Florida Marlins

  • I’m So Glad I Spent It With You: Like Lou Reed in the song “Perfect Day,” the Florida Marlins just keep hangin’ on. Despite being picked by no more than one BP author–Steven Goldman, resident staff Jester and Orson Welles lookalike–to take the division in our Preseason Predictions Spectular™, the Fish continue to set the tone in the National League East, currently leading the second-place Phillies by two full games.

    But where’s all of this coming from? After all, PECOTA–the all-seeing, all-knowing bearer of truth–pegged this team for roughly 80 wins heading into the season. Was the system just being pessimistic, or do we have some serious fluke seasons on our hands? Let’s take a look:

    Weighted Mean PECOTA Projections

    NAME                  AVG   OBP   SLG    MLVr
    Juan Pierre          .299  .355  .380  -0.021
    Mike Lowell          .276  .351  .476   0.083
    Miguel Cabrera       .264  .323  .439  -0.021
    Luis Castillo        .285  .357  .369  -0.043
    Alex Gonzalez        .256  .315  .403  -0.090
    Jeff Conine          .263  .331  .407  -0.053
    Hee Seop Choi        .252  .353  .465   0.053
    Mike Redmond         .262  .329  .346  -0.137
    Ramon Castro         .245  .319  .453  -0.026
    Damion Easley        .237  .299  .347  -0.189

    At first blush, these projections seem about right. Sure, Cabrera’s is awfully low, but as we discussed in a previous Prospectus Triple Play, PECOTA had good reason to think the 21-year-old would begin slowly. And yes, Mike Lowell‘s projection seems conservative, but given both his age and the dive his numbers took in the second-half last season, it wasn’t completely out of line.

    Current Performance (Through June 9)

    NAME                POS  PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  SB  CS  VORP   MLVr
    Juan Pierre          cf 268  .310 .358 .384  15  10  10.7  0.058
    Mike Lowell          3b 249  .329 .414 .620   3   1  36.0  0.485
    Miguel Cabrera       rf 248  .292 .363 .548   1   1  21.6  0.273
    Luis Castillo        2b 242  .281 .343 .341   9   2   9.7 -0.050
    Alex Gonzalez        ss 200  .240 .260 .396   1   0   2.9 -0.148
    Jeff Conine          lf 195  .273 .333 .415   2   1   4.0  0.030
    Hee Seop Choi        1b 191  .261 .377 .541   1   0  17.7  0.255
    Mike Redmond          c 117  .272 .325 .369   1   0   2.9 -0.047
    Ramon Castro          c 108  .135 .231 .260   0   0  -7.5 -0.438
    Damion Easley        2b  68  .305 .397 .593   2   0  10.1  0.409

    Cut away from the forecasts and to the reality, however, and we can see where PECOTA has misjudged. Lowell’s been the best third baseman in baseball so far, and among the best hitters in the league (Non-Bonds Division). Cabrera’s been a stud as well, rushing out of the gate faster than even his most ardent supporters could have predicted. Juan Pierre‘s been his normal self–a little average, a couple walks, and virtually no power–albeit worse on the bases than in the past. Hee Seop Choi‘s shown some encouraging power, with plate discipline to boot. And Damion Easley (yes, Damion Easley) has put together the best 70 at-bats of his career since the first half of 1998.

    That doesn’t mean the Marlins’ lineup has been immune to disappointment, however. Ramon Castro has been among the worst hitters in the major-leagues so far, forcing Joe Sheehan into tears at random points throughout the day. Luis Castillo has suffered the type of decline you’d expect from a second baseman who was highly dependent on singles to begin with. And Alex Gonzalez has turned back into…well, Alex Gonzalex, after finding some flukish power in 2003.

    The salient question at this point, I suppose, is “Will the Marlins’ offense continue to be productive enough to sustain them at the top of their division?” The answer to that question is anyone’s guess, but we can’t really see a reason why this squad can’t continue to remain in the top half of the league in Equivalent Runs, or possibly improve. After all, while Lowell’s exceeded expectations, his performance isn’t a total fluke, and the injury he suffered last August has as much to do with the second-half decline in his numbers as anything else. And while Cabrera’s been somethig of a surprise, it’s not as if he’s playing above his projected ability level: he’s just been a faster learner than anticipated. Everyone else in the lineup has been more-or-less on projection.

  • Oh, Yeah…We Forgot About Pitching! Actually, we didn’t. Below are the 10 pitchers who have accumulated more than 20 IP so far in 2004:
    NAME                TEAM LG    IP  H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9 BABIP   ERA  VORP
    Brad Penny           FLO NL  79.0  7.6  2.5  7.3  1.0  .264  2.62  24.3
    Carl Pavano          FLO NL  78.3  8.0  2.2  4.7  0.8  .256  3.33  19.9
    Dontrelle Willis     FLO NL  69.3  9.6  3.2  6.0  0.9  .305  3.50  12.3
    Josh Beckett         FLO NL  68.7  7.9  2.8  9.2  1.0  .295  4.06   9.9
    Darren Oliver        FLO NL  44.7 11.7  2.4  4.8  2.4  .322  7.25 -10.2
    Nate Bump            FLO NL  35.0 11.1  4.1  4.6  1.0  .339  4.89  -1.5
    Armando Benitez      FLO NL  33.0  4.4  3.0  7.6  0.5  .175  0.55  17.3
    Tommy Phelps         FLO NL  31.0  8.1  2.9  7.3  1.2  .282  3.48   5.2
    Justin Wayne         FLO NL  27.7  8.8  4.9  5.5  1.6  .275  5.53  -1.0
    Matt Perisho         FLO NL  21.3  6.3  5.1  8.9  0.8  .245  2.53   7.1

    Like their hitting counterparts, we’re looking at a couple overachievers (Armando Benitez, Carl Pavano), a couple underachievers (despite a horrible track record, Darren Oliver, somehow, and Josh Beckett) and the rest who are more-or-less on projection. Pavano in particular has benefitted from a low BABIP, given his pedestrian strikeout rate. Benitez has been completely lights-out, drawing most of his effectiveness from an obscenely low BABIP and an equally miniscule home run rate. And Matt Perisho has been surpsingly effective, despite posting a BB rate above 5.0.

New York Yankees

  • What Goes On: A year-and-a-half ago, few players garnered more attention than new Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui. Hopes were high for the Japanese import, and many were convinced–us included–that the man would hit for a high enough average and for enough power to push the Yankees clearly over the top in the American League East. After all, this was “Godzilla”–and they don’t give nicknames like that to wimpy slap hitters.

    Fast forward to October, however, and it’s clear that something got lost in the translation. “Godzilla” was, in reality, a lot closer to Mothra or Rodan with the bat than anyone else (OK, lame analogy), generating little power and only a moderate average. It’s almost as if his body had been taken over by the Ghost of Rusty Greer on the flight over to the states. A .435 SLG with only 16 homers, while playing in a relatively moderate home park? Something seemed amiss.

    Was it in the way we were projecting Matsui? In part, yes. As Clay Davenport has detailed in a fantastic essay in Baseball Prospectus 2004, a number of the assumptions we had previously made about power numbers transferring to the major leagues were effectively wrong. In other words, we had set the bar unreasonably high.

    Another reason for this misfire seemed to be Matsui’s approach, however. Despite being Japan’s most prolific power hitter for almost a decade, Matsui showed up as one of the most extreme groundball hitters (2.17 G/F ratio) in the league last season, on par with Punch & Judy master Ichiro Suzuki (1.77 G/F). Of course, given that we lack G/F data for Japanese baseball, it’s hard to be sure, but it seems reasonable to assert that Matsui probably didn’t maintain that type of G/F ratio while playing for Yomiuri. Is it possible that Matsui had changed his approach at the plate to mimic the success of someone like Ichiro?

    Given Matsui’s success so far in 2004, that appears to be the case. Currently second on the team in VORP, trailing only Alex Rodriguez, it’s not that Matsui’s been suddenly more productive, it’s the way in which he’s been productive. Compare this year to last year, for instance:

    Year    AVG   OBP   SLG   ISO  BB/PA   G/F  GIDP
    2003   .287  .353  .435  .148   .091  2.17    25
    2004   .298  .406  .507  .210   .148  1.40     3

    His batting average is essentially the same, but his walk rate has increased by 63%, his Isolated Power has increased by 42%, and he’s hitting 35% fewer ground balls, which are leading to significantly fewer double-plays. Now, correlation does not equal causation, and we’ll be the first group to tell you that–but it’s almost as if, by choice, Matsui has decided to put the ball in the air more often, which is leading to more power, which is leading to him being pitched more carefully.

    Is it as simple as a choice? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Major-league caliber hitters are different beings than you and I, with hand-to-eye coordination that makes fighter pilots weep. What we can be certain of, however, is that if Matsui continues to display this orgy of secondary skills the Yankees will be much better prepared to take on whatever foe they encounter this October.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • The Brothers Wilson: OK, so they’re not really brothers, but Craig Wilson and Jack Wilson share not only the same last name, but the distinction of being the most productive Pirate hitters so far in 2004.

    Of course, some could interpret that as damning with faint praise. After all, the Pirates are just 12th in the National League in Equivalent Average, and at 24-30, trail the division-leading Reds by more than eight games in the standings. No matter how you slice it, though, the Wilsons have been among the most productive hitters in the league at their respective positions–with Jack currently ranking first (!) among all shortstops in the senior circuit in VORP, and Craig ranking first among NL right-fielders, second only to Vladimir Guerrero in all of baseball.

    So where’s this coming from? In Craig’s case, this production comes–at least in part–thanks a happy confluence of events. The first of those events being the regular playing time that’s eluded him since bursting on the scene in Pittsburgh in 2001, when he hit .310/.390/.589 in just 88 games. With a move away from the catching position, Raul Mondesi skipping town for greener pastures, and manager Lloyd McClendon coming to his senses (well, sort of), Wilson has finally secured the regular spot in the lineup that he’s deserved for the better part of three seasons now, at last allowing him to flourish. And then there’s the age-related boost in production one would normally expect to see at the magical age of 27–the apex of the career-path mountaintop, so to speak. Mix those two ingredients together, along with a solid minor-league track-record, a strong control of the strike zone, and perhaps a little bit of luck, and you’ve got yourself one of the best, unknown hitters in the league, and someone likely to garner attention as the trading deadline approaches.

    And then there’s Jack, who can thank our good and oftentimes fickle friend “batting average” for his success. Currently exceeding his 90th percentile PECOTA projection of .284/.338/.405 by a country mile, Wilson has been the fourth-best shortstop in all of baseball–trailing just Carlos Guillen, Michael Young, and Miguel Tejada–largely because of an 80-point boost in BA over his previous career high. Check it out:

    Year    AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   ISO   EqA
    2001   390  .223  .255  .295  .072  .185
    2002   527  .252  .306  .332  .080  .228
    2003   558  .256  .303  .353  .097  .229
    2004   229  .332  .350  .480  .148  .280

    Sure, Wilson’s isolated power has jumped a bit as well, but what we’re mainly talking about here is a bunch of singles that didn’t fall in previous years, but now have eyes. Of course, this isn’t to say that singles aren’t valuable. It’s just that BA, by nature, is a fickle beast, and it wouldn’t be smart to bet on Wilson continuing to perform at this level, going forward, given what we know about his past. This isn’t a .330 hitter we’re talking about. This is a .240 hitter with a poor control of the strike zone who collects an extra-base hit about as often as Will Carroll passes up dessert.

    In the end, however, it seems almost silly to criticize any player who’s been a net positive this season in Pittsburgh. After all, this is a team that’s last in their respective division, and not going anywhere soon. To criticize Jack Wilson for having a flukey year is petty to the extreme. Sure, it’s likely he’ll turn back into a pumpkin before the summer’s out, but who cares, really? Just let the good times roll, and hope for the best. It’s not like the Steel City has much else to look forward to…

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