Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Elephant in the Room: Offsetting the Losses

You may have noticed at this point that the Room for Improvement series has, to this point, been exclusively about how Indians players may reasonably be projected to provide MORE performance (as measured by VORP). This is hardly earth-shattering, given the title of the series, but you might get the impression that this is solely about the Indians having a better record in 2010 than they had in 2009. Of course, that's exactly what the series is about, so you should be congratulated for your keen impressionistic sense.

In case you're wondering, the series is only eight players long: I'm not going to try and chart players for whom I have no real confidence, may not play at all, or who can only be projected to make a marginal (if any) improvement. To this end, it's nice, in a sense, that I couldn't really identify an Indians player whom I thought clearly played "over his head" last season: the closest would be the top two offensive performers, Shin-Soo Shoo (53.5 VORP) and Asdrubal Cabrera (38.7 VORP). I don't expect either player to really launch himself into the Pujols-Mauer class of extraordinary player, but Choo's numbers are consistent with his minor-league track record plus three years of major-league development: a .300/.394/.489 is simultaneously quite good but also reasonably sustainable. He's always had good plate discipline, and even if he hits .280 instead of .300, he'll still likely post an OBP near .400, and his power has developed nicely. He hits lefties better than he did, and now that he has more PAs against southpaws, I expect that to at least be stable, if not improve. If anything, it may be that his 21:2 SB:CS is unsustainable, but even that speaks to a baserunning savvy that will serve Choo well in other aspects of the offense as well. (Man's got wheels.) Cabrera, on the other hand, is still only 24 years old, and back at his natural position of shortstop from Day One this season, should be able to post a similar season, which may have had a bit of elevation from the AVG but at leadoff will get more raw bases and should keep his VORP in range.

It bears mentioning at this point that the most-valuable pitcher in terms of VORP was Aaron Laffey at 10.9. Now, frankly, Laffey's not on my list. Sure, he COULD raise his VORP by 20 points, and boy howdy that'd be great, but I don't see any compelling evidence to suggest that it's particularly reasonable to do so. Second, Tony Sipp at 10.1: no 20-point improvement there (but he should still be positive: I expect something in the same range, frankly). Third, Kerry Wood at 10.0: I expect Wood to post something like this because he'll either be "decent" and stay in this range or he'll be "outstanding" and will get traded before he gets a whole season and will thus stay in the same range.

Of course, this isn't entirely true. Aaron Laffey did not supply the highest VORP of any Cleveland pitcher. He simply provided the most VORP of any Cleveland pitcher who is ... well ... going to pitch for Cleveland in 2010.

So ... what do you do about Cliff Lee and his 46.7 VORP in this analysis? Well, a cheap way to look at it is that Lee went 7-9 and the Indians went 8-14 in his 22 starts. Lee may have pitched great, but from the standpoint of whether his absence will cost the team a lot of wins ... I mean ... 8-14 is pretty bad. What, we'll go 3-19 in his replacement's first 22 starts? I guess that's possible if his replacement is a wolverine, or maybe Carlos Carrasco, but Cliff Lee's 46.7 VORP were largely for naught in Cleveland in 2009.

Of course, it doesn't really work like that: Lee went at least 7 innings in more than half (14) of those starts, meaning the bullpen was both more rested and less exposed. More importantly, the whole series is about counting VORP, not some nebulous concept like pitcher wins, so we have to count VORP. We need 46.7 VORP, or else I have to take a giant addendum to the series saying, in essence, "Just kidding! We're still going to suck rocks!"

Now, there is no single pitcher on the Cleveland roster that can reasonably be expected to cough up that kind of VORP. I mean, Jake Westbrook did have a 36.9 as recently as 2006, but he's coming off surgery and it's not really reasonable to figure on him having a career year under these circumstances. (It should be said that the Indians have made a commitment to better infield defense with Cabrera at short, playing three shortstops in the 3B/SS/2B slots, something that should benefit the groundballer Westbrook. But again, PECOTA's projection of 10.4 could be off to the tune of being doubled, and Jake would still be short of halfway to what Cliff put up in 2009.) The lefties: no. Justin Masterson is actually in the series (but not near 40 VORP ... dude ... it's Justin Masterson). The yoots aren't ready. Carlos Carrasco is a reptile, if not a full-on fungus.

But ... you know ... speaking of Carrasco, he posted a brisk -8.4 VORP last season in 5 starts. I mean, that's seriously bad. Now that Jake is back and we have some other, more palatable options, I expect him to be 8.4 VORP better than last season by Not Being On The Roster, a wonderful 0.0 VORP that reflects his complete absence. And Zach Jackson's -4.3: I am hoping for a nice, round 0.0 from Zach as well this season. In fact:

Carlos Carrasco, -8.4
Zach Jackson, -4.3
No Masa Kobayashi, -2.6
Antny Reyes, -5.3
Winston "Not Bobby" Abreu, -5.4

Hey, this is fun!

Chris Gimenez, -11.6

Wait. Think about this for a moment. Chris Gimenez was worse with a bat in his hands in 130 PA than Raffy Perez was at pitching his way to a 7.31 ERA in 54 appearances. That boggles the mind. It's like Gimenez was running up to his own teammates and pulling down their pants during plate appearances or while fielding ground balls. Negative eleven point six is really a whole heap o' bad. Wow.

Tony Graffanino, -3.3

Fun fact: Graffy managed this much bad in TWENTY-FOUR PLATE APPEARANCES. That's ... I dunno, I didn't realize that was even mathematically possible. Great googly moogly. Let's move on.

Wyatt Toregas, -4.4
Trev Crowe, -4.5
Niuman Romero, -2

We might be grasping at straws here. It's hardly unreasonable for you to expect below-replacement performance from your fifth OF, your 3rd catcher, and a Guy Named Niuman. Even if you don't use Toregas (and we shouldn't: Sour Lou Marson and Mike Redmond will keep the seat warm for Carlos Santana, and Toregas should be no more than injury fodder), who's to say Redmond et al won't be in that range?

But we're talking about a few VORP here and there, and I more wanted to see if I could find 46.7 "dead VORP" on last year's roster. Well ... the 10 players listed about add up to -51.8 VORP, so remove one of Toregas or Crowe if you want, and I can still offset the loss of Cliff Lee with players whose complete playing time last season OUGHT to be replaceable by brisk Blutarskis all around.

Hm ... I wonder why we were bad last season?

This post has already bled considerably, so let just say that the other prime VORP I need to replace is Victor Martinez' 23.2. I'm kind of out of dead weight, but if you spot me one of Toregas or Crowe, I only need Jake to cough up something in the 18.5 VORP range to completely offset Victor. And really, since my smallest improvement in the series is 13 and I consider anything under 10 to be "noise," you could give me a 10-VORP Jake Westbrook (roughly between Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey ... I mean, really now ... surely Jake can hack THAT up, right?) and I'd still be close enough to offsetting Martinez that my hand-waving wouldn't have to be ESPECIALLY vigorous.

Anyway, tomorrow, we'll get back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

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