Posts Tagged ‘Park Factors’

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Battered in Arlington

January 21, 2009

Keith Law, ESPN’s chief scouting analyst, published his rankings of MLB farm systems today. As expected, the Texas Rangers, who have been stockpiling talent for years, ranked first. (Sorry, soul sucking membership on ESPN Insider required. ) The last section of Law’s breakdown of Texas’ minor league system got me thinking:

Whether this translates into major league success for Texas largely will come down to the young pitching: Can these pitchers succeed in the Rangers’ ballpark, and can they stay healthy? If so, the wave of arms coming through Texas over the next five years will give the Rangers the best chance in their history to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.

This comment got me thinking about the difficulty of building a pitching staff in a hostile run environment. Based on ESPN’s park factors, The Ballpark at Arlington/Ameriquest Field is the most offense-happy park in the majors, beating out the bandboxes in Cincinnati and Philadelphia (indeed, this year Philadelphia was almost neutral!) and the notorious Coors Field in mile-high Denver. Arlington produces 14% more runs than an average park, and 23% more home runs. It’s not a fun place to be a pitcher. Is winning in a hostile pitching environment much harder?

This question might seem silly, because the run environment affects both teams. Why should it be harder to win in Texas or Colorado than in a more neutral park such as Cleveland or an extreme pitcher’s park such as PETCO in San Diego? I think winning in extreme hitters parks is more difficult because of the difficulty in acquiring premium starting pitching these  organizations face.

Crowded rotations

What makes pitching different than hitting? Having a star makes a bigger impact in a pitching rotation than in a lineup. A stud starting pitcher plays more than his rotation peers (by virtue of contributing more innings), and occupies one of a smaller number of spots than would a batter/fielder. The effect of this limited number of spots is amplified in the playoffs, when teams shorten their rotations and sometimes go with as few as three starters.  A team can earn an extra win in value with a ninth (or eighth in the NL) of a win in contribution from each of their batter/fielders, but in the regular season they would need a fifth of a win from each starter. The necessary contribution becomes that much more in the playoffs, where a team would need a third of a win per starter (I’m leaving relievers out for the time being to simplify the discussion, but even if we included them, each starter would still need to two ninths of a win in the playoffs). Having an elite starting pitcher lets you get that much more contribution out of a very scarce roster spot.

The future for Texas

Teams can acquire players by three means. They can sign them as amateurs (via draft or international signing), they can trade for them (using major- or minor-league talent), or they can sign them as professional free agents (including posting from Japan).  Texas has done a great job of acquiring top prospects through signings and trades, but they have not been able to acquire any elite free agent starters in quite a long time. Part of this problem is due to Texas’ bad play, which has made the team an unpopular destination for free agents of all stripes. I think there is a bigger factor at work here, however.

Imagine that Texas had made the playoffs last year (as I expect them to do in 2011) in a manner similar to the Rays. Their young arms overperformed, and the team rode hot hitting to take the AL West. In the offseason, Texas decides that what they need to get over the hump is a veteran ace starter. They offer an enormous deal to C.C. Sabathia, who is weighing his options. If I’m Greg Genske, who is Sabathia’s agent, I’m discouraging him from signing in Texas.

Playing in a hardcore pitcher’s park is an earnings and awards killer. Five years in Texas would kill C.C.’s potential earnings in his next contract, as the raw, non-park-adjusted stats he would accumulate would make negotiating a big future deal difficult. C.C. would get cheated out of Cy Young and most importantly, Hall of Fame voting, as writers would use his Texas-inflated ERA or lowered win totals as evidence that he was not as good a pitcher. (the high run environment means that leads swing more often, so he’d likely lose more wins after being relieved in Texas than elsewhere) If I’m a guy with a claim to be The Best Pitcher in Baseball(TM), I would only want to play in places that help or at least don’t hurt my chances for riches or fame, all things being equal. Texas would have to make a much better offer than any other suitors to convince me to face that ballpark once a week. If writers and (most) front offices really thought hard about the effects of park environments on performance, this kind of consideration wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, the age of ignorance is upon us.

Conclusion

Texas will likely assemble a very good pitching staff at some point in the next three years just from their farm, but it will be very difficult to create a staff that is consistently good solely from farm products. When elite free agents are not an option, your farm has to be very bountiful, and you need a little bit of luck. Young pitching is a very uncertain commodity, and it’s risky to rely heavily on it. A perfect example of the consequences of bad luck would be the 2008 Yankees. They decided to rely on two young, untested, but highly regarded pitchers, both of whom had a solid minor league track record. Their plan placed them out of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade as Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were no-shows, and the Yankees had no suitable  fallback options.

Tampa was lucky this year, when all of their very good young pitchers played well in the same season. If Tampa wants to remain competitive year after year in the next five or six years while they have this current cohort of players under their control, they will probably have to add a free agent starter or get lucky with someone else’s waiver trash. Texas will probably have at least one or two years where their pitchers will all click at the same time, but relying on their stocked farm alone will make consistently contending in the AL West a difficult venture.

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