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February 25, 2011

Overthinking It

A Google Gallimaufry

by Ben Lindbergh

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Today, instead of Overthinking™ one particular topic—since I’ve already done enough of that this week—I thought I’d take a page out of FJM's book and offer up a gallimaufry inspired by headlines that caught my eye recently as they made their way through my Google Reader baseball news feed (skipping lightly over Rotoworld’s “Punto having groin looked at by specialist,”* to which I have nothing to add). We'll take them topic by topic, and if some of you enjoy the exercise, maybe I’ll do this again sometime.

*That doesn't even come close to qualifying as my favorite unintentionally humorous Rotoworld headline. In fact, it may not even be the best one about groins. (“Hunter hears good news about pop in groin” deserves to be in the conversation.) The best I've seen are “Carpenter complains of slick balls in Cinci” and “Blalock not interested in Minors,” and yes, those have stuck in my head since last season. If you’re not subscribed to the Rotoworld feed, you’re missing out, and I don’t mean on the news.

Mark Grudzielanek announces retirement

Mark Grudzielanek called it a career on Wednesday, forever releasing baseball writers from the torment of having to spell his name. Whenever a player of his—well, not stature, exactly, but tenure, at least—hangs them up, I feel like the occasion demands more than well wishes and a recounting of his career stats (which is how I end up writing odes to Russ Springer). The funny thing about Grudzielanek is that as unremarkable as his performance appears in retrospect—he managed to post a park-adjusted OPS above league average in only three of his fifteen seasons—he flirted with a number of career accolades along the way to, let's face it, relative obscurity. (Imagine how forgettable he'd be if his name were “Smith.”)

Grudzielanek was named to one All-Star team, in 1996*, and earned one Gold Glove (in his age-36 season). He scored 100 runs once and recorded 200 hits once. After each of these brief forays into round-numbered noteworthiness, he settled back into his comfortably undistinguished pattern, as if, having briefly put on airs, he was content to return to the realm of the “professional hitter.” Grudzielanek's Baseball-Reference page contains only two splashes of black ink, both hailing from 1997, when he led the NL in at-bats (649) and doubles (54). Amazingly, even with all those doubles to his credit, he slugged just .384, since he posted one of the highest double-to-home run ratios of any player since 1954 with 40-plus two-baggers in a single season. (You were probably too engrossed in Cheers and Friends to notice at the time, but 1989 and 1997 were landmark years for high 2B-to-HR ratios.)

Name

Year

Doubles

Home Runs

2B/HR

Pete Rose

1980

42

1

42.0

Matty Alou

1969

41

1

41.0

Mickey Morandini

1997

40

1

40.0

Wade Boggs

1989

51

3

17.0

Pete Rose

1974

45

3

15.0

Jody Reed

1989

42

3

14.0

Mark Grudzielanek

1997

54

4

13.5

*You could probably say the same about every All-Star game, but man, it seems like they were letting anyone with a uniform represent their league that year. In addition to Grudzielanek, the ’96 midsummer classic featured such one-and-done All-Star luminaries as Roger Pavlik, Dan Wilson, Ricky Bottalico, Lance Johnson, Henry Rodriguez, and—wait for it—Steve Trachsel. In fairness to the good people of 1996, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Frank Thomas were all injured and unable to play (or at least hurt enough to miss the game—which, as we all know, requires only a paper-cut caliber complaint). Of course, when this game was played, I was still segregating my baseball cards into All-Star and non-All-Star sleeves, so who am I to talk? (In my defense, my pre-frontal cortex was still a work in progress.)

Maybe the Grudzielaneks of the world help us appreciate the players who manage to reach impressive statistical plateaus season in and season out. Or perhaps the lesson to take from his work is that even a mediocre player can have a standout season (or even a superficially impressive career milestone—2000-plus hits, anyone?) if enough balls fall his way or he sticks it out for a decade and a half. And just like that, after I said that his retirement had released us from having to spell his last name, I've gone and spelled it eight more times. Well played, Gru—er, Mark, and so long. With your departure, the list of active former Expos dwindles, but I think what I'll miss most is the exaggerated curvature of your name on the back of your uniform.

Report: Red Sox interested in Chad Durbin

The Red Sox seem to be taking that “You can never have too much pitching” saying pretty seriously. Already furnished with a starting five of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, supplemented by Sox stalwart Tim Wakefield, swingman Felix Doubront, and sometime-starter Alfredo Aceves, the Sox have evidently dallied with Durbin with the intention of having him make a conversion (or, more accurately, return) to rotation work. If this trend continues, Congress may need step in and hold a hearing to establish the line of succession to Boston’s fifth starter slot.

As Marc Normandin has observed elsewhere, this Epstein edition of Hoarders may well be prompted by valid concerns about three-fifths of the rotation, but even after accounting for those concerns, the Sox boast a rotation that should be the envy of the American League, despite its potential flaws. Given the apparent strength of their front five—PECOTA projects a cumulative 3.80 ERA in 930 innings from the talented quintet—any Red Sox concerns in this area might appear overblown, but after watching a carefully constructed powerhouse succumb to a series of injury stacks last season, Boston’s brass couldn’t be blamed for getting a little obsessive-compulsive about ensuring that the staff is fully stocked. Regardless of what happens with Durbin—the most recent report puts the Indians in the lead for his services—the real mystery here is how Arizona got to Mike Hampton first.

Kotsay could earn $1.25 million with Brewers

Mark Kotsay is employed again, which comes as something of a shock, even though I know it shouldn’t. The headline is correct in that he could earn $1.25 million, but what it doesn’t mention is that at least $800,000 of that is in the bank—yes, it’s a guaranteed deal, folks, so this is almost certainly happening, despite the fact that extending playing time incentives to a fragile player like Kotsay smacks of sadism. The issues, of course, are that Kotsay’s health problems haven’t allowed him to play as many as 130 games since 2005 (not that any GM in his right mind would want him to), and that time has robbed him of the defensive ability that used to make his bat playable. These days, he can be said to hit right-handers only in the sense that he hits them better than southpaws, against whom he went 0-for-25 last season, and his glove is restricted to positions normally reserved for big boppers.

Someone masquerading as Jim Thome may have put it best in sponsoring Kotsay’s Baseball-Reference page:

“Highly underrated, Mark Kotsay became the best defensive designated hitter in American League history in 2010.”

One might have thought that the Great 1B/DH Experiment of 2010 would have put the kibosh on Kotsay’s chances of finding further work, but he seems to be the type who sends a certain kind of commentator or coach into paroxysms of praise in direct contravention of events on the field. The Brewers need help with the leather, it’s true, but Kotsay is no longer the one to provide it—other than a veteran presence, a body to keep the DL warm, and a moderate drain on a team’s financial resources, it’s not clear exactly what he can provide.

In the annual, we speculated that “places like Houston and Pittsburgh might suit him”—in other words, teams that were too far gone to be harmed by taking on some sub-replacement weight. Adding Kotsay isn’t the kind of move that puts a contending team over the top, and as much as the splashy portions of Milwaukee’s offseason impressed, it’s not clear that they’re rounding out the roster in an optimal way—right-handed hitters are looking like an endangered species on the Brewers bench, and while a righty-heavy lineup makes stocking up on southpaws in reserve a necessity, that’s no cause for Kotsay.

Murphy leaves club for birth of son

Here’s a story that I couldn’t care less about—er, I mean, congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. David Murphy on their brand-new baby boy!—but that makes me wonder about something else. No one would begrudge a player the chance to be on the scene when he becomes a father—unless, perhaps, he’s good at baseball and the season is at stake, in which case a playoff berth probably trumps a live birth in the minds of most fans. But how does a richly compensated athlete decide where to draw the line on taking a personal day?

When you or I contract proverbial flu-like symptoms, taking ourselves out of the metaphorical lineup is usually a fairly easy call. Still, imagine for a moment that you were paid thousands of dollars per photocopy or mouse click and had a four-to-five-month vacation built into your annual schedule; wouldn’t you feel a tad guilty about staying at home and having plenty of fluids? ESPN’s “Salary Crunch,” the perfect cure for a case of healthy self-esteem, informs me that Joe Mauer makes my annual salary in roughly the time it takes him to adjust his batting gloves between pitches; with that kind of dough at stake (not to mention the endorsement deals and potential for clubhouse condemnation), who wouldn’t want to avoid bringing in any doctor’s notes?

Then again, being vanquished by a virus hardly qualifies as the second coming of Operation Shutdown, and big-league ball—unlike, say, sitting in a cubicle reading articles about baseball on company time (for shame)—requires peak physical performance. Plus, isn’t having the job security to take the occasional sick day what guaranteed contracts are all about? Maybe one of these days when no one’s busy doing something useful with our brand-new injury database (complete with day-to-day ailments!), I can examine how the rate of sick days among major leaguers (quite a healthy group, on the whole) compares to the national average, and set this important matter to rest.

Grandal to begin season at Double-A

This story was indeed about Yasmani Grandal, one of Cincinnati’s many promising catching prospects, but like David Laurila, when it comes to Reds backstops, I only have eyes for Ryan Hanigan, whom I called “the league’s most overqualified backup catcher” in the recently-released Baseball Prospectus 2011. As I mentioned earlier this week, catchers peak late and grow old early. In accordance with at least the first part of that pattern, Hanigan didn’t make the majors until after he’d turned 26 and didn’t receive an extended shot until two years later. Although he showed a hint of power last year, its Hanigan’s patience that makes him a valuable commodity at the plate, and his defense that makes him perhaps an even more valuable asset behind it.

A broken thumb robbed Hanigan of last June and early July, but he was one of the league’s most productive catchers when on the field. Now fully healthy, he’ll spend much of what could have been an impressive campaign looking over the shoulder of Ramon Hernandez, who was re-signed as the presumptive starter last November. Hernandez is on the wane and could exit the picture entirely after this season, but even his departure wouldn’t leave Hanigan with sole possession of the position, since Devin Mesoraco awaits in Triple-A, with Grandal not far behind, and either or both could crowd Hanigan out before he gets a hold on the job. It’s hard to blame the Reds for this sorry state of affairs—it’s not as if they’re running Jason Kendall out there instead—but this is how good careers go to waste. Here’s hoping that if the Reds re-tool at the deadline, Hanigan will be put out to greener pastures as part of any deal.

Jose Guillen Considering Retirement

On Tuesday, Guillen told ESPN’s Enrique Rojas, “If I don’t have any offers within a week, I will retire from baseball permanently,” which is missing only an “And then the first hostage dies” to complete the picture of a dire threat. As ultimatums go, this one is roughly of a piece with the go-to teacher threat to a rowdy group of students, “I’ll wait.”

“I’ll wait” was one of the great mysteries of my academic career. I generally wasn’t the one causing a disturbance in the classroom, at least after the second grade, which was roughly when my fleeting bad-boy phase ended (looking back, I probably should have timed it for some point after A) puberty and B) my emancipation from all-boys’ school). There may have even been a class or two along the way that I was sorry to see end. Still, as a student, my prime directive was running out the clock, and anything that might derail a lesson plan was a welcome distraction. “I’ll wait” seemed like the pedagogical equivalent of a hitter swinging at the first pitch when a downpour is about to wash away his team’s impending loss—any teacher who said “I’ll wait” was playing right into our hands by declining to fill our brains with dangerous knowledge that could soon be converted into homework and tests.

Granted, kids have a way of shouting themselves out, and at some point even the most hardened pre-adolescent begins to fall quiet out of sympathy for the well-intentioned person standing dejectedly at the chalkboard. As confounding as I find “I’ll wait,” Guillen’s declaration seems even less likely to achieve its intended effect. It may be amusing to imagine his threatened departure sending shock waves through baseball’s front offices, but it’s unlikely that there’s a GM out there desperately trying to get approval from ownership in time to sign a diminished Guillen before the obstreperous outfielder fumes off into the sunset.

While looking for a suitable article to feed into the BP Wayback Machine the other day, I came across a vintage Nate Silver take on Guillen’s “breakout” 2003 half-season for Cincinnati. After crunching the numbers, Nate advised potential suitors to exercise caution and “sign him to a contract heavy on incentive clauses.” Five years later—after it had become perfectly clear that Nate’s (1996 All-Star!) Henry Rodriguez comp had been prophetic—Dayton Moore signed him to a three-year, $36-million deal. If retirement comes calling for Guillen next week, at least he’ll spend it in style.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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Premium Article Collateral Damage: Spr... (02/25)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Overthinking It: The W... (02/24)
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Overthinking It: The G... (03/01)
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Premium Article Purpose Pitches: Adapt... (02/25)

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