't exactly clarify matters.
While third base is often considered an offense-heavy position now, last year proved to be a major down season.
As so often happens, my recent Replacement-Level Killers and Vortices of Suck miniseries have focused my attention on the landscape of offensive production at each position. Back in July, while putting together the midseason Killers, I was struck by just how awful a year it had been for third basemen. Age, injuries, and mysterious slumps had sapped the production of so many hot cornermen that their collective True Average (.253) trailed that of second basemen (.256)—a seven-point swing from the year before, a change that couldn't simply be explained by Chone Figgins' switch in positions. As someone who internalized Bill James' defensive spectrum before I was old enough to drive, this anomaly fascinated me.
Which outfielders and DHs proved to be the biggest black holes in the majors?
Picking up where I left off on Friday, we continue hunting the fish at the bottom of the major-league barrel in search of the positions where teams got the worst production—worse than the Replacement-Level Killers, but without the burden of toiling for a contending team. As with their catching and infield brethren, the following players helped produce tornado-level disasters amid their lineups, often at salaries that represented far more than just soft breezes running through their teams’ bank accounts. These are the Vortices of Suck.