Tuesday, May 15, 2007

observations on the offense

easily the most interesting feature of this year so far hs been the outperformace of the pitching staff, particularly starters ted lilly, rich hill and jason marquis. this has been examined here at length, and indeed marquis may have given us a window on his eventual mean reversion in struggling through five innings last night as the new york mets came back to sink the cubs for the fifth time in seven games.

someone has to be to blame for losing, and right now the bullpen shouldering the brunt -- not least from lou piniella.

"The bullpen … we thought that was going to be the strong part of our pitching staff," Piniella said. "I haven't seen it."

The bullpen is 2-10 with seven blown saves in 15 opportunities. Piniella has tried using combinations in late-inning roles, but no one has stepped up besides closer Ryan Dempster.

Asked if he was running out of ideas, Piniella replied: "What do we do with it? You know what, I'm going to find out if there are some kids down in Triple A throwing the ball, and maybe that's the answer—get some different kids in here that can throw the ball.

"I don't know what else to say. I've tried everybody out there. You keep hoping it comes around, but we're getting into the middle of May now."

but in truth they have been predictably average as a group to date, placing 6th in the league in era, with the unexpectedly good performances of dempster, rocky cherry and neal cotts offsetting the bad of scott eyre, will ohman and bob howry. this is all part of the vicissitude of small samples, and is no reason to dismantle the bullpen regardless of what piniella's brain stem is telling him.

as frustrating as it is, much of the cubs' troubles in capitalizing on a brilliant spurt of run differential has been plain and simple bad luck -- but if an aspect of the team is underperforming expectation, it has to be the offense. despite what many fans perceived to be twin massive upgrades on 2006 -- alfonso soriano and a healthy derrek lee -- the club rates just 7th in the nl with 4.64 runs/game.


as has been noted, the team has actually benefitted offensively by running a high babip (.317, 3rd in the nl), which in turn boosts on-base percentage. the cubs as a team are currently getting aboard at a .337 clip -- 6th in the nl in spite of placing an entirely typical 14th in walks. this would figure to revert slightly in time as well, though it need not -- in 2006, for example, the range of nl team babips was .313 to .284, with a median of .303 -- and with it will come some of the on-base percentage.

so if obp is as good as it gets, and run scoring is still disappointing -- even from this writer's cold-eyed estimate of 4.81 with a low range of 4.68 -- what is the matter?

in a word, power. the above table also lists gross production average (gpa), which can be taken as a statistical proxy for estimated run scoring. gpa is a weighted average of obp and slugging percentage in which obp counts for 1.8 times slugging. as statistical study has shown, this weighting most closely mimics real scoring -- and it may not be too much to say that, if obp isn't improving, slugging must in order for scoring to rise.

and indeed, the cubs are currently slugging .424 (6th in the nl) and are on pace to clout 144 homers -- a total that many would consider disappointing, especially in the aftermath of adding soriano to in situ power sources lee, aramis ramirez, jacque jones and michael barrett.

what has happened? ramirez and barrett cannot be much faulted -- both are providing isolated power (or iso) at rates down from somewhat from last season, with ramirez coming in at .235 (vs .269 in 2006, down 34 points) and barrett at .157 (vs .211 in 2006, down 54).

but jones, soriano and lee are another story.

jacque provided 27 homers to the 2006 club in a flourish that this page was not shy about characterizing as a fluke year for an ageing player. in so doing he posted an iso of .214 -- which one gathers many expected to see repeated in 2007. but jones has foundered, underperforming even this writer's low expectation to date, knocking just one home run while posting an iso of .099 -- down 115 points.

in 2005, 2004 and 2003 in minnesota, jones posted iso readings of .189, .173 and .161 -- this is clearly not a player of which 27 homers is to be expected at age 33. there is room to improve here, but one must wonder if jacque's slow slide into infirmity, one which must visit all players in time, hasn't taken a leap. this writer would wager for things to improve, but to nothing like 2006 levels.

soriano smashed 46 homers in in 2006, forging an iso of .283. but most close observers understood that to be an outlier in soriano's sample -- his 2005, 2004 and 2003 seasons in texas and new york yielded measures of .243, .204 and .235. soriano looks set to confirm the strangeness of 2006 so far this year, having posted an iso of .203 to date -- down 80 points -- while hitting just four homers in 30 games. again, there is room and likelihood of improvement here -- and that improvement is already underway, it would seem -- but this page sincerely doubts any repeat of 2006 is in soriano's future.

many fans likewise remembered the 2005 of derrek lee, when he crushed 46 homers while putting on a run at the nl mvp, slugging .662 and casting a ridiculous iso of .327. in 2006, lee's injury-shortened campaign reduced his iso to .189 -- but most were prepared to waive the season (not unreasonably) in light of events. lee, however, also posted an iso of .226 in a healthy 2004 campaign and measures in florida of .237 in 2003 and .224 in 2002. while florida's cavernous park certainly allows for some increase in power upon leaving, lee also played road games for the marlins -- the jump to be expected isn't overwhleming.

however, even given that lee's iso would be expected to fall around .240 given his experience both in florida and chicago, his paltry .163 -- down 164 points from 2005 -- is surprising. but watching lee in 2007 has been watching a different hitter altogether from 2005, and one must wonder if the forearm injury that wrecked his 2006 hasn't had some carryon effects that have changed lee's approach.

this is a chart of lee's flyballs and home runs at wrigley field in 2005, and it shows pull power in home runs as well as a healthy smattering of fly balls to left.

this is the 2007 chart for lee, who is the same man but apparently a different hitter. is this a durable change provoked by recovery from injury? is it a result of the league making adjustments and taking a different approach to lee? this page wouldn't feel qualified to speculate, frankly, but both options must be on the table for consideration.

in any case, what seems to be true in general is that power going forward should probably not be the issue that it has been year-to-date -- this club may well hit more home runs as the weather improves into june and july.

but weather is not necessarily the panacea one might think for run scoring. the past four seasons have indicated that there is very little reason in general to believe in a strong positive weather-driven trend in runs scored as the season in chicago progresses from cold to mild to hot.

scoring may improve, but it would seem the weather is not a foolproof rationale for expecting so. instead, this page would expect it simply because all five of the major power sources on the club are underperforming their long-term expectations of isolated power -- and the durability of such an imbalance is not often strong. it would also, however, expect a decline in team babip to reduce on-base percentage, nullifying some of the offensive gains of improved slugging. in the final analysis, the team seems very much on track to approach the preseason offensive estimate here offered.

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