The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Friday, September 22, 2006

 

The Sox Come Unraveled, and Other Tales From the Bullpen

The American League Central has turned out to have one of the best races in recent memory, with the Tigers, Twins and White Sox dueling for two playoff spots. But it appears the three-horse race has dwindled to two, and it's the defending Sox -- six games out of first and 5.5 back in the Wild Card -- who've faded in the backstretch. I've got an article in today's New York Sun exploring "The Unraveling of the World Champions":
As September dawned, the Sox and Twins were running neck-and-neck for the Wild Card, apparently the only postseason vacancy remaining in the AL. Chicago held a half-game lead, but the [Baseball Prospectus Postseason] Odds report showed both teams holding a 50% shot of reaching October, either via the Central crown or the Wild Card. The remaining schedules favored Minnesota, with three more home games than the Sox and thehome-field advantage for a season-ending three-game series between the two clubs; at the imposing Metrodome, the Twins had gone 45–22.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom showed reasons to favor the Sox. Not only did they have experience and the championship imprimatur on their side, they held a significant advantage at the training table.

In August, the Twins suffered a pair of devastating blows to their rotation. Brad Radke, who'd battled a torn labrum all season, left his August 25 start against Chicago after just two innings and was subsequently discovered to have a stress fracture in his shoulder. Worse, rookie Francisco Liriano, arguably the best pitcher in the league this year (even better than teammate Johan Santana), was limited to one start in August because of elbow soreness. By comparison, the defending champs were fairly healthy, save for a recent hamstring injury to slugger Jim Thome and intermittent problems with Joe Crede's back.

Yet the Sox are the ones who unraveled. Despite the Twins' injuries — Liriano is done for the year after an abortive return, while Radke may get one more start — Minnesota has raced to a 13–6 record this month, while Chicago has stumbled along at 7–12. What happened?
What happened is that both the offense and the pitching went down the tubes. Specifically, those injuries to Thome and Crede turned out to be much more detrimental than expected, helping the team's scoring rate fell off 36 percent this month (more than that, actually, since the Sox were shut out last night; Crede's slump has expanded to 0-for-25. The bullpen fell apart as well, yielding a 6.58 ERA (that increased last night, too) this month as Bobby Jenks (10.12 ERA, scored upon in four straight appearances) and Brandon McCarthy (19.29 ERA, scored upon in six out of seven appearances) dropped the ball. And while GM Kenny Williams did some good work over the winter in acquiring Thome, he tabbed the wrong rookie centerfielder to replace him, trading Chris Young to Arizona while keeping Brian Anderson, who's hit just 231/.301/.368. He passed up a deadline trade for Alfonso Soriano that would have cost them McCarthy but given the team the option of sliding slumping Scott Podsednik over to centerfield, where the offensive bar was lower.

Anyway, the article is free, so don't be shy.

Meanwhile, I've got a couple of links to point out, stuff that's slipped through the cracks recently. First, there's my much-promised "Prospectus Hit List: A Brief History", which ran... wow, two weeks ago. Thanks to the number-crunching of Clay Davenport, BP now has Adjusted Standings data going back into the 19th century, data that will hopefully find its way to the site in due time. I had the pleasure of sifting through it to answer some of the burning questions readers have had: who's finished first most often (the Yanks, 22 times but not since 1998), what's the longest consecutive run at #1 (four years, by three different franchises, two of them Yankee dynasties), how often does #1 win the World Series (about half the time), how often does #1 miss the postseason completely, as the Indians did last year (just five other times), what the best and worst single-season marks of all time are, and what a composite all-time ranking of the 30 franchises would look like (a whole lot of New York at the top).

One issue my astute readers raised was that when I tallied how often various rankings reached the postseason and won the World Series, I lumped the three eras coinciding with different postseason structures (1901-1968, 1969-1993, and 1995-2005) together, generating some results which muddied up the picture. I'll be attempting to clear that up -- and getting to some of the other interesting facets about the data -- in an article to be named later, so to speak. Big thanks to Clay for running those numbers and to my trusty research assistant, Peter Quadrino, for his help.

Second, Alex Belth cited an old BP piece of mine, "The Claussen Pickle" in his examination of the current state of the Yankee farm system:
Instead of developing their own talent, they returned to the tactics that characterized George Steinbrenner during the '80s: trading their best chips for big-name, top-dollar veterans while breaking the bank in their pursuit of glitzy free agents. At the start of the 2005 season the Yankees' farm system was considered to be underwhelming, with no clear help in sight.

But nearly two seasons later, thanks to the breakout successes of Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang and Melky Cabrera and a budding crop of farmhands, that perception couldn't be any more different from the truth.

"A year ago at this time, these Yankees seemed to be in a 'win now with this group' mode," says Pete Abraham, who covers the Yankees for The Journal News. "Now they have Cano, Cabrera and Wang as transition players with right-hander Philip Hughes, outfielder Jose Tabata and others on the way. There may be no letup."

Jay Jaffe wrote about the Yankees' farm system two summers ago in an article for Baseball Prospectus titled, "The Claussen Pickle," the upshot of which was that while the Yankees lost some good young players from 1994 to 2004, they didn't lose any Hall of Famers. Mike Lowell is the best position player the Yankees have traded in the past 10 years; perhaps Nick Johnson will surpass him one day.

Eric Milton, a No. 1 draft pick, helped land Chuck Knoblauch; Jake Westbrook and Zach Day fetched David Justice. However, "in the two years since that article was written," Jaffe explained recently, "it's even clearer that they've traded away players that were better than what they came up with for their secondary players. Juan Rivera, Marcus Thames or even Wily Mo Peña would have been superior to Ruben Sierra or Bubba Crosby on last year's team."
The difference these days is due to GM Brian Cashman's consolidation of power in the front office, lessening the influence of Steinbrenner's Tampa mafia and exerting more control over scouting and player acquisition.

On that note, last week the New York Post's Joel Sherrman had a complimentary article on Cashman and his crosstown counterpart Omar Minaya's strong work in the dumpster-diving department this year. For the Yankees, that's included picking up OF-1B Aaron Guiel (let go by the Royals), starting pitcher Darrell Rasner (waived by the Nationals) and reliever Brian Bruney (cut by the Diamondbacks), who's pitched so well that he's a lock for the playoff roster. Bruney, who can hit 97 on the gun but had an ERA above 6.00 in his Arizona tenure (the Times has an excellent piece on his saga today), has given the Yanks the fresh power arm that they thought they were getting when they signed Octavio Dotel coming off of Tommy John surgery, but the performances are night and day:
        IP   H    ERA   K/9   K/BB    WXRL
Bruney 17 11 0.53 12.71 2.40 0.374
Dotel 8 13 10.13 7.88 0.70 -0.462
That fresh arm is crucial to the Yanks because Scott Proctor leads the AL in relief appearances (79) and innings (98), Mariano Rivera has missed the past three weeks, and overall, the Yankee bullpen has been worked much harder than any of the other AL contenders. From Buster Olney's piece on Wednesday:
          B2B   #P
Yankees 128 8078
Oakland 110 7128
Minnesota 79 6954
Detroit 57 6713
The first column is the number of times the Yanks have run a pitcher out there in back-to-back games. The second is the total number of pitches thrown by the bullpens this season (both figures through Tuesday). As you can see, it isn't even close; Yankee relievers have been ridden harder. Not surprisingly, they've performed worse as well. Baseball Prospectus' WXRL stat (Reliever Expected Wins Added), which measures the increment by which a pitcher increased (or decreased) his team's chances of winning in each plate appearance, shows the A's bullpen leading the AL with 14.345 wins, the Twins a close second at 14.216 (the two have flip-flopped since I wrote that Sun piece), the Tigers fifth (10.257) and the Yanks sixth (9.706). The Yankee bullpen has tossed 478.1 innings, 19 more than the Twins, and 50 more than the TIgers and A's, and their Fair Run Average (which divvies up responsibility for inherited runners according to a run expectancy table) is 4.81, considerably higher than the A's (4.43), Twins (4.34) and Tigers (4.11) as well.

As past experience has shown, a sharp pen is a key to October. Ask the soon-to-be-former champion White Sox about that when you get a chance.

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