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Baseball! midseason review, part one: AL Central

July 9, 2012

Hello again. My recent inactivity can be explained by the return of a certain Unwelcome Visitor. But I won’t let her stop me from posting this behemoth four-part series on all baseball, starting today with the central divisions.

I am a big proponent of all kinds of advanced stats; since I will be using them frequently throughout these posts, I will go over them briefly here and link to more detailed—and, all told, better—explanations.

RS – Runs scored. Simple enough, and a better stat than wins for estimating the true quality of a team and is useful in predicting future performance when used in conjunction with…

RA – Runs allowed. Bill James, who is in many ways the godfather of modern sabermetrics, used runs scored and runs allowed to create the…

Pythagorean expectation – A formula, based off the Pythagorean formula for right triangles, that has been proven to be a better predictor of future winning percentage than present winning percentage. Just click it if you want to learn more about it because I don’t know how to do formulas on this thing. However, I do know how to do formulas on Excel, so I include Pythagorean wins, losses and winning percentage in my standings below.

DIFF – Run differential (RS – RA).

wOBA – Weighted on-base average (I say “whoa-buh”). Per Fangraphs: “Combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.” Presented in the scale of on-base percentage, so an average wOBA is around .320 or so, depending on the year.

wRC+ – Weighted runs created plus. Measures how many more or fewer runs a player created compared to league average, derived from wOBA but adjusted for park factors and run-scoring environments so that it’s better for comparing across eras than wOBA. Presented like an IQ score: 100 is average, 101 is one percentage point better than average, 99 one point lower, and so on. A wRC+ of 140 means that player created 40% more runs than the league-average player.

Triple-slash – Batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage presented ultra-efficiently like so: AVG/OBP/SLG. (I’m aware there are only two slashes.)

FIP – One of many ERA estimators. Only counts the so-called three true outcomes—walks, strikeouts and home runs—so as to separate pitcher performance from the performance of the defense behind him. Presented on an ERA scale, so the average is around 3.50 and anything under 3.00 is excellent.

xFIP – A modification of FIP meant to project future performance. (ERA, while more than serviceable as a descriptive stat, is a poor predictor of future ERA.) Substitutes a pitcher’s rate of home runs per fly balls (HR/FB%) with the league-average rate, since few pitchers have sustained low rates over multiple years (CC Sabathia is a notable exception). Thus, it is generally assumed, until proven otherwise, that luck is responsible for any low HR/FB rates.

SIERA – Skill-interactive ERA. Another ERA estimator. Unlike FIP, SIERA operates with the knowledge that there are pitchers who can induce certain kinds of batted balls. Sinkerballers are good at inducing ground balls, but their HR/FB rates are often high. This jibes with conventional baseball knowledge: when a sinkerballer leaves a sinker up in the zone, it is likely to get smashed. There are also pitchers who aim to induce fly balls—young Matt Cain is one example off the top of my head. These pitchers have low HR/FB rates (obviously, or else they would change their strategy). They do this by inducing pop-ups or weakly hit fly balls, often struck off the end of the bat or right on the hands. SIERA takes all this information into account. For that reason, I like it the best.

BABIP – Batting average on balls in play. A stat that fluctuates wildly in small (read: half-season) samples, and therefore considered to be heavily influenced by luck. An expected BABIP (xBABIP) can be estimated using a hitter’s batted ball data.

***

As I did in my preseason primer, I will start at the bottom of the standings and work my way up. I did pretty well predicting the standings in that preseason primer, so I will include those predictions when going through the teams.

5. Minnesota Twins, 36-49, 354 RS (10th in the American League), 441 RA (14th, or last) [I guessed 5th, yay!]

Source: fuckyeahtrevorplouffe.tumblr.com

The Twins are not an abomination. The offense is almost half-full of nice pieces. Joe Mauer, hampered by injury last year, is back to hitting for average (.326) and walking a lot (.416 OBP). He probably won’t hit 25 homers again (his slugging percentage is only .449 this year), but he’s still extremely valuable (141 wRC+). Did know that Josh Willingham has been the 20th-best hitter in baseball over the last two seasons (tied with Adrian Beltre)? He’s a liability in the outfield, but plenty of teams will call the Twins in the coming month, looking to pry his bat away from them. At 33, he’s too old to be in their rebuilding plans, even though he’s signed through 2014. That contract might be the biggest obstacle in trading him this year. Trevor Plouffe got over a terrible first two months with a ridiculous 11 home runs in June. It was no flash of luck; Hit Tracker classified only four of them (in June) as “Just Enough.” This from a shortstop/third baseman, only 26 years old and under team control for the next four years at least. Ryan Doumit has had a nice year (7 HRs, .286/.343/.453) spelling Joe Mauer at catcher and playing DH in between.

But enough painting rosy pictures, this team is bad. Justin Morneau has not been the same since his concussion in 2010. And the pitching has only one bright spot to speak of: Scott Diamond has parlayed his skill at inducing ground balls (fourth in the majors minimum 70 innings pitched) into a very nice 2.62 ERA, backed up by an encouraging 3.49 SIERA. Francisco Liriano started the season with six straight starts in which he allowed four or more runs, but he has pitched extremely well since being demoted to the bullpen then brought back to the starting rotation. Jack Moore at Fangraphs attributes his success to staying down in the strike zone. But with Liriano’s recent history, I’d compare his success to a coin landing heads eight times in a row.

Guys who may be traded:
P Francisco Liriano
C Ryan Doumit

Notably Injured:
P Scott Baker (Tommy John surgery, due back sometime 2013, will probably not be back with Twins then)
P Matt Capps (due back 7/13)
P Brian Duensing (7/15)
P Carl Pavano (TBD)

4. Kansas City Royals, 37-47, 344 RS (12th), 385 RA (9th) [3rd]

The Royals are brimming with young talent and their time is soon—just not this year. They have been crippled by elbow injuries to their pitchers. Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino, Joakim Soria and Blake Wood all underwent Tommy John surgery this season and will not return until 2013. Perhaps a rash of bad luck, perhaps their training staff hasn’t heard of preventative care. Duffy and Paulino, both starters who can routinely throw over 95 mph, have been sorely missed. The loss of Soria hasn’t hurt too much, since Jonathan Broxton, picked up off the scrap heap before the season, has excelled in his role (1.99 ERA, 3.35 FIP). Broxton used to light up the radar gun when he was on the Dodgers, now he cruises at around 95 mph. But he’s added a third pitch, a sinker, to go with his fastball and his slider. He’s due to be a free agent after the season, so it’s possible the Royals could flip him for a prospect. After all, they have a plethora of young fireballers in the bullpen to take his place: Greg Holland (average fastball 95.7 mph, 3.94 ERA, 2.56 FIP), Kelvin Herrera (97.1 vFA, 3.05 ERA, 3.20 FIP), Aaron Crow (94.8 vFA, 4.04 ERA, 3.06 FIP) and Tim Collins (93.1 vFA, 3.43 ERA, 3.09 FIP), to name the best.

On the offensive side, the biggest story has been Eric Hosmer‘s season-long struggle. Hosmer was considered the best among the Royals’ gaggle of young hitters, but dude’s only batting .231/.299/.371. That .231 average is depressed partly because of a .244 BABIP, which, given how many line drives and ground balls Hosmer hits, ought to be much higher (see below). More than one smart person has suggested that defensive shifts have taken a lot of hits away from Hosmer. It seems the league has adjusted to him, now it’s his turn to adjust his approach to the way the league is playing him.

The good news for the Royals is that young catcher Sal Perez is back from a spring training injury and seems to be the real deal, though admittedly his entire major league career is nothing more than a small sample. The Royals signed Perez to an extremely team-friendly contract earlier this year. He is set to be paid only $7 million over the first five years (through 2016), with three club options after that totaling less than $20 million. When it’s all said and done, we might consider it opposite the Barry Zito fiasco on the contract spectrum.

Mike Moustakas has rebounded from a poor rookie year and looks like one of the best young third baseman in the game, with 15 home runs already and a triple-slash of  .268/.327/.490. He looks to be a good fielder, but it’s only his second year in the bigs, and therefore too early to rely on any advanced defensive metrics.

Alex Gordon has played well enough to assuage any doubts that last year’s success was a fluke; Jeff Francoeur has not. Francoeur has been so bad that Wil Myers, the latest hot prospect in the Royals’ system, will likely be called up soon.

For once, Billy Butler has more home runs (16) than doubles (13).

Guys who might be traded:
P Jonathan Broxton

Notably Injured:
I mentioned them all already.

3. Detroit Tigers, 44-42, 387 RS (6th), 381 RA (8th) [1st]

Expected to run away with the division by the greatest minds in America, the Tigers have hovered around .500. Miguel Cabrera (18 HRs, .324/.382/.557) and Prince Fielder (15, .299/.380/.505) have performed as expected, but the offense does not rank among the AL elites. Let’s play detective and find out who’s to blame. Certainly not Austin Jackson. The Tigers’ lead-off hitter has been the most valuable hitter on the team in terms of WAR by changing his approach at the plate. Peep:

What, exactly, has he done differently? Well, simply put, he’s chasing bad pitches less frequently. He swings at 23.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this year, compared to 26.7 percent in 2011 and 28.3 percent in 2010.

No, the culprits are shortstop Jhonny Peralta, outfielder Brennan Boesch and catcher Alex Avila, and I have irrefutable evidence against the bastards.

All three players have performed significantly worse this season compared to last, and Peralta at least is back to behaving like his regular self. Avila and Boesch figure to rebound a little.

The pitching staff has suffered from poor defense (Miguel Cabrera is playing third, remember); almost all Tigers starters have an ERA higher than their FIP. Justin Verlander is the only exception, also the only one who is objectively good.

By almost any metric—ERA, FIP, K/9, BB/9—closer Jose Valverde has been the worst member of the Tigers bullpen. Yet Jim Leyland keeps him in that role, instead of Joaquin Benoit or Octavio Dotel, who have both been significantly better.

Guys they might trade for:
I don’t know.

Notably Injured:
P Al Alburquerque (Late July)
C Victor Martinez (Possibly mid-to-late September)

2. Cleveland Indians, 44-41, 385 RS (7th), 414 RA (13th) [4th]

The Indians have not performed like a second-place team, but here they are. The offense is slightly better than average, but held back by a complete inability to hit lefties (particularly for power). If the Indians think they are serious contenders this year, they can go out and get a lefty-basher like Shane Victorino (unlikely) or Michael Cuddyer (more likely, but still unlikely). Bradley Woodrum at Fangraphs says maybe Alfonso Soriano maybe?

Waiting for Carlos Santana to come around is probably the best option. Santana has been putrid against lefties this year, batting a stanky .216/.348/.257 *shudders*. But for his career, Santana is a .266/.389/.425 hitter against lefties in 368 plate appearances.

Kipnis prepares to break his bat.

Second baseman Jason Kipnis has broken out in 2012, ranking third among all qualified second basemen in WAR. Kid’s a fantasy stud, with a .277 average, 53 runs, 11 HRs, 49 RBI and 20 stolen bases. He and double-play mate Asdrubal Cabrera form the best young middle-infield duo in the majors, outside of Texas’ Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. The Indians have problems at the corners of the infield; of all first basemen and third basemen only Lonnie Chisenhall has performed adequately so far, and he just got injured. The Indians have already missed out on Kevin Youkilis and Carlos Lee, now the best first baseman on the market is the Cubs’ Bryan LaHair.

But the real problem, evidenced by their runs allowed, is the pitching. Ubaldo Jimenez sports and unwieldy 5.12 BB/9. What happened to the Cy Young candidate of 2010? Jimenez has declined steadily since then, and I’d venture his slide is related to his decrease in velocity.

Yeesh. At least Justin Masterson has rebounded nicely from a poor start. Even with his last start, in which he gave up eight runs in 4.1 innings against the Rays, Masterson has a 3.30 ERA since the start of June, with 43 strikeouts and 13 walks in 46.1 IP.

The bullpen is headlined by two stellar relievers in Chris Perez (9.74 K/9, 3.34 ERA, 2.35 FIP) and Vinnie Pestano (10.75, 1.75, 2.81), but it gets thin after that. Their next 14 games are against teams at .500 or better. If they can manage a winning record in those games, expect them to make a play for LaHair and maybe a reliever. But I figure they’ll stumble and fade down the stretch.

Guys they might trade for:
1B Bryan LaHair
Relief help
P Brandon McCarthy or another cheap starter

Notably Injured:
OF Grady Sizemore (probably never)
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (mid-September)
P Rafael Perez (mid-July)
P Carlos Carrasco (2013)

1. Chicago White Sox, 47-38, 409 RS (5th), 346 RA (3rd) [2nd; I wish I had the balls to say 1st because I debated it for a long time]

Reason #4677 to love the internet: This is the first result in a Google image search for “Adam Dunn big donkey.”

The Sox are the real fucking deal. Their offense has been buoyed by players bouncing back from bad years in 2011: Adam Dunn (henceforth Big Donkey), Alex Rios and, to a lesser extent, A.J. Pierzynski. Big Donkey, possibly the worst hitter ever last year (this table I just cooked up real quick has him at sixth-worst) has already more than doubled his home run total (25 to 11). Those 25 dingers make his .208 average easier to swallow, as does his very good .357 OBP (which is so high thanks to a mammoth 18.7% walk rate). Big Donkey usually bats third, in front of the ever-consistent Paul Konerko (.329/.404/.528). It’s a smart piece of lineup construction from manager Robin Ventura: If Donkey goes yard, hooray; if he strikes out or walks (very likely to be one of the two), Konerko is there clean up the bases. I guarantee the White Sox would score fewer runs if they batted the other way around. (I’ve heard baseball thinkers claim that the three hole is where you should put your best hitter, but that’s clearly not the case here, is what I’m trying to say.)

But Ventura makes some baffling decisions elsewhere in the lineup. Alejandro De Aza is an easy choice to lead off—outside of a horrendous July (.148/.207/.296 in 29 PAs), he’s been one of the best lead-off hitters in the league. But there is no reason to bat 2B Gordon Beckham, he of the .243 average and .291 OBP, second behind him. Kevin Youkilis (.262/.341/.426) is the best fit there.

The addition of Youk makes the Sox offense truly formidable. Salmon go to die at the place of their birth; offense went to die at third base before Youk got there. You understand the situation so much better now thanks to that analogy. Now the only weak spots on the offense are found at second base (Beckham) and shortstop (Alexei Ramirez, who has curiously fallen way short of his career averages so far).

The starting rotation is led by the two-headed monster of Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. Peavy has finally recovered from that shoulder surgery no one had ever undergone before and looks just as good as his old Padre self. He’s become a fly ball pitcher (47.1% fly ball rate) in the best park for hitting home runs in the majors. His HR/FB rate is only 7.7%, but that’s something to watch going forward. Sale has a filthy slider that gets a lot of attention, but his changeup actually gets more whiffs (18.66% of all changeups thrown result in whiffs, compared to 17.71% for sliders). There are two concerns for Sale: his innings limit (the White Sox don’t want to get all Dusty Baker and wear out his arm) and his high frequency of sliders (which might wear out his arm anyway). Sale might be moved to the bullpen later in the year to lessen his workload, especially if the Sox can find another starter in the trade market to replace him. In only 50.1 IP, rookie Jose Quintana has played like an ace, with a 2.04 ERA backed by a strong 3.05 FIP and 3.88 SIERA.

Quintana is just one of eight rookie pitchers for the Sox. Addison Reed, another one, has been a serviceable closer (4.06 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 9.58 K/9), but Sale might take his job later in the year.

Guys they might trade for:
2B Jeff Keppinger
P Brandon McCarthy or something (he’s a ground ball pitcher so I wrote him)

Notably Injured:
P Jesse Crain (mid-July)
P John Danks (late July or early August)
P Philip Humber (July 16-17)
3B Brent Morel (TBD)

Holy fuck this took way more time than I’d care to admit. No way I can do NL Central today. This might turn into a seven-part series. Let’s see how I do tomorrow. I hope this makes up for it.

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