Saturday, December 23, 2006

Random Musings

- Buster Olney blogged about the Brewers' courtship of Jeff Suppan. As you may know, I'm very bearish on pitchers with low strikeout rates, so Suppan isn't my first choice among this year's free agent starter crop (or second, or third...), but while I may have issues with the specific player they're targeting, I like the way they're thinking. The division is up for grabs. Before the offseason began, I actually thought the Brewers had the strongest team in the NL Central entering 2007. I'd pick the Cubs now, after their spending spree, but I would probably take the Brewers over the Cardinals if the season began today, and in any case there is not much distance separating the three.

Lunacy? Maybe. But I look at the BP adjusted standings and see the 2006 Brewers just 3.1 games behind the World Series champs. Factor in a Cardinal rotation that has more question marks than Matthew Lesko, the overall youth of the Milwaukee roster, and the injuries the Beers suffered last year, and things look rosy in Wisconsin. The Brewers don't have 95-win talent, but they have perhaps the best pitcher (Ben Sheets) in the NL if he's healthy, a lineup with no sinkholes, and no strong competition in the division. They're a team to watch in 2007, and they're picking the right time to try and make a splash.

- In a year with many out-of-nowhere pitching successes, perhaps none was as surprising as Chien-Ming Wang going nuts on the league with a strikeout total that would make Nate Cornejo blush. Since humans are trained to look for meaning in everything, writers from coast-to-coast searched for an explanation of how the hurler with by far the lowest strikeout rate in the league finished second in the Cy Young race. We heard everything from "his sinker is as heavy as a bowling ball" to "he throws 95 MPH, so that must help." Some even suggested that his sinker's movement caused many hitters to pound the ball into the dirt in front of home plate, making their ground balls easier to field.

Dust off some newspapers from four years ago, and you can read articles about another low-K groundballer who finished high in the Cy Young vote, and how he was able to beat the hitters without the punchout. His name was Derek Lowe, and his ERA between 2003-04 was roughly double that of 2002.

It's premature to completely rule out these explanations for Wang's success, but I'd like to buy each of these "analysts" a copy of Fooled By Randomness, where the author critiques the process of crediting every result to a process rather than simple luck. In a way, Wang is like a trader whose last few picks have made him a fortune: perhaps he is a genius, but more likely his results involve significant positive variance, and the future will not be quite so bright.

Recent history shows that pitchers do not sustain success without being able to strike out at least a reasonable number of batters. Even Tom Glavine has two seasons of over 7.0 K/9 on his resume, and his rate didn't regularly fall below 5.0 until he was 33. Wang was at 3.1 last year, and a pitcher's strikeout rate tends to drift downward with time. Glavine is also left-handed and has pitched most of his career in front of good infield defenses, two important advantages Wang doesn't have working for him.

What does the future hold for the pride of Taiwan? He can still be a good, valuable pitcher, but his long-term outlook better resembles post-2002 Lowe than 2006 Wang. ZIPS pegs him at a 4.28 ERA, the fifth-best among Yankee SP (though a half-run better than Kei Igawa, the "bargain"), a ranking which includes Philip Hughes but not a potential Roger Clemens signing. I think this is a fairly accurate median projection, but remember that low-strikeout pitchers are subject to extremely high variance, and it's not out of the question that he has a season like Jason Marquis' or Jason Johnson's 2006...or Lowe's 2002. If Wang is even better next year, it doesn't necessarily mean that he has the secret formula for success.

- Another find from the ZIPS Yankees projections is how badly the Orioles got fleeced in the Jaret Wright/Chris Britton trade. I hadn't heard much about Britton before this offseason, but his minor league numbers are very good, and he could develop into the reliable setup man the Yankees need, or even their closer of the future. To give six years of Britton away for one year of Wright--a guy the Yankees didn't even want--is insane for a team that's as far out of contention as the 2007 Orioles. Wright could put up a 3.50 ERA under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone and still fail to justify the trade for Baltimore.

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