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American League Two-a-Days: Boston Red Sox

LiveBall Sports Previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Boston Red Sox

2013 record: 97-65
2013 runs scored: 853
2013 runs against: 656
2013 pythag. record: 100-62

The Red Sox spent all of last season in baseball’s elite class, populated by the Tigers, A’s, Cardinals, and eventually the Dodgers as well.  When the other teams faded in the postseason, Boston stood alone as World Series Champs.

There were losses to free agency, but Boston is more or less the pre-season favorite to repeat.

Who is having a good spring?

C AJ Pierzynski, coming over from Texas in free agency replacing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, is hitting .429 this spring.  His job is to hold the seat warm for Christian Vazquez, hitting .444.  On-base specialist and perennial bubble player Daniel Nava is flexing his muscles with a .684 spring SLG.  Mike Carp is slugging over .750 and working at a new position (third base) this spring.  Of the Boston pitchers, left handers Felix Doubront and Jon Lester have yet to allow a run in nine combined spring innings.  Right-handed journeyman reliever Francisco Cordero is pitching well enough to make the club.  He is a non-roster invite.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Red Sox

Boston is the most loaded organization in all of professional sports from top to bottom.  The major league teams win, the minor league teams win, and the organization wins on the books; the franchise has never been more profitable.  They are breaking in a new shortstop, top prospect Xander Bogaerts, as last year’s SS, Stephen Drew, remains unsigned.  Some of the top competition, the Yankees and the Orioles, are in decline cycles.

The pitching gets stronger every year with minimal investment.  Ryan Dempster opted for retirement instead of a spot on the Red Sox this year.  He had lost his rotation spot at the end of last season.  This opens the fifth starter role up for either veteran LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Allen Webster a prospect, or RHP Brandon Workman, who did great work out of the bullpen as a rookie.  That’s a lot of options for a strong rotation this year.  The arms coming out of the bullpen are just as impressive.

Boston will once again run out a deep lineup one through nine.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Red Sox

The Red Sox had the best top of the lineup in the AL a year ago with Ellsbury and Shane Victorino at the top, but Ellsbury is a Yankee and Victorino is a year older.  Dustin Pedroia has significant home/road splits — he’s basically been a bottom of the order hitter on the road in his career.  Big Papi is a year older and has always struggled vs. lefties.   As deep as this lineup is, it was better at the top a year ago.

There could be some growing pains with Bogaerts at SS.  He is just 21, and the options behind him if he struggles are unappetizing.  That means Boston will let him work through his struggles if they come.  Same deal in CF with Jackie Bradley Jr. taking over for Ellsbury, although his leash won’t be quite as long.  The 3B job that Bogaerts came up and filled in the playoffs remains an issue.

Papi is in a contract year, so prepare for a full year of talk about his future and Ortiz not exactly doing his part to quiet the commentary.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Red Sox is 45.1, 2nd in the American League.  Their 23.7 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 21.4 Pitchers WAR projection is 2nd in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Red Sox to win 89 games, a 8 win decline over last season.  Dustin Pedroia is the Red Sox with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.3.  Jon Lester is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.9 WAR.

The Yankees vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox will get all they can handle from the Rays this year, and might not have enough to hold off Tampa from grabbing the division.  But they are stronger throughout the pitching staff, and at least have the ability to develop a better lineup through guys like Bradley and Bogaerts.

Boston, like Tampa, is a smart organization, and I trust them to get the most out of this roster.  I’ll take them for 93-69, and another trip to the ALCS.

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2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the American League

The American League begins it’s 113th season with a stranglehold on MLB dominance in the regular season.  However, no American League team has managed to take home the World Series since the Yankees did in 2009.  Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are with regard to rebuilding their rosters and restructuring their finances, AL teams have a ton to prove this year.

Five teams have won multiple World Series since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs in 1993: the Yankees have won five times, and the Red Sox twice.  But the other three teams: the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, and most recently, San Francisco Giants.  The remarkable thing is this has happened over a period of AL dominance.

Lacking the consensus best team in baseball for the first time in awhile, the American League looks to reclaim bragging rights over the National League as interleague play becomes an all-the-time thing for the first time ever.

The American League Central

The Detroit Tigers (2012: 726 runs scored, 670 runs allowed) enter the 2013 season as the clear favorites to represent the AL in the World Series for the second straight year — and the third time in the last seven.  The Tigers are a three man team in many ways, as the only way that Detroit can overcome a down year from RHP Justin Verlander, 1B Prince Fielder, or 3B Miguel Cabrera is for the other two to pick up the slack.  The problems facing the Tigers are numerous: the team declined from its peak in 2011 through the 2o12 season, either slightly (run differential) or significantly (wins) depending on what measure you use.  And outside of getting DH Victor Martinez back from an injury that cost him his 2012 season, it’s not exactly clear where all the Tigers’ perceived improvement is going to come from.

The reason the Tigers are favored heading into the year is because they have the clearest path to the playoffs through the AL Central: having just the White Sox, Royals, and Indians nipping at your heels gives you plenty of leeway.  The Tigers are gambling that they can score 800 runs in 2013 because of an improved outfield, featuring Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter in full time roles instead of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.  Actually, truth be told, the Tigers are gambling on a lot of things, especially a flimzy bullpen.  However, improved defensive efficiency in the outfield leads me to bump the Tigers slightly to a 91 win team.

That should be good enough to win a division where there’s unlikely to be a trio of 85+ win teams, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Kansas City Royals (2012: 676 runs scored, 746 runs allowed) could push the Tigers this year.  The Royals best profile as a 83-79 team, but that’s not totally going to take them out of contention for the second wild card, and should make things interesting with the Tigers into early September.  The Royals have a chance to do special things with their bats this year.  LF Alex Gordon enters 2013 a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, as you could make a charitable case for the two time Gold Glove winner as a poor mans* version of Mike Trout.  The Royals spent an obscene amount of money to take the variance out of their pitching staff, which really lead their team’s run prevention through the first two and a half months last year before regressing to it’s true talent level of “minor league.”  The upgrades make the Royals one of the safest, easiest teams in the AL from a projection standpoint: there’s not a ton of upside here, but the dark days appear to be over in Kansas City.

*Although Gordon will make about 22 times more than Trout will this season.

The Chicago White Sox (2012: 748 runs scored, 676 runs allowed) may be the most average team in baseball this year, as they head towards one more year of 82 wins.  The excellent run prevention unit of the White Sox is likely to stay in the ballpark, so to speak: this is a strong defensive team led by SS Alexi Ramirez, C Tyler Flowers, and CF Alejandro De Aza, and a top-level pitching staff featuring LHP Chris Sale and RHP Jake Peavy.  However, after shocking the world and putting up 748 offensive runs and leading the division in run scoring, the White Sox will have a really tough time doing that again.  Run producers like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are aging quick and there’s not much the White Sox can do to score if those two stop hitting bombs at such a high rate.  It should be easier for the Cleveland Indians (2012: 667 runs scored, 845 runs allowed) to catch the Tigers in run scoring as the Tribe features a premier lineup, headlined by C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis.  But the Indians giving up 845 runs last year wasn’t a fluke: it was just horrific pitching.  That’s a problem that went largely unsolved this offseason, shaping the Indians as a 77 win team.  And Minnesota Twins (2012: 701 runs scored, 832 runs allowed) fans still get to enjoy C Joe Mauer’s best seasons, which is awesome.  They won’t get to enjoy a whole lot a good baseball, but the Twins should be able to avoid 100 losses through some combination of dark magic and veteran contributions.  Pencil the Twins at 65 wins.

The American League East

Dynastic.  While most of the baseball universe realizes that we’re entering a year where the Red Sox and Yankees are strong underdogs against the Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 697 runs scored, 577 runs allowed), I don’t think the baseball universe much realizes how FAR the Yankees and Red Sox will have to go in order to reach where the Rays are going to be in three years.  There’s no question that the Rays — division favorites as far as I’m concerned — have holes on the current team: they tentatively will DH Luke Scott, will play Ryan Roberts at second base, and James Loney at first base, we’re talking about a team that traded away RHP James Shields to Kansas City, and may set a modern American League record for runs prevented this year.  They allowed just 577 runs last season, which is less preposterous when you consider the ballpark effect of Tropicana Field, but the Rays find a way to rank at the top in terms of defensive efficiency every single year.  That won’t change with Desmond Jennings patrolling CF.

But more than any other team in the league, the Rays are injury-proof.  Sure, they’d have just as much a problem as anyone replacing the lineup production of 3B Evan Longoria or 2B/RF Ben Zobrist in extended absence of their two best offensive players.  But they can replace any member of their pitching staff using their lush farm system.  Improving just a bit in terms of run scoring, I think the Rays are capable of a division winning 94 wins.

Their main challenger went all-in on their pitching staff this offseason, making the Toronto Blue Jays‘ (2012: 716 runs scored, 784 runs allowed) win-now tactic a sharp contrast to the win-always scheme preferred by the Rays.  The Blue Jays had two main problems last year: every pitcher got hurt or struggled, and everyone on the offense underachieved or was hurt (save for DH Edwin Encarnacion).  Similar to the Royals, the move all-in to acquire a new pitching rotation (added: RHP R.A. Dickey (Mets), LHP Mark Buehrle (Marlins), RHP Josh Johnson (Marlins))  means the Jays won’t be reliant on recovering pitching arms and prospects (such as Kyle Kendrick ->Tommy John surgery), which is a positive.  But the Blue Jays had a second problem last year which isn’t necessarily going to be fixed purely through regression: their lineup really sucked.  To fix that, they acquired a lot of the Marlins spare contracts, which made a lot of sense in theory until we consider the Marlins lineup also struggled last season.  The cause for optimism is that the Blue Jays are now spending money, which makes them competitors in the AL East this year, and their rotation has a chance to be really, really good.  But the makeover happens on a foundation that won 73 games last year.  90 wins would make them the most improved team in baseball, but the foundation would not fundamentally change unless the Jays push 100 wins, in which case a lot of things got a lot better pretty quickly.

It could be worse.  The New York Yankees (2012: 804 runs scored, 668 runs allowed) haven’t even made it out of Spring Training in a state where Brennan Boesch is not considered an upgrade.  Injuries to 1B Mark Teixiera and OF Curtis Granderson have headlined the spring in New York.  But the Yankees are about to take the field on opening day with three regulars from last years lineup only: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano.  The rotation is rather promising, and should keep the Yankees out of the cellar by a good margin, but the bottom line is that the Yankees are a 79 win team this year.  That should keep them in company of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox (2012: 734 runs scored, 806 runs allowed), also at 79 wins.  Whereas the Yankees have some semblance of a plan, the Red Sox appear to be trying to tear down to rebuild and compete at the same time.  On the positive side, the Red Sox were 5 games over .500 at the end of June last year, and this isn’t a completely hopeless ballclub.  The rotation isn’t great shakes, but it’s littered with name guys like Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and John Lackey, which will probably end poorly in a couple cases, and work out well in others.  You can say that about a lot of areas of a .500 team.  And I think .500 happens to be a bit aggressive for the Baltimore Orioles (2012: 712 runs scored, 705 runs allowed), who finished 2012 impressively, winning all the games that Boston would lose.  Baltimore shakes out as a 75 win team thanks to weaknesses in the rotation, and a team-wide issue with on-base percentage.  There’s upside on the offensive end here with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis all entering their age 27 seasons.  The bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson, doesn’t have to be as dominant as it was last year for the O’s to exceed 75 wins, but it must still be quite good.

The American League West

The AL West is the strongest division in the American League, and possibly all of baseball.  It would be even stronger if the Houston Astros (2012: 583 runs scored (NL), 794 runs allowed (NL)) didn’t move into it.  The Astros will be fighting to avoid losing 100 games all year.  I think they’ll come close, topping out at 61 wins.  But the real story is at the top of the division, where the Oakland Athletics won their final six games last season to steal the division from the Texas Rangers (2012: 808 runs scored, 707 runs allowed).  The Rangers return as division favorites in my eyes, although many others prefer the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, a California-based baseball club (2012: 767 runs scored, 699 runs allowed).

Texas has been routinely criticized for “losing” in an offseason where they allowed Josh Hamilton ($125 million) to sign with the Angels, failed to reel in Zack Greinke ($147 million) after his contract expired (hard to blame them at those price tags).  They ended up grabbing Derek Lowe on the cheap while biding their time for Colby Lewis to return from arm surgery.  Here’s the thing though: I don’t hear a lot of people arguing that Texas’ offense won’t be alright without Hamliton (they’ll survive) even as most laud the Angels’ aggressiveness in the market.  Texas is being criticized for not acquiring pitching.  But after giving up just 707 runs playing 81 games in the Ballpark in Arlington (Park factor: 112) last season, people are under-rating the quality of the Texas bullpen.  And their biggest offseason acquisition flew mostly under the radar, when the Rangers plucked Joakim Soria from the Royals at rehabilitation (torn UCL) prices.

Although there’s not a ton of pitching depth here, expect the run prevention of the Rangers to improve and they’ll lead the AL in wins this year at 98.  The Angels on the other hand may feel confident in a lineup that can make pitchers face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in the first four batters.  The issue with the Angels is that the pitching is a disaster.  They don’t have the bullpen the Rangers do.  They don’t have a bullpen that can consistently get outs.  And unlike last year, they don’t feature a rotation that can get deep into games.  The Angles jettisoned both Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales to get…something.  Hamilton and Mark Trumbo are a major improvement over Vernon Wells and Hunter, but since neither can play a premium defensive position anymore, the Angels opening day lineup will likely feature Peter Bourjos, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and Chris Ianetta playing those tougher defensive positions.  Those players will absorb about half of the team ABs for the Angels this year.  Not only is this not a 1,000 run lineup, but it’s likely not even a 750 run lineup.  The Angels are an 80 win team this year.

Does this mean the Royals are in the playoffs?  Not exactly.  The AL West is strong after the Angels as well, and the Oakland A’s (2012: 710 runs scored, 614 runs allowed) did win the division, posting a run differential exactly on par with the Rangers, and plucked the division on the season’s final weekend.  They would have made a lot of noise if they had beaten the Tigers in the ALDS, but as is, the team returns a lot of it’s pieces from 2012.  Brett Anderson will replace Brandon McCarthy (signed with Arizona) atop the rotation.  Anderson is finally healthy after missing more than two thirds of last year with the torn UCL he suffered in 2011.  The A’s don’t have the front line pitching to allow just 614 runs again, although 660 is a very reasonable expectation for a strong defensive team playing in the hitter graveyard that is the Oakland Coliseum.  I think that 83 wins is a strong expectation for the A’s.

And that will not quite make the playoffs in the AL West.  I am predicting the second wild card will fall to the Seattle Mariners (2012: 619 runs scored, 651 runs allowed), which I’m sure will make Ichiro happy.  The Mariners have done well to rebuild their outfield on the fly, acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals (in a questionable trade), to match with Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, who both came into their own last year.  With the lineup looking like something other than the worst offense in the AL this year (although still pretty bad), Mariners fans and league observers can finally appreciate the dominance of Felix Hernandez every fifth day.  But after making a lot of quietly sharp moves this offseason (possibly excluding the Morse deal, although that should help out in the aggregate), I think 85 wins might actually qualify them for the playoffs this season.  If not, they’ll at least be right in it.

2013 AL Predictions

East Champ: Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)
Central Champ: Detroit Tigers (91-71)
West Champ: Texas Rangers (98-64)
AL Wild Card #1: Toronto Blue Jays (90-72)
AL Wild Card #2: Seattle Mariners (85-77)

Hard to Ignore: Teams are not scoring runs on opening day

Watching baseball in April isn’t anything like watching baseball in July.  I get that.  Common belief dictates that pitching starts ahead of hitting, and that the cold weather certainly doesn’t favor those holding the lumber.  But with the way that offensive totals have collapsed over the last two seasons, I was anxious to see how long it would take for the game to rebound in the direction of offense.

And as the first day of baseball occurs, there’s some more evidence that baseball is trending away from offense.

There are no conclusions to be made from this post, as the sample size is too small.  But for those of us looking for evidence that offense will be on the rebound, it is difficult to watch flyballs get knocked down in caught in the outfield at an astounding rate while teams

I enjoy the late comebacks as much as any fan (and we’ve had three already by the Red Sox, Nationals, and Blue Jays on Opening Day), but if baseball is going to ever compete with football or basketball again in terms of TV ratings, it would seem like the only way would be to create an offensive environment that swings the score back and forth like often happens in football.  If the first team to score leads throughout the first six innings, then I’m not sure the product will ever be compelling enough for the die hards, let alone the casual fan.

And I’m not sure that baseball can support a continued trend towards a tougher run-scoring environment.  Baseball could use the volatility.  Which means that although MLB has to be pretty happy with the exciting endings that they’ve gotten on Opening Day, even the purists have to be concerned that no team scored more than 4 runs today in the first nine innings.  And I’m skeptical enough to believe the Dodgers and Padres are going to force us to wait until tomorrow to break that streak.

Extra Inning Affairs: Occurring at a Greater Rate than Ever Before?

On Saturday, June 4th, 2011, Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit a grand slam in the 8th inning off of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Logan Ondrusek to send the Reds and Dodgers to extra innings at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.  This was of great significance to a struggling and maligned Dodgers offense.  But was also more significant is that Kemp sent the Dodgers and Reds to Major League Baseball’s 100th extra inning game this season.

The 100th time that two teams and four umpires were sent to extra innings this year came on the day where MLB played its 870th game of the season, which is 36% of the way through the full season schedule.  So it’s still early, and a lot can change very quickly.  But I felt like, for sure, this season was featuring a higher rate of extra inning affairs than any other recent MLB season.  So I ran the numbers, and this is what I found:

Year	% X-Inn MLB R/G
2011	11.49%	4.21
2010	9.05%	4.38
2009	8.02%	4.61
2008	8.57%	4.65
2007	9.05%	4.8
2006	7.62%	4.86
2005	7.49%	4.59
2004	8.98%	4.81
2003	8.11%	4.73
2002	8.25%	4.62
2001	8.03%	4.78
2000	8.32%	5.14
1999	7.87%	5.08
1998	8.52%	4.79
1997	8.65%	4.77
1996	9.62%	5.04
1995	8.93%	4.85
1994	8.94%	4.92
1993	8.64%	4.6
1992	9.97%	4.12
1991	10.46%	4.31

source: baseball-reference.com

This shows the run environment alongside the percentage of games that took longer than 9 innings to decide.  X-tra inning games are happening more in 2011 than at any point in the prior 20 seasons, and by a substantial margin.  The last time that more than 10% of games went to the 10th inning happened in 1991  Furthermore the correlation between the current MLB run environment and the percentage of games that go longer than anticipated is fairly clear from this exercise.  When more teams score more runs, a higher percentage of games get decided in nine innings.  That is fairly straightforward.  The Kemp game is an anomally: grand slams in regulation typically do not take us to extra innings, they usually decide the game.

Of course, beyond the trend between run environment and extra innings, its far more difficult to establish a clear trend that we’re seeing more extra inning games now than ever before.  Let’s take that table above, and throw out the 2011 and 1991 lines.

Year	% X-Inn	MLB R/G
2010	9.05%	4.38
2009	8.02%	4.61
2008	8.57%	4.65
2007	9.05%	4.8
2006	7.62%	4.86
2005	7.49%	4.59
2004	8.98%	4.81
2003	8.11%	4.73
2002	8.25%	4.62
2001	8.03%	4.78
2000	8.32%	5.14
1999	7.87%	5.08
1998	8.52%	4.79
1997	8.65%	4.77
1996	9.62%	5.04
1995	8.93%	4.85
1994	8.94%	4.92
1993	8.64%	4.6
1992	9.97%	4.12

Here we see that the trend is actually way more clear when we throw out the numbers from 2011 and from 1991: the percentage of extra inning games in baseball is actually going down, substantially, over the last 20 years.  The outliers in the data include any time that more than 10% of baseball games go to extras in a season.  It is unlikely, given the recent sample, that more than 10% of games will go to extra innings over the rest of the season.

There is one qualification I need to make on that: it’s not unlikely that we can see all time highs for extra inning games this year IF offensive levels continue to drop over the next four months.  That in itself is unlikely for two reasons: natural offensive regression, and the warmer weather in the summer typically offering a bump to offensive totals.  But it’s been an odd MLB year to date to say the least, so it’s at least possible that offensive totals could fall between now and September.

This run environment is NOT a historical outlier with regard to producing a higher rate of 10th innings.  The outliers in this data set actually occurred when runs per game in baseball were over 5, most recently around the turn of the century (1999-2000), and also immediately post-strike (1996).  Based on the last 20 years, there should have actually been fewer extra inning games in those seasons, but, relatively speaking, there were many.

I can conclude from this research that in the last twenty years, extreme valleys in offensive numbers have created more extra inning games, which is a primary reason that we have seen a spike in long games when the run environment dips below 4.3.  But the overall trend in MLB has been away from extra innings, at least in the last 20 years.  Clearly, there are other factors at play here besides run environment on extra inning occurrences; factors that have been causing more and more games to be decided in 9 innings.  I will revisit this at the end of the season, and try to address what else is causing the downward trend in extra inning games, and whether or not circumstances have changed now in the 2011 MLB season.

Baseball’s Opening Weekend in the books, and the prediction LiveBall wants back

Jul 4, 2010; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Billy Butler (16) during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. The Angels defeated the Royals 11-0. Photo via Newscom

Four days of baseball tells you…not much about teams. What it might tell us is that we just didn’t know what we were talking about in the preseason. After the seasons’ first series, I really want to take back all those picks I made without conviction.

Specifically speaking, I feel like I just overlooked the NL Central defending champion Cincinnati Reds.  And this is an incredibly pre-mature mea culpa.  In LiveBall’s NL Central preview, I hesitantly picked the Brewers to win after expressing concern that I was picking a sucker’s bet in a weak division.  Well, the Brewers have begun 0-4, but you know, the Cardinals haven’t won either, and the Cubs didn’t get started on the right foot at Pittsburgh, while neither the Pirates or Astros can yet be taken seriously.  The team I so obviously overlooked was last years winner, the Reds, who emphatically crushed the Brewers at home in a three game set.  None of the games were close after Opening Day, when the Reds won in comeback, walk-off fashion.  The Brewers have now fallen to 0-4, and while I think they will rebound to win 80-some games easily, the assertion that there is no clear favorite in the NL Central appears wrong.  The Reds are a clear favorite.  The Brewers may be the best of the rest, but after being swept in Cincinnati, it’s the Reds that are the team to beat.

What the Brewers have shown early on is a complete lack of depth.  Corey Hart has a strained rib cage muscle, and is on the DL.  The assumption with those picking the Brewers is that the always potent Brewers lineup would “score runs.”  Of course, they traded their starting SS and potentially starting CF to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, and even though the now incumbent CF Carlos Gomez is showing some production with the bat, the Brewers simply don’t have the depth in RF with Hart out.  Even with the top four in the lineup off to a good start, the bottom of this order after Casey McGahee is dreadful.  Yuni Betancourt, an Erick Almonte/Nyjer Morgan platoon replacing Hart, and then George Kotteras and Wil Nieves at catcher.  As a 6-8 in the NL, that’s a horrendous lineup.  The Brewers will make a run when Hart and Zack Greinke come off the DL, but if the Reds play like they did last year, it’s not going to matter.  The Reds will win the division with one of the NL’s best records, and the Brewers will have to scrap for a wild card berth.  If they get that Wild Card, I still like them to go deep in the playoffs, even at 0-4 to start the season.

The weirdest series of the weekend was played in Kansas City, where the Royals won the series 3-1 winning TWO games on walkoff homers.  In the entire 2010 season, the Royals won just once on a walkoff homer, by Alex Gordon, over the Orioles the week before Buck Showalter took over.  They’ve doubled that total, and there are still 158 games to play.

One of the reason for increased walkoff homers is that the Royals never hit so many homers in a series in general.  The Royals hit six homers in the series (all but one a solo shot), and they were hit by six different players.  The Angels spent the entire series playing longball as well, going yard 9 times.  15 homers in a single series at Kauffman Stadium is a lot, even considering 4 games, and typically only happens when Royals pitching is feeling up to the task.  For the Angels to hit 7 homers of 9 homers in a three game span, losing all three games in the process says a lot about the Angels.  The weather was whacky as well, as both the Angels and Royals’ television production crews were forced to move out of “high home” position, thanks to gusting wins that blew water out of the signature fountains at Kauffman Stadium and would have potentially destroyed the cameras if left in normal position.  Water wasn’t the only thing blown around by the wind, as Bruce Chen “fastballs” also ended up traveling further than they might have otherwise, if only for effect.

The Royals’ series win could spell trouble for the Angels — the Royals rarely outscore a team in a series.  The Angels can’t trust their bullpen, can’t trust Scott Kazmir, and bat Bobby Abreu and Alberto Callaspo in a lineup of otherwise overrated hitters as they wait to bring 1B Kendrys Morales back to the lineup when he’s fully recovered from a broken leg suffered at home plate after a walkoff homer in 2010.  But the Royals feature unbelievably impressive depth in their bullpen mostly from arms under the age of 25.  Their ability to hold late leads and play defense late in games is an ability they pretty much lacked last season, and could prove to pit their decision makers in an odd dilemma: whether to push starting pitching prospects up to make a previously unfathomable run in the AL Central if they leverage a weak April schedule into a lot of early wins and a hot start.

Angels fans aren’t panicking quite like Red Sox fans after an 0-3 start.  The Rangers played longball off Red Sox pitching, and though the Red Sox will score this year, pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buccholz simply weren’t up to the task on baseball’s first weekend.  The Rangers meanwhile, threw fine in their first series without Cliff Lee on the roster, and look to be every bit the favorites in the American League this year.  The Red Sox will be fine, but maybe were exposed a bit as overrated by the masses considering better than 70% of fans expected the Red Sox to beat the other four teams in the division.  That’s a sizable majority, but the standings say: two games behind the Yankees (and three and a half behind the Orioles)!

Wrapping up, the AL East is also the place of the most meaningful early series, where the Orioles swept — yes, swept — the Tampa Bay Rays.  This blog has the Rays returning to the playoffs behind only, ahem, the Red Sox, but those chances took a big hit as all-world 3B Evan Longoria will head to the disabled list, rendering the Rays offense largely punchless.  Time to see if Ben Zobrist, John Jaso, and BJ Upton are worth the big bucks in Tampa, and it’s time for that rotation to carry them.

But the Orioles are the story of baseball in the early going, if only because their late season production last year seemed unsustainable.  At this point though, last year’s season-best finish is a reason to buy the Orioles as a potential wild card contender.  I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, but it does look like the Orioles aren’t heading to last place anytime soon, and could have the talent (particularly in the pitching staff) to hang with the Big Boys in baseball’s best division.  After all, the standings are the only thing that matters this early in the season, and we’re still waiting on the first team to beat the Orioles in 2011.  The Detroit Tigers will take another crack at pulling off such a feat tomorrow as baseball’s regular season hits high gear.

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL East

New York Yankees Derek Jeter reacts when Texas Rangers Elvis Andrus is picked off of second base in the seventh inning in game 5 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium in New York City on October 20, 2010.  UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

The AL East remains baseball’s best division.  Will we have a different winner in it than the Rays?  That’s the prediction being made here, though Rays fans aren’t going to be too disappointed in these projections.

1) Boston Red Sox (projected finish: 103-59)

The Boston Red Sox are the best team in baseball, at least, as of March 8.  Sure, they grabbed headlines with their offseason acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez (as well as being priced out of the Adrian Beltre sweepstakes).  But the Red Sox also had a pretty good season last year (by their own lofty standards), where missing the playoffs because of great seasons by the Rays and Yankees obscures that the Red Sox are one of the three or four best teams in baseball.

The team is strongest at the level of its position players.  Crawford and Gonzalez are both excellent defensive players and top of the order threats, and same for Kevin Youkilis who will be stretched a bit as a third baseman this year.  The second basemen, Dustin Pedroia, long has been strong on the defensive end, and is another middle of the order threat with the bad.  Departed catcher Victor Martinez didn’t fit in with the building plan of the Red Sox, so the weaknesses are all up the middle: C, SS, CF.  Crawford’s defensive value will be a little limited by the dimensions of Fenway park, and he possibly would have brought more value elsewhere, but for the Red Sox, it is a big deal that they, and not the Yankees, got Carl Crawford.

The pitching staff is likely to be improved as well with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett up front and Clay Buchholz/John Lackey behind them, and then Daniel Bard and Jonathon Papelbon at the back of the bullpen.  If Papelbon continues to struggle, the Red Sox could be interested in Royals closer Joakim Soria at the deadline.

2) Tampa Bay Rays (projected finish: 91-71)

The Rays replaced premium, prime-career talent that they could not afford with aging former stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.  They also traded away starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for prospects.  But to expect them to decline by more than 50 runs in run differential from 2010 vastly understates how deep of an organization the Tampa Bay Rays are.  Put simply, they might not be able to compete with Boston’s strength this year, but if they can get some development out of their young pitching staff, the Rays compare favorably with the Yankees.

The pitching rotation has to remain strong because the Rays are going to struggle to score runs on par with the Yankees or Red Sox.  They did okay last year, breaking 800 runs in a light offensive year, but they could find their lineup in the middle of the pack this year, even with Evan Longoria hitting in the middle of that lineup.

Rookie Jeremy Hellickson will join veterans David Price and James Shields to give the Rays a rotation that will be dangerous in a short playoff series, and the Rays have plenty of depth in the organization to find a quality fourth and fifth player to round out the rotation.  Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis hold those spots right now.

The Rays will have to figure out their bullpen if they want to hold off the Yankees, because the Yankees STILL have Mariano Rivera, and with him comes the peace of mind that the pen can only be so bad.  The Rays, though, have to worry about their bullpen keeping the team out of the playoffs, which should give manager Joe Maddon a funny feeling in his stomach late in games in the month of April.

3) New York Yankees (projected finish: 90-72)

The Yankees know that they have problems in their rotation, and they also know that they will eventually have to trade for a front line pitcher, and seem willing to use top prospect Jesus Montero in a deal to get that pitching help.  Montero will bring what will keep the Yankees competitive.  But for The Empire, its the the first time in a decade and a half that they will be reliant on someone coming available to keep them competitive.

In all honesty, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and AJ Burnett is just a fine top of the rotation, but theres a reason why Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia are all in camp as non-roster invitees.  The Yankees are desperate.

However, thanks to a highly productive, even more lavishly paid lineup, New York should be able to outscore most teams they play.  There’s not much to say or that needs to be said about the age of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, because the bats that will carry the team are Robinson Cano, Mark Teixiera, and Alex Rodriguez.  They are as good as any teams’ top three.  But in the meat grinder that is the AL East, that likely won’t be enough in this division, and come playoff time, the Yankees could be on the outside looking in for the second time in four years.  90 wins seems like a good projection for the Yankees this year (a 5 win decline from last year with the Red Sox improving).  But because I don’t have the Rays falling off the map, it’s not good enough for the Yankees to get back to the postseason.

4) Baltimore Orioles (projected finish: 75-87)

I’m not really a buyer in either the Orioles or the Blue Jays this year, but I think that where the Blue Jays are tearing down to build towards something better than they had last year, the Orioles seem like they are going to try to ride the improvement from last year into this year.  Which isn’t to suggest the Orioles are doomed compared to the Blue Jays, but that the Orioles have more right now (and less on the farm) than the Jays.

What they do have coming up from the minor leagues is a lot of ML ready pitching talent that could facilitate a push towards the top of the AL East.  But that’s a best case scenario.  Realistically, their hitting should rebound over a full season from last year, though the real keys to the season is that the Orioles see CF Adam Jones and C Matt Wieters into the players they thought they had in them.  If Jones and Wieters don’t hit this year, the Orioles won’t meet this projection and they won’t have much to look forward to in 2011 either.  It’s a pivotal year for them, moreso than it is for the Blue Jays.

5) Toronto Blue Jays (projected finish: 73-89)

The Blue Jays actually won 85 games last year, which you probably didn’t realize unless you were a fan.  A lot of that production was unsustainable.  The Marlins signed all-star catcher John Buck away from them.  They extended home run leader Jose Bautista because they couldn’t trade him.  They will now hope for a fraction of last year’s production.  They dealt pitcher Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for Brett Lawrie, a prospect without a position.

The pitching staff still has a lot of interesting names in it.  Brandon Morrow is a strikeout leader on the club, but walks too many batters to be an ace.  Kyle Drabek, acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade, will try to win a rotation spot in camp.  Dustin McGowan will try to hold onto his spot.  Ricky Romero might be the “best”, most established pitcher, and could start on opening day.  Marc Rzepczynski throws left handed, which is something he has going for him.

There’s still a lot of power in the Blue Jays lineup, but it would surprise no one if they lead the majors in strikeouts, wresting that title from the Diamondbacks.  Jays games, in general, will tend to feature a lot of whiffs.  That might actually be a good thing for the organization, because it means the pitching is developing, and the hitting can hold its power value even with high K totals.  It’s really the only chance they have this year.

The relative value of a Middle Infielder in top-level Baseball

February 20, 2010 2 comments

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I’m not a basketball guy by any means, but the devotion of die-hard basketball fans to the value of a big man–even when field goal percentage is at an all time high–has always struck me as a bit perplexing.  Of course, having an interior threat is a huge advantage.  In general, the best teams have the strongest interior threats.  This is because the best teams have the best players, in general.  Having four strong players can separate the great teams from the other contenders.  And I don’t think any team has perfected the five guard offense, which means that interior players are obviously valuable.  The best players in the NBA, and even in college these days, all seem to be either guards or smaller forwards.  The proliferation of the three point shooting game has been one critical element, but it appears to me that to win in today’s game, you need not only to be able to play offense on the perimeter, but that defense on the perimeter might be even more important.

I’m most definitely a football guy, as the post distribution on this here sight might have had you guessing.  In football, a sustainable running game is huge competitive advantage over teams who can’t run the ball, but the best five offenses in the game every year are all throw-first teams, and the bottom five offenses every year all lack the ability to throw the football.  Perfecting the running game can separate you from the other ten teams around the median, all of which can throw the football, but need that balance to be able to sustain drives.

Running can make the difference between winning and losing in football, but it doesn’t make the difference between the Raiders and the Chargers.  If the Raiders woke up tomorrow morning with an offense that could sustain a 4.6 YPC average, they would still not be the favorite in the division, or really even a threat.  They would become much less of a pushover for the Chiefs, but the Chargers would just do what they have always done to them (the Raiders haven’t beaten SD since 2003 — the year before Drew Brees became Drew Brees).  It seems silly to cite a declining running game as the reason for underachieving expectations in football.  Sure, the decline might have been a factor, but no team is throwing all of it’s eggs in that basket at this point.  It’s a crutch.

It’s no secret that excelling at middle infield has become sort of a forgotten art in baseball.  There are great infielders in the game today, among them Derek Jeter, and Chase Utley, and Dustin Pedroia.  2009 was a year where all sorts of second basemen and shortstops got in on the fun: Aaron Hill, Ben Zobrist, and Marco Scutaro all had excellent years by any standard.

But baseball execs do not speak with words.  They use dollars to communicate.  And the dollars show that the most valuable players in the game don’t play the middle infield.  The highest paid players in baseball do two things primarily: they pitch and they hit.  Second basemen who can hit get paid like corner outfielders…while corner outfielders who can get get paid like first basemen and top pitchers.

But the most striking thing about middle infielders and salary structure might be that, with the exception of the elite players at those positions, salary structure seems to correlate best with how long these guys have been with their organization.  Orlando Hudson signed with Minnesota last week for one year-$5 million just a year after signing with the LA Dodgers for one year-$3.4 million.  The point of mentioning this is not to suggest that $5 million dollars is chump change or that Hudson should be paid more for what he offers.  Hudson has the 6th highest contract value on the Twins according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.  He and shortstop JJ Hardy are about $2 million behind Carl Pavano in 2010 salary.  And the Twins are one of the only teams in baseball who value their middle infielders in the tier right behind their superstars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.  They are also, coincidentally, a team that is quite comfortable simply going with farmhands at the position year after year if they don’t have an “elite” option.

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Hudson is a similar player in career value to A’s second baseman Mark Ellis, who is the third highest paid player on cash-strapped Oakland.  Ellis is one of two players for the A’s who commanded a contract extension beyond arbitration years.  Oakland, historically, plays the baseball market very well (if you’re reading this article, you probably won’t ask for a reference regarding that claim), but it’s very safe to say that Mark Ellis probably would not have been able to beat $12 million on the open market without signing for 4+ years.  I’m confident this is because, while even in a bad year Ellis can justify his contract (value of a marginal win aside), the league wide perception is that even the league’s worst teams have a farmhand that is worth at least as much as Ellis.

Placido Polanco was able to land 3 years-$18 million this offseason, which is obviously a bigger contract than Ellis or Hudson have been able to land, but not on a per-year basis.  Polanco is well worth the money spent, but one of the biggest underlying factors in the move for Philadelphia is that now, Chase Utley can be moved to a position where his contract doesn’t stand out quite as much from the rest of the pack.  The Polanco deal actually decreases the average contract for a second baseman significantly.

Right now, the second highest-paid second baseman in the game is Robinson Cano, who is something like the 7th highest paid position player on his own team.  The first and third largest second baseman contracts in MLB history (according to Cot’s, and excluding Utley) belong to Brian Roberts, a former Orioles farmhand turned superstar, turned overpaid leadoff man.  In fact, the most valuable second basemen in the game tend to be as noteworthy on the open market as the light-hitting second basemen whose only true value to a baseball team is their ability to play other positions.

To this point, the focal point has been on second baseman, but the same phenomenon is found in the shortstops market as well.  The biggest difference is that overall salary structure is much higher for the shortstops because having the ability to stand out there at short and hit homers has created an overvalued player of sorts. Michael Young, the player I have linked to here, has actually exceeded his contract in terms of marginal value every year since coming up in 2002, according to FanGraphs.  But at the price of a premium shortstop, Young is now a third baseman coming off a career year with the bat.  It seems doubtful he will ever be worth the yearly value of his contract for it’s duration.

Like at second base, there’s no market here below the elite level (Jose Reyes/Miguel Tejada/Hanley Ramirez/Jimmy Rollins/etc).  Marco Scutaro got two years-$12.5 million on the open market from Boston, and he was the best of the free agent class by far.  Those who make it to the elite level are not there because of defense, and tend to be moved to a position that maximized the value that teams have overpaid for.  Derek Jeter is a rare exception, for reasons that have to do in large part with intangibles.

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While teams have been quicker to pull the hook on shortstops than on their second baseman (based on anecdotal, but pretty clear turnover at the SS position), teams are still by and large satisfied with limited production at the position as long as the incumbent can field the position.  Turnover at the shortstop position tends to happen not when a player isn’t hitting, because each organization is loaded with shortstops who can’t hit above 7th or 8th in the major league lineup.  But when a player ceases to be a true shortstop, and is redefined as a light-hitting baseball player without a position (not to be confused with the much more valuable utility player who can still play a poor man’s shortstop off the bench), then teams move on without that player.  This tends not to happen as much with second baseman.

Turnover, however, is not really what I’m talking about.  Like the second baseman, the salary structure is completely out of whack at shortstop.  The aforementioned Twins have in consecutive years 1) extended farmhand Nick Punto for $4 million a year for two years, and then 2) not only offered arbitration to Stephen Harris, but bought out his first two years.  The only way either Punto or Harris will see extended time at shortstop this year is if a much more justifiable gamble on JJ Hardy doesn’t pay off, but both moves are still bad for optimal salary structure.  Meanwhile, defensive whiz Adam Everett has now played for the Tigers for $1 million and then $1.55 million in consecutive years, both open market contracts.  Jack Wilson, another defense-first player, will make $5 million a year over the next two years for the Mariners (he at least knows how to hold a bat).  Another open market contract.

These shortstops are coming on the extreme cheap for two reasons: because players are receiving extensions through arbitration for simply being a good organizational soldier, and because the obscenely low middle infielder replacement level standard seemingly justifies any extension on a shortstop (you’re still the exception here, Dayton Moore).  Organizations across the country have always been thin on shortstops who are actually prospects as shortstops, but pretty much everyone who plays the position for a whole year finishes with positive value, based on his positioning if nothing else.

Players who actually provide defensive and offensive value at shortstop (such as Scutaro) should be in much higher demand than the market suggests they are, but middle infielders are simply not paid as other baseball regulars, at least not to be regulars.  It’s the reason that Scott Boras can look at Dave Dombrowski in the eye and suggest that 2-3 WAR player Johnny Damon should receive his $7 million dollars in a lump sum instead of deferred payments, and the team that couldn’t afford (2.5-3 WAR) Polanco can’t just laugh in his face.  Damon is being offered more money for the 2010 season than either Curtis Granderson or Polanco made one year ago, has no other offers on the table, and yet, it’s the contract’s net present value–not dollar amount–that is keeping the sides apart.

Middle infield wins and corner outfield/infield wins are simply not valued on the same scale.  Having organizational goodwill does nothing for an outfielder that cannot hit or field.  Replacement level outfielders are much more likely to be non-tendered in their arbitration years than similar valued infielders.  It’s simple: outfielders, third basemen, and first basemen are still the currency of baseball.  While the defensive market is valued pretty well on the whole, players are still paid by their value to a batting order.  And while there is clearly a difference between players that hit 7th, 8th, or 9th in a strong lineup, and those who hit there in a weak one, the differences are not reflected monetarily in players that can’t hit higher in the order on that weaker lineup.

Which returns us to the original question: are middle infielders in baseball the equivalent of the post defender in modern basketball, or run defenders in modern football?  Are the differences between the best baseball teams and worst baseball teams pretty much independent of the players who play in the middle infield for those teams?  I ran a quick regression on shortstops and second baseman 2009 WAR vs. team wins, and I found that, overall, there’s a weak correlation between this one year sample, and team wins in 2009 (r-squared = 0.21).  The correlation is significantly stronger with shortstops than with second baseman.  It’s not a very large sample, but based on the evidence, it seems tentatively okay to conclude that teams do win largely independent of their two middle infielders, and of second baseman in particular.  That’s not saying much, but you could probably predict wins a lot better looking at the value of a team’s three best hitters or three best pitchers than their middle infielders.

So when you evaluate a move such as the Cardinals taking OF Skip Schumaker and turning him into a full time second baseman, you can kind of see the attitude by baseball executives towards those middle infielders encapsulated.  The move means little in terms of good-for-team or bad-for-team, rather, it’s an example of a team going out of its way to keep a player within the organization.  Schumaker didn’t make very much difference in the outcome of the NL Central–which was won by St. Louis.  The Cards failed to advance in the playoffs because Albert Pujols slugged .300 and Chris Carpenter and Joel Pinero combined to give up 8 earned runs in 9 innings.  Maybe if they invested heavily in middle infielders, they could have made it a round further.  Or maybe next time, Pujols will hit two homers in three games.  Superstars will always decide the outcome of small sample occurrences, and the available evidence suggest that, while the salary structure of the middle infielder might be off, it’s probably not worth holding your breath until they get equal treatment under salary law.