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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

 

Rox, Sox and Endlesss Organizational Talks

I've got a Prospectus Hit and Run column up at BP today, loosely focused on the Rockies, who finished up their sweep of the Diamondbacks on Monday night. As improbable as their 21-1 run has been, the Rockies' claim on National League superiority is legitimate. They finished the regular season with the best run differential (+102) and highest Hit List ranking (#4) of any NL team thanks to their finishing kick.

Still, it was a weak league, Charlie Brown. The four NL postseason representatives combined for just a .532 Hit List Factor (the average of their actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages), the lowest of any slate from the Wild Card era, and their combined Hit List ranking of 38 tied for the second-highest of that era. This isn't an isolated situation, either. The 2005 slate, which featured the 18th-ranked Padres (-44 runs and a .483 HLF) has the edge with a combined ranking of 39, while last year's slate, with the 17th-ranked Cardinals (+19 runs but a .497 HLF) tied at 38. The presence of the 15th-ranked Diamondbacks (-20 runs and a .4998 HLF) hurt, as did the fact that the 8th-ranked Phillies and 11th-ranked Cubs were the other two teams in.

Here's how the Wild-Card era NL stacks up:
Year  TotRk    Year   AvHLF
1999 .607 1999 13
1998 .603 2004 18
2002 .597 1998 20
2004 .582 2000 20
2000 .571 2001 20
2003 .565 1997 22
2001 .565 1996 25
1997 .563 2002 25
1996 .553 2003 27
1995 .552 1995 28
2005 .542 2006 38
2006 .536 2007 38 <-
2007 .532 <- 2005 39
One league's weakness is the other league's strength. This year's AL finished with the lowest combined Hit List ranking of any league playoff slate via the #1 Red Sox, #2 Yankees, #3 Indians and #6 Angels. It isn't even particularly close:
Year  TotRk    Year   AvHLF
2001 .609 2007 12 <-
2002 .598 2001 17
1998 .586 2002 17
2007 .583 <- 2006 17
1995 .581 1995 18
1999 .577 2005 18
2003 .574 1996 20
1997 .570 2000 20
2006 .569 1997 21
2004 .569 1998 22
2005 .566 2004 24
2000 .564 1999 27
1996 .563 2003 27
Elsewhere in the piece, I point out that the Rockies' average ranking over the course of the year was 16.1; they spent time in both the top and bottom five spots of the Hit List. I came up with a compact form to display the week-by-week rankings of the various contenders. For the Yankees, it looks like this:
Yankees
APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT
1 11 14 10 2 2 2
8 10 9 5 2 2
3 12 8 4 2 2
17 12 7 3 2 2
10 2
For the Rockies, it's like this:
Rockies
APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT
20 24 22 16 14 11 4
16 25 21 16 13 8
16 25 20 16 11 6
24 26 15 17 14 5
19 11
The Rockies actually wound up as most volatile of any team in terms of the standard deviation of their Hit List rankings. That's not necessarily a plus, though four of the five most volatile teams -- the Phillies, Yankees, and Angels were the other three -- wound up making the playoffs; only one of the five least volatile, the Red Sox, made it in, though the bottom 10 also includes the Indians and the near-miss Mets and Padres.

Anyway, that's some stuff to chew on regarding the NL champions, who've become a pretty entertaining team to watch during this run. I'm still not much of a Todd Helton fan, but I do like Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday, not to mention pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez and Jeff Francis. I won't root for them if they face the Indians in the World Series, but if the Red Sox manage to claw their way out of a 3-1 hole, the Rox get my nod.

As for that series, I'm not terribly surprised to find the Indians up 3-1. In the Unfiltered addendum to my ALCS preview, I had the pitching matchups of the first two games as tossups and the Indians with an edge in the next two. Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd helped me look smart by consistently getting Strike One on the patient Red Sox hitters and putting them in a hole, while Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield wilted like hothouse flowers, continuing their poor performance trends of the past two months. Bad breaks behind him had more than a little to do with Wakefield's demise, but once it started he was as powerless to stop them as any other 41-year-old coming off an 18-day layoff due to back and shoulder trouble.

Westbrook threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the first 20 Sox hitters and 21 of 27 overall. Byrd did so to 17 out of 21 after doing so to 20 out of 25 Yankee hitters in the Division Series. How important is this? Baseball-Reference's splits show that batters hit .239/.283/.358 after an 0-1 count, compared to .284/.394/.463 after a 1-0 count. That's 45 points of batting average, 111 points of OBP and 105 points of SLG higher!

Of course, those first-pitch stats count all balls in play as strikes, but even so, the Red Sox only put Westbrook's first pitch in play twice, via a Dustin Pedroia groundout in the second and a J.D Drew single in the seventh. Here's the breakdown:
   TBF  SL  SS  SIP
1 3 3 0 0
2 5 3 2 0
3 3 2 0 1
4 4 3 0 0
5 3 2 0 0
6 4 2 0 0
7 5 1 1 1
T 27 16 3 2
TBF is Total Batters Faced, SL is Strikes Looking, SS is Strikes Swinging (including fouls), and SIP is Strikes In Play. The Sox challenged Westbrook to throw Strike One and he did nearly every time until he reached the heart of the order for the third time, by which point Cleveland had a 4-0 lead. As for Byrd, his breakdown isn't quite so emphatic, but again, he took advantage of Boston's patience:
   TBF  SL  SS  SIP
1 3 2 0 1
2 4 2 2 0
3 5 2 1 1
4 4 1 1 1
5 3 2 0 0
6 2 0 1 0
T 21 9 5 3
Can the Sox come back? Anyone who remembers 2004 would be an idi... a moron to deny that it's possible. To my surprise, many in the national media were pretty adamant about the idea of throwing Josh Beckett on three days' rest for Game Four -- something I felt could be the deciding factor in the series -- and are hammering Terry Francona for it now. Beckett threw only 80 pitches in his Game One start, but apparently, tightness in his back kept Francona from even considering pitching him instead of Wakefield on Tuesday night -- inconvenient for the Sox. Still, with two more days of rest under his belt, going against a C.C. Sabathia who hasn't lived up to his #1 billing in October, this series could easily go back to Fenway. I don't care who the starting pitchers are, that's a can of Whoop Ass I don't want to see opened.

As for the Yankees, the waiting game regarding Joe Torre's fate continues. With every pundit busy spinning their wheels regarding this ongoing Hamlet act and taking the we-have-no-news news to ridiculous extremes, I'll hold my tongue and focus on the baseball that's still going on. There's a ton to be said about the impending end of an era, whether it's Torre's era or that of paper tiger George Steinbrenner, but all in due time.

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