Arizona Diamondbacks

  • First-Half Star: Brandon Webb could run away with the surprise category as well as get elected mayor after what he’s done, but we’ll recognize his efforts here. How good has he been? Webb’s .796 Support-Neutral Won/Lost percentage is the best in baseball. He’s also been the most consistent pitcher in the game, racking up 14 consecutive quality starts. He’s third in the NL in ERA, second in baserunners allowed per nine innings, and ninth in K/9 and K/BB. Not bad for any rookie, much less a former eighth-round pick who was completely ignored by prospect analysts before the season, largely based on a mediocre campaign for Double-A El Paso in 2002.

    However, Webb may be a prime example of Dayn Perry’s recent work on minor league home run totals as a future predictor of success. While Webb posted average walk and strikeout rates, he allowed just four home runs in 152 innings last year and gave up 13 round trippers in 339 minor league innings. Remarkably, he accomplished this while spending nearly his entire career in the two best offensive parks in the two most hitter-friendly minor leagues in baseball. With his ability to keep the ball down, there’s no reason to think Webb can’t sustain a high level of performance, even if he’s not quite this good.

  • First-Half Stiff: The 2002 campaign of Quinton McCracken may end up looking like one of the great fluke seasons in recent history, and his “performance” this year only cements that. His .309/.367/.458 campaign made him a big part of the Diamondbacks’ success and one of the best reserve outfielders in the game. When the calendar flipped to 2003, however, he reverted into a slumping Tony Womack, and has managed an ewww-inspiring .233/.280/.287 line in 150 at-bats. It isn’t bad luck, either. McCracken has just six extra base hits (16 percent of his total hits) compared to 38 knocks (35 percent) last year. Not only is he hitting the ball at people, he’s not hitting it hard anymore, either. At age 32, it looks like McCracken is officially done, and the D’backs would be well served to replace him before he does any more damage to their playoff opportunities.
  • First-Half Surprise: The last time Carlos Baerga was a productive major league player, Johnny Cochrane was defending O.J. Simpson instead of Pete Rose, Michael Jordan was returning to basketball (for the first time), and Tony Bennett was winning a Grammy for Album of the Year. Now that we all feel sufficiently old, let’s refocus and marvel at the comeback Baerga has made. His .323/.353/.484 line would fit right into the prime of his career, yet it comes on the heels of five consecutive seasons that are usually a prelude to retirement. His slugging percentages the past six years; .381, .396, .364, .314, .379, .484. Which of these is not like the other? Baerga’s power surge hasn’t coincided with an increased interest in the base on balls, which he still treats like a plague, but that flaw hasn’t stopped him from being a productive hitter. Considering Arizona’s success with coaxing quality production from veterans assumed to be washed up, it may be time to start investigating what exactly is in the desert water.

Kansas City Royals

  • How They Got Here: A year after the first 100-loss season in the history of the franchise, the Royals are already approaching last season’s win total of 62. The team is on pace to finish with 90 wins, a 28-game improvement that would be the greatest in the American League since the “Why Not” Orioles of 1989 jumped 33 games.

    How have they done it? Without putting too fine a point on it, they’ve been lucky as sin. The Royals went into Wednesday night’s tilt with a 54-44 record, even though they had scored and allowed the exact same number of runs (507). The Royals ought to be on pace for an 81-win season; given that last year’s team underachieved slightly–the 2002 Royals should have won 66 games–a 28-game improvement in the standings looks more like a 15-game improvement in the true quality of the team.

    And where might those 15 extra wins come from? Consider these three comparisons:

                             AVG     OBP     SLG     PA     VORP
    Angel Berroa, 2003:     .281    .337    .467    614*    33.7*
    Neifi Perez, 2002:      .236    .260    .303    585    -23.9
    Ken Harvey, 2003:       .257    .306    .414    538*    -2.3*
    Chuck Knoblauch, 2002:  .210    .284    .300    336    -18.7
    Aaron Guiel, 2003:      .291    .361    .575    237*    12.2*
    Aaron Guiel, 2002:      .233    .296    .338    269    -12.7
    * Projected

    According to Value Over Replacement Player, the only position player in baseball worse than Neifi Perez in 2002 was his replacement in Colorado, Juan Uribe. A randomly-selected Triple-A shortstop would have represented a two-game improvement over Perez; fortunately for the Royals, they selected his replacement a little less whimsically, and Angel Berroa has become a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate.

    Ken Harvey, the only regular in the Royals’ lineup playing below replacement value, nevertheless represents a nearly two-win improvement over the player whose roster spot he usurped. And Aaron Guiel, who flopped badly as a 30-year-old rookie a year ago, is making the most of the second chance afforded to him. Given roughly equal playing time, these three upgrades alone project out to an improvement of 99 runs, or nearly 10 wins.

    In 2002, the Royals had the second-worst (Perez), fifth-worst (Knoblauch), and 13th-worst (Guiel) hitters in the game. This year, none of their hitters place in the bottom 40. Which just proves the adage that not having any players who totally, unequivocally suck goes a long way toward launching a team into respectability.

    If you’re looking for the five remaining additional wins, look no further than the true MVP of the Royals this year–who, according to VORP, is neither Carlos Beltran (25.1) nor Mike Sweeney (25.8). It’s Darrell May (32.9).

    May, who has won his last five starts after going winless in his first 13, quietly ranks eighth in the American League with a 3.38 ERA. Just as notably, he has thrown 120 innings for a team whose pitching staff is so overrun with nagging injuries that no other pitcher on the squad even qualifies for the ERA title.

    May’s success should not be so surprising. He spent four years pitching in Japan, and by the time Allard Baird signed him in the fall of 2001, he was regarded as one of the best pitchers in the Central League. Here are his translated numbers for the Yomiuri Giants in 2000 and 2001, along with his major league stats the last two years:

    Year		Team		ERA	H/9	BB/9	HR/9
    2000-01	Yomiuri	4.29	8.5	2.4	1.3
    2002		Kansas City	5.35	9.9	3.4	1.9
    2003	 	Kansas City	3.38	8.4	2.5	1.1

    While May’s ERA this season is significantly lower than his translated ERA in Japan, his rate stats are almost identical, making 2002, not 2003, look like the outlier. There is little reason to think that May is going to tail off significantly in the second half, which bodes well for the Royals’ chances of making a five-game lead hold up for another 63 games.

  • How They’re Going to Get There: The biggest key for the Royals over the next two months? Keeping their current rotation intact. According to our SNWL data, the Royals have–surprise!–the second-best rotation in baseball, and they’re nipping at the A’s heels. That rotation looks even better when you only look at the five guys who are currently in it:
    Starting Five	65	27.6	14.6	.654	6.2	9.7
    Everyone Else	33	9.2	11.8	.438	-1.1	0.3	

    Jose Lima, Runelvys Hernandez, Darrell May, Jeremy Affeldt, and Kyle Snyder may not sound like a playoff-caliber rotation. But they’re sure pitching like one.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • First-Half Review: There has been a vague air of disappointment surrounding the Phillies’ first half, but that disappointment is not justified. Of those who actually dared to predict win totals for teams this year, the upper limit for what was predicted of the Phillies was 90 to 95 wins. As of the All-Star Break they had a winning percentage that would correspond to 92 wins over the course of the season. That they’ve fallen short of expectations is more a function of the Braves continuing their division dominance, running away with first place.

    While the Phillies’ win total is in line with expectations, there have been some minor surprises in how they’ve done it. While the addition of Kevin Millwood obviously strengthen the pitching staff, several other pitchers have stepped up to help make the team second in the National League in runs allowed. Randy Wolf built upon his previous success and has established himself as one of the top 30 starters in the majors, while Brett Myers has reached the point where he no longer gets easily rattled by things going against him. As a result, Myers has been much more consistent; as long as he avoids injury (a real concern given that he’s still only 22) he has a very promising future stretching in front of him.

    Meanwhile the bullpen features one of the great unsung success stories of the year. Over the past two seasons Rheal Cormier has ranged from useful but not spectacular to pretty wretched. He spent this off-season working with new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan on his mechanics, and has emerged this year as the best reliever in the National League. Along the way he’s also shown that he’s capable of being more than a one-batter lefty. While he does display a platoon split, the .214/.252/.325 numbers of right-handers against Cormier show that he’s more than holding his own.

    While the pitching has been a little bit better than expected, the offense has struggled compared to expectations. Pat Burrell spent the first part of the season suffering the slings and arrows of outraged Philadelphia beat writers as he posted a sub-.200 batting average. While not getting as much attention, David Bell has actually been slightly worse. The third of the “unkiller” B’s, Marlon Byrd, has started to rebound from his slow start. Byrd still hasn’t produced much power, but he’s been an asset in terms of getting on base.

  • What’s to Come: It’s not unreasonable to expect that the offense will pick up somewhat on its own. Bell has admitted that his back has been bothering him most of the season, which may account for some of his struggles. If his current stay on the disabled list does not help, the team does have the option of Chase Utley lurking at Triple-A. Burrell’s slump has been more of a mystery, and right now he may be drowning in all the advice people are trying to give him. However given his track record, odds are good that sooner or later something will click and he’ll provide an offensive boost down the stretch.

    Where the Phillies need to be concerned is with the pitching staff. Myers has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season, which could lead to his wearing down in September. Vicente Padilla wore down last year and has been inconsistent at times this year, so there may be concern there as well. The bullpen, led by Cormier, is strong right now, but not very deep. Cormier, Turk Wendell, and Terry Adams have been the pen’s only above-average pitchers this year. Mike Williams is unlikely to be much of a help either. The Phillies do have some potential help in the minors in the form of Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary.

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