Baltimore Orioles: A year ago today, the Cincinnati Reds sat atop the NL Central and Danny Graves led the majors with 26 saves. Considering they had allowed more runs than they’d scored, they weren’t likely to maintain that pace. You could see the downturn coming, and sure enough the Reds squandered a 34-24 takeoff with a 42-62 landing.

Are the Baltimore Orioles a case of Reds, redux? In what seemed like the toughest division in baseball at the start of the season, Baltimore has built a four-game cushion on the Red Sox and a bigger lead on the fourth-place Yankees. As Joe Sheehan noted last week, the Orioles’ adjusted record does back up their first trimester of success:

Team     W  L  RS  RA W1 W2
Orioles 35 22 308 250 34 23

It’s the robust offense that has kept Baltimore booming. Despite some minor disappointments (notably Sammy Sosa), Brian Roberts, Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada have combined to form the best 2B-SS-3B combo in the game. Currently boasting a .368 average, .449 on-base and .642 slugging average, Roberts tops the AL in all three categories, claiming the sabermetric triple crown.

As Roberts cools–especially with the time he’s missed this week due to shoulder issues–the lineup will return to earth a bit, but it should still be excellent. The rest of the hitters, perhaps even Sosa, are playing within reasonable ranges that reflect PECOTA’s projections.

In the bullpen, B.J. Ryan is making a run for the title of baseball’s best closer. Quietly, Jorge Julio is having a monster year as a setup man, cutting his walk rate from a career .112 BB/PA (entering 2005) to just .051. Consequently, his ERA has plunged to around 2.00.

That said, Erik Bedard has been the most unsung Oriole standout, having matched Julio’s ERA in twice as many innings as a starter. He’s gone nine starts with a nifty 3.75 K:BB ratio and improved groundball tendencies, and his opponents’ average on balls in play (BABIP) of .277 is reasonable, suggesting more legitimacy. Will Carroll writes that Bedard’s MCL rehab will commence soon, which ought to bump Hayden Penn back out of a job.

Black and orange is en vogue again, and Halloween isn’t for another five months.

Dave Haller

Chicago Cubs: Gather round, readers. It’s time for A Tale of Three Lefties:

  • Lefty #1: Glendon Rusch originally joined the Cubs in 2004 during spring training on a minor league deal after two lucrative but mediocre years with the Milwaukee Brewers–Rusch earned $7,657,000 for throwing 334 innings of 5.34 ERA ball. Injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in 2004 gave Rusch a shot in the rotation and he impressed: In 129.2 total innings pitched Rusch struck out 90, walked 33, and posted a 3.47 ERA.

    Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry quickly re-upped Rusch to an
    incentive-laden one-year deal that guaranteed a minimum of $2 million for 2005 with another $2 million on a 2006 player option. He began this year in the bullpen, but a May shoulder strain to Wood again left an opening in the rotation that the lefty was more than happy to fill. In 55 innings Rusch has allowed just a 1.96 ERA, with 40 strikeouts and 24 walks.

    In the past two years, in his 22 starts, Rusch has a 3.01 ERA, seventh-lowest among starters with a minimum of 20 starts during that time. After years of expensive mediocrity Rusch has turned into a outstanding left-handed pitcher, and under his present deal, he is incredibly cheap. Even if Rusch stays in the rotation for the rest of the season, and earns every unrealistic award bonus in his contract, he’ll still only cost the Cubs $2,875,000 for 2005. Of course, in that case, with a Cy Young and MVP under his belt, he’d probably turn down the player option for 2006 and elect for free agency.

  • Lefty #2: Mark Prior‘s hairline elbow fracture left another opening in the rotation which was filled by another lefty. John Koronka was called up from Iowa on June 1; in two starts he’s posted a 5.73 ERA, with nine strikeouts and five walks in 11 innings pitched.

    Koronka was originally picked in the 12th round of the 1998 amateur draft out of South Lake High School in Groveland, Fla. He pitched in the Reds system for six years, making it as high as Double-A on three separate occasions. In 2003 he was traded to the Cubs for lefty reliever Phil Norton. Nothing about Koronka’s minor league numbers is all that impressive, but at the same time nothing is terribly discouraging. He’s never had great strikeout rates and the walk rates were always a little high, but he’s a reasonably young lefty (24) who seems at first glance to be at least good enough for emergency spot starter duty. At present Koronka has amassed just under 0.0 runs of VORP; in other words, he’s the definition of replacement level.

    In 2004 no fewer than 36 pitchers took at least five starts for their teams and accumulated at least -5.0 runs of VORP. Put another way, 36 pitchers last year performed more than half a win in the standings worse than a replacement-level talent would have pitched. That’s a lot of bad pitching. While we won’t applaud the Cubs front office for securing replacement-level pitching at the back of a battered rotation, we can at least acknowledge that many teams fail to do as much. With the frequency of major league pitching injuries, such lapses in roster construction inevitably come to hurt a team’s record.

  • Lefty #3: With their first pick in the 2005 amateur draft the Cubs selected high school LHP Mark Pawelek of Springville, Utah. Pawelek is a 6’3″, 190-lb. starter who was ranked by numerous draft authorities as the number-one high school pitcher in the country. In 63 innings of work his senior year Pawelek didn’t allow a single earned run and notched 132 strikeouts (18.6 K per nine IP!)–in his four years of high school he shattered the state strikeout record with a grand total of 476 Ks. Pawelek works with a mid-to-low 90s fastball that he locates superbly, a strong curve, a change-up, a hard slider, and an occasional split-finger fastball.

    Pawelek was advised in the draft by Scott Boras, who often advises high-school draftees to use extended hold-outs to increase their leverage in contract negotiations. Thus it was a surprise yesterday when in their third-round selection the Cubs announced that Pawelek had already agreed to a contract for an undisclosed amount. He should begin the year in rookie ball but with his superb command and electric stuff it’s not impossible to picture him moving as high as Single-A ball this year.

Tom Gorman

Washington Nationals: Outfielder Ryan Church was named the National League’s Rookie of the Month for May after putting up a .377/.406/.508 line in 61 ABs. Overall, he now sits at .319/.359/.496 with a VORP of 10.1, good for sixth overall on the team. This is one situation, though, where a cumulative counting stat doesn’t tell the whole story, as he’s seen considerably less playing time (just 119 ABs) than most of his peers. Using VORPr, the rate stat version of VORP, we see that Church has been the club’s third-most valuable position player thus far, behind only Nick Johnson and the now DL’d Jose Vidro.

That’s fairly impressive, especially for a player who wasn’t expected to get much playing time with Jose Guillen arriving in town. But injuries to Jeffrey Hammonds and Terrmel Sledge (now out 4-6 months) turned a crowded outfield into a rather roomy one, creating a somewhat full-time role for Church in the process–he’s now seen time at all three outfield spots.

The question with most unexpected performances of this sort, though, is always “is it sustainable?” The fourth-grade version of PECOTA offered the following familiar prediction: outlook not so good. If we want to be more scientific than that, we can take a hard look at his award-winning month, plus his minor-league track record.

First the good news. According to BP’s Quality of Pitchers Faced report, Church has faced above-average pitchers in compiling his line; Church’s competition has held opponents to a .244/.325/.378 line this year, a difference in Church’s favor of +.075/+.034/+.118.

Now the bad news. Of his 119 at bats this season with the Nationals, all but 18 have come against right-handed pitching. Sunday’s heroics against lefty Matt Perisho notwithstanding, Church has consistently been protected from southpaws this year, making him a platoon player, albeit a fine one (a straight platoon of Church and Marlon Byrd is intriguing).

Church’s .359 OBP is also almost entirely batting average-driven, which isn’t encouraging going forward. However, we’re left with sort of a paradox here when dealing with such a limited amount of data. Pretend for a moment that Church saw an above-average number of batting-practice fastballs this month. Why penalize him because he swung at them? If we’re expecting to see a good walk rate in one month’s worth of data, its absence doesn’t actually mean as much as we’d like it to. It would be more informative to look back further than May, all the way to the year 2000.

As a minor leaguer in both the Cleveland and Montreal organizations, he did show more of what we’d more readily recognize as a full helping of plate discipline, hitting .297/.380/.518 in just over 1900 ABs:

Year  Age  Team     GP   Avg  OBP  SLG  ISO  PF*
2000   21  Mahoning 73  .298 .396 .504 .188 960
2001   22  Columbus 101 .287 .385 .507 .212 1029
2001   22  Kinston  24  .241 .379 .506 .265 982
2002   23  Kinston  53  .326 .433 .569 .237 970
2002   23  Akron    71  .296 .325 .505 .195 999
2003   24  Akron    99  .261 .325 .429 .159 1025
2004   25  Edmonton 98  .346 .430 .622 .253 935

*park factors shown are for the year Church played in that park

Before moving on, it’s worth pointing out that we’re using the Isolated Power formula that treats triples as doubles: as it appears above, ISO = (2B+3B+HR*3)/AB. Triples are usually a speed indicator, anyway, and not a power indicator. Hence, his 2004 season (where he hit 29 doubles and 8 triples) gives him an ISO of .253, rather than the .276 ISO you’d get using the traditional (SLG – AVG) method.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this isn’t a terribly impressive minor league career as far as rate stats are concerned. He actually showed a tendency to regress while playing in hitter’s parks, and he saw his biggest jump in ISO when he moved from Double-A Akron (his second stint, it should be noted) to Triple-A Edmonton–the toughest hitter’s park on his resume. Those aren’t likely repeatable performances, but they still make his track record awfully hard to evaluate. His plate discipline eroded as he advanced, and he doesn’t really look like a prospect at all if you just stare at his Double-A lines; even getting an offensive boost from his home ball park, his numbers in 2003 were abysmal. His ISO decreased from .214 in the low minors, to .202 in the high minors, to .137 in the majors–.168 so far in 2005. If he doesn’t regain his power stroke, he’s essentially a singles-hitting outfielder with a declining batting eye.

All this isn’t meant to befoul his birthday cake, so to speak. He had a great month, and he’ll have the award forever (is there a physical prize that goes along with this award?). But unfortunately, the performance itself means very little for the future. To say he’s just experienced the best 61 ABs of his career is bit ominous; at $316,000, he’s been a fantastic bargain, and is exactly the sort of player you hope gets plugged into the lineup in the short-term.

John Erhardt