One of the completely ridiculous statements leveled at performance analysts-or “statheads,” if you prefer-is the idea that they need to get their heads out of a stat book and watch a game once in a while. It’s silly, because the analysts I know not only watch a ton of baseball, they have a love for the game that’s not found in many places. Personally, I watch as much MLB as I can, and most of my column ideas come from watching games, both in person and on television.
Not today, though; for a variety of reasons, I was barely home this weekend. A USC/UCLA baseball game here, a birthday party there, a round of golf here-BP’s Jonah Keri dropped a career low on my head-an anniversary dinner there, and suddenly it’s Monday morning, I’ve watched no pro baseball since Friday, and there’s a deadline looming.
So today, I become a cliche, and I give you a whole column full of notes culled from a trip through standings, stat sheets, box scores and anything else I could find on the Web, and nothing from actually watching a baseball game.
Mets/Expos at 1:45 p.m. Man, I can’t wait.
- I had pegged the A’s as a candidate to go 1984 Tigers on the league. After this weekend in Anaheim, though, they’ll have to exceed last year’s 20-game winning streak by 50% to match the 35-5 start of Sparky Anderson’s crew. The Halos swept the A’s to move into a tie for first in the AL West, scoring 26 runs in the three games and pounding the A’s bullpen for seven runs in eight innings.
The Angels’ plate approach-put the ball in play-survived the winter. They struck out just seven times in the series with the A’s while roping 35 hits, and have whiffed a mere 47 times this season in a dozen games, a rate even lower than last year, when they struck out 805 times. Unlike last year, they’re also in the middle of the pack in walks (42) and fourth in the league with 15 home runs, both more reflective of their postseason-2001 offense than the regular-season variety. The whole package is third in the AL in runs scored, with 69.
I don’t know what to make of the Angels’ offense at this point. They do appear to have stumbled on something-minimizing strikeouts-that has a positive impact on run scoring. For all the talk about “little ball”-and the Angels do lead the league in steals and rank second in sacrifices-the Angels’ primary positive point of differentiation is that they force the defense to make plays more than any other team does. That higher percentage of balls in play is starting to look less like a one-season fluke and more like a sustained competitive advantage. Combined with aggressive use of the hit-and-run and good team speed, as well as some extra home-run power this year, it adds up to a very good offense.
What we’ve seen so far this year indicates that perhaps the Angels weren’t a fluke so much as the first team to implement something radically different and make it work since the 1999 A’s went to the extreme power-and-walks style.
- The Royals finally lost a game, dropping them all the way to 9-1. They have a three-game lead in the AL Central, but I’m not convinced that they’re going to be the 2001 Twins. Even .475 teams-and the performance of the Royals’ young arms suggests that they can be that caliber of squad-are capable of winning nine of ten games, and when you consider the Royals’ schedule (heavy on the Indians, light on the East and West divisions), it’s hard to see the first two weeks as indicative of a sea change in Kansas City.
The Royals have reached 9-1 mostly by keeping opponents off the scoreboard,
having allowed just 28 runs. They’ve done that thanks to a very good defense
(fourth in the AL in Defensive Efficiency and just six errors) and a bullpen
that has spent two weeks breathing fire. Mike MacDougal, D.J. Carrasco, Jason Grimsley, Albie Lopez and Kris Wilson have struck out 38 men in 28 2/3 innings, and have a collective ERA of 1.57. They’re why the Royals were able to win a bunch of close games in the season’s
first two weeks.
The Royals remind me of last year’s Pirates. The 2002 Pirates also got off to a strong start, largely by winning close games and getting good work from their defense. Playing no team that would finish above .500 and just one that would finish in the top half of the league in runs scored, the Pirates rode their defense and bullpen to a 12-5 record through the season’s third weekend. The schedule got tougher after that, and the Pirates fell under .500 for good on May 16, finishing the season 72-89.
Optimists can point to the fact that the Royals are 9-1 without Carlos Beltran, who is still sidelined with a strained oblique and has yet to play. Life without Beltran, however, is going to be a permanent state for the Royals soon enough; he doesn’t want to stay in Kansas City, and if they can’t sign him, they have to trade him. He’s a great player just coming into his prime, the kind who can be the centerpiece of a deal that nets the Royals two or three building blocks for a contender in 2005. If the Royals let their fluke start deter them from shopping Beltran, not only will they not make the playoffs this year, but they’ll make it less likely that Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt will be supported by a worthy lineup going forward.
- At the other end of the AL Central, the Tigers broke their maiden by beating the White Sox Saturday, and are 1-9 heading into Week Three. The Tigers aren’t a good baseball team, but they’re not this bad; Dmitri Young is overpaid and can’t play defense, but he’s not an .098/.119/.098 hitter. Bobby Higginson and Carlos Pena have three extra-base hits, all doubles, between them. The team is hitting .160/.238/.214, which doesn’t reflect the talent level here.
I was pretty pleased with Alan Trammell‘s decisions coming into the season. He went with the kids up the middle; he gave Eugene Kingsale the center-field job. He kept all the live arms in the bullpen rather than keep someone like Steve Avery for his veteranness. The combination of a young, athletic defense and an inexperienced pitching staff had the potential to be at least a developmental success, if not a standings one.
In-season, though, Trammell is giving far too much playing time to the worthless players on his roster. Craig Paquette is useless, a corner man who doesn’t hit and doesn’t even have a worthwhile platoon split (.264/.316/.377 against lefties since 2000), yet Trammell keeps benching Pena against lefties and starting Paquette over there, while playing Paquette in left field against right-handers. Shane Halter can’t hit or play shortstop, but he’s starting to play ahead of Omar Infante, who can’t hit but can at least pick it.
I slotted the Tigers in third in the AL Central based on what I perceived to be Trammell’s commitment to the younger players. I felt that the defense they’d provide, and the general improvement you can expect from young players, would carry the Tigers to 72-75 wins, which seemed like third place in a weak division. The more I see Paquette and Halter in the lineup, though, the more I question whether Trammell is falling into the trap of believing that losing is somehow more palatable with veterans. It’s not, and the only path the Tigers have out of this nightmare is to find out which of their young guys can play and which ones can’t.
When it comes to Paquette and Halter, that question has already been answered.
- The Montreal Expos have the best Pythagorean winning percentage in the NL, at .756, having outscored their opponents 51-29 and won every game in which they’ve scored at least two runs (they’ve scored two runs, total, in their four losses). Like the Royals, they’ve benefited from some early-season scheduling, making the superstation tour of the Cubs, Mets and Braves, none of whom are likely to finish in the top half of the league in runs scored.
The great thing about the Expos is just how balanced a contribution they’ve gotten. No pitcher has an ERA above 4.15 (T.J. Tucker) and the top four starters are all between 1.42 and 2.13. Zach Day hasn’t pitched all that well-nine walks, eight strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings-but he’s been helped by one of the top defenses in the league so far (second in the NL in DER). The pitching has carried the three-man offense of Vladimir Guerrero (.297/.395/.486), Jose Vidro (.341/.420/.683) and Brad Wilkerson (.293/.341/.488).
Can they keep it up? Last year, an Expos team that didn’t have the same pitching depth stayed in the race until July. This roster is better, but still has the OBP problems and the scar at first base that plagued the 2002 edition. With the competition being a bit tougher (this year’s Phillies are better than last year’s Braves), the Expos may find that while their improvement is enough to keep up with the Joneses, that’s only good enough for second place.