Archive for September, 2011

In 2010, the Captain’s Blog was a veritable crystal ball when it came to predicting the standings, at least when compared to a universe of experts and projection systems. How’d I do this season? Well, as John Sterling might say, you can’t predict baseball.

2011 Captain’s Blog Predictions Compared to Final Standings

Note: Positive number indicates forecast was above actual total. Negative number indicates forecast was below actual total.

One season after averaging a 6.4-win divergence per team, my predictions deviated from the actual by 8.4 wins. In addition, the combination of exact predictions and “near misses” (defined as being within five wins of the actual total) plummeted all the way from 20 to 12. Meanwhile, projections that were “off the mark” (defined as a prediction 10 games or more from the actual total) increased from eight to 12. What’s more, the magnitude of those significant misses also increased. Whereas in 2010 my worst prediction was a 20-win divergence from the Padres’ final total, this year, two teams digressed from my forecast by at least 24 wins. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on ESPN?


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Before Spring Training, Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman labeled the Boston Red Sox as the team to beat. In September, everyone who played them seemed to agree.

In the past, Red Sox fans could blame misfortune on the Curse of the Bambino.

Thanks to a 7-20 record down the stretch, the Red Sox blew a nine game advantage over the Rays in the standings, thereby authoring the “greatest” final month collapse by any team in baseball history.  Since the fabled sale of Babe Ruth in 1919, such disappointment has been an integral part of life in Red Sox nation. From the Babe to Bucky to Buckner and Boone, the Red Sox have regularly been on the short-end of many historic moments. Now, you can add Baltimore to that list.

Of course, before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, all of the team’s most tragic moments could be explained away by the Curse of the Bambino. That one catchall was the perfect way for Red Sox fans to both retain their passion and their sanity. Because Boston has won two World Series since then, however, that security blanket has been stripped away. So, as Red Sox Nation begins to deal with the aftermath of the team’s September to misremember, below are a few suggestions for a new curse that the Fenway faithful can use once they are done with the four letter ones.


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Even though most studies suggest that incremental changes in batting order position have minimal impact on run production, each slot still carries a certain connotation. Leadoff is usually reserved for a player with speed, while cleanup is the domain of a slugger. The third position, however, is the slot usually reserved for a team’s best hitter. As the Yankees enter the 2011 post season, Joe Girardi has decided that Robinson Cano is the hitter on his team who best fits that description, at least against right handed pitchers.

Cano’s elevation in the lineup not only represents a promotion for the second baseman, but it also constitutes a partial demotion for Mark Teixeira, who has primarily occupied the role over the last three seasons. Most teams coasting into the playoffs with their league’s best record usually don’t make significant changes at the end of the season, but Girardi should be commended for his willingness to reverse course at such a late stage. With consecutive MVP-caliber seasons under his belt, Cano has firmly established himself as one of the American League’s best players and arguably the most feared hitter in the Yankees lineup. Meanwhile, Teixeira has seen his overall production decline, particularly from the left side. On that basis alone, the lineup adjustment seems warranted, but when you consider the relative post season performance of each player, the switch makes even more sense (although that’s more of an indictment of Teixeira than complement to Cano).

Mark Teixeira vs. Robinson Cano, Post Season Performance

Mark Teixeira 26 122 17 22 3 12 0.214 0.320 0.330
Robinson Cano 37 152 19 35 6 20 0.248 0.296 0.461

Source: baseball-reference.com

It remains to be seen whether Girardi’s lineup switch will be maintained after the 2011 post season,  but regardless, Teixeira has had a pretty good run in the three-hole. Since 1919, the Yankees have had 183 players bat third, but only eight have been penciled into that slot more than Teixeira. What’s more, Teixeira is one of only six Yankees to primarily bat third in three consecutive seasons.

Yankees Top-10 Third Place Hitters, Ranked by Games Started Since 1919

Source: Baseball-reference.com


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While the rest of New York City was busy drying off from another day-long downpour, the Red Sox were probably out singing in the rain. Because of last night’s postponement, Boston not only avoided another loss, but also shaved a game off their wild card magic number thanks to losses by both the Rays and Angels.

Unfortunately for Red Sox Nation, one night of rain doesn’t wash away the stench left behind by a 5-16 stretch since the start of September. And, that’s not the opinion of a Yankees’ fan. Just ask Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

That’s a sign of a (expletive) team. Good teams don’t go 5-16 in any month.”  – Dustin Pedroia, September 21, 2011, speaking after losing three of four games to the Orioles

The Red Sox' September swoon even has Dustin Pedroia questioning the team's ability.

With major league baseball on the cusp of 200,000 games played since 1876, it’s likely that several “good” teams have suffered through a stretch as futile as September has been for the Red Sox. However, it’s worth noting that in 2011, Boston is the only team with a winning record that has lost at least 16 of 21 games. The other franchises who have “accomplished” this ignominious feat include the Orioles, White Sox, Marlins, Astros, Royals, Twins, Pirates, Padres, and Mariners. That’s not exactly the company a champion should be keeping.

Before Red Sox Nation gets too down, however, they can look to 2000 Yankees for consolation. That year, the Bronx Bombers ended the season in the midst of a 5-16 slide, but, after losing the first game of the ALDS, rebounded to win the World Series. Although the Yankees had a stronger hold on a playoff spot before entering their end-of-year spiral, the idea that a team needs to be hot heading into October has widely been debunked by both anecdotal and more extensive evidence.

So, fear not Red Sox Nation. If Boston can hold on for the wild card, the team’s chances in the post season won’t necessarily be hampered by its dismal performance in September. Of course, the Red Sox will probably still need to win a few more games in order to make it. Otherwise, the Boston brain trust may be looking for new leadership and fans in the Nation may be looking for a new curse.

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The games played over the next week will determine the order in next June's Rule IV draft.

At the beginning of the month, it looked as if baseball had a pennant race problem. With the exception of first place in the AL West, every other playoff position was secured by at least a five game lead. Included among those “safe” teams were the Red Sox and Braves, who each enjoyed a nine game loss column advantage over their league’s fifth best team (Boston actually led the A.L. East by a game). Since then, however, both teams have suffered a September slide, breathing life into what had been shaping up as one of the most mundane pennant races in the wild card era.

Not every team can enjoy the thrill of a pennant race, but that doesn’t mean their games are meaningless. The Houston Astros have been an afterthought for most of the season, but with one more loss, the team will clinch the first pick in the 2012 Rule IV draft. Don’t expect champagne in the clubhouse, but if a Stephen Strasburg-type talent emerges, the team might be popping a few corks in the future.

Teams “Vying” for the Top Slots in the 2012 Draft

Houston Astros 53 101 0.344  –
Minnesota Twins 59 94 0.386 6.5
Baltimore Orioles 64 90 0.416 11
Seattle Mariners 65 89 0.422 12
San Diego Padres 67 88 0.432 13.5
Kansas City Royals 68 87 0.439 14.5
Chicago Cubs 68 87 0.439 14.5
Pittsburgh Pirates 69 86 0.445 15.5


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When it comes to strange bedfellows, politics has nothing on the 2011 American League playoff race.

With only 10 games left, the Yankees sit comfortably atop the A.L. East. Barring a historic collapse, the team is all but assured of making the post season and nearly as likely to be entering October as a division winner.  However, that doesn’t mean the Yankees are no longer involved in a pennant race. In fact, they are smack dab in the middle of a heated one.

Could this be the rallying cry of Yankees' fans next week in Tampa? (Photo:

The Yankees’ magic numbers are five to clinch the division and three to secure a playoff spot. Because all 10 of the team’s final games are against the Rays (seven) and Red Sox (three), Joe Girardi can’t rest on his laurels just yet, but if the Yankees are able to clinch sooner than later, it could set up a unique final week in which the Bronx Bombers are cast as both division champions and wild card spoilers.

With the Red Sox in the midst of a September free fall (the team has lost 15 of its last 20 games), the lonely eyes of Red Sox Nation have suddenly turned toward the Evil Empire for support. Even though five more games with the Orioles should boost morale somewhat, the depleted state of the Boston rotation likely means the Red Sox will need some help from their rival in order to hold off the Rays. In other words, for the next three days, diehard Sox fans will be pulling hard for the Yankees, even if they have to hold their noses while doing it.


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It's been "win day" when Verlander pitches for the Tigers (Photo: AP).

Justin Verlander continued his late season run of dominance by recording his 12th consecutive victory in Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over the Athletics. During that span, the Tigers’ right hander has compiled half of his league leading 24 victories, the highest total by an American League pitcher since Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990.

Even though more advanced metrics place Verlander in close proximity to other Cy Young contenders like CC Sabathia, Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, his inflated win total has all but assured he’ll go home with that award. What’s more, if the recent rumblings by voting members of the BBWAA are any indication, Verlander may need room on his mantle for more than just one piece of hardware.

Most Wins in a Single Season, Since 1990

Player Tm Year W L IP SO ERA ERA+
Bob Welch OAK 1990 27 6 238 127 2.95 126
Justin Verlander DET 2011 24 5 244 244 2.29 176
Randy Johnson ARI 2002 24 5 260 334 2.32 197
John Smoltz ATL 1996 24 8 253.2 276 2.94 149
Curt Schilling ARI 2002 23 7 259.1 316 3.23 142
Barry Zito OAK 2002 23 5 229.1 182 2.75 158
Pedro Martinez BOS 1999 23 4 213.1 313 2.07 243

Source: Baseball-reference.com

One often repeated fact used to advocate Verlander’s MVP candidacy is the Tigers’ 25-8 record in games that he pitches. According to the theory, the team’s comparative winning percentage (.758 with him versus .533 without) illustrates just how valuable Verlander has been to the Tigers’ division title, which makes him a leading choice for MVP. Of course, there are two obvious flaws in that logic. Obviously, without a contribution from the eight men behind him, Verlander would not have been able to compile such a high win total. Although Verlander has been the common denominator in the 33 games he has started, players like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and Jose Valverde also deserve a share of the credit for those victories. Secondly, even with a .533 winning percentage, the Tigers would lead the Central Division by three or four games. If the end justifies the means, then it could be argued that the Tigers haven’t needed Verlander as much as some have suggested. (more…)

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Before the Yankees’ adopted a six-man rotation at the end of July, the team’s starters had posted one of the lowest combined ERAs in the league. Since then, however, the Yankees’ rotation has ranked 9th in the league with a 4.85 ERA. Coincidence or correlation?

When Joe Girardi first decided to expand the rotation to six, it was presented as a temporary solution to the Yankees’ glut of starters. In reality, however, it was really a structure designed to keep the struggling A.J. Burnett in a starting role. Six weeks later, not only has Burnett continued to weigh on the team, but now it seems as if the efforts made to accommodate the erratic righty have brought the rest of the staff down with him.

Yankees’ Starters ERA vs. American League, by Defined Period (click to enlarge)

Note: Yankees began using six-man on July 30; August 1 used for comparison to league because of ease of calculation.
Source: fangraphs.com

Luckily, the Yankees’ offense produced at season-high levels during August and early September. As a result, the team’s winning percentage has actually been higher since the Yankees’ adopted the six-man rotation (.614 vs. .600). However, the end doesn’t justify the means. Not only could the Yankees have won even more games during this period, but the team now finds itself with a rotation in flux only two weeks before the start of the post season. The six-man rotation may have been designed to accomplish something, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what.


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Even though the value of wins has been somewhat discredited by the modern focus on sabermetrics, amassing 20 victories in one season remains a notable milestone for a starting pitcher.

Since 1901, 476 different pitchers have started at least one game for the Yankees, but only 35 have made it to the 20-win mark. Included among that group is CC Sabathia, who recorded 21 victories in 2010. Apparently not content with one such season, the Yankees’ ace has been at it again in 2011. As a result, the big lefty takes the mound tonight with the chance to make it back-to-back years with 20 victories.

Multiple 20-Win Seasons by Yankees’ Starters

Pitcher Seasons   Pitcher Seasons
Bob Shawkey 4   Carl Mays 2
Lefty Gomez 4   Herb Pennock 2
Red Ruffing 4   Russ Ford 2
Vic Raschi 3   Spud Chandler 2
Jack Chesbro 3   Tommy John 2
Mel Stottlemyre 3   Waite Hoyt 2
Ron Guidry 3   Whitey Ford 2
Andy Pettitte 2   CC Sabathia ?

Source: Baseball-reference.com

The Yankees have had 15 different pitchers win 20 games in at least two seasons, so if Sabathia is able to notch a victory in one of his final three starts, he’ll join a list that includes Hall of Famers like Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, and Whitey Ford. What’s more, by winning 20 games in consecutive seasons, Sabathia would become a member of even more select fraternity that includes only 10 pinstriped hurlers.

Consecutive 20-Win Seasons by Yankees’ Starters

    Combined Totals
Pitcher Years IP W SO ERA WHIP
Jack Chesbro 1903-1904 779 1/3 62 386 2.22 1.027
Russ Ford 1910-1911 581    48 367 1.95 1.017
Bob Shawkey 1919-1920 529    40 248 2.59 1.212
Carl Mays 1920-1921 648 2/3 53 162 3.05 1.236
Waite Hoyt 1927-1928 529 1/3 45 153 3.01 1.200
Lefty Gomez 1931-1932 508 1/3 45 326 3.47 1.302
Red Ruffing 1936-1939 1008    82 455 3.29 1.278
Vic Raschi 1949-1951 789 2/3 63 443 3.53 1.354
Mel Stottlemyre 1968-1969 581 2/3 41 253 2.65 1.155
Tommy John 1979-1980 541 2/3 43 189 3.19 1.217

Source: Baseball-reference.com


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The Red Sox’ bandwagon has slowly begun to empty as the team struggles through a nightmarish stretch during which it has lost six games to Tampa in the standings.  Fortunately, those abandoning the Boston ship have found passage on the Tigers’ pennant drive. Over the last three weeks, Detroit has won 16 of 20 games and built an insurmountable lead in the Central.

If the season ended today, the surging Tigers would meet the slumping Red Sox in the ALDS. Judging by the trending conventional wisdom, this clash of teams going in opposite directions would have Red Sox Nation tuning into the Patriots a lot earlier than expected, but should we rely on September records when handicapping post season series in October?

In a 2009 Baseball Prospectus post, Jay Jaffe looked at winning percentages over defined periods in September and found no meaningful correlation to various measures of post season success. However, the study did not distinguish between the relative records of opponents, nor any relationship between overall winning percentage and the rates compiled over the defined periods. In addition, Jaffe’s study was limited to post season series played since 1995. So, as a supplement to his work, the following incorporates the two aforemetioned variables into a breakdown of every first round post season series since 1969.

First Round Post Season Outcomes, Based on Relative Opponent Records (click to enlarge)

Note: Includes all first round post season series since 1969. Ranges refer to the winning percentage disparity between teams. A negative range indicates that a team with a lower record won the series.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and proprietary calculations

There have been 116 first round post season series since 1969 (LCS from 1969 to 1993 and LDS in 1981 as well as from 1995 to 2010). Of that total, 65 series (or 56%) were won by teams with the better regular season record, while in 58 (or 50%), the victor was the team with a better winning percentage in the final month. According to this data, the hottest team’s chances of winning in October were no better than a coin flip. However, if we assume those teams tend to be inferior (i.e., they have to win just to make the playoffs, while better teams have the luxury of resting their players down the stretch), then perhaps a 50/50 chance actually represents an enhancement?


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