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January 9, 2002

From The Mailbag

The Man With The Golden Gun

by Baseball Prospectus

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

I remember seeing an ESPN report during spring training on Joe Kerrigan's disdain for the slide step. Instead, the Red Sox use an unusual amount of pitch-outs. How much of a factor do you think this is in Hatteberg's case? A quick answer might come from looking at the other Sox catchers over the past couple of years.

Regardless, I wouldn't want Hatteberg as my starting first baseman.

--Dave Glandorf

Here's what I have for Boston catchers the past few years:

Year  Catcher      SB   CS    CS%
2001  Hatteberg   115   10     8%
2001  Mirabelli    51   19    27%
2001  Varitek      51   16    24%

2000  Hatteberg    55    9    14%
2000  Varitek     103   24    19%

1999  Hatteberg    23    4    15%
1999  Varitek     124   41    25%

1998  Hatteberg    81   30    27%
1998  Varitek      49   16    25%

There doesn't appear to be a Kerrigan effect that was new in 2001, since Varitek and Mirabelli put up numbers that were both respectable and consistent with their previous years.

That doesn't rule out the possibility that Kerrigan has had a longer-term effect on Boston CS numbers. But the evidence I've seen indicates that in general, catcher CS% numbers are measuring catchers, without too much interference from the pitching staff. I think the primary explanation for Hatteberg's 2001 disaster is Hatteberg (and his arm injury).

--Michael Wolverton

I was wondering if you've ever evaluated the old adage "don't make the first or third out at third." Although you note that outs are precious--and this is is a situation where you give up an out if you're not successful--what are the actual percentages which define whether it's a good play to attempt to advance to third?

--GG

The question of evaluating that adage will depend on what specific situation you're talking about. For example, what if there are two outs, and a runner on second is considering whether to attempt to steal third?

For it to be a good play, his run potential after trying the steal has to be higher than his run potential if he stays on second:

P*ER(third, two outs) + (1-P)*ER(three outs) > ER(second, two outs)

Here, ER stands for expected runs in a given situation, and P is the probability that he steals third successfully. Plugging in the ER values, we get

P*0.39 + (1-P)*0 > 0.34
P > 0.87

So 87% is the break-even point -- if he thinks he has a better than 87% chance of being safe at third, it's worth the gamble. There are very few situations where a runner can expect to steal third safely 87% of the time, so in this case the old adage is sound.

Of course, real life is more complicated than this simple model. The actual ER in a situation will depend on who's pitching, who's at bat and the next few scheduled hitters, and a bunch of other things. But this gives you an easy way to get a first approximation on the wisdom of various strategies.

If this is interesting to you, I recommend you take a look at "The Hidden Game of Baseball" by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. It's out of print, but you can probably find a copy at your local library or used. They have a whole chapter devoted to evaluating strategies this way.

--Michael Wolverton

TRANSACTION ANALYSIS

I'm a fairly sophisticated baseball fan, but I didn't understand your comment about the Yankees delaying the signing of Giambi to avoid losing a player in the Rule 5 draft, as they did last year with Henry Rodriguez. What does that mean?

--JW

The point of my comment was that the Yankees could afford to drag their heels a bit, to protect bodies they might have lost in the Rule 5 draft. That said, I was 100% wrong. Unlike last year, when the Yankees added Rodriguez subsequent to the Rule 5 draft despite apparently coming to an agreement with him before it, this year's situation with Jason Giambi was different in that the Yankees kept roster space on the 40-man open for everybody they planned to add, while protecting their prospects of value. This is not what teams have to do--they simply run the risk of subsequently losing a player on waivers if they add somebody to the 40-man and then try to outright him off of it to make room for someone who accepts arbitration and thus has to be re-added. So, when Sterling Hitchcock agreed to terms to stick around, they had the space.

The complication is when they add Jumbo Wells as a free agent, because the Yankees appear to be at 40 right now. They're already carrying four catchers (and why Alberto Castillo is one of them is anyone's guess), and carrying Wells, Hitchcock, El Duque and Ted Lilly to man the last two slots in the rotation clearly means somebody--almost certainly the Cuban--will get bounced to another ballpark.

--Chris Kahrl

You're absolutely right about the Braves' signing of Castilla. Schuerholz has some fascination with over 30 players past their prime, who have been released or non-tendered by another organization. What's worse beyond what you wrote is that his two year contract locks someone from the group of Furcal/Betemit/Giles into bench time or more minor league time. And it looks like Lockhart will be back for another .225 season off the bench.

That's what I thought when I read about Cordova's signing. Don't the O's have two players exactly like him who are younger and cheaper?

I have a question: Why do guys like Gene Kingsale and Julio Ramirez agree to sign a major league contract with their teams knowing that they will be outrighted an hour after signing?

--DG

Well, "absolute" and "right" are terrible words to use together, especially in the context of my admittedly biased point of view, but I appreciate the compliment.

To try to answer your question, the best case scenario for why a player would agree to a contract and then be outrighted is that both parties know this is coming, and just want to place the player in an organization where he'll get a legitimate shot to make the team in spring training. Invariably, somebody else on the 40-man is going to hit the 60-day DL, there might be a trade, or the organization can calculate that a kid will pass through waivers if outrighted because everyone's running full and trying to make similar moves at the end of March. In most cases, the player won't get snagged on waivers when he's outrighted, because why offend his club by snagging him when you could have signed him yourself?

The worst case scenario is that the player was misled, and is stuck with an organization he shouldn't trust.

--Chris Kahrl

I respectfully disagree with your Braves' Castilla/Lopez evaluations. Lopez is a waste at $13M for two years. 31 year old catchers don't get better, they get worse. He's had two bad seasons already and will continue to slide down the slope PAST mediocrity. That money could be well spent on a first-baseman. Besides, as your BP colleague Rany Jazayerli mentioned, Gregg Zaun was available, and much more affordable.

Castilla essentially replaces Surhoff in the line-up. After a lackluster '00 campaign Castilla rebounded. His .260/.308/.467 with 25 HR will be an improvement over Surhoff's .271/.321/.416 with 10 HR. And his glove at third will improve Atlanta's overall defense.

--Peter F. Friberg

While I'm generally inclined to agree with your sentiment, it's a one-year deal, and the market in catching was pretty slender. Lopez isn't the worst risk to take on--after all, the Giants are paying Benito Santiago a lot of money to continue to suck--and while I'm not about to make excuses for John Schuerholz, he isn't the only GM to have missed the boat on Gregg Zaun. He's also one of 29 GMs who blew it when he could have claimed Ramon Castro, and one of 29 who blew it when he had a shot to put Bobby Estalella in his Triple-A affiliate.

Meanwhile, I refuse to get excited about Vinny Castilla. A lackluster 2000? What about his lackluster 1999? It pains me to say Tampa Bay is a major league team, but that godawful month or so he put in there counts too. So I would not argue that a decent partial season in Enron is a career renaissance. To his credit, he's an adequate glove, like Surhoff, but at a more important defensive position. The question is whether or not Chipper Jones will go from being a near-adequate third baseman to being a good or awful or indifferent left fielder; I wouldn't be surprised one way or another, because we've seen players go in all sorts of directions when moved to easier positions, not always good ones. Lastly, I would not rate Castilla as an offensive improvement by the standard that he's supposed to be better than Surhoff. That isn't improvement, that's reshuffling bums instead of solving the team's offensive problem.

--Chris Kahrl

You wrote regarding Scott Brosius "there was a time when nobody was better charging a bunt and fielding it bare-handed, a memory that made this year's World Series painful to watch at times."

Sorry, Brosius was good at that play, but during the time you're referring to, Robin Ventura was better. Ventura was also brilliant on the closely related play of charging and barehanding the slow chopper and/or swinging bunt. As a Chicago resident during this period, you should know this. Just because Hawk Harrelson said it doesn't necessarily make it untrue.

--KH

Ah, well we both play the epicure, because I saw a lot of Robin Ventura living in Chicago during his entire White Sox career, and I beg to differ. Ventura was good, arguably the second-best in all of baseball, but that's me being subjective versus you being subjective. Where I always felt Ventura was better was starting a 5-4-3 double play, and also better moving to his left. In contrast, I thought Brosius at his best might have been better going to his right, but they were both so good that we're well into hair-splitting territory.

Hawk Harrelson? You mean you don't listen to the radio guys with the television's sound turned down?

--Chris Kahrl

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