It’s three years old now, but if you’re interested in the Pacific Coast League back when it was an independent trying to qualify as a major league, and the San Francisco Seals of that time, check out SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Volume 38, No. 1, on page 106. (It’s the one with Kennesaw Mountain Landis on the cover.)  Pretty good article on some guys that tried to create a publicly-owned ball club.

Thoughts about teams in the NL West today:

Dodgers (11-3) – At this point, throwing a pitch to Matt Kemp amounts to a suicide mission.

Rockies (7-6) – Dexter Fowler has struck out 10 times in 37 plate appearances.  In 40 plate appearances, Marco Scutaro has struck out zero times.

Giants (7-6) – Matt Cain has walked 1.13 batters per nine innings.  The only Giant starter with a number even close to that is Barry Zito, who has walked four hitters in 21 innings.

D’Backs (7-7) – Josh Collmenter has an ERA of 10.22 after three starts.  Trevor Bauer has a 0.57 ERA in Double-A.  Obvious solution: Heal Collmenter with Bauer’s touch.

Padres (3-12) – It’s hard to write something that’s not rude.  Fortunately, Chase Headly is hitting .292/.435/.646.

Henry Schulman has a piece in today’s Chronicle about Brian Wilson’s future with the Giants.  Wilson is a free agent after the 2013 season, so Schulman thinks it’s not too early to talk to Sabean about whether the Giants might sign Wilson long term.  Sabean quite sensibly states that, given the fact the Giants have Wilson under control for two more years and that the pitcher has dealt with recent injuries,  “we’re in the monitoring stage for obvious reasons.  We’re in the wait and see period.”

That’s great as far as it goes.  It’s later in the interview that Sabean scares me.  Disagreeing with the sabermetric argument “that teams overvalue saves and a closer’s make-up, and by extension overpay for the position when any number of relievers on a staff can close, Sabean compares a closer to “a placekicker with the game on the line.  A lot of guys can make kicks at any point during a game that might contribute to a win.  The big difference is when you have to make it to absolutely decide the game.”

So Sabean compares closing to kicking a field goal on the last play of a football game.  This is yet another example of the “saves” stat driving when a particular reliever is used, rather than having the situation in the actual baseball game drive when a particular reliever is used.  Brian Wilson entering a game with a three-run lead to face the sixth, seventh, and eighth batters in an opponents lineup is in no way comparable to the pressure of kicking that last-minute field goal.  And more often than not, Wilson enters the game with no runners on base, needing to get just three outs for victory.

Studies have shown that the odds of losing a game in which you have a three run lead with no opponent base runners is 2%.  This margin does not change much regardless of the closer being used. (Well, except for Mariano Rivera, but there’s a reason he’s referred to as the “cyborg closer.”)  Contrary to Schulman’s statement about Wilson’s make-up, he often doesn’t really have to face much “ninth-inning heat.”  In fact, often the real heat is faced by Lopez or Romo when they are called into the game in the seventh or eighth inning to squelch a rally when the opponent has a man or two on base.

Brian Wilson had a fantastic 2010, will always be a hero to Giants fans, and will probably be an adequate-or-better closer for the Giants for the next two years.  On a team with payroll constrictions, though, he can’t possibly be a part of the future. If the Giants want to be quasi-frugal, if they want to hit a certain number when it comes to year-to-year profits, they’ve forfeited their right to a luxury closer. Committing to Wilson for almost $10 million a season for several seasons would be a miserable allocation of money. Even if you assume that Wilson will be effective despite his declining velocity and horrific walk rate last year — a huge assumption — the Giants still can’t afford a luxury closer. Luxury closers are for teams that can afford luxuries. The Giants can’t afford a real shortstop.

My brother-in-law and I made plans back in April to get to a San Jose Giants game just as soon as we could to see Bumgarner, Alderson, and Posey before they got shipped off to the Giants’ double-A affilicate, the Connecticut Defenders. Well, everyone who follows such stuff knows we missed the boat on Bumgarner and Alderson. But another player who was also promoted to the Defenders, one whom I hadn’t even thought of as being in my own personal top-10 of Giants prospects (although I thought he had some “sleeper” quality) is Brandon Crawford, who tore up the California League, and is doing the same to the Eastern League.

A fourth-round pick last June, Crawford has all the tools in the world, but things never quite came together for him at UCLA, and what was expected by many to be a breakout junior year never materialized. His selection and $375,000 bonus is a pure upside wager. (The scouts always say, “if you don’t know what you want, always draft the tools.” Those tools have started the year with a combined .994 OPS (he went four-for-four last night), and while it’s too early to come to any conclusions, keep an eye on this one.

The Giants gained ground this week on the Mannyless Dodgers, taking two of three in Chavez Ravine.  Kicking things off is Barry Zito, who holds MLB’s EqA leaders to one run in six frames.  Thanks to a 1.9 K/BB ratio — his best since 2004 — Zito has four quality starts in his last five, but he’s just 1-3 for his troubles thanks to 2.6 runs per game of support.

Bengie Molina has bashed three homers in a three-game span, powering the Giants to a pair of wins.  He’s got seven of the team’s NL-low 16 dingers, but through 104 plate appearances, still hasn’t drawn a walk, and yes, the Giants are last in that category as well as scoring.  Sadly, Molina’s .308 OBP is just the fourth-lowest among the team’s eight regulars, and it’s two points above the team’s rate.

Tim Lincecum whiffs 13 snakes in eight shutout innings, and while the bullpen blows that sterling performance, it does allay some concerns about the reigning NL Cy Young winner after two lackluster starts to open the season.  Meanwhile, lackluster would be an improvement for the Giants’ offense, where Fred Lewis and Aaron Rowand are the only regulars with OBPs above .300 and SLGs above .340.  Like their Bay Area neighbors, they’re last in their league in EqA.

Well, the Giants’ “offense” has whiffed 27 times while walking just once against Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley en route to a 71/16 K/BB ratio thus far.

As we saw from the projected standings I recently posted, I consider the AL East the majors’ most-stacked division (duh!), with three teams forecast to win at least 94 games, and the eventual runner-up likely to win the league’s wild card. The NL East features three strong teams as well, with the second-place club likely to be in the thick of the wild card hunt. Given that these contenders’ interleague slates vary – the Mets play the Yankees six times due to their “natural rivalry,” and likewise for the Braves vs. Red Sox, but the Phillies draw the considerably weaker Blue Jays, and the Rays face the Marlins – it’s worth gauging the impact of the differing schedules.

To evaluate this, I used the aforementioned projected records to calculate the opponents’ winning percentages for all 30 teams, not only for the entire season, but also month-by-month and half-by-half so as to better appreciate the schedule’s contours. Instead of using the raw projected winning percentages, I applied two adjustments based on data from the last three years, one to account for the home team winning 55% of the time, and the other for the AL winning 58% of interleague games. This is a relatively simple task; a 25-point (.025) bonus or tax is applied based on whether the opponent is at home or on the road, and a 40-point (.040) one is applied for interleague play.

Thus when the Athletics (.519) play the Giants (.469) at the Coliseum, the latter’s adjusted winning percentage is recorded as .469 – .025 – .040 = .404. When they play at AT&T Park, it’s recorded as .469 + .025 – .040 = .454. From the Giants’ point of view, the Athletics are a .584 team (.519 + .025 + .040) in Oakland and a .534 team (.519 – .025 + .040) in San Francisco. Applying these adjustments uniformly is fairly crude, since it may be true that more extreme teams on either end of the spectrum have differing home/road or interleague splits, but for this exercise, it’s what we’re using.

Below are the full-season strength-of-schedule measurements:

Team Opp W%
Marlins .519
Orioles .514
Blue Jays .513
Nationals .512
Rockies .507
Padres .506
Pirates .506
Phillies .506
Braves .505
Mets .504
Red Sox .504
Giants .503
Astros .503
Yankees .501
Rangers .501
White Sox .500
Rays .500
Cardinals .498
Brewers .497
Reds .496
Royals .496
Mariners .494
Angels .493
Twins .493
Athletics .493
Dodgers .492
D’backs .492
Indians .491
Tigers .490
Cubs .488

As you marvel at the brutality facing the bottom two clubs in the two Easts, consider the following:

• Among contenders within the same division, full-season strength-of-schedule effects are overstated in the grand scheme of things. Only in the NL Central do the top two teams have more than three points (.003, or a half a game over the course of 162 games) of schedule difference between them; the nine-point advantage in that division equals roughly a game and a half over the course of 62 games) of scheduling difference between them. The top pairs in both Wests are effectively even. The NL East’s top trio, who have the toughest schedules of any contenders, are separated by just two points. These distinctions aren’t minor if they pertain to your chances, but in the big picture, injuries, reliever leverage, and players dramatically over- or under-performing relative to expectations will go further to shape the final standings.

• Among NL wild card contenders, strength of schedule should have a more drastic effect. The schedules of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks measure out at a .492 opponent winning percentage, while those of the Mets, Phillies, and Braves come in between .504 and .506, about a two-game difference. The Brewers, who with an 83-win projection need all the help they can get, catch a break facing opponents with a .497 winning percentage.

• Though the differences between division contenders are small, the breakdowns by half (before and after the All-Star break) are more pronounced. In the NL West, the Dodgers’ first-half slate measures out at .499, while the Diamondbacks’ is just .489. In the second half, L.A. plays the third-easiest schedule (.485) of any team, while Arizona faces a .496 slate. Coupling those splits with the likelihood that the Dodgers will be better able to take on salary at the trading deadline than the Snakes, and it’s not hard to imagine a race following a similar pattern to last year, with the Dodgers staying close in the first half and then breezing in the second.

• In the AL Central, the tables could turn almost perfectly. The Indians (.498 before, .481 after) and Tigers (.482, .498) both face the league’s easiest schedule in one half. Interleague play against the relatively weak NL Central helps account for the weakness of the Tigers’ early schedule, while the Tribe’s easier second half includes 10 games against the Mariners (seven of them at home), 12 games against the Twins (split evenly home and road) and six games hosting the Rangers. Note that Cleveland’s first half is actually the league’s sixth-hardest, and that at a projected 86 wins, the Indians aren’t exactly a powerhouse themselves. We might expect, as in 2006 and 2008, for them to stumble out of the gate but pick up momentum as the season progresses. Whether Eric Wedge is around to see that through is another matter.

• Thanks to their six-pack with the Yankees and the East-vs.-East pairings, the Mets have by far the toughest interleague schedule at .611, followed by the Marlins (.585), Braves (.575) and Phillies (.568). On the other side of the coin, the Tigers (.440), Royals (.441), Rangers (.444) and Rays (.444) have the easiest interleague draws. Among AL teams, the White Sox play the toughest interleague schedule (.484), followed by the Yankees (.480) and Red Sox (.475).

• As for September/October schedules, the Yankees have a slight advantage in the AL East at .507, compared to the Rays at .510 and the Red Sox at .512. Note that the Rays host the Yanks for the season’s final three games, while the Sox host the Indians. In the AL West, the A’s (.475) have a large advantage over the Angels (.495). In the NL East, the Phillies (.479) get the favorable draw relative to the Mets (.491) and Braves (.493), and in the NL West, the fates are with the Dodgers (.463) instead of the Diamondbacks (.496).

• Given Cole Hamel’s early elbow problems, the Phillies are lucky they have the easiest schedule of any team in April (.471). The defending champions had better get their house in order by June, because they’ll face the toughest schedule of any team in any month at .551. In a virtual tie for second-hardest month is Oakland’s July (.550), which could trigger another fire sale at the trading deadline if the youngsters on the team don’t hold up their end.

As for our heroes, the strength of their opponents breaks down by month thusly:

April .520
May .507
June .501
July .452
Aug .498
Sep/Oct .520

So the Giants start off with a relatively tough schedule in April. (But again, look at the poor Marlins; the Giants’ April is almost the same as the Marlins schedule for the entire season!) In fact, if the Giants can make it through April and May at roughly .500, they may still be within shouting distance of first place. If they can capitalize on the relatively weak opponents they face in July and August, maybe – just maybe – they will be in contention late in the season. Of course, they might have to trade pitching for hitting at the deadline to accomplish that. Let’s just hope that Sabean, if he makes a dramatic move, doesn’t mortgage the future, nor evaluate potential hitting acquisitions the way he did Aaron Rowand.

My predictions for this year’s National League standings aren’t likely to receive much brotherly love, since I see the defending world champions finishing with 87 wins, second to the Mets in the NL East, and a game short of the wild card. I think the Phillies’ offense will match last year’s (although Raul Ibanez is a definite downgrade and one of the worst of the off-season free-agent signings), but the pitching is poised for a major drop. Although the staff has seen upgrades; a full year of Joe Blanton and league-average pitching from fifth-starter candidates Chan Ho Park and J. A. Happ make for a stronger back end of the rotation. Their problems start with the improbability of Cole Hamels matching last year’s 3.09 ERA over a career-high 227 innings (plus another 35 in the postseason). I also see regression to the mean for bullpen studs Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson.

I expect the Mets to christen their new ballpark with a 92-win season and the division flag. While they could have done more to patch their rotation and their outfield corners, the bullpen makeover – starring Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz – squarely addresses last year’s biggest flaw, and David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran are three of the league’s ten most valuable hitters. Also in the hunt are the Braves, who not only feature three players who are the best or second-best at their positions (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson), but can boast adding the Derek Lowe-Javier Vazquez tandem to their rotation.

Over in the NL Central, the Cubs will have the league’s highest win total (95), as well as the largest margin (11 games) over the second-place team (the Brewers). The division could be a closer contest if Carlos Zambrano’s shoulder problems return, or if oft-injured Milton Bradley and Rich Harden can’s approach their playing time projections. The Brew Crew’s winter blueprint consisted of trying to replace the departed CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets with Braden Looper (good luck with that), and still figure to be respectable (84 wins), but not much more than that, particularly with ace-in-waiting Yovani Gallardo capped at 150 innings due to workload concerns. They’ll scuffle with the 83-win Cardinals, whose hopes of soaring higher hinge upon Chris Carpenter, and the 79-win Reds, whose fate could improve if the much-touted maturation of Homer Bailey (80 innings last year with a dreadful 5.62 ERA) is for real. The Cards are dragged down by a truly awful defense; the Reds are limited by Dusty Baker’s insistence upon not only playing Willy Tavares regularly, but sticking him in the leadoff spot.

The Central forecasts as the league’s weakest division according to overall winning percentage (.488) because of the two doormats, the Astros and Pirates. The 64-win Bucs are a lock for their 17th consecutive losing season, while the 69-win Astros are poised for a 17-win drop-off from last year. The latter finished nine games above their Pythagorean record last year, so they’re an easy bet to regress, and the combination of an inflexible payroll hamstrung by a few big contracts, the worst farm system in the game, and a rotation relying upon Brian Moehler and the undead Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz add up to one more chance to invoke the time-honored phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The Dodgers took home last year’s Mild Mild West flag with a paltry 84 wins, but their current forecast calls for a robust 92 victories thanks to the maturation of their homegrown talent. Led by young studs Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathan Broxton, their staff should be the league’s best. On the flip side, their offense projects to finish fifth in scoring, thanks largely to Manny Ramirez and a team OBP that should rank at or near the top of the league.

As for the Diamondbacks, their 88-win forecast makes them the favorite for the wild card. Despite a winter which saw them shed several key free agents (Orlando Hudson, Randy Johnson, Adam Dunn, Juan Cruz) and skimp on their replacements due to economic concerns, they forecast to be solid in both scoring (sixth) and pitching (fifth), thanks to an enviable young nucleus of their own in Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson and Justin Upton, not to mention Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, who I think will be two of baseball’s four most valuable pitchers.

At the end of the day, my projections are not destiny. There are thousands of probabilities for all the players involved. Which teams will break out beyond my projections, or underachieve relative to them, is part of the fun of watching the season unfold.

Cubs 95-67 861 726
Mets 92-70 825 721
Dodgers 92-70 819 714
D’backs 88-74 815 741
Phillies 87-75 828 769
Braves 86-76 799 742
Brewers 84-78 785 754
Cardinals 83-79 787 767
Reds 79-83 762 775
Nationals 77-85 780 819
Giants 76-86 683 717
Padres 72-90 679 753
Marlins 71-91 727 824
Rockies 71-91 842 951
Astros 69-93 704 811
Pirates 64-98 709 875