Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, March 11, 2004

The 2004 World Champions: Not the Royals

For some reason, lots of analysts, who get paid to analyze baseball (man, am I jealous), have anointed the Kansas City Royals as The Surprise Team of 2004. These baseball guys have called the Royals the 2004 version of the 2003 Marlins or the 2002 Angels. In other words, they will be the team with a homegrown core of players and a few key free agents and a young pitching staff that will lead them to a parade down some highway in Kansas City.

Taking a look around the world of baseball, Rob Neyer believes the Royals could win the AL Central, and Sports Weekly columnist Bob Nightengale is of a similar mind. Nightengale, in fact, predicted as much in the latest edition of MLB's Official Guide to the 2004 Season (that I got handed to me for free at Roger Dean stadium during a Marlins spring training game a few days ago). In this article (which I unfortunately cannot find on the web, although the USA Today link has similar paragraphs), Nightengale writes about the Royals:
We're going with the team that quietly made all of the right moves. We're going with the team that is playing in the weakest division in baseball, if not in all of sports. We're going with the team that stunned the baseball world for five months last year before the glass slipper broke in September. We're going with the team that brought in a two-time AL MVP.

We're going with those lovable Kansas City Royals...

The Royals started spending. They kept center fielder Carlos Beltran. And third baseman Joe Randa. And starter Brian Anderson. And relievers Curtis Leskanic and Jason Grimsley.

Then, suddenly acting like they were the Yankees or the Red Sox, they jumped head-first into the free-agent market. They signed All-Star Benito Santiago...They signed elite setup reliever Scott Sullivan. And first baseman/outfielder Matt Stairs. And they even outbid the Red Sox for second baseman Tony Granffinino...They got [Juan Gonzalez], too...

The way we figure it, how can you not pick the Royals?...Besides the Royals are due.
First, let's get one thing straight. The AL Central is not the worst division in professional sports. That award goes to the NBA's Atlantic Division, where one team is over .500, and the second place team is 7 games below .500 and 11 games out of first place. Last season, the AL Central had three times over .500, and this year, it could possibly have four teams. While it's true the division is mediocre, it's certainly not the worst division in sports. That's my defense of the Central;now, let's take a look at last year's Cinderella team.

In 2003, the Royals did indeed shock the baseball world, holding precariously on to first place until the Twins remembered how to play winning baseball (or until Shannon Stewart showed up). But this surprisingly first place run was largely by luck. While the Royals finished at 83-79, their expected W-L -- which uses Bill James' equation: Runs scored [squared] / (Runs scored [squared] + runs allowed [squared]) -- had them at 78-83. I'm not really sure what happened to that 162nd game, but that's besides the point. The Royals simply got lucky. While they were third in the AL in runs scored, they were third-to-last in runs allowed. They were outscored last season 867-836. Basically, they hit well with runners in scoring position and won a few games they might not have otherwise won. While I don't mean to take away from their 21 game improvement over 2002's 100-loss campaign, the 2003 season was no ball for MLB's supposed Cinderella team.

Turning our attention to 2004, are the new Royals good enough to propel this team to a pennant in the AL Central? More broadly, are the Royals on the whole good enough to win the World Series? To answer these questions, I'm going to do a little comparison between the World Champion Marlins and the 2004 projected opening day lineup (with some other key players from both teams). To do this statistical comparison, I'm going to look at a Baseball Prospectus stat called VORP, or value over replacement player. As Baseball Prospectus defines it, VORP is "the expected level of performance a major league team can receive from one or more of the best available players who substitute for a suddenly unavailable starting player at the same position and who can be (or were) obtained with minimal expenditure of team resources." (Baseball Prospectus 2004, pg. 2-3)

In other words, if Juan Gonzalez went down with an injury, he would be replaced with one of the Royals' reserve outfielders. If Ivan Rodriguez (more on him later) goes down, he would be replaced by one of the Tigers' backup catchers. VORP measures how much better Gonzalez, Rodriguez, or any starter is than the generic replacement player who would back him up in case of injury. It's a good measure of a player's overall value, and like most metric scales, the number increases as the player improves.

In this table, I'm going to look at the Royals' Opening Day lineup, along with their projected starting pitchers and relievers. This table features their 2003 VORP and their 2004 predicted VORP as projected by Baseball Prospectus' advanced formulas. (It's complicated. Take my word for that.)

Player2003 VORPPredicted 2004 VORP
Benito Santiago C18.25.1
Mike Sweeney 1B21.330.9
Desi Relaford 2B-1.812.8
Angel Berroa SS28.221.1
Joe Randa 3B22.410.3
Juan Gonzalez RF20.112.3
Carlos Beltran CF49.536.8
Aaron Guiel LF7.74.3
Matt Stairs DH29.310.2
Ken Harvey DH-6.611.41
Brian Anderson SP12.716.6
Darrell May SP49.124.5
Miguel Asencio SP5.49.2
Kevin Appier SP4.517.3*
Kyle Snyder SP8.96.2
Jeremy Affeldt SP30.222.8
Mike MacDougal RP9.46.6
Scott Sullivan RP12.68.8
Curtis Leskanic RP10.714.5
Jason Grimsley RP6.615.8

(*Appier is unlikely to pitch much, if at all, during the 2004 campaign after off-season elbow surgery.)

Now, let's take a look at the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins to see how these two teams stack up.

Player2003 VORP
Ivan Rodriguez C45.7
Derreck Lee 1B44.4
Luis Castillo 2B38.6
Alex Gonzalez SS24.4
Mike Lowell 3B48.3
Juan Encarnacion RF11.5
Juan Pierre CF32.0
Jeff Conine LF24.3
Miguel Cabrera LF/3B11.5
Josh Beckett SP32.5
Mark Redman SP33.6
Carl Pavano SP22.3
Brad Penny SP22.5
Dontrelle Willis SP36.8
Braden Looper RP15.0
Ugueth Urbina RP17.7
Chad Fox RP9.6
Rick Helling RP9.2
Tommy Phelps RP6.0
Tim Spooneybarger RP4.3
Armando Almanza RP-7.2

Except for Spooneybarger and Phelps, who were injured for much of the second half, and Almanza, who was just plain horrible after a while, it's abundantly clear that the 2003 Marlins are miles ahead of the predicted 2004 Royals. While it is true that many members of the Marlins had career VORP years and many of them had break-out seasons as well, these numbers don't lie; last year's Marlins team was solid all around. Eight of their starting nine were exceptional last year, posting VORPs well over 20, and the tandem of Encarnacion and Cabrera performed better than their VORP numbers indicate due to Miguel's mid-season call-up and Juan's splitting time as the fourth outfielder. The pitching, which carried the Fish through October, was outstanding.

As for the Royals, don't plan that parade quite yet. While these are merely predictions based on previous seasons' numbers, the 2004 VORP for the Royals Opening Day line up does not really approach that of the defending World Champs. There are some bright spots in the line up, especially in some of the Royals' younger pitchers, but for this team to make a serious run at a World Championship, the entire line up would have to overachieve for the entire season. This includes the relief corps as well as the starting line up. Is it possible? Yes, it is, but it's also highly unlikely. While it's nice that Royals fans will unquestionably see a more exciting and improved team on the field this season, it may be a little early to start popping the champagne corks. However, if the young pitchers improve and the Royals can develop a solid line up, in a few years, the Fall Classic could wind up in Kansas City.

Premature Tigers Hype

In the world of Internet baseball writing, Cnnsi.com, in my opinion, comes in a distant last place to all other Web sites, whether they be corporate media (ESPN.com and MLB.com), blogs, or Prospectus-like sites. Despite CNNSI's utter lack of interesting and creative analysis, I still peruse the headlines. I've always found John Donovan and his holier-than-thou articles to be the worst. He answers e-mails condescendingly, and his analysis is simply uncreative. Today, I came across this story by Donovan about Pudge. In this article, Donovan writes:
And, again, he's willing. That's big. Getting anyone to come to Detroit willingly has not been easy lately.

Detroit, it's safe to say, was not Rodriguez's first choice. But the Marlins wouldn't give him the money ($10 million a year) or the length of contract (four years) he wanted, and apparently no one else would, either. The Tigers offered $40 million over four years, but they added a clause that voids out the final two years if he misses significant time because of his balky back. That was close enough for Rodriguez so, after a week of stewing on it, he accepted. The Tigers couldn't be happier.
It's analysis like this that makes me question why an editor approved this article; it's simply deceiving to a reader. I don't think Pudge came to Detroit all that willingly. He burned all of his bridges in Florida after the non-tender date when he rejected their offer. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, for 10 million dollars, Pudge was willing to do anything, it seemed. Instead of question Pudge's worth in a pitcher's park - Donovan does point out that Ivan has only reached 100 RBIs and 25 HR twice - he harps on Pudge's defense and his skills at handling pitchers. It's true that Pudge is a great defensive catcher, but he's 32 and hasn't reached 140 games since 1999. Having caught over 13,000 innings, it's hard to believe that his stellar defense will stay that way.

In the end, if Pudge can turn around the Tigers' pitchers, he should automatically earn a place in Cooperstown. But if he gets injured, which is almost inevitable, the Tigers will have invested a lot over four years for a rapidly aging catcher. Baseball analysts such as John Donovan should certainly not be handing out the laurels to Pudge yet. At least wait until the end of May for any definitive statements on the effects Rodriguez has on the Tigers. Anything else is dangerous, idle speculation.

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