Hitting the Trifecta

Three pieces of Prospectus-flavored content to note here, an average of one for each manager fired this week (Willie Randolph, Seattle’s John McLaren, and Toronto’s John Gibbons). With apologies to Bill Bavasi…

• First off, here’s the transcript from Tuesday’s chat as well as a few slices:

Dan (windowless office): Should we ignore the Hit List while interleague play is going on? It’s making a hash of the standings…will it make a hash of the List as well?

JJ: Good question. The past few years have seen a considerable advantage for the AL when it comes to interleague play, and those results have shown up in the AL’s dominance of the Hit List. This year the NL looked much stronger early on, but the AL now holds a 48-40 record in interleague play, and they’ve actually got four of the top six spots on the most recent Hit List. Just as I’ve been skeptical about the early season scoring dip, I’ve retained a good deal of skepticism when it comes to those who say the balance of power has shifted to the NL. I see the interleague results as more of a correction than anything else.

johnpark99 (Boston): Jay, for a while now, your Hit Lists have had the A’s ranked significantly higher than the Angels, even though the Angels have the division lead. What is the right interpretation of your rankings? Do you mean to say that you expect the A’s will take the division by season’s end, or do you simply mean to say that you think the A’s are a better team than the Angels despite their records?

JJ: Ah, the eternal A’s-Angels battle on the Hit List has provided me with plenty of material for columns. Right now what you’re seeing on the Hit List and the adjusted standings is all based on the fact that the A’s have outscored their opponents by 55 runs — nearly one per game — while the Angels have been outscored by two runs. The latter owns the largest discrepancy between their predicted record and their actual one at 7.7 games.

In other words, the Angels have been more lucky than good, and that’s not necessarily the kind of thing you can bank on over time. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily think the A’s will take the division, because I don’t expect the Angels’ offense to keep underachieving to the extent that it has, but I do think the gap between the two teams is closer than the standings make it appear.

B. Bavasi (Seattle): Any jobs for me at BP?

JJ: Sure, Bill! Given your height you should be an ace at cleaning the leaves out of our office’s rain gutter. We haven’t been able to convince anyone else to go up there ever since Steven Goldman fell off the roof.

David (NJ): We know the way it was handled was wrong but were the Mets right in firing Willie Randolph?

JJ: Well, as botched a job as it was, I don’t entirely disagree with the decision to dismiss Randolph. As Rob Neyer pointed out at ESPN, there’s a good argument to make that he’s not the right manager at the right time for this club, even given its flimsy construction.

Managers aren’t solely tacticians. They’re leaders of men (some very boyish men at times). Different managers have different styles, but some seem to be better at protecting their teams by placing themselves in the line of fire and drawing the attention away from the struggles of their clubs. Ozzie Guillen is a good example of this now, as batsh*t crazy as he may seem, there’s a method to his madness. Joe Torre does the same thing while exuding an aura of pure calm. Bobby Valentine, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Tommy Lasorda – the styles can vary but that function is an important one.

Randolph didn’t handle that aspect of the job very well. The Mets have carried a very negative aura around them since last year’s collapse, and not even the acquisition of Johan Santana could erase that. At some point Randolph should have just said strong words to the effect of “Don’t connect this club to last year’s mess, it’s a new day and we’ve moved on so you should too.” Instead he played the race card and in doing so started the countdown on his own sell-by date.

Lots of Dodgers and Yankees questions in there, and A’s and Mariners as well. Check it out.

• As for the Hit List, I took aim at the aforementioned notion of the shifting balance of power between the two leagues right in this week’s title: “AL 75, NL 51.” The Junior Circuit won 27 out of 38 games in the three days since that chat, and now occupies five of the top seven spots on the list, with the Red Sox taking over the top spot and the Yankees moving up to number seven. Excerpt a few of the more interesting entries:

Blue Jays (#11) Where’s Shea Hillenbrand to Tell Us the Ship Is Sinking Now That We Really Need Him? With five losses in a row and 13 in their last 17, the Jays fall below .500 and into the AL East basement as the the cracks in their facade of sanity start to show. A.J. Burnett stirs up controversy by suggesting he’d welcome a trade to the Cubs — who could possibly want out of this mess? — and GM J.P. Ricciardi trashes Adam Dunn on a radio call-in show. Yeah, when you rank 13th in a 14-team league in SLG, with every position save for catcher and right field slugging under .400, you wouldn’t want anything to do with a slugger like Dunn.

Brewers (#13) Stop and Smell the Box Score: Let us pause from any rational evaluation of the Brewers’ ups and downs to simply appreciate the wonders of a single game containing a no-hit bid by David Bush (5.73 ERA entering the game) that ends after a hit by Lyle Overbay, the man he was traded for in 2005, and also includes an inside-the-park homer by Prince Fielder (the man who replaced Overbay), Russell Branyan’s 10th homer in 20 games since being recalled, and a two-out, ninth-inning grand slam by Joe Inglett that caps a six-run rally and turns a rout into a squeaker. I mean, seriously, who writes this stuff?

Giants (#22) Following an 0-5, 7.61 ERA start and a brief exile to the bullpen, Barry Zito looked as though he was making progress towards thinking about possibly pondering the idea of maybe getting it together at a date to be named later. That was because he posted a 3.49 ERA in May, struck out more hitters than he walked, and even stuck around long enough in a ballgame to collect a win. But just when you thought Zito might settle into a comfortable mediocrity, he’s back to his old ways: a 9.00 ERA in just 17 innings over four starts in June, not to mention an 8/17 K/BB ratio. Yes, Mr. Sabean, that $18 million club option in 2014 is starting to look like a real bargain.

Mariners (#29) Two Down, One to Go: the Mariners fire GM Bill Bavasi, architect of what may well be the first 100-loss team with a payroll above $100 million. Never the sharpest tool in the GM shed, Bavasi erred drastically by fundamentally misjudging last year’s club; though they finished 88-74 they were outscored by 17 runs, and hardly just a blockbuster away from a run at the AL West flag. Not content to stop there, the team cans manager John McLaren, on whose watch they went 66-88, and they may be poised to ditch designated albatross Richie Sexson, who’s hitting just .220/.294/.380 and hasn’t homered since May 24.

Fun stuff, no? Though Gibbons’ firing didn’t happen in time to make this week’s list, the appearance of arch-nemesis Hillenbrand suggests I was feeling the bad vibes coming from Toronto. And while I’m scratching my head wondering why Riccardi hasn’t been fired as well, from a Hit List standpoint he is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

• Up and down the Hit List I made reference to the 2008 Replacement Level Killers, the subject of this week’s Prospectus Hit and Run. Picking up on an idea I first used for It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over and then applied to last year’s most egregious offenders, I took a look at the players whose lousy play and whose teams’ complacency or lack of a suitable alternative threatens their shot at the playoffs. The starting nine, using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), the former to get a more accurate sense of hitting contributions and the latter to better account for defense:

C: J.R. Towles (-7.6 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Brad Ausmus (-5.8 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Astros
1B: Daric Barton (-2.7 VORP, 1.0 WARP), Athletics
2B: Adam Kennedy (-2.3 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Aaron Miles (-0.4 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Cardinals
SS: Chin-Lung Hu (-9.7 VORP, -1.0 WARP) and Angel Berroa (-1.4 VORP, -0.1 WARP), Dodgers
3B: Mike Lamb (-11.6 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Twins
LF: Garret Anderson (-1.4 VORP, 0.3 VORP), Angels
CF: Andruw Jones (-8.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Dodgers
RF: Jeff Francoeur (-1.0 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Braves
DH: Travis Hafner (0.2 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Indians

Given center field’s particular relevance around these parts, I’ll fill that one in:

CF: Andruw Jones (-8.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Dodgers
In his free agent walk year, Jones played through a hyperextended elbow and wound up with a spot on the 2007 Killers. Nonetheless, the Dodgers figured the 31-year-old would rebound, and signed him to a two-year, $36 million deal, one that appeared to force Juan Pierre into richly-deserved (and richly compensated) fourth-outfielderdom. Then Jones showed up to camp looking rather plump, and he performed so miserably that when a torn meniscus forced him to undergo surgery, Pierre’s return to the lineup–shifting to left field, with Matt Kemp in center–came as a relief. Not that Pierre has been producing (2.5 VORP, 1.1 WARP), but at least Dodger fans have been spared the daily drama of reading Joe Torre’s lineup.

Dishonorable Mention: Melky Cabrera (2.5 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Yankees. Cabrera’s ascension into a full-time role last year helped shore up an aging, porous Yankee outfield while pushing Johnny Damon over to left and Hideki Matsui into limbo. The 23-year-old Melkman looked as though his long-awaited power surge had finally arrived when he got off to a .299/.370/.494 start in April, but since then he’s lost his way at the plate, hitting just .229/.278/.312. His defense (-4 FRAA) has been a step down as well, Tuesday night’s stellar catch notwithstanding.

Anyway, the point of the whole exercise is that there’s still time for teams to address these issues, but sometimes that simply means letting a veteran play through their struggles. Sooner or later, though, a reckoning has to come; for the Yankees that may mean moving Johnny Damon back to center field and Hideki Matsui back into left.

For the Dodgers that may mean biting the big Juan for the rest of the year while remaining optimistic about the fact that their biggest problem, injuries, clearly points back to their GM. As I noted in the chat, the Dodgers lead the majors with the most dollars and highest percentage of payroll lost to the DL, and the guys who are filling it up — Jones, Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Schmidt — are Stupid Flanders’ marquee free agent signings. It’s tough to think he’s going to dodge the bullet if the Dodgers finish at .500 or below because of all that. Furthermore, if I’m Frank McCourt, the minute that the Mariners or some other team calls to ask permission to interview assistant GM/scouting guru Logan White, I put the caller on hold, fire Colletti and promote him to GM myself. No reason the Dodgers should lose their best and brightest homegrown front office talent anymore than they should their players.

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