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Chicago White Sox

  • The Prince: With everything that’s been going drastically wrong
    for the White Sox over the past few weeks, Mark Buehrle‘s
    turnaround after a disappointing 2003 provides a silver lining to the
    growing clouds. While his ERA only rose from 3.58 in 2002 to 4.14 last
    season, Buehrle allowed 18 unearned runs, meaning his RA jumped from 3.84
    to 4.85. While some of that can obviously be blamed on the defense,
    pitchers are somewhat responsible for their unearned runs, especially considering the large number Buehrle allowed last season.

    In addition, the southside southpaw’s walk rate increased for the
    second year in a row, from 1.6 in 2001 to 1.9 to 2.2 in 2003. Though that
    rate is on the low side for pitchers in general, Buehrle’s low strikeout
    rate requires him to keep his free passes under control, since he relies on his
    defense to make so many of his outs. With that turn for the worse, BP’s
    PECOTA system likened Buehrle to Dick Ellsworth, who
    peaked early with the Cubs and threw more than 135 innings only once after
    age 27.

    After his last few starts this season, Buehrle has looked
    significantly better than any point in his career. His equivalent
    strikeout rate has jumped from 4.5 to 5.9, higher than any of his previous
    three full seasons; his walk rate has dropped from 2.2 to 1.4, a career
    low. The only reason Buerhle hasn’t been even better than his earlier
    years in run prevention has been his higher batting average on balls in
    play, currently .308. If his defense fields the same number of
    balls for him that they do for the rest of the staff, Buehrle could see
    his numbers improve even more over the remainder of the season. Having come
    back to form, White Sox fans can hope that PECOTA will find him more
    similar to the fourth pitcher on Buerhle’s list of comparable players:
    Tom Glavine.

  • The Demon-Haunted Front Office: When the ChiSox traded for
    Freddy Garcia on June 27, they were one game behind the
    division-leading Twins who, given their run differential, should have been
    in Chicago’s rearview mirror. Things were looking good.
    Since then, however, the Sox have slipped behind streaking Cleveland,
    having gone 20-23 since Garcia came on board. It would be
    nice to say that it’s too early to judge the moves made by GM Kenny
    Williams, but trade deadline deals have very little time to produce and
    must be judged quickly. Two-and-a-half weeks after the deadline, the
    acquisitions of Garcia, Roberto Alomar, Carl
    Everett
    , Ben Davis, and Jose
    Contreras
    have done nothing to counteract the loss of
    Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez to
    injuries.

    The Sox once again found themselves in the tricky spot, as they were slightly behind
    Minnesota at the deadline, seemingly forced to make a move to gain ground
    on the division leaders. This time, however, they went into the deadline
    knowing their two biggest bats wouldn’t be around for the run at the
    division. A seven-game losing streak over the last week of July didn’t
    make things any easier, but Williams decided, once again, that this year
    was the year. Having been through the trade deadline three times so far
    and failing each time, Williams decided to try something different.
    Instead of acquiring Bartolo Colon, Everett, and Alomar,
    he acquired Contreras, Everett, and Alomar.

    There was no reason for these moves. The White Sox failed to realize that
    their tattered lineup doesn’t have enough decent bats to keep them in
    contention this year. While the damage to the farm system was minimal–Jeremy Reed had already been dealt for Garcia–Williams has strapped the Sox to Contreras’ albatross contract, a salary based on nothing other than George Steinbrenner’s ego and Cuban mystique.
    Meanwhile, he dealt Jon Rauch and Gary
    Majewski
    , two pitchers who aren’t going to be stars, but could
    very easily become cheap, decent replacement pitchers or fourth starters,
    something that’s much more valuable than two months of Everett’s time.
    This winter, when the Sox have trouble signing quality players to fill
    holes, ChiSox fans will have to comfort themselves with the fact that the
    team finished five games behind Minnesota instead of seven.

Oakland Athletics

  • Zen and the Art of Not Pitching Well: Even before the 2004 season
    started, there were whispers and sideways glances when talking about
    Barry Zito. After his Cy Young season in 2002, Zito
    looked increasingly mortal last year, posting a 3.30 ERA that hid an
    usually large number of unearned runs. More importantly, Zito’s
    equivalent strikeout rate dropped for the second year in a row, from 7.7
    in 2001 to 6.6 to 5.3 last season. Coupled with an increase in his walk
    rate, Zito looked to be slipping. Despite the startling symptoms, Zito
    still managed to place 12th in 2003 in Support
    Neutral Won-Loss
    , just behind teammate Mark Mulder.
    His success was due mostly to a lower home run rate and a second straight
    year of a H/BIP rate that was as low as Oakland fans’ expectations for the
    bullpen lately.

    This year, however, it’s all gone wrong for Zito; his weak peripherals
    have finally reflected on his run prevention. Despite a slight uptick in
    his strikeout rate, his walk rate remains as high as it was in 2003 while
    his home run rate and H/BIP have jumped dramatically. As a result, his
    ERA has ballooned by well over a run and his overall runs allowed (RA) has
    gone from 3.81 to 5.40.

    As the A’s close in on the Great Decision of 2006 (Mulder and Zito have
    team options and Tim Hudson will be a free agent), they
    must determine exactly what can be expected of Zito. His slightly
    increased strikeout rate is encouraging and his walk rate, while high, is
    in line with his previously successful seasons. Zito’s struggles are
    almost entirely due to his obscene home run rate and H/BIP increase. If
    you’re an Oakland fan, you can blame the increased home run rate on
    blustery days by the Bay, the plight of the flyball pitcher, and the
    inherent small sample size problem. You’re also welcome to point out that
    the Oakland defenders have slipped from a 0.7151 defensive
    efficiency
    (allowing 28.5% H/BIP) last year to a 0.6989 this season,
    accounting for some small percentage of Zito’s jump in that department
    from 23.3 to 30.5. Finally, looking at BP’s Pitcher
    Quality of Batter Faced
    report, it’s clear that Zito has faced tougher
    competition this year:

    
    Year  AVG  OBP  SLG
    -------------------
    2004 .273/.342/.441
    2003 .264/.330/.421
    2002 .263/.330/.418
    2001 .263/.329/.421
    

    In fact, Zito has the third highest quality of batters faced among
    pitchers with at least 350 batters faced–behind Brian
    Anderson
    and Esteban
    Loaiza’s replacement
    (not nearly the cakewalk faced by pitchers at the
    bottom of that list like…Robin Ventura?)

    Though in previous years Zito has been lucky in his runs allowed
    considering his peripheral stats, he’s definitely been on the unlucky side
    of the scale this year. He has mixed in his famous curveball less often
    than in previous seasons and has instead relied on his average fastball
    and changeup, though he is currently working to add a two-seam fastball to
    his repertoire. Living in the poorer section of the velocity
    neighborhood, Zito is the kind of pitcher who has a smaller margin for
    error than fireballers like teammate Rich Harden. His
    drastic increase in homers and hits in general is, at this point, almost a
    scarier trend than his strikeout rate of the past few seasons.

    At this point, Zito looks to be quickly morphing into a league-average
    soft-tossing lefthander, the kind of pitcher who lives only as long as he
    can throw the ball into an area the size of a Titleist. While there are
    plenty
    of teams
    who would love to fill out their rosters with a league
    average pitcher or two, Zito’s salary as a free agent, inflated by his
    earlier success, will be much more than he’s likely to be worth on the
    field, making him the most expendable of the A’s pitching troika. The
    Oakland front office is one of the best in the business at differentiating
    between a player’s perceived and actual value and as a result, the trade
    rumors, both at the deadline last month and looking toward the offseason, have been as plentiful as pickpockets in Rome.

    For this season, though, Zito’s a good bet to perform slightly better
    down the stretch simply because his luck has been just that bad. If he
    can keep a few more of his plethora of flyballs in the yard, the runs
    allowed will drop dramatically. But, watching Zito’s 88 mph fastball
    wander towards the plate, that’s a big if.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • The Breaks of the Game: With the Phillies five games back of the
    wild card, behind four teams for that spot, and eight games out in the
    division, things aren’t looking good for the first year of the Citizens
    Bank Park era. With Kevin Millwood and Pat
    Burrell
    likely out for the rest of the season–despite the
    player’s insistence that they will return–the chances of a dramatic
    playoff run are about the same that your favorite BP author will be
    offered a job in the Commissioner’s office. With nearly everyone
    convinced before the season that the Phils would wrap up the division by
    the All-Star Break–PECOTA
    pegged the Phils to win the division
    by 14 games–fans, writers, and
    analysts are starting to dole out the blame.

    Turning a blind eye to the problems of forecasting in general,
    there was little reason to think the Phillies wouldn’t win the division by
    a significant margin. They had the best first baseman, left fielder,
    right fielder, and arguably catcher in the division going into the season.
    Their rotation was shaping up to hold it’s own against the Marlins and the
    bullpen was revamped and improved by bringing in Billy
    Wagner
    and Tim Worrell. The Phillies didn’t
    have any obvious weaknesses while every other team in the division had
    major questions marks; it was hard to argue against Philadelphia. Yet
    here they are at .500.

    Frequently the most disappointing teams in baseball are those who are
    underplaying their runs scored (RS) and runs allowed (RA) expected winning
    percentage. For instance, the Royals and Diamondbacks, while genuinely
    bad, aren’t nearly as bad as their W-L records indicate based on their RS
    and RA. Likewise the Red Sox, another team saddled with high
    expectations, aren’t performing as well as their run scoring would
    indicate. The Phils, however, are actually playing
    better than expected
    , given their adjusted statistics. Instead of
    just being a .500 team, the Phillies are more likely to be a few games
    under breakeven. So “bad luck” is not the culprit here, at least not when
    it comes to the actual performance on the field.

    The offense is currently fourth in the NL in runs scored, with
    comparable rankings in OBP and SLG. As
    Clay Davenport has pointed out
    , while the new field has been getting
    press as a bandbox and hitters haven, the reduction of doubles and singles
    more than compensates for the few extra home runs. The park
    is not making the Phillies offense good, the bats are.

    The problem instead lies with the pitchers, who combine for a 4.56 ERA
    and have allowed the fourth most runs in the NL. Millwood, as
    mentioned last time
    , was mostly the victim of bad luck as an
    inordinate percentage of his balls in play fell for hits. That can’t
    be said for the rest of the staff, as the Phillies do rank in the top half
    of the league in defensive efficiency. The main reason the Phillies staff
    is so terrible this year is their slugging percentage allowed. The
    Phillies are middle of the pack in strikeout rate and well into the top
    half in walk rate, but they lead the league in taters allowed. While some
    of that can be attributed to the new park, Philadelphia pitchers have also
    allowed the second most doubles in the league.

    The entire staff has been just bad enough to keep the Phillies out of
    contention, but not bad enough to really draw any attention. Eric
    Milton
    the
    luckiest pitcher in baseball
    –can point to his 12-2 record (not his
    4.81 ERA, no) and deflect any major media attention. Vicente
    Padilla
    and now Millwood have been injured. Brett
    Myers
    has been pretty bad, but, believe it or not, he’s been
    helped more by his relievers than any
    other pitcher in the bigs
    , so he’s spared some obscenely large numbers
    in his ERA. But none of this changes the fact that the total Support
    Neutral Wins
    the entire staff has over a group of replacement level
    pitchers is 0.2. They’ve been as good as a typically available Triple-A
    rotation.

    It’s hard to fault the Phillies front office for failing to accurately
    predict pitching performance, something no one has quite figured out yet.
    With hot prospects Gavin Floyd and Cole
    Hamels
    on the way, the Phillies should be in for a turnaround in
    the pitching department in 2005 and 2006, but there’s little than can be
    done to salvage 2004. With no one pitcher sticking out as singularly
    terrible, identifying one area to improve at the trade deadline was nearly
    impossible, particularly when other teams were demanding either Floyd or
    Hamels. Instead, the Phillies picked up Felix Rodriguez
    and crossed their fingers, hoping that the rest of the pitching staff
    would return to expected form. It won’t make a difference, but at least
    the Phillies will go into 2005 with a good shot to contend again.

    The 2004 Phillies and Braves are shaping up to be an excellent case
    study for analyzing pitching coaches; one staff dramatically overachieved,
    the other underachieved, and their performances look likely to decide the
    division crown. How much the pitching coaches had much to do with the
    performance of their pitchers is still up for debate, but such a systemic
    failure is hard to explain away without including the coach. Is it all
    Joe Kerrigan’s fault? Maybe. Can we prove it? Not yet. Is he lucky he
    has a high profile manager whose constant antics cause a great deal of
    negative media attention and subsequently help to take the light off of him?
    Absolutely.

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