Friday, May 20, 2011

The Offensive Downturn and Our Perceptions

By The Common Man

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, this is THE YEAR OF THE PITCHER 2.0!!!!11!!1!, which is actually more of a return to the offensive levels that pervaded the game in the early 1990s. An era where Fred McGriff could lead the NL in homers with 35. An era where the league leader in OPS could regularly finish below 1.000. An era where a 4.00 ERA could get you bounced from the rotation. The game is hueing closer to historical norms.  But we have lived in the homerun era for almost a generation now, and The Common Man’s sense is that this has warped our perceptions somewhat. Indeed, we expect that players who can’t get on base more than 35% of the time are a drag on a team’s offense, or that a pitcher who can simply give you a quality start (6 innings, 3 runs) is worth keeping around. But frankly, that may not be the world we live in anymore. So here are some secretly excellent and horrible starts you may not have noticed because of the depressed scoring environment:

Jimmy Rollins (.266/.344/.358, 94 OPS+)
Don’t be fooled by the low batting average and slugging. Major Leaguers as a whole have a .320 OBP this year, and shortstops are just at .314. Rolins has shown good patience, walking in 10.8% of his plate appearances and seems to have nicely recovered from the leg injuries that sapped his effectiveness in 2009 and 2010. He’s also stolen 9 bases already against one caught stealing, and his defense is as strong as ever. While the Phillies as a whole are having a tough time scoring, Rollins is definitely not the problem.

Peter Bourjos (.252/.305/.397, 99 OPS+)
Bourjos has shown terrific offensive growth in 2011, going from an elite defender at a crucial defensive position to an elite defender at a crucial defensive polition with a league average bat. The big A depresses offense somewhat, as does Oakland Collisseum and Safeco Field, so Bourjos is likely to see his numbers penalized even more by the downturn than most players. He looks poised to contribute significant value for the next several seasons in Anaheim, and to do so cheaply. Which is important since Vernon Wells continues to be an expensive millstone.

Matt Wieters (.273/.347/.414, 114 OPS+)
Everyone freaked out that Wieters wasn’t immediately a god among men when he debuted two years ago. Look again. Wieters has clearly been one of the top catchers in baseball and has seen all of his advanced numbers spike in the face of the falling offensive levels. He has also thrown out 46% of base stealers in 2011, while starting 36 of Baltimore’s first 42 games. He’s also allowed just four wild pitches on the year, and no passed balls. He’s a big guy like Mauer, so perhaps a long-term stay at catcher isn’t possible, but in the meantime, he looks like he may be poised to break out.

Carlos Quentin (.253/.343/.519, 136 OPS+)
Want evidence of how much things have changed? In 2008, Quentin finished fith in the AL MVP vote with a .965 OPS and 148 OPS+. Today, he has a .862 OPS, which translates to a 136 OPS+. If you just look at the raw totals, he looks like he’s declined significantly. But despite the drop in OBP and power, Quentin remains one of the best corner OF bats in the game, and would be a prime bat for an enterprising team to pick up at the deadline, assuming that the Sox are out of it.

Ben Zobrist (.275/.366/.538, 157 OPS+)
Remember two years ago, when Ben Zobrist hit .297/.405/.543 and everyone called him the Zorilla and the secret MVP? Yeah, he’s been even better in 2011. Despite having an OPS that is 45 points lower this year, his OPS+ is well up from the 149 he posted in ’09. And this year he’s doing it primarily as a second baseman. In fact, according to FanGraphs, he’s been the 3rd most valuable player in the AL so far, behind only Jose Bautista and Howie Kendrick.

Cameron Maybin (.266/.337/.429, 119 OPS+)
The Common Man is very excited that he can crow a little bit here. He loved the Maybin deal for the Padres this offseason, and suggested that he could blossom into one of the best players in baseball if his offense could catch up to his defense. The down numbers are misleading, but after all, he plays half his games in Petco Park. He is still only 24 and cheap. As is Hundley and Headley. And Anthony Rizzo too. The future is bright.
But not everyone suffers because of the drop in offense. Some of these pitchers look terrific by the standards we’re used to, but have actually been a burden for their teams to overcome. For instance:

Wade Davis (4-4, 3.47, 106 ERA+, 1.00 K/BB ratio)
There is no way around the notion that Wade Davis has been incredibly lucky. He has 26 walks and 26 strikeouts in 57 innings. That’s Charlie Morton territory. But Charlie Morton has a huge groundball rate, which Davis does not have. In fact, just one-third of Davis’ balls in play are hit on the ground. He’s survived because most of the fly balls he’s allowed have been caught by Tampa’s incredible outfield defense, and those that have gone over the fence have almost exclusively been solo shots. And because The Trop is playing like an extreme pitchers park so far in 2011, akin to Petco Park over the past three seasons.

Dustin Moseley (1-6, 3.40, 101 ERA+, 1.56 K/BB ratio)
Speaking of Petco, you can be forgiven if you thought that Dustin Moseley had suddenly discovered how to pitch. He’s certainly been the victim of hard luck in 2011, but his 4.25 K/9 belies the fact that he simply cannot get enough batters out on his own to remain successful. He’s not an extreme ground-baller, and Petco helps mask some of the ineffectiveness and keep the fly balls in the park. Look for regression going forward.

Brad Penny (4-3, 4.11, 95 ERA+, 1.35 K/BB ratio)
Penny has reinvented himself as a groundballer over the last two years, thanks to Dave Duncan’s help, but his K/9 has fallen off to a completely unacceptable 3.6, which is just barely higher than his walk rate. The ERA would have been lauded in past years, but is actually below average for the level of offense in the league and Penny’s park. The .251 BABIP is also helping to mask some of the decline. This could get ugly fast.  Well, pitching wise, anyway.  He seems to be doing ok in his personal life.

It will be fun to watch how these, and other, players are portrayed as the season drags on.  It's hard to change perceptions and notions that have become ingrained in our analysis, but we will have to adjust our expectations as we contemplate the futures of players like Bourjos, Maybin, and Moseley, and the historical place of players like Rollins and Zobrist.

1 comment:

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Great stuff. I've been worried about Wade Davis the entire season. His numbers are so deceiving. If you look closely, his stuff and movement closer resemble Phil Hughes in his early starts than other compare ables. His arm (or mechanics) just aren't all there.