A new week, and five (six!) new numbers. Let's get it started.
1) .867 & .689
For years, the LAnaheim Angels have been confounding statisticians who tried to understand their success. There's an equation out there that spits out what's called a team's Pythagorean record. It's an equation based simply on runs scored and runs allowed. By combining these two numbers, the equation yields a result that's generally a good approximation of how many games a team won, or how many games that team should've won. The Angels, though, don't much care for Pythagoras. In 2005, their actual win total exceeded their Pythagorean win total by two. In 2006, they exceeded it by five. In 2007, four. In 2008, twelve. In 2009, five.
There's a pattern there. Over a five-year period, the Angels beat their expected Pythagorean record by 28 wins. It's to the point now where it's gotten to be a tired old joke. Angels fans don't trust the math and make fun of it because their team keeps throwing it for a loop. And fans of other teams just throw up their hands and say "well, all right," because no one has yet figured out just how the Angels are able to do what they so consistently do.
It should come as little surprise that the Angels are doing it again in 2010. The Angels have a Pythagorean record of 40-40, but an actual record of 44-36, meaning that one more time, they've won more often than you'd expect just based on their raw statistics. As such, a team that's actually had slightly below average offense and run prevention on the year is hanging in the race with the Texas Rangers, who are currently tied for the best record in baseball.
Just what is it that they're doing right? To get to that, I have to explain the concept of leverage. I'll skip all the mathy details, but through the wonder of numbers, people have come up with a way of measuring the relative importance of any given situation with regard to winning the game. Bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game? That would be a high leverage situation. Bases empty in the bottom of the ninth of a 13-3 game? That would be a low leverage situation. If it helps, you can think of leverage as a rough mirror of fan anxiety.
So with that explained, I would like to present to you the following splits:
High leverage: .867 OPS
Medium leverage: .728 OPS
Low leverage: .698 OPS
High leverage: .689 OPS against
Medium leverage: .757 OPS against
Low leverage: .790 OPS against
The Angels, as a team, rank 18th at the plate in OPS. However, they rank first overall at the plate in OPS in high leverage situations. The pitching staff, meanwhile, ranks 23rd in OPS against, but fifth in OPS against in high leverage situations. Those are huge, huge differences. Across the league, the average team doesn't perform significantly different in high, medium, and low leverage situations. The Angels have been great at kicking it up when it matters.
Ask Mike Scioscia how his team is winning, and he'd probably tell you "timely hitting and timely pitching." And he'd be right on the money. So far in 2010, his Angels haven't been all that great at the plate or on the mound, but they've been great when it's mattered, meaning more of their runs scored have come in the clutch, while more of their runs allowed have come at less critical junctures. In other words, they've done a good job of maximizing their offensive production while minimizing their pitching and defensive shortcomings.
If you want to ask me how the Angels are managing this, I couldn't give you an answer. I don't know the process behind developing a team that steps up in the clutch. I can just look at the results and tell you that the process is working, and that the process has been working for a number of years, now. The Angels seem to have down to a science what other organizations just can't figure out: how to build and develop a team that ends up greater than the sum of its parts. It's one of baseball's holy grails, and a little team in southern California is a step ahead of the pack.
Realistically, Josh Hamilton didn't need to build off his 2007 season. That year would've worked just fine on its own as a Hollywood happy ending to a long-troubled life and career. From hitting a home run in his first start to slugging .554 through the final day, Josh Hamilton arrived with the Reds. He cemented himself as perhaps America's favorite heartwarming story, a guy who overcame adversity many of us can't imagine to go straight to the majors and beat the crap out of the world's best arms.
But for Hamilton, that wasn't enough. He followed his superb 2007 debut with a rock-solid and remarkably similar campaign the next year in Texas. At that point, Hamilton was no longer just a story. Hamilton was one of the best all-around players in the league. Arguably the best in his division, with tools and talent falling out of his nose.
Which made his 2009 all the more disappointing. Hamilton struggled through injuries all season long - one of his biggest weaknesses - including a nerve impingement in his back and a sports hernia that required a June operation, and his numbers suffered for it, as his OPS dropped from .901 to .741. Suddenly, there were questions again. Different questions, but still important questions that expressed concern for Hamilton's future. Where was he headed? Would he ever be reliable?
I don't know if you've noticed, but Josh Hamilton has answered those questions. Josh Hamilton is back. He's currently riding a 23-game hitting streak. He's got a batting average of .343. He's slugging .613. And his defense in the outfield has been better than most. Additionally, he's stayed on the field. He did experience some recent soreness in his knee and tightness in his hamstring, but of the 77 games the Rangers have played so far, Hamilton's played in 74 of them. He's been everything. Even more than he was in 2008.
And as a crowning achievement, Hamilton, on June 27th, stepped in against Roy Oswalt and clobbered a long home run into Rangers Ballpark's second deck in right-center field. According to Hit Tracker Online, the homer was measured at 485 feet, making it not only the longest home run of the season so far - it's also the longest homer in the American League since 2006. You can watch the homer here. The closest AL homer so far in 2010 is one of Miguel Cabrera's, which came in 17 feet shorter. Josh Hamilton is a big strong man.
One single home run, of course, doesn't mean a whole lot, unless it's Joe Carter's. But the emphatic nature of this blast really put the exclamation mark on Hamilton's season. He can run. He can throw. He can control the bat. And he can hit the ball farther than just about anyone. He's just such a good, complete ballplayer, capable of things you can't imagine. The sky isn't the limit for everybody. It is for Josh Hamilton. Until one of his dingers breaks the sky and allows him to fly ever higher.
As a Mariners fan, what happens when my team falls out of the race is that I start paying more attention to the other division in the league, and less to my own. Until about a week ago, I had no idea what Hamilton was doing. It's surprising, and it isn't surprising at all. There's a whole half season left for him to get through, but where a year ago that might've been met with some degree of skepticism, now one can only wonder how much more he's going to do.
It's pretty clear to everyone that not a whole lot has gone right for the Pirates so far this season. They have the second-worst record in baseball, at 27-51. They have scored the fewest runs of any team by 19, and they have allowed the second-most, good enough to give them a 53-run cushion in having the worst run differential in the league.
The offense has a .304 sum OBP. They only have 50 home runs in 78 games. Though the bullpen's all right, the rotation doesn't have anyone capable of missing many bats. Prized youngsters like Jeff Clement, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and Brad Lincoln have, over admittedly limited samples of time, failed to impress. About the only bright spots have been the continued development of Andrew McCutchen and the emergence of Neil Walker.
It's easy, then to look at the Pirates and identify things to blame for their struggles. There's no shortage of them. You can choose to point out individual players, or you can choose to point out greater group trends or splits.
There's no wrong way to go. I'm going to point out a split.
Pirates pitchers vs. righty batters: .774 OPS against
Pirates pitchers vs. lefty batters: .909 OPS against
The Major League average for facing right-handed batters is a .728 OPS allowed. At .774, the Pirates have been fourth-worst in baseball. That's already bad enough. But then you look at the other half of the split. The average here is .743. In third-worst is Milwaukee, at .806. In second-worst is Baltimore, at .879. And in dead last is Pittsburgh, at .909.
.909. Adam Dunn has an OPS of .914. So far on the season, over a span of 1,016 plate appearances, the Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching staff has pretty much turned the average left-handed batter into Adam Dunn. They've hit .309. They've posted an OBP of .384. And they've slugged .525, with one home run every 27 trips to the plate.
It's been absolutely miserable, and while left-handed bats have obviously done a lot of damage against Pittsburgh's righties, it's not like Pittsburgh's southpaws have done much good. Opponents have hit .291 in lefty-on-lefty matchups. League-wide, that split's at .240. Only Paul Maholm has really been effective.
This isn't me saying that the Pirates need to find guys who can be more effective against left-handed bats. Truth be told, the Pirates just need to find guys who can be more effective, period. They haven't pitched well against righties, either, and righties make up a greater sample of the population. I just bring this up because it's the widest such split in baseball, and it belongs to a pitching staff that already wasn't really good to begin with. That's a bad combination.
The Pirates need a big-time, high-level power arm prospect something terrible. Godspeed, Jameson Taillon.
Carlos Beltran is a big-time star. Carlos Beltran can run. Carlos Beltran can field. Between 2006-2009, Carlos Beltran posted a .911 OPS as a middle-of-the-order bat. Carlos Beltran has long been one of the more underrated stars in baseball, even while playing in New York, and as an exceptional all-around center fielder, he's been building himself a Hall of Fame career.
So when Carlos Beltran ran into injury problems that knocked him out for the second half of 2009, Mets fans were understandably pessimistic. And when Beltran entered 2010 still rehabbing from arthroscopic knee surgery, there was considerable concern. A timetable that placed his return sometime in May kept getting delayed by little setbacks, and Mets fans wondered how they would get by having to replace a seemingly irreplaceable player.
Enter Angel Pagan. Pagan, of course, did a phenomenal job of filling in for Beltran a year ago, batting .306 with good defense and speed. But he'd never really hit much before and didn't have an impressive minor league track record, so there was skepticism that the 28 year old could repeat his success. Being without Beltran, everyone believed, would still deal the team a big blow, as he is a star, and Pagan is not.
It's July, now. Pagan has made 286 trips to the plate. In those trips to the plate, he's hit .304, getting on base at a .363 clip and once again fielding like a madman. He's started 63 games in center field, and if the second-place Mets have missed Carlos Beltran, they haven't missed him that much, because Pagan has been nothing short of terrific.
The interesting thing about Pagan is that he doesn't immediately catch your eye. He doesn't have any one particular strength that grabs at the viewer. He certainly isn't much of a power hitter, with 19 career home runs in 1,115 career plate appearances. But he does a lot of things well and doesn't really struggle with any single aspect of his game, with the result being that he's less obviously good than, say, a Torii Hunter, but is equally valuable.
What are all the different things a player can do? We know Pagan doesn't hit many home runs. He does hit a fair number of doubles. He also extends many of those doubles into triples. He makes a lot of contact and generally swings at the right pitches, meaning he draws some walks and doesn't strike out too often. He runs the bases pretty well, with 14 steals and the second-best baserunning score on the team. And he's excellent in the field. The advanced defensive metrics we have at our disposal paint Pagan as being something like five or ten runs better than the average in center. A lot of good players play center field. A lot of good athletes. It isn't easy to separate yourself from the pack. Pagan has.
A little website called Fangraphs keeps track of a statistic called WAR - Wins Above Replacement - that attempts to combine most elements of a player's value into one single number. The stat leaves some things out and certainly has its holes, but it works as an approximation. Players with high WARs are always good players. Players with bad WARs are always bad players. If you go to Fangraphs, click over to the WAR leaderboards, and limit the pool to center fielders, you get the following list:
1. Alex Rios
2. Marlon Byrd
3. Andres Torres
4. Vernon Wells
5. Angel Pagan
No matter what you think of WAR as a stat, the message is clear and inarguable - through the first half of the 2010 season, Angel Pagan has only continued what made him effective in 2009, and he's been one of the most valuable center fielders in baseball. He's higher on that list than Hunter. He's higher than Franklin Gutierrez. He's higher than Shane Victorino and Matt Kemp.
Angel Pagan turns 29 this Friday, and as a late bloomer with no standout skill, he's not going to have the most lucrative career of all time. He is currently a candidate to get traded, as Beltran is due back within a matter of weeks and the Mets are looking to upgrade their roster for the stretch run. But no matter what happens from here on out, what Pagan has managed to do for the Mets in Beltran's absence has been nothing short of sensational. He's been a big factor in keeping his team in the race, and given his many contributions, if nothing else, perhaps he will finally be known for more than his name.
By and large, catchers don't hit very much. Aside from the odd guy like Joe Mauer or Brian McCann, they aren't expected to provide very much at the plate. The reason for this is that their other responsibilities are so critical and take up so much of their time that anything they provide with the stick is just gravy. There's a reason guys like Brad Ausmus seem to stick around forever. If you can crouch behind the plate, block balls in the dirt, throw to second base, and work with a pitching staff, you're going to make money for a long long time.
So it's always interesting when a backstop shows up and produces. It's unusual, and it's eye-catching. A catcher who can hit without embarrassing himself in his gear stands to be an exceedingly valuable player. They are a very rare breed.
The Tampa Bay Rays entered the year with valuable players in a lot of places. They did not enter the year with a whole lot of value behind the plate. Kelly Shoppach swung an interesting bat with good power, but he was set to share time with Dioner Navarro, who was fresh off a 2009 .583 OPS. When people talked about the Rays as a playoff contender, they mentioned Evan Longoria. They mentioned Carl Crawford. They mentioned the deep rotation. They didn't really mention the catchers.
Shoppach then got hurt in the first week of the season, which only looked to make things worse. More playing time went to Navarro. Navarro kept on not hitting. Joe Maddon decided to give a shot to call-up fill-in John Jaso, who the year before had OPS'd .727 in AAA. Jaso didn't look like much, but with Navarro struggling so bad, he had to be given a look.
In Jaso's first start, he doubled twice and drew a walk. In his next start, he singled and walked again. The start after that, he homered and walked.
That was good enough to earn Jaso regular playing time, and he hasn't slowed down. Over 186 trips to the plate, Jaso has batted .270, with an amazing .398 OBP. Once Shoppach came back from injury, the Rays put their trust in him and Jaso and sent Navarro packing. With Shoppach's bat and what Jaso had shown, they had earned the organization's confidence.
It's enough that Jaso has come out of nowhere to get on base at a .398 clip. That's already good for second in the league among catchers with 150 plate appearances. But the path he's taken to get there is incredible. Jaso has drawn 31 walks, or one per six trips to the plate. And he's struck out just 17 times, giving him a BB/K ratio of 1.8. That BB/K is among the tops in baseball, second only to Luis Castillo's 2.4. Chipper Jones is at 1.3. Albert Pujols is at 1.3. Joe Mauer is at 1.2. John Jaso is at 1.8.
In the minors, Jaso drew walks and struck out with equivalent frequency. In the Majors, the former has shot up. Jaso has made a lot more contact with his swings than the average, and he's swung at far fewer balls. That's how he's gotten to where he is. He's been able to lay off the bad pitches while putting most of the good ones in play. And with some extra-base hits and home runs to his name, it's not like pitchers could adjust their approach and just start pounding strike after strike. Unlike, say, Castillo or Chone Figgins, Jaso can punish a meatball from time to time.
Jaso, of course, isn't going to keep running a BB/K so far north of 1. Over time, as the sample size increases, he'll see some regression and approach a more normal number. But he clearly has both a good eye and excellent bat control, and it's that plate discipline that could keep the breakout performer a valuable catcher for years and years down the road. Nobody really knew John Jaso a year ago, but now he's just the latest good find in a well-oiled Rays machine.