Friday, March 23, 2007

Raise or Raze the Rays - Episode One

by Bball3345, Davis21Wylie, and Manny Stiles

"Raise or Raze the Rays" - Episode One starring Armchair contributors Bball and Dice21Dub is yet another deluded concept from the 'Chair's resident whackjob.

In honor of my favorite homonym/antonym, Raise/Raze along with my favorite baseball team, this series will analyze data from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays through the sabermetrically tinted glasses of two of our favorite Chart Wizards/Stat Geeks a.k.a. "Neil" and "Tim", while ManRay a.k.a. "Erik" gets to interject his typical antisense. The series will run about once a month throughout the regular season, and maybe even a special "Post Season Edition" when the Devil Rays win the AL East.

Build 'em up? Or knock 'em down?

Enough tapyap... To the DATA, Statman!!!

Raise or Raze the Rays

Neil: Okay, Tim, let's get this show started...

Welcome to the inaugural edition of "Raise or Raze the Rays," a periodic column in which my colleague Tim and I, Neil, will aim our ever-growing arsenal of sabermetric weapons at the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In this space, we'll dissect Tampa from practically every statistical angle, in the hope of learning something new that this guy can put to use. But will our boss, Mr. Kombol, like the results? Um... maybe. At the very least, stay tuned to see if this column is discontinued!

But, seriously, let's get the (B)ball rolling by taking a look at one of the D-Rays' primary strengths: their young talent base. As I noted here, we can all agree that the Rays have more than a few quality prospects on their roster, especially on offense -- Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Jonny Gomes, Jorge Cantu, etc... Tampa had a profoundly horrible offense last season, but most of these guys were either hurt, suspended, or in the minors. So is there any hope for this O when (if?) they get their young core in the lineup full-time?

Tim: No doubt, Tampa has an outstanding crop of young offensive talent at the major league level and, even more amazingly, there is still more talent on the way. The scary thing is how all of these high-profile prospects could realistically flop.

They have four potential 20/20 guys, but none of them come without question marks. Carl Crawford, improving but yet to reach the "next level." Rocco Baldelli, torn ACL and Tommy John surgery. Delmon Young, attitude problems. B.J. Upton, can't play defense to save his life.
Baldelli is the most interesting to me, partly for being a non-pitcher and having TJ surgery. Last season, in his 92 games of rare health, Baldelli had a RC/27 of 7.08. Had he had enough bats to qualify, that would have ranked him in the top 20 in the AL. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) wasn't even that inflated either, at .338 compared to his career .333. His Line Drive percentage was at 15.6% compared to his career 16.3%. The most promising trend has been in his power; Baldelli's HR per Fly Ball rose from 7.2% in 2003 to 16.0% last season. At 25-years-old, don't you see him proving his past injuries were a fluke and leading the Tampa Bay offense?

Neil: I can definitely envision a situation in which Baldelli is the cornerstone of this team -- as a Vernon Wells-style two-way OF -- especially given the way his power finally came through last season. I mean, we know this guy is crazy talented: in high school, people were regularly comparing him to Joe DiMaggio, and his top comp for the last fully-healthy season he played (2003) was Tris Speaker. But I'm concerned that his past injuries weren't flukes. The offseason ACL tear? Well, maybe, but the elbow and leg/hamstring issues are troubling for a player of his age. He's still got that great speed, but players with histories of leg problems generally tend to lose it sooner rather than later. If he proves himself to be durable, though, I think they've potentially got one of the best CF in the American League.

As for the rest of this lineup, there's a lot of upside here. They shouldn't be scoring 4.25 runs per game, right? And if you were to look at a best-guess for their guys' production, it'd probably be:

No. Player Pos RC/G

1. Rocco Baldelli CF 6.2
2. Carl Crawford LF 6.3
3. Delmon Young RF 5.8
4. Jonny Gomes DH 5.8
5. Jorge Cantu 2B 4.9
6. Ty Wigginton 1B 5.3
7. B.J. Upton 3B 4.9
8. Dioner Navarro C 4.5
9. Ben Zobrist SS 4.5

Pretty solid, huh? But we've been saying that for the last few years, and someone has always gotten hurt, or underperformed, etc. The margin is paper-thin for them at this point -- somebody goes down or stops hitting, and suddenly you're seeing a lot of Damon Hollins again.
I think one of the key guys for them is actually Akinori Iwamura, the Japanese import. This team was giving infield PT to guys like Tomas Perez last season, so if Iwamura performs like he did overseas, it'll definitely give them some breathing room in terms of depth. How do think Iwamura will handle the transition to MLB?

Tim: Well, Iwamura is 28-years-old, which puts him right in the prime of his career. He has hit over .300, with OBP's a tad under .400 and slugging in the mid-.500s over the past three seasons in Japan. Baseball Prospectus calculates his EQA (Equivalent Average) over the past three seasons at .285, .295, and .293. If he had posted an EQA like those on this side of the ocean, only Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teahen, and Troy Glaus would have bested him in the AL. Personally, I see his EQA coming down due to the shift and the innacuracy of predicting between leagues. An EQA in the .270's with 20 HRs and a mid-.300's OBP seems about right. Production like that would make Iwamura an above-average third baseman and, at under $3 million per year, one heckuva bargain.

As far as I know, Iwamura has stayed healthy and has a solid reputation with the glove. He is capable of playing 2B or 3B, so this improves Tampa Bay's flexibility. Not to mention, Iwamura's bat would be even more of an advantage at 2B. Assuming Iwamura pans out, I see prospect Evan Longoria taking over 3B by season's end and Iwamura shifting over to second base, bumping Cantu out of the starting lineup.

Speaking of fielding, Tampa had serious issues last year on defense. Their Defensive Efficiency Ratio (the number of times they turned balls in play into outs) was a league-low .673. The difference between their Fielding Independent Pitching (4.86) and ERA (4.96) comes out to about an extra 15 runs over the course of a season. In other words, their defense easily cost the Rays a victory or two by itself. According to the HardballTimes fielding stats, the problem appeared to be on the ground, not in the air. The Rays' infield made 82! less outs than expected, while the outfield made 9 more than average. Playing Iwamura, Longoria and Ben Zobrist around the horn would go a long way toward fixing that problem. It also means that deciding to add the dreadful defense of B.J. Upton could further damage the pitcher's confidence in allowing groundballs. What do you think the Devil Rays should do with Upton? Should they try and get him at-bats in the infield, trade him, move him to center, or something entirely different?

Neil: I've always liked Upton, but having him in the infield is clearly unacceptable as long as he's going to do his "Chuck Knoblauch circa 1999" impression. The outfield would be a more appealing destination defensively, because he has loads of speed, but I wonder if his bat is strong enough to support the move (especially after last year's nightmarish .246/.302/.291 line). It's one thing for Alfonso Soriano to go from a defensive-liability IF to an MVP-caliber OF, because Soriano's hitting ability was never really in question -- we may have taken exception with his, um, lack of selectivity, but he always had good power and would at least hit for average.

Upton, on the other hand, has never really proven himself at all as a hitter at the major-league level; yes, his minor league translations have been good, but his career MLB line is .251/.312/.347 in 334 at-bats. At 22, it's not really time yet to give up on him as a player, but now is the time to make him an outfielder, because that defense at third (or short, or the infield in general) isn't getting any better.

But, you know, as bad as Tampa's defense was this past year, you still have to lay a lot of the blame for their 5.28 RA/G at the feet of their pitchers. If it weren't for Kansas City and Baltimore, this would have been the worst staff in the AL, a showing made worse by the fact that they had one of the game's brightest young pitching prospects headlining the rotation (for the first half of the season, at least). To be exact, their non-Kazmir ERA was 5.15. This is what makes the Devil Rays so frustrating: the good players on the team get hurt a lot, and that's not really something the organization can control, but there are contingency plans that don't have to include guys like Seth McClung, Casey Fossum and Doug Waechter -- pitchers who have "removed all doubt" about their suckitude by now.

The good news is that they have what many are calling the best farm system in MLB. With guys like James Shields, Jason Hammel, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jacob McGee, and Jeremy Hellickson coming down the pipeline to join Kazmir, the staff looks like it should improve a lot in the next few years. Meanwhile, Young, Longoria, Elijah Dukes, and Reid Brignac will bolster an already-impressive core of young talent in the field. So, yeah, I like Tampa's future a lot, provided they don't screw things up on the development side. Of course, all of these guys are at least a year away from making an impact at the MLB level, so they're of little use to Joe Maddon & Co. right now. Given that, how do you see the 2007 Devil Rays performing? What are your best-case and worst-case scenarios for this upcoming season?

Tim: First, lets take a look at some of the overall team numbers from 2006 to see if there are any signs of hope.

Actual Record: 61-101
Pythagorean Record: 65-97

Last season, the DRays underperformed their Pythagorean Record by 4 games. So, lets make the assumption that they will over perform their Pythagorean record this season by the same amount.

Batting Average: .255
BA w/ Runners in Scoring Position: .240

Also last season, the DRays performed 15 points of batting average worse with runners in scoring position then they performed on average. If this number corrects itself as well, they could be in for some more runs from better luck with men on base.

BaseballProspectus's PECOTA predicts the DRays to finish in 4th at 78-84. Lets assume that PECOTA's prediction is the Pythagorean Record for the Rays, since it is built on Runs Scored and Runs Allowed. If they best their Pythagorean Record by 4 this season, that puts them at 82-80. With the question marks all around the rotation, this is probably the best anyone can expect from them in the toughest division in baseball. However, young players, especially with the talent of the Devil Rays' youngsters, have a strong chance of outperforming any of their projections. Delmon Young, Ben Zobrist, and Akinori Iwamura could all outdo their projections by a win each, plus some other smaller additions from others. Finally, as a best-case scenario projection, I give the Devil Rays an 86-76 record, assuming a tad better luck and some big years from the talented prospects.

The worst case scenario is as dreadful as the best-case scenario is delightful. For starters, Rocco Baldelli could go down with yet another injury, leaving the spot open to probably B.J. Upton or Elijah Dukes, both with issues of their own. Iwamura could fail to make the transition from Japan to America, acting as a sinkhole in the lineup until Longoria replaces him. Jonny Gomes and Greg Norton could provide Replacement Level or worse offense at DH. Delmon Young could flop or explode and be suspended for a substantial part of the season. Jorge Cantu could join Norton and Gomes around Replacement Level again on offense. Ty Wigginton could prove last season's improved power was merely a fluke (although, the numbers point toward it being real). Dioner Navarro could postpone his breakout yet another year, being just one of multiple Replacement Level hitters in the Tampa Bay starting lineup. Scott Kazmir could get hurt again, leaving the rotation a complete mess. None of these possibilities are outlandish and most of them have happened before. If all or most of these come true, the Devil Rays will endure enormous struggles trying to get out of the 100-loss zone.

In my AL East Preview, I predict the DRays at 75-87. No one can doubt the Devil Rays have a talented, young offense that is ready to start scoring runs in bunches as soon as this year. There are even a handful of useful arms in the bullpen. Tampa Bay has a legitimate, yet fragile, ace in Kazmir and a capable #2 in Shields. If they were in the AL West or NL Central, this team could legitimately contend with a few lucky breaks. Unfortunately, the AL East is still a two-team show. It seems likely the Devil Rays will fall somewhere in between the best and worst cases, but my money has them ending up closer to 86 wins than 62.

Neil: Wow, that best-case is way more optimistic than mine would be -- in my AL preview, I projected that they would score 4.83 runs per game, allow 5.55 runs per game, and finish at 70-92, last in the AL East. That projection may be overly pessimistic for the pitching staff, though; after all, they allowed only 5.28 runs per game last year, and that was with Kazmir injured. So let's say they allow 5.10 RPG and score 4.90 RPG... that works out to 78-84, which I would consider to be their absolute best-case scenario, seeing as how they've never notched more than 70 wins in their entire 9-year existence. (By the way, Tim, I think assuming that they'll overperform their pythagorean expectation by 4 just because they underperformed by that much last year is a bit of a misapplication of the Plexiglas Principle -- with a little of the gambler's fallacy thrown in to boot -- but I digress...)

Tampa's worst-case scenario would have to be a repeat of last year's 61-101 record. And the odds are against the offense collapsing that badly again, so I would expect them to finish with 80 wins before I'd expect another less than 65 wins campaign. Overall, I'd call for a mean projection of 70-75 wins -- which would happen to be their best record ever. It would also represent real progress for the franchise, especially given their prospects on the way from the farm. I should note, however, that asking for anything more than beating out Baltimore for 4th place in the East is merely a pipe dream.

Tim: Before I wrap-up our first edition of "Raise or Raze the Rays," I want to plead guilty to both slightly misusing the Plexiglas Principle and the gambler's fallacy. I realize that the Devil Rays aren't guaranteed by any measure to outperform their Pythagorean Record by 4 just because they underperfomed by 4 in 2006. I used the number 4 merely as a hypothetical, slightly flawed, best-case scenario. That aside, Neil and I look forward to scrutinizing and praising Manny Stiles' new favorite team all year long. Now, if only Spring Training would end, so the 2007 Devil Rays can show everyone what they are made of, good or bad.

Manny's Post Script

Sounds like this episode rates as a RAISE the Rays!

Great job, fellas! Yes, it is a team full of hope, prospect and talent. Does ANY team in baseball have a wider discrepency between their theoretical "upside" and their expected "downside"? Does ANY team in baseball have more former highly rated prospects on it's roster?

So for personal reasons (because I said so), I will trust ONLY the upper limit on most of the data provided, and I feel that many of the projections could easily be exceeded (in my opinion, Delmon Young will have a monster year, B.J. Upton will focus on playing baseball not head games and Carl Crawford will be... well, Carl Crawford!)

The lineup seems as if they could explode at times and do some damage, for sure. You guys took into account many things but I'm glad you stuck more to the batting side of the team.

All Devil Rays fans know this season will hinge on the pitching and defense. After all, 90% of baseball is pitching and defense and the other half is offense, right? And the pitching staff, regardless of the data you could find/conjure/skew is without a doubt the BIG question (especially the bullpen). Here's a trick for you... I'll give you Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields, now name 3 other Devil Rays pitchers....




Regardless, I am VERY excited for the season to start (so I can go bash D21Dub's BoSox) and I truly feel that this is the year (the magical 10th season of Devil Rays baseball) that they actually crack the .500 plateau.

That being said as I am dead serious about my prediction. I'll gladly submit myself to drug testing to prove it to the jackasses out there (admittedly, I might not do as "well" on a thorough mental evaluation)!

Until next time, Go Devil Rays!

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