Prediction Reboot: June Edition

June 1st means that we are effectively one-third of the way through the season. The old adage is that a team spends the first third of the season figuring out its identity and needs, the second third getting what it needs to fill the holes, and the final third making a run at the playoffs. If that is true then the next two months will be defined by the moves teams make to help with the final push. Each division remains close with multiple teams in contention…this is shaping up to be a fascinating season. Here’s another prediction reboot as I evaluate my pre-season picks and give my take on each division:

AL East

Order has been restored in the East and as improved as the Orioles are and as fun as the Blue Jays have been, this is and will continue to be a three-horse race between the Sox, the Yanks, and the Rays. The interesting thing about this division is that the Red Sox and Yankees are virtually identical: good offenses, star-studded line ups, veterans who are underproducing, and big questions marks in the back half of the rotations. The Rays are the opposite…they are the AL version of the Giants: pitching, pitching, pitching, and hope for some runs. Still going with my original predictions: Red Sox take the division and the Rays win the Wild Card.

AL Central 

I continue to admit that picking the Twins was one of the worst predictions I have ever made! That said, this division presents a conundrum to many around baseball. Are the Indians for real? They seem to be playing above their heads, especially in the pitching department, and the gap has closed between them and the rest of the division recently. Detroit continues to be the primary adversary to date, and the Twins and Royals are essentially done. That leaves Chicago. They appear to have righted the bullpen issues that plagued them early and I have to believe that their offense will heat up as the weather continues to warm. My money is still on Chicago to get hot and take this division, but I have little confidence in any prediction I can make about the AL Central.

AL West 

The AL West is extremely close and incredibly mediocre. Each team has 27, 28, or 29 wins. First and last are separated by 2 wins (2.5 games). The big surprise has been the Mariners who could be in first place by tonight if things go right. As impossible as it might seem, given their atrocious offense, they might be able to stay in this slowest of  races. The Western divisions are probably the two that will be most affected by mid-season trades. Whoever makes the best moves here will probably prevail. Last year it took 90 wins to take this division, right now the winner is on pace for 87. That’s not great. My thoughts: I have the most confidence in the Rangers to pull off a difference making move, but I am not ready to change my original pick. The A’s will make a move too, and they will also see their starters go on a crazy run and win 15 of 17 at some point this summer to separate themselves from the pack. Oakland prevails.

NL East

One of the best stories of the year has to be the Marlins. They were my NL Sleeper pick back in January and they are making me proud! That said, I still can’t help but think the Braves will overtake them. And now with the news about Hanley Ramirez and his bad back, I feel even more strongly that the Marlins will fade. It will be close though. The Braves squeak by for the Wild Card and the Phillies ride their four horsemen to the division title.

NL Central 

I have to admit that I am starting to believe in the Cardinals. However, not much has changed here as far as my opinion about this division. Still think the Brewers are the team to beat, still think the Reds are/were overrated, still think the Cubs and Pirates are actually close to contending and could be annoying down the stretch. The Cardinals though are really going to make this interesting. Their offense is great as much because of the Allen Craigs and David Freeses and Ryan Theriots even though much credit  goes to the big three of Berkman and Holliday and Pujols (who WILL break out soon). If they make a significant pitching move, it could be enough to make the playoffs. I don’t think Milwaukee can make a big move (ala Jose Reyes) because they lack the prospects (after their two big offseason trades). They will have to do this with what they have. That could be the difference. Nonetheless, I still stay the Brewers take the Central.

NL West

So, the Rockies lose their best pitcher for the season and everyone concedes the division to the Giants. The next day the Giants lose their best player for the season and meanwhile no one really notices that, hey, the Diamondbacks are winning the division! The loss of De la Rosa and Posey means the West is wild and wide open. However, it is pretty safe to say that the Padres and Dodgers aren’t going to join the party. The Rockies are in danger in burying themselves, but even down an important arm I think they are too talented to go away and die. The Diamondbacks are good, young, and talented, but their pitching is a far cry from what the Giants have. I expect the Giants to make significant move and I hope it involves Eric Surkamp and Thomas Neal, not Zack Wheeler or Brandon Belt, and I think that move will be helpful. But at the end of the day, no one in the West pitches like the Giants. It might only take 88-91 wins to take this division and I think the Giants can manage that even sans Buster. Sticking with my boys: Giants win the West.

As you can tell, not much has changed in my opinion here in the last month. Still a long way to go and as we head into trade season much will be illuminated. As it was last year there are a lot of good teams, but no GREAT team and so anything seems possible. It’s going to be a crazy summer!

(-SB)

Nick’s Prediction Reboot

(note: nick’s article was submitted on may 6th, before the completion of the Giants-Rockies series).

AL EAST

Well the Red Sox certainly blew up my prediction for a dominant run at the AL title. That being said I still see them recovering nicely and being in the playoff hunt for the rest of the season. I still think I’m sticking with them for the title since the Yankees seem to be falling apart. As for the Rays, they’ve sold me after a really rough start. That, in addition to the terrible Central and West mean I’m picking them as my new AL Wild Card winners.

AL CENTRAL

I still think the Royals are a few years away, but good lord do the White Sox suck right now. No hitting, no pitching, no nothing. I have no clue what the Tigers really are and I don’t know if I can trust the Twins with Morneau and Mauer out so much. Looking at the Indians I think they’re the real deal, or at least real enough to win the Central.

AL WEST

Not sold on the A’s anymore and I’m changing my pick to the Rangers. Losing Feliz and Hamilton didn’t help, but Neftali is coming back and when Josh returns the offense will continue to swing large. The A’s could make a run and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, but it’ll be down to those two teams as the Angels don’t seem to have the pieces necessary to win and the M’s are the M’s.

NL EAST

I don’t buy the Marlins at all. I know everyone says that and then they go win a World Series, but I don’t see that pitching and offense outlasting the Phillies or the Braves. That being said I still have the Phillies winning the division but after watching Atlanta this past few weeks, It’s going to be a LOT closer than I thought, close enough that I think the Braves will take the Wild Card in the NL.

NL CENTRAL 

I know St. Louis is playing really well, but honestly I still see this as the Brewers’ division to lose. I’m not picking them to win the NL anymore, but this division should still be there with good pitching and REALLY good hitting.

NL WEST

I just don’t know what to make of the Giants. They look SO bad some times, but they have had no Torres, Pablo, Zito, Wilson, Ross or Casilla and a bad hitting Belt for some or most of the season, and they’re still within a stones throw from the Rockies. The Rockies, on the other hand, are REALLY good. I’m sticking with the Giants out of plain homerism but I wouldn’t be betting against Colorado to win the division at this point.

(-NW)

Why Repeating is So Difficult, Pt. 2

This ended up being a lot longer than expected so we’re going to do a three parter. The premise of part 2: winning a world series is all about pitching. It takes a big jump in pitching production from the year before to win the championship and in the last ten years that jump has been unsustainable for reasons I will try to explain in part 3.

I recently reread Baseball Behind the Numbers by the Baseball Prospectus guys. Having just watched the Giants surprising postseason run I was eager to review the study where they unveil the factors that lead most directly to success in the postseason.

According to BP, the only four factors that have any kind of statistical significance (and it’s not that much statistically speaking) are: 1) strong starting pitching (and more specifically, power pitchers who can strike batters out and get swings and misses), 2) dominant relief pitching (especially from the closer), 3) defense that doesn’t make mistakes (doesn’t have to be great in terms of range but NO errors), 4) to a much lesser extent than the first three, power hitting (i.e. home runs).

Just based on that you can see why the Giants 2010 run makes a lot of sense. Their findings form the basis for the premise of this post and the importance of pitching:

Winning in the postseason, and thus the World Series, is, based on the stats, all about pitching. My observation is that over the last ten years the WS champions have seen a major addition or jump forward in their pitching talent, and then an inability to sustain that the next year. I am way more adept at reading statistical baseball analysis than performing it, so what follows is pretty elementary, but hopefully you will see my point.

Let’s look at the last 10 World Series Champions, how their pitching fared in the year before, the year of, and the year after their win, and their key staff additions (through trades, free agency, or a young talent emerging). I’ll be using K/9, ERA, ERA+ (note that an era+ score of 100 is league average), and WHIP data from BaseballReference.com.

2001 Arizona Diamondbacks

  • 2000 83-79 (3rd in NL West): 7.6 K/9, 4.35 ERA, 110 ERA +, 1.34 WHIP
  • 2001 92-70 (1st): 8.0, 3.87, 121 (11 pt increase), 1.24
  • 2002 98-64 (1st): 8.1, 3.92, 117 (4 pt drop), 1.23

The Diamondbacks had 2 key additions in 2001: a full season of Curt Schilling and Miguel Bautista. They also had some great subtractions (no Omar Daal). They actually had a better regular season in their repeat year, but got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Cardinals. Thus begins the trend I hope to highlight here: it is very difficult to get the same production out of a pitching staff two post-seasons in a row. Especially staffs that are super top-heavy (It was Johnson and Schilling and then smoke and mirrors the rest of the way).

2002 Anaheim Angels

  • 2001 75-87 (3rd in AL West): 5.9 K/9, 4.20 ERA, 108 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP
  • 2002 (99-63 Wild Card): 6.2, 3.69, 120 (12 pt increase), 1.28
  • 2003 77-5 (3rd): 6.2, 4.28, 103 (17 pt drop!), 1.35

A classic case of key additions (Kevin Appier which sent Scott Schoenwies to the bullpen) and the emergence of young talent (John Lackey, K-Rod, Scot Shields) providing a huge, but unsustainable, bump in production. The 2002 Angels actually saw a bigger salary increase from 2001 to 2002 than the infamous 1997 Marlins team. As a result, they got better in a lot of areas, not just pitching. In 2004 they saw a similar bump when they added Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar and won the division before getting bounced from the playoffs in dramatic fashion by David Ortiz (I mean the Boston Red Sox).

2003 Florida Marlins

  • 2002 79-83 (4th in NL East): 6.8 K/9, 4.36 ERA, 93 ERA+, 1.43 WHIP
  • 2003 91-71 (Wild Card): 7.0, 4.04, 105 (12 pt increase), 1.35
  • 2004 83-79 (3rd): 7.0, 4.10, 101 (4 pt drop), 133

Looking at this makes me mad because it reinforces what a flukey team this was. They were obviously helped by the additions of Donrelle Willis, Matt Redmond, and Uegeth Urbina as well as getting full/emergent seasons from Carl Pavano and Josh Beckett. But they were essentially the same (fairly average) staff all three years with a small spike in performance in 2003. One caveat (and some foreshadowing) injuries really hurt them in 2004 as none of their 5 main starters pitched a full season.

2004 Boston Red Sox

  • 2003 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.0 K/9, 4.48 ERA, 104 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP
  • 2004 98-64 (Wild Card): 7.0, 4.18, 117 (13 pt increase), 1.29
  • 2005 95-67 (Wild Card): 6.0, 4.74, 96 (21 pt drop!), 1.39

The Red Sox were really good through this three-year window, yet they represent the best example so far of the cycle of major additions, big bump in production, followed by post-championship drop off. The 2004 team saw a huge jump because they added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. And the 2005 team suffered greatly the loss of Schilling (injury kept him out most of the season) and Pedro Martinez to the Mets. The 2005 additions of David Wells and Matt Clement weren’t enough to overcome the letdown. (The ERA numbers also show how hard it is to pitch in the Al East.)

2005 Chicago White Sox

  • 2004 83-79 (2nd in AL Central): 6.4 K/9, 4.91 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.42 WHIP
  • 2005 99-63 (1st in AL Central): 6.3, 3.61, 125 (28 pt increase!), 1.25
  • 2006 90-72 (3rd): 6.3, 4.61, 103 (22 pt drop!), 1.36

The White Sox trump the ’04 Red Sox in my pitching cycle theory. The addition of Orlando Hernandez, healthy/full seasons from Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras, and the emergence of Jon Garland and Bobby Jenks help partially account for this crazy spike in ERA+ followed by a tremendous drop. The interesting thing about the White Sox is how the K rate stayed the same, but the other numbers changed so dramatically. This probably shows that in ’05 they had an exceptional year defensively and got a bit lucky (if I had more time I’d look into some other numbers like BABIP). The 2005 Chicago White Sox: the poster-children for my pitching theory.

2006 St. Louis Cardinals

  • 2005 100-62 (1st in NL Central): 6.1 K/9, 3.49 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.27 WHIP
  • 2006 83-78 (1st): 6.1, 4.54, 98 (24 pt drop!), 1.38
  • 2007 78-84 (3rd): 5.9, 4.65, 95 (3 pt drop), 1.41

If the ’05 White Sox are my well-behaved/front row students, then the ’06 Cardinals are my unruly/spit wad shooting/back row/trouble makers. Thanks for killing the drill guys. That said, keep in mind that the Cards had GREAT teams in 2004 and 2005 and that the ’06 team was basically the same core. Also, you do see a drop in the repeat year, mostly having to do with losing Chris Carpenter for the season (notice a big injury following a Championship has a lot to do with the depressed repeat season stats). However you slice it, this was a weird Championship team, period.

2007 Red Sox

  • 2006 86-76 (3rd in AL East): 6.7 K/9, 4.83 ERA, 99 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP
  • 2007 96-66 (1st): 7.2, 3.87, 123 (24 pt increase), 1.27
  • 2008 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.4, 4.01, 116 (7 pt drop), 1.33

The Red Sox stats show that they had the best chance of anyone to repeat in the last 10 years. They went to 7 games against the Rays in the 2008 ALCS and from their statistical steadiness that should be no surprise. The big additions in ’07 were the Japanese imports (Matsuzaka and Okajima), plus Becket had the best year of his career as he fully adjusted to life in the AL East. Papelbon also benefited from his first full season in the closer role. The Sox did add a full season of John Lester in ’08 which helped, but the big problem with repeating was Becket broke down as the season wore on and pitched with half a shoulder in playoffs. Again, the injury problems to key starters in the year after a WS win is a major reason why teams have struggled to repeat.

2008 Philadelphia Phillies

  • 2007 89-73 (1st in NL East): 6.5 K/9, 4.73 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.45 WHIP
  • 2008 92-70 (1st): 6.7, 3.88, 113 (16 pt increase), 1.36
  • 2009 93-69 (1st): 7.1, 4.16, 101 (12 pt drop), 1.35

Record wise, the Phillies have gotten better each of the last 4 years (including 2010). And they seem to be the team that takes my theory “most seriously,” having added Cliff Lee in 2009 to try to repeat, Roy Halladay/Oswalt in 2010 to get back on top, and Cliff Lee again this offseason. Hats off for improving the most important part of the team four years running.

The 2008 championship team featured the key addition of Brad Lidge (who had the year of his life posting a 226 ERA+) which allowed them to put Brett Myers back in the rotation. 2008 also saw the emergence of Cole Hamels (ERA+ of 142). However, despite the addition of Lee in ’09, Lidge had a major setback that year posting an abysmal ERA+ of 59, and Hamels struggled with mental and physical issues all year (ERA+ of 97). Bullpen struggles have really hampered them the last two seasons.

2009 New York Yankees

  • 2008 89-73 (3rd in AL East): 7.1 K/9, 4.28 ERA, 104 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP
  • 2009 103-59 (1st): 7.8, 4.26, 108 (4 pt increase), 1.35
  • 2010 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.2, 4.06, 106 (2 pt drop), 1.31

The Yankees are an interesting case. First, it’s clear that their success is more closely tied to offense than any team in the last 10 years. Despite some significant additions over the last three years, they have had essentially the same staff production each season. Each staff had one guy who had a great year (Mike Mussina in 2008…look it up, it was legit…and then CC Sabathia in ’09 and ‘10), one other guy who stepped up as a legitimate number 2 (Andy Pettitte in ’08, AJ Burnett in ’09, Phil Hughes in ‘10). The big difference in 2009 was Pettitte offered a solid third option, which they sorely lacked in 2008 and 2010. 2010 had a lot to do with injuries, per usual, with Pettitte/Javier Vasquez/Burnett all missing time or lacking effectiveness due to being hurt.

That’s it for part 2. Sorry for the length! Tomorrow we’ll wrap it up by looking at the 2010 Giants, drawing some conclusions, and deciding if this spells doom or not for 2011 Giants.

(-SB)

Why the Cliff Lee Decision is Good for the Yankees

it seems like the prevailing theory on cliff lee’s decision to join the phillies is that the yankees are screwed. you will hear all kinds of rumors about this player and that player being yankee targets (grienke and chris carpenter are two hot ones right now), and they will undoubtedly do SOMETHING before the season opens. but there is no way they can compete with the red sox and the phillies now right?

the immediate/gut-level reaction is: yes. at the very least, there is revelry over the fact that for once new york didn’t just open the checkbook and get their guy (which makes texeira look like even more of a bottom-line scum bag now).

we will see how this all plays out but i actually think this could be good for the yankees long term. i’ll admit, there was a secret part of me that hoped the yankees would sign lee and then be stuck with a bunch of old guys getting paid 20 million dollars a year for the next several years.

don’t get me wrong, i think lee is great. he was the cornerstone of my pitching staff in my most important fantasy league last year. he just struck out 185 guys and walked 18 during a season in which he missed over a month with an injury (that is an otherworldly k/bb ratio of 10.28). he’s been ridiculous in the post-season. he is a really, really good pitcher and is everything i wish barry zito would be/become.

but here’s my other line of thinking on lee. he was in the MINOR LEAGUES at the end of 2007 because he was really, really bad. he will be 33 before the 2011 season is over. he will be 38 when the contract runs out. he does not throw hard and relies on some of the best (freakish) control you will ever see. the giants exposed how hittable lee can be when he doesn’t hit his spots (see game one of the 2010 WS and edgar renteria, 2010 WS MVP). he also strained an abdomen in spring training last year and missed all of april, then tweaked his back in august and struggled up until the post-season.

lee is still nasty and likely has two great seasons left in him, but the decline will come soon, if it hasn’t started already, and it will not be pretty, especially in that ballpark. the phillies were right to go after halladay last year (similar age, but the kind of pitcher who will get old in a more pleasing way, plus he’s cheaper).

to top it all off, how much better does lee actually make a team that has 3 excellent starters? (this brings up the question of value, value added, and allocation of resources. not something i’ll explore in this post, but it is an interesting question.)

bottom line, as a giants fan i am very scared of the phillies now. but, this is a team that is getting older, doesn’t have jason werth (or any right-handed presence), and is going to continue spending on aging stars for some time now. they will be a beast in 2011, but after that it could get interesting (rollins, for example, might be following werth out-of-town next year).

all of which brings me back to the yankees. anyone with a brain who read moneyball in 2004 had to wonder how long it would take for the rest of baseball to catch up with the billy beanes of the world. well, that has happened in the last few years, with the yankees, of all people, teetering on the brink of being a full on moneyball team (at least in the sense of valuing young players…especially since brian cashman took over more of the baseball ops circa 2006). no one doubts their ability to spend, but the question has always lurked: what if the yankees were forced to be shrewd and still had all their financial resources available to them?

the 2011 yankees as presently constructed are still extremely talented but also something of a mess. there are about 10 other rotations in major league baseball i would take over the yankees right now. they are not deep in the bullpen or the bench. the core is getting older especially the left side of the infield.

i hoped they would sign cliff lee because that would have been business as usual and helped gloss over some of the cracks showing in the walls of the house that jeter built. now, though, anything is possible. it will be fascinating to see if the yankees panic, or if they (and i mean cashman who should be empowered by this rather than the opposite) take this as an opportunity to get creative.

i don’t know what the answer is or what they should do (sherman has some ideas, as does sheehan) but i have been fearing a moment like this: one where the yankees can no longer simply write a big fat check and band aid over whatever ails them and instead have to get smart. what if the yankees become efficient on top of being rich as a result of losing cliff lee to the phillies?

that could be a problem.

(-SB)

Giants Dynasty?

ok, ok i’m a giants fan, so this is homer-positivity all the way, i’ll admit that upfront. but hear me out…the Giants are in the beginning of a national league dynasty.

two disclaimers to begin with:

1) i DO NOT think the giants will repeat in 2011. it is really hard to do, and in fact has proven to be impossible under the last two collective bargaining agreements (in place since 2002). the yankees haven’t done it, the red sox have won twice in that time frame but with two different teams, and the phillies went to the WS in back to back years but could not pull it off. playoff teams under the current CBA’s are evenly matched, meaning luck has a lot to do with it, and as much as i loved and appreciated the run of the 2010 giants (only WS champion in my life time and, for that matter, in my dad’s lifetime) they benefited from a good deal of amazing fortune (thank you cody ross, edgar renteria, brooks conrad, and the center field wall at AT&T, among other things, for that). all that to say any number of things could go incredibly wrong and mess it all up, which makes repeating very difficult, in fact impossible.

2) the competition is going to be good this year: the phillies just got scarier, the red sox have added a few good players, the rockies are locking up their young core, the white sox are quietly nasty, the reds could be even better this year, the cards can hit and pitch, don’t forget about the yankees (still pretty good) and it goes on and on. the giants are the same team essentially, and miguel tejada doesn’t exactly get the blood flowing.

with that in mind though, i do think the Giants have begun a golden era that could harken memories of the Atlanta Braves 1995-2005 run (or the yankees for that matter). let me explain:

1) the baseball powers of the day will be great in 2011 and 2012 but could enter into a down window after that:

i’ll post some red sox thoughts soon but maybe the best thing they’ve done is replace beltre/martinez with better (slightly) AND younger players. that’s key (the price to do was pretty steep however). on the other hand their rotation is getting old fast and it is my opinion that the last couple of years of the crawford deal will be painful (AGon, i think will age well).

same can be said for the phillies…as nasty as they will be in 2011, their guys are getting older and the game today, especially in regards to pitching, is more and more a young man’s game. they have a ton of cash tied in to three guys who will be in their mid 30’s, plus the lineup is aging fast (and showing it in injuries, a big reason i think the giants got past them in the NLCS)…it’s not hard to imagine philly trying to dump a lot of expensive old guys with big names after the 2012 season.

the yankees, as presently constructed, are in worse shape than anyone. they will be good in 2011 and certainly competitive every year after that, but again, tons of money invested in old and declining players means they will be vulnerable (see the 2010 NY Mets or the 2008 Yankees).

conclusion: the next two years are going to be ultra competitive and then a huge window will open up in which the big players will vulnerable. look for teams like the reds, royals, rays, and a’s to start thinking very strategically about the 2013-2014 window, the stars may be aligning for them during that time.

and it will be an opportunity for the Giants…

2) I will break down the Giants’ off-season and future outlook more in upcoming posts, but consider this…by the end of the 2011 season the Giants’ could have a lineup that feature a young, homegrown core of Posey C, Sandoval 3B, and Belt 1B to go along with the arms they already have.

a lot will have to break right for the following scenario to occur, but in 2013 the Giant’s will NOT have Rowand and probably not have Zito (any chance the Giants ship him to the Yankees now), and could have a completely homegrown lineup AND rotation:

CF Brown

RF Ford/Peguero

1B Belt

C Posey

3B Sandoval

LF Neal

2B Culberson

SS Crawford/Adrianza

1) Lincecum

2) Cain

3) Bumgartner

4) Wheeler

5) Runzler

and a bullpen built around Wilson, Romo, Sosa, at al.

conclusion: for that to happen a whole lot will have to go right. naturally, i don’t realistically think this will/could happen. but the giants are entering a window where they, like the vintage braves, could keep integrating a few young players each season around their core of great pitching providing the ground work for a consistent winner for the foreseeable future. a remarkable change events for giants fans. likely? we’ll see.

-SB