Triple Threat

It’s all the Jaffe you can eat today. I’ve got my hand in not one but two pieces today at Baseball Prospectus. First, there’s a little something that Joe Sheehan and I cooked up, a thought experiment in which we pooled the Rays’ and Phillies’ rosters and chose up sides, schoolyard style, based simply on who we’d want to play for us over the next two weeks.

The idea was to illustrate Tampa Bay’s edge in depth, and I think we did that. The first 21 picks featured 11 Rays and 10 Phillies, but of the next 19 picks, 13 were Rays, and the last 10 picks were all Phillies. In general, Rays were chosen ahead of their Philly counterparts, with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson rating as the exceptions. The lower portions of Philadelphia’s lineup, bench and bullpen, in our consensus, simply don’t match up to those of the Rays. That said, our agreement to avoid positional hoarding within the closed system of the draft meant that one person’s choice often dictated another, and a straight reading of the picks as overall, objective rankings is likely to be misread. Speaking for myself, I chose strategically, focusing on choices where the gap between the players at the two positions was the widest and deferring ones where it wasn’t as clear (see the Ryan Howard/Carlos Pena bit below).

Also up is today’s column, examining the Rays’ historic turnaround in Defensive Efficiency, a topic I first addressed in the spring with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Back in mid-April, when PECOTA’s forecast for an 88-win season for the Rays still rated as outrageous, I dug deep to expose an underlying assumption of that projection which seemed even more outrageous. Namely, the Rays’ rise was predicated on a record-setting year-to-year improvement in Defensive Efficiency, the ability of their fielders to convert batted balls into outs. As with the bullpen, the 2007 Devil Rays’ defense had a claim as the worst in history via the lowest Defensive Efficiency since 1954, the earliest year of our database. Crunching the numbers, I concluded that PECOTA was predicting a 46-point DE improvement for the 88-win Rays, a jump that would rank as the second-greatest of all time. I remained skeptical:
The take-home message here is that the magnitude of the defensive jump that stands as part of the foundation of this year’s Rays forecast is virtually unprecedented over the last half-century. The franchise has plenty of reasons for optimism, both for the 2008 season and in the years beyond, and if nothing else they should be a damn sight more appealing than the eyesores of yesteryear. But at the moment, the case for their sudden rise into contention appears to be overstated, and we’d be well served to temper our expectations.

Holiday bird-feasting is still about a month away, but it’s time to eat some crow here, since the Rays not only surpassed the 88 wins but also the 46-point jump. As with the bullpen’s WXRL total and Fair Run Average, they set a record for the largest year-to-year improvement in our database, and they led the majors in that category as well. Nate Silver’s roll continues.

Rather than embark on another lengthy history lesson involving other teams who improved dramatically from year to year, I added a handful of World Series notes. Many of them are Rays themed, not because I have anything against the Phillies (despite their having steamrolled my two favorite NL teams on their way to the pennant) but because between the my previews for the Division and League Championship Series and articles covering the latter I’ve got at least 10,000 words about the Phillies under my belt this month. No disrespect, all due respect, fugeddaboutit, howyadoin’

Here’s a taste:

The Rays’ hitting is better than most people think

There’s a popular misconception that the Rays aren’t a great-hitting team, one borne of the fact that they finished just ninth in the AL in runs per game, fourth in on-base percentage, and eighth in slugging percentage. They had some injuries which affected those rankings — Evan Longoria’s wrist, Carl Crawford’s hamstring, B.J. Upton’s shoulder — but as the ALCS showed, all of those players appear to be in working order right now, to say the least. That trio alone combined for 26 hits, eight homers and 23 RBI in the seven-game series, and Carlos Pena and Willy Aybar added another 15 hits, five homers and 12 RBI between them. These guys have some punch.

What the regular-season numbers ignore is the fact that the Rays play in very pitcher-friendly park. According to the five-year park factors on our Equivalent Average page, Tropicana Field has the fourth-toughest park for offense in the league behind Seattle, Oakland and Minnesota, depressing scoring by about three percent. Equivalent Average adjusts for that, and the Rays’ .265 EQA actually ranks third in the AL behind only Texas and Boston:

Team          PF    EQA   EQR    Runs
Rangers 1018 .278 857.9 901
Red Sox 1049 .270 787.5 845
Rays 972 .265 766.4 774
Twins 961 .264 755.4 829
Tigers 1029 .264 758.1 821
Yankees 1019 .262 731.9 789
Indians 1009 .261 733.9 805
Orioles 1023 .259 716.5 782
White Sox 1039 .259 720.6 811
Angels 1016 .254 678.2 765
Blue Jays 990 .253 672.8 714
Mariners 953 .250 662.7 671
Royals 1013 .246 629.4 691
Athletics 957 .244 619.5 646

Speaking of adjusting for offensive context and clearing up misconceptions, it’s worth noting that Citizens Bank Park isn’t exactly Coors Field East; its 1006 Park Factor means that scoring is inflated there by less than one percent. Once you adjust for that, the Phillies’ .267 EQA ranks fourth in the league behind the Cardinals, Mets and Cubs. They certainly have more raw power than the Rays, but this isn’t a mismatch.

If that’s not enough, I’ll also be partaking in BP’s Game One roundtable, with a chat of my own scheduled for Friday. Better go ice my shoulder…

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