Archive for September, 2011

The Yankees’ Preferred ALDS Foe

It would seem to be an easy choice. After all, in the 2010 ALCS the New York Yankees were thumped in six games by the Texas Rangers. So it follows that the Yankees, in the 2011 postseason, would prefer to avoid the incumbent American League champs for as long as possible — if not entirely.

Of course, with the AL wild card almost certain to come from the East Division, that means the Yankees will play either the Detroit Tigers or those menacing Rangers in the ALDS. Right now, Texas has a one-game lead on Detroit, and if that holds, the Yankees will face the Tigers. And while that might seem like good news for the Bronx Bombers, it’s actually not. In fact, the Rangers are a far more accommodating matchup for the Yankees than the Tigers.

Is this just idle talk from the idle contrarian? Far from it. In this case, the numbers bear it out.

First and most obviously are the regular-season results. This season, the Yankees are 7-2 against the Rangers with a run differential of plus-27. Against the Tigers, meantime, the Yankees are 3-4 with a run differential of minus-3.

The Yankees’ offense, of course, is a power attack. They pace the majors in homers (217) by a spacious margin. More specifically, when Yankees hitters put the ball in the air, the ball tends to cross the outfield fence quite often, at least in relative terms. When it comes to home runs per fly ball, the Yankees lead the majors, again with a cushion.

All these tendencies of New York hitters wouldn’t be terribly relevant if they didn’t dovetail quite nicely with the tendencies of Texas pitchers. Miracle of miracles, it turns out they do! The Texas staff ranks fourth in the 14-team AL in fly-ball rate, which, one may surmise, is not a good thing when facing the Yankees. Worse still is that the Rangers’ staff yields the third-highest HR/FB rate in the AL. All of that, to summon a related metaphor, is in the Yankees’ wheelhouse.

Some of that latter figure is, of course, owing to the character of the Rangers’ home ballpark, but we’re not concerned with neutral context in this instance. Rather, we’re concerned with how the Rangers’ staff will fare against the cloutin’ Yankees lineup in homer-friendly Arlington and almost-as-homer-friendly Yankee Stadium. The expectation based on recent history is: not well.

On the flip side, the Rangers’ offense is much like New York’s in that Texas batters hit home runs (second to the Yanks in the majors) and hit a high rate of homers per fly ball (also second to the Yanks in the majors). However, the Yankees’ staff isn’t similarly inclined to help them out. Yankees pitchers, unlike their Rangers counterparts, keep the ball on the ground (second-lowest fly-ball percentage in the AL) and do a significantly better job when it comes to preventing home runs on fly balls. And if this series comes to pass, then it will likely come to just that.

Depending on how the Rangers structure their ALDS rotation, the Yankees could face a lefty four times in a potential set that goes the full five games. In a five-game series, the Yanks would face lefty ace C.J. Wilson twice and fellow lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, provided Holland and Harrison are both part of the ALDS rotation. That’s four lefties in five games. At a minimum, the Yankees would face a left-handed starter three times in a five-game series against Texas.

The significance, as you might have guessed, is that the Yankees have crushed left-handed pitching this season. In fact, Yankees batsmen lead the AL versus lefties in … deep breath … home runs (there’s that one again), OBP, SLG (and OPS!), wOBA, wRC+, wRAA and HR/FB (there’s that one again). Or, stated another way, they lead the AL versus lefties in quite a lot of things. This is not good news for Texas.

And what of those alternative Tigers? Contrary to what the Yankees would prefer, Detroit pitchers do not give up many fly balls and do not surrender many home runs on the fly balls they do permit. Furthermore, the Tigers will have no lefties in their playoff rotation. Plus, there’s the whole “two lethal doses of Justin Verlander in a short series” consideration.

So despite what you might think, the Yankees should be pulling for the Tigers this week so that they can play the defending AL champs in the ALDS.

A Case for Desmond Jennings as AL ROY

Barring an epic meltdown in the season’s final week, Craig Kimbrel is almost certain to take home the National League Rookie of the Year award, and rightfully so – he’s been the best reliever in baseball this year. However, the picture is much more crowded over in the American League, where Mark Trumbo, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda, and Jordan Walden all lead AL rookies in at least one category, and will likely all get support when the ballots are cast.

While those five each have counting stats that stand out from the crowd, none of them have made the same impact as Tampa Bay outfielder Desmond Jennings. Because the Rays opted to keep him in Triple-A until July 23rd, Jennings has only played in 56 games, far short of the record for fewest games played by a Rookie of the Year winner – Ryan Howard’s 88 games played in 2005. However, since getting called up, Jennings has been one of the best players in the game, and his output has helped push the Rays back into playoff contention.

At the plate, Jennings has posted a 147 wRC+ (meaning his offensive performance was 47 percent better than league average), second best among AL rookies. That mark trails only Toronto’s Brett Lawrie, who managed to play just 43 games in Toronto due to injuries. For comparison, Jacoby Ellsbury is going to get MVP votes, and he’s posted a 148 wRC+ this season. What Jennings lacks in quantity, he has made up for in quality, performing at the same level as most of the game’s superstars.

It’s easy to dismiss Jennings as a viable candidate based on the fact that he’s only played in the majors for the final two months of the season, but the reality is that the voters have a history of rewarding terrific performances in smaller doses. Howard won them over in 2005 by swatting 22 home runs down the stretch for the Phillies, Buster Posey captured the award last year despite not joining the Giants until early June, and perhaps most tellingly, relief pitchers have been heavily represented among recent winners.
If Kimbrel wins the NL trophy as expect, he will join Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey, Huston Street, and Kazuhiro Sasaki as relievers to take home the award since the year 2000. In each case, the voters focused on how dominant they were in a smaller sample, choosing them over position players and starting pitchers who played in a far greater percentage of their team’s innings.

Number of Batters Faced in ROY Season

Neftali Feliz (2010): 269
Andrew Bailey (2009): 323
Huston Street (2005): 306
Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000): 265

Closers have routinely been rewarded for their excellence in retiring around 300 batters in a season. With six games remaining, Jennings has already come to the plate 254 times this year, and will end the year with more plate appearances than batters faced for either Feliz or Sasaki in the years their excellence was rewarded. If we include his time spent as a defender as well (he’s made 105 putouts as an outfielder), it’s clear that he’s been directly involved in as many run saving situations as any of the closers who have been won the award.

Voters have established that this level of quantity is sufficient for recognition if the dominance is clear enough in a shorter number of appearances. Well, in the last 20 years, no American League rookie with at least 250 plate appearances has posted a better wRC+ than Jennings 147 mark this year. Even expanding to the National League, the only rookies to post a higher mark than what Jennings has put up are Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, and Mike Piazza.
Clearly, Jennings has played at a level that would have made him the obvious choice had the Rays called him up earlier. So, now, the question is simply whether a financially motivated decision to keep him in the minors should be held against Jennings, or whether his late season run of greatness should be enough to garner consideration along with those who played at a lower level over a longer period of time.

With Howard and Posey, the voters have clearly shown that they are willing to consider players who spent a good chunk of their season in the minors, only to come up and play well in the second half of the season. They’ve also rewarded four closers for seasons in which other qualified candidates had much larger amounts of playing time. The recent history of the Rookie of the Year balloting shows that quality can trump quantity, and in the American League this season, that should hold true as well.

Schedule May Give Sox Edge Over Rays

There is a time for measured, philosophic calm, and there is a time for unrestrained panic. In Boston, it is time for the latter.

Despite a recent bevy of championships in a bevy of different sports, Boston and environs remain, to a large extent, home to the stricken Calvinist. As such, what’s unfolded over the past several days has left Boston Red Sox fans lost in a state of misery and in the embrace of worst-case scenarios.

What, exactly, has unfolded over the last several days? Those plucky Tampa Bay Rays, despite being outfitted with a payroll that’s roughly 26 percent of Boston’s, have hawked down the Red Sox in the AL wild-card chase and now sit two games back of Boston. Central to those developments is the fact that Tampa Bay has taken five of six from the Red Sox.

So how did such a thing come to pass? On the Boston side of things, it’s been a systemic breakdown. However, the pitching staff has been even worse: Boston starters, already hobbled beyond recognition, are lugging around a 6.37 ERA for the month, and Boston relievers over that same span have an aggregate ERA of 5.81. Hence that 4-13 record in September.

However, it’s not just the pitching that is at fault. The Boston offense is presently posting its worst monthly OPS since April. Dustin Pedroia has been particularly abysmal. He entered the season’s final month as an MVP candidate, but is hitting just .217 in September with 14 strikeouts and two walks. He had 66 whiffs and 80 bases on balls entering the month. The Rays were also able to take advantage of a major Sox weakness by swiping 11 bases in 13 attempts over the weekend. Boston has allowed an MLB-worst 142 steals on the season.

Given these trends and the afflicted state of the Boston roster, most of us expect the Rays to overtake the Sox and claim the AL wild card for the first time in franchise history. Seems inevitable, no? Yet despite all that’s been said about Boston’s current problems and Tampa Bay’s current merits, Boston’s probably going to be fine. For now.

Yes, a two-game lead, particularly considering what’s happened over the past fortnight, seems vanishingly thin. But this late in the season, it’s not. The Red Sox and Rays each have 10 games left to play in the regular season, and at this late hour any lead is a substantial one. To put a finer point on it, even after Sunday’s outcomes, the Sox have a 90.3 percent chance of making the postseason and the Rays an 8.6 percent chance of doing the same. Adjust those figures based on momentum and health if you like, but the Sox will remain heavy favorites to prevail. And they’ve got something else going for them besides the math — the schedule.

Here’s what’s ahead for the Red Sox: BAL, BAL, BAL, BAL, @NYY, @NYY, @NYY, @BAL, @BAL, @BAL.

And here’s what’s ahead for Tampa Bay: @NYY, @NYY, @NYY, @NYY, TOR, TOR, TOR, NYY, NYY, NYY.

The Red Sox will play seven more games against the lowly Orioles, against whom they are 8-3 in 2011. The Rays, meanwhile, will play their final 10 games against teams that have an average winning percentage of .574. To state the obvious, the Rays have a significantly tougher final stretch than the Red Sox do, and that’s the case even if the Yankees are in “cruise control” mode for the final series of the regular season and decide to rest their regulars.

Based on the Red Sox schedule, it’s hard to imagine them doing any worse than 5-5 over their next 10 games. (Remember, Josh Beckett is back.) Therefore, the Rays would need to go 7-3 just to tie the Red Sox and force a one-game playoff. And based on their slate, a 6-4 record is always a likely outcome for Boston, which would mean the Rays would need to go 8-2 to tie Boston. Possible? Sure. Likely? Not really.

In sum, despite what you hear and feel, the Red Sox, buttressed by a two-game lead and a far more accommodating docket of games, are very likely to prevail in the AL wild-card race. Trends notwithstanding, the Rays simply are running out of time. And nothing portends triumph in a tight race quite like playing the Orioles in 70 percent of your remaining games, which describes the Red Sox.

The Braves Aren’t Overworking Their Relievers

With the Atlanta Braves starting rotation facing some significant health questions, they are going to need strong performances from their relievers to have a chance of advancing in October. However, no team in 2011 has relied more on their relievers during the regular season – Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, and Eric O’Flaherty rank 1st, 3rd, and 4th in the majors in relief appearances – and these relatively large workloads have created doubts about how well the Braves bullpen will perform in October.

There’s only one problem – these workloads aren’t actually historically unique for relievers at all. Focusing solely on 2011 totals gives the appearance of overwork, but in reality, the Braves are simply using their bullpen in the normal way it has been deployed for most of the past two decades. Instead, it’s the rest of baseball that is seeing a fairly dramatic shift downward in reliever usage.

From 2000 to 2004, a minimum of 20 relievers in each season threw 80 or more innings. In 2004, 27 relievers hit that mark, with eight of those throwing 90 or more innings. Scot Shields even topped the 100 inning plateau. However, in 2005, teams became more judicious with their willingness to use relievers that frequently, and only 10 bullpen arms managed to throw as many as 80 innings that year. Teams continued that pattern until 2009, when only eight relievers threw as many as 80 innings.

Last year, only five relievers were used that frequently, and the same is true this year – though with two weeks left in the season, we’ll likely end the season with seven or eight relievers surpassing that mark. However, that is still well under the average for the previous decade, and continues to show that teams have shifted the way they’re using their relievers.

There are two obvious factors that have driven this shift – a downturn in offense and the expansion of the number of relievers being carried by each team. With run scoring taking a nosedive the last few years, starting pitchers have been able to work deeper into the game, as there aren’t as many offensive rallies which push a manager towards making a call to the bullpen.

Now, even when a manager does make a pitching change, the rise of the seven and even occasionally eight man bullpen gives him significantly more options to choose from. While a six man bullpen was the standard for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, more and more teams have exchanged a bench player for another relief arm, giving them more match-up flexibility and allowing the manager to spread innings around to give more frequent days off during the season.

These two factors have served to all but eliminate the modern day “rubber-arm” reliever, as teams have spread the wealth among a larger pitching staff rather than asking their best relievers to pitch with significant frequency. The Braves, however, are simply bucking the modern trend, and are continuing to use their bullpen in the way that was standard for most of the last several decades.

If you look at the workloads of Venters, Kimbrel, and O’Flaherty from a wider perspective, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that they’ve been historically overworked. If we go back to the turn of the decade, 112 relief pitchers have thrown more innings in a season than Jonny Venters has this year. If you’d rather go by games pitched, 53 pitchers were used more often than Venters has been this season. He’d have to appear in six of the final 12 Braves games of the season to even crack the top 10.

Kimbrel and O’Flaherty’s innings totals are even significantly lower than Venters, and are not remotely out of the norm for quality relief pitchers. For comparison, Mariano Rivera threw 70 innings or more in every season from 2003 to 2008, and it would be impossible to argue that his regular season workloads took had a negative effect on him in the postseason.

The Braves have the best bullpen in baseball, so it’s only natural that they’ve relied on their relievers more than other teams have in 2011. However, there’s nothing in the history books to suggest that the workloads they’ve asked their relievers to carry this year are out of the ordinary or in any way potentially damaging to their potential success in October. Kimbrel, Venters, and O’Flaherty have been used frequently because they’re among the best in the game at what they do, and you shouldn’t expect that to change in the playoffs.

Red Sox Face Arms Crisis

Torrents — torrents! — of ink, bandwidth and tears have been spilled over the New York Yankees’ rotation concerns. Yet there’s another AL East colossus saddled by pitching worries, and those worries might be more serious than those of the Yankees., particularly when you factor in the hard-charging Tampa Bay Rays.

The Boston Red Sox rank eighth in the American League in runs allowed, but the current state of affairs is even more grim. Despite having a puncher’s chance to finish the season with the best record in the American League, the Sox envy the pitching certainties of the Yankees. Consider that if the postseason started today, the Boston rotation would consist of Jon Lester and & hmmm.

Josh Beckett? He’s been Boston’s best starter on a rate basis this season, but he’s presently sidelined with a bum ankle and likely won’t return until next weekend at the earliest. There’s also Beckett’s substantial injury history to consider (he’s been on the disabled list 13 times in his career, and last season he lost 75 days to injury). He’s just not durable, so there’s no guarantee that Beckett will be able to remain healthy and effective once he does return.

Clay Buchholz? He may have the most raw ability of anyone on the Boston staff, but he hasn’t pitched since mid-June because of a back injury. Buchholz could throw from a mound this week. However, even if he is able to return this season, the Sox may be forced to deploy him as a reliever.

John Lackey? He’s been one of the worst starters in baseball this season. Despite having worked just 144 1/3 innings, Lackey has given up the most earned runs in the league (and, in a related matter, he’s hit the most batsmen). All you really need to know, however, is that opponents this season are hitting .304/.373/.484 against Lackey.

Stated in rough terms, Lackey turns every opposing hitter into something a little better than Kevin Youkilis. But wait, there’s more! Lackey has just two quality starts in the second half, and his September ERA stands at a foul-smelling 12.38. At this point, it can legitimately be asked whether Lackey even merits a spot on the postseason roster, should such a thing be necessary.

Tim Wakefield? The franchise stalwart, it would seem, has been in search of career win 200 since the men of Boston wore powdered wigs, and, with a WAR of 0.7, Wakefield has been effective only by the low standards of Mr. Lackey.

Also, if you’re the sort to value playoff performance as a meaningful indicator, then note that Wakefield is lugging around a career postseason ERA of 6.75.

Elsewhere, Erik Bedard (nine career DL stints) is laid up with knee and lat problems and has no clear timetable for a return. Andrew Miller has a 5.58 ERA in Boston, and Daisuke Matsuzaka (remember him?) is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and won’t begin light throwing until the middle of October.

Accordingly, symptoms of desperation abound: Kyle Weiland is part of the stretch-drive rotation, and Alfredo Aceves might soon be forced back into the rotation.

Suddenly, the Yankees’ straits — a rotation of CC Sabathia plus a gumbo of lesser alternatives — seem downright enviable. Unless Boston is willing to trot out Lester on short rest, it will need four starters in each playoff series. Can you find four worthies within this mess? No, you cannot.

Of course, as a consequence of all this carnage and lousiness, the Sox have more to fret over than their playoff rotation.

First, they must concern themselves with reaching the postseason. Coming off a devitalizing sweep in Tampa, the Red Sox are now as close to the Tampa Bay Rays in the standings as they are to the Yankees. A 3 1/2 game lead in mid-September — which is the wild-card margin the Red Sox presently cling to — is still substantial, so it’s likely (though hardly assured) that Boston will be part of the playoff fray. But, simply put, this is not a good rotation right now.

If the Sox survive the four-game set against Tampa Bay that starts Thursday, they’ll likely back into the playoffs via the AL wild-card berth. But unless the rotation gets healthier in a hurry, they could be poised for a quick and quiet exit.

After a headline-dominating offseason, that would be quite contrary to expectations and design.

Picking Apart the Phillies Flaws

Bold, sweeping declaration: The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies are good at baseball.

At present, the Phillies boast a hefty run differential of +174 (second to only the Yankees) and are on pace for a franchise-record 106 wins. Chief among their many merits? One of the best rotations you’ve ever seen. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are both Cy Young worthies, and Cole Hamels has been roughly their equal when healthy. Even Vance Worley has thrived in spot duty.

Given the strength of the Phillies’ starting pitching and given that they’ll almost certainly enjoy home-field advantage throughout the postseason, consider them the favorites for the belt and the title.

Of course, no such thing as a fait accompli in baseball. The short playoff series lends itself quite nicely to fluke-ish outcomes and minor miracles. In a game with so much structural, built-in parity, nothing is to be assumed in October. But beyond those annual considerations, do the Phillies, the best team in baseball, have a soft, hidden underbelly that could be exploited in the postseason?

One would expect a team playing .657 ball to do lots of things well, but is that the case with the ‘11 Phillies. The numbers sayeth …

Statistic Phillies 2011 NL Rank
wRC+ 5th
Rotation WAR 1st
Bullpen WAR 10th
UZR 12th

To the surprise of no one, Philly’s weapons-grade rotation tops the loop in WAR. But the rest is something of a mixed bag.

The bullpen seems to be a problem, no? However, consider that, because of Philly’s ability to pitch deeply into games, they’ve logged the fewest bullpen innings of any NL squad (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and others will tend to do that for you). So the sample size is not as large as you might think, and, because of the strength of that rotation, the Phillies depend upon their bullpen less than most. As well, consider that the Phillies were without the services of Brad Lidge until late July. So while the bullpen would seem to be lacking, the Philllies, thus far, haven’t suffered as a result.

The defense, according the UZR, doesn’t grade out especially well, but consider that, a, Philly pitchers tend to miss a lot of bats and, b, even at the team level one year (or less) of defensive data may not mean too much.

As for the Philadelphia offensive attack, it’s mostly a matter of not hitting left-handers …

Statistic Phillies 2011 Rank

wRC+ vs. RHP 5th
wRC+ vs. LHP 11th

Such a split is not surprising, perhaps, on a team whose top right-handed power source is part-timer John Mayberry. And this is the case despite the fact that Citizens’ Bank Park tends to be a fairly accommodating environment for right-handed power hitters (who, in turn and of course, tend to hit lefties fairly well). And even so, the Phillies are much less potent when a port-sider is on the mound for the opposition. This raises the matter of whether this particular Philly weakness might be exploited during the postseason.

Now let us state the obvious: to be exploited by a lefty, one must first face a lefty. The good news for the Phillies is that, among likely NL playoff opponents, no team has a bounty of left-handed starters. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who will almost certainly face the Phillies in the NLDS, have only Joe Saunders from the left side. The Milwaukee Brewers have Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, but Narveson is unlikely to be part of the playoff rotation. As for the Atlanta Braves, no lefty figures to be a postseason starter.

If the Phillies do as expected and make the World Series? Largely, the story continues. The Red Sox? One lefty likely in the playoff rotation. The Yankees? Same story. The Tigers? Not a single lefthander to be found. The “sum of all fears” scenario, however, is an encounter with the reigning AL-champion Texas Rangers. The Rangers, one might notice, will perhaps trot out three lefthanders in the playoffs, and two of those lefthanders — C.J. Wilson and Matt Harrison — are the Rangers’ most effective starters. Scaled across a seven-game series, that might come to five starts against lefties. Suffice it to say, the Phillies would prefer other circumstances. They might, for instance, prefer that the AL West flag go to the Angels, who, like the Tigers, have no lefties in the rotation.

Of course, Philly might well prevail regardless of opponent. But for the smoothest road ahead, the Phaithful should summon their energies against a possible World Series match-up with the Rangers.