Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In Defense of Dayn

Recently over at foxsports.com, their resident statistics guru Dayn Perry weighed in on the 2008 outlook for the NL Central. After including the seemingly obligatory mention of just how bad the NL Central is these days (trust me Dayn… we know), Perry basically boils the argument down to the Cubs and Brewers (and as much sense as that may make, I think Perry—as well as pretty much every other analyst out there—might be underestimating Houston. Some of Ed Wade’s moves this offseason may have been questionable, but if that team can stay healthy, they have a chance to score a lot of runs. But that’s really neither here nor there). In case you didn’t take the time to read the article, Perry uses a position by position comparison of both teams to come to the conclusion that the Cubs have what it takes to repeat as division champs next season.

The day after I read this, I found an interesting rebuttal to Perry’s argument at a good Milwaukee Brewers blog run by a guy named Jeff Sackmann. Some of you are probably already familiar with brewcrewball.com, as well Jeff’s work at The Hardball Times.

Now before I continue, allow me to reiterate the fact that brewcrewball.com is a good page— it’s definitely the best Brewers blog I’ve found. And more importantly, know that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mr. Sackmann, who is a smart and obviously loyal baseball fan. But with that said, I think his attack on Perry’s article is totally unfair. While I agree with Sackmann that the methodology Perry uses may be shaky, I would still agree with most of what he says.

For one, I agree that the Brewers will outscore the Cubs in ‘08. And, as Jeff mentioned, while Perry may have underestimated how big of an edge the Cubs have in left field, I think he fails to mention just how much more production the Brewers figure to get out of shortstop, right field, and second base (I think Rickie Weeks is ready to turn the corner in ’08. His .903 OPS in the second half of ’07 would probably agree). But the bottom line is even if Perry uses a half baked process to come to his conclusion; the fact is he’s probably right. Now remember—Mr. Sackmann also agreed up to this point, so I’m not calling him out on this front. But I do have a problem with the rest of his argument.

Which brings me to pitching. Perry says that the Cubs have a potentially significant edge in both the rotation and the bullpen; a claim I believe most would agree with. However, Mr. Sackmann apparently didn’t have much use for Perry’s logic in this respect. Let’s break down the rotation first, starting with each team’s ace.

Given Carlos Zambrano’s remarkable durability, and Ben Sheets’ complete lack thereof, I think a big edge has to go to the Cubs on this one. Perry mentions in his article that for the Brewers to have a shot at dethroning the Cubs they’ll need Sheets to be good for 200 innings, something he hasn’t accomplished since 2004. But that’s really sugar-coating the issue. Because the truth is since that 2004 season that saw him complete a career high of 237 innings, Sheets has failed to reach even 160 innings—never mind 200. To counter this, Sackmann argues that the Brewers are perhaps the team best equipped in all the land to deal with an injury in the rotation. Now that may be—but there is no way that any one of Claudio Vargas, Carlos Villanueva, or Manny Parra can step in and fill the shoes of their ace—they probably couldn’t even come close. Bottom line—the Brewers need 200 innings from Sheets and they won’t get them. As for Rich Hill versus Yovani Gallardo, that’s a pretty close call. Sackmann calls it a push despite admitting that Gallardo hasn’t even pitched a full year in the big leagues. Now, I’m fully aware of Gallardo’s minor league pedigree and trust that he’s on the verge of being a pretty good pitcher, but one could also argue that Hill’s ’07 was also only a sign of things to come. In fact, The Bill James Handbook pegs Hill for 223 strikeouts in ’08. Based on that and the fact he has a whole season already under his belt, I would take Hill given the choice between the two for next year, but it’s definitely close.

Now here is where Sackmann totally loses me. Arguing that Lilly versus Suppan is a push is just not right—FIP (fielding independent pitching) be damned. I guess to put it like he did, sometimes smart people just write stupid things. Sure the Brewers defense hurts Soup (Oh and trust me, we’ll get there), but defense aside, Lilly is still the better pitcher. Their respective strikeout rates really tell the story best. Lilly has a career K/9 rate of 7.66, while Suppan checks in at a feeble 5.05. Just to give you a little perspective—the immortal Jason Marquis owns a better career mark than that. In fact, Suppan hasn’t ever—not even once—over the course of a full season struck out better than 6 batters per nine innings. As for walk their walk rates, Suppan comes in ahead by a healthy margin. Over the past 3 seasons, Suppan owns a BB/9 rate of 3.05, while Lilly checks in at 3.40, but that really doesn’t tell the whole story. It is certainly worth noting that while Suppan has spent the past 4 and a half seasons in the NL Central, Lilly spent the three years prior to coming to Chicago in Toronto, where he had to face potent and equally patient lineups from teams like the Red Sox and Yankees. In his first year in Chicago, Lilly walked just 55 batters—13 less than Suppan in almost identical amounts of innings. With this in mind, Lilly is probably the safe bet going forward to walk fewer batters. Really the only thing Suppan has on Lilly is the fact that he keeps the ball on the ground and in the park more often. But even with that said, Suppan’s HR/9 rate for the past 3 years hasn’t been anything special. Just remember—the question is which pitcher do you take for ’08, and the answer is Lilly no question.

As for the rest of the rotation, Sackmann calls it a push between Marquis and Bush, and gives a slight edge to the Cubs in Dempster versus Chris Capuano, who is fresh off of a season in which he went 5-12 with an ERA of 5.10. But if you ask me, we’re more likely to see either Sean Marshall or Gallagher get more starts than Dempster, in which case the edge would be even more in the Cubs favor. Either way considering how much more they figure to get out of the top of their rotation, the Cubs have the better staff going into next year. The only scenario where the Brewers could come out on top here is if the Cubs trade away too much pitching in a potential Brian Roberts deal, and/or Carlos Zambrano suffers the first major injury of his career.

Now for the bullpen. An interesting aspect of 2007 was that the Cubs quietly put together a solid ‘pen-- something they hadn’t had in years. The Brewers on the other hand saw relievers not named Francisco Cordero blow leads too frequently. Unfortunately for the Crew, they will be without Cordero from now on, since he signed with Cincinnati this offseason. In ’08 it’ll be up to Eric Gagne—yes, the same Eric Gagne we all saw crap the bed in Boston the last three months of ’07 (6.75 ERA), and the same Eric Gagne whose name was all over the Mitchell Report. And while Sackmann is right for asking why exactly Perry chose to tab Wood as “the dominating, shutdown closer they've lacked for so long,” there really is little wonder why Perry calls Gagne “and unknown quantity going forward.” Wood, along with Howry and Marmol, makes up a potentially dominating back end of a ‘pen, easily trumping anything Milwaukee could counter with. So even if Shouse is better than Eyre, or Weurtz no better than Torres, the Cubs’ bullpen is not just stronger, but also deeper, with Carmen Pignatiello, Billy Petrick, and Jose Asciano among others all capable of stepping in should anyone get hurt or become ineffective.

After this Mr. Sackmann just gets hypocritical. After criticizing Perry for devoting only brief paragraphs to summarize each team’s offense and pitching, Sackmann devotes a whole 66 words to cover defense, the benches, and managing. What’s hysterical about this is that it is totally obvious to anyone who knows anything about Milwaukee’s ballclub is that these are undoubtedly the Brewers’ weakest points.

Defensively, they’re almost comically bad. But before we explore, let’s hear Jeff’s take on defense. And I quote, “All the other details are just quibbling. Defense is important, and the Cubs are better at it, but I think most of the offensive position comparisons stand even considering defense.” Umm… what? Defense is a detail? Quibbling?

Allow me to quibble for a moment. John Dewan’s plus/minus system says Ryan Braun is hands down the worst third baseman in baseball (actually, the worst defender period), Rickie Weeks is the second worst second baseman, and Prince Fielder is the fourth worst first baseman. At shortstop, J.J. Hardy falls in the middle of the pack, but his range factor was second to last in ’07. In center, Bill Hall is playing out of position as if you couldn’t tell by watching him for two seconds. And behind the plate the Crew’s got Jason Kendall who is coming off a season in which he allowed 131(!) stolen bases while throwing out only 20 runners. Really, it could be fair to say that the only really plus defender in the Brewers’ starting lineup is Corey Hart in right field. As for left field, I’m not sure who figures to get the most starts out there. In fact, I’m not sure that Doug Melvin knows that yet. I’d wrap up my argument by discussing the Cubs’ defense, but really I’d be wasting my time. We don’t even need to look to know the Cubs get a sizeable edge here.

Look, I’m not saying the Cubs are the odds-on favorites going into next year. I still think next season is still very much up in the air, because there really are so many questions yet to be answered. Is Felix Pie ever going to come around? Will Ryan Dempster remain in the rotation? Can Ben Sheets and Rickie Weeks stay healthy and productive? No one knows. And even if we did, it would still be hard to say who will come out on top next year. My only point is that Dayn Perry had perfectly solid reasoning behind choosing the Cubs as his preseason pick, and as much respect as I really do have for Jeff Sackmann, his take on Perry’s opinion just didn’t sit well with me.

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