Local Blogger Celebrates Hot Streak with Stats and Confusing References
by Mark T.R. Donohue
OK, how awesome is Jeff Francis? So awesome.
Blogs are all about instant history, reacting so immediately to the day's news that perspective and caution never arrive to drag down to the party. Will the Rockies' fourth consecutive win against a recent NL pennant winner go down as the moment a surprisingly hot start turned into something substantial? Are baseball fans nationwide canceling their orders for Chris Shelton jerseys and sizing Brad Hawpe shirts instead? One of the reasons that baseball is, at last count, something like a million billion times better than football is we don't get to sit around and talk about how great our team is for a week after a win like Monday night's. The Rockies have to go out and play again tomorrow, and the next day. As it so happens, tomorrow Colorado's worst starter faces off against St. Louis's best guy. If they lose, well, then they go out and they try and win the next one. If the Rockies' heads are still above water at the All-Star Break, perhaps then we consider taking a few days to gloat. Between the tedium of the NFL Draft and the NBA Playoffs (how broken is this league when maybe three of the alleged sixteen best teams in the world play any defense whatsoever even in playoff games), it's ever so relieving to have baseball, where the weight of statistics collected over a 162-game season seldom lie. It's May, so it's fun to pretend that the shouting prowess of Jim Leyland can turn a fair Detroit Tigers team into contenders, but usually by September these things work themselves out. Then, of course, we have the postseason, which brilliantly produces the kind of sample size oddities that keep the sports publishing industry indefinitely humming. (I'm still reading that Clemente book, so the first one I think of is of course the 1960 World Series, won in seven games by a Pittsburgh team that was outscored by the Yankees by something like 500 runs.)
So what do the stats say? ("Tell your statistics to shut up.") Well, by run differential, Colorado (+13) isn't even the best team in the NL West. That would be Arizona at +32. The Dodgers (+12) are underperforming slightly. San Francisco (-31) is crummy. The Padres, after a very poor start, have rocketed back into the discussion with a nine-game winning streak, completing their already-reported sweep of the Cubs today. They are all even, 134 scored, 134 allowed. I'll go on record right now as saying that this will be the high-water mark of the season for San Diego. They had a hot May last season, and we all know how that turned out. Their win streak has come at the expense of the wounded Dodgers, lousy Giants, and self-pitying Cubs. (If you'll excuse me on a wild tangent for a moment, one possible upside of Clint Hurdle's mania for sacrifice bunts and its illusory correlation to the Rockies' improved performance this season is that Hurdle will almost certainly be around for 2007. This means that Colorado is safe from the terrifying prospect of a Dusty Baker hire after Dusty gets run out of Chicago on a rail this fall. Sure, the Monforts are a little too penurious to be considered serious suitors for a manager of Baker's "stature," but it's less far-fetched than you think. Remember, somehow both the Rockies and Cubs organizations felt that Don Baylor was of suitable managerial timber.)
Let's cruise over to one of my favorite links on the whole durned InterWeb, the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report. BP's projections, which go significantly beyond the simple RS-RA derivation of Bill James' Pythagorean Formula, consider the Rockies to be a slight favorite in the NL West chase. That might simply be because they hold the lead at the moment, but if you'd told me before the season started that Colorado had a 44.6% chance of making the playoffs, I would have been one happy fellow. What's even more interesting about the results of BP's system, which simulates the rest of the schedule 1,000,000 times with the teams' performance based on their 2006 stats to this point, is the average number of wins for the NL West winner. They have it at 94.2. That's a lot more than 82. It's 12.2 more, in fact. The last place team in the NL West, by contrast, finishes at 69.3 wins on average. That's the highest among the last-place teams in the six divisions. In all the discussion about the fine races shaping up at the tops of some of the more well-regarded divisions, it's gone somewhat unnoticed that only the NL West lacks a complete dog. The AL East has Tampa Bay, the AL Central the Royals, the AL West the Mariners, the NL East the Marlins, and the NL Central the Pirates. San Francisco is not a good team this year, but they're an order of magnitude better than any of that group. Plus, the entire ESPN empire is not cutting live into Royals games every time their leftfielder comes up to bat. (Although perhaps they should. You never know what Emil Brown is going to do next.)
OK, I'm getting a migraine from alt-tabbing between all of these tables and the little calculator application. (Hey, whoever it was that came up with the idea of putting a button for the calculator program on my keyboard, you are awesome. The next model should have a "disguise porn folder" button too.) What do we know about the Rockies that makes us feel good about the next 129 games? (OK, had to use the calculator one more time there.) I think two things stand out more than any other, and both have to do with pitching. Which is still crazy. The Rockies! And pitching! OK, don't freak out on me now. First, Colorado has rotation depth. The front four is as good as we thought it could be and might be on its way to being, um, better than that. Josh Fogg is fine for the time being. If Fogg pumpkins, or one of the Jennings/Cook/Francis/Kim group gets sidelined by injury, Miguel Asencio and Sun-Woo Kim have demonstrated in their careers as Rockies that they can get major league hitters out at an acceptably average clip. This is great news. Jamey Wright and Joe Kennedy were lousy last year but stayed in the rotation far longer than they should have for lack of any more appealing options. Plus, well, I don't know how much I believe in baseball karma but Shawn Chacon just couldn't win a game to save his life for Colorado last year. If he allowed two runs, the Rockies would score one. This year's squad has proved quite adept at bailing out starters in need thus far. It'd be really great if Colorado's starters didn't have a 7.91 ERA in the first inning, but I feel fairly confident that Bob Apodaca is working on that.
The second thing we've got that makes me feel like a postseason berth is more than a fever dream is the scourge of Chase Utley's existence, T-Rex himself, new dad Brian Fuentes. I could quote you voluminous amounts of extremely well-researched material explaining that the "closer" label is a myth and leverage this and marginal return that, but on the other hand: being punched in the gut is no fun. Losing a game that you led going into the ninth inning is like being punched in the gut, poked in the eye, and then finding out your boyfriend has been consorting with vampire hookers behind your back. Brian Fuentes is not going to do us like that. He's death on lefties, he keeps the ball in the park, and his motion is tremendous fun to try and repeat at parties when you're a little tipsy.
I don't want to slight the gains that the Colorado offense has made from last year. Cory, Brad, Garrett, Matt, you know I love you guys. But after all of the many hours I spent as a kid throwing a tennis ball into a strike zone marked out with duct tape on my parent's garage, I remain convinced that good pitching beats good hitting.
Arizona starters: Brandon Webb, Orlando Hernandez, Miguel Batista, Claudio Vargas, Juan Cruz. Closer: Jose Valverde.
Los Angeles starters: Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Brett Tomko, Jae Seo, Aaron Sele. Closer: Danys Baez.
San Diego starters: Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Woody Williams, Chan Ho Park, Clay Hensley. Closer: Trevor Hoffman.
San Francisco starters: Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Matt Cain, Jamey Wright(!), Brad Hennessey. Closer: Armando Benitez.
Colorado starters: Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Byung-Hyun Kim, Josh Fogg. Closer: Brian Fuentes.