THT Mailbag: Bonus Edition

Dave and David are taking the day off today, so instead, you get a bonus mailbag!

One of the best, if not the best, story of this past season was the turnaround of the Detroit Tigers and their success. Is there a team for the upcoming 2007 season you see as primed for a Detroit-type turn around? Maybe not a World Series team perhaps, but a team coming from out of nowhere to make the playoffs. And, if so, who are they and what factors make them a turnaround candidate? Cleveland or Florida with their good young hitters and good young pitchers possibly maturing come to my mind. Thanks.

Anthony W., Anderson, South Carolina

David Gassko: Since I did predict that the Tigers would make the playoffs, I’ll take the liberty of making some early predictions (note: subject to change without notice). I like another team from the AL Central to break out next season: the Cleveland Indians. The Indians won 78 games last season, but they should have won 89 based on their Pythagorean record.

They also have one of the best signings (in terms of production per dollar) of the offseason in David Dellucci, and their lineup will further be improved with a better year from Jhonny Peralta and a full season from Andy Marte. Josh Barfield was a very nice acquisition as well. Then again, offense wasn’t a problem last year for the Indians, who finished second in the AL in runs, so it doesn’t really even need to improve.

On the pitching side of things, Cleveland has the most underrated star in the game in C.C. Sabathia, who finished eighth in the American League in Pitching Runs Created last year, and they should also benefit from a full year from Jeremy Sowers. Barfield and Marte should help shore up the Indians infield defense, which was atrocious last year, and Peralta will likely have a better season than he did last year as well, which will really help out the pitching staff, especially Jake Westbrook. I think this is a 90-win team, and maybe the favorite in a suddenly tough AL Central.

I also bet you’ll be seeing a lot of writers “discover” Travis Hafner next season.

Chris Constancio: In the National League, I expect the Arizona Diamondbacks to surprise a lot of people next year. They are replacing recent underperformers such as Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green and Craig Counsell with a group of talented rookies such as Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Chris Young (see my profile of Young here.)

And don’t forget about second-year player Conor Jackson; he had a strong second half of the 2006 season and I expect more of the same going forward. Alberto Callaspo and Miguel Montero are other young hitters who could have a significant positive impact on the team. Some of these rookies may struggle while adjusting to the big leagues, of course, but there is real upside here and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Diamondbacks score more runs than any other team in the National League West as soon as next year. The Diamondbacks rotation has some questions, but Brandon Webb is as good a pitcher as any to build around.

Trading for Doug Davis and Dana Eveland was a useful transaction and I don’t think general manager Josh Byrnes is finished addressing that aspect of the team.

In doing research for the upcoming fantasy baseball season, I have been making my amateur attempts at projections. One of the things I have been trying to do is project batting average on balls in play by using projections of players’ LD/FB/GB% (I know not an original idea, but I’m basically a mathematical idiot).

Prior research has indicated (by THT and other sources I’ve read) that a line drive is a hit roughly 71-72% of the time, a ground ball roughly 23% and fly ball (not including home runs) are a hit roughly 11-12% of the time. Now of course these are rough numbers, but that’ s all I need, I mean you can’t predict exactly what a hitter will do 100% anyway.

My question is, has work been done, to your knowledge, regarding those percentages in different ballparks. For example, if over all of baseball non-home run fly balls are a hit 12% of the time, I would suspect that in a spacious park, like Coors for example, those batted balls should fall for a hit at a higher rate; therefore, fly ball hitters should expect to see a higher BABIP provided groundball and line drive hit rates are not suppressed . Is there a place I can get a full listing of these figures?

Peter M., Springfield, New Jersey

Dave Studeman: Yes, we have looked at differences in batted ball outcomes across ballparks. In fact, I wrote an article about the subject in last year’s Hardball Times Annual. The article included “park factors” for each type of batted ball. Also, last year’s Annual included specific information regarding how often each type of batted ball is fielded for an out.

However, I would be very careful applying those factors to batters. In fact, the frequency of batted ball type really isn’t that critical for batters. Batters differ tremendously in their batted ball outcomes. Applying overall out rates for each type of batted ball, instead of batter-specific out rates, will make all your projections too similar.

The ideal approach is to regress each batter’s outcomes against the overall major league averages, based on the number of years you have for each batter, and then apply park adjustments. That is exactly what we’re doing here at THT. Look for our 2007 projections early next year.

When a batter comes to the plate, his sole objective is to get on base, preferably with a hit. Sure, in some instances the batter might be looking for a sacrifice fly with a guy on third and only one out in a tie game, but for the most part, it’s safe to say that all batters want a hit when they are at the plate, or at the very least they want to make contact with the ball. Even the batter looking for a sac fly in a certain situation would probably rather knock one over the fence instead.

So, assuming that getting a hit is the only thing that matters, what the hell difference does it make where a hitter bats in the lineup? Yes, you can say the power hitters should bat third or fourth to drive in the “table setters”, but that’s only valid for the first inning. After that, what’s the difference? More to the point, regardless of where one bats in the order, you still have the same objective—to get a hit. What, you’re going to tell me that getting dropped from third to eighth in the order is going to make you want to hit less or take a different approach to hitting? That’s ridiculous.

In the interest of disclosure, I’m a Yankees fan living in NYC, so I have to suffer through reading 10,000 articles about A-Rod (or A-Fraud, whatever) being dropped to eighth during the playoffs. I also read a lot of other articles about players (Bonds comes to mind) who would be “insulted” and “disrespected” if the manager dared to bat them outside of the middle of the lineup.

You still have to get a hit, whether you’re number one, two, three, or nine, so what’s the difference?

W. Ford, New York

John Walsh: I think you are mostly looking at it from the batter’s viewpoint, right? Why should a batter care where he bats in the order, if the goal, to get on base, is always the same? It’s a good question. But keep in mind that we often have a type of player in mind when we consider the different lineup slots. Speedy guy leading off, good bat control in the two hole, best hitters at three and four. I imagine that many players come to feel that they belong in a certain spot, especially the glamour slots in the first half of the order. In some sense, where the manager bats a player in the lineup is a judgement on the quality of that hitter. So, getting dropped from third to eighth in the order may not cause you to change approach at the plate, but you sure might not be happy about it. It is a demotion, after all.

Another thing to keep in mind is that players who hit near the top of the order bat more often than their teammates down near the bottom. The guy batting third will snag about 100 more plate appearances than the number eight hitter. That means more hits, more home runs, more RBIs or stolen bases and more money at contract time.

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