That's a Good Team on the DL
Today, on the XM Radio feed of ESPN News, Brian Kenney interviewed former Mets general manager Steve Phillips. Both Kenney and Phillips agreed that there is no team that depends on two players more than the San Francisco Giants depend on Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt.
For the most part, when analysts make sweeping statements such as this I immediately become skeptical. Sure, that statement seems plausible given the headlines we hear and read daily, but do the numbers bear that out? Now, I'm not someone who believes that baseball teams should be managed strategically and tactically by using only statistical measures, but I do believe they tell a significant part of the story. Essentially, on the spectrum of baseball philosophy, I settle in a bit closer to Rob Neyer than Joe Morgan. I've played enough sports to know that chemistry and attitude and athletic abilities are fundamental elements of every play in every game, but I've also suffered through enough statistical courses in academia to know that statistics are a wonderful tool that brings objectivity to subjective arguments.
So, because the usual early evening thunderstorm prevented me from stopping at the golf course on the way home (central Virginia has had more rain this summer than Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco combined), I decided to fire up the Balls, Sticks, & Stuff primary research tool and statistical processor and check out the numbers and see if Kenney and Phillips were at least close to being right.
Using The Hardball Times statistics, I decided to informally examine the 2004 win shares above average (WSAA) for players on the teams competing for a playoff spot. The Hardball Times explains wins shares in great detail, but essentially, for every 3 win shares a player accumulates, one win his team accumulates can be attributed to that player. According to THT, WSAA compares "each player's total Win Shares to the Win Shares an average player would have received, given that player's time at bat, on the mound or in the field."
For most teams, the players are distributed fairly evenly, gradually ranging from 8 to 10 WSAA leading most teams down to -5 or -7 WSAA. But for the Giants, the subjective observations seem to be true. Bonds has a National League leading 26 WSAA and Jason Schmidt ranks tenth (first among pitchers) with 10 WSAA. The next closest Giant is J.T. Snow with just 5 WSAA, ranking 35th in the National League. In other words, if you were to replace Bonds and Schmidt with "average" major league baseball players, the Giants record would be 55-68 instead of 67-56. No other team is even remotely similar.
Expanding the comparisons to "non-contending" teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Randy Johnson (8 WSAA, 13th in the NL) stand out. The next closest to The Unit is Richie Sexson (who has missed most of the year with an injury) with one win share. It's no wonder the Diamondbacks are so bad.
But another team that seems to stray away from the trend of even WSAA distribution? The Philadelphia Phillies. Bobby Abreu has far and away more WSAA than any other Phillie with 14, ranking behind only Bonds and Scott Rolen in the NL, both season MVP favorites. As one would expect, Jim Thome is the next closest Phillie to Abreu with 6 WSAA (17th in the NL). And now the depressing part for the phans. After Abreu and the distant second Thome comes Ryan Madson (4 WSAA, hasn't played in weeks), David Bell (3 WSAA, has also missed significant playing time due to injuries), Rickey Ledee (3 WSAA while with the Phillies, traded away nearly three weeks ago), and Billy Wagner (2 WSAA, hurt a lot is an understatement). The Phillies have almost as many WSAA on the disabled list as they do in the starting lineup.
When Bill James created Wins Shares, he attempted to create a single measure that could be used to rank baseball players. He has done a great job and those that have refined the work have also done a great job. But I think they would agree with me that baseball is too complicated a game to expect one number to tell the whole story. However, I do think that the uneven distribution of win shares on the Phillies supports what we have all known for too long, that the Phillies roster as it is currently constituted is dysfunctional.