Operation Shut Up

Hello, friends. I know it’s been ages since I weighed in here, possibly the longest between-postings hiatus in the history of this site. In the hours following the trading deadline, my kidneys shut down while struggling to process the Manny Ramirez-to-L.A. deal deal. It had already been a rough year for this bicoastal fan, what with Joe Torre moving from the Yankees to the Dodgers and bringing every bad habit with him, and then they put Nomar Garciaparra back at shortstop like it was 2001 or something, and finally Manny showed up with a number 99 jersey like he was some kind of Wayne Gretzky in dreadlocks… My body simply couldn’t take much more, and I wound up on the DL.

Ok, that’s not exactly how it happened.

The truth of the matter is that aside from dealing with a fair amount of summer travel (five weekends away out of six) that’s wrought havoc with my writing schedule, I’ve been invited to step up the frequency with which I publish at Baseball Prospectus. Last week, I wrote my usual monster Hit List as well as two Hit and Run columns, both on surprise contenders who were able to upgrade their rotations from within recently, namely the Marlins and the Twins. The weeks through the end of the season should see a similar schedule.

As for last week’s output, here’s a chunk from the intro to the first one:

Given the buzz surrounding the blockbuster trades which were consummated in recent weeks—and even the ones that weren’t—you may not have noticed one of the contenders who upgraded their rotation rather quietly. They didn’t have to sacrifice a blue-chipper or even a B-grade prospect at the altar of contention, either. Instead, they were able to recall pitchers from within their system—a strapping rookie, and a pair of young, high-upside pitchers coming back from major arm injuries but primed to contribute down the stretch.

The team in question is the Marlins, who have been hanging around the top of the NL East all season long despite a PECOTA forecast of 72 wins, a run differential that’s been in the red in every month except May, and a prediction of impending doom from just about every pundit who’s weighed in on their outlook (myself included). They’re not without their virtues, of course… their offense is solidly in the middle of the pack, sixth in the league in raw scoring at 4.75 runs per game, and seventh in Equivalent Average (all stats through Sunday).

Yet the Marlins have been outscored by 18 runs because they rank 13th in the league at 4.90 runs allowed per game. Their relievers have been very good, ranking third in WXRL despite having the highest walk rate (4.0 UIBB/9) of any bullpen in the league. On the other hand, their rotation’s numbers look pretty dismal relative to the rest of the NL, far from the stuff of contention:

          IP/GS    ERA   SNLVAR  SNWP
Marlins 5.56 4.97 8.7 .472
NL Rank 15 13 13 14

SNWP is the rotation’s Support Neutral Winning Percentage. It’s something I’ve been discussing since last year, a figure which estimates the percentage of the time a pitcher’s team would win a game given average offense and bullpen support. Our stat reports don’t actually list this in the format you see here (yet…), but if you take a pitcher or team’s SNLVA_R (Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Added Rate, not to be confused with Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement) and add .5, you’ll get that SNWP. Think of it as a sabermetric approximation of a quality start rate, and thank Keith Woolner.

Anyway, the rotation that plunged the Marlins into the bottom quartile of the league in those four categories is last week’s Fish wrap. As badly as it stinks, it bears only passing resemblance to the unit Fredi Gonzalez is currently penciling into his lineup cards. Scott Olsen (4.04 ERA, 2.9 SNLVAR) and Ricky Nolasco (3.92 ERA, 3.0 SNLVAR) are the only holdovers left from the beginning of the year, and instead of Andrew Miller, Mark Hendrickson, Burke Badenhop, Ryan Tucker, Rick VandenHurk, or Eulogio De La Cruz—a group which combined to make 58 of the team’s 118 starts while yielding a 6.38 ERA in that role—the starting five now includes Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad.

The Twins one centers on their (mostly) homegrown rotation and the recent recall of ace-in-waiting Francisco Liriano:

On the whole, the rotation has performed in the realm of league average, putting up a 4.49 ERA and averaging 5.9 innings per start, all good for a .507 Support Neutral Winning Percentage, the frequency with which a pitcher’s team can be expected to win given average offensive and bullpen support. The staff’s general inability to miss bats has been countered by the stinginess with which they issue walks. They’ve allowed the fewest in the league, and the rotation’s walk rate (2.04 BB/9) is half a walk better than the next-closest team, the Indians. The quartet that’s shaken out since the increasingly disappointing Bonser was sent to the bullpen at the end of May—Baker, Kevin Slowey, and rookies Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins—are home-grown products straight off the assembly line of the organization that in past years produced Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse. These are all finesse pitchers who did not or do not blow the ball by hitters, but who instead survive and occasionally thrive thanks to their pinpoint control. Baker’s the only one of the four striking out more than 6.3 per nine, Perkins is the only one passing more than 1.9 hitters per nine, and all of them rank among the league’s top 35 in SNLVAR. They’re an ideal building block for a cost-conscious team, and as the Yankees can tell you, they can stop a contender in their tracks.

The fifth slot in the rotation is the unit’s wild card. Opening Day starter [Livan] Hernandez was a success on at least one level, eating 139 2/3 innings and pitching surprisingly well for a guy unable to strike out four hitters per nine. Through May 17, he went 6-2 with a 3.88 ERA, but his hittable ways caught up with him, and his next 13 starts yielded a 6.87 ERA. Strong offensive support (5.7 runs per game) and a respectable won-loss record camouflaged his woes and may have forestalled his inevitable departure via the waiver wire.

As for Liriano, he didn’t pitch at all in 2007, and his arrival in spring training was delayed by visa problems. Though he had reportedly gone as high as 97 mph with his fastball at the team’s Dominican academy this winter, that velocity was nowhere to be found in Florida. He began the year in the minors, making one start for Triple-A Rochester before being recalled. He was pounded for an 11.32 ERA in three starts for the Twins, starts which revealed major command problems (7/13 K/BB) as well as confidence issues, and by month’s end was sent back to Rochester.

He languished there, throwing 18 starts and 114 innings, an excessively long stay by any stretch of the imagination. His overall Triple-A numbers were more than respectable for a pitcher rehabbing from Tommy John surgery (3.28 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 3.6 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9), and over his last six starts they were downright dominant (1.10 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 51/6 K/BB, and 0.2 HR/9). The team’s efforts to rehabilitate their 24-year-old would-be ace appear to have been conflated with the desire to discipline him for a lack of candor in discussing the condition of his arm. Manager Ron Gardenhire admittedly harbored some resentment over a problem that’s spanned from Liriano’s pre-injury days when he pitched through pain, to this spring, when he was concerned enough about his elbow to shy from throwing his slider at maximum effort. Add in the fact that his extended stay in the minors will prevent him from achieving Super Two status, thus staving off arbitration with the notoriously tight-fisted team for a year and triggering a grievance on the pitcher’s behalf, and you’ve got a situation that raises some eyebrows. At the very least, the Twins have wasted some of their potential ace’s 2008 bullets.

Whew. Also, for those of you who missed it, here are links to the Hit Lists of August 1 (the post-trade dealdine edition), August 8, and August 15. And if you still can’t get enough of my two-week-old yammerings, check this chat, yet another wrap-up of the trade deadline.

Happily, my increased presence at BP is something which will be continuing into the foreseeable future. What that means for this site in the grand scheme of things is unclear. To an even greater extent than before, I’ll be saving most of my bullets for my work there, with pointers to that work back here. I’m hoping to make up for that by settling into a habit of shorter posts here — you know, like the kids do — but we both know that’s something I’ve yet to acquire the knack for, and it may take some doing. I can promise you this, though: lots of four-letter words, and I don’t mean VORP.

What all of this means is even more of my writing winding up behind BP’s subscription wall, which in turn means it’s time to go PBS telethon for a minute.

Many of you who read this site are already BP subscribers, while others would sooner run naked down the nearest interstate carrying oversized effigies of Murray Chass’ bald head before handing over a nickel for web-based content. I applaud both factions, for such variety is the spice of life, and anyway, if you’re in the latter camp, you’ll soon be getting the help you need. As for the former, I thank you immensely. Traffic and customer satisfaction with my work are big reasons why I’ve been asked to increase my frequency. For that somewhat more amorphous middle of the spectrum — particularly those of you who enjoy reading my more analytical work and want the stuffed bunny rabbit sitting next to me to survive until the next sunrise — please consider subscribing to BP, even if only for a month or two, to see if the new Now With At Least 50% More Jaffe blend suits your stretch drive needs.

OK, enough shilling. I’ll be back soon enough.

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