A year ago at this time in this very portion of cyberspace, I found five pairs of teams who finished within one point of each other in the Baseball Prospectus Hit List and-before any of them had made significant offseason moves-tried to project which one would outperform the other in 2006.
Here is how I fared:
Like many did at that time, I gave the early advantage to the Brewers, thinking that they were primin’ for a climbin’. As it turned out, they weren’t, but they still finished ahead of the Cubs, putting me in line for one of those genius grants one hears so much about these days down at the bowling alley.
In this case, I thought the Diamondbacks would have a lot of trouble improving as much as they did between 2004-05. They made a pretty good go of it, though, but that was not reflected in the real standings. I wrote, “Given the D-backs actual record against their run count, they’d have to improve again between ’05 and ’06 as much as they did between ’04 and ’05 just to match their 77-85 ’05 record.” This is essentially what they did, though, going 76-86. I gave the Giants the early advantage, and they did finish a half-game ahead of Arizona, but with a worse BP Hit List ranking. I can admit defeat or claim it as a moral victory and move on.
In this one, I assailed the Twins for having two of the worst performances produced by positions in their lineup in 2005 against league average (shortstop and first base). I gave them the early advantage over the Rangers, though-my thinking was that they’d improve at those two positions. They did, but cratered at two other positions in 2006. If they could improve their lot at DH and leftfield in 2007 while holding their own everywhere else, they’ll be in an excellent position to repeat next year. In the end, Minnesota outpaced Texas by 16 games in the real standings and by a count of .573 to .520 on the Hit List.
My rationale for picking the Angels at this time a year ago was this: “The majority of World Championship teams don’t win as many games the following year, and the White Sox will be no different.” I thought that, combined with Arte Moreno’s largesse, would be enough to put the Angels ahead in 2006. The White Sox did regress in 2006, coming down to .548 and 90 wins. The Angels didn’t fall as far, but did fall just low enough to be bested by the Sox, with a .547 winning percentage and 89 wins. While it was a close call, I have to take the ‘L’ on this one.
My call on this regional dead heat was that neither team had an early advantage. The Nats and O’s then proceeded to live the dream, as both got worse and finished at exactly .438, making me look like Nostra-$&@*ing-damus. (Washington did win one more game than Baltimore did in the real world.) What this means is that, when I take another shot at this procedure in an upcoming column, Baltimore-Washington will be one of the matched pairs again. You’d think the Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez trade will give the Nats the early advantage, but we’ll see.
So overall I went 3-2, with both losses being very tough ones. It could have just as easily been 5-0; at least, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. In one of my next outings, I’ll call the early advantages for the 2006 matched pairs. There were three exact finishes in the BP Hit List: the aforementioned Orioles-Nationals, along with White Sox-Blue Jays and Giants-Reds. There was just a single one-point differential finish, that being the Marlins-D’backs. In order to flesh out the list, I’ll have to go to two-point differences, something I didn’t have to do last year. These would be Astros–Red Sox and Cardinals–Braves.
DH vs. DH
For the third year in a row, David Ortiz is going to finish ahead of Travis Hafner in the Most Valuable Player voting. Is this justified? A case can certainly be made that it was last year, when Ortiz had the better WARP3, 9.5 to 8.4, as well as a VORP nearly seven points to the better. In 2004 and this past season, though, Hafner has had the upper hand in both of those categories. What is more, Hafner has had a better EqA in all three seasons that the two men have been the premier designated hitters in baseball, often not by a little bit:
2006: .366 to .343
2005: .348 to .337
2004: .338 to .321
Apart from his celebrated late-inning pyrotechnics, what gives Ortiz the perennial advantage over Hafner? For one thing, it’s the very opportunity to shine in leveraged situations. The Red Sox have won 279 games over the past three seasons, the Indians 251. Ortiz has been surrounded by a better cast of characters in more important games. I steadfastly hold to the position that a player should not have an advantage over another in award voting because he happens to have a better general manager or an owner with more money to spend.
Having said that, there is one other advantage Ortiz has over Hafner that is certainly relevant: he’s played a lot more. Over the past three seasons, Ortiz has come to the plate 2,068 times to Hafner’s 1,718. That’s 350 extra shots-a fairly significant number.
Two other quick things about these two, unrelated to their positional juxtaposition. First, Ortiz has been improving steadily for the past half-decade. Starting in 2001, his EqAs have gone like this: .273, .287, .316, .321, .337 and .343. That’s five straight years of getting better. One more improvement year and he’ll be getting into historical territory.
After just three full years in the big leagues, Hafner is already the best player ever to be born in North Dakota. His greatest challenge comes in the person of Darin Erstad, a player we usually connect with Nebraska because that’s where he played college football. The most famous player previously associated with the NoDak experience is, of course, Roger Maris. Maris was born in Hibbing, Minnesota though, and didn’t move to the state until he was ten. So, while not necessarily “of” there, Maris was certainly “from” there.
Is Hafner a better player than Maris? Remember that Hafner turns 30 in the middle of next season, and that Maris retired at 33. With that, here are Hafner’s three full seasons compared to Maris’s three best:
EqA Maris Hafner .328 (1961) .366 (2006) .324 (1960) .348 (2005) .306 (1963) .338 (2004) WARP3 Maris Hafner 10.0 (1960) 9.2 (2006) 9.1 (1961) 8.4 (2005) 6.7 (1962) 7.6 (2004)
Maris’s career WARP3 totals 58.4, while Hafner is at 27.3. If he can play another six years and stay relatively healthy, he should end up around 70 at that point. I wouldn’t quite give Hafner all of the NoDak crown just yet, but he’s already got a pretty good piece of it.
The Other Lou Gehrig Award
This is a tale of two shortstops. One of them has had his season dismissed as a dismal failure while the other is being celebrated coast to coast. True, neither played as well in 2006 as they did in 2005 but one of them, because of circumstances, is the toast of the baseball world, while the other will be subject of articles next spring that will ask “Can he come back?”
The one basking in the limelight right now saw his WARP3 fall by about 40 percent from 2005. His EqA dropped by 19 points and his VORP went from 32.4 to 8.5. Still, fate put him in a position where a couple of breaks at the right moment catapulted him onto center stage.
His counterpart really took a beating with the bat, losing even more VORP (52.1 to 10.5) and almost 50 points on his EqA. In spite of all that, he still managed a WARP3 of 8.3 in 2006 because of some very dynamic fielding numbers. An 8.3 WARP3 from a shortstops is Hall of Fame territory, but that will not be the lead story on him next year.
There already exists a Lou Gehrig Memorial Award. It’s a character award recognizing behavior both on and off the field. There should be another Lou Gehrig Award, though, one that takes its inspiration from his famous farewell speech in 1941, wherein he uttered the phrase that he was the “luckiest man on the face of this earth.” This award would be given to the player who, mostly by circumstance, has been afforded the opportunity to stand in the spotlight. The 2006 winner is definitely David Eckstein. He contributed just about nothing to the Cardinals during the second half of the season, and precious little in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the first two games of the World Series. He then hit two key “doubles” and copped the MVP Award for the Series. That, folks, is luckiest-man-on-earth stuff.
Meanwhile, Jhonny Peralta-a player with a WARP3 over twice as high-is going to spend spring training trying to find an explanation for what he did in 2006, and explaining how it won’t happen again. Such is life writ small.