Monday, August 14, 2006

Welcome to Splitsville
By Ben Valentine

Player evaluation is a funny thing.

For example, you trade for a player from say, the Texas Rangers. He’s a stud, smacking 25-30 homers a year and driving in close to 100 runs. Then he moves to your park and suddenly flat lines; becoming a below average offensive player for your team. You’re left hold the bag, and you have no idea why.

The reason is because he played in a launching pad. His home stats dramatically inflated his numbers so that teams overlooked his lousy .611 OPS away from home.

Now to be fair, Hank Blalock is still a Texas Ranger and actually has done far better on the road this year. He’s gotten that OPS up to .746, though that’s still below average looking at third basemen this year. Thus should a team attempt to trade for a Ranger like Blalock, they need to remember the player’s home stats help inflate his totals. Such a practice has become common place when looking at Colorado Rockies, though ironically the pendulum appears to have swung completely in the opposite direction in that case.

Today we take a look at five guys who have performed drastically different at home and away this year. In doing so we’ll try to decipher which performance is closer to reality and which one looks like a fluke. As with most splits, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, however, to which side of the middle can mean the difference between a respectable 4.20 ERA and 4.70 one.

But despite the ERA example, we’ll start with a hitter. In fact this guy probably has seen the greatest fluctuation between home and road performances this season, at least for position players. And where his success has come is the main reason he may well be an underrated player by his team’s fans.

(Stats are from and through Saturday, August 12th)

Carlos Beltran, CF, New York Mets:

Away: .347/.426/.779/1.205, 199 AB, 22 Hr, 70 RBI, 46 R, 27/36 K/BB

Home: .220/.349/.462/.810, 186 AB, 11 HR, 28 RBI, 40 R, 37/37 K/BB

Far and away the best player in baseball this year away from Shea Stadium, Carlos Beltran has been your average centerfielder OPS wise at home this year. General thought says it’s mental and that Beltran is just pressing to impress the Shea faithful. But his K/BB suggests the opposite; Beltran has been more patient at home than the road having walked exactly as much as he’s K’d at Shea. Despite this, he’s hitting for an average which is 127 points lower than on the road and for far less power. That leads me to believe the problem is two fold; small sample size and Shea Stadium itself.

One would expect Beltran’s numbers to drastically improve at Shea in the final two months because there seems to be nothing wrong with his approach. On the other hand, his road numbers will probably continue to exceed his home numbers since Shea is a pitcher’s park. Currently, the Mets’ home ranks third to last for hitters, depressing homers by an .880 factor. (in other words a ratio of .88/1 home run ratio for Shea versus and neutral park) Bottom line; Beltran’s likely never going to be as good at home as he is on the road. But he should improve at home while slowing down somewhat on the road. Look for him to be in the thick of the NL MVP race the rest of the way.

Chien Ming Wang, SP, New York Yankees:

Away: 5.16 ERA, 66.1 IP, 24/20 K/BB, .321 Opp BA, 5 Hr

Home: 2.66 ERA, 94.2 IP, 25/21 K/BB, .227 Opp BA, 4 Hr

Chien Ming Wang is probably the most hotly debated player at Sportszilla, so much so that it seems as though Bryan and I are seeing two different pitchers here. Turns out, we are. Possessing absolutely the weirdest splits of anyone on here, Wang has been an ace at home and spot starter quality on the road. Why is this so strange? Because in Wang’s case, they defy reason.

Wang’s peripherals are the same home and away. Okay, we know with him that doesn’t tell the whole story because of his ability to induce the ground ball out. The problem is that Wang has a 3.43 GB/FB ratio on the road, with a lower 3.18 mark at home. Yet for some reason, he’s got opponents hitting just .227 off him at Yankee Stadium, while getting swatted to the tune of a .321 Opp BA on the road. Yankee Stadium has played pitcher friendly this year (23rd overall), but since Wang induces so many ground balls, that shouldn’t matter. A ground ball should be the same in most places, outside of artificial turf fields. But he’s had one good and one mediocre start on those.

Since the biggest difference for Wang lies in Opp BA and correspondingly on batting average on balls put in play (BABIP), we should look to see what number is closest to league average. His road BABIP .339 is versus a mark at home of .235. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give us much help because both are equidistant from the league average (.290 is roughly what BABIP should be). Wang isn’t a 5.16 ERA guy, but he’s no 2.27 guy either. Figure it balances out for an ERA in the low to mid 4.00’s (a number which Bryan probably still will take me to task for) especially since his Hr rate near .60/9 is likely unsustainable. But with the Yankees offense, that’s should be just fine.

Kevin Millwood, SP, Texas Rangers:

Away: 3.46 ERA, 80.2 IP, 63/14 K/BB, .278 Opp BA, 8 Hr

Home: 6.28 ERA, 67.1 IP, 33/24 K/BB, .305 Opp BA, 7 Hr

Unlike Wang, Millwood’s woes at home look easy to figure out. He’s walking more people while striking fewer out at the launching pad in Arlington. While his Opp BABIP is almost identical home (.326) and away (.328), since Millwood is getting more balls put in play against him at home, he’s giving up more hits. With the increase in base runners due to poorer control, that equates to a much higher ERA despite not having a much higher Hr/9 rate at home.

The perplexing thing about Millwood is to why he’s striking out less people and walking more in Arlington. Mental issues are hard to use as a justification for anything, since you can’t know what a player is thinking but that is the only satisfactory answer here. You could suggest other things like a better batters’ eye in Arlington, but that doesn’t explain why his BABIP is similar home and away. But then if this is in Millwood’s head and it’s as clear as looking at these stats, why hasn’t someone on Texas alerted him to that fact?

Millwood seems curable, but if this is mental, then there’s no guarantee he’s going to get better. The Rangers need to hope he does however; he’s in the first season of a five year deal, 60 million deal.

Byung Hyun Kim, SP, Colorado Rockies

Away: 6.85 ERA, 47.1 IP, 39/19 K/BB, .337 Opp BA, 8 Hr

Home: 2.75 ERA, 59.0 IP, 47/21 K/BB, .249 Opp BA, 3 Hr

Gah? I know Coors Field is playing close to neutral this year but this is ridiculous. For some reason Kim has been a very good pitcher at home and absolute garbage on the road. Coors is still allows more homers than your average park and Kim is a neutral pitcher, so it isn’t as if his homer rate is being depressed at home by some unholy ball doctoring. However he’s given up just three homers in 59 innings which equates to a rate of .46/9. That’s not going to last. Meanwhile his 1.52 rate on the road looks way too high. But what’s the deal with that Opp BA, especially when Kim isn’t striking out that many more batters per inning at home (8.06) than on the road (7.42).

Like Wang, this looks to be the case of two extremes. While Kim’s opp BA may not increase that drastically at home, his homer rate should. Meanwhile on the road the homer rate should fall a little, while his opp BA should fall a great deal. Overall Kim should have an ERA’s in the mid to low 4.00’s. Despite many notions and that horrific road ERA, he can be a serviceable major league starter in the league, a fourth starter type.

Vernon Wells, CF, Toronto Blue Jays

Away: .298/.365/.457/.822, 208 AB, 6 Hr, 29 RBI, 23 R, 22/33 K/BB

Home: .341/.391/.707/1.099, 229 AB, 21 Hr, 54 RBI, 43 R, 20/33 K/BB

Vernon Wells is not quite the anti Beltran, but he’s close. Wells has been hitting better at home consistently since 2004. That year he posted splits of .298/.371/.549/.920 at home while going .249/.306/.402/.708 on the road. Last season it was more of the same; at home Wells went .291/.346/.500/.846 versus a .248/.295/.428/.723 mark on the road. So at the very least one can say Wells is consistent at producing in Toronto.

But then it isn’t the average which is so amazing in the Wells’ splits. After all, if he has been a better hitter at home over the last three years and he’s a better hitter overall this season, then it stands to reason his home numbers would increase. But a .707 slugging percentage? Where did that come from? 147 in 2004 and 72 in 2005 are decent differences and something that can happen over the course of 230 ABs. But in 2006 the difference is 250 points! Even for an anomaly that’s high. So what’s caused this home power spike?

The Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome) plays close to neutral overall, but it’s been surrendering homers at a 1.38/1 ratio this year, which is second to Camden Yards. It’s hard to believe even with this increase Wells’ surge is solely the result of that, but it might well be. Consider that Troy Glaus has an .973 OPS at home and .853 mark on the road. That isn’t a terrible difference until you look at slugging. On the road, the third baseman has slugged .464 which is solid. But at home he’s slugged a phenomenal .622. That’s a 158 point difference. Lyle Overbay is slugging 203 points higher. Alex Rios’ mark is 112 points more at home. Isolated, we’d take these as flukes. But together it’s clear the Rogers Centre is inflating its power hitters’ numbers. Since this is the case, it’s hard to make an argument against Wells continuing his strong play this year, since it looks as though his average and on base splits reflect his career norms.

So opponents take note. Vernon Wells at home is an MVP candidate. On the road, he’s a solid player, but not one that’s going to kill you on a consistent basis.

There you have it; five players who have been seemingly feast or famine depending on where you face them. But as shown here that doesn’t mean all splits are created equal. Though Carlos Beltran is struggling now at Shea now, reason suggests he’s still the Met you want to avoid most when facing them, not David Wright or Carlos Delgado. And much like Hank Blalock last year, Vernon Wells is a guy who you can pitch to in big spots when he’s on the road. While it may not seem like much, pennant races and playoff games which can come down to one decision it can make all the difference.


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