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Say this for the Royals–they cut right to the chase. Following their 25th Opening Day loss in their 38-year history, the Royals have already made themselves comfortable in the last-place confines that have been reserved for them all winter.

Nonetheless, spirits are high in Kansas City that the Royals will be, if not a good team, then at least a better team than they were in 2005. “I think the Royals will play a lot better baseball in 2006,” Joe Posnanski writes in the Kansas City Star.

There are many reasons for this sentiment, not the least of which is the fact that, coming off 106 losses last season, the Royals can scarcely do worse. (Or can they? The last team to finish 56-106, the 2002 Tigers, lost 119 the following year.)

But the roster that was introduced on the field on Monday has changed significantly from the one that left the field for the final time last October. It’s different, but is it better? Let’s look a little closer.

  • The rotation. Out is Jose Lima and his ungodly 6.99 ERA. In his place, unfortunately, is Scott Elarton, whose 4.61 ERA last year was his best since 1999, before he tore up his shoulder. D.J. Carrasco, who actually led the rotation with a 4.79 ERA, has been replaced with Joe Mays, whose last three ERAs read 5.65, 6.30, and 5.38. If there’s to be any improvement, it’s going to be on the shoulders of Jeremy Affeldt and particularly Denny Bautista, the one starter on this team with the potential for an above-average strikeout rate. Verdict: minimal improvement.
  • The bullpen. The good news is that the one major strength of last year’s squad, the triumvirate of Mike MacDougal being set up by Ambiorix Burgos and Andy Sisco, returns this year. The bad news is that MacDougal is already on the DL. Burgos and Sisco were both rushed to the majors last year and survived, and as a pair some improvement is to be expected. The Royals have also strengthened the back end of the bullpen with Elmer Dessens, who struck out four of the five batters he faced on Opening Day, giving him approximately as many strikeouts as Leo Nunez had in all of 2005. Verdict: moderate improvement.
  • The lineup. Mike Sweeney is healthy and, as the everyday DH, he might actually stay that way into May. David DeJesus is everyone’s trendy pick for a breakout season. Reggie Sanders can’t be as bad as Terrence Long was, and Mark Grudzielanek figures to hit better than .225 with 7 homers in 599 at-bats, which is what the Royals got from the Four Second Baseman of the Apocalypse, Ruben Gotay, Joe McEwing, Denny Hocking, and Donnie Murphy last year.

    On the other hand, Angel Berroa is still, well, Angel Berroa. Doug Mientkiewicz is unlikely to give the Royals the production that they got from Matt Stairs last year. The Royals’ hopes for a quantum leap on offense rests in the two keystones they acquired in the Carlos Beltran deal–Mark Teahen and John Buck. Both are young and had a track record of some success in the minors–but both had terrible 2005 campaigns, and PECOTA expects only modest improvement–their median EqA projections are both only 8-9 points higher than their EqA last year. Verdict: mild improvement.

  • The bench. Tony Graffanino is a very servicable, albeit well-paid, backup infielder. Unfortunately, the Royals had him last year before trading him in July, and they would be thrilled to see him duplicate his .298/.377/.393 line with the team. Esteban German is a nifty player to have in a utility role, with the ability to reach first base and steal second. Like last year’s backup, Alberto Castillo, Paul Bako is a fully-accredited member of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers. Matt Stairs is the first bat off the bench for the third straight season, while Shane Costa makes everyone scratch their head and wonder why the Royals kept a prospect in need of minor league reps on their bench. Verdict: no change.
  • The defense. The right side of the infield alone should be a huge upgrade. Some improvement can be expected from Teahen, whose performance at third base got better as his rookie season progressed. Sanders can’t be as bad as Long was. Upgrading the defense was the Royals’ main focus this winter, and to their credit they did just that. Verdict: significant improvement.
  • The minors. Last year the Royals imported prospects of varying degrees of readiness (ranging from “not” to “are you kidding me?”) by the truckload. The influx of veterans this year should, at the very least, keep the Royals from promoting players with two weeks of experience above A-ball to the major leagues. But barring injuries, the Royals’ best prospects–Justin Huber, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler–are unlikely to contribute to the Royals before September. Verdict: mild improvement.
  • The front office. The Royals decided to keep Costa over Chip Ambres, a minimum-wage, major-league ready outfielder, forcing Ambres to go through waivers. They did claim Rule 5 pick Steven Andrade off waivers from the Padres. In his minor league career, Andrade has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 326 to 134, or nearly 2.5 to 1…no, wait a minute, I’m sorry, that’s his strikeout-to-hit ratio. Last year in Double-A, he had 71 strikeouts in 50 innings, with just 23 hits allowed. Naturally, the Royals then designated Andrade for assignment a few days later to keep non-entity Steve Stemle on the roster. In short, nothing has changed.

The Royals figure to be better than last year; the defense is much improved, the bullpen looks deeper, and they seem to have stanched the flow of unready prospects for now. But when you’re coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, improvement is nothing to brag about. Regression to the mean is not an accomplishment; using a formula devised three years ago to predict a team’s record based on its performance over the last three years, the Royals should be expected to finish with a .412 winning percentage this year, corresponding to a 67-95 record and an 11-game improvement.

Based on the changes made to the Royals this off-season, 11 games seems about right, if not a tad optimistic. A third straight 100-loss season is not out of the question. At least then the Royals might finally clean house.

Rany Jazayerli

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Shawn Chacon‘s performance after the trade deadline for the Yankees surprised many people, as he put up an ERA of 2.85 in 79 innings to help them win the American League East. The surprise stems from the conclusions one could draw from Chacon’s peripherals, which, to put it kindly, are awful. To make things worse, Colorado’s failed experiment with Chacon in the closer role was fresh in many minds.

In an initial analysis of the trade, it was noted that Chacon always seemed to have a relatively low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), even though he had pitched his entire major league career with the Rockies. Coors Field’s BABIP is much higher than the league average; a typical BABIP is roughly .290-.300, so one would expect Chacon to follow suit. However, Chacon’s BABIP figures have been significantly below average for a Colorado starter for years:

               Chacon     Park
Year           BABIP      BABIP    Diff.
2001 (COL)     .294       .338     -.044
2002 (COL)     .261       .325     -.064
2003 (COL)     .276       .318     -.042
2004 (COL)     .314       .340     -.026
2005 (COL)     .272       .336     -.064
2005 (NYY)     .240       .311     -.071

Normally, we might brush off the .240 BABIP as a Yankee as a product of small sample size, but I was watching for something like this to happen in his New York innings. You should also note that the difference between his BABIP in NY and the park average is not that much higher than some of his Colorado seasons were, so expecting a BABIP in the .240-.250 range may be a safe bet. PECOTA assumes that BABIP regresses, so it does not share this optimism. His weighted mean projection BABIP is .287, and he is expected to finish with an ERA of 5.04; PECOTA is normally conservative, but that seems well out of line with what Chacon could be capable of, free from Coors for an entire season. This is not to say that Chacon is going to replicate his 2.85 ERA, as even the best in the business have a difficult time with that sort of thing in consecutive seasons.

Rather, it seems entirely possible that Chacon can best his 90th percentile projection for ERA without actually having the peripheral statistics that PECOTA expects him to. PECOTA projects a 3.94 ERA at his highest point, and that seems to stem from a much improved K/BB of 1.69 (saying “much improved” before such a low K/BB makes one stop and think for a moment). Chacon may be able to surpass his projection simply by invoking the powers of BABIP in 2006.

Let’s go through a quick recap of the DIPS theories: Voros McCracken told us that “there is little to any difference among major-league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play.” Tom Tippett disputed this, concluding, “…I am convinced that pitchers do influence in-play outcomes to a significant degree.” Last season, Clay Davenport, while working on an article concerning minor league BABIP, commented that, “the differences between major league pitchers is small, much smaller than commonly believed, and small enough to be insignificant information.” Could Chacon be part of that tiny (to some, insignificant) percentage of pitchers who do seem to have some control over the rate of hits on balls in play? What is it about Chacon’s pitching that would induce such a low BABIP so consistently? Let’s take a look at what happened to the balls that were hit off of Chacon in 2005, both in Colorado and New York.

Team      BFP     K     BB     GB     OF     IF     LD     IF/F
COL       322    12%    14%    25%    26%     2%    17%       9%
NYY       330    12%    11%    34%    21%     8%    13%      28%

LD is Line Drive Percentage, and IF/F is Infield Fly to Flyball ratio. Looking at these figures by themselves, it is apparent that balls hit into play ended their journey in the infield more often than not. 34% of the batted-balls were groundballs. The 19% jump in IF/F is incredible; some of that has to do with a small sample size, but increasing it to a midpoint between the two figures is still excellent progress. The Hardball Times glossary (which is also the source of these statistics) suggests that inducing infield flies may be a repeatable skill; if Chacon is adept at inducing infield flies, and can keep his G/F ratio from his days as a Yankee intact (1.14 as opposed to 0.89 in Colorado), New York might have themselves something here, and we might have the beginnings of an explanation as to why Chacon was successful BABIP-wise in comparison to other pitchers at Coors. Chacon’s previous work (excluding his year as a closer that just insists on messing with all of the data) matches up well with the figures above, so it does not seem like he was in any more of a groove in 2005 than in previous years, besides the normal success that comes with growth as a pitcher. (Thanks to Dave Studeman’s Baseball Graphs for the batted-ball data.)

So what do we actually know, after traipsing through the lands of the hypothetical? Yankee Stadium is inherently less difficult to pitch in than Coors, and is certainly easier to defend, even with all of the older players on the roster. New York’s Defensive Efficiency was 0.689 in 2005. Colorado’s was 0.672, second to last in the majors. Colorado was second to last in 2004 (0.681) and in 2003 (0.680). The large stretches of outfield are largely responsible for the high BABIPs of Coors Field, and without having to contend with those, Shawn Chacon should have no problem besting his PECOTA projection BABIP of .287.

2006 will be something of a test case for the idea that Chacon is one of the few pitchers who can consistently control the rate of hits on balls in play. Although his Colorado numbers seem to support the idea, his New York sample is still extremely small. Treat this piece as an introduction to a potential discovery, rather than a definitive statement decreeing his supreme dominance over the theories of batting average on balls in play.

Marc Normandin

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