Saturday, February 28, 2004

Anaheim Angels 2004 Starting Rotation Preview

Safe to say, it was a down year for the starters. Fresh off what may be considered a “successful” season, the Angels were hoping that a staff anchored by Jarrod Washburn and an emerging Ramon Ortiz would aid the team in repeating its World Series title. 387.1 innings and 28 losses later, Mike Scioscia was left scratching his head, wondering where things went wrong.

The rotation as a whole regressed significantly from 2002. Its ERA jumped from 4.00 to 4.90, its WHIP by ten points, and its K/BB ratio decreased by 11%. Washburn and Ortiz were the primary culprits, as they allowed 55 more runs (32%) in 2003 than in their championship season. Disappointed with the staff’s inconsistency and fueled by an enthusiastic new owner, Anaheim brought in two of the most sought-after pitchers on the free agent market and will enter 2004 with a rotation featuring Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn, Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, and one of Ramon Ortiz/Aaron Sele. The Angels have been looking to move a starter for much of the offseason, but for now, being knee-deep in rotation depth might not be such a bad thing.

We will first consider the holdovers from last season in evaluating this year’s group of starters in Anaheim. While the 2003 defense wasn’t as strong as 2002’s league-leading performance (according to Defensive Efficiency), it remained among the top defenses in the league; the rotation benefited considerably from this, as only Scot Shields managed a defense-independent ERA (DIPS) below 4.80. The flyball-oriented staff took a hit whenever Darin Erstad was missing from the lineup, but the trio of outfielders on any given day could still be considered defensively sound. There is good news for 2004, as the new collection of starting outfielders (Guillen/Anderson/Guerrero) will be able to chase down more balls in the gaps, something that will benefit no one on the staff more than Jarrod Washburn.

Prior to 2003, Washburn had posted three consecutive sub-4 ERA seasons, with a peak coming in 2002. While his strikeout rate was consistently less than inspiring, the extreme flyball pitcher took advantage of a quick defense and proved himself as a successful pitcher. The success came to an abrupt stop last season, though, as a 79% increase in home runs and a significantly decreased strikeout rate saw Washburn’s ERA jump by an astounding 128 points. By striking out fewer batters, more balls were hit into the outfield, and with Darin Erstad being limited to 66 games in center field, nobody was hurt more than Washburn. It’s uncommon for a pitcher as young as Washburn to experience such a decrease in strikeouts, though, as his 5.12 K/9 ratio represented a career low, down 95 points from 2003. His struggles have been attributed to a sprained left shoulder suffered in a preseason near-collision with Brenden Donnelly, and this reasoning seems to be legit. After a quick glance at these facts, it seems like Washburn is due for a comeback year in 2004.

However, there’s a little more to the story than just the aforementioned argument(s). Steve, over at the Wheelhouse, has a different judgment of the situation, with a little help coming from Tom Tippett: extreme flyball pitchers will typically post low strikeout rates as a result of getting a bunch of weak pop-ups, and therefore making batters miss isn’t as critically important as it is with neutral pitchers. Steve suggests that Washburn struggled through 2003 were related to not fooling hitters, which causes the baseball to go a long way in a bad direction. Using this idea, Steve thinks that last year’s edition of Jarrod Washburn is more or less the Jarrod Washburn we should expect in the near future.

Assuming that this is generally correct, what percentage of Washburn’s struggles were caused by a permanent decrease in the ability to fool batters? More to the point, how much of an effect did Washburn’s injury have on his pitchability? It’s always a bit odd—and disconcerting—when a young pitcher sees a significant decrease in strikeouts, but in this case I think pitching with a sprained throwing shoulder accounted for many of Washburn’s struggles (be it with velocity or fooling batters). With a healthy shoulder, I’m looking for Washburn to put up an ERA slightly on the friendly side of 4.00.

John Lackey’s 2002 performance was the stuff dreams are made of. A midseason promotion from Salt Lake, Lackey carried his AAA success straight into the majors, posting a well-deserved 3.66 ERA despite having his peripherals translate accordingly. Coming off an unbelievable year capped off by a strong postseason performance, Lackey was looking forward to a 200-inning 2003 campaign with an ERA hovering in the high-3’s. However, PECOTA didn’t share his optimism, projecting Lackey for a 4.66 ERA in 123 innings. As it turned out, they were both right, with Lackey throwing 204 innings but raising his ERA by 97 points. Three main problems contributed to his 2003 struggles: a bunch of home runs, a rough start to the year, and luck. Prior to the season, Lackey’s career-high in home runs allowed was 16, but he nearly doubled that in serving up 31 gopher balls last year. Combined with difficulty finding the plate in April, Lackey began 2004 with a 7.52 ERA that would mar his final line. He also suffered from a defense that allowed 31% of balls in play off Lackey to fall for hits, well above the team average. The good news is that Lackey bumped his strikeout rate up to an above-average level, which bodes well for some future success. He needs to cut down the home runs and shave half a walk per game in order to achieve the level of performance he and his loved ones expect from him; more realistically, the home runs will come down, but the walks will hover around three every nine innings. Lackey should be a decent bet to put up an ERA in the low- to mid-4’s in 2004, a slight improvement over last year’s disappointing performance.

The last of the leftovers are Ramon Ortiz and Aaron Sele, who will be batting for the fifth spot in the rotation. Ortiz’ rough 2003 campaign isn’t difficult to figure out: while his home runs allowed came down from his astronomical 2002 total, he still gave up too many bombs, and allowing too many home runs, combined with a significant drop in strikeouts and a jump in walks, is a lousy recipe for success (think Ryan Franklin, with slightly worse command). Also, Ortiz was very fortunate on balls in play in 2002, as only 23.7% fell for his; this was unlikely to be repeated the next year. He was perfectly healthy for the duration of the season, starting 32 games for the third year in a row. Thus, there is no legitimate explanation for why his K/9 ratio dropped by 201 points, to a paltry 4.70, good for 80th place out of 91 qualified pitchers. Ortiz has a career K/9 of 5.97, well above his 2003 ratio, and with enough innings in 2004 he should be able to approach his career mean. However, it’s unlikely that he gets the chance (in Anaheim, anyway), and he still gives up too many home runs to be considered a dependable starter. While his high-4’s ERA and 200 innings would be far from worthless, it’s likely that the Angels stick someone less talented and more expensive in the back of the rotation. Ortiz would pitch better than he did last year, given the opportunity.

…which brings us to Sele, long considered one of the luckiest pitchers in baseball (in that his ERA never matched up with his peripherals). Sele is in the midst of a precipitous decline in strikeouts, having his K/9 drop each season from a peak of 8.17 in 1999 to 3.92 in 2003—which, had he thrown enough innings, would have been good for second-worst in the major leagues. In fact, not much went well for Sele last year, as he either matched or set career highs/lows in home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Not surprisingly, his ERA soared. Coming off a torn rotator cuff, Sele was expected to have some struggles, but his performance in the second half was markedly worse than his pre-ASB performance, suggesting that injury recovery wasn’t the primary factor in the down year. There isn’t much to indicate that Sele is due for a comeback year, as his numbers were declining before he got hurt. Nevertheless, it looks like he’s going to get some preferential treatment, and therefore won’t have to impress as much as Ortiz in order to get the final rotation slot. Keep an eye on this, as Ortiz would be worth and extra win or two over Sele. Anaheim’s #5 pitchers last year put up a 5.55 ERA; over a full year, Sele would just about match that figure, whereas Ortiz would improve it by about 60 points.

With the lack of a true rotation anchor, Anaheim went after Bartolo Colon, the prize of the free agent market. Colon’s ERA over the last few years:

1998 - 3.71
1999 - 3.95
2000 - 3.88
2001 - 4.09
2002 - 2.93
2003 - 3.87

Which one isn’t like the others? Despite unimpressive peripherals, including a career low in strikeout rate, Colon rode an improved walk rate, good fortune preventing home runs, and 117 innings against NL lineups in posting by far his best season in the bigs. This 2002 campaign artificially boosted Colon’s value, as teams saw him as a genuine elite pitcher in the major leagues, rather than a horse who’s good—but not great—at preventing runs. The Angels handed him $51m over four years in the hopes that he can rediscover traces of his 2002 form. While the contract is probably a little too long to be considered a good deal, in terms of performance, Colon will be both solid and durable for a few seasons. His three-year average VORP is 53.9, which would have placed him 10th in the majors last season, and tops among Anaheim pitchers in 2003 (11.2 points above the underrated Scot Shields). Colon became something of a flyball pitcher in 2003 (he’s been neutral for his career), and as a result his home runs increased by 50% from 2002’s total. However, he should have a better outfield defense with Anaheim than he did in Chicago, and so he’ll allow fewer extra-base hits, directly lowing his ERA. In addition, the Angels have one of the best bullpens in the major leagues, which should lower Colon’s innings pitched total and prevent any late-season fatigue issues (although Colon is the rare pitcher who doesn’t suffer from overwork). With a strong defense and a favorable park behind him, Colon should be good for 220 innings and a 3.60-3.70 ERA, much to the delight of Mike Scioscia and Angels fans alike, but a little worse than what Bill Stoneman and Arte Moreno would like for $51m.

Anaheim’s 2003 version of Colon came in the slimmer form of Scot Shields, who put up a 3.89 ERA in 13 starts after replacing Kevin Appier’s tattered remains in the rotation. Both Colon and Shields could be expected to put up similar ERA’s over 32 starts (with Colon being a little bit better), but the newcomer’s durability is something Shields could only hope to match, and so Colon will add more value to the rotation in 2004 than Shields would have last year (prorated over a full season).

And, finally, we come to Kelvim Escobar, one of the true enigmas among pitchers today. Escobar encompasses everything between stellar and lousy, putting up a 1.83 ERA last May, a 13.07 ERA last April, and three months of a mid-4’s ERA to finish the year. Bouncing between the rotation and the closer role likely plays a part in his performance, as it’s difficult to pitch at an optimal level when you don’t know whether you’ll be starting games or finishing them. There are some things to like about Escobar, but his shiny new deal has been justifiably criticized as too much of a commitment to an erratic pitcher. Over the last three seasons, Escobar’s ERA has been 82 points lower as a starter than a reliever, but this has a lot to do with his obscene 7.79 relief ERA in 17.1 2003 innings. He also has a 3.68 ERA away from Skydome since 2001, but this is entirely due to last year’s 2.76 figure, and his career splits are actually skewed 81 points in the other direction. Furthermore, Escobar is one of the rare Anaheim pitchers who manages to strike batters out at a good rate (7.89 career K/9), but he also walks too many guys, and his K/BB suffers as a result. As you may be able to infer from all this, Escobar’s numbers have been wildly inconsistent, which makes him difficult to project. One of his pluses, though, is a decent ability to keep the ball in the park, a surprising trait given his home park.

One consistency? 4.09 and 4.12 translated ERA’s from the past two seasons. These look about right for Escobar the Angel, although you have to apply a larger error bar than with the other members of the rotation. While I don’t have access to the numbers yet, I’m guessing that PECOTA’s probability rangers differ considerably, and so I’ll conservatively estimate that Escobar puts up a 4.00 ERA in a friendly park, give or take 25 points either way. Whatever the case, he’ll be a significant improvement in the rotation over Ramon Ortiz, circa 2003.

The Angels’ primary focus this offseason was bringing in starting pitching, and their transactions have given stability to a rotation that was 11th in AL ERA last season, despite playing in a pitcher-friendly environment. Last year’s edition allowed 505 earned runs in 928 innings. If this year’s rotation puts up a 4.40 ERA in the same number of innings—probably a conservative projection—doing so would represent a 51-run improvement over 2003, and would improve Anaheim’s Pythagorean record from 80-82 to 86-76—with the same offensive performance as last season. A 100-run offensive improvement gives the same team a 95-win projection, which could be good enough to capture the division. These estimates serve as educated guesses, however, and could easily deviate significantly from the final numbers. Nevertheless, what’s important to understand from this is that while the Angels may have overpaid for their improvements to the starting rotation, said upgrades will put the team in a good position to contend, given the concomitant offensive transactions. Vladimir Guerrero is going to get a lot of attention in 2004 (justifiably so), but the improved rotation will have just as much to do with Anaheim’s success as their new right fielder will.

You can find the Oakland preview here. Seattle's and Texas' will be posted as they become available.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Chris Snelling broke his wrist, and will miss one to two months.

I think it's time to consider crossing him off top prospect lists...
Will Carroll fills us in:

Perhaps Rafael Soriano could have used some of what's working for Tim Hudson. Slotted to be a primary set-up man, Soriano could miss as much as six weeks after a severe strain of his oblique. This could push Soriano to extended spring training if this goes the max expected length. Since muscles never fully recover, this could become something of an ongoing problem.
The blogosphere has been discussing Melvin's quotes regarding the mystique surrounding closers, so it's only appropriate that I link to DMZ's take on the subject, published a few hours ago. Key pieces:

A pure closer is a reliever who only comes in to protect a one- to three-run lead, only in the ninth. The worst pitcher in baseball stands a great chance of pitching the ninth inning without giving up three runs. With no outs, a team with an average offense against an average pitcher can expect to score half a run. The best offense in baseball last year, the Red Sox, averaged about .65 runs/half inning over the course of the season. The worst reliever in the major leagues last year was Jaret Wright, who gave up 46 runs in just over 56 innings of work--.82 runs an inning. Given a three-run lead in the ninth, pitching against the Red Sox, Wright could reasonably be expected to give up an average of a run each appearance, and if he did it all season, he'd rack up 20 saves, be anointed a proven closer, and sign with the Mets for $4 million a year.
A pure closer on an average team will probably only see 40, 50 chances to come into a game and pitch the ninth. Woolner's study also found that a perfect closer--one who never gives up a run pitching the ninth every time his team is ahead--only gives his team four more games in the standings. By contrast, a good but not quite elite offensive player or starting pitcher is worth four or five games; Barry Bonds was worth 11.5 wins last season. Eric Gagne, who was about as perfect as a closer can be in 2002, was worth only three games last year over what you'd predict for the Dodgers if they'd replaced him with innings from normal pitchers--and Gagne actually pitched more than one inning more than 10 times last year.
This reaches back to Ye Good Old Days, when teams didn't have closers, they had 'stoppers', the firemen who came in not just when the game was close, but when the starter was faltering. These brave souls would come in not with a lead and no one on, but with the game tied and two runners on--situations where being dominant and getting the outs has a clear and significant impact on the game's final score. These were situations where Gagne might strike out three guys to get out of the jam unscathed, while Jaret Wright's predictable single scores two runs and costs the ballgame. The tighter the situation, the more important it is to have your best pitcher on the mound. We understand this instinctually--you want your best hitter at the most important point in the game--but for some reason the modern mystique around the ninth inning has clouded the judgement of managers across the league.

As far as I'm concerned, the sooner people get over the idea of a "proven closer", the better; how many more teams have to be financially hamstrug by a Billy Koch kind of contract before they realize the error in their ways? How many more teams have to lose leads in the 7th and 8th innings by putting substandard pitchers on the hill before they bring back the idea of an ace reliever?

¡Viva la revoluciĆ³n!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Good stuff for the less statistically-inclined of you. Baseball Prospectus' free section has been running daily columns that explain some of their beliefs and statistics. Check them out here, and go back each day for a new piece.
They're finally on the way. Your AL West starting rotation previews will be here any day now. Be sure to check out the Wheelhouse, Athletics Nation, and Texas Ranger Blog for updates.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I wonder how long the P-I searched through the blogosphere before it could find enough appropriate blogs to mention in its column. I don't know how you can blow off Mariner Musings or Sports and B's in favor of Mariner Talk, which hasn't been updated since December 23rd; I guess the paper has to go to certain lengths to keep the pessimistic fan's opinion as far away as possible (I realize that the paper mentioned USS Mariner, but as the premier member of the blogosphere, that's all but necessary).
Rafael Soriano will be out a month with a strained oblique.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Bizarre news out of Milwaukee:

PHOENIX -- The Brewers on Monday parted ways with Luis Martinez, the team's reigning minor league pitcher of the year who is trying to get clearance to leave the Dominican Republic after his involvement in a shooting there.
After pitching a few seasons as a fringe prospect in the organization, Martinez pitched his way to the Major Leagues in 2003. He was 8-5 with a 2.58 ERA at Double-A Huntsville before going 4-0 with a 0.99 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis, and he allowed only four home runs in 160 2/3 minor league innings.
I realize that this is out of place, but each and every one of you needs to go out and somehow find yourself a copy of Cannibal!: The Musical. It's a picture done by Trey Parker while he was in film school, starring all his friends working for free. It just might be the funniest movie I've seen in my life.
Here's something I hadn't heard before:

Nageotte's a very high-risk guy. He's got a funky landing which can throw off his release point and his command comes and goes. Woolf Stadium is very pitcher-friendly and he took advantage. He's ignored team orders to develop a change-up, and depends too heavily on his slider. He's a pretty good bet to end up as a reliever.

Get the rest of the article here, but only if you subscribe to BP Premium. I don't really feel comfortable sharing pieces of the pay section, but if there's anything specific you want to know, feel free to email me and I'll get back to you about it.
Alas, spring training is nearly upon us, where hopeful young prospects and AAAA fodder alike will be batting for jobs on the major league roster at the potential expense of million dollar fifth outfielders and experienced 35 year old swingmen. Thus, it's about time to take a quick glance at the various competitions that will be staged in Seattle's own camp, where said fifth outfielders and experienced swingmen will be held in high esteem.

Starting Catcher

For the third straight season, Ben Davis and Dan Wilson will try to suck less than each other in an effort to earn the starting catcher's gig. In 2003, Davis appeared to have reached his potential when he entered the All Star Break with a .823 OPS, but he began to regress the second Melvin began considering him as a first-stringer candidate. Wilson, on the other hand, has been lousy for a while, and consistently so, but he has a good defensive reputation and a strong relationship with the pitching staff. Davis was the better catcher last season, but his miserable second half still sticks in everyone's minds, and it will take a great ST performance for the youngster to leapfrog the organizational favorite.

Wiki Gonzalez fits somewhere in here, too, although I doubt even his family has high hopes. On the plus side (for him, anyway), Gonzalez and Davis have each sucked, but one was supposed to become an elite catcher while the other was looking at a career as a backup. That's gotta mean *something*, right? Forget about Wiki, and while you're at it, forget about Borders, Rivera, Oliveros, and Rivera. While Borders could stick around as the dreaded Third Catcher to crouch behind the dish for Freddy's games, even the Mariners are unlikely to arrive at such a conclusion. Davis and Wilson are going to wind up splitting time again, a good display of the team's blissful ignorance of what's best for itself.

First Lefty Reliever

This offseason has seen a Who's Who list of experienced southpaws get offered deals by the Mariners in their effort to replace Arthur Rhodes. At the time of his signing, Eddie Guardado looked like an overpriced but effective lefty set-up man option, but he's since been handed the closer's role with Sasaki's departure. Nevermind that the club might as well have moved Soriano into the role, since it's his eventual fate anyway; we've been left with the scintillating trifecta of Mike Myers, Ron Villone, and Terry Mulholland. Mulholland is coming off a "strong" season in which he held lefties to a .670 OPS, but he's by and large a terrible option, and shouldn't be considered anything more than a bridge partner for Moyer and Edgar. Villone seems to be the frontrunner, given his contract size, endurance, and ability to pitch to righties, whereas Myers has been fulfilling the LOOGY role for a number of years, now. Villone, of course, is the guy who allowed a .817 OPS to left-handed hitters last season, but he throws with the proper hand for a primary southpaw reliever, and perceived value appears to hold precedence over actual value, as far as the Mariners are concerned.

You can keep an eye on Bobby Madritsch, George Sherrill and Travis Blackley, but you'd probably be wasting your time (although I think Madritsch is something of a dark horse).

Fourth Outfielder

Things were looking rosy for Quinton McCracken. Despite his overwhelming worthlessness, his new team loved him, praising his flexibility and athleticism. Since being demoted from a starting role prior to 1999, McCracken had put up a .263/.323/.361 line, including an outlier .825 OPS season in 2002. Nevertheless, he was staring 200 at bats in the face, and on a contending team to boot.

Then Eric Owens got a call.

.272/.324/.363 since 1999.

Owens also plays all three outfield positions (with a varying degree of success).

Notice any similarities?

The difference, of course, is that McCracken has a guaranteed deal, while Owens was brought in on a minor league contract. This clearly gives Quinton the edge, since the Mariners aren't going to find a trade partner, and certainly won't cut McCracken outright. Even so, there's no denying that the two are essentially the same player, right down to each being 33 years old. You'll probably see McCracken win the gig, but it won't be due to performance. In an ideal world this would be Tacoma's problem, but this is 2004, where acid-saturated water falls from the clouds and Joel Silver remains employed.

Long Reliever

The minute the Cirillo trade went down, we all knew there was trouble a'brewing. Between the guaranteed contracts coming back and Bavasi's quotes that the players we received were going to be useful, it looked like we were damned to a season of Kevin Jarvis pitching the middle innings.

It still looks that way.

Again, this has to do with the fact that Jarvis is guaranteed to get a certain amount of money in 2004 whether he pitches or not, and the Mariners have never been a team to pay a guy to sit at home, unemployed. There are a couple better options for the role getting ST invites, such as JJ Putz and Bobby Madritsch, and Matt Thornton, Craig Anderson or Jeff Heaverlo could probably manage to achieve Jarvis' level of ineptitude. Guys like Nageotte, Blackley, and Johnson will get looks as well, although I hope that the Mariners don't see these players as future mop-up men, like Jarvis is now. The long reliever role probably isn't up for grabs this spring, as I don't see anyone performing well enough to convince management to eat Jarvis' salary and cut him from the team.


At the moment, this year's bench consists of Willie Bloomquist, Quinton McCracken, Ramon Santiago, Dave Hansen, and whichever catcher isn't starting. This issue of "man, this group really sucks" has been beaten into the ground, dug up, and beaten again over the last few months, and spring training provides an opportunity to remedy what could have been so easily fixed at a number of occasions since the offseason began. Bloomquist, between his versatility and being a favorite of the team, is a virtual lock, as is McCracken and the backup catcher. This leaves us with two roles up for grabs: backup shortstop and backup corner infielder, although, given Melvin's quotes since the Guillen trade, it seems less and less likely that Santiago will start the year in the minors.

This is when you start to think that maybe, just maybe, the organization will give Justin Leone, AJ Zapp, or Bucky Jacobsen the opportunity they so readily deserve. All three will come to camp with better bats than a few guys on the ML roster, but the Mariners have never been about their own best interests, and I doubt you'll see either of the three guys making the 25-man roster early on. There is some encouragement, though, what with Leone being named the organization's player of the year in 2003, and subsequently being placed on the 40-man. Not much has been said about Dave Hansen, and it's possible that he'll be let go, given that he provides the same skill set as John Olerud (with less success). Keep an eye on Leone, as he probably has the best shot of any minor leaguer of breaking camp on the ML roster.

Opening Day Starter

Could we please put this three-year stretch of Freddy Garcia behind us and let Moyer start the damned game?
Rafael Soriano got hurt today.

Given that this is the Mariners, he'll be ignored for two weeks, after which the team physicians will misdiagnose his injury as a broken femur and put him in traction for three months.