Saturday, July 26, 2008

Maybe A Leopard Can't Change His Spots

I can't recall how I got to thinking about this, but I started to wonder about Jeff Suppan. I think it may be from the Cardinals' fans that were comparing Kyle Lohse to Suppan when Lohse was signed, trying to give reasons for why Lohse might really do well (which, thus far, he has). Suppan is one of those pitchers that's listed as a Dave Duncan success story, the mediocre pitcher that excels under Duncan's guiding hand. But once I started looking at some numbers, that didn't seem to add up.

For the purposes of this I compared Suppan's 3 years in the StL to his only stint with one team of comparable length, his time with the Royals (1998-2002). However, he only pitched 12 innings for the the Royals in '98, and I wanted to use full seasons, so it'll just be '99-'02.

Note all relief appearances (which total 4.3 innings in 2000) have been excluded. Also, playoff stats (which only factor into his StL numbers) are included, since I couldn't rule out that the impending postseason played a role in how Suppan was used in the regular season, so try and get a complete picture.

First, cumulative numbers:

Royals - 132 games started, 847.7 innings pitched (6.42 innings/start), 39-51, 458 Ks (4.86 k/9IP), 284 BB (3.02 BB/9IP), 1.61 K/BB, 909 hits (9.65 hits/9IP), 1.407 WHIP, 488 runs/447 ER (5.18 RA/4.75 ERA), 11 complete games, 3 shutouts.

Cardinals - 104, 626.3 (6.02 innings/start), 47-29, 361 Ks (5.18 K/9IP), 219 BB (3.15 BB/9IP), 1.65 K/BB, 645 hits (9.27 hits/9IP), 1.38 WHIP, 310/269 ER (4.45 RA/3.87 ERA), 0 complete games, o shutouts.

So with the Cards he didn't pitch as deeply into games, struck out and walked more batters, but surrendered fewer hits. Total, he allowed roughly 27 fewer baserunners per 1000 innings, or somewhere around 5 a season (since Suppan pitches around 200 innings every year)*, and had an ERA 0.87 runs lower, but was only allowing 0.73 total runs less per.

Now, per-season numbers (rounded to nearest whole number):

Royals - 33 starts, 212 innings, 10-13, 115 Ks, 71 BB, 227 hits, 122 runs/112 earned runs, 3 complete games, 1 shutout.

Cardinals - 35, 209, 16-10, 120 Ks, 73 BB, 215 hits, 103 runs/90 earned runs, 0 complete games, 0 shutouts.

If you look at rate stats for individual seasons, there are a lot of similarities.

WHIP for KC - 1.361, 1.493, 1.379, 1.428
WHIP for StL - 1.367, 1.384, 1.453

His best (and worst) seasons were with KC, while his second-best (and second-worst) seasons were with the Cardinals.

ERA+ for KC - 111, 103, 111, 93
ERA+ for StL - 103, 119, 108

The thing to keep in mind here is a 100 ERA+ in the AL is not the same ERA in the NL, since the AL is a higher scoring league, what with the DH, and generally stronger lineups**. Plus, some years are dominated by offense more than others. So even though his ERA is lower every year with the Cardinals, compared to the rest of his league, he's not necessarily doing any better. His best year was 2005, and his worst was 2002, but his next best seasons were 1999 and 2001, both in Kansas City.

So there doesn't seem to be much difference between his time with the team, on an individual level. The most obvious difference is between the teams. In four years with Kansas City, they went 268-379, a winning percentage of .414, never winning more than 77 games. Suppan's win % was .433. The Cardinals recorded a (playoffs included) 311-214 (.592), while Suppan's win % is .618. Playoffs excluded, it's 288-197 (.594), and Suppan's record is 44-26 (.629). So regardless, Mr. Suppan is just a little better than the team he plays on, to the extent that wins tell you anything.

The biggest advantage seems to have been the bullpen, or the manager's trust in it. LaRussa trusted his bullpen (or didn't trust Suppan past the 7th), so he didn't let Suppan pitch deep into games where his command might start to slip. Probably a sound strategy. In 2004 his OPS+ was 153 (55 PAs), 147 (21 PAs), 464 (1 PA) in 7th-9th innings. In '05, the OPS+ in the 7th was 119 in 56 PAs, though only 49 in the 8th (15 PAs). All told, in three years with the Cardinals, Suppan only faced 232 (77 per season) batters in the 7th or later, with 77 in 2004, 79 in 2005, 76 in 2006. Wow, that's eerily similar. With the Royals, it was 458 batters (114.5 per season) in the 7th or later. It was 118 in '99, 137 in 2000, 113 in 2001, and 90 in 2002. He did alright in 1999 and 2002, but in both 2000 and 2001 he got batted around pretty good in those innings. However, the amount of batters he faced in those situations was declining, so maybe his managers were learning his limits. Or, they put together better bullpens, and didn't have to drive him so deep into games.

The ultimate conclusion seems to be that it wasn't so much that Dave Duncan made Suppan a better pitcher (though I'm sure he helped a little), as it was that he had a manager that didn't leave him in too long, and had a bullpen he could trust to turn to, which is usually a by product of playing on better teams. That was a lot of effort for just that.

* If you only use regular season stats, the gap in WHIP is 6 baserunners per 1000 innings, or about 1 per season.

** Which kind of surprises me. You'd think NL lineups would have better hitters, to compensate for the pitcher, who's typically inept, but AL lineups get a guy who focuses solely on hitting, and still have the beefier overall lineups, on average.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oh, Ye Gods

I'd like to say that last night's loss to the Pirates surprised me. . . OK fine. It did surprise me. I didn't think even the Cardinals bullpen was bad enough to blow a 9-4 lead after 7 innings, but they outdid themselves. Bravo, fellows. At least now I understand why the Viva El Birdos crowd has taken to naming alcoholic drinks after the relief corps ("Pass me another one of those Izzys").

I figured after that, and with the All-Star Game almost upon us, I might as well consider where the Cardinals could try improving through trades. A lot fans want them to go after a starting pitcher, or a shutdown closer*. I'm seeing people asking for Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, and of course, middle infielders are greatly prized.

So let's start with the rotation. If the team is lucky, Carpenter and Wainwright will both be back by early August. Carpenter's been throwing simulated games, and might be ready for his rehab stint by tomorrow, and Wagonmaker's also been cleared for throwing. Of course, the specter of Mark Mulder looms over the front office/medical staff's assurances about both players, but Mulder's issue was his shoulder, whereas Carp's problem is the elbow, and Wainer's was a finger. Hopefully that makes a difference. However, LaRussa doesn't sound willing to wait for them to return while the Cubs and Brew Crew reap the benefits of Harden and Sabathia right now, respectively. The Cardinals were already 3 or 4 games behind Chicago before they got Harden, so if StL wants to catch up, they need to get someone better than Harden. C.C. would have qualified, but I somehow doubt the Brewers would be willing to trade him to the Cards. So who's out there that qualifies?

There's several guys that look appealing, but it's a safe bet their teams would demand the right to pillage the farm system for them, and I'm not in favor of wrecking future teams for this season**. Roy Halladay would be nice, but the Jays just gave him a new contract last offseason, and he's got a lot of miles on that arm. If they're actually willing to trade him, my Mark Mulder sense is going to start going off. The Royals have some good young starters (well, Greinke's good anyway), but I don't see them trading any of them. Cheap, young starting pitching is vital for low payroll teams. Cliff Lee's a possibility, but again, what are the Indians going to want for him? Besides, this season seems so far out of line with his career up until now, I worry about regression. Moving to the NL would help, but I still wonder whether he's put it all together, or just getting lucky somehow (BABIP says he isn't, so that's something). I doubt the Mariners would trade King Felix. Likewise, I doubt the Giants would trade Linecum or Matt Cain***. Aaron Harang and Arroyo are both struggling, which might make them candidates for a little Dave Duncan magic, but I'm not sure Jocketty would feel like dealing with his old team. Besides, if we're serious about catching up, it's probably best not to bet the farm on guys who appear to need fixing. I don't think Greg Maddux can save us, even assuming he's willing to leave the West Coast. I think they're better off just hoping Garcia, Boggs, or Reyes (if they're willing to give him another whirl) can hold down the fort until in-house reinforcements arrive.

As to the bullpen, look, it's bad. Their combined wins above replacement (WXRL) is about 1.5 wins. Average teams are about 4.5, so that's three wins right there the team ought to have. The problem is, relievers tend to be highly variable from one year to the next, so a good previous year may not mean anything going into the next one. And if we're going to trade for a relief pitcher, I'd want more than one half-season from them. So I'm not eager to trade for Fuentes from Colorado, Sherrill from Baltimore, or anyone else for that matter. Useful relievers are easy to find, just look at the '06 Cardinals. Their postseason bullpen had one big free-agent signing (Looper), one guy they picked up in a trade when he was a minor leaguer (Wainwright), two draft picks (Brad Thompson and Tyler Johnson), one guy they signed as a minor league free agent (Flores), another they signed in Spring Training (Josh Hancock), and another they signed from an independent league mid-season (Josh Kinney). And it worked quite well. Obviously, there's a bit of luck there, but I think it's at least evidence that it isn't necessary to shell out big bucks, or trade away prime prospects for a guy who pitches maybe 5 innings a week for you. There's better ways to allocate financial resources. The organization has to be full of guys dying for a shot at the big leagues. Give them a chance. Maybe the league's unfamiliarity with them gives you a chance.

As to outfielders, I can't say I entirely understand this desire. Outfield is one place the team isn't lacking for hitters. Ludwick still has an OPS over .950, Ankiel's over .880, and Skip's .790. Even Duncan (.716) is starting to hit again. Now, there are certain arguments for Holliday. He's hitting better (OPS .980) than any Cardinal not named Albert Pujols. He hits lefties (.909) almost as well as righties (.950) for his career, and he's actually hitting LHPs better (1.023 vs. .968) this year. He's certainly not any worse than Duncan in the outfield, and there's always Skip as a late inning defensive replacement. There is one major issue, and that's Holliday's home/away numbers. For his career, he's 1.086 at Coors (think this year's Albert), but .791 on the road (so, this year's Skip Schumaker). This year, it's 1.079 at Coors, .868 away. He'd be replacing Skip in the lineup, so it's a boost****, but not as much as we might hope, since the Cards won't be visiting Coors the remainder of this season. Then there's Jason Bay. He, like most of the current outfield, has done much better this year against RHP (.971) than LHP (.760). Oddly, this is a deviation from his career, where he hits RHP at a .887 pace, and LHP at a .918 rate. No idea what that's about. If we got Career Bay, as opposed to 2008 Bay, I could be convinced, but not for Colby Rasmus, as some of the rumors are suggesting. No way do we trade the potential All-Star CF for a power-hitting corner outfielder. There are plenty of corner outfielders out there. He's showing a home (.992)/away (.838) split, but again, it's a deviation from career norms (.894/.895). I don't know if the Pirates would trade within the division, and I don't want to give up Rasmus even if they will, but I'd rather have Bay than Holliday.

Still, adding another good hitting outfielder doesn't solve the Cardinals primary black hole: the middle infield. Miles is the only one with an OPS above .700, and his defense is terrible. Ryan's OPS is below .600, and Kennedy has boosted his numbers the same way he did to start the year: High average, no walks, no power. Which means his stats ought to come crashing back down any time now. There was some chatter about how Skip spent 30 minutes before last night's game taking ground balls at second, which might clear up that outfield logjam a little. Of course, there were also reports of third base coach Jose Oquendo taking grounders at shortstop last night. Honestly, he couldn't hit any worse than the guys who play there now*****.

That speculation aside, I've heard Cristian Guzman of the Nationals mentioned. He's on a last place team, in the last year of his contract, and he has a .769 OPS. His on-base ability is almost entirely based on his batting average (BA of .315, OBA of .341), so he'd fit in well with the rest of the bunch. But he has a little power (.428 SLG, with 26 doubles and 5 homers), so that a plus. Jim Bowden doesn't have the best reputation as a GM, so the Cardinals might be able to fleece him, or avoiding getting fleeced themselves******. Guzman would cost them about $2 million for the remainder of the season, which would be more than they're paying any of the other MIFs, but in theory, he'd also be better than those others, so it would make sense.

Personally, I'd like to go after Baltimore's Brian Roberts. He'd be the 4th best hitter on the team if he joined today (.862 OPS, behind Albert, Thudwick, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi). Of course, Peter Angelos runs that team, and I've heard he's somewhat hard to deal with, so he'd almost certainly demand an exorbitantly high price, especially since Roberts has another year on his contract after this. Also, between Miles and Kennedy the Cardinals are getting a little production from 2nd base right now, so it might be more important to get offensive competence at SS*******. I'd still like to get Roberts for having that extra year on his contract (we'd have to get the Orioles to take Kennedy, or at least Miles to clear some space), especially since the Cubs expressed interest in Roberts this offseason (unless they've decided Fontenot/DeRosa is good enough), and they certainly don't need to get any better. Still, Guzman is probably the most realistic goal.

Summary: Unless you can get a kickass young starter for something less than the future of the franchise, pass. Just say no to trading for relief pitchers. Bay, yes, Holliday, no. Guzman is more likely, but Roberts would be nice.

* As if those are just lying around everywhere. Maybe the Yankees would give us Mariano for a bag of baseballs!

** I think life as an Arizona Cardinals fan, combined with the 2006 World Series, has done a lot for my patience.

*** And even if any of those three are available, there are plenty of teams out there with better-stocked farm systems than the Cardinals to choose from.

**** Though I'm unclear on who bats leadoff if not Skip. Knowing LaRussa, probably one of the middle infielders, but Troy Glaus would probably be better, he walks occasionally.

***** At least Oquendo knew how to walk. Career average of .256, but career on-base of .346.

****** That Mulder for Haren/Calero/Barton trade has made me gunshy about trades. Man that was a horrible trade, and Reason #1 why, if I were GM of a baseball team, I would never trade with Billy Beane. He always seems to know something that fucks the other GM over.

******* No, trading for Roberts, getting rid of Izturis or Ryan, and moving Miles to shortstop is not an option. I do not wish to be subjected to AAAron Miles as SS.

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