World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: July 7

Hope all you roundtable readers had a fun time with the Fourth of July (long) weekend.  Monday may mean that you have to go back to work, but Monday also means the World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable.  This week, we welcome Peter Bendix of Beyond the Boxscore to the table.  Peter will be here talking about who you’d take with that first pick in franchise mode, the Yankees, and the story of the year.
Question #1: Given current contracts, if you had the #1 pick of an expansion draft (every player in baseball, and their current contracts, available), whom would you take and why?
Peter Bendix: First of all, how cool would this be? Yeah yeah, perhaps the logistics would get rather messy (not to mention a few Red Sox, Cubs, and, Rays fans (among others) would be rather upset), but wouldn’t a full-fledged expansion draft, consisting of all current players and their contracts, be really interesting?
Well, I think it’s fascinating to think about, especially given the stipulation that a player’s current contract still applies. Thus, as good as Alex Rodriguez is, I don’t think he is the most valuable property in baseball, simply due to how much money he makes. As good as Chipper Jones may be, I don’t think I would take him with the first pick in an overall expansion draft. So who would I take?
Well, I’m first going to figure out who I wouldn’t take. And that’s easy: a pitcher. No matter how good a pitcher is, no matter how good a contract he may have, I believe it would be a mistake to take a pitcher with the first pick. Simply put, pitchers are huge risks. The very act of throwing a baseball 90 miles per hour (not to mention throwing a curve or a slider) is unnatural, and, as such, pitchers often get injured. There is no such thing as a pitcher who isn’t an injury risk (just ask the previously-very-durable Jake Westbrook, among others). Yes, there have been pitchers who have been effective and healthy throughout their whole careers (or most of their careers), but pitchers are more likely to get injured than hitters. That’s not to say that there aren’t pitchers with significant value going forward, but rather, if given the choice between a pitcher and an equally talented (or even slightly less talented) hitter, I would choose the hitter.
Now that that’s established, what hitter would I take? I need the perfect combination of production and contract. I need someone who is almost a lock to produce at a high level for years to come, and I need him to be locked up for years to come as well. I need…Evan Longoria.  Longoria is currently hitting .281/.351/.529 with 15 homers, 22 doubles, and six steals. Additionally, according to Baseball Prospectus, Longoria is one of the game’s best third baseman, having accumulated 19 fielding runs above replacement thus far, which is, I think, the highest of any third baseman in baseball. His minor league track record is impressive, having hit .301/.386/.534 in 205 minor league games. He’s only twenty two years old, and gets high marks from scouts for everything from his bat speed to his leadership.
But perhaps the most appealing thing about Evan Longoria is his contract. Earlier this season, Longoria inked a six year deal with the Rays for $17.5 million in guaranteed money. However, the deal also includes three club options, which, if exercised, would take the total money to $47.5 million over nine years. That is an incredible deal.  Longoria is locked up for many years at a very affordable price. While he may be somewhat more risky than other, more established players, I believe that Longoria’s risk is relatively minimal, and that he is on his way to becoming a superstar. The fact that he is under contract through the 2016 season for a “paltry” $47.5 mil means that I believe he is worthy of being the first overall pick of our mythical expansion draft.
Eric Seidman: It’s funny this question came up on the same day that my Fangraphs colleague Dave Cameron plans on finishing his top 50 assets series.  Ultimately, when answering a question like this I like to look at salary, age, and production, but we also have to decide on parameters.  For instance, are we looking to win right now?  In the future?  Or compete right now while winning big in the near-future?  Actually, the more I think about this, it’s too hard to not pick David Wright, so I’ll pick David Wright.  He’s young, solid at third base, great offensively, not terribly overpaid.
Pizza Cutter: Since I have the first pick for my expansion team and everyone’s available with their current contracts, Albert Pujols would be playing first base for the Ypsilanti Zebras.  I suppose the man’s offensive credentials don’t need introducing.  It’s an argument whether Pujols or A-Rod is the better hitter, but Pujols is either #1 or #2 in the league, and is signed to a contract through 2011, which will pay him $16M per.  Now, that’s a pretty penny to pay anyone, but when you look at the fact that a guy like Barry Zito is getting more, and that $15M per is becoming the going rate for a “really good” free agent, it’s a no-brainer to take an elite guy at a discount price.
Question #2: A season of baseball is comprised of tons of little stories, some big stories, and some earth-shattering stories.  Excluding steroids, et al, what has been the best story so far and what could be the best story at the end of the year?
Peter Bendix: The easy answer here is the Tampa Bay Rays. They are the best story of the year, surpassing even the most wildly optimistic expectations after languishing in humility throughout their short, brutish existence. The Rays have come together to form a team centered around pitching and defense, after being painfully short on each every year since their inception. They are young and fun to watch. But, although they have exceeded expectations, their rise to success is not completely out of nowhere. PECOTA pegged them to win 88 games, and many smart writers acknowledged that, at the very least, the Rays would no longer be the American League’s bottom feedersTherefore, as my choice for best story of the year so far, I nominate a story that absolutely no one saw coming: Cliff Lee. Lee was positively dreadful last year, earning himself a demotion to triple-A. There were certainly people who believed that Lee could fix himself, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming. After being named to the all-star team (likely as the starter), Lee had a relatively poor outing yesterday, allowing all of four runs in seven innings. He failed to pick up a win and saw his ERA skyrocket to 2.43, second lowest of all American League starters. What’s perhaps most amazing about Lee’s turnaround is that it appears to be completely legitimate: his ERA is backed by a phenomenal 99/19 K/BB ratio, and Lee has not been lucky on balls in play. Often times, when a pitcher comes out of nowhere to have an amazing half season, luck (on balls in play, on fly balls becoming homers, or in stranding a high percentage of runners) is a big factor. This is not the case for Lee. But what is perhaps most amazing about Lee is the fact that he never showed any hints of possessing this kind of ability. Sure, he was always a pretty good prospect in the minors, but he was far from utterly dominant. His ERAs in the majors have been 3.61, 5.43, 3.79, 4.40, and 6.29. He doesn’t throw 95 and no scouting reports have ever mentioned his “untapped top-of-the-rotation potential.” His ceiling was always somewhere around a third or fourth starter, and that’s what he was in his successful seasons before last year.
Now, at age 29, Lee is a completely changed pitcher, having halved his walk rate, raised his ground ball rate by 10% (and subsequently giving up fewer home runs), and raised his strikeout rate. Cliff Lee did not just turn his career around, he re-invented it. And he was probably the only one who saw it coming.
By the end of the year, however, Lee’s story may be eclipsed by the story of the Oakland Athletics. After dealing Dan Haren and Nick Swisher in the offseason, most people wrote the Athletics off as undergoing a rebuilding season. However, the As have hung in the race all season, and by the end of the year they may be the best story in baseball. Because by the end of the year, the As very well may have won the AL West.
Currently, they sit five games out of first place. But their third order Pythagorean record suggests that they are the third best team in the (behind only the Rays and Red Sox). The Angels, meanwhile, are barely better than a .500 team. While this changes nothing about the current standings, it does give us an indication of what’s to come: namely, a comeback by the A’s.
Oakland has certainly had some things go in their favor this year, especially in the starting rotation, where Justin Duscherer and Rich Harden have been healthy and extremely effective, and Greg Smith and Dana Eveland have surprised many people. However, the As have also had some things go wrong, such as injuries in their bullpen and little production from Eric Chavez, Daric Barton, and their various outfielders. While some of their pitchers may regress and/or get hurt, their offense should see an increase in production (especially if Frank Thomas can return).
Meanwhile, the Angels have had tremendous success preventing runs, but very little success in scoring runs. And, unfortunately for them, they do not appear to be in good shape to improve offensively (unless they make an uncharacteristically bold trade in the next month).
The Angels are certainly the favorites to win the division, but I would not be at all surprised if the Athletics overtook them. And if that happens, Oakland would surely be the best and most surprising story of the season.
Unless the Indians come back to make the playoffs. A man can dream.
Eric Seidman: Right now we’ve got stories like Volquez-Hamilton, the emergence of Tiny Tim Lincecum, the first place Rays, and perhaps even what happens if/when Sabathia ends up on the Brewers.  Then there’s the surprising Twins, Chipper’s quest for .400, and even more.  Ultimately, I don’t think the Sabathia acquisition will result in the Brewers making the playoffs or doing damage in those playoffs, and I personally feel the Rangers won the Hamilton trade regardless of Volquez’s production so far.  I’m going to go with the drastic turnaround of the Rays.  Even if they don’t make the playoffs, for whatever reason, the fact that they competed and performed so well for such a long time is an incredible story.
Pizza Cutter: For my money, the Tampa Bay Rays are the best story so far.  Long-time doormats always make for good theatre, and they may very well go into the All-Star break leading the AL East.  Plus, they’re beating up on the Evil Empire and the whole Red Sox “we used to love them but now it’s not cool to anymore” crowd.  Josh Hamilton’s story comes in a close second, both from a talent perspective and as a human interest piece.  But the story that will no doubt be the biggest story by the end of the season will come from the North Side of Chicago.  The Cubbies look like they will make the playoffs and that they will do so with a pretty good team.  It’s not un-thinkable that the Cubs would end up in the World Series.  This would be great news for my now-former neighbors in Wrigleyville, but if you remember the giant love-fest that took place for the Red Sox in 2004, get ready for something even bigger.  If the reader will excuse my romantic swooning side-track, consider what it would be for all of baseball to have the whole Cubs’ curse hanging in the balance.  Consider what it would mean to have the World Series at Wrigley Field.  If the Cubs lost, it will be a chapter in the curse that people will talk about for years.  If they win… well I just jinxed it, so there will be millions of Cubs fans angry at me.  But if they won, it would give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside for at least 72 hours.  Might just be all the Old Styles that you had, but it would be a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Question #3: Is this the year that the Yankees’ streak of making the playoffs every year since 1743 finally ends?
Peter Bendix: As I write this, the Yankees and Red Sox await their Sunday Night game on ESPN. The Rays won again today, extending their winning streak to seven games and their divisional lead to 9.5 games over the third place Yanks. Going into Sunday’s action, Baseball Prospectus gave the Yankees a 5.2% chance of making the playoffs (including a less than one percent chance of winning the division). Using the PECOTA-adjusted projections, this rises to 7.2%, and using ELO-adjusted odds the Yankees have a 12% chance of playing in October.
But this is the Yankees, right? The team that somehow, every season, makes a run in the second half of the year and ends up right where most people expected: in the playoffs. It seems like every year some journeyman pitcher comes out of nowhere and posts a 10-0 record, vaulting the Yanks to the top of the division (or at least to the wildcard). This year, however, it will be different. This year, the Yankees are not going to make the playoffs.
If the Yankees lose tonight, they will be ten games out of the division and six games out of the wildcard. While these are big deficits, they are not insurmountable – one needn’t look far into history to find teams overcoming these (and larger) odds and making the playoffs. And certainly, the Yankees are a very talented team. But in order for the Yankees to secure a playoff spot, they will have to play significantly better, and the teams in front of them will have to play worse. And I don’t think either of those things is going to happen.
The first-place Rays are for real. If they win only half of their remaining games, they will end up with 92 wins. That means the Yankees would have to go 47-27 to overtake them., equating to a .635 winning percentage. Thus far, the Rays have the best winning percentage in all of baseball…at .632. And even though the Rays may not win 63% of the rest of their games, they are also unlikely to play .500 ball through the rest of the season.
Thus, while winning the division cannot be entirely written off (just ask the Philadelphia Phillies), the Yankees’s best shot of making the playoffs is likely via the wildcard. Unfortunately for them, this is also going to be very difficult, as they will need to overtake several teams. The Red Sox are arguably the best team in baseball (although I know some people in and around St Petersburg who would disagree), and the Yankees will also have to contend with the Athletics (assuming they cannot overtake the Angels in the AL West), as well as at least two, and perhaps three teams from the Central.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge for the Yankees to overcome is their schedule. Thus far this season, the Yankees have had a relatively easy schedule, with 43 of their 88 games coming against teams with records below .500. In these games, the Yankees are 26-17. However, they are only 20-25 against teams with winning records. And the Yankees have already completed their season series with the Indians, Royals, and Mariners.
On the bright side, there is a chance that the Yankees could receive contributions from Chien-Ming Wang, Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes in the second half of the season. Joba Chamberlain is now a starter, and Robinson Cano is surely better than this. Their impressive collection of young arms continue to pitch well and should be able to fill out some spots in the bullpen. But the Yankees will need to perform significantly better – against better teams, no less – and will need several other teams to play significantly worse – in order to sneak into the playoffs. I wouldn’t count them entirely out, but I will be surprised if the Yankees make the playoffs.
At least Joba Chamberlain won’t have to worry about midges.
Eric Seidman: Yes, yes it will be the first time in however many years the Yankees miss the playoffs.  Say what you will about the Rays and their potential struggles in the dog days of August and such but I just don’t see that team crumbling.  Even if they do, they should still play well enough for the Wild Card.  I don’t think the Yankees will be 9 games or worse back when the season comes to its end but it will be tough for them to make the playoffs.  Doesn’t mean they won’t get back next year but they are without Wang and Damon and his 130 OPS+ are now hurt.  Then again, Cano has vastly underperformed which could even out and the same can be said for Jeter.  It might not, but for them to make the playoffs Mussina and Pettitte will have to either become or continue to be relatively lights out, Cano and Jeter will have to step up, and the void left by Wang and, depending on his injury, Damon, will require filling.  Could happen but I wouldn’t bank on it.
Pizza Cutter: Baseball Prospectus’s excellent playoff odds report has the Yankees at something like a 3-5% chance of making the playoffs (depending which report you look at).  The names on the roster sound like a playoff roster, but what happens when you rely on guys in their late thirties is that they begin to decline like… players in their late thirties.  Mussina and Pettite haven’t been all that special, and neither have Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui.  (All four players are in single digits in BRAA.)  Even A-Rod is having a bit of a down year.  Then, Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano have been… awful.  With that said, the track record of all of the gentlemen on the offense suggests that they are better than they have been.
The Yankees are like crabgrass (I was going to compare them to something else…)  No matter what, you can’t get rid of them.  When you look at the standings, they’re really not all that far out of the Wild Card.  They’ve come this far with this team and held their own.  What will happen if they add a piece at the trading deadline?


4 Responses to World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: July 7

  1. dan says:

    Without much research behind this I’d say Hanley, assuming I can move him to center field. He’s 24, durable, steals bases at a very high rate (and percentage), will probably age well with a well-rounded skill-set, and he just signed a very good contract.
    Okay, now I’m researching a bit…. 6 years at $70million which kicks in at the start of next season. So he’s under your hypothetical control through 2014, and is more of a sure thing than Longoria. All that said, I don’t think you’d go horribly wrong with either guy.
    Eric– Wright?! for real? David Allen Wright? Don’t go around Citizens Bank Park saying that too loudly.

  2. Haha, I’m not one of those Phillies fans who is anti-Mets. Those are what we call cliche fans.

  3. Tommy R says:

    Yea, what Bendix said, Longoria and the Rays

  4. dan says:

    Same goes for Yankee fans. True fans don’t care… you’ll never hear a “Mets suck” chant originating from the bleachers.

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