With a tip of the cap to an old Yogism, today I’m launching the first edition of what I intend to be a recurring feature, an expansion of what I initially set out to do in the Hit and Run space: digging a little deeper into things I was writing about on the Hit List. With a fond nod to the old Prospectus Triple Plays—good things come in threes—the overarching concept here is to expound a bit on three teams linked together by something, whether that’s a statistical ranking, a trend, a similar problem, or even an instance of relevant history.
Keeping in mind that we’re still dealing with small sample sizes, this first edition examines the season’s early high-flyers, three teams who are playing the furthest above their heads as far as PECOTA projections are concerned. All stats are through Tuesday.
Current Hit List Factor: .549
Why They’re Flying High: The Pirates are allowing the league’s fewest runs per game (3.7) after finishing dead last in that category last year, and new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is receiving a good deal of the credit. Where Paul Maholm was the only Bucs starter to finish the season with an ERA below 4.80 last year—a figure that essentially matches that unit’s projection—four of the Pirates’ five starters are below that mark this year, led by Zach Duke (2.43). One notable example of the impact that Kerrigan has had has been his use of video to lead Duke to review the form he exhibited in his stellar 2005 rookie campaign, prompting a tweak in his delivery. The coach’s knack for preparation and use of statistics have helped the young hurlers improve their situational pitching; last year, they were among the worst in the league in batting average allowed after getting ahead 0-1 (.251 average, tied for 15th) or 0-2 (.194, tied for 14th), but they’re now among the best (.214, third-best on the former; .138, tied for first on the latter).
Why That May Not Last: The Pirates lead the majors with a .738 Defensive Efficiency after finishing 28th with a .675 mark last year. That 63-point improvement is not only the largest jump of any team, it would top the 2008 Rays‘ record-setting turnaround of 54 points. But where the Rays notably upgraded the left side of their infield via Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria while shifting B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura to positions for which they were better suited, the 2009 Pirates are returning three-quarters of their regular infield, with Andy LaRoche swapping out for Jose Bautista at the hot corner. The outfield has seen some shuffling, but neither Eric Hinske nor Craig Monroe, the two new faces in the mix, are known for their work with the leather.
Additionally, the staff’s strikeout rate (5.4 per nine) is the worst in the league, with Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf whiffing less than four per nine, and Ian Snell‘s staff-leading 6.1 still lagging a full strikeout behind the league average. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.29) is also last, and ERA indicators such as their 4.76 FIP and 5.52 QERA suggest that when a correction arrives, it won’t be pretty.
Glimmer of Hope: Perhaps because of Kerrigan’s help, the pitchers are serving up fewer meatballs than before; the staff’s line-drive rate has fallen from 19.2 percent to 16.7, the fifth-largest drop in the majors. Whether you’re using the simple line-drive percentage plus .12 to estimate batting average on balls in play, or Brian Cartwright’s more advanced .15*FB%+.24*GB%+.73*LD%, both formulas herald BABIP drops of more than 20 points, so it’s possible that some of the early-season improvement in that department is real enough to stick.
Current Hit List Factor: .620
Why They’re Flying High: Though they’ll face the majors’ third-hardest schedule overall in terms of opponents’ projected winning percentage, the Jays have bolted out to the majors’ best record against one of the month’s softer schedules:
Team Opp W% Phillies .470 Mets .471 Dodgers .474 Braves .479 Rangers .481 D'backs .484 Blue Jays .486 Pirates .488
They’ve done so primarily by leading the league in scoring (6.1 runs per game) and EqA (.283), and their combined .293/.366/.477 line ranks first, second, and third in their respective categories. After being sidelined for all but the first two months of 2008 due to a severe concussion, Aaron Hill is hitting a torrid .371/.410/.588 with a team-high five homers, Lyle Overbay has returned from zombieland to hit a robust .269/.426/.538, and Marco Scutaro is scooting at a .268/.415 /.463 clip. None of those performances are anywhere near sustainable, but those of youngsters Adam Lind (.314/.392/.512) and Travis Snider (.278/.350/.537) have a stronger shot of lasting. Joe Sheehan dug in with a spoon in much greater detail yesterday.
Why That May Not Last: The Jays were forecast to have the league’s lowest-scoring offense, so some correction should definitely be expected. Additionally, their rotation has been decimated by injuries; remarkably, they’ve got a better potential starting five—Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Jesse Litsch, and Ricky Romero—already on the DL than their division-mates in Baltimore have on their active roster. While the latter trio from that quintet is expected to rejoin the rotation sometime in May, they would do better to ask those birds of a different feather about the perils of using Brian Burres as a stopgap in the meantime. As for McGowan and Marcum, the Jays had hoped that the former would be able to make a mid-season return after having surgery to repair his frayed labrum, but a late-March setback raised the question of whether he’d pitch at all in 2009. The latter is far enough ahead of schedule in his return from last September’s Tommy John surgery that returning this year is a possibility, but a setback-free rehab is no guarantee. Despite also losing closer B.J. Ryan to injury, their makeshift staff is second in the majors in combined win expectancy (SNLVAR + WXRL), but how long that can continue with so many patches is an open question.
Glimmer of Hope: The Jays surprised last year mainly because of GM J.P. Ricciardi’s work assembling a surprisingly strong rotation behind Roy Halladay, and for all of their problems with keeping those young arms healthy, the staff’s performance isn’t some BABIP-fueled illusion. They lead the league in strikeout rate and rank fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and their 4.25 FIP and 4.26 QERA are reasonable approximations for their 3.93 ERA, regardless of who it is actually showing up for work.
Perhaps most promising has been Romero’s debut. The team’s top pick in the impressively deep 2005 draft, Romero was chosen behind Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Jeff Clement, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ryan Braun, and ahead of Troy Tulowitzki (whom Ricciardi’s staff recommended) Mike Pelfrey, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, and Jay Bruce—and that’s just among the first 12 picks. Romero’s failure to make a similarly quick impact in the majors became something of an organizational black eye, but after being beset by control issues in the minors, he improved his mechanics thanks to spring work with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, and put up a 1.71 ERA through three starts before going down with an oblique strain.
Current Hit List Factor: .622
Why They’re Flying High: Like the Jays, the Cardinals lead the league in scoring (5.7 runs per game). They’re second in EqA (.285), and either first or second in the three triple-slash categories (.288/.370/.460). As always, Albert Pujols (.320/.448/.653) is the foundation of such success, and he’s getting plenty of support from Chris Duncan (.297/.387/.531), who is rebounding nicely after missing most of last year due to a neck problem; Ryan Ludwick (.310/.333/.577), who’s following up last year’s breakout; and Yadier Molina (.353/.423/.529), who has become a tough out toward the bottom of the lineup. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Tony La Russa‘s mix-and-match trio of third basemen filling in for Troy Glaus (Sloppy Joe Thurston, Brian Barden, and David Freese) are chipping in with a combined .301/.381/.425.
The Redbirds are getting strong pitching as well. Even with Chris Carpenter back on the disabled list, they lead the league in SNLVAR and are second in ERA (3.71). Though they rank just 13th in strikeout rate, they’re first in walk rate and second in homer rate. Kyle Lohse is the staff’s embodiment of that mixture of skills, shortcomings, and a dash of Dave Duncan‘s magic, and is again off to a hot start (1.79 ERA through five starts).
Why That May Not Last: The Cardinals didn’t project as more than a middle-of-the-pack team offensively, and some regression is certainly in order; Molina can’t channel Tony Gwynn for a whole year, for one thing. Of somewhat more concern is the bullpen, which ranks 13th in the NL in WXRL. Ryan Franklin has yet to allow a run, but the rest of the relief corps has put up a 6.00 Fair Run Average. Franklin is six-for-six in save opportunities; he may be second in the league in WXRL, but he’s poised to lead the league in being Ryan Franklin for yet another year, which is to say that it’s tough to believe his strikeout-per-inning performance will hold given a career rate of 4.9 K/9.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the infield defense, which features converted outfielder Skip Schumaker manning second base. The Cards rank 13th in the league in Defensive Efficiency, and they’re just ninth in Double-play Percentage (DPs per opportunity) despite having the league’s third-highest ground-ball rate. With that kind of effort backing a staff that doesn’t miss many bats, that’s a problem.
Glimmer of Hope: PECOTA saw the NL Central as the majors’ least competitive division race, but with the Cubs wracked by injuries and the Brewers off to a sluggish start, the Cardinals suddenly look like more viable contenders, particularly since they’ve fared so well while facing the majors’ sixth-toughest schedule in April:
What’s particularly promising is that they do have some depth to dip into to augment their pitching. It’s fair enough that Franklin’s hot hand is buying development time for Chris Perez and Jason Motte, the two young power arms who competed for the closer’s job in spring training but failed to earn La Russa’s endorsement; they’ve got just 68 combined innings in the majors between them. Both can miss bats, and they stand to work their way toward more high-leverage innings, whether or not they get the ball in the ninth inning. Additionally, Carpenter showed that his arm was finally healthy in spring training, and he should return at some point from his oblique strain, offering the rotation a sizable upgrade when he does.