Rays of Hope

Back when I was making the rounds to promote Baseball Prospectus 2008, I invariably spent some amount of time discussing our PECOTA projection that calls for the Tampa Bay Rays to win 88 games. Mind you, this is a club that hasn’t topped 70 wins in any of its 10 seasons to date, one that set records in a few key BP-branded metrics regarding the futility of their bullpen and their defense. While they have six out of the top 40 prospects on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list, none of them were in the lineup when the season opened.

PECOTA sees the Rays scoring about the same number of runs, with a drastic reduction in runs allowed thanks to improved pitching and defense. that’s all well and good, particularly given the arrival of pitcher Matt Garza to give the team a good third starter and third baseman Evan Longoria, a potential rookie of the Year candidate who was promoted from Triple-A over the weekeend. Nonetheless, the projection sparked some skepticism in me, and I decided to peek under the hood to see if I could pin down what it was that was bothering me. Suffice it to say that I found it:

Nonetheless, despite all of these good things, there are reasons to be skeptical about that Rays’ projection. Perhaps the biggest — beyond the fact that [Scott] Kazmir has yet to throw a pitch this year, and [Matt] Garza has been sidelined after just two starts — has to do with the quality of defense behind that staff. Last year’s Devil Rays allowed a major league-worst 944 runs thanks to one of the most inept defenses this side of the Bad News Bears. Their .662 Defensive Efficiency rate is the worst full-season rate in our database. (Note that this is the “1 – BABIP” version of Defensive Efficiency, which doesn’t include Reached on Error totals). Taking into account their pitcher-friendly park, they had a Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of -5.64 last year, meaning they were nearly six percent worse than the league average at converting balls in play into outs.

…Cumulatively, the position players were an astounding 119 runs below average, about 15 runs to the bad apiece. Among the regulars, only [Carlos] Pena was above average, and every position save for catcher was in double-digit negatives, which in each case means that awful defense at those positions cost the team more than one win apiece. [Brendan] Harris and [B.J.] Upton “contributed” to the problem at multiple positions, though the latter’s move from second base to center field did stop a bit of the bleeding in the outfield.

The Rays have taken steps to improve their defense this season, particularly on the left side of the infield. Shortstop Jason Bartlett, acquired from the Twins in the Young/Garza deal, was 12 runs above average last year, while Longoria’s performance at the hot corner was six runs above average between Double-A and Triple-A. Couple that with some improvement from the developing youngsters and a bit of regression to the mean, and expectations for the defensive performance of the new lineup doesn’t look too bad…

A couple of months back, Nate [Silver] noted that the Rays’ pitchers’ PECOTAs improved considerably — by 30 to 50 points of ERA — in the light of this sunny defensive forecast. Still, it’s worth questioning the fundamental assumption of how much the new alignment will improve its results on balls in play. To examine that, I took every team’s depth chart-derived pitching statistics and calculated their expected Batting Averages in Balls in Play using the formula (H – HR)/(2.89 * IP + H – HR – SO), which gets the individual pitchers within 1-2 points of their PECOTA BABIPs without the messy work of figuring out how many batters each pitcher is estimated to face per our depth charts, and centers the major league average at .2994, within a point of last year’s .3002. Again using Defensive Efficiency as 1 – BABIP, here are the 2008 figures as compared to the 2007 ones:

Team  2008   2007   change
NYN .711 .707 .004
TBA .708 .662 .046
SLN .707 .700 .007
WAS .706 .706 .000
LAN .706 .691 .015
SFN .706 .699 .007
CHN .705 .712 -.007
OAK .704 .698 .006
DET .704 .699 .005
PHI .703 .691 .012
CIN .702 .682 .020
NYA .702 .696 .006
SDN .701 .706 -.005
ATL .701 .703 -.002
ARI .699 .700 -.001
BOS .699 .712 -.013
MIL .699 .684 .015
TOR .699 .714 -.015
CLE .699 .693 .006
SEA .698 .678 .020
HOU .697 .692 .005
CHA .697 .689 .008
PIT .696 .676 .020
MIN .694 .694 .000
KCA .694 .689 .005
TEX .692 .691 .001
BAL .692 .691 .001
FLO .692 .669 .023
ANA .691 .688 .003
COL .691 .703 -.012

If you’re ready to call “bull(durham)” on this forecast, I can’t say I blame you, because the combination of PECOTA and our best estimates for playing time show the Rays vaulting from a historical worst to the majors’ second best. Meanwhile, the Red Sox and Rockies, the two teams who finished atop the PADE standings and were second and eighth, respectively, in the rankings for unadjusted Defensive Efficiency, they’re expected to decline to be about average (in Boston’s case) and the worst in the majors (in Colorado’s case). This despite the two teams turning over at most one lineup spot apiece, the Rockies trading in a freakishly good season from Kaz Matsui (+20 FRAA) for rookie Jayson Nix (forecast for +9 FRAA), the Sox going from a similarly freakish season from Coco Crisp (+29 FRAA) to a job share between Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury (forecast for about +5 based on the division of playing time). Now sure, we should expect some regression to the mean at either extreme of the Defensive Efficienty rankings, but this is ridiculous.

Ok, that’s a pretty liberal excerpt, but you can read the whole thing for free at BP. I’ll be very interested to see if Nate addresses this in the near future. I try to learn as much about PECOTA as possible so that I can speak fluently about it when I do radio or promo events, but I wonder if there’s something I missed in my reverse engineering here.

• • •

Elsewhere, I spent more time this past weekend attuned to the Mets-Brewers series than the Yankees-Red Sox one as I played host to my two Milwaukee-native brothers-in-law, and their respective significant others as they came to New York. One of them, Adam, went to Friday night’s tilt with a friend, where he saw the Brewers fall to Mets 4-2; what was interesting about that game was the storybook plotline involving Mets starter Nelson Figureroa, a 33-year-old journeyman who journeyed as far as Mexico and Taiwan to pitch professionally — this New York Observer article covers his odyssey — before finally enjoying a storybook outing in front of a hometown crowd.

With the other brother-in-law, Aaron, arriving in town the next day, we TiVoed Saturday’s contest, a marquee matchup pitting Ben Sheets, who hadn’t given up a run in his first two starts, against Johan Santana, making his Shea Stadium debut. Sheets was shaky in the early going, giving up two runs in the first before settling down to retire 18 straight hitters. Meanwhile, the Brewers chipped away at Santana and touched him for five runs on the strength of homers by Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks and Gabe Kapler, thus carrying the day.

On Sunday, Aaron and I and our wives went to Shea to see the series finale, which featured Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez on the hill in a rematch of the 2006 NLCS Game Seven. The weather was way too cold for our under-dressed tastes, and the pace of play too slow; with tickets in hand for a Sunday night Broadway show, we left after six innings, just shy of the three-hour mark. By that point the Brewers had gone up 2-0, fallen behind 6-2, and roared back to take an 8-6 lead thanks to a lackluster performance by Perez, who surrendered six runs in 4.1 frames before departing. Aided by inning-ending double-plays in five consecutive innings, the Brewers held on to win the game 9-7, thus taking the series. For those of us who remember back to last year when the wind was taken out of the Brewers’ sails at the exact moment when they arrived in town — they were 24-10 when arriving in New York on May 11 but just 59-69 the rest of the way — we can hope that this year, things will turn out differently.

• • •

Wow. Thanks, Alex.

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