Sunday, April 02, 2006

Today is Opening Day...Maybe

It is always cruel when you look forward to something and then it does not come to pass. Today should be opening day between the Indians and White Sox, but apparently a monsoon is about to hit Chicago and derail that. This will be one of those disjointed random junk entries which there is absolutely no reason to read. I can see that some people may be interested in Win Shares or R+/PA or RPW converters, but I would be surprised to know that anyone cares to read a column that will mention Lost.

First, a little thing about fantasy baseball. I am in a 5x5, 18 team league on Yahoo which had its draft yesterday. My second round pick was Jose Reyes. This is kind of bothersome to me, because I wouldn’t pick the guy with a .304 OBA for my real team. But he figures to hit .280, play every day, and get a bunch of steals, so he is a fine pick for the situation...he was the top-rated guy left on my draft list at the time, and believe me, I was trying to justify ways to myself not to pick him. I realize that there are other more realistic scoring methods for fantasy baseball then 5x5 or the other standards, but I am not so much complaining about them as lamenting the fact that sometimes you have to populate your team with guys you wouldn’t in real life.

Then we have the ongoing steroids crap. I am truly uninterested in who was using or not using steroids, so I hate to even address this, but there is one thing that has been bothering me. I have seen some people talk about how it is the “biggest threat to the game since the Black Sox scandal” and even using it to drum up sympathy for the admitted baseball bettor Pete Rose, i.e. “What Rose did is not nearly as bad as what [Bonds, Palmeiro, etc.] did”. First, on the Black Sox thing, I think that canceling the WORLD SERIES is just a tad bit more of a threat to the game of baseball then some guy injecting himself in the butt.

But on the issue of the integrity of the game, and Pete Rose, let me ask a question: Why would a baseball player take steroids? There is only one answer: He would take steroids because he thinks they will enhance his performance. Now whether his motivation for this is because he wants to make more money, or be more famous, or help his team win, or break a record, is irrelevant. Because no matter what the motivation is, he is doing it because he thinks it will make him a better player, and therefore, even if it is not the prize he has in sight, help his team win more games.

Gambling on baseball is so abhorrent because it opens the door to taking actions which are not in the best interest of your team, and in fact could help your team lose. Steroid use may in fact be detrimental to your team, if it causes more injuries or takes away from other parts of your game, but the intention is always to do good. The fact that steroid use may be detrimental to your team, is sort of like the fact that eating lots of food may be detrimental to your team. David Wells did not get fat thinking “How can I screw over the Red Sox”, and a steroid user did not take steroids thinking that either. But somebody who is betting on baseball may well have a stake in sabotage.

Now none of this is to say that steroids should be encouraged because they are taken with the intentions of improving your performance. If you want to continue to be outraged about it, go ahead, although I will ignore you. But don’t try to pass off the tripe about Pete Rose. It doesn’t fly with me, and it doesn’t fly logically.

I picked up the preview issue of Sports Weekly this week, and have a few gripes. I am bitter about the erstwhile Baseball Weekly as is. When they switched to providing NFL coverage, they informed us that they would not cut back on their baseball coverage in anyway. Then they dropped the box scores and had NFL crap on the cover half of the time during the baseball playoffs. So I never renewed my subscription, and usually only pick up the Spring Training and Season preview editions. Now I see that they have added NASCAR coverage, which only further dilutes the baseball content that they promised us would not be cut back on.

Anyway, they could also stand to hire some proof-readers, because I didn’t realize that Alex Fernandez had made a comeback, as a shortstop for the Red Sox no less! The cover story is “Who Will Shock the World?”, with the implication being that the last five World Series winners were all surprises, and so who will it be this year? (They pick the Phillies as the team with the best chance to be a surprise). I have never understood the need to stretch the truth to make your point, when you already have a good point to begin with. I will readily admit to being surprised by the World Series victories of the Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, and White Sox. To try to convince me the Red Sox championship was a surprise is a stretch. How can a team be a surprise after coming almost as close as you can come to making the World Series without actually doing it the year before? It would be like saying the Indians would be a big surprise if they won the Central this year (incidentally, their survey of baseball people picks the Indians as the third-most likely surprise team, which means that the people they surveyed must be surprised any time the same eight teams don’t qualify for the playoffs in consecutive years).

Finally, we come to an article in the Palm Beach Post entitled “Statistical Significance”. It has little profiles of a few sabermetricians (including Bill James, Studes of The Hardball Times and Baseball Graphs, and Marc Normandin of Beyond the Box Score), and sort of tries to show that they aren’t just geeks, they are somewhat normal people. You will not learn anything you did not know from reading this piece, but it is what it is and it’s cool to see these guys get mentioned in the mainstream media.

However, this article refers to them as “stat masters”. This may be the singular worst euphemism ever developed for “stat-drunk computer nerd”, and I am very grateful that no one has ever referred to me as a “stat master”. I good-naturedly complained about being called a “baseball wonk” by Studes in the Hardball Times Annual. I hereby take back those complaints, as that is an infinitely preferable term to “stat master”.

This article also tells you that Studes likes to watch Lost and 24. Good tv taste, there. Maybe they should next do a piece about the “Lost masters” who are currently dissecting the map on the door. I’d like to know who the Others are and where Walt is too, but what I really want to know is, what happened to Montan’s frickin arm?

I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t really do a full review, but if you are at all interested in the strategic side of the game, you should read The Book by Tango, Mickey Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin. It is by far the most comprehensive analysis of the sacrifice, the stolen base, the intentional walk, etc. ever published. I will also tell you what it is not: it is not The Hidden Game of Baseball. It is not a sabermetric primer, it is applied sabermetrics. There are introductions to Linear Weights, Run Expectancy, etc., because these are the key tools used throughout the book. But there is no discussion about league adjustments, replacement levels, park factors, etc. It is not a book you read to get introduced to sabermetrics, it is a book you read to learn about how sabermetrics can evaluate strategy (which can also be read by someone not familiar with sabermetrics, if they are willing and able to get the basics of the methods down).

The point of that is to say that this is unlike any other book in your sabermetric library. The most interesting thing, I thought, was the application of game theory to strategic decisions. For instance, even if bunting is a bad play in general, you still should do it occasionally because otherwise, the defense will respond, and they will thereby lower the expected gain you get from not bunting. The introduction of game theory invalidates to some extent the traditional sabermetric techniques of strategy evaluation. This is an area that I think could be looked into further (I am not saying that their coverage is poor, just that you could probably write a whole book just about that), and I anticipate that somebody somewhere will do some good work in this area in the future. Perhaps even the authors of The Book themselves.

Near the Banks of the Cuyahoga

Since I follow the Indians more closely then any other team, I will give do a little team-specific preview for them. This is hardly stuff that you can’t get elsewhere, but oh well. Since the OSU preview was titled “Near the Banks of the Olentangy”, it only was natural to name this one as I did. I suppose at this point I could digress into rating these two dirty looking rivers--(Cuyahoga has caught on fire, -5 pts; Olentangy is dirty mostly just because it is shallow and muddy, +3 pts; my parents’ property runs right up to the Cuyahoga, +3 pts; the Olentangy runs outside Ohio Stadium, Value City Arena, etc., contest over), but instead I will try to briefly recap the season and off-season that was, run down the roster, and refer you back to my last entry to see how I think it will shake out in the standings.

The story of the Indians’ 2005 season has been told many times, and is not a particular pleasant one, but the team started slowly but caught fire over the summer, charging back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to the White Sox in the division to give them a September scare, as well as establishing a lead on the wildcard heading into the final week. Then it all fell apart, losing five of six at home to the Devil Rays and White Sox to finish six back in the division and two back in the wildcard.

The Indians’ offense scored 806 park-adjusted runs, good for fourth in the American League. Ranked by RAR at each positions, the Indians had the best catcher, sixth-best second baseman, fourth-best shortstop, fifth-best left fielder, best center-fielder, and second-best DH. Unfortunately, the team struggled to get production out of the three remaining corner positions, as their first baseman was tenth, third baseman dead last, and right fielder fourteenth.

Surprisingly, though, it was the Indians’ defense that carried the team. They allowed 655 park-adjusted runs, trailing only the White Sox (although in a virtual dead heat tie with Minnesota and Los Angeles). The starters were solid, as Kevin Millwood led the league in ERA and was fifth with +53 RAR; Cliff Lee was +41 RAR; CC Sabathia was +36; and while Scott Elarton and Jake Westbrook were both below average, they ate up innings and were both around +15 RAR. The rotation also stayed healthy almost all year, as the five combined to start 158 games, and the other four were all taken by Jason Davis.

The bullpen was a huge strength, as the key contributers were Bobby Howry with a 2.36 RRA; David Riske, 3.22; Bob Wickman, 2.78; Rafael Betancourt, 3.51; Scott Sauerbeck, 2.88; and Arthur Rhodes, 3.46. Those six not only pitched brilliantly, but combined to work 352 of the approximately 460 innings logged by the bullpen. Matt Miller was injured and missed most of the second half, but pitched 29 innings with a 1.82 ERA, and then youngster Fernando Cabrera came up and pitched 30 innings with a 1.47 ERA. That totals to around 412 innings all thrown by pitchers with RRAs of 3.50 and lower.

While the team finished with a record of 93-69 and a .574 W%, the Expected W% based on runs scored and runs allowed was .598, best in the AL and second only to St. Louis. The Predicted W% based on RC and RC Allowed was .617, the highest in baseball. So, in the sense that sabermetricians often mean it, the Indians were “unlucky” last year. Please note that I, at least, do not mean this to imply that they somehow deserved to win but did not. The team that has the highest W% is the champion, and that was the White Sox. However, these type of indicators are often (or appear to be) better correlated with future performance then the actual winning percentage.

The off-season was relatively uneventful until January. Prior to that, the Indians let Kevin Millwood leave for free agency, as he received a massive and IMO foolish contract from the Rangers. Given Millwood’s injury history and peripherals, it seems unlikely that he will be able to duplicate his excellent pitching of 2005. Millwood still projects as a solid starter, but probably not a good investment at the price the Rangers paid. Scott Elarton was also allowed to leave to sign with Kansas City, as was Bobby Howry with the Cubs.

Their[Millwood and Elarton] replacements will be Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, both signed as free agents. While it would be silly to expect them as a pair match what Millwood and Elarton did LAST year, it is not unreasonable to think that they could match what Millwood and Elarton will do THIS year.

Then in January, the Indians sent Coco Crisp, David Riske, and backup catcher Josh Bard to the Red Sox for top third base prospect Andy Marte, reliever Guillermo Mota, and catcher Kelly Shoppach. They also flipped Arthur Rhodes to Philadelphia for Jason Michaels to help fill Crisp’s spot in the lineup. I have written about this trade in a previous post, so I won’t belabor it here, but if I had to call this trade, I would say that the Indians will benefit in the long run, but it probably does weaken their position this year, especially since Marte will start the season in Buffalo.

So, after all of this, what will the team look like in 2006? Offensively, exactly the same with the exception of Crisp. Victor Martinez has established himself as the premier catcher in the AL, if not all of baseball, and at 28 would appear to be in the prime of his career. He will be backed up by Kelly Shoppach, who hit 253/352/507 at AAA for Boston last year. He hit poorly in the spring, but one the backup job over the shockingly still employable Einar Diaz, who has not hit since he was traded by the Indians, with Ryan Drese for…Travis Hafner, who apparently will play some more first base this year. If Hafner can play some games in the field, hopefully Martinez can DH and save himself from catching, as Shoppach would appear to not be an offensive sinkhole as Josh Bard was last year. Whether he plays the field or not, Hafner has established himself as one of the best hitters in baseball--his 8.44 RG trailed only A-Rod in the junior circuit. Ben Broussard, who hit just 258/306/468 last year will be the primary first baseman. His career averages are 258/327/459, so it would be silly to expect him to perform much differently this year.

Broussard will be spelled some at first base, at least against lefties, by Eduardo Perez, signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay. Last year this role was served by Jose Hernandez, who did not hit whether the pitcher was left-handed, right-handed, or was an octopus. Perez tagged lefties for a 259/371/526 line last year in around 155 PAs, so hopefully he will add some runs in this role. At second base, Ronnie Belliard returns and should provide average hitting and his unusual deep defensive positioning. At third base, Aaron Boone will try to recover to be his mediocre self after an atrocious 245/294/381 comeback season. This year, though, with the Indians expecting to contend from day one, he will need to hit or else Mr. Marte, who seemingly has nothing left to prove in the minors, could dislodge him. Jhonny Peralta was tremendous in his first full season at shortstop, and while it might be wishful thinking to believe he will create 6.6 runs per game again, he appears to be one of the brighter young players in the league. Ramon Vazquez will hopefully be the little seen and little needed utility infielder he was last year after the trade of Alex Cora.

The outfield will be anchored by Grady Sizemore in center, who had a tremendous 106 RC season last year. While he may be due for some regression/sophomore slum/whatever, he should be one of the league’s better centerfielders. Jason Michaels is a bit of a question mark in left as it will be his first time handed a full-time job (although he could platoon with fourth outfielder Todd Hollandsworth). He has showed good on-base skills in Philly, and provides a nice backup for center. Casey Blake had a horrible year(243/301/442) in right, but the Indians lack a clear alternative. Like Broussard, his career 255/324/439 line does not give a lot of reassurance that he will do any better. Jason Dubois had a strong spring, but was sent back to Buffalo and seems to have fallen out of favor with the brass after striking out in half of his 50 PA with the Indians last year. He may be an emergency option if Blake struggles, as could prospect Brad Snyder.

The rotation will be anchored by CC Sabathia, who seems to have been around forever despite being just 26 this year. As each year passes, it seems less likely that he will break out, but last year he did match 2004 for his best control, and 7.4 was his best strikeout rate since his rookie year. I picked him as a dark horse Cy Young candidate, because he is young enough to put it all together and become a great pitcher, although I’m not betting on it. He is a solid starter either way. Cliff Lee will follow him, and while not as good as his 18 wins a year ago may lead some to think, he is a solid pitcher with a 4.26 eRA last year. He combines with Sabathia to give the Tribe one of the better left-handed pitching combos around, with the exception of Minnesota, where Johan Santana and his aunt would be the best duo, let alone the fact that they have the top left-handed pitching prospect in baseball.

Paul Byrd has been brought back after a long time away to fill the role of #3 starter. Byrd was solid last year as well, with a 4.42 eRA. He is 36 and does not have a really impressive strikeout rate, so he’s the kind of guy you worry about losing it. But for the short-term, it would seem best to expect more of the same. He is followed by Jake Westbrook, who struggled to a 5.29 RA last year, although his 4.40 eRA is much more in line with his very good 2004 season in which he was at 4.09. Again, I think it is prudent to expect more of the same. Jason Johnson will be the #5 starter, at least until Fausto Carmona or Jeremy Sowers are deemed ready to take over. He is a slightly below average pitcher who can toss 200 innings, which is not a bad thing to have in a fifth starter. Given his extra durability, lower price, and similar performance, I am glad the Indians signed him rather then retaining Scott Elarton.

The bullpen, a true force last year, is much more of a question mark this year. Bob Wickman got a bunch of saves last year with a 2.52 RA, but his 4.26 eRA and 5.30 GRA give you an indication of why Cleveland’s retailers could not stock enough Tums during the season. With his, erm, impressive physique, advanced age, and low strikeout rate, you can relataively low K rate(6.0), you can forgive me if I predict that somebody else will be handling the closer’s role by July.

But who will that someone be? Well, the Indians have three righties to set-up, led by Fernando Cabrera, who dominated the AL at age 24 in 30 inning debut. He will not record another 1.47 ERA, but there is a reason why Baseball Prospectus included him in their top 50 prospects, rare for a reliever. Then there is Guillermo Mota, who suffered through an injury-plagued year in Florida last year. Given his age and lingering concerns about injury, there is legitimate cause for pessimism, but on the other hand, it was just two years ago that he was one of the top ten relievers in the NL. Finally, Rafael Betancourt has been the underrated member of the Cleveland pen for a couple years now, as he consistently eats middle innings with sub-3.5 RAs and excellent strikeout rates. Early reports had him being included in the Crisp trade; if true, the Indians wisely substituted David Riske instead, whose rising homer and falling strikeout rates spell trouble.

The Indians have just one lefty after sending Arthur Rhodes to the Phillies, and that will be Scott Sauerbeck. Sauerbeck was great at stranding inherited runners a year ago (+7 runs over an average reliever), but his run averages were all in the mid-4s. He fits the LOOGY role, as over the last three years lefties have a 620 OPS against him v. 846 for righties. For perspective, that’s about the same as Omar Infante(626) and Rondell White(843). The sixth spot in the pen falls to Matt Miller, whose sidearming motion automatically endears him to me, let alone the fact that in 89 career innings he has struck out 83 batters with a 2.62 ERA. At 35 and having missed most of the second half last year, there are definite concerns but he looks to be a useful piece.

The last guy in the bullpen, or at least the buy I hope Eric Wedge will treat as the last guy in the bullpen, is Danny Graves. Why the Indians think they can fix Graves, I do not know, as even in his best seasons he was not that great, but looked good cause he got the saves. Graves beat out Steve Karsay, another hopeless ex-Indian reclamation project, Jason Davis, and Andrew Brown for the spot. Brown had intriguing numbers in the minors last year and will probably be the first option if anyone gets hurt, or Graves or Wickman spontaneously combust. Davis is apparently now moving to the pen full-time, which hopefully will kick start his career, because as it stands now, he’s going nowhere fast. That will leave Carmona as the first backup for the rotation.

To summarize, the Indians have an above-average lineup that will put some runs on the board, they have a solid starting staff that will not dominate anyone but will eat some innings and let the offense work, and a bullpen that does not profile to be spectacular as it was a year ago, but still looks above-average to me. I think that’s a 90 win team right there, and a team that can win this division. It’s also a team that could finish third and not really surprise me. But it should be a good race, and while 1995-2001 may have spoiled Cleveland fans, that’s really all you should ask for.