Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hitter Value and Pitcher Value in Colorado

It has been a while since I played this broken record, and I think it's time for another listen.  The subject of this post is the value of the current Rockies roster offensively and defensively (or, more specifically, pitch-fensively).  The outcome you can probably guess if you've read my posts on the subject before: the Rockies are one of the best pitching teams in baseball (if not the best), but have a mediocre to poor offense, and that's what is stopping them from going from good team to great.

I'm just going to take for granted that you know about Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, because it's just such a mind-bogglingly useful statistic that writing this post would take probably five times as long without it.  That said, WAR is no be-all-end-all, but it's a useful shorthand for getting a close approximation of who is better than who and for what reason (for example, Albert Pujols is better than Edgar Renteria because he's an ungodly hitter, while Renteria is an aging punch-and-judy middle infielder; you don't need WAR to tell you that, of course, but it still does).

Of course, Rockies fans are generally of the opinion that the team has a deep, potent lineup capable of producing lots and lots of runs, while the pitching staff has become solid, but is unspectacular (certainly not as good as the Dodgers or Giants, our divisional foes).  Rockies fans - and the mainstream baseball media, which holds the same opinions - would be very wrong if they agreed with this position.  Consider the National League of 2010.  You may not be surprised to learn that the Brewers and Reds had the top lineups, producing 74.6 and 67.9 Runs Above Replacement respectively.  Those two teams were far and away the best in the NL.

Only three other teams produced positive value from their lineups.  Now, you have to remember that "offensive WAR" is a combination of batting Runs Above Replacement, fielding Runs Above Replacement, A more-or-less fixed "Replacement" value that denotes playing time, and a positional adjustment (which comes out very close to zero for a whole team over the season).  So it's ok that only five NL teams had positive batting RAR; none had negative WAR overall (though the Pirates were close).

Those other three teams were the Braves, the Phillies, and the Cardinals, checking in with 35.5, 24.2, and 17.6 RAR respectively.  The Rockies finished sixth in the NL - respectable, but not excellent, with -7.4 Runs Above Replacement.  It is worth noting that almost all of the Rockies positive offensive value came from two players: Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.  A handful of others produced small positive contributions with the bat (Ryan Spilborghs, Melvin Mora, and Seth Smith for example), but many, many more were offensive detriments.  Consider the following unimpressive contributions:

1) Clint Barmes, -17.1 RAR
2) Eric Young Jr, -7.9 RAR
3) Chris Iannetta, -3.5 RAR
4) Todd Helton, -2.1 RAR
5) Miguel Olivo, -2.0 RAR
6) Chris Nelson, -1.1 RAR

I'm leaving out the pitchers, who also produce significant negative offensive value, and are the main reason why the AL romps over the NL in Runs Above Replacement (8 of the 14 AL teams were ahead of the Rockies in this category).  Even so, this is an unimpressive list, notable in particular for including three of the primary holders of the Second Base position throughout 2010.  More importantly, though, this list includes starters at three positions.  Considering that the Rockies got minimal value from third base, center field, and left field already, it hurts a lot to get negative value from second base, first base, and catcher.  Tulo and Cargo are good players, but they couldn't carry the lineup themselves.

At least, you say, the Rockies have a good defense.  But you'd be wrong.  Last season the Rockies finished 12th out of the 16 NL teams in defensive Runs Above Replacement, at a woeful -19.4.  How is that possible, you wonder, given how much the Rockies broadcast team lurves the Rockies fielders?

The main culprit was Ryan Spilborghs, who is a butcher in the outfield, and who is sometimes even asked to play center, poorly.  He alone racked up -16.7 RAR on defense, more than compensating for his 5.0 offensive RAR.  Melvin Mora was the other major problem, amassing -9.8 RAR playing mostly first base, second base, and third base.  In Mora's defense, he's not a second or first baseman, and being played out-of-position is a sure way to look like a bad fielder.  Nevertheless, it matter little whether the Rockies used Mora incorrectly, or if he's simply bad on defense, because the result is the same.  What's more, the acquisition of Ty Wigginton for the next two or three seasons indicates that we're liable to see more of the same: a "utility infielder" who can't field.

You won't be surprised to hear that Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Olivo were both excellent defensively, and - if you read this blog - you also will be pleased to know that Seth Smith was solid on defense as well.  It comes as a surprise, however, if you're a Rockies fan, that Carlos Gonzalez produced negative value on defense.  Now, Fangraphs WAR - which I'm using - gets its defensive value from UZR, a statistic that not everyone agrees about.  Cargo, however, scores poorly on just about every defensive metric.  Some people argue that Coors Field has not been adequately adjusted in those defensive statistics for how hard it is to play the cavernous outfield, but even so, the point remains that Cargo's value comes almost entirely from his bat, and not his glove.  Even the production of a great fielder like Tulo is 3/4 hitter and 1/4 fielder

The result of the Rockies mediocre defense and mediocre offense is a grand total of 18.8 Wins Above Replacement.  That places the Rockies firmly in 9th in the National League, smack dab in the middle.  The Rockies do not have a bad lineup - principally because Cargo and Tulo are good hitters - but they are far from excellent.  Consider the Cincinnati Reds (a playoff team), who amassed 33.3 WAR, or the World Series Champion Giants, who's meager lineup was offset by excellent fielding, to the tune of a total 25.1 WAR.  The other two playoff teams - the Phillies and Braves - both scored higher than the Rockies here as well, with 23.6 and 22.0 WAR respectively.  Which is not to say that position players win divisions and/or championships.  But they're really important.

Ah, but the Rockies had a saving grace in the form of the best pitching staff in the National League.  By far.  As in, by three full wins.

But, the Giants!  Tim Lincecum!  Matt Cain!  Jonathan Sanchez!  Brian Wilson!  They're all so good!

Yes, they are, and the Giants were second in the NL with 21.5 WAR from their pitchers (combined with 25.1 WAR from their position players, that's a pretty solid team, though hardly an all-time great; 48 Wins is considered "replacement," so 48 + 46ish results in 94, very close to the 92 wins the Giants actually ended up with).  The Rockies, however, put up 24.5 WAR.  Buzah?  How did they do that with such "crappy" pitchers and castaways like Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa?  Well, here's a comparison of the Rockies top-ten WAR pitchers with the Giants.

Rockies Pitchers 

1) Ubaldo Jimenez, 6.3
2) Jason Hammel, 3.7
3) Jhoulys Chacin, 3.0
4) Matt Belisle, 2.2
5) Jeff Francis, 1.9
6) Rafael Betancourt, 1.9
7) Jorge De La Rosa, 1.7
8) Aaron Cook, 1.5
9) Esmil Rogers, 1.4
10) Huston Street, 0.9

Giants Pitchers

1) Tim Lincecum, 5.1
2) Matt Cain, 4.0
3) Brian Wilson, 2.7
4) Jonathan Sanchez, 2.6
5) Barry Zito, 2.1
6) Madison Bumgarner, 2.0
7) Sergio Romo, 1.2
8) Santiago Casilla, 0.9
9) Javier Lopez, 0.6
10) Dan Runzler, 0.4

Again, the Giants have an awesome pitching staff.  Lincecum and Cain are as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find in baseball, and Brian Wilson is an excellent closer.  It's just, Lincecum and Cain were worth 9.1 WAR, and Ubaldo and Hammel were worth 11.0.  If you paid attention to the late season rambling about how good the Phillies, Giants, Rays, and Yankees (among others) rotations were, you might have missed out on the best rotation in baseball: Colorado's.

Indeed, consider the WAR of the top three starters from each of the 8 playoff teams, compared to Colorado.  Remember, Jimenez, Hammel, and Chacin combined produced 14 WAR last season.

1) Philadelphia Phillies - Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt - 12.4 (note: with only a few starts from Oswalt)
2) Texas Rangers - Wilson, Lewis, Lee - 11.9 WAR (note: with only a half season of Cliff Lee)
3) San Francisco Giants - Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez - 11.8 WAR
4) Minnesota Twins - Liriano, Pavano, Baker - 11.7 WAR
5) Atlanta Braves - Hanson, Lowe, Hudson - 9.7 WAR
6) New York Yankees - Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes - 9.6 WAR
7) Tampa Bay Rays - Price, Shields, Garza - 8.3 WAR
8) Cincinnati Reds - Cueto, Wood, Bailey - 6.9 WAR

Not once did I hear the Rockies rotation mentioned as good, let alone one of the best in the NL.  And yet, there it was, it's top three every bit as good as the top three from anywhere else.  Throw in De La Rosa - who's 1.7 WAR is largely due to missing about half the year - and consider that Chacin didn't start regularly until a couple months into the season, and you've got a staff that has four 3+ win pitchers, including a guy at the top good for 6 or 7.  That's as good as it gets.  Indeed, if any team in the NL can compete with Philadelphia's four aces next year in the pitching department, it's Colorado.  The Rockies may not have the names or the pedigree - in part because of how Coors Field inflates ERAs - but they have the skill to be just as good as the hideously named Phab Phour.  Also, since rotations go five deep, it's worth noting that I'll take Aaron Cook and/or Esmil Rogers over Joe Blanton any day.

The lesson here is that the mainstream media doesn't know about park effects, or else they'd realize what a good pitching team Colorado has (National League leaders in pitching WAR two years running).  Colorado can pitch.  The problem is, that NL leading 24.5 WAR (Chicago - the White Sox - led the Majors with 24.9; another team from a hitter's park) still isn't enough to win a division without, say, at least 20 or so Wins from the position players.  Can Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton make up that difference?  We'll see.  Regardless, the Rockies will be a fun team to watch pitch, and Coors Field will remain a fun place to watch even bad hitters mash the ball.

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