Dissecting Three of Baseball’s Biggest Disappointments

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

A third of the way into the season, the scale of a team’s disappointing play can start to move from being just a passing funk to a defining theme. Perhaps no teams have been more disappointing in the early going than the Atlanta Braves, the Oakland A’s, and the Cleveland Indians.

Atlanta and Oakland are the darlings of different segments of the baseball industry – the Braves among old-school sensibilities, the A’s among a younger generation – but both were expected to contend for division titles. This winter and spring, the Indians were the trendy pick as a surprise contender to knock off the defending champion White Sox in the AL Central. But none of the three teams is above .500, and each can barely be described as contending. What’s gone wrong? The old adage is that victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan, and it would seem that all three of these teams have their share of deadbeat dads.

The Braves’ remarkable streak of 14 consecutive division titles is in serious jeopardy. The problem is that they’re beginning to resemble a parody of their established virtues. Long heralded as a club that builds ballclubs the old-fashioned way, the Braves’ new generation of young stars is showing up with warts that their ancestors lacked, leaving the team short of talent to do its traditional in-house upgrades.

Expectations that Jeff Francoeur could keep up with the Joneses have been premature, as the talented young outfielder has struggled to help put runs on the board. Francoeur’s 11 home runs show his power stroke is for real, but his obvious shortcomings – a .268 on-base average, five errors, and an 0-for-5 in stealing bases to name a few. New catcher Brian McCann looks more like the real deal, but he’s on the DL with an ankle injury, and nobody really expects him to slug .554 over a full season.

Worse yet, the vaunted reputation of Braves pitching seems to be dying off. It’s an open question as to whether former pitching coach Leo Mazzone could have fixed starting pitchers like Jorge Sosa, Kyle Davies, and John Thomson, who have a combined ERA of 5.28. All three rank among the worst starters in baseball in Support-Neutral Value Added, a statistic that rates pitchers for the wins above average they contribute. Combined, the trio has a SNVA of -2.7, holding their team back by a combined three wins in the early going, one of the worst marks of any threesome in baseball.

With Davies now gone for the season with a groin injury and Horacio Ramirez back from the DL, some improvement in this department may be in the offing, but Sosa and Thomson remain problems to be replaced.

The bullpen has long been a place where GM John Schuerholz has helped his team by buying relievers on the cheap, but in terms of performance, Chris Reitsma, Mike Remlinger, and Oscar Villarreal have blown a league leading 12 saves and rank as one of the worst late-inning trios in the game. The pitching problems have inspired Bobby Cox to call for 29 intentional passes in the early going (second most in baseball), an additional penalty of the uncertainty this staff has created.

On the stat-head-favorite side of the fence, things aren’t any better in Oakland. The Athletics can plausibly claim to be a victim of the same injury bug that wiped out the Dodgers last season, having lost two starting pitchers (Rich Harden and Esteban Loaiza), two relievers (Justin Duchscherer and Joe Kennedy), and two hitters (Milton Bradley and Bobby Crosby) for extended periods.

But that fails to explain the teamwide shortage of hitting on the A’s, and the club’s pitching problems have been exacerbated by the failures of hurlers like Kiko Calero (4.98 ERA) and Joe Blanton (5.21). Oakland ranks 25th in runs scored, and even with Bradley coming back from the DL this week, the A’s can’t afford season-long slumps from Dan Johnson (.209/.304/.324) or Jay Payton (.253/.272/.343). Between the injuries and the ineffectiveness, if you’re left trying to contend with Kirk Saarloos and Marco Scutaro, you’ve got a basic disconnect between your means and your ambitions.

The Indians’ failings might seem a little more perplexing. The Tribe ranks second in baseball in runs scored, and second in Equivalent Average, a rate stat that tells us how well a team is doing at the plate with adjustments for park and league effects. Offense isn’t the Indians’ problem, and that’s despite star shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s slow start (236/.321/.350).

After spending to replace Kevin Millwood in the rotation with Paul Byrd (4-4, 5.43 ERA) and Jason Johnson (3-5,5.92), starting pitching wasn’t expected to be a problem. The real price of paying $11 million to those two pitchers for this season over assuming the risk involved with paying Millwood $60 million for five years (only $6 million of it this year) isn’t the money, it’s the potential for mediocrity. This turn of events serves as an important cautionary reminder to every general manager that mid-market shopping for free agent pitching isn’t the best way to add quality. Johnson and Byrd aren’t great bets to suddenly become top starters, so the Indians have to hope for improvement in other areas.

Starter Jake Westbrook hasn’t done as badly as his 5.00 ERA might indicate, but when the bullpen allows 10 of the 11 baserunners he’s handed off to them to score, you get an idea of what else has gone wrong. The Indians’ pen problem may not be as extreme as Atlanta’s, but it hasn’t been an asset, and it’s safe to say that GM Mark Shapiro’s master plan did not involve letting mop-up man Jason Davis lead the team in relief innings pitched.

What hasn’t happened to the Indians is a repeat of last year’s misfortunes in one-run games. The Indians were a disappointing 22-36 in that scenario last season, which was enough to bring them back behind the White Sox and keep them out of the playoffs. This year, they’re 7-5 in those games, but that might be a function of the problems they’re having with their battered pen and mediocre rotation – they aren’t playing many one-run games. That total of a dozen one-run contests is the third-fewest in baseball, while in two- or three-run games, the Tribe is a combined 4-10.

Assuming they can field a better bullpen in the future, they might be able to narrow those margins and exploit their explosive offense, but that puts the onus on Shapiro to shop around, and fast.

Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art analysis, visit www.baseballprospectus.com.

The New York Sun

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