Thursday, December 06, 2007

Best Lineup in Baseball? Hardly.

I enjoy the Baseball Analysts blog, but pieces like this one make me wonder if these guys really run numbers before they proclaim a team "the best lineup in baseball."

Detroit, Cabrera or no Cabrera, does not have the best lineup in baseball, and it's not really that close. To wit, here are some 2008 CHONE projections:

Detroit wOBA New York wOBA
C Pudge .304 Posada .381
1B Guillen .366 Giambi .383
2B Polanco .345 Cano .358
3B Cabrera .420 A-Rod .431
SS Renteria .330 Jeter .358
LF Jones .333 Damon .340
CF Granderson .355 Melky .329
RF Ordonez .380 Abreu .357
DH Sheffield .364 Matsui .366

Average .355

(I edited Boston out of this chart for formatting reasons, but their team wOBA clocks in at .363.)

If you're not familiar with wOBA, go here. Basically, it takes everything a batter does and scales it like an On-Base Percentage. So .330 is about league-average, and .380 is a star hitter--Ryan Braun and Carlos Pena are projected at .380 next year.

The .012 team wOBA difference between the Tigers and Yankees may not seem like much, but it's the equivalent of replacing two league-average bats--say, Renteria and Jones--with Braun and Pena. That's closer to a chasm than a gap. The Tigers could trade for another Miguel Cabrera, play him at shortstop, and still not have the best lineup in the league.

PECOTA and ZiPS haven't been fully published yet, so I can't use those for this comparison, but all projection systems will agree that the Red Sox and Yankees are comfortably ahead of the field when it comes to hitting.

I'm not trying to pick on Baseball Analysts here; my beef is with the process rather than the authors. When you look at a team's perception, rather than the numbers, it's easy to get mixed up. This is the same mistake everyone made in expecting the 2007 White Sox to contend, even when every mathematical projection system had them in fourth place.

The Tigers are loaded with players whose perceived value outstrips their actual 2008 projections. Ivan Rodriguez took nine walks--NINE--last year, but he still has that "Future Hall of Famer" rep, so he doesn't seem like an offensive sinkhole.

Magglio Ordonez has no chance whatsoever of repeating 2007, but he was second in the MVP vote, so he seems like a huge asset. He's this year's Jermaine Dye, the right fielder coming off a breakout year who's doomed to return to his established level of production.

Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, and Edgar Renteria are going to combine to lose about 100 points of batting average next year (to go along with Maggs' 50); that's a lot of lost run production, but not everyone will see it coming. Carlos Guillen seems like an offensive asset, and he is--as a shortstop. As a first baseman, he's below the AL average.

I'm not sure what people are expecting out of Sheffield this year. Certainly the Tigers expect a lot, because they extended his contract for $28 million through 2009. The reality is that he's not going to play a full season, and he's below average for a DH at this point.

The message here is: when you're crowning 2008's best batting order, use the numbers. That way, you won't be stunned when Detroit misses the playoffs.

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