Since the recent signing of Greg Maddux by the Cubs, a flurry of “who’s got the best rotation” navel-gazing has ensued. In mainstream circles, the debate has generally come down to a derby comprising the Red Sox, Cubs, A’s and Astros, with the Yankees thrown in on occasion. Rather than listen to me pontificate on who I think has the best starting five, let’s see what the PECOTA 2004 Weighted-Mean Projections say. We’ll take the VORP for each projected member of the rotation and use the team totals to determine the rankings. For some clubs, the back spot or two of the rotation is up for grabs, but, irrespective of who comes out of the spring-training wash, the rankings aren’t likely to be substantially altered.
Before delving into those harrowing inhabitants of the Baseball Prospectus statistics page like VORP, RARP, EqA or any other acronym that sounds like a debutante sneezing or something uttered on Castle Wolfenstein circa 1986, it’s worth asking: What’s wrong with those comfy traditional offensive measures like RBI, batting average and runs scored? This Baseball Prospectus Basics column is going to address that question and, ideally, demonstrate why the traditional cabal of offensive baseball statistics tell only a piece of the story. Later, someone smarter (but shockingly less handsome) than I will take you on a tour of the more advanced and instructive metrics like the aforementioned VORP, RARP and EqA. For now, though, we’ll keep our focus on why we need those things in the first place.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard that Barry Bonds’ trainer has been arrested after federal agents raided his home and found anabolic steroids on the premises. What’s perhaps more noteworthy is that agents also seized Greg Anderson’s computer files and a certain manila folder, both of which reportedly contain the names of Anderson’s litany of high-profile clients and their supplement regimens. Without a doubt, months of legal sword-crossings are to follow before the contents of Anderson’s records are ever released, but that fact in tandem with his close association with Bonds means a growth economy for wild speculation.
I’ve written elsewhere about how the dangers of steroids have been wildly exaggerated and how any actual detrimental side effects are likely due to its being illegal in the first place. I think the war on drugs is as feckless and dangerous as anything our government has ever attempted. There are unexamined penumbras of the DEA and our log of federal drug laws that are inherently racist and have led to a gradual erosion of our fourth amendment safeguards. But that’s not my concern today. My concern is the idea–one that seems to be gaining traction in the mainstream sports media–that notable increases in body size are prima facie evidence of steroid use. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
One of the more interesting sub-plots this off-season is the Yankees-Red Sox cold war that’s been played out in the transactions wires. In terms of coffers and willingness to spend, the Yankees are still in a class by themselves, but the Red Sox now occupy–also by themselves, it seems–the next highest economic sub-strata. And in this particular Cold War, don’t expect anyone to bust out the glasnost. Metaphor, over.
With the Yankees, we’ve seen what happens when spending prowess intersects with reasonable front-office intelligence. Now, with Theo Epstein as GM and a sporting-gentleman owner loosely holding the purse-strings, the Red Sox have joined the Yanks in this rarified air. The talent both clubs have amassed this winter and in winters past is striking. The Yankees may have frittered away Andy Pettitte and lost Roger Clemens to hometown longing, but they may have actually upgraded the rotation by importing the wholly underrated Javier Vazquez and the still effective Kevin Brown. Additionally, Gary Sheffield has been added to an already potent lineup.
There’s a new bit of conventional wisdom that’s gaining traction in the media. It says the Oakland offense will be so bad in 2004 that they’ll have trouble besting the amped-up Angels for the division title. I should know; I myself indulged in this bit of convention in a recent column I wrote for FoxSports.com, the gracious purveyors of my primary day job.
The question I should’ve asked before pontificating on the subject at hand is this: is it actually true? Is the Oakland offense really in such desperate straits. First, let’s acknowledge is no longer a team built around its run-scoring capabilities. Ever since the Moneyball furor, some observers haven’t enjoyed pointing out that the A’s are in fact a pitching-and-defense outfit. Pointing this out is no longer breaking news, and it never really was all that subversive. It’s just true; Oakland hasn’t ranked in the top half of AL in runs scored since 2001, but they’ve ranked second and first, respectively, the last two seasons in fewest runs allowed.
Nevertheless, runs are runs, and the A’s appear poised to lose quite a few of them on the offensive side of the ledger. Consider that shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Ramon Hernandez are both elsewhere. Tejada, among AL shortstops, finished third in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), while Hernandez ranked fourth among AL catchers in VORP. Tejada and Hernandez also ranked second and fourth, respectively, on the team in VORP. That’s a serious hunk of production lost by the team that ranked only ninth in the loop in runs scored.
This time I’m going to turn my attention to the reigning World Champion Florida Marlins. I’ve seen it proclaimed in more than one corner that last year’s model was mostly the fine work of Dave Dombrowski, with his successor, Larry Beinfest, adding only a complementary tweak or two. So let’s find out whether that’s true. You may recall that I performed a similar exercise with the ’03 Red Sox last year. The methodology will be the same this time around. Using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), let’s see how much Beinfest’s acquisitions contributed compared to Dombrowski’s.
Sometimes I’m easily confused. Watching Jane Campion films makes me feel like a monkey trying to open a coconut. I’m puzzled as to how Napster hopes to achieve substantive market penetration without having Ratt’s “Way Cool Junior” on its play list. Oh, and I’m also perplexed by what the Rockies are doing this winter–which is what this little piece of bandwidth is all about.
I’ve never met Roockies GM Dan O’Dowd, but I know people who have. By all accounts, he’s a heady, intellectually curious guy with an open mind. That’s why his club’s off-season machinations are especially troubling. The Rockies have–rightly, I think–perceived the NL West to be on a down cycle and, ergo, in a winnable condition. But how they’ve gone about positioning themselves as a contender makes no sense to me.
To wit, Colorado has gone out and signed Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, and Royce Clayton. What’s more is that they apparently have starting jobs in mind for each member of this nefarious troika.
Baseball’s adoption of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule has presented analysts with some new challenges. Quality-of-competition concerns have mostly been overstated, but they do exert a substantive influence over what happens on the field. Frankly, the way the schedule is arranged doesn’t make a whit of sense, considering teams from different divisions compete for a single Wild Card spot, but that’s the system we’ve been given. Much has already been done in terms of calibrating statistics to reflect the injustice of MLB’s scheduling policies, but one thing I’ve yet to see addressed is the quality of defenses lineups are facing around the league. That leads me to TAD. You might recall James Click’s piece on Team Adjusted Defense (TAD) from a few months ago. By dint of some mathematical acrobatics, James has added some sorely needed alterations to Bill James’ defensive efficiency metric. What we’re left with is a valuable snapshot of team defense. In any event, what I’m attempting to do this week is come up with strength-of-schedule rankings based on the quality of the defenses they’ve faced.
For quite a while now, teams with little hope of contending have been rightly ridiculed for throwing cash at high-end free agents despite a roster full of surrounding chaff. The Mets of the early ’90s and Devil Rays for most years of their miserable existence as ball club-cum-novelty act are prominent examples of this phenomenon. Teams that indulged in this approach often squandered precious draft picks by signing free agents that had been offered salary arbitration by their former employers and also provided themselves with plenty of disincentive against trading high-salary veterans off for prospects. As you can see, in previous years, such an off-season approach would strike a pair of potent blows against the rebuilding process. Well, this may no longer be such a ham-fisted way of operating.
As has been detailed here and elsewhere from various and sundry angles, baseball’s economic landscape is now altogether different. Whether it’s collusive in nature or merely a market correction isn’t my concern at this time, but it is a market that bears scant resemblance to the one only two winters ago. A new wrinkle is that teams aren’t offering arbitration to those free agents that, even a year ago, would’ve been no-brainers: Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Mike Cameron, Greg Maddux, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, among a host of others. The idea being that the market for free agents is so depressed that there’s now a substantive chance the player will accept arbitration and take his team to the cleaners, at least relative to what he’d command on the open market. The upshot of this development is that the overwhelming majority of free agents can now be signed without forfeiting high compensatory draft picks to his former club.
Baseball’s Rule 5 draft, in many ways, is confined to the rural route of the annual winter meetings, so it doesn’t get as much bandwidth/column inches as it should. But as many teams are learning or already know that the Rule 5 is a nifty way to add a high-ceiling prospect to the system. The catch, as you know, is that any team selecting a player in Rule 5 must keep the lucky draftee on the active major league roster for the entire season or until he can fake an injury substantial enough to eventually land him on the 60-day DL. Just last year, we saw teams choose a handful of vaguely useful to flat-out good relievers (e.g., Aquilino Lopez of the Blue Jays and Javier Lopez of the Rockies). And reaching back into the antediluvian mists of prehistory, luminary Roberto Clemente first made his way to the Pirates via Rule 5. This winter’s crop is the least impressive since I’ve been closely following this draft, but there were still some engaging names on the board. So, in my stateliest Lance Ito fashion, I shall now pass judgment on the 2003 class of Rule 5 draftees. All rise…
Last time, we looked at cumulative run differentials as a way of evaluating an organization’s farm system. We’re going to revisit that idea, but this time we’ll attempt to adjust for age. Organizations, natch, have different drafting strategies and promotion philosophies, which leads to some age variance from level to level. Age relative to peer group is a vital analytical component when scrutinizing individual prospects, and it should also be a factor on the systemic level. And so it shall be.
Another change this time around is that I’ve narrowed the focus to each organization’s full-season affiliates (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A). I made this decision because you see quite a bit of variation in how teams flesh out the lower rungs of their systems. For instance, in 2003 nine teams opted to field multiple rookie-level teams and no short-season affiliate at all. This makes system-wide comparisons at the lower levels a bit nettlesome and misleading. I’d also suggest that it’s appropriate to place the emphasis on those levels closest to the major leagues.
Which organization has the best farm system in baseball? This is a fairly pedestrian question that’s normally answered with an amalgam of various and sundry top 10 lists in tandem with thumbnail estimations of depth and projectability. Depending on which tools you’re wielding, evaluations of this nature can be all shades and hues of accurate.
Another common approach to this question is to look at the cumulative records of each system’s affiliates. If nothing else, it’s objective, and it’s this tack that informs my attempt at ranking the farm systems. But my angle is not without modifications.
Baseball is reducible to components beyond the run, but it’s the run–both scored and prevented–that is the fundament of the game. It’s also the run that forms the basis of many of the more useful metrics you’ll find at Baseball Prospectus. A team’s run differential plays a vital role in determining its record and is even more instructive, when plugged into the various flavors of the Pythagorean run formula, in predicting a team’s performance in forthcoming seasons. However, this method is most often confined to the major league level. So why not use run differential to evaluate an organization’s minor league system? (Rhetorical; don’t answer.) This may not resolve abstract notions of “best” and “worst,” but it will bring us reasonably close to knowing, and it’ll do so by dint of objectivity.
Today I’m going to indulge in one of the hoariest media traditions known to humankind: It’s my How to Fix the Yankees Column. Every year that the Yankees’ World Series aspirations come to grief, writers near and far offer up their prescriptive takes on just what needs to be done to restore the glory of yore. I’m no different. Whereas some deluded Gotham types concoct wild hypotheticals that involve swapping Drew Henson, Jeff Weaver, Amsterdam brothel vouchers, an “A Man Apart” DVD and a suitcase of unmarked bills for “Insert elite, untouchable performer here,” I’m going to do my best to remain grounded in reality. In the Yankees’ case, reality means profligate spending on the free-agent market.
There’s no accounting for tastes, right? I think Jamie Foxx is the greatest living American actor. Angelina Jolie doesn’t really do it for me (Claire Forlani, however…). I’d rather fall down the stairs or sleep in a tuxedo than listen to a Bob Dylan album. It’s a long-held belief of mine that outdoor activities not named “golf” are mostly for suckers. And so on, and so on. More germane to the Web site at hand is that I’ve always preferred Ivan Rodriguez to Mike Piazza. I know that for most of their careers Piazza has dated more Playmates and put up notably better numbers with the bat in far less accommodating environments. I’m also aware that Piazza’s defensive infirmities have been overstated in many circles. If pressed, I’ll probably concede that Piazza’s offense has been so otherworldly that it more than makes up for his paltry glovework and establishes him as the best catcher of his generation. But I still prefer Pudge. So please allow me to try to account for this particular taste of mine.
If you’re reading this column, the idea that the Yankees are stricken with defensive inadequacies probably won’t elicit anything in the way of a guffaw or spit-take. That’s to say, it hardly qualifies as breaking news. As James Click pointed out in his recent piece on Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings, the Yankees had one of the worst team defenses in baseball this season. And most of the blame lies up the middle.
Derek Jeter’s range at short calls to mind an on-duty piano hauler simultaneously encumbered with the dual burdens of Job and Frodo. In center, Bernie Williams’ routes on fly balls reminds one of the stock-price chart of some high-beta outfit from the semi-conductor sector. And, as he demonstrated in the ALDS, Williams has the throwing arm of your garden-variety French intellectual.
I’m done making cheap jokes, but I will add that Alfonso Soriano at the keystone is as erratic as Peter Buck after a bottle-and-a-half of airline Chardonnay. OK, now I’m really done… Except to say that sneaking a base hit through the middle against the Yankees is easier than beating Vin Diesel at Trivial Pursuit. Moving along…
For Game Five of the ALDS, the Red Sox, despite facing one of the toughest portsiders in the game, trotted out Trot Nixon, Todd Walker and David Ortiz–all of whom have notable platoon weaknesses. (Also hammering home similar division-of-labor lessons was that pin factory in “Wealth of Nations,” and the annual faulty deployment of Gil Gerard and Loretta Swit in “Battle of the Network Stars.”)
That the Red Sox, one of the headiest, most progressive organizations in all of baseball, playing in a game of critical importance, didn’t tap into their well-stocked bench in this situation reinforced something for me: the failure to platoon players with notable weaknesses against one side is one of the last great organizational blind spots. And every organization is guilty of it–even those we associate with high levels of efficiency, like the Red Sox, A’s, Yankees, Mariners, and Braves.