Thursday, July 18, 2013

By Grant Larson, Baseball Columnist - 

A Tale of Happenings From Around the League

Here we are at the unofficial halfway point of the season. The midsummer classic has come and gone. Some teams had surprises while others faced bumps and bruises. Baltimore’s sensational season wasn’t a fluke and neither was Oakland’s. Money doesn’t buy happiness; we can thank the Dodgers and the Yankees for proving that theory. The Blue Jays have been painfully bad, then exceptionally good, and now just average. Washington doesn’t seem like the 100 win team many thought they were, while the Red Sox look like the 100 win team many thought they weren’t.

I set out to identify how teams have fared this year in terms of production, payroll, and against expectations. I broke down teams into 3 categories: starting pitching, relief pitching, and hitters. I used WAR from to determine the average performance of players from each category for each team. I used WAR because it is an attempt to quantify all of the contributions a player provides his team into a single value. If you are interested in learning more about WAR click here. To simplify the information I limited those players included in this analysis so the averages were more accurate. Hitters needed to have at least 80 AB, relief pitchers needed more than 10 IP, and starting pitchers needed to have pitched in excess of 40 IP. I made my graphs available at the bottom of this article.

Before I get into the individual teams I want to point out one thing I found while doing this analysis because it effectively adds credence to a theory I have. The theory has to do with paying large sums of money to player in their late 20's and early 30's, but that is for another time. Of the top 15 hitters with the highest WAR, 10 of them cumulatively made less than what Alex Rodriguez is making this year. Let me repeat that for those of you not listening! Alex Rodriguez is making $29 million dollars to lick his wounds this year, meanwhile there are 10 everyday players around the league ranked in the top 15 in the WAR category for hitters that are making just over $25 million COMBINED! That blows me away!

Now on to the teams:

AL East:

Boston Red Sox (Wins: 58, Cost per Win: $2.6 Million) - Oh my, what a difference a year makes. Many people, myself included, were convinced that overpaying a bunch of role players didn’t seem to be the best formula for success. Many were wrong. And they remained financially flexible moving forward. They are near the top in all categories of WAR, which is astounding consider where they were less than a year ago. The pitching has been revived, obviously by strong performances by Buchholz and Lackey. Lester is still a bit of a question mark. He started the season off really well and then slowed dramatically. The bullpen has gone through many drastic transformations but seems to be holding itself together. The hitting has been amazing. Papi seems to refuse to age, Ellsbury is burning up the base paths, and Daniel Nava has been a nice surprise. Dustin Pedroia has been a gutsy, hard working contributor and seems to personify the team as a whole.

New York Yankees (Wins: 51, Cost per Win: $4.5 Million) – There is only one statistic that can explain what has happened to the Yankees this year and it’s obvious it has to do with injuries. To quantify it the Yankees (if Derek Jeter is counted) have more than $90 million dollars on the disabled list. I fear this is what happens when a team locks themselves into too many expensive long-term contracts that run parallel courses. They want to be under the luxury tax number before next year and have a chance at doing it but that will limit their flexibility in free agency during the offseason. The one thing I can assume that they are hoping for is that A-Rod either gets banned for life or he gives up and calls it quits if his suspension is too long. Without their top hitters they have fallen to the bottom half of the league in WAR. Meanwhile, they have produced very well in each of the pitching categories telling me they may be posed to make a run with Jeter, Granderson, Texeira, and possibly A-Rod returning soon. If everyone can manage to get healthy it will be interesting to see how they juggle a lineup that has been built based on pressure. The pressure to win in the Bronx has forced the Yanks into taking on bad contracts (e.g. Vernon Wells), overpaying veterans (e.g. Youkilis), and taking on struggling youths (e.g. Boesch).

Toronto Blue Jays (Wins: 45, Cost per Win: $2.6 Million) - The way to win quickly is not by taking on a bunch of players from one team that underperformed the year before. It is easy to say that the Blue Jays offseason had similarities to the Marlins offseason from a year ago. Their expensive starting pitchers have produced an average WAR that is very underwhelming. Josh Johnson has lost his stuff and it seems RA Dickey might have been a one-year wonder. What’s worse is Dickey gets much more expensive starting next year. Their relief pitchers have performed well because of strong performances from Delabar, Janssen, and a re-born Brett Cecil. Hitters have been about what was expected for the most part. Overpaying Melkey Cabrera was a bad idea, but I think they knew that. His numbers have been flat and uneven. Brett Lawrie’s energy has been missed. I won’t say they can’t turn it around, but I doubt it. Biggest takeaway from the Blue Jays is payroll went up performance stayed flat. I’m not impressed.

Baltimore Orioles (Wins: 53, Cost per Win: $1.7 Million) – The Orioles are winning again, and they are winning without pitching.  More importantly they are winning with a payroll that sits right in the middle of the pack. Chris Tillman has the wins but the stats accompanying them are just alright. Wei-Yin Chen has been hurt a good portion of the year and I think there is a case that can be made that he is there best pitcher. They don’t aggressively pursue free agent pitching and that is probably because they are waiting for some of their young talented prospects (they have two that could be front of the rotation starters). Their bullpen, one of their greatest strengths last year, has been just above average this year and Jim Johnson has blown 6 saves already this year after blowing only 3 last year. Their hitting has been their strength and has managed to keep them in games all year. Trading for Davis (a couple of years ago), signing Adam Jones through only his 32/33 age season, and drafting Machado have given them flexibility and made them competitive for years (if their pitching develops).

Tampa Bay Rays (Wins: 55, Cost per Win: $1.1 Million) - The Rays are known for defying the odds and had a great degree of responsibility for skewing my results; I am sure of that. The combination of player development and finding journeymen who break out as a Ray have made them great. I love what they do. Instead of spending otherworldly amounts of money to bring free agents, they spend their resources creating dynamic rising stars. They develop arms like the Dodger’s spend money and they do it more effectively. Enough said about their pitching. Their hitting has been a nice surprise based on WAR; they rank in the top 5. A lot of that is attributed to a healthy Evan Longoria but let’s not discount their offseason additions. The $2 million they gave Loney looks like a steal, trading two of their arms for Meyers seems like the right move (he’s the real deal), and Escobar has behaved himself and produced on the field. Again, another efficient and successful season so far.

AL Central:

Detroit Tigers (Wins: 52, Cost per Win: $2.9 Million) – Tiger’s starting pitching has been nothing short of spectacular by producing lots of strikeouts, minimizing walks, and accumulating wins. That being said they have certainly paid for it but in an effective way. Their bullpen has been serviceable, with the exception of the closer role. I know they were hoping Rondon would be ready but considering their win now approach, I believe they should have been more involved in the closer market in the offseason. They may be involved going into the trade deadline though. Their hitters have been better than average. There is no question they will be a major player come October.

Cleveland Indians (Wins: 51, Cost per Win: $1.5 Million) – The Indians did an effective job upgrading their offense in the offseason while only spending about $47 million. Contributions from new additions such as Swisher and Bourn have been nice but the bright spot has been Kipnis. He’s young, affordable, and an underrated 5 tool player at a limited position. Their starting pitching has improved from last year mainly due to improvements made by Masterson. After watching Danny Salazar pitch in his major league debut last week I believe they may have a stud in the making. Their bullpen has been their Achilles’ heel and they absolutely need to be in the market for some help.

Chicago White Sox (Wins: 37, Cost per Win: $3.2 Million) – What a mess. They have a young superstar pitcher that is plagued by a poor win-loss record because run support is apparently hard for him to come by. And because of him the pitching for Chicago seems to be doing alright. The back end of their bullpen has been nothing short of spectacular thanks to set-up man Jesse Crain (who may be on the move) and closer Addison Reed. Hitting is a major problem for the White Sox. The big concern is that Paul Konerko seems to be a fraction of his former self, Tyler Flowers hasn’t been good, Adam Dunn loves to swing at everything (30% of his at-bats result in strikeouts), and Gordon Beckham refuses to turn the corner. It seems to me they have a long rebuilding process ahead of them and they are spending a lot of money doing it.

Kansas City Royals (Wins: 43, Cost per Win: $1.9 Million) – The offense has been a bit of an anomaly. It just refuses to develop like we all thought it would. Francouer got really bad and shipped out, Billy Butler hasn’t been close to what we have come to expect, and they don’t have a single player with more than 10 HR’s. Chris Davis has more HR’s than Gordon, Moustakas, Hosmer, Butler, and Cain combined. Pitching has been ok and that is only because they managed to get Shields and Ervin Santana, who have been their two best players. I just don’t understand this team.

Minnesota Twins (Wins: 39, Cost per Win: $2.1 Million) – The Twins seem to be torn between trying to win and trying to rebuild. Their hitting and starting pitching were incredibly bad. Joe Mauer provided one of the few bright spots in their lineup. A few young guys (Florimon and at times Hicks) showed some glimpses of being pretty good players. Starting pitching has been as bad as any team and they don’t have a starter with a WAR greater than 1. The bullpen is been borderline great. Perkins has worked himself into being a pretty reliable closer. They have some really nice looking players on the way up. Patience is needed if you are a Twins fan.

AL West:

Texas Rangers (Wins: 54, Cost per Win: $2.3 Million) – I truly thought the Rangers would struggle this year without Hamilton, Napoli, and many unhealthy pitchers. They have pieced a really nice team together and have one of the best starting rotations in baseball through the first half. All the money they gave to Yu Darvish seems to be money well spent, Derek Holland has fulfilled some of his promise, and a couple of their young prospects including Martin Perez have been contributors. Adrian Beltre has led an offense that is above average and includes: a toolsy Leonys Martin, power hitting Cruz, and many other top hitters. The bullpen has been one of the best in the league and Joe Nathan has done an exceptional job closing out games.

Oakland A’s (Wins: 56, Cost per Win: $1.1 Million) – I love what Billy Beane does and I think he may be there until the end of time. He just keeps digging into the farm and finding players to produce. It’s amazing. Josh Donaldson has a midseason MVP claim and he didn’t even make the all-star game. I want to clarify that I have a major issue with that. They have managed WARs above average in each of the categories and there aren’t a lot of household names. Everyone seems to contribute and there is a different hero each night. I loved the Bernie lean last year and this team has the same type of mojo.

Los Angeles Angels (Wins: 44, Cost per Win: $3.2 Million) - Is it too early to be concerned about whether the organization is going to be able to survive under the weight of some of their lofty contracts. I get that Arte Moreno seems to find bundles of cash when the people around baseball least expect it. Maybe it was that he wanted to hide it until Torii Hunter signed elsewhere thinking it wouldn’t offend him after he signed. I don’t get it. Spending money for a need is one thing, but throwing cash at players over 30 because they are simply household names is straining. Josh Hamilton has been dreadful and that has carried over from the second half of last year, while Pujols (even though he has been injured) hasn’t been the Pujols the Angels thought they were going to get when they signed him. These two guys are making close to $45 million dollars more than Mike Trout, who is probably the best overall player on the planet. Another big problem is their pitching.

Seattle Mariners (Wins: 43, Cost per Win: $1.9 Million) - This youth movement has been atrociously disappointing. Player development, with the exception of Kyle Seager, has disappointed fans. Highly regarded prospects including Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero have had to be optioned to refine their swings and change positions. That being said, Nick Franklin looks like the real deal and may turn into a top tier 2nd baseman very soon. It’s not happening this year though and they have some nice pieces to trade, namely Morales and Ibanez. I say do it and try to get a young major league ready player or two and pray to the baseball Gods that some of their young players develop and break out. Their closer got demoted for underperforming but the bullpen overall has performed nicely. Pitching has been good and it usually is in the thick air at Safeco. I’m glad for the fan base that they signed Felix to an extension to keep fans energized. This team could be on the brink of breaking out or they could be years away.

Houston Astros (Wins: 33, Cost per Win: $.8 Million) – If a team is going to go through a rebuilding process they should look at the Astros as a template on how to do it. They have stripped down to nothing and are rebuilding from the farm on up. And I’ll tell you what I see: a very bright future. I could spend pages talking about the depth and talent they have on the way up instead I am going to keep it simple. They have at least 5 top tier prospects that any team would be lucky to have. One of my favorite moves for them is saving money long-term by signing Jose Altuve to a team friendly contract that extends beyond his arbitration years. Well done Astros and while it is painful for fans now the future is bright.

NL East:

Atlanta Braves (Wins: 54, Cost per Win: $1.7 Million) – The Braves started out the season really well, built up a huge lead, and are just coasting now. They are at or just slightly above average in all WAR categories and they are doing it with a relatively low payroll considering the high profile names on their team. I think it is easy to admit that the B.J. Upton signing was painfully bad and might haunt them for the next four and a half years. Freddie Freeman continues to be one of my favorite players. He has produced every year since he has come up and in my opinion is the best player on that team and gets none of the prestige. I want to talk a lot about J.Up but I don’t think this is the place for it. He has been really disappointing after a great start. I will leave it at that for now. The pitching has been serviceable. Julio Teheren has finally developed into a decent option, Medlen has been sporadic (not the same Medlen from last year) but still pretty good, and Beachy could elevate this staff upon his return from Tommy John surgery. 

Washington Nationals (Wins: 48, Cost per Win: $2.5 Million) – It is hard for me to say that a team spending only $2.5 million per win has been a disappointment, but they have. The starting pitching has been above average and Jordan Zimmerman can be thanked for that. It’s unfortunate he doesn’t get more credit. The bullpen has been solid but not the unstoppable force we thought they would be and they have a ton of money tied up in that category. Their hitting always seems to be blah to me and their average WAR backs that up. Ian Desmond is putting up monster numbers for a short stop and Bryce Harper is a spark plug and I love the way he plays the game. Anthony Rendon seems to be on the brink of contributing big time. The rest of the team has kind of underperformed. They will still make the playoffs, maybe win the division, and maybe even win a championship but a few people need to step up and now.

Philadelphia Phillies (Wins: 48, Cost per Win: $3.3 Million) – Holy old folks home! They have more than $80 million tied up into 3 pitchers: one has looked great, one loves racking up loses, and one was really bad before going onto the DL. That being said they are still managing to compete. There have been a lot of questions about the direction they will take leading into the trading deadline. They are only 5 ½ out of a wild card spot and 6 ½ out of first in the division. It’s amazing how they have been able to stay afloat with so many DL stints but they have. They have a long rebuilding process ahead of them; I’m just thinking they are trying to get one last push from their aging stars. I don’t see it happening; I say break it up and start building while you can.

New York Mets (Wins: 41, Cost per Win: $2.3 Million) – I have been waiting to get to this team because of their payroll. The New York Mets have nearly half of their payroll tied up into players that haven’t played a single game for them this year. Johan Santana has been one of the worst signings in recent memory but the contract will likely end following the 2013 season, Jason Bay is playing for the Mariners while the Mets pay him (some of it has been deferred), and I just learned recently they are paying Bobby Bonilla more than $1 million a year from a contract that had been deferred. No wonder they are struggling to be a competitor. That being said they are close. Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey are providing affordable innings and they have a 3rd highly regarded prospect Noah Syndergaard on the way. David Wright is in the top 5 in WAR and has stayed healthy the last two years, while the rest of the offense has really struggled. Their bullpen has a few bright spots but has been merely average. When they can shed these bad contracts they can finally start building up their offense

Miami Marlins (Wins: 35, Cost per Win: $1.1 Million) – I am really disappointed with the Marlins. I don’t agree with the deceitfulness they exhibited in the past two off-seasons. They have two of the best young players in baseball in Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton but they don’t seem to have a desire to win. It seems to me that they simply want to turn profits and don’t really care about competing and thrilling their fan-base. And maybe they did the smart thing and broke it up when they realized it wouldn't work out but it certainly doesn’t look that way to me. They’ll have to prove me wrong.

NL Central:

Cincinnati Reds (Wins: 53, Cost per Win: $2.1 Million) – The Reds are another team with a lot of contributors. Their pitching has some holes in it but a lot of that has to do with the injury to Cueto and uneven performances by Homer Bailey. Mike Leake was forced to fight hard to maintain his rotation spot and has in the process become one of their best pitchers. Matt Latos is a young stud at only 25 and has performed better in hitter friendly Great American Ballpark than expected. The bullpen has been below average, which is a surprise but Aroldis Chapman hasn't been quite as effective as last year. To be fair, that would have been hard to do. We knew they would hit and they have done exactly that and Brandon Phillips have fared well producing from the cleanup spot. They will be around come October.

St Louis Cardinals (Wins: 57, Cost per Win: $2 Million) – The Cardinals, in my opinion, are the best team in baseball in staying relevant year after year while managing to maintain a payroll in the middle of the pack. Like the Rays they seem to have pitchers stock piled. Shelby Miller has been one of the best rookies this year and they have guys like Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez waiting in the wings. That combined with the Cy Young caliber season that Adam Wainwright has had has led them to the second highest WAR in baseball. Their hitting has been equally good and that is because they are loaded with great players including: the best catcher in the game, an established veteran in Beltran who is playing as well as he ever has, and Allen Craig is an RBI magnet. Their only weakness is their bullpen but that has a lot to do with the injury to Jason Motte. Overall, might be the best team in baseball.

Pittsburgh Pirates (Wins: 56, Cost per Win: $1.2 Million) - To me it seems that the Pirates have been rebuilding for years. And the organization has been patient doing it. The two previous years' terrible second halves derailed their dream of a winning record but the front office stuck with coach Clint Hurdle, and it seems to be paying off. They have been flirting with the best record in baseball all year and they are doing it with a minimal payroll that ranks in the bottom 5. McCutchen is a star, it seems Starling Marte may be too, Pedro Alvarez has incredible power, and they have a plethora of role players that have contributed. The pitching has been good with some veterans leading the way and young Jeff Locke looks like a future star if he isn’t there already. Taking a chance on Grilli as a closer has proven brilliant. This is their year.

Milwaukee Brewers (Wins: 38, Cost per Win: $2.3 Million) – The Brewers have been flat out bad. Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura are maybe the only bright spots on this team and they have been spectacular sporting WARs above 3. Two great building blocks if you ask me. Braun has not been very good but I’m sure his impending suspension has affected his mentality. Taking into account the whole pitching staff, they are the only team without a pitcher with a WAR north of 1. Thankfully there payroll doesn’t have much allotted to pitchers otherwise this would look really bad. Having some nice young offensive pieces is promising but winning seems a ways away.

Chicago Cubs (Wins: 42, Cost per Win: $2.5 Million) – The Cubbies just keep peeling back the layers. The problem is they are still being weighed down but one contract that I am sure has haunted them for years and that is the perennial $22 million check they write to Alfonso Soriano. They seemed to be moving in the right direction and then they dumped $52 million into Edwin Jackson’s lap spread over 4 years. Garza has looked good but he is likely to be shipped out. Their bullpen averages a WAR below zero. On the offensive side of the ball Rizzo has taking a very small step back in terms of batting average and Starlin Castro has taken a large step back and sports a negative WAR. Thankfully they have a farm system that is becoming well stocked. The future is not now and might not be in the immediate future.

NL West:

Los Angeles Dodgers (Wins: 47, Cost per Win: $4.7 Million) - World Series or bust?! I am pretty sure I heard those words come out of someone’s mouth. I am going to try really hard to avoid the trade from last year and just look at this year when it comes to the Dodgers. They are spending more per win than everyone else in baseball and the results have been uneven. Yasiel Puig has been a spark plug and makes the front office look brilliant for signing him through 2018 for only $42 million. Hanley has shown signs of returning to the production of years past. However, Kemp has been hurt and not great when healthy, Ethier’s $85 million contract seems straining only one year in, and rest of the offense hasn’t been great either. My biggest problem with the Dodgers is that they have 6 starting pitchers making more than $10 million this year. Clayton Kershaw is maybe the best pitcher in baseball, Grienke has gotten better, and Hyun-Jin Ryu has impressed and it not one of those 6. They are flat out throwing money away and they barely reached .500 before the break. I’m not impressed.

Arizona Diamondbacks (Wins: 50, Cost per Win: $1.8 Million) – Paul Goldshmidt is a rockstar and Arizona made the impressive move to lock him up through at least 2018. The rest of the offense has been pretty good. The only guy I am really concerned about is Miquel Montero. His numbers are way down and his slugging is almost .100 points down from the last three years. Patrick Corbin has been spectacular and they have some other young pitchers that have shown flashes of brilliance. They have a lot of contributors and they are winning with a limited budget. I like what this team is doing and they are pretty young.

Colorado Rockies (Wins: 46, Cost per Win: $1.6 Million) – If all they had to do was hit the ball Colorado would be a force every year. Michael Cuddyer was a great short-term investment and the positive influence and production have been immeasurably important to their first have success. Tulo and Cargo have had predictably good seasons and have managed to stay on the field for the most part. The bullpen has done a nice job. More importantly, the starting pitching has been surprisingly competitive. I know Chatwood is stranding runners at a rate that is probably too high to sustain but he has been impressive. And so has Chacin who has looked great the last few weeks. Whether they are able to keep it up is obviously not known but this division is surprisingly up for grabs.

San Diego Padres (Wins: 42, Cost per Win: $1.6 Million) – There is not much to say about the Padres. They seem to teeter back and forth between buyers and sellers at this time of the year. They have a lot of potential…… but only when it comes to swinging the bat. Gyorko has brought positive energy and production, Evereth Cabrera can’t be stopped on the base paths, and Yonder Alonso seems poised to break out. That being said, they are near the bottom in WAR when it comes to starting pitching and bullpen. I mean really bad. Stults, a journeyman pitcher, has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise depressing rotation. The biggest problem is I don’t see an impending solution (Fried is only 19 and in lo-A). They are going to have to get involved in the free agent market if they can’t develop. If they were really smart the would trade Headley for a large package and move Gyorko back to third because his bat plays well there. Just my take.

San Francisco Giants (Wins: 43, Cost per Win: $3.2 Million) - Even though the Giants are spending way over the league average per win I don’t have it in me to talk negatively about them. I say that because if they have taught us anything in the last three years it is that they know how to win. The Giants haven’t been overly active in the free agent market over the last few years and I believe I know why: Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum. Zito came to the Giants on a monster contract that the Giants are still choking on and they are paying Lincecum $22 million to have a below average WAR. That is pretty much a reflection of the starting rotation as a whole. Additionally, Matt Cain has seemingly fallen apart. In short, the strengths for the Giants in previous years (pitching) has been quite suspect to put it mildly. Meanwhile their offense is performing well above the league average. That has really been a product of a team full of contributors. They desperately need their pitching to reappear or they may spend October away from the field.

Starting Pitching (Avg. WAR)
The average team WAR in this analysis was 1.22.

Relief Pitching (Avg. WAR)
The average team WAR in this analysis was .25.

Hitters (Avg. WAR)
The average team WAR for this analysis was .93.

Payroll by Category for each team

Love to hear what you think!

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