Friday, February 9, 2007

VERSUS Part 1: Milwaukee Brewers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

Most of my baseball-related posts here at "Solvent is So Yesterday" have thus far focused on comparing teams across specific dimensions of baseball talent (e.g. hitting, fielding, and pitching). This method of presenting the data provides a lot of utility in explicating exactly what a team does well or not so well, but it also limits our ability to view teams at a holistic level. For example, the numbers indicate that the Red Sox will be strong on offense and in the rotation, but weak on defense and in relief. How good a team does that make them?

Like any good analyst, we need to provide alternate windows into the data, different ways to mix and match the data. With that in mind, I think it is interesting to compare two teams across all the dimensions we have thus far studied, to get an idea of relative strength. The compared teams have been linked to each other, either by related characteristics or because they have a direct competition with each other.

In this, the first of a planned three part series, I compare the probable fortunes of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers, two teams that have received offseason hype as potential breakout candidates.

Two weeks ago, Ken Rosenthal of published an article entitled Four Teams that Could Surprise in '07, in which he named both the Diamondbacks and Brewers as potential sleepers for the upcoming season. Although Rosenthal also listed the Rockies and Orioles in his article, his reader poll indicates that the wisdom of the crowd is aligned toward the D-backs and Brew Crew (actually, Rosenthal's readers see the Brewers as the runaway favorites to surprise--is it possible to be an expected surprise?--garnering 50% of the vote to the Diamondbacks 25%). These teams are linked by more than a Rosenthal article, however, as both teams are at similar points in their success cycle--incorporating a lot of young talent at the major league level, and thus providing an expectation of significant upside. Additionally, Arizona and Milwaukee have been involved in two fairly large-scale trades in the past few years. The first was the Brewer's absolute steal of a trade, in which they obtained Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano, and Jorge de la Rosa from the Diamondbacks for Richie Sexson and Shane Nance. And just this year, the Diamondbacks sent catcher Johnny Estrada and pitcher Claudio Vargas to the Brewers in exchange for pitchers Doug Davis and Dana Eveland.

Competitive Landscape
In order to reach the playoffs, what types of hurdles will these teams have to clear? Well, from the outset, let's say this: these teams are contenders for the postseason because they play in the NL. Put either team in the competitive AL and we probably wouldn't be having any discussion of breakout possibilities. Beyond that, both teams play in divisions in which there is (to me, anyways) one clearly superior team. The Brewers match up against the Cardinals in the NL Central, and the San Diego Padres play foe to the Diamondbacks in the NL West (astute readers might be wondering what happened to the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, and Giants in these discussions. I expect, for various reasons, that these teams will not really be the contenders that people are expecting, but that is a conversation for another post). Thus, Arizona and Milwaukee's path to the playoff would likely go through the Wild Card spot, and as such, they are in direct competition with each other.

Taking the projections from my NL Lineup Preview, the starting line-ups compare as follow:

Arizona Diamondbacks
: 4.82 RPG
Milwaukee Brewers
: 4.77 RPG

These teams are as close as possible on the offensive side of the ball, as their starting lineups are projected to differ by less than 10 runs over the course of an entire season. Both teams lack a truly elite hitter at any position, but generally receive average production from almost every lineup spot. PECOTA likes a lot of the young players on both teams (especially Chris Young and Prince Fielder), and expects both teams to have generally solid offensive performance.

Comparing the benches, while recognizing that bench composition is still a relative unknown at this point:

Milwaukee Brewers

Damian Miller
Tony Graffanino
Craig Counsell
Gabe Gross
Brady Clark

Arizona Diamondbacks

Miguel Montero
Tony Clark
Alberto Callaspo
Scott Hairston
Jeff DaVanon

The bench edge goes to the Diamondbacks, who have more power at every position than the Brewers. A weighted average Runs Created (RC) for Milwaukee's bench comes in at 4.5 RPG, versus 4.8 RPG for Arizona's bench. It's not a big advantage, but an advantage nevertheless.

Edge: Arizona (slightly)

Taking the projections from my NL Rotation Analysis, the rotations compare as follow:

Arizona Diamondbacks: 4.29 EqERA, 977 IP
Milwaukee Brewers
: 4.40 EqERA, 990 IP

PECOTA likes Milwuakee's Ace over Arizona's (Ben Sheets versus Brandon Webb) but Arizona's Top 2 over Milwaukee's (Randy Johnson versus David Bush/Chris Capuano). In my rotation analysis, I ranked Arizona and Milwaukee as the NL's best rotations for their combination of good EqERA's with strong projected innings pitched totals. Both teams have good depth as well, with sixth and seventh starters clearly above replacement level. The starting rotation will be a strength for both teams and is indeed the main driving force behind their expected break-outs, but once again, we have to say:

Edge: Arizona (slightly)

Taking the projections from my NL Bullpen Analysis, the bullpens compare as follow:

Arizona Diamondbacks: 4.01 EqERA
Milwaukee Brewers
: 4.04 EqERA

Both bullpens grade out as above average by NL standards. Milwaukee has the best pitcher (Francisco Cordero) out of the group, while PECOTA likes Arizona's front three of Jorge Julio, Jose Valverde, and Brandon Medders. The open question is: how good is Derrick Turnbow? Is he 2005 good, or 2006 good? If it's the former, the Brewer's bullpen is clearly superior. As it is, however, PECOTA is hedging it's bets.

Edge: Push

Up until this point, the picture we have painted is of two extremely evenly matched teams, both teams having the same strengths and weaknesses. But you had to know something interesting was coming, right? I've saved the best for last, the issue of team fielding. Taking the projections from my Team Fielding Preview, the defenses compare as follow:

Arizona Diamondbacks: +13 Runs/150 Games
Milwaukee Brewers: -10 Runs/150 Games

Here, we see the elephant in the room--the Diamondbacks defense is going to be quite strong, while the Brewers are going to be well below average. Additionally, this divergence is a direct result of the teams' young talent. Where the Diamondbacks rookies are projected as quite strong defensively, the Brewers core of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Bill Hall (switching from SS to CF) is fairly weak. The difference of 23 runs over 150 games (or 25 runs per 162 games), is worth 2.5 wins on its own. I am also of the belief that defense might be more important than our measurement systems give it credit for -- the last two MLB breakout teams (Chicago White Sox in 2005, and Detroit Tigers in 2006) got there largely based on tremendous defensive seasons.

Edge: BIG EDGE Arizona

Putting it all Together

Both the Brewers and Diamondbacks are trying to build championship caliber clubs from a young core, and each will be relying on strong starting pitching to drive their 2007 results. But the Diamondbacks have a big additional advantage: a strong team defense that the Brewers can only dream of. Neither team will overwhelm opponents with an offensive display, and thus need to contribute in other ways. In short, the Diamondbacks will have those contributions, and the Brewers won't.

Both the Brewers and Diamondbacks have the superficial look of a breakout candidate, but as the season winds down I expect the Diamondbacks to be in the thick of the wildcard race, with the Brewers hoping for another late-season St. Louis collapse.

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