Sustainable win production is often the hot topic for baseball writers once May hits (I will be guilty of such a charge with the conclusion of this article). Cleveland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh have so far exceeded pre-season expectations. Can they keep it up? That’s the million dollar question. We’ve seen teams flop after a great start—though sometimes these surprise teams are contenders through the full season. Last year, the Padres. A few years back, the Rays.
Ah, the Rays…
Although the Padres did only lose the NL West by one game, the Rays beat out the tough guys in the AL East on their way to their first World Series appearance in 2008. We’ve all heard the story. Teams who are consistently known as bottom feeders look up to the 2008 Rays; theirs was a transformation likely never to be repeated. But who knows, right? The hammer of Thor could strike again…
That’s another question: are any of the surprise 2011 teams comparable to the 2008 Rays? They all have similar backgrounds. Royals and Pirates fans know the pain they’ve suffered through for the past decade-plus. They’ve carried hope with each high draft pick, only to be disappointed by the likes of Bryan Bullington or Kyle Snyder. Instead of drafting high-caliber talent, the Indians have accumulated major league pieces through various trades and international scouting.
Year Team W-L W-L% RS RA PythW-L% 2007 TBR 66-96 .407 782 944 .415 2010 CLE 69-93 .426 646 752 .431 2010 KCR 67-95 .414 676 845 .399 2010 PIT 57-105 .352 587 866 .329
Standings on the morning of May 1:
Year Team W-L W-L% RS RA PythW-L% 2008 TBR 15-12 .566 130 109 .580 2011 CLE 18-8 .692 141 95 .673 2011 KCR 14-13 .519 135 134 .503 2011 PIT 12-15 .444 91 115 .395
For the prior seasons, although all four teams had similar records (and similar Pythagoras records), the way they got there looks a bit different. The Rays offense in 2007 was better than any other by more than 100 runs, but defense and pitching allowed more runs than anyone else on this list. Goes to show how a team’s run differential can be an important piece to the puzzle. The Rays needed to improve their run differential by minimizing runs allowed, while the other three were far less capable on offense (but would also need to improve their pitching/fielding—an all around makeover).
For the first month of 2011, the Indians and Royals have scored more runs than the Rays did back in 2008. The Indians are allowing runs at a lower clip than the Rays did, while the Royals have not been so successful. And while Pythagoras suggests the Pirates should not even be considered as a comp to the Rays, they still have plenty of bright spots on their roster.
Now that we’ve seen the records, let’s try to dive deeper, as Pythagoras won’t tell us how the teams will develop going forward.
It’s evident each team’s offensive production comes from different parts of the order (which seems normal, as the quality of hitting at each position can and will vary). As suggested by the prior season’s runs scored, the Rays’ team wOBA is higher than the others. You can also see that most of its specific position components performed at a higher level than the 2010 teams.
Looking at the April graph, the Rays’ group of hitters did not perform at the level seen by Kansas City or Cleveland this year. Grady Sizemore‘s healthy comeback has jumped Cleveland’s CF-wOBA by more than a hundred basis points. A big scoop of Travis Hafner, a hot start from Asdrubal Cabrera and Jack Hannahan (!) are also big reasons for Cleveland’s better than average (by wOBA) offense.
As for the Royals, they’ve been led by their DH superstar Billy Butler and corner outfielders. Yes, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon. It’s unsure (and quite unlikely) the two are playing at a sustainable level (Frenchy more so than Gordon), but Royals fans can only hope. The replacement of Kila Ka’aihue with Eric Hosmer could prove to be a huge success (albeit a long term financial nightmare by granting Hosmer’s Super two status). He could be the Royals’ version of Evan Longoria.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has not been able to produce as well with its lineup. They rank third or fourth in almost every position comparison. Their biggest issue last year was scoring runs, and it seem evident that not much has changed so far. But they have been beating their Pythagoras record (whatever that means in terms of skill).
Pitching and Fielding
The 2007 Devil Rays had two up and coming pitchers in Scott Kazmir and James Shields. It seemed pretty safe the duo would continue to develop into 2008. Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine were young kids who would take a leap in development in 2008. The addition of Matt Garza also proved to be a huge success (and risk, when you think about the fact the Rays traded away former number one draft pick Delmon Young).
With this rotation in mind, the only comparable pitching staff from this year might be the Indians’. Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, ground ball specialists, have so far been Cleveland’s best duo since Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia. But after that, their rotation doesn’t have much experience, so far relying on Josh Tomlin, Alex White and Carlos Carrasco. Not saying they can’t have leap seasons (as seen from the young 2008 Rays rotation), but expecting huge seasons would be foolish. But, in April, and in terms of FIP, their starters have performed at a higher level than the 2008 Rays.
For the Royals and Pirates, I find it troubling their number one starters would have trouble finding a rotation spot on other teams. There’s just no real standout ace. If the Royals or the Pirates are really serious about contending (or to even to play to their potential), they would likely need to add to their currently thin rotations. Calling up their hot shot prospects would obviously help, but the effects on their long-term financial situation and the ease of maturation for their young prospects seems to be their main concern.
In Jonah Keri’s latest book, The Extra 2%, we learn that one of Andrew Friedman’s main issues with his 2007 team was it’s fielding. He attempted to fix things by trading Brendan Harris for Jason Bartlett or essentially replacing Ty Wigginton with Evan Longoria. If you believe UZR, the team’s fielding prowess skyrocketed—from a second-to-last-place ranking in 2007 to the top of the list (almost identical to their winning percentage jump). Other defensive metrics, such as Total Zone, agree with the drastic improvement.
For the Indians, Royals and Pirates, all three ranked at the bottom of most defensive metrics last year. And while it’s way to early to find any meaning behind UZR numbers, so far this season an improved defense could go a long way in improving these teams’ run differential.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest—since a team’s make up is similar to a previous “worst to first” team—they will likely succeed as well. The point of this exercise was to see which components of this years’ surprise clubs have been at the root of their successes, and how these rising clubs compare to Tampa’s dream season.
I find it interesting that the Royals have the most similar path to the Rays. By stocking up with young talent, they evidently have a bright future. Whether that is to be seen this year is unlikely, as the front office most likely will not bring up all their talent from Omaha come June first. There is no doubt they are playing extremely well so far, however, and that might be the main push to bring up others to join Hosmer as a Royal rookie. Even then, it’s hard to imagine a team can be carried on the shoulders of more than two starting rookies. The Pirates are in the same boat, but with less talent in their minor league system.
The Indians seem to have the most compelling case, though. Adding Grady Sizemore back into the lineup is the obvious catalyst. Their pitching and fielding has so far handled the American League fairly well (they ranked sixth in runs allowed in April). But I think their season hinges more on the development of their young pitching than it does on their hitters. I don’t think anyone is convinced Jack Hannahan or Asdrubal Cabrera can keep on their current pace.
But let’s not get carried away here. The 2008 Rays were definitely the extreme case of bottom-dweller to league-champion. Another team accomplishing the same thing only three years later… as Han Solo suggests, never tell ‘em the odds.
References & Resources
Team record information came from Baseball Reference. wOBA and FIP data came from Fangraphs.