Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Box Score Surfing

What can you learn from spring training stories? Not much. A center fielder going 3 for 3 is likely as critical as the report about the relief pitcher who showed up “in the best shape of his life.” Or the story about the veteran showing the rookie “the ropes.” They’re nice stories that fulfill their primary purpose – convert blank white paper (or pixels) to something with ink on it. But most of us are beyond the point that we believe they provide any insight.

But there is a report that I do pay attention to, especially when the primary position battle is in the bullpen. It’s the box score, and particularly the pitching portion. I’m not so concerned about the results – it’s the order that is often telling.

Coaches want to see the guys they’re considering facing the best players on the other team so they can get a better idea how the player is really doing. For pitchers, this means that the order in which players enter a game often represents a ranking. It’s a vast oversimplification to say it’s quite that cut and dry, but generally, the sooner they get in, the better. So let’s take a quick look at the last six games of spring training and see if anything strikes me:

3/2 vs Pirates:
Duensing, Capps, Neshek, Dumatrait, D Hughes, Diamond, J Manship, A Burnett

And right away we have a question – who it Phil Dumatrait, and why was he getting the 1st spot after Capps and Neshek? Dumatrait is a left-hander who pitched in AAA for the Tigers and then ended up playing in Korea starting in May. He pitched again on Saturday, this time pitching the seventh inning, after Manship and before Waldrop.

I haven’t heard much about him as one of the left-handed options, and there isn’t much in last year’s AAA performance to single him out. But once upon a time, before Tommy John and a shoulder surgery, he was a first round pick with some velocity from the left side. Might be a name to remember.

3/3 vs Orioles
Pavano, Perkins, C James, Hoey, Swarzak

The one exception to the general rule about ranking is the ninth inning. Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson seem to like to play around with that a bit. I don’t know what it means that Anthony Swarzak got to finish this game. I find it interesting that southpaw Glen Perkins got an opportunity over lefty Chuck James. And I find it interesting that Hoey was relegated to the 8th inning.

3/4 vs Rays
Slowey, Mijares, Nathan, Hacker, Gibson, Bazardo, C Gutierrez

Here’s another name I didn’t expect to see. Eric Hacker is not a left-handed pitcher, but is on the 40-man roster, so by definition he has a leg up on a lot of pitchers in camp. He started last year in AAA for the Giants, and darn near earned a promotion. I had him tagged for AAA-Rochester as a starting pitcher, but maybe the coaching staff wanted to see what they had there for future reference. It didn’t go well, by the way – he gave up four hits in the inning and three earned runs.

3/5 vs Rays
Blackburn, Capps, Neshek, Manship, Dumatrait, Waldrop, Burnett

Huh. Manship lept over Dumatrait. Kyle Waldrop shows up for the first time, but way back in the 8th inning. And Alex Burnett closes out his second game. I wonder if Burnett, Swarzak and Carlos Gutierrez are being considered as Rochester’s closer.

3/6 vs Pirates
Duensing, Diamond, D Hughes, Hoey, C James, Swarzak

There’s Swarzak at the end again. Diamond made a significant leap over lefties Hughes and James. Diamond pitched in the 4th and 5th, so there is no doubt he was facing major leaguers. It sounds like the coaching staff wasn’t too pleased with his pace on the mound, and he gave up two hits and two walks in two innings, but he sure looks like he was considered the top lefty going into the game. Hoey moved up an inning, for what it’s worth.

3/7 vs Cardinals
Baker, Mijares, Nathan, Perkins, Hacker, C Gutierrez

Hacker got crushed again in this game, so that sucks for him. Perkins also struggled and that was after pitching significantly later in the game than his first time out. That’s not good. And like clockwork, Gutierrez came in and pitched the last two innings. He struck out four. It’ll be interesting to see if that three-man closing rotation carries through to tomorrow.

So what did I learn?
- Phil Dumatrait might be a name for left-handed specialist that I totally overlooked.
- Scott Diamond is also meriting some serious consideration, or at least was.
- I over looked Eric Hacker too, but he is likely slated for Rochester.
- James Hoey isn’t a serious candidate yet.
- I wonder if Jeff Manship might be a serious candidate.
- Something is going on with Burnett, Swarzak and Gutierrez.

Or at least that’s what I’m going with for now. Take a look at the box scores as they come in over the next week or so and see what you foresee.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Wrestling With Vegas

Here Is How You Define Expectations

Every year, millions, if not billions of dollars are bet by fans and analysts on their baseball teams. And while most of it is done on daily bets or World Series champions, there is another bet that I find infinitely more fascinating: the season over/under.

It’s fascinating in the same way that the price of a stock is fascinating. The number demonstrates an equilibrium determined by people who are risking their own money. The result truly represents what the expectations for that team really are. You want to know who is overrated or underrated? You want to claim someone over performed or under performed? Here is your baseline.

So let’s take a look at what gamblers say will happen in the American League this year, and throw out some gut reactions.

The AL East

Boston has become the clear favorite, and is supposed to be 6.5 games better than they were last year. Supporters will quickly point out how they acquired Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford this offseason, but people forget that they lost Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre this winter, too. But Boston’s struggles last year were largely a result of just how banged up that team was. That number seems about right. Pass.

I'm supposed to believe the Yankees are going to fade 3.5 games just because they're a little older and Andy Pettitte retired? That's reasonable, except that

a) they scored enough runs to be a 98 win team and
b) some of their best hitters - Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodrigurez and Derek Jeter - all had pretty crummy years.

I don't think that happens again. I find it morally reprehensible to bet on the Yankees, but if I didn’t have a soul, I’d take the over.

Tampa Bay won 96 games last year and was good enough to win 98. And yet both Vegas and PECOTA (a statistically-based projection that BaseballProspectus.com uses) have them winning just 84 this year? They lost a lot this offseason, but they didn't lose that much. Over.

Baltimore only won 66 games last year, and they were actually worse than that. Vegas anticipates a 10 game jump, and PECOTA goes even higher than that, predicting a .500 record. I'd usually be all over that, especially in that division, except that I refuse to bet against Buck Showalter. Pass.

And that leaves Toronto at 76.5 games according to Vegas. Someone is going to get the snot knocked out of them in this division. I think it's going to be the Blue Jays. Under.

The AL West

Texas won 90 games last year and Vegas thinks they're going to be close but fall short of that this year. That seems conservative. They're still the class of this division, and that's worth more than 87 games. Over.

Oakland at 83.5. I'll be totally honest - I have no idea what Oakland has done this offseason. But I trust Billy Beane to tear apart this team if he thinks they'll fall short again, and there is no reason to think they won't fall short again. Under.

The fall from grace by the Angels last year really didn't get enough attention. They lost seventeen more games than the year before. They spent the offseason signing a couple of relievers and trading for Vernon Wells. This feels like an organization experiencing a death rattle. I don't see the 83 games that Vegas predicts, and neither does PECOTA, who predicts just 78 wins. Under.

Seattle, a 61-win team, was even worse than that last year. And this offseason, they....what did they do, exactly? They're supposed to win 70 games? Criminy. I don't see how they do it, but I'm not betting the under on three teams in the same division. Pass.

The AL Central

I've got bad news for all those who feel the Twins aren't getting enough respect - Vegas is still picking them to win the division, nosing past a three-horse race. I see it the same way, and while I like the Twins and White Sox a bit better than the gamblers, I wouldn't touch the totals of the Twins, White Sox or Tigers.

As for the others, I'm going to predict that they finally swap places in the standings. That means picking the over on KC and the under on CLE. My scientifically deduced reason: it just feels like the Tribe is a little rudderless right now.


I want to thank Alex Halsted for mentioning me in his book 100 Things Twins Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. #98 is “Venture Online,” which you’ve already done if you’re reading this, but I hope you aren’t stopping with this blog. There are dozens of talented Twins bloggers that aren’t getting nearly enough attention and are worth your time. If you’re looking for a good launching point, I’d suggest stopping by MNGameDay.com, where there is a feed of the latest posts from across the Twins blogosphere.