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American League Two-a-Days: Oakland Athletics

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Oakland Athletics

2013 record: 96-66
2013 runs scored: 767
2013 runs against: 625
2013 pythag. record: 96-66

On June 1, 2012, no team in baseball was more inept at scoring runs than the Oakland Athletics.  Since, no team has been better.

The Athletics were a complete team last year: offense, defense, rotation, bullpen.  They were my pick to represent the AL in the World Series.  They led 2-1 and had a lead late in the game at Detroit in Game 4 of the ALDS, but coughed up the lead, then went back to Oakland in Game 5 and ran into a determined Justin Verlander.  Season over.

It will be nearly impossible for the A’s to repeat 2013, a year in which basically everything went right in the regular season.

Who is having a good spring?

C Stephen Vogt, SS Jed Lowrie, and OF Josh Reddick are the regulars having strong starts, although no one is standing out offensively for the A’s more than 1Bs Brandon Moss, and Daric Barton.  LHP Scott Kazmir, an aggressive offseason acquisition from the Indians, looked good in his outing.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Athletics

They were really excellent last season.  The A’s have no real offensive weaknesses in their lineup.  Alberto Callaspo may not be a great idea of an everyday second baseman, but if you’re willing to live with the defensive hit of him and Jed Lowrie up the middle, the A’s can put offensive assets in at all 9 spots in the lineup.  Sometimes they’ll go with Eric Sogard at second who doesn’t really have much power, but the A’s idea of a nine hitter is a .322 on base guy.  Or as the Yankees call it, a top of the order guy.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Athletics

There are a lot of regression factors with the defense and the bullpen that will hammer the A’s this year.  It’s still conceivable that the A’s could lead the league in run prevention in 2014.  They do play home games below sea level and with a ton of foul territory.  But they are looking up at the Royals and the Tigers in that regard.  And the rotation does leave a lot to be desired, although part of Billy Beane’s plan is to always trade off starting pitchers before they get expensive.

The A’s are overall a very good defensive team, but there is a delicate balance between having nine hitters in the lineup and having guys who can defend the middle of the diamond.  The A’s have both types of players on their roster, but baseball rules require them to play only one at a time.

Oakland has never really invested in their farm system very much, and while other organizations can pull guys up at mid-season to help the push for the playoffs, the A’s usually are stuck going bargain shopping outside the organization.  Every once in a while you can pluck Alberto Callaspo or John Jaso, but it isn’t a reliable way to cheaply improve the roster.  At least not during the season.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Athletics is 38.4, 8th in the American League.  Their 23.9 Batters WAR projection is 3rd in the AL. Their 14.5 Pitchers WAR projection is 8th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Athletics to win 86 games, a 10 win decline over last season.  Josh Donaldson is the Indian with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.5.  Scott Kazmir is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.4 WAR.

The Athletics vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Oakland Athletics

It is hard to build a preseason favorite without stars, and the 2014 A’s aren’t an exception.  This is not the preseason favorite that the Tigers and the Red Sox are, even though the A’s were just as good as those teams last year.  The truth is, when making projections, teams that feature Pedroia/Ortiz and Cabrera/Verlander are just starting ahead of a team that’s best two players are Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp.

My prediction for the 2014 Athletics is right in line with what the numbers think of them: 86-76. This is a prediction that the A’s can easily outperform.  There is better than 86 win talent on the roster.  But even as sensitive to the concept of replacement level as the A’s are and have always been, a team that is built this way can endure long stretches of ineffective hitting or pitching.  And if the whole team is failing to produce, there’s not one thing the general manager or field manager can do to get the dead weight out of the lineup.  Last year the A’s had the benefit of a strong start to finish effort from the entire roster, but if they don’t get a similar effort from this group, they will fall short of the 90-win mark.

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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)

Rebuilding Review: Better off as the A’s or the Twins in the long term?

Some two(ish) weeks ago, I was studying the payroll structures of a select number of American League clubs.

The current perception of the Minnesota Twins has changed drastically since the end of the 2010 season.  The Twins won the AL Central in 2010, and then were the favorites to repeat in 2011.  Instead, they ended up with the second overall draft pick.

The Oakland Athletics slashed payroll again in 2012, managing to find trading partners for both of their top two pitchers, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez.  The payroll freed up by those moves allowed them to make a play for 26 year old Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes.  The A’s still sit in a flexible payroll position for the future.  The Twins, meanwhile, have some payroll coming off the books after this season, but it is debatable whether they can sustain an 100 million payroll.  They may still need to slash.

And that leads to the million dollar question: which franchise is better off?  Obviously, if we stretch this out long enough, the Twins have all the advantages: a brand new ballpark, a better TV deal, a larger market, and would enjoy long term advantages over the Athletics.  But my focus is more on the shorter-term, long term.  The immediate future.  I want to examine the farm systems and the contract situations, as well as the ability to make a splash and take the step forward to the contention and decide whether the A’s or Twins are in better position.

The Twins are set for a bit of payroll relief in 2013, but the relief is not coming from the ranks of the unproductive players.  Carl Pavano’s contract is up, but the Twins are desperate for pitching help.  Scott Baker has a player option for $9.25 million.  That will be picked up if he’s healthy.  Francisco Lirano is a free agent.  Those are the three top pitchers in the Twins rotation.  That is where all but $3 million of the projected salary relief for the Twins is coming from.  That’s coming from Ryan Doumit’s one year deal.

If they opt for salary relief and rebuilding, the Twins rotation will be in dire straights and it’s not clear exactly how much free money they’ll have to go get more pitching.  The reality is that the Twins will probably pick up Baker’s option, and attempt to make a trade to acquire additional pitching, as well as bargain hunting for starting pitching (or really any pitching).  They might find a willing trading partner in the A’s.

The Athletics have the market cornered on young, cheap (mostly right handed) pitching.  Their minor league system is flooded with arms, and while they don’t know right now if they have a developmental ace in their pocket, I think the A’s are of the mindset that ace pitchers are overvalued by the market.  The model the A’s currently use is that they need to have strong defense up the middle and throughout the outfield, and then control pitchers with decent movement will be able to get ground balls, prevent homers, and get deep into the game.  Good defense, according to the A’s model has an exponential effect on run prevention efficiency.  Ace pitching merely gives you a shot to win once every five days.  In other words, it makes sense for the A’s to not pay for pitching when they can let other teams develop it and then acquire it, and then trade it off when it is established.

The A’s plan on offense is far less clear, and as defense becomes more properly valued, they’re going to need to spend some money in order to improve this group.  You can see the plan if you look closely enough: develop cornerstone players at premier defensive positions (Kurt Suzuki, Cliff Pennington, Jermile Weeks, Yoenis Cespedes), and then fill in the rest.  The problem is that, as a group, those players have been amongst the biggest underachievers for the A’s.  For the rest of the season, A’s GM Billy Beane must critically evaluate whether those players need more time to develop, or whether he must go and get better core players on offense.

The salary structure for Oakland leaves plenty of flexibility for 2013, but it’s not clear what kind of opportunities the A’s will have.  Brandon Inge, Brandon McCarthy, and Bartolo Colon are eligible for free agency.  They can replace all three of those players internally, and like the Twins won’t be killed in terms of arbitration raises.  But right now, the offense needs one or two more core players (perhaps at premium defensive positions) before they can handle 162 games of contention and that’s going to cost some money.

The Twins are pretty much stuck with this offensive lineup for another year.  There’s very little help ready in the minors for the Twins, though top prospect Miguel Sano is doing well in A ball.  But after finding Josh Willingham in free agency, and getting a majority of Justin Morneau’s power back, it’s hard to argue that their offense is broke.  The Twins’ defense is broken.  Any help they can get for Denard Span or Ryan Doumit at the deadline would be appreciated.

The 2012 Oakland A’s are probably a better team than the 2012 Minnesota Twins, because they do a much better job of preventing runs compared to the job the Twins do scoring runs.  The Twins’ run prevention is irreparably broken, maybe even more so than the A’s.  Furthermore, the A’s run prevention machine is more sustainable than the recent improvements made by the Twins offense, because the Twins are almost certainly going to have to sell some pieces of that offense for prospects.

And yet, beyond the 2013 season, I actually think the Twins are closer to meaningful contention than the A’s are.  It depends on a number of factors, like Joe Mauer’s ability to provide good innings at catcher, the Twins ability to develop any near-majors prospects they trade for, the development of bats like Trevor Plouffe and Ben Revere.  All of those things are risky propositions for the Twins.  But the A’s need to find some source of infield offense this year before they can go into 2013 planning to compete with the Rangers and Angels.

And look, even though the Twins found Josh Willingham at the very reasonable price of 3 years/$21 million, there’s no guarantee the A’s can find a similar bat at the same price.  After all, the Twins signed Willingham because the A’s opted not to match that price tag.

In the very short term, I like the A’s.  Maybe down the road, I think the A’s will be successful with this rebuilding.  But over the next two to three years, I think the Twins, even without a great amount of payroll flexibility, are the easier organization to return to prominence when compared to the Athletics.

And both should enjoy more success than the Mariners.

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.

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL West

Sep 27, 2010; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starter Brett Anderson (49) reacts after surrendering a double to Los Angeles Angels left fielder Juan Rivera (not pictured) in the second inning at Angel Stadium. Photo via Newscom

The AL’s truncated division rounds out our preview of the American League.  I have the guard officially changing in the AL West after the Texas Rangers got all the way to the world series in 2010, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk.

1) Texas Rangers (projected finish: 91-71)

For an encore after 2010, I am picking the Rangers to finish 20 games above .500 and to win the AL West.  It won’t be a comfortable margin.  The 91 wins would be one game additional to their 2010 record, and they’d be doing it without their most significant loss, Cliff Lee.  Probability might actually suggest that the Rangers, who added Adrian Beltre in the offseason, would be better off than this, but there is a small adjustment in this prediction for a slow start with the unsettled pitching staff.

The offense is led by the duo of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton in the outfield, and even considering the effect of the home ballpark on offensive totals, they are in the running to be the highest scoring offense in the AL.  While it’s easy to say now, this lineup would be even more dangerous with Justin Smoak in it.  Smoak was dealt away for Cliff Lee last year.  Lee will bring pair of first round draft picks back at least due to the MLBs compensation system, but the Rangers are ready to win right now.

The rotation, at least right away, will be lead by C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Naftali Feliz.  Naftali Feliz?  The Rangers are trying to stretch him out in an attempt to replace Cliff Lee in the rotation.  This means that: the back of the Rangers rotation is absolutely wide open, and could be a limitation on their ability to compete.  As poor as manager Ron Washington’s bullpen management was in the world series, the Rangers do have a bevy of arms to turn to to make it a strength over an entire season.

This team is still better prepared to compete in the short series format than the regular season, and it won’t take much in terms of underachievement to put the Rangers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

2) Oakland Athletics (projected record: 88-74)

Another thing you probably didn’t realize about last season in the MLB: the A’s finished with 81 wins, second in the AL West, and tied with the Tigers for the 8th best finish in the AL.  Yes, the playoff-contending Detroit Tigers won just as many games as the A’s did last year.  This year the A’s take the next step.

The bar for making the playoffs in the AL, according to the projections right here, is going to be 91 wins.  At an expectation of 88 wins, the A’s may come up just short, but what they have going for them is that they have two ways of getting in if they can add help at the deadline: the AL Wild Card and AL West title look to be about equally obtainable this year.

They’ll have to get over 88 wins to do it, but with a strong season by Brett Anderson (above), or either David DeJesus or Chris Carter, and the A’s will have enough offense to support a pitching staff that just doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the youngest, and best, in the majors.

3) Los Angeles Angels (projected finish: 74-88)

The Angels have a good shot to be better than last year when they won just 80 games.  Adding Vernon Wells makes them a little better, though not by as much as you would think if you just plugged Wells’ 2010 numbers into centerfield for the Angels.  They had a comparable offensive threat in Mike Napoli who they couldn’t get a great number of at bats for, and his strong bat is who Wells will replace.

Kendry(s) Morales will be healthy this upcoming year, meaning the Angels get their best hitter back, and Alberto Callaspo should be much better as a full time second and third baseman than he was last season.  The Angels should again feature an above average lineup, although they are counting on sustained production from an aging right fielder, Torii Hunter.

The pitching staff might let them down.  Dan Haren can still get it done in this league, but his results the last two years have been closer to a middle of rotation pitcher than a top guy.  Jered Weaver is the team’s ace, and Ervin Santana is a nice no. 3.  I don’t know what the Angels are planning to do if Scott Kazmir flames out again, they simply lack the farm depth to not get drilled two out of every five games unless Kazmir can return to form.  And I think that deficiency will take them out of the running before long.

4) Seattle Mariners (projected finish: 65-97)

For the Mariners, it wouldn’t appear that a significant regression to the mean is coming for their league-worst MLB offense (impressive, for an AL team that doesn’t have to hit its pitcher).  Some improvement should come from guys like Chone Figgins.  But an aging Ichiro was already a pretty good hitter on a horrible team last year, and marginal decreases in his on-base ability might wash out regression from Figgins.

The onus will be on guys like Milton Bradley and Justin Smoak to pull the Mariners out of an offensive tailspin.  If they can, they actually have a pretty good shot at getting into the divisional race.  Credit Felix Hernandez, now unquestionably the best pitcher in the American League.

The Mariners are going to be able to prevent runs this year, but without quality pitching depth, most of that prevention will be full-season effects of playing 81 games at SafeCo Field.  This is a good defensive team, so it’s not time to cut every player on the “everyday starter” side, but they still only have 2/3 of an outfield with Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro, and the infield offers zero pop, and nowhere is that problem worse than at catcher.

The Angels are a far more talented team, but if the Mariners can do the small things much better than last season, and King Felix has another great season, the Mariners can make a push towards everyone else in the AL West this season.

How Legit are the A’s?

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Coming off a weekend sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the A’s have clawed their way back to a .500 record in the AL West.  While being 7.0 games back in July to a team that has just acquired Cliff Lee to bolster it’s pitching rotation pushes the limit of the term “contender”, my interest in the A’s is purely one of legitimacy.  Are they really a .500 or better baseball team after four straight seasons at or near the bottom of the AL West standings?

Their run record thinks so.  At 389 runs scored against 377 runs against, 2010 marks the first year that the A’s have manged to succeed in becoming a run prevention team.  But Billy Beane spent many crucial millions of dollars this offseason to upgrade his outfield defense, and through the first half of the season, the OF defense was the achilies heel of the run prevention unit.

A healthy Coco Crisp makes the A’s a much, much better team, as CF has been the position which caused the A’s defense a lot of the gains it has made in the infield.  Crisp was the expensive FA acquisition (Ben Sheets aside) at $5MM for the 2010 season, and the A’s biggest offseason issue will likely be to replace his production in center.  While the outfield defense has underachieved expectations, a primary trio of Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Gabe Gross really gives the A’s a much improved defense going forward.

The infield defense needs to find a way to help replace the declining range of Mark Ellis, who the A’s are now giving multiple days off to a week in order to keep his legs in playing shape.  Adam Rosales has been something of a revelation as a defender, the Reds used him as a third baseman primarily, but he’s clearly more comfortable in the middle infield.  He’s taking the plate appearences that belonged to Adam Kennedy last year, and given his .855 minor league OPS in the Reds organization, ace utility player seems like his floor at this point.  Clearly, the A’s weren’t in the dark on his acquisition: they paid $1.3 million to acquire him from the Reds by paying out the last year of Willie Tavares’ contract, a player they had no interest in.  While his defense might be a mirage, the offense could get better from here.

Rosales hasn’t been asked to play third base because Kevin Kouzmanoff has transformed himself into one of the most sought-after players at the trade deadline.  He leads all major league third basemen in UZR this year.  He plays next to a plus defensive shortstop in Cliff Pennington, who may not be the future of the SS position in Oakland with Grant Green waiting, but is a product of the system on a team filled of outside acquisitions.

The team’s best position player is Catcher Kurt Suzuki, widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and owner of perhaps the most remarkably consistent batting lines in baseball: 269/326/401/727 for his career.  Suzuki is arbitration eligible next year for the first time, and could be the next Athletic to earn himself a contract extension.

I touched on the disappointing nature of the outfield defense above, and how it’s likely to improve in the second half.  If it does, the A’s could give up fewer runs than any other team in baseball in the season’s final two and a half months.  This is because the rotation has been fantastic all year.  Injuries have ravaged the A’s rotation, where the starting five were supposed to be:

  1. LH Gio Gonzalez
  2. RH Ben Sheets
  3. LH Brett Anderson
  4. RH Justin Duchscherer
  5. RH Trevor Cahill/LH Dallas Braden

Except right from the second week of April, Brett Anderson and Justin Duchscherer weren’t healthy.  Duchscherer rushed back from the DL, hurt himself again, and will miss the rest of the year.  Anderson is getting near his return date, but he only lasted three starts last time he returned before heading to the DL again with a case of elbow tendonitis.  Ben Sheets has been a disgustingly terrible investment the whole year.

With the rotation in shambles, a funny thing happened to the A’s rotation: Dallas Braden, thought to be on the fringe of the rotation, achieved perfection in his May start against the Rays.  Braden’s season since then has been far less publicized, but he’s emerged as a legitimate no. 2 type pitcher on a team that is loaded with depth.  Braden hasn’t been a big strike out guy at any point in his career (only 6 of his outs in his perfect game were via punchout), but he’s no longer living dangerously with men on base: his walk rate has dropped to a career low 1.53/9 IP, and his HR rate has remained below 1/9 IP, which is allowing him to “pitch to contact” without pitching into hard, costly contact.

Trevor Cahill would have lost his spot in the rotation had it come to it, but thanks to the injuries in the pitching staff, he’s overcome some early struggles to post a ground ball rate at 55% on the year, best in the big leagues among starters.  Cahill is starting to learn to strike guys out and emerge as a legit mid-rotation pitcher on a good big league ballclub.  Former top White Sox Prospect Gio Gonzalez has become the team’s ace.  His stuff has always been electric, but his problems with the long ball had kept him from success — until now.  A 0.71 HR Rate is well above average, and even further above expectation for Gonzalez this year.

That big three has been supported by some quality spot starts from young Vin Mazzaro.  On next years team, without the injuries, Mazzaro is a quality long-reliever.  Here, he’s given the A’s about 50 IP of starting pitching allowing fewer than 4 runs per start.  With this much pitching depth (and Brett Anderson’s return just a week away), Sheets won’t be brought back next season, but he very well might make a difference in the second half: his mid-fours ERA is sustainable, and his low HR rate should have taken a turn for the better pitching below sea level, but was surprisingly high in the first half.

The A’s are one of just a couple of baseball clubs that don’t have to do anything with the pitching staff in the offseason to have one of the best rotations in the league next year.  They are already at that level despite an unfair number of injuries.  Their test will be finding some offense to make a run at a wide open division next year.  The Conor Jackson acquisition from Arizona was an attempt at this.  The team also brought Jack Cust back to be their DH.  1B Daric Barton and Rosales should both be near the top of the A’s lineup next year, as should Suzuki, but that’s a whole bunch of open spots on the roster that need to be filled with offensive improvements.  The A’s farm system is pitching-heavy, though you’d think that 1B prospect Chris Carter (acquired in the Dan Haren deal from the White Sox via the D-Backs) isn’t going to have to wait too much longer for his first taste of major league action — we’re probably a month away.

The moves made this offseason to replace (or extend) guys like Crisp, Kouzmanoff, and Gabe Gross will determine how successful the A’s are in the future, but right now with them, the A’s are a legitimate .500, and probably will improve just a little in the second half.  They’re only relevant in the playoff picture if the Rangers collapse four out of every five days, but the organization is in a good spot, a much better place than they seemed to be just one year ago.

Categories: MLB, Stats Tags:

Major League Baseball off to Fun Start

April 8, 2010 1 comment

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At the conclusion of tonights games, all teams in major league baseball will have concluded their opening series.  And while there’s no meaningful player or team-specific information that can be dragged out of a three game sample (not to mention it’s too small of a sample for even mainstream columnists to react to), that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be said for the first series of the baseball season.

Last night, the Royals, Pirates, and A’s all won extra inning thrillers, despite collectively being picked to finish in last place (the only thing I could think of that they had in common).  Kansas City and Pittsburgh have followed up this effort with crushing losses, but regardless, the difference in each team’s positioning shouldn’t be understated.  In July, the outcome of these games will be basically irrelevant.  But because of those extra inning wins: the A’s open up their 2010 season by jumping out ahead of the AL’s most competitive division, the Royals narrowly avoid a crippling 0-3 start by the skins of their teeth (with the Red Sox coming to the K tomorrow for 3 games), and the Pirates are out in front of the NL Central…a division they could win if they are better than expected.  The action provided late Wednesday night could have helped to reinforce popular preseason opinion if those games had broke differently, instead, it now challenges analysts to question what they might have thought to be true.

So, what’s with the Mariners and the Dodgers, why aren’t they beating inferior opponents?  Well, probably nothing.  Three games in baseball don’t mean much of anything, at least from the favored-panic perspective.  Six or seven games?  Now you’re talking about 4% of the season.  In the scheme of a six month season, April statistics mean next to nothing, so a fraction of April is irrelevant, but there is never a good time for a perceived contender to underachieve.  When the Detroit Tigers lost their first seven games in 2008, after being projected to win or finish just out of first in the central, that seven game sample was not considered meaningless.  It’s not a probable outcome that a good baseball team will lose even six consecutive games at any point during the season, much less when everyone is healthy.  Baseball is not supposed to be a game where one game can ruin a season, not really even in the playoffs (exception: play-in games), but you try to find me a sport where a catastrophic week and a day or two doesn’t completely change a team’s prospectus.

The point is this: for some perceived contenders, there will be added pressure to play like contenders this upcoming weekend.  You know, in the middle of April.  That, I think, is what makes baseball more like the NFL (exciting start-to-finish dependence on winning results), than the NBA (good teams get high seeds, bad teams can wait until March to kick it into gear).  Four playoff spots per league help that.  A division can’t be won in April, or May, or June, but it can certainly be lost.