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Friday, May 16, 2008

Dodgers And Angels At Interleague

Introduction

I haven't done midterms or previews for a couple of years now, but with the Dodgers and Angels about at the one-quarter mark in the season, it seems reasonable to talk about how each team is doing with their respective players, who those players are, and who they should be. Player values are measured by Baseball Prospectus's imperfect VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), which only covers offensive value for position players as of the start of the day at May 15.

Catcher

LAA: Mike Napoli, 89 PA, .253/.303/.570, .306 VORPr, 6.6 VORP
LAA: Jeff Mathis, 70 PA, .238/.269/.429, .021 VORPr, 0.4 VORP
LAD: Russell Martin, 161 PA, .302/.435/.419, .277 VORPr, 10.3 VORP

Both teams are very well-served at catcher, the Angels by a tandem of Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis, and the Dodgers by Russell Martin. Because Martin is a much better all-around hitter, the Dodgers are better off behind the dish offensively than the Angels; in point of fact, Mike Scioscia has sacrificed a bit of offense by playing Mathis more often than the differential in ability with the stick would seem to indicate. Napoli's tendency to a Mickey Tettleton sort of career (high strikeout, high walk, good number of homers, and low average) would normally give him the lion's share of the playing time, but Scioscia seems to prefer Jeff Mathis' game-calling and defense, the latter of which is noticeably better. Unlike the Dodgers' outfield, with catcher there is virtually no choice but for Joe Torre to start his young player. Even with a slight decline from his outstanding 2007 numbers, Martin still gives the Dodgers a substantial advantage at this position.

First Base

LAA: Casey Kotchman, 151 PA, .300/.351/.479, .258 VORPr, 9.4 VORP
LAD: James Loney, 164 PA, .284/.335/.453, .129 VORPr, 4.9 VORP

I don't really think this one's close: Kotchman is the better player, not by a little bit, and at all ends of the game. That's not to say that James Loney couldn't catch up — I really believe that both players are, at the end of the day, surprisingly similar and may end up having very similar careers. Both players look to be high-OBP, moderate-SLG first basemen who can give good defense at the position, and in Kotchman's case, Keith Hernandez levels. Kotch has hit for a bit more power this year so far and noticeably more average, though his May has been disappointing, hitting only .205/.222/.227. (That David Ortiz comp on Kotchman's B-Ref page really pops out at you.) Despite that, I'm giving the Angels the edge here. (After I started writing this, coincidentally Yahoo's Tim Brown put together a very nice comparison of the two players as well.)

Second Base

LAA: Howie Kendrick, 38 PA, .500/.526/.694, 1.047 VORPr, 9.6 VORP
LAD: Jeff Kent, 129 PA, .242/.287/.383, .019 VORPr, 0.6 VORP

In a sense, we'll see neither of these players in the upcoming series; Kendrick got shut down again after his hamstring barked at him during his most recent rehab appearance. Kent is the ghost of the player he used to be, something Jon recently remarked upon. In this series, the Dodgers will undoubtedly send Kent up to the plate in the four hole as per custom, though it's doubtful we'll see much of anything from him; stealing a link from Jon's piece, the chances of Kent being good are remote:

As Jeff Kent turns 40 he is about to enter an area that historically has not been kind to second basemen. Here is a list of second basemen sorted by age who ever did squat since integration. As you can see only HOF Joe Morgan was able to accomplish the feat (OPS+ above 100) at the age of 40 and most of that was accomplished by his OBP, and the OPS+ of 103 is hardly noteworthy.
Kendrick, on the other hand, was hitting way over his head before he landed on the DL, but it's this kind of line-drivery that we expected when, two years ago, PECOTA labeled him the most valuable second baseman in baseball without playing a day in the majors, even — and perhaps presciently — surpassing Jeff Kent. Kendrick is, this year, doing it with one leg tied behind his back.

With Kendrick on the DL, the Angels will send Maicer Izturis; that's still better than the daily dose of not-ready-for-prime-time Sean Rodriguez the Halos had for a week and a half. Kent has heated up lately while Izturis is still really getting his offense going, though both their defensive values are about the same these days. That may have as much to do with small sample sizes as anything for Maicer, who's historically been league average at second. I'll say that for the upcoming series, the Dodgers have the advantage at this position, but I say that recognizing that it could change overnight.

Third Base

LAA: Chone Figgins, 145 PA, .306/.421/.355, .244 VORPr, 8.6 VORP
LAD: Nomar Garciaparra, 35 PA, .226/.314/.323, -.034 VORPr, -0.3 VORP
LAD: Blake DeWitt, 116 PA, .320/.397/.495, .387 VORPr, 10.4 VORP

It may be that we don't see either of Figgins or DeWitt (certainly not Nomar) in this series; Figgins is currently on the DL with hamstring problems, and Blake DeWitt was last seen claiming his back tightness was merely a flesh wound, or something like that. Figgins has already proved himself as a sort of guided missile on the basepaths, while providing a decent glove at third. Lately he's taken great strides in improving his on base percentage; his current .421 is probably considerably higher than he'll end the season with, but it's no fluke.

DeWitt is still something of an enigma, going from an emergency fill-in at third at the start of the year to getting seriously discussed as the team's starting third baseman, hopscotching past Andy LaRoche in the depth chart. As much as I've been impressed by his at-bats — the kid damn well never seems to have a bad one, fouls off pitcher's pitches, stays within himself, and generally does all the things you want from a major league player — you wonder when the magic carpet ride is going to end. PECOTA expressed the opinion that he would have a fringy career, if that, which is to say, there was really very little in his minor league career to predict the kind of oversized success he's had to date with the big club. DeWitt hasn't had any experience over AA prior to his promotion to the Dodgers, and that's the kind of tell that can lead to a player having a sudden and painful regression. Luckily for Joe Torre, Andy LaRoche remains available in Las Vegas as an option should that happen.

Since it's likely neither player will show up during this series (Figgins for sure, since he hasn't even played a rehab game yet), it means the position will be manned by subs Robb Quinlan for the Angels and, possibly, Russell Martin at third. That's a win for the Dodgers, but even if both teams were healthy, I'd still give the edge to the real Los Angeles, provided you recognize that DeWitt is still covered in fairy dust.

Shortstop

LAA: Erick Aybar, 144 PA, .290/.308/.391, .146 VORPr, 5.1 VORP
LAD: Rafael Furcal, 154 PA, .366/.448/.597, .738 VORPr, 26.3 VORP
LAD: Chin-Lung Hu, 60 PA, .204/.283/.222, -.187 VORPr, -2.6 VORP

Of course, this is the Dodgers' call all the way, presuming you believe Rafael Furcal will rematerialize healthy starting 7:05 PM tonight, as Furcal is by far the better shortstop. Yet, with Furcal out for an indefinite time with an injured sacro-illiac, the question for the Dodgers has to be: extend him because your offense can't survive without him? Or improve elsewhere because he can't be relied on? Furcal had arthroscopic knee surgery in the same offseason he also reported an annular strain. According to Will Carroll, that strain is "the first sign of degenerative disc disease".

Erick Aybar is another of the slap-hitting, slick-glove middle infielders the Angels seem to buy by the pallet at Costco; he gets to a lot of balls, as his 113 Rate2 at short shows, but what he does once he gets to them is at times a mystery. His early season success with the bat is slowing appreciably (his May, in particular, is ice-cold, .226/.255/.396), leaving the question open of what happens in 2009 when presumably über-prospect Brandon Wood's game is another year polished. Chin-Lung Hu, the Dodgers' temporary and possibly Furcal's permanent future replacement at short, reminds me very much of Aybar in those aspects, save for the lack of a much-heralded prospect behind him. For the series, it's probably a draw, except that Hu seems to be a little less developed with the stick than Aybar.

Left Field

LAA: Garret Anderson, 161 PA, .266/.298/.435, .114 VORPr, 4.4 VORP
LAD: Juan Pierre, 113 PA, .293/.364/.343, .176 VORPr, 4.6 VORP

Both these players annoy me, the reasons for which have been well-laid-out elsewhere. On some reflection, I notice that Pierre is actually getting on base a little better than usual this year, which explains his surprisingly high VORPr. Anderson is in the last year of a four-year deal, probably his last in an Angels uniform. He's having a an excellent May (.380/.404/.640) to complement his miserable April. On the series, this is probably a draw with the caveat that both teams are likely to play mix-and-match with this position, the Angels starting Gary Matthews, Jr., and the Dodgers Andre Ethier.

Center Field

LAA: Torii Hunter, 163 PA, .298/.350/.490, .297 VORPr, 11.7 VORP
LAA: Gary Matthews, Jr., 176 PA, .217/.313/.349, -.036 VORPr, -1.5 VORP
LAD: Andruw Jones, 136 PA, .179/.287/.274, -.176 VORPr, -5.5 VORP

The most humiliating difference between the two clubs, these represent the most (Torii Hunter) and least (Andruw Jones) productive player on their team. Hunter has already hit a memorable walk-off grand slam against Cleveland, while prior to yesterday's victory against the Brewers, Jones' only home run came as a solo shot in a loss where that was the only offense the Dodgers mustered. Both contracts are, in my opinion, albatrosses in due time, but for now, Hunter's is making Tony Reagins look all geniusy 'n stuff. Advantage Angels.

Update: I clean forgot to add Gary Matthews, Jr. here. GMJ is just a hair under replacement level at this point, and his defense in center is about league average, too. He's just not getting it done with the bat, and to the extent Reggie Willits and his high-OBP bat spells Matthews, Jr. in the outfield, the better off the Angels will be.

Right Field

LAA: Vladimir Guerrero, 167 PA, .265/.335/.424, .108 VORPr, 4.4 VORP
LAD: Matt Kemp, 146 PA, .309/.338/.471, .247 VORPr, 8.3 VORP

Matt Kemp keeps getting irrationally slagged on by the media — the other day, during one of the Fox Saturday Dodger broadcasts, I was treated to Eric Karros pointing out with some glee every lowlight reel of Matt Kemp screwing up on the basepaths or elsewhere. I have never in my entire life seen such a concerted effort to denegrate a young player. This is the exact opposite of what seems to be happening with Vlad, i.e. the Wall of Silence from Angels broadcasters: Vlad's just taking a long time to get going. But the fact is that this represents the slowest start in his career, and you just wonder if he'll be able to put up the kind of numbers he did even last year. Baseball isn't kind to those over thirty, and Vlad's playing out his age 32 season now. Vlad may yet turn it around, of course, but the trend isn't good: his .308 May OBP represents a decline from an already weak April. Advantage Dodgers, and this one also isn't close; Kemp's accumulating value at more than twice the pace of Vlad.

Reserve Outfielders

LAA: Juan Rivera, 36 PA, .171/.194/.200, -.425 VORPr, -3.7 VORP
LAA: Reggie Willits, 20 PA, .313/.421/.375, .271 VORPr, 1.3 VORP
LAD: Andre Ethier, 136 PA, .301/.378/.451, .258 VORPr, 8.1 VORP

Ethier should really have the starting job in left, but stupid contracts have a way of blinding the GM and field manager. Joe Torre continues to pencil in Juan Pierre there, despite the fact that that move handcuffs the team to a slap-hitting, poor-defensive player at a traditional power position.

Similarly, there's an argument that the Angels should have moved one of Chone Figgins or Reggie Willits to center and dispensed with the extravagances of Gary Matthews, Jr. and Torii Hunter; but in the short run, at least, Hunter has proven to be vital insurance for a surprisingly rapid fall by Vlad. Rivera is a famously second-half player, but even by his low first-half standards, he's looked awful at the plate in very limited playing time. Willits has been his usual offensive self this year, but his inability to play infield positions makes him a likely candidate for a return trip to Salt Lake at any time. Advantage, Dodgers, provided Joe Torre deploys his resources properly. That he is not likely to is the reason Mike Scioscia kept beating the Yankees all those years.

Reserve Infielders

LAA: Maicer Izturis, 85 PA, .187/.271/.227, -.143 VORPr, -2.9 VORP
LAA: Robb Quinlan, 45 PA, .238/.289/.310, -.117 VORPr, -1.3 VORP
LAD: Delwyn Young, 28 PA, .292/.346/.333, .145 VORPr, 0.9 VORP
LAD: Mark Sweeney, 33 PA, .143/.273/.179, -.263 VORPr, -2 VORP

Delwyn Young is perhaps the best player of a weak lot here. Robb Quinlan has some positional versatility, but there's been signs this year and last that his time on the Angels is nearing an end, mostly an inability to mash lefties. (He's been inappropriately used to prevent Casey Kotchman from going up against tough southpaws, which is a mistake because Kotchman actually hits lefties better than righties.) Maicer Izturis is having a cold start compounded by another tough run with injuries. Mark Sweeney looks like this is going to be his last hurrah in the majors. I'll call this a wash since the sample sizes are so small for all these players.

Starting Pitching

LAA:

  Pitcher        ERA   W-L  IP     BB/9  K/9  VORP
==================================================
Jered Weaver    5.09   2-5  53.2  2.68  6.20   1.5
Jon Garland     4.30   4-3  52.1  2.75  2.06   2.6
Joe Saunders    2.48   6-1  54.3  2.32  3.98  17.2
Ervin Santana   2.63   6-0  54.2  1.65  7.41  15.6
Dustin Moseley  7.85   1-3  28.2  3.77 6.59  -5.9
John Lackey     1.29   0-0   7.0  1.65  7.41   3.2
Jered Weaver earned the opening day gig with an excellent spring, but he's looked hittable and vulnerable in most of his starts, though his most recent start against Chicago was an exception; he seems to have developed some problems with his fastball velocity that a delivery tweak has corrected, and he's back up to 92-93. Jon Garland is really the same pitcher he was for the Chicago White Sox, except that his already-low strikeout rate has plummeted, putting him in some rather dubious company. Joe Saunders keeps the ball in the park and on the ground, so his effectiveness is directly dependent on his sinker working — not unlike Derek Lowe that way, only minus the early career history of high strikeout rates. Ervin Santana finally awoke his inner ninja and is off to a tremendous start, having straightened out mechanical flaws and psychology on the road. Dustin Moseley is in Salt Lake with an inflamed ERA, and will likely stay there now that John Lackey is back and appears to be the fearsome stopper he was the prior two years.

LAD:

  Pitcher          ERA   W-L  IP    BB/9    K/9  VORP
=====================================================
Brad Penny        5.09   5-4  53.0  3.06   4.75   2.5
Derek Lowe        4.62   2-3  50.2  2.84   6.39  -0.2
Chad Billingsley  4.89   2-5  38.2  5.35  11.17   1.2
Hiroki Kuroda     3.59   1-2  47.2  2.64   4.91   6.9
Esteban Loaiza    5.63   1-2  24.0  1.88   3.38   0.4

Nothing has gone as planned this year for the Dodgers, as big declines in both opening day starter Brad Penny and Derek Lowe attest. Penny's command is all over the place, represented by a dramatically lowered strikeout rate and much higher walk rate, and Lowe's giving up line drives instead of getting ground ball outs (however, this seems to be recovering, as his G/F ratio is currently 2.19, better than his previous numbers at about 1.5). Chad Billingsley's strikeout rate is for real if perhaps a bit high (he's never had double-digit strikeout rates at any level higher than single-A); so are the walks. Hiroki Kuroda has been most of what the Dodgers wanted, and by ERA he's the staff ace, though with that Washburnian 4.91 K/9, you can expect his numbers will deteriorate as the season progresses. Esteban Loiaza is on the DL with shoulder problems (another case of the inflamed ERA disease), and so Chan Ho Park will get his start against the Angels. Park has been a surprisingly good pickup for the Dodgers thus far in the bullpen; perhaps familiarity breeds success in this case, but I wouldn't bet on it over the long term.

The pitching probables do favor the Angels in this series, however: Kuroda vs. Saunders, Park vs. Santana (which looks especially like a mismatch), and Penny vs. Weaver. This is a strong advantage to the Angels with the caveat that there is a lot of variability here, on both sides.

Bullpen

Let's just get this over with without even bothering to look at too many numbers: the Dodgers have the third best bullpen in the majors, while the Angels have the second worst. This just isn't close, and the Angels are at a real disadvantage when starters leave the game tied or with a slim lead — as last night, when Frankie Rodriguez gave up an RBI single to Jim Thome for the loss. Advantage, Dodgers.

Conclusion

The Dodgers should be able to take this series, but for one problem: Joe Torre, who will field players based on their contracts and not on their ability to win. The Angels have the same problems, but for now, Scioscia is a little more flexible. It'll be an interesting series.

Update: Thanks for the links back from Jon, Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness, Blue Notes, and of course Halos Heaven.

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Comments:
Thx for the preview. The Vlad vs. Kemp comparison was an eyebrow-raiser. To think Kemp sat out 3 straight in April is bizarre. With the DH and Nomar still out, Torre will be forced to field his best team.
 
Good preview, Rob. The pitching probables scare me a little - as does Torre's proclamation that his DH will probably be Pierre and/or Sweeney. Free Delwyn Young!
 

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