Thursday, March 11, 2004
Updated: March 16, 7:54 PM ET
Key AL statistics
By David Lipman
A quick glance at the stats pages will tell you something, but not everything.
In 1991, the Detroit Tigers finished last in the American League with a .247 batting average but finished second in the circuit with 817 runs scored. Thirteen years ago, the idea of batting average as something other than the most important statistic in baseball was a revolutionary concept.
Today, the revolution is in full swing. Harvard graduates dot the general manager pool and calculators have pulled close to speed guns as the machine of choice in player evaluation.
This is a compilation that is intended to represent that revolution. Whether you call it statistical analysis, sabermetrics, or simply baseball logic, there's a new mindset in baseball. A team-by-team look at some noteworthy numbers in the American League:
How much better will Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon make the Angels in 2004? Since 1961, when baseball adopted a 162-game schedule, exactly 50 teams lost 20 or more games than they had the season before (strike years pro-rated to 162 games), including the 2003 Angels. The next season, on average, the 49 teams won an average of 8.5 games more than in the down year, meaning the Angels should win about 86 games next season based only on where they came from. The best news for the Angels is that five of those 49 declining teams qualified for the postseason: 1965 Dodgers, 1987 Cardinals, 1992 Athletics, 2001 Astros, and 2003 Cubs. The Angels will also have the benefit of elasticity: as it turns out, a 77-win team will typically improve by about 1.5 wins as it regresses to the mean.
Bill James invented a method called the Favorite Toy to determine approximately where a player's total in a given category would wind up. The method is fairly simple, taking into account how many more years the player will probably play and his current established norms in that particular category. According to the Favorite Toy formula, Rafael Palmeiro has 1.5 seasons remaining in his career. With an established level of 41 home runs per season over the last three season, Palmeiro can be expected to hit 62 more home runs in his career, finishing at 590. Since he's been within six home runs of that number in each of the last nine seasons, that sounds about right. The Favorite Toy formula gives Palmeiro a 36 percent chance to hit 600 home runs.
Johnny Damon was one of the poster boys for the powerful Boston Red Sox offense in 2003. Though his numbers have dropped a bit since his days in Kansas City, Damon is still considered an important part of the team. Jeremy Giambi, on the other hand, struggled through 127 at bats, hitting .197. Giambi has since signed with the Dodgers. Should the Red Sox have lost interest so quickly? While Giambi clearly trails Damon in baserunning and fielding, his ability to draw walks put his on-base percentage only three points behind Damon, despite a batting average 76 points lower. In fact, 2003 was the first time Damon had a higher on-base percentage than Giambi since 2000. On the surface, Damon's .284 career batting average justifies his position at the top of the Red Sox's lineup. Giambi's career .263 average may be 20 points lower, but his career on-base percentage is actually 30 points higher than Damon's.
Early in 1991, there was an article in Sports Illustrated called "The Not-Really Rookies" about several players who had played enough in 1990 to become ineligible for the BBWAA Rookie of the Year Award, but hadn't played enough to make a lasting impact. These players were supposed to have bright futures, and they generally lived up to the billing. Alex Fernandez became an ace of a World Series team. Juan Gonzalez won two MVP awards. None, however, can match the accomplishments of Frank Thomas, who should be a Hall of Famer. Baseball-Reference.com has a statistic called Adjusted OPS+, measuring a player's offensive contribution in the context of his home ballpark and the era in which he played. Through 14 seasons, Thomas ranks 12th in Adjusted OPS+ putting him in the company of Jimmy Foxx, Ty Cobb, and Stan Musial. Many sure fire Hall of Famers are much lower on the list. Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, and Mel Ott are tied for 22nd. Of the "Not Really Rookies" from 1991, Frank Thomas has had the best career, and none of the others really come close.
Jody Gerut had an .830 OPS last season to lead all rookies. Gerut's OPS mark ranked 61st in baseball, placing him right between Carlos Lee and Rondell White, meaning that at age 25, he played last season as a solid major league regular. Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, lauded for his 106 RBI, finished 30 spots lower. Perhaps the general public's affinity for RBI and batting average (Matsui hit .287 to Gerut's .279) and the spotlight of playing in New York got Matsui 10 first-place Rookie of the Year votes to none for Gerut. He may have fallen short in the hardware department, but Jody Gerut clearly had a great season in 2003 should be a very significant presence in the middle of the Cleveland lineup.
In 2003, 21-year-old Jeremy Bonderman lost 19 games, allowed a .294 batting average, and ran up a 5.56 ERA. Tiger fans, however, should be very excited about some of his other stats. In 162 innings, Bonderman struck out 108 batters, a rate of exactly six batters per nine innings. At his age, that rate is impressive, but exactly how impressive?
There have been 47 seasons where a pitcher 21 or younger pitched 100 innings and had a strikeout rate of 6.00 or higher. Of those 47 seasons, nine were by Hall of Fame pitchers, including three by Bob Feller (1937-39), and one by newly elected Dennis Eckersley (1975). That's some nice company, but it gets better. Three more of those seasons came from Bert Blyleven, who is widely considered Hall-quality. Other seasons were compiled by players like Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Denny McLain, and Ken Holtzman, who seemed well on their way to the Hall for some time.
Post All-Star batting stats can be a good predictor of future performance. That makes sense, because sometimes when a hitter plays through an injury early in a season, but heals as the season progresses, his stats in the second half are likely to resemble where he'll be during the following year. History has many examples proving this theory. Frank Thomas hit .239 with a .773 OPS in the first half of 2002, but greatly improved those numbers in the second half, leading to a monster year in 2003.
The Royals have three key hitters, including newly acquired Matt Stairs, who improved in the second half of 2003 and should be primed for big seasons in 2004. Stairs had an OPS of .866 in the first half but streaked to 1.036 in the second half. Carlos Beltran rebounded from an injury-riddled first half to raise his OPS over 100 points to .968 in the second half. Joe Randa used a monster August to raise his OPS almost 200 points, finishing the second half at .902. While Beltran is the only one likely to have a season of the level of 2003's Frank Thomas, all three should help the Royals contend in a weakened AL Central.
The 2003 Twins won 90 games, easily winning the AL Central. Some observers claim that the Twins were helped by the easiest schedule in baseball. While they built a lead by beating up on hapless Detroit in April, the Twins couldn't even handle Cleveland, Texas, and Anaheim to close out the first half. Twins fans, however, need not fret. When considering their own opponents' records and those opponents' opponents' records, the Twins played against a .481 strength of schedule in 2003. The Mets, on the other hand, played against a .515 strength. Over 162, that means that the Mets played a schedule five games harder than the Twins. That's minimal, especially when considering that even the worst team in baseball could reasonably be expected to win two of five games against the best team. The strength of schedule advantage is diminished even further in Minnesota's own division, where the other teams finished second through fifth as far as the easiest schedules are concerned. The Twins finished four games ahead of the White Sox, playing a schedule of similar ease, so the victory has to be considered a decisive one.
Jesse Orosco pitched for two decades on the strength of his left arm. Despite the fact that Orosco played for them in 2003, the Yankees don't put much stock in having a staff full of left-handers. After losing Andy Pettitte and David Wells this offseason, the Yankees enter 2004 with a chance to have their top five starters all right-handed. Is this rare? Not really ... 108 teams have been all right-handed since 1980 (about four teams per year). Is it successful? Sometimes, as evidenced by the 1984 Tigers and 1993 Blue Jays and 16 other teams that qualified for postseason play. Those teams are countered by the 1987 Padres and 2000 Devil Rays and many others who qualify as "less than successful." It's hard to say whether having five right-handed starters will help or hurt the Yankees, who should win a lot of games anyway. The most encouraging information for the 2004 Yankees is that the Red Sox will also enter the season with five right-handed starters. Perhaps that explains why the Blue Jays traded for Ted Lilly.
Many experts have predicted a downfall for Barry Zito in 2004. After posting a strikeouts per nine innings rate of 8.61 in 2001, Zito could only muster 7.14 in his Cy Young 2002 season and 5.67 in 2003. In the history of baseball, only 16 times has a pitcher lowered his strikeout rate by more than one a game two seasons in a row. Only seven of those occurred in the live-ball era, five after 1985. Some of the seasons warn of dire consequences for Zito. Aaron Sele (2001) and Mike Scott (1990) both fell apart after the second season of strikeout decline. Jon Lieber (2001) and Johnny Vander Meer (1943) managed to stay consistent despite maintaining low rates, and Dwight Gooden (1986) never had seasons approaching the success of his first two. However, there is hope for Zito in two places. Darryl Kile (1998) struggled in Colorado before regaining his strikeout rates and finding success in St. Louis. More significantly, Steve Carlton (1971) regained his strikeouts (8.06) and his form, winning 27 games and the Cy Young Award the following season.
In 2003, the Oakland A's won 96 games, winning their division by three games over the Mariners. However, if you only had access to the runs scored and runs allowed by each team, you might see it different. The Mariners scored 795 runs (27 more than Oakland) and allowed 637 (eight fewer than Oakland). That's right, the Mariners scored more runs than Oakland and allowed fewer, yet finished behind them in the standings. The Mariners scored 10 or more runs in a game twice as often as Oakland, and won by six or more runs a whopping 29 times, compared to 19 for the A's (and 14 for the Angels and 13 for the Rangers). The blowouts padded Seattle's season run totals, but the Mariners had a poor record in one-run games and extra innings, trailing Oakland in both categories. Bill James and other sabermetricians endorse the Pythagorean Method, which states that the square of a teams runs scored divided by the sum of the square of runs scored plus the square of runs allowed will approximate the winning percentage. Using that formula, the Mariners should have won 99 games, and the A's 95. That, of course, means that the Mariners should have won the West by four games.
Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, the Devil Rays had the youngest hitting lineup in baseball. The young team struggled at the plate, finishing 12th in the AL in runs. Despite the lack of punch, recent history predicts good things for young teams. In 1999, the Marlins had the youngest team in baseball and finished 16th (last) in the league in runs scored. The following year, they again had the youngest team in the league, and moved up to 14th, then 10th, and have been in the middle of the pack since. Also in 1999, the White Sox had the youngest team in the AL, and jumped from 10th to first in the league in runs. Recent Twins and Phillies teams have also made large leaps in batting production after several years of having the youngest teams in their league. Studies have shown that batters reach their peak value near age 27. With an average age of 26.2 in 2003, the Devil Rays are primed to have several players with peak seasons in the coming years. As the team gets older, they should move much closer to the top of the league in runs scored.
Players often break in around age 23, then spend a few years learning the ropes, and improve in dramatic fashion several years later. If a player starts his major league career much later, his ceiling is that much lower. The Rangers had a special situation in 2003, as Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock both accumulated more than 500 at bats at age 23 or younger. It's not terribly rare to have two such players: the Devil Rays played Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli last year. The duo doesn't have to take the league by storm, as Jim Rice and Fred Lynn did for the 1975 Red Sox; sometimes it takes a few years, as evidenced by Robin Yount and Paul Molitor of the 1978 Brewers, four years before they reached the World Series. Having one young player contribute is significant, but having two is a very good sign for any team. From Lou Gehrig, Mark Koenig, and Tony Lazzeri of the 1926 Yankees to Ron Hansen and Brooks Robinson of the 1960 Orioles to Vladimir Guerrero and Brad Fullmer of the 1998 Expos, when you have two young teammates accumulating 500 at bats in a season, the chances are good that at least one of the two will become a superstar at some point.
Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays finished second in AL MVP balloting in 2003, and history has been very kind to the runners-up. Of the 26 second place finishers since 1990 (through 2002), only seven didn't receive a single MVP vote the following year, and most of those were due to injury rather than ineffectiveness. Two of those players (Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez) even won an MVP in a later season. Since 1998, only one player (Frank Thomas) has finished lower than ninth, and three players (Barry Bonds, A-Rod, and Albert Pujols) finished second or won the award. Perhaps the increase has come with the explosion of offense, where a player needs to show consistent performance across seasons to garner votes, wiping out one-season wonders like Len Dykstra, who never came close to the MVP after finishing second in 1993. Delgado finished fourth in MVP balloting in the 2000 season, so he's no stranger to the top of the list. The Blue Jays have an up and coming team and at 31, Delgado still has some prime years left. Barring injury, Delgado should easily put himself back into the MVP race in 2004.
David Lipman is a producer for ESPN.com. Click here to send your feedback on ESPN.com
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