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Reviewing the 1999 Season

By Tom Tippett
September 18, 1999

In a couple of weeks, we'll all be caught up in analyzing the post-season matchups, and we'll begin to forget about some of the other interesting stories from the summer of 1999. So this seems like a good time to take a quick look at how the 1999 has season turned out so far.

As many of you know, each spring we publish a set of projections for the season that is about to be played. Those projections are developed using a system that evaluates each player's performance over the past three years. Then we take those player projections and use the Diamond Mind Baseball software to simulate 20 seasons and average the results to come up with projected team standings and some underlying stats such as runs for and against for each team.

The goal of this approach is to see how strong each team looks on paper. In other words, if each player performs this year as he has in the past three, after adjusting for age and park effects and the like, this approach will tell us roughly how the teams will stack up against one another.

Of course, the real season never turns out the way it looks like it will back in March, and that's a big reason why baseball and other sports are so much fun. Some teams will get more than their share of injuries, while others are blessed with career years from unexpected sources. Teams will fall out of the race and decide to trade current talent for prospects, often but not always diminishing their chances for a rebound down the stretch. Players will come out of nowhere. Managers will get fired, some deservedly, some taking the blame for problems higher up in the organization.

Starting right after Thanksgiving, we'll be publishing -- on the Diamond Mind web site and on ESPN.com -- a series of 30 team reviews, each of which takes a careful look at how 1999 turned out for the team and its 20-25 key players. (By the way, if you're interested, you can find last year's team reviews, last year's projection results, our 1999 projections, and a description of our projection system on our web site.)

In the meantime, here are some of the things that have struck me about this baseball campaign. (Statistics are through the games of September 17.)

Overall scoring remains up

Back in March, we discovered that our computers were predicting that scoring would be up 1-2% from last year. But the increase was larger than expected, especially in the NL. Through September 17, AL teams had scored 212 more runs (15 per team) and NL teams 840 more runs (53 per team) than we projected. That's an increase of 2% in the AL and 7.6% in the NL compared to our projections, and something like 3% and 9% compared to last year. Both of these percentages were a little higher at the all-star break, so things have leveled off slightly in the second half.

Rating the offenses...

The average NL team has scored 53 more runs than expected, but a few teams have done much better than that. The Phillies are 139 runs ahead of their projected pace thanks to big years from Bob Abreu, Mike Leiberthal, Doug Glanville, and Scott Rolen (when healthy). Arizona is no longer leading the league in scoring, but they're still second and are now 119 runs ahead of their projected pace, with most of the credit due to Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Jay Bell and Matt Williams (and the ability to keep their key offensive guys healthy all year). The Mets, Pirates, and Giants are each more than 90 runs ahead of where they appeared to be in the spring.

Not every team has participated in the rising tide of NL offenses, however. The Cubs are down 59 runs, with CF Lance Johnson missing half the season and the starters at 2B (Morandini), SS (Alexander) and 3B (Gaetti) and their reserves giving the team almost no production in support of Sosa's homer binge. Interestingly, the other disappointing offense belongs to the other team with a homerun king, as the Cardinals are currently 49 runs under their projection. With the average team up 53 runs, this means that the Cubs and Cards are both 100+ runs behind where they ought to be given their talent.

The biggest offensive surprise in the AL belongs to the Indians. They're up 89 runs even though they were projected to finish second in the league in the first place. Led by Manny Ramirez, Roberto Alomar, Richie Sexson and Omar Vizquel, they've been hitting on all cylinders from day one. With the additions of rookies Carlos Febles, Carlos Beltran and Jeremy Giambi, we figured the Royals would be respectable this year, rising from 714 runs scored last year to 780 this year. They've blown past that figure with fourteen games to go. Beltran and Febles have delivered on their promise, and Giambi has contributed after missing the first couple of months, but the surprises have come from returning players such as Joe Randa, Jermaine Dye, Mike Sweeney, and Johnny Damon. Out west, Texas (Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez) and Oakland (Tony Phillips, John Jaha) have both produced 50+ runs more than expected.

On the other hand, Anaheim has been dismal (-149 runs) due to injury (Jim Edmonds, Mo Vaughn) and ineffectiveness (Erstad). The Tigers, down 42 runs, are the next biggest disappointment.

...the pitching...

Before the season started, it appeared that the Braves (what else is new?), Dodgers, and Mets would hold down the top three spots in team ERA in the NL. Behind that group was a cluster of five teams projected to allow between 730 and 740 runs. From that group, two of the biggest upside surprises have emerged. Arizona and Houston are 1-2 in the league (Atlanta's breathing down their necks) with staffs that have allowed about 60 runs fewer than projected thus far. Randy Johnson has been awesome for Arizona, but a large contribution has been made by the D-backs bullpen. Yes, the bullpen. A lot has been made of the fact that they blew a lot of saves early in the season and traded for closer Matt Mantei at the trade deadline. But Arizona has the second-best relief ERA in the league, and currently have six relievers with ERAs under 3.65. For Houston, Mike Hampton has been the most notable among several hurlers who have stepped up their games this year.

On the other end of the scale are the Dodgers. Entering the season, they looked to have one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball, led by free agent Kevin Brown and featuring four other starters who pitched well in 1998. Brown has been mortal, Ismael Valdes and Darren Dreifort inconsistent, and Chan Ho Park and Carlos Perez have been poor to brutal. The result: 134 more runs allowed than expected. Much less was expected from the Cubs, who were projected to be only 13th in staff ERA, but they've been far worse than even that lowly ranking. They're actually 15th, but the drop of two places in the rankings obscures the fact that they've allowed 126 more runs than expected.

The Red Sox are currently second in the AL in runs allowed, trailing the Yankees by only six runs, thanks to a tremendous season from Pedro Martinez, another good year from Bret Saberhagen's suspect shoulder, and a series of strong contributions from unexpected sources (Pat Rapp, Tim Wakefield as an effective closer, Kent Mercker, Juan Pena, Rich Garces). The second-biggest surprise has been Minnesota. Projected to be last in pitching, they've received some nice efforts from guys like Joe Mays and are currently 8th in the league in runs allowed. Oakland has been another pleasant surprise, with the sudden emergence of Joe Hudson and two successful trade-deadline acquisitions (Kevin Appier, Omar Olivares). The White Sox were a huge surprise early, but they've dropped all the way back to 11th in the league.

Seattle leads the list of disappointing staffs. We thought they'd be much better this year with the addition of some young arms (John Halama, Brent Hinchliffe, Freddy Garcia) to augment veterans such as Jamie Moyer, Mark Leiter, and Butch Henry. But the latter two were lost for almost the entire season, and Hinchliffe flamed out early and spent most of the year on the farm. The good news is that Halama and Garcia have indeed made strong debuts. Cleveland and Tampa Bay have each allowed 80+ more runs than expected. For the Indians, Jaret Wright and Dwight Gooden have struggled (bet they wish they'd kept Orel Hershiser now), while Tampa Bay thought they'd get a lot more from Rolando Arrojo.

...and the teams

Five teams have won nine or more games than projected through September 17th. It should come as no surprise that Arizona heads the list with 13 wins more than they were projected to produce to this point, since we've already mentioned them as the #2 surprise team in both offense and pitching. Oakland is next (+12 wins) with mid-level surprises on both sides of the ball. The Red Sox, at +10, have done it all with pitching. Cincinnati and Texas are both +9, with both squads making solid gains both ways.

Five teams are behind their projected pace by 11 or more wins. The Dodgers and Angels are -16, the Cubs -15, and the Tigers and Cardinals -11. As previously noted, LA made this list because its pitching staff self-destructed, the Cards and Angels because they couldn't score, and the Tigers because they came up a little short offensively and defensively. The Cubs have been awful both ways, but their offense has actually been the bigger culprit. The average team has scored 53 runs more than expected but the Cubs are down 59 for a swing of 112 runs.

One of the great baseball myths is that pitching is 80% (or some other large number) of baseball. There's lots of evidence showing that pitching and defense in fact make up about half of baseball. These results are another good example. Of these ten teams, three (Boston, LA, Arizona) are where they are mostly because of pitching, three mostly because of offense (Anaheim, St. Louis, Chicago), and four with more or less equal contributions from both sides.

Where did that come from?

I want to take a few moments to mention some of the guys who have caught my attention for one reason or another. As I flipped through the stat sheets this weekend, lots of performances made me think, "Hmmm. He's having a good year." I could try to mention all of them, but what I really want to do is talk about the guys who made me think, "Whoa! Where did that come from?"

Entering the season, a lot of people were expecting great things from the Orioles. Among the reasons that we weren't nearly as optimistic was that Cal Ripken was coming off two years in which his power production just wasn't acceptable for a 3B. This year has been unusual in two respects. He missed about half the year with injuries and he's tearing it up at the plate -- a .336 average and more homers (18) in a half season than in each of his last two full seasons. Could anyone have predicted this?

From 1996 to 1998, Rickey Henderson's batting averages were .241, .248, and .236. Of course, he was still contributing in other ways -- 340 walks, 295 runs, 148 steals -- but it seemed that time was running out on this future hall-of-famer. Now, at age 41, he's hitting over .320 with moderate power and still doing all of those other things well. Amazing.

Chad Allen posted modest numbers in AA ball last year (.262, 8 HR) at the relatively advanced age of 23. On that basis, we were surprised when he made the Twins opening day roster. And because his minor-league numbers normally correspond to minimal power and a major-league average of a little over .200, I've been waiting for him to go into a deep slump and get sent back down. But he started strong and has faded only a little, earning over 400 ABs and putting up better numbers in the majors than he did in AA ball the past two years.

Through 1998, Joe Mays of the Twins had accumulated only 57 mediocre innings at the AA level after spending most of three seasons in A ball. So there didn't appear to be much of a reason to expect him to make an impact this year, despite a consistently good strikeout-to-walk ratio. Early in the season, he was nothing special out of the pen, but then he suddenly put together a string of strong performances after being put into the rotation in mid-June. Hitters seem to have figured him out over the past month, but there's no denying that he gave the Twins a lot more than I expected this year.

Last year, in his first season at AA, Tim Hudson allowed 207 baserunners in 134 innings after dominating in 65 A-ball innings before that. We sure didn't see anything in this record to suggest that he would be called up mid-season and go 10-2, putting the A's in the thick of the wildcard race and himself on the short list of rookie of the year candidates.

Edgardo Alfonzo has steadily added homerun power over the past three seasons and it's finally reached the point where he's starting to get noticed for it -- .308 with 25 homers, 102 RBI, and 75 walks. He never hit more than 15 homers in any minor-league season, but that's not surprising in light of the shorter minor-league seasons and the fact that he was only 20 years old when he made the jump to AA and 21 when he was called up by the Mets.

Phil Nevin and Jason Varitek are former collegians who were drafted #1 and then drifted off the radar screen. Until now. In his first four seasons, Nevin managed to hit a decent number of homers (27 in about 750 atbats) but made little contact and didn't do enough other things well to land a regular job. Drafted as a 3B, he was forced to learn how to catch in order to hold on to a utility job. Nevin wasn't expected to play much this year either, but earned 337 atbats filling in at 3B, C and 1B. With a .276 average, 44 walks, 24 homers, and 81 RBI in a little more than a half season, and a new contract extension, Nevin appears to be the leading candidate to start at 3B for the Padres next year.

Varitek got off to a slow start when he held out for a big contract after being drafted by the Mariners. They called his bluff, and he ended up holding out long enough for his skills to disappear. By the time he made it to the big leagues in 1997, he didn't seem to have much to offer, and the M's were willing to part with him and Derek Lowe in the lopsided 1997 trade for Heathcliff Slocumb. Even the Red Sox didn't seem to expect much, trading Aaron Sele for Jim Leyritz after the 1997 campaign ended. But Varitek worked very hard on his game, and it took Jimy Williams only about a week of spring training to decide that Varitek was a better catcher than Leyritz. Varitek platooned with Scott Hatteberg last year, and after Hatteberg got hurt early this season, Varitek found himself as the everyday catcher. And he's blossomed into a well-regarded receiver with offensive skills that are good -- .272, 18 homers, and 69 RBI -- and getting better all the time.

To the question, "Where did that come from?", the answer for the next two guys is North and South. The story of Jeff Zimmerman has been well chronicled, and I don't really have anything to add. But no list of surprises would be complete without mentioning how this undrafted Canadian paid his own way to a tryout with the independent Northern League, where he won rookie pitcher of the year and still had to fax his resume to every major league team before finding a job in the bigs. He was so dominant out of the Rangers bullpen (that he forced his way onto the AL all-star team, a feat rarely accomplished by a reliever who's not a closer. Even with a recent pair of bad outings, Zimmerman has allowed only 70 runners in 84 innings with an ERA of 2.13.

Representing the South is Erubial Durazo, a Mexican who went unnoticed while attending high school and community college in Arizona. He bounced around various semi-pro and amateur leagues in Mexico before emerging in 1998 with a .350 average and 19 homers. In AA and AAA ball this year, all he did was hit over .400 with 24 homers and 83 RBI in less than four months. By late July, he'd taken the Diamondbacks 1B job away from super-phenom Travis Lee and kept it by hitting over .300 with 11 homers, or about one every 11 atbats.

Keith Foulke has quietly had one of the best middle relief seasons of the year. Acquired by the White Sox in the much-talked-about 1997 trade with the Giants -- the one in which the Sox threw in the towel by trading three key players for a boatload of prospects despite being only 3-1/2 games out of the division lead -- Foulke has been paying dividends for two years. He's posted a 2.20 ERA, allowed only 86 runners in 98 innings, posted a K:BB ratio of five and a half, and collected 8 saves.

When the Marlins traded Matt Mantei to Arizona in July, Antonio Alfonseca got the closer job in Miami. Alfonseca isn't nearly as spectacular as Mantei (who's been striking out well over a batter an inning), but he's been quite effective nonetheless, allowing only 3 homers all year and walking many fewer hitters than Mantei did. The result: 17 saves in a little over two months in the closer role, and he's cut his ERA in half to 3.34 since May 17th.

(By the way, baseball people like to say that it takes a special player to close games, that some guys can't take the pressure. It seems to me, however, that a quick review of the past few seasons will uncover a lot of guys who have been thrust into this role and have succeeded right away. Alfonseca, Kelvim Escobar, Billy Koch, Matt Karchner, Bob Wickman, Tim Wakefield, Tom Gordon, Doug Jones, Mark Leiter, and Foulke are just a few who come to mind without much effort. Of course, some guys do fail in this role, but some guys fail in every role. I just don't think the closer job is nearly as tough as it's made out to be.)

We all laughed when Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo signed Jay Bell to a four-year contract worth something like $30m a couple of years ago. Well, at least I did. I've always liked Bell. He's been a very good defensive player (one of the best that nobody ever talks about) and produces well for a middle infielder. But I definitely thought the money was way over the top for a guy who was 32 years old at the time. Well, Mr. Colangelo gets the last laugh, at least for now, with Bell torching NL pitchers for a .276 average, 35 homers, 103 RBI, and 72 walks. Not bad for a second baseman, even in this era.

Deivi Cruz had been the Rey Ordonez of the American League -- good field, no hit -- for two seasons. Well, that's not quite true, because he hasn't been as good a fielder or as bad a hitter as Ordonez. But you get the idea. Imagine my surprise when I looked up last week and there was Cruz leading the AL for the week in batting average and home runs. On a team that has been struggling at the plate all year, Cruz has quietly raised his average to .283 and belted 12 dingers, good for a slugging percentage of .426, which is not far below the league average. The only hint of power in his previous seasons was a total of 9 homers in 517 atbats in single A ball in 1996, so this little burst of muscle has come out of nowhere.

I'm sorry I don't have time to write about all the other guys who are having very good years. A number of established players -- Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Luis Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez -- have taken it up a notch. There are plenty of talented young players -- Magglio Ordonez, Derek Jeter, Shawn Green, Sean Casey, Carl Everett, Mike Hampton, Mike Lieberthal, Brian Giles, Bobby Abreu, Kevin Millwood -- having breakout seasons. A few older players -- Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, Ellis Burks -- who've recaptured some of their past glory. And some impressive rookies or near-rookies -- Scott Williamson, Preston Wilson, Russ Ortiz, Freddy Garcia -- have gotten their careers off to a good start. But the guys I chose were the ones who've stood out most in my mind during the 1999 season.

No surprise here

Other notable 1999 events cannot be considered surprises.

Before the season, many people were writing that Albert Belle would threaten the homerun record in the cozy confines of Camden Yard, but knowing that his new park has increased homers by only 5% for right-handed batters, we projected him to finish with 41 homers. He's on pace for 37.

The Rockies management paid big bucks for Brian Bohanon, who was coming off one good year in the past three, and that one good year was compiled in good pitchers' parks. We projected him for a 5.59 ERA in the thin air of Colorado, and he currently stands at 5.79. Last year, they did the same thing with Darryl Kile, with the same result. They also fired manager Don Baylor for failing to meet expectations with a team that in fact finished with exactly the same number of wins that we projected for them based on their talent. This year, we projected the Rockies for finish fourth with 79 wins and speculated that new manager Jim Leyland could be in for a disappointing season. Now the GM has resigned and Leyland has all but announced his retirement after the season.

In April, I took Dodgers GM Kevin Malone to task for his patently absurd statements about Mark Grudzielanek. It made me wonder if he really believed what he was saying or if he was simply trying to pump this guy up to sell more tickets. Malone has gone on to make several other silly comments over the course of the season. Please understand that I'm not blaming Malone for the complete failure of half his starting rotation. But his team has gone on to win the award for "worst season from a projected division winner". Makes me wonder whether he's the right guy to figure out what to do next.

Last year, Phil Garner almost lost his job because the Brewers failed to contend in his first full year as manager. Never mind that the team didn't really have that much talent to begin with (we projected them to finish 5th, and that's what they did). This year, we projected the Brewers to finish last with 70 wins. Through the all-star break, they were hitting much better than expected and were 5 games ahead of their projected pace. Naturally, Garner got fired shortly thereafter. Some teams just refuse to believe that they just don't have the talent to contend and that they're more than a player or two away.

Finally, Kent Bottenfield made the all-star team and has a 4.05 ERA and a 17-7 record. It wasn't clear he'd make the rotation this year, but we projected him for a 3.98 ERA, based on allowing about a hit an inning, a homer every nine innings, and about 3.5 walks per nine innings. He's actually allowed 1.1 hits and four walks per nine innings and given up a homer every nine innings. In other words, he's done just about what his record over the past three years said he would do. His impressive win-loss reflects the fact that he's pitched pretty well and benefited from the best run support of any Cardinals starter.

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