Lessons from Dependable SP and Rebuilding Clubs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

In a strange universe, halfway through the 2013 season, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer built a club that stands within a handful of games of the National League Wild Card. While working on comparisons between the Cubs and Brewers for a potential series preview earlier this week, I was shocked by the difference between the Cubs’ run differential and record. Since it is common knowledge that the club is openly, publicly rebuilding their team, I never gave the substance of the Cubs’ 2013 record much thought.

In the abstract world of expected wins and losses, the Cubs are in shouting distance from the Diamondbacks, and not terribly far from division contenders Reds and Pirates.

St. Louis 51-27
Atlanta 46-33
Colorado 42-37

Cincinnati 45-34
Pittsburgh 43-35
Arizona 41-36
Cubs 36-40
San Francisco 37-41
San Diego 37-42
Washington 35-42
Milwaukee 34-42

In terms of actual wins and losses, teams such as Pittsburgh and Washington are outplaying their runs scored and runs allowed, while the Cubs are underplaying their run differential by four wins.

Even if this is nothing more than a thought exercise, it should show just how close a rebuilding club can stand to a contending club: in terms of runs production, and in terms of runs prevention. It’s also striking just how far rosters can fall from preseason expectations; the Nationals, for instance, built one of the most balanced clubs in the National League. They’re struggling to enter the Wild Card race. Perhaps the difference between a rebuilding club and a competitive club (like the Nationals) is that we’d expect the Nationals’ roster to be able to suddenly rattle off an extremely hot series of games to reclaim their spot in the race. On the other hand, it’s stunning to think that if the clubs simply looked at their run differentials, the Cubs would have as much an argument to “buy” at the deadline as the Nationals. (On the other hand, in abstract terms the Nationals would have as much an argument to “sell” as the Brewers).

By analyzing expected performances (based on runs scored and runs allowed), and actual performances (based on wins and losses), we can learn about what to expect when a club is “contending” versus “rebuilding.” In the MLB’s new Wild Card era, perhaps those two poles are not as far apart as they used to be, which makes “rebuilding” an even more difficult task for an organization. Here’s where the Brewers’ rebuilding challenge enters the picture; their run differential is just a touch worse than the Nationals’, but the clubs are nowhere near one another in the standings due to several different elements impacting their actual W-L record (not to mention their respective core talent, farm systems, market revenue, etc.).

Unfortunately, as seasons develop and General Managers inspect their rosters heading into the offseason (preparing for their next chance at competing), GMs have to weigh abstract elements, projections, ceilings, and expectations as much as their concrete product on the field. We would not expect the Nationals to consider selling at the trade deadline, but we would expect the Brewers to do so; we would not expect the Brewers to try and contend in 2014, but we would expect the Nationals to do so. This reveals a disjoint between actual wins and losses and run differentials that favors the balance between a team’s different contributors and circumstances over basic run production.

The best lesson here is that baseball rosters can perform in unexpected ways. This, in turn, influences “contending” and “rebuilding” narratives for organizations.

Cubs’ Lessons
While investigating the Cubs’ surprising run differential and relative success (for a rebuilding club), I noticed a few specific lessons that can be drawn from their club in order to analyze shortcomings on the Brewers’ roster. One can argue that, even outside of unexpected performances from certain players (such as Starlin Castro or injuries (such as Matt Garza), specific ideological differences can be recognized between the Cubs and Brewers rosters.

(1) Employ “True” Corner Replacements
One of the best areas of writing for a baseball fan site is prognosticating about the future. One of the toughest areas of prognosticating is understanding that, no matter how logical your reasons (or, even, illogical), your prognostications will frequently be wrong. But, that’s okay — you just have to have a sense of humor about your expectations, and use that positive attitude to learn from mistakes.

I’m wrong about a lot of things, so allow me to gloat for a moment. During my 2013 Cubs preview, I pointed to Nate Schierholtz as a potential PCL-veteran/MLB-breakout player, following the success of Bryan LaHair in 2012. So, far, Schierholtz is enjoying a robust summer in the Friendly Confines:

226 PA, 61 H, 19 2B, 2 3B, 11 HR; .293/.342/.563

I wrote, “The right-fielder will knock the ball into play, and he increases his value with his ability to knock doubles and triples around the ballpark. Those extra base hits help him improve his power profile, and despite his low home run totals, one third of Schierholtz’s hits result in extra bases.” Okay, so I was wrong about Schierholtz’s percentage of extra base hits, but with only 32 strike outs and 15 walks (and one HBP), Schierholtz is indeed maintaining a contact-oriented batting profile, knocking the ball into play during nearly 74% of his plate appearances.

On the left side of the infield, Luis Valbuena is performing well in his first full season. The veteran infielder is drawing from his discipline and increasing his power to get as much value as possible from a .247 batting average. Even in the batting-friendly Confines, Valbuena’s .359 OBP and .409 SLG are solid. While Castro struggles to produce at shortstop (and Darwin Barney is vintage Barney), Valbuena’s performance is a key contributor to the Cubs’ offensive balance.

In contrast to the Cubs’ approach of employing true corner players to fill their corner-diamond vacancies, the 2013 Brewers are sticking with a group of converted shortstops in key power positions. It’s been said before, and it will be said again, that Yuniesky Betancourt‘s bat is hurting the Brewers at first base. After an improbable April, in which Betancourt was one of the Brewers’ posterboy for outperforming expectations from a gang of misfit replacements, Betancourt simply has not performed for the Brewers. The worst part about his .203/.231/.343 batting line is that that production has contributed to either first or third base (in the absence, first, of Aramis Ramirez, and of course, Corey Hart); more than 95% of his fielding innings are at the corners in 2013, so it’s not like the Brewers are hiding his bat at shortstop or second base.

Juan Francisco is a welcome addition to the roster in terms of his low-risk / high-reward potential (specifically due to his power). However, Francisco shares time with Betancourt, continually exposing a middle infielder at a corner position.

One specific lesson the 2013 Cubs provide is the value of buying low on true corner talent from the start of the season. While no one would call Valbuena or Schierholtz potential superstars in the making, they are both proving to be serviceable, productive bats for the Cubs. Certainly, not every experiment with low-priced, mid-20s minor league (even PCL) talent is going to work out at the corners, but the defensive determinism and offensive needs of those positions dictates that clubs can gamble on offense for those positions. Failing to gamble on potentially high-reward offensive production at the corners is one of the reasons the replacement-riddled Brewers are failing to match their 2012 offensive firepower.

(2) Project Pitchers
While the Cubs’ rotation was not as glamourous as the Dodgers’ big-name acquisitions during the offseason, their rotational acquisitions followed a remarkably similar strategy. Throwing aside ceiling, the Cubs hired starting pitchers that experienced success elsewhere (and during previous seasons), but were coming off of injuries or available for a reasonable price. Edwin Jackson, their most expensive acquisition, has not panned out, but Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva have effectively served the Cubs’ rotation. Coupled with the development of Jeff Samardzija into a potential ace (from his previous work in the bullpen), and the development of Travis Wood into a surprising limit-the-damage top rotation starter, the Cubs have a gang of productive starting pitchers for surprisingly reasonable acquisition prices.

One might argue that the Brewers employed the same low-cost philosophy with their 2013 rotation, but while the cost of their starting rotation was low, the Milwaukee starters did not match the profile of the Cubs’ starters. First and foremost, the Brewers’ mostly young, inexpensive starters were largely organizational, rather than coming from outside the Brewers’ farm system. Secondly, the Brewers’ pitchers were largely healthy, making their gambles different from the gambles that the Cubs took on their 2013 rotation. Finally, the Brewers’ starters success was immediate, while the Cubs’ starters success largely occurred several years ago. This might seem like nitpicking, but the significant difference between the Cubs’ starters and the Brewers’ rotation was that the Cubs featured pitchers working to reclaim some previously strong seasons, while the Brewers starters were working to maintain their recent performance.

Perhaps this point can be further expanded by analyzing the “dependable” starters from the National League. After 2012, I analyzed starting pitchers with five consecutive 100+ IP seasons in the NL, as well as newer classes of four- and three-consecutive 100+ IP seasons in the NL. I found that although these starters were “dependable” in terms of consistently pitching innings, their standard deviation between ranking spots (based on runs prevented against their league and park) fluctuated 19 spots from season to season. This shouldn’t be surprising, as this group of pitchers includes replacement-to-ace fluctuations from Tim Lincecum and Bronson Arroyo, among others.

Here are how these classes of three-, four-, and five-year dependable starters are faring in 2013:

PITCHER 2012 IP 2012 Prevent 2013 IP 2013 Prevent
M. Cain 219.3 19 101.0 -11
C. Kershaw 227.7 35 121.3 21
C. Hamels 215.3 24 106.0 -8
T. Lincecum 186.0 -33 95.0 -17
J. Cueto 217.0 38 47.7 6
W. Rodriguez 205.7 -2* 62.7 1
C. Billingsley 149.7 3 12.0 1
B. Arroyo 202.0 17 104.7 6
P. Maholm 189.0 10# 98.3 -1
R. Nolasco 191.0 -9 100.3 6
Y. Gallardo 204.0 16 98.7 -6
H. Bailey 208.0 10 102 4
C. Volstad 111.3 -28 8.3 -3
R. Halladay 156.3 -2 34.3 -17
M. Latos 209.3 20 103.3 10
I. Kennedy 208.3 4 84.7 -9
M. Bumgarner 208.3 1 104.0 2
J. Garcia 121.7 -1 55.3 -1
M. Leake 179.0 -5 96.7 17
T. Wood 156.0 -6 98.0 14
J. Niese 190.3 11 77.0 -12

*Aggregate ranking from Houston and Pittsburgh
#Aggregate ranking from Cubs and Atlanta

Interestingly enough, some of these pitchers remain on a similar trajectory compared to their 2012 production. Clayton Kershaw remains ace material, while Lincecum is still struggling. Wandy Rodriguez and Madison Bumgarner are doing their thing, and although we’ve come to expect fluctuation from Arroyo, he’s continuing an above average stretch.

Aside from these pitchers, there are some surprising fluctuations, as well as some fluctuations that might be less surprising. Matt Cain is in the midst of his worst season of his career, and a below average campaign is certainly surprising given his consistent ace performances. Cole Hamels is also fluctuating, although he has done this in the past (see 2008 to 2009 to 2010). While we might not be shocked that Jonathon Niese is not maintaining his above average 2012 performance, we can be as surprised that Ricky Nolasco and Travis Wood are above average in 2013 as we are that Yovani Gallardo is below average. We might be oblivious to this fact since we watch Gallardo so closely, but Gallardo has not pitched a below average season in his career.

Meanwhile, there are some special cases among dependable starters, including pitchers that have moved between leagues or simply did no secure jobs in the 2013 season (yet). I placed Zack Greinke on the list because even though I don’t have comprehensive rankings for him (since he jumped frequently between the AL and NL over the last four years), he’s yet another example of a pitcher that consistently works a lot of innings while fluctuating between average (or even slightly below average) and excellent seasons.

PITCHER 2012 IP 2012 Prevent 2013 IP 2013 Prevent
K. Correia 171 -12 AL AL
R. Dempster 104 21 AL AL
R.A. Dickey 233.7 31 AL AL
Z. Greinke 123.0 12 57.0 -1
T. Hanson 174.7 -11 AL AL
A. Harang 179.7 -2 AL AL
B. Norris 168.3 -9 AL AL
A. Sanchez 121.0 -1 AL AL
R. Wolf 142.3 -23 DNP DNP
C. Zambrano 132.3 -13 DNP DNP

Guys like Kevin Correia and Ryan Dempster won’t have 100+ IP rankings in the National League for the first time in ages, and they are two examples of gambles that might have improved the Brewers’ rotation. Of course, this is the toughest lesson. The Brewers gambled on young talent and were burned (so far), but that’s not to say that they wouldn’t have been burned had they made other gambles (such as, Chris Volstad). My point about the Cubs’ rotation isn’t simply that teams can make any gamble with buy-low starters and succeed with their rotation, but that given the nature of pitching fluctuations, scouting pitchers returning from injuries with some previously dependable track record can yield high rewards (when executed with the right pitchers).

I guess this is silly advice, in a way. It reminds me of a Cubs game I once heard, where Ron Santo (bless his soul) was asked what the Cubs’ strategy should be while trailing by a few runs entering the ninth. “Well, now’s a great time to get some guys on base and have someone hit a homer.” Santo’s analysis was as correct as it was obvious, and so too, is the Cubs’ lesson obvious to the Brewers’ failed starting rotation. Where scouting, risk, and normal pitching fluctuations converge, clubs can manipulate their transactions to build the best possible rotation.

If even a dependable starting pitcher might jump between, say, a #1 and a #4 performance between seasons, what does that say about how clubs should approach “buy low” opportunities for their starting rotation?

(3) A Bad Bullpen Can Ruin Any Season (Contending or Rebuilding)
Here’s where things switch between the Cubs and Brewers. GM Doug Melvin notably improved the Brewers’ bullpen for 2013. Unfortunately, that strong bullpen performance has not had the ability to favorably impact the Brewers’ record; the Brewers are underplaying their run differential by two wins. On the other hand, the Cubs’ expected record is much closer to .500 than the Brewers, but their bullpen is one of the elements unfavorably impacting their 2013 campaign. This disjoint might simply reveal a truism about baseball: (a) you can flip a coin on your bullpen every year, (b) the best bullpen could simply be seven warm bodies that can throw, and (c) while a good bullpen might not always improve a club’s actual W-L over their expected W-L, a bad bullpen can (and will?) negatively impact a club….

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