Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wow, Boswell Could Not Be More Wrong

I meant to write up an analysis of Thomas Boswell's piece in Friday's Post, "White Sox, Astros Give Nats Hope" earlier. It was just so offensive to my sense of, what is the word, reality that it needed a response. However, on Thursday and Friday I was otherwise occupied reveling in the White Sox's World Championship.

Here is Boswell's premise:
When the Nats finally get their new owner, one of the first orders of business should be to examine how the Astros and White Sox, who had the 12th- and 13th-highest payrolls in the game, were able to play for a World Series title while teams with far deeper pockets, like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers, were left at home.
He further argues that:

What defines the White Sox and Astros, of course, is their exceptional pitching. And that, by luck, is the Nationals' cornerstone as well. Washington, with its lack of a fourth or fifth starter, and a minor league system with few starting pitching prospects, has miles to go before it reaches the level of the Series teams or the Cardinals, who expect all five of their starters to win at least 15 games. Nevertheless, Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza, plus a bullpen with Chad Cordero and several quality set-up men, is a vastly better foundation for the future than Washington fans had any right to imagine at this time last year.
I submit there are no teams in the Major Leagues that are better suited to take exactly the opposite courses than the Chicago White Sox and Washington Nationals.

First principles. The strength of the Nationals was not, like the White Sox, the starting rotation. John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza, and Livan Hernandez had ERA+ numbers of 127, 105, and 100, respectively. Ryan Drese and Tony Armas, Jr. chipped in with ERA+ numbers of 80 and 80 (respectively, of course) Those ERA+ numbers are adjusted for the fact that RFK is probably the second best pitcher's park in all of baseball. Patterson's number shows that he is a legitimately good pitcher (although, at 27, he's peaking). Hernandez and Loaiza are league-average pitchers. Innings-eaters, if you want to damn them with faint praise. Drese and Armas were roster-fillers.

On the other hand, the White Sox got strong starting pitching pretty much across the board. Buehrle, Garland, Garcia and Contreras had ERA+ numbers of 143, 127, 115, and 123, respectively. Yes, that's right, John Patterson would be tied for the second best starter on the White Sox. Esteban Loaiza would be both be no more than fifth starters for the Sox, and that is only if you do not consider Brandon McCarthy (110 ERA+, 3-1 with a sub-2 ERA in 7 late season starts) as the "true" Sox fifth starter.

The true comparable point between the teams is the bullpens. The Sox and Nats had strong bullpens. The Nats' bullpen was so good that it dug the starters out of the deep hole they created, bringing the overall team ERA+ to 103. Meaning, as a whole, the Nats' staff was average. The Sox staff, by contrast, had an ERA+ of 123.

Not content to inaccurately surmise the Nats' pitching situation, he suggests that the Nats' lineup was the equivalent of the Sox lineup:

The White Sox lineup in this Series started with Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. This isn't even a Muggers Row. . . .

Suddenly, a Washington lineup in '06 that includes a healthy Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson and, sometime soon, Ryan Zimmerman, doesn't seem so overmatched, as long as the first-rate Nats pitching gets even better.

There is a kernel of truth here; both the White Sox and Nationals sport below average offenses. The Sox posted a team OPS+ of 95. The Nationals posted a team OPS+ of 96. Yes, the Nationals have a slightly better offense than the World Champion White Sox (I just love typing that, by the way).

But the White Sox offense is by no means a blue print for the Nationals. Despite the popular reporting about Smart Ball, Ozzie Ball, or small ball, the Sox were a team nearly wholly dependent on the long ball. They hit the fourth most home runs in the American League, dropping 200 bombs on their opposition. These home runs largely came at the expense of doubles, as they hit a league-low 253 doubles. The White Sox stole a lot of bases (137), but were caught enough times (67) that the beneficial effects of those stolen bases were washed away.

The Nationals, on the other hand, have an offense built more on long-sequence scoring, i.e., single-single-single to score 1 run. While that type of offense is pretty to watch, it's a lot harder to reproduce. The Nationals hit 311 doubles, which were good enough for fourth in the league. On the other hand, they were last in home runs, knocking out only 116. The difference is the ballparks - RFK turns home runs into doubles and outs; U.S. Cellular turns doubles and outs into home runs.

The key, then, is for the Nationals offense to go exactly the opposite way as the White Sox. They need to find players who are critical to a long-sequence offense, namely, those who get on base a high percentage of the time, even if they do not have a lot of power. Ironically, a guy like Scott Podsednik - who gets on base about 36% of the time, but hits for little power - would fit the Nationals mode. The Nats already have such a player in Nick Johnson. Luis Castillo, Placido Polanco, and Brady Clark all fit that mold. Arguably, the market value of these players is lower than their overall OBP suggests, and that they can be had in trade for either: (1) the guys who do not fit the overall scheme, such as Jose Guillen; or (2) a retread pitcher who the Nats have RFK-rehabilitated.

In any case, the Nats need to get away from the White Sox model as far as they can, and embrace the model that fits their park.


At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


[Congrats on the win, by the way.]

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You give ERA+ too much weight for evaluating pitchers. Loaiza and Hernandez are better than league average pitchers. Livan was pitching most of the season with an injury. I think it is fair to assume that a big factor in his poor performance in August and September was his injury. Through the end of July, Livan had a 3.23 ERA, which gives him an ERA+ of 123. How fair is it to judge his performance based on August and September stats? Also, if you insist on using ERA+, look at his 2003 and 2004 seasons. For Loaiza, if we look at a defense-independent park-neutral stat like xFIP ( ), his ERA should be around 3.86, giving him an ERA+ of 115. Plus, saying someone is a innings-eater is by no means faint praise. Look at how tired the Nats' bullpen was at the end of the season. Imagine how much more tired they would have been if Loaiza and Hernandez had only put in 200 IP. Those extra innings were very valueable.

And just because the average player's peak age is 27, it does not mean that John Patterson has peaked at 27, or even that he will peak in the next couple of years.


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