Reality Check :: Silver Lining

This is the begining of what will be a fixture here on the Confines. For the last few seasons, various figures in the baseball world have launched a campaign to convince the world that Billy Beane and his sabermetrics are ruining the game of baseball. Paul De Podesta has come under the same attacks (although oddly enough, not Theo Epstein. I guess if you win all is forgiven) for the moves he's made with the Dodgers. The purpose of this column is to look, honestly, at the record, at the statistics, and at the payroll, to see if these men are indeed crazy, or if they are crazy like foxes.

From time to time I may invite the other Confines writers to join in this series. I am by far the most sabermetric-minded of the group. Brooks walks the line between traditional wisdom and the 'new baseball math', and Aho is firmly of the old guard, though he does keep up with the newer stats.

So, without further ado, the first edition of ... Reality Check.

The Oakland Athletics have had a disappointing begining to their season, last in their division at 9 and 11. Even worse, the A's have a team batting average of .229, dead last in the majors and haven't scored in the last 22 innings. There is no point in talking about the Dodgers right now, as there is nothing to critique or quantify. I don't think they are a team that is good enough to keep up this pace all season, which would get them 110 wins. 100, however, is not out of the question.

The A's have signs for encouragement, though. They are sixth for ERA (3.65) thus far and if the offense pulls it together, they should be able to make a run at winning their division in what is a rebuilding year. Even if you hate the A's (which I find personally hard to imagine, but to each their own) you can't believe that Chavez won't improve on his .171/.256/.276 ([BA/OBP/SLG] career .274/.352/.497), that Jason Kendall wont improve on .233/.300/.274 (career .305/.386/.415). Durazo .203/.286/.275 (career .282/.383/.489) and Byrnes .182/.250/.364 (career .268/.333/.457) will also move back towards normal as the season goes on, and Crosby is on the DL. When all of this is taken into account and the A's find themselves only three off the division lead , they've got every reason to be optimistic.

The pitching staff has carried this ball club so far, with 7 pitchers with sub-2.10 ERAs and 6 with ERAs of 1.75 or below. These 7 account for nearly 82 innings of the 175 thrown this year. They also have nearly 40 innings from pitchers with ERAs less than 1. The bright spots are obviously Joe Blanton and Rich Harden. Harden has the lowest ERA in the AL (like Clemens, only one ER on the season), and his K/9 is 9.3. He has stepped up in a big way from last year. Blanton threw a fantastic game on Sunday Night Baseball this week. He made one bad pitch to Steve Finley in the seventh and lost because of it. Finley jumped on it and sent it flying into the right-centerfield seats.
Blanton's line for the game:
8.0 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO.
For the year:
25.2 IP, 18 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 6 BB, 7 SO.
The important thing to note about Blanton is his experience, or lack thereof. Last year he threw eight innings in the majors. Eight. None of those were in starts, and he's shutting down the Angel's lineup four starts into the season. Just ignore his 0-2 record, because it doesn't mean a damn thing. This guy could be very, very good.

Zito has proved himself an enigma this season, once again. If you take out his horrible start against the Devil Rays, his ERA is 4.68, which is not great, but respectable. He's also had two good starts that have been marred by late declines, both of which have come against very good lineups, the Angels on the 15th and the white hot White Sox yesterday. Against Anaheim he threw eight strong innings, only surrendering two runs in the seventh. Last night against the Sox, Zito threw six scoreless, but gave up four in the seventh. In both starts he threw just over 115 pitches.The splits from ESPN's stat page paint a clear picture of what is happening. Zito is tiring in the later innings and pressing to make pitches. In the first inning, batters are hitting .167 off him. Innings one through three, .276; innings four through six, .196. The problem comes in the seventh, eighth and ninth, when he's being hit at a .467 clip. It's is even more obvious looking at average by pitch counts. From 76 to 90, batters are only hitting .143, but from 91 to 105 they're hitting .357. Slugging also jumps from .143 to .429. With the strength the A's have in the bullpen, if I was managing I'd keep Zito on a short leash and pull him before he got into the mid 90s for pitch counts. Working the bullpen for an extra inning every fourth or fifth day is certianly worth the wins, and worth getting Zito's confidence back up. I already mentioned Crosby on the DL, but A's bullpen staple Chad Bradford could be back as soon as mid-June to help as well. The Angels should fear this team, because for as badly as they're playing, they're still in the thick of things, and they are very, very likely to improve.

In a few weeks, we'll check back on the boys in green and yellow, as well as the boys in blue. There's not much to say about the Dodgers right now, except that Hee Seop Choi is hiting (a predictable) .205, but with Kent and Bradley over .350, it doesn't really matter. Just remember, baseball fans, the three most important things in statistics are sample size, sample size, and sample size.

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