Sunday, September 03, 2006

AL Playoff Race: The Hitters

I had this idea to compare the five teams currently vying for four American League playoff spots in the three basic categories: offense, defense, and pitching. Originally, I was going to simply post the teams stats, offer a bit of interpretation, and leave it at that. But then I got on a roll over at Baseball Prospectus, and started breaking down the players by position, which came with more interpretation and commentary. It all kind of snowballed from there, leaving me with the easy decision to cut this into three separate posts.

I apologize in advance for using BP’s advanced metrics. Some may not believe in them, but I truly believe that the ones I selected are the most indicative of a player’s worth. For instance, I used EqA for hitters because it takes into consideration all production on the offensive side: total bases, walks, strikeouts, stolen bases, etc. VORP is there because it compares players at their respective position.

I’ll be coming back to this at the end of the season to see how everything worked out, and to see what we can expect come playoff time.

Team Batting Stats
White Sox.285.346.470.8175.59

It should come as no surprise that the team with the highest OBP has scored the most runs per game. The Yankees are making outs at a lesser rate than the rest of the contenders and are scoring runs at a greater rate. The White Sox are right behind, aided by their .013 advantage in Slugging. And for those out there who want to discount OPS, keep this chart in mind. OPS from greatest to least: Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, A’s; Runs per game from greatest to least: Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, A’s.

For some more numbers to digest, here are the five playoff contending teams broken down by position. I’ve chosen EqA and VORP, not for their sheer complexity, but because they are the most encompassing stats available. The parenthesis indicates the number of qualified players in VORP for each position.

Catcher (12)EqAVORPAL Rank
Joe Mauer.31856.71
Jorge Posada.28824.53
A.J. Pierzynski.26616.96
Ivan Rodriguez.25813.68
Jason Kendall.2599.411

You can point to Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano all you want as the reasons why the Twins have rebounded. And, by all indications, you’d be right. But while it’s tough to underrate Joe Mauer at this point, I believe that may be the case. The offensive output by a catcher is one of the most valuable commodities in baseball, because of the general lack of hitting at that position across the league. Mauer is so far ahead of the catching pack that he makes up for holes at other positions on the diamond (as you’ll shortly see, left field and DH for the Twins). They could trot out league-average hitters at every other position and still have a reasonably above-average hitting team.

The A’s and Tigers are hampered by below-average catchers. Thankfully for them, plenty of teams survive just fine with below average catchers.

Derek Jeter.31668.41
Carlos Guillen.30352.23
Jason Bartlett.29020.8n/a
Juan Uribe.2411.29
Bobby Crosby.233-4.810

While Mauer provides astonishing value at catcher for the Twins, Jeter provides even more value at shortstop for the Yankees. His value is more than double that of Michael Young, who is the fourth ranked shortstop in the AL. This speaks volumes for Carlos Guillen as well, which is especially important because of the hole Pudge creates at catcher. If qualified, Jason Bartlett would be near the top of the shortstop heap, which gives the Twins quite an advantage. Not quite the advantage of the Yankees, however, who have excellent production from the two most defensively demanding positions. Oh, but it doesn’t end there.

2B (15)EqAVORPAL Rank
Robinson Cano.28327.82
Tad Iguchi.26518.34
Luis Castillo.25816.75
Placido Polanco**.2446.512
Mark Ellis.2513.713
** Likely out a considerable amount of time

Losing Placido Polanco (.294/.325/.359/.684) could be detrimental to the Tigers, as he’s being replaced by Omar Infante (.263/.306/.372/.678) and the abysmal Neifi Perez (.254/.266/.343/.609 with Cubs, .156/.206/.156/.362 in 32 AB with Tigers).

The A’s continue their trend of trotting out pure drivel at the tough end of the defensive spectrum, as they rank last among contending teams at the top three positions. The Yankees, on the other hand, add to their dominance of the spectrum with Cano. He’s demonstrably better than any second baseman on this list.

Johnny Damon.29745.23
Torii Hunter.27119.75
Curtis Granderson.26717.28
Mark Kotsay.2525.09
Brian Anderson.238-5.112

More Yankees dominance, and this time by a radical margin. Johnny Damon is more than twice as valuable to his team as Torri Hunter is to the Twins. It’s even worse for the A’s, as it becomes more and more confusing as to how they’re running away with the AL West. As you’ll see soon in the pitching comparisons, they’re not exactly top of the league in that department, and they look to be terrible on the offensive side of the ball. Mark Kotsay (who brings a ninth of Damon’s offensive value to the table) is aided only by the struggling rookie Brian Anderson here.

3B (12)EqAVORPAL Rank
Alex Rodriguez.29934.11
Joe Crede.28928.84
Nick Punto.27715.46
Eric Chavez.2705.010
Brandon Inge.2624.111

What a bum. I mean, really, look how terrible Alex Rodriguez is, with his No. 1 ranking among AL third basemen in VORP (and EqA, for that matter). The worst part of it for the rest of the league: he’s starting to heat up. And by heat up, I mean that he’s looking like MVP A-Rod, the guy who murdered the ball in 2005. If he can find and keep in that groove for two months, the Yanks could easily be looking at No. 27.

More futility here by the A’s, as they’ve been last or second to last among contending teams at each position so far.

Craig Monroe.27213.98
Jay Payton.26310.19
Melky Cabrera.2737.610
Scott Podsednik.253-7.614

And finally, some value for the A’s. And it’s only relative value, because the best left fielders in the league do not play for contending teams. This chart could look more different than any other chart come October 1, as Shannon Stewart may return for the Twins and Hideki Matsui is poised for a return to the Bronx.

Jermaine Dye.32962.11
Bobby Abreu*.30825.4n/a
Michael Cuddyer.29128.54
Magglio Ordonez.27014.310
Milton Bradley.2789.1n/a

Jermaine Dye has it tough here, since he has to carry the non-producers Podsednik and Anderson on his back. But he’s doing a fine job of it, nearly doubling the value of the third man among AL leaders, Ichiro. Bias alert: Bobby Abreu is actually better than his EqA and VORP indicate. He’s been a monster since being traded to the Yanks, and has certainly outperformed his first half in Philadelphia.

Milton Bradley could have helped the A’s out here, but he’s been on the DL a few times this season, forcing the A’s to trot out lesser players in his place.

Justin Morneau.30846.21
Jason Giambi.32443.5n/a
Paul Konerko.30638.92
Nick Swisher.28314.47
Sean Casey*.261-2.3n/a
* New to team, not enough plate appearances to rank in league

In the A’s and Swisher’s defense, he would have ranked much higher as a left fielder. But Dan Johnson lost his touch, and Swish has been forced into action at first, where he does not reach the production of the monsters ahead of him. Baseball Prospectus has Giambi listed as a DH, hence his lack of a ranking. But I think it more accurate to list Giambi as a first baseman and Bernie Williams as the DH, since they both qualify.

Jim Thome.33053.93
Frank Thomas.30833.45
Marus Thames.29922.7n/a
Bernie Williams.27311.8n/a

This is why I’m not high on the White Sox right now: their pitching isn’t nearly what it was last year, and they’re loaded up on the right side of the spectrum. The only problem with that logic is that Thome and Dye are just head and shoulders above everyone else at their position, at least among contenders.

Bernie’s numbers are surprisingly high, and they’ll become even more valuable once he’s relegated to a bench role. That time is only a few weeks away, as Hideki Matsui will return by mid-September. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that he bolsters the DH and LF positions, which are the only two in which the Yankees are lacking.

The Starters