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February 7, 2012

The Lineup Card

11 Times Small Sample Sizes Steered Us Wrong

by Baseball Prospectus

1) David Ortiz
Back in 2010, David Ortiz got off to a wretched start, hitting just .143/.238/.286 with a single homer in 63 plate appearances during the month of April. At 34 years old, and on the heels of a season in which he'd set lows in all three slash categories (.238/.332/.462) during his time with the Red Sox, it was fair to wonder if he'd ever be the same hitter again.

As May dawned, he suddenly started hitting homers—two on May 1, one on May 5, two more on May 14, and another on May 17. On the occasion of that last one, which came against the Yankees, I checked in on his status and noted that while he had lifted his line to .235/.301/.500, his strikeout-to-walk ratio stood at a very uncharacteristic 38-to-10 through 113 PA. He was striking out at an alarming rate of 34.9 percent—nearly double what he'd done as a Red Sock from 2003-2009 (18.0) percent. Calling upon the work of Russell Carleton, which held that strikeout rate stabilizes at the 150 PA mark and walk rate at the 200 PA mark, I suggested that even with the power surge, there was still cause for concern.

The burial was premature. Ortiz would hit .279/.385/.536 with 25 homers the rest of the way while striking out just 21.7 percent of the time—on par with his 2009 season, if not his 2003-2008 ones. As it turns out, his slow start had much to do with the effects of cold weather on his previously injured wrist, an issue the Sox were aware of but one I had presumed was in his rearview mirror. Had I been more aware that it was still a problem, I wouldn't have been so quick to bury him. —Jay Jaffe

2) Dave Hollins
In the spring of 1996, and I was 18 years old.  I had probably used the Internet twice.  I remembered Dave Hollins from my 1992 Strat-O-Matic set and from the 1993 World Series, so I was excited when the Twins signed him for just over $1 million.  With Kirby Puckett out and being treated for a mysterious spot marring his vision, I was pinning all my hopes to new acquisitions Hollins—who had posted just a single season with more than 20 home runs—and Paul Molitor to lead the Twins out of last place in the AL Central.

It all started out so well.  Hollins batted sixth and scored Rich Becker and Marty Cordova on a grounder through the middle off Tigers "ace" Felipe Lira.  Then he doubled in his next at-bat and walked in another on the way to an 8-6 Twins win.  The next day, he went two-for-two with another double and three walks.  I was at the third game of the season, when he went 1-for-1 with a homer and two more walks before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the fifth with the Twins up 13-6.

At the end of opening weekend, Dave Hollins was hitting .833/.917/.1.667 with a homer, two doubles, four RBI, five runs scored, and six walks, and the Twins were 2-1.  I was in love. Hollins would hit .233/.350/.377 the rest of the way, but I didn't care.  I was heartbroken when the Twins traded him in August for some nobody named David Arias, who would later change his name to Ortiz. —Michael Bates

3) Doug Waechter
Despite entering the 2003 season with fewer than 20 innings above A-ball, Waechter would end the campaign with a six-appearance major-league trial. Then an athletic 22-year-old with a blazing fastball and a plus slider, Waechter threw a two-hit shutout in his first major-league start, which became the crown jewel of an otherwise impressive sip of coffee: 35 1/3 innings pitched, a strikeout-to-walk ratio near 2.00, and a 134 adjusted-earned run average. Those who bought into that performance would regret it, however, as Waechter would make 107 more major-league appearances and hold a cumulative 5.54 earned run average for his career. The lesson to take away from all of this is that great starts from promising young pitchers do not always signal dominant or even tolerable futures. —R.J. Anderson

4) Gary Redus
Short-season leagues are dangerous. They can produce dangerous expectations from often high-octane environments that include wide-ranging talent. In 2004, Brewers infielder Hernan Iribarren hit .422/.470/.637 in 61 Arizona League games, but he’s now just a Triple-A hanger-on. Just last summer, Reds third-round pick Tony Cingrani had an 80-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio for Billings, yet he did not make the team's Top 11 Prospects list and projects as a reliever.

It was another season at Billings, however, 33 years ago, that is always rattling around in my brain. A 15th-round pick out of a small Alabama junior college, Gary Redus would have a 13-year career in the big leagues as a bench player and occasional starter with some speed, some on-base skills, and a bit of pop, but after signing in the summer of 1978, he had one of the best short-season showings in the recent history of the game. Redus hit .462 that summer in a sizeable 68 games, going 117-for-253. Throw in a remarkable 62 walks, and you get an astounding .559 on-base percentage. Of those 117 hits, he had 19 doubles, six triples and 17 home runs, leading to a .787 slugging. If that's not enough, he added 42 stolen bases in 48 attempts and scored an even 100 runs.

The thing that bothers me the most about the season is that I have no idea what the reaction was. There was no Baseball America at the time, no prospect writers, no blogs, and thus, no Top 10 lists. Redus certainly had tools, but as a 15th-rounder, it's not like he was a huge prospect. After that season, though, something certainly changed in his stock, as Cincinnati foolhardily rushed him to Double-A the following season before he was demoted and took a more traditional path to the big leagues. I know nothing about his season, just the numbers, yet it's among my favorite in minor league history. —Kevin Goldstein

5) Butch Davis
In 1983, Butch Davis posted a .317/.380/.520 line at two minor-league stops with 19 homers and 42 stolen bases. Recalled by the Royals toward the end of August, he kept hitting to the tune of .344/.359/.508. His first big-league hit, a ground-rule double off White Sox reliever Dick Tidrow, sent the Kansas City crowd into a frenzy.

The future looked bright for the 1980 12th-round pick out of East Carolina. Still, even then, Bill James had concerns about the man he'd dubbed "Warm Front," noting that "his ability to hit off-speed stuff is questionable, but he looks like he might make a good living off of fastballs." Unfortunately, if James could spot Davis's trouble with off-speed stuff, then so could opposing pitchers. Also, he was already 25 years old.

Davis broke camp as the Royals starting left fielder in 1984. This was the first year I played rotisserie baseball, and if memory serves, someone (not me; my small-sample guy was Kevin Rhomberg, who didn't cost nearly as much) paid $18 for Davis. He hit .154/.228/.192 while playing every day in April. This earned him a spot on the bench, where he hit .141/.197/.250 from May to mid-July. This earned him a trip to Omaha, where he returned to the business of destroying Triple-A pitching.

For several years, Davis continued to toil in the minors, making occasional big-league cameos. After brief stops in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, he got the longest look of his career with the Texas Rangers in 1993. Davis hit .245/.273/.415 in 62 games that year, got into a handful more in 1994, and then retired at age 36. He finished with a career line of .243/.274/.380 in 485 plate appearances spread across parts of eight seasons. If you took Alex Gonzalez or Yuniesky Betancourt in 2011 and stuck him in left field, that's Butch Davis. —Geoff Young

6) Jeff Bianchi
As a Royals fan, I was so desperate that when Jeff Bianchi hit over .408 with power at the age of 18, I was convinced he was the Royals' shortstop of the future. Sure, it was just 122 plate appearances and it was the Rookie League, but I was at my wits’ end. The system had Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, but that was it, and Allard Baird was still the general manager. Baseball America mentioned Michael Young as a possible comparable. Bianchi was injury prone and, sure enough, he missed almost all of the 2006 season. When he came back—still at the Rookie level—he hit .429 in 54 plate appearances. .429! Sure, he'd only played a total of 40 games at the lowest level of organized baseball, but I was sold.

I began to freely tout him in my work whenever I could. Five years later, Bianchi still hasn't played above Double-A. After missing all of 2010 with yet another injury, he hit .259/.320/.333 in the Texas League last year. The Royals designated Bianchi for assignment in November and traded him to the Cubs, who put him on waivers, and he finally ended up with the Brewers. The Michael Young dream is dead, but at least the Royals have plenty of other shiny young things at which to look now, and I probably won't get so excited by 176 Rookie League plate appearances ever again. Unless I'm desperate. With the Royals, you never know.—Bradford Doolittle

7) Ryan Raburn
There is always a danger in giving up on a player because he has a bad month or a bad half season, but the same danger is present when you rely on a good month or a good half season. When the bad occurs, a team may cut or otherwise separate themselves from a player, and when the good occurs, they may give him a payday which he'll never live up to. No case illustrates this more than the perplexing case of the Detroit Tigers’ utility defender Ryan Raburn. To say that Raburn has shown flashes of brilliance is an understatement; unfortunately, there are also times when Raburn doesn’t seem fit to fetch Jim Leyland a pack of smokes, let alone play every day in the Major Leagues. In fact, his own General Manager Dave Dombrowski has said that, “Raburn's not an everyday second baseman. He has not been that type of guy. I think that Ryan has traditionally played better when he can play around and do different things, when you're not saying, 'You're the guy right there.' He's usually done better in that role." 

Apparently though, Dombrowski saw enough in the small sample of the second half of the 2010 season that he was rewarded with a two-year deal which saw him earn over $1 million annually for the first time in his career.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, Raburn’s 2011 much resembled his first half of 2010 (he actually got sent to AAA for a week to find himself) as he failed to hit until the summer heat arrived. To some, the Boys of Summer begin play in February in Florida and Arizona, but to Ryan Raburn, the season seems to begin in July. The question is, which small sample do you use to judge the worth and future of Ryan Raburn?

Yet despite his first half track record and Dombrowski's own words, the Tigers go into the 2012 season with Raburn all but penciled into Leyland's everyday starting lineup in the eternal hope that he will finally figure out how to hit during the first half of the season. —Adam Tower

8) Shane Spencer
Shane Spencer followed an extraordinarily unique career path. He broke ranks from the MLBPA during the 1994-5 strike but climbed his way through the minors, destroying Triple-A Columbus and finally getting consistent playing time as a rookie in September 1998 at age 26. As the Yankees had already wrapped up their spot in the playoffs, they gave Spencer plenty of playing time. To say he took advantage of it would be a gross understatement. In 42 September plate appearances, Spencer hit .421/.476/1.105 with eight home runs. His OPS in that magical 1998 season was an ungodly 1.321, which is slightly worse than the marks that Barry Bonds put up in 2001 and 2002. Yes, for one month, Shane Spencer was Barry Bonds. He made the playoff roster and hit two more home runs on the way to the Yankees winning the World Series.

Of course, Spencer could not keep up anything resembling the torrid pace he was setting in 1998. Although he gradually got more playing time over the next five years, his OPS+ never even got back to league average, much less the 236 mark he put up in a little over a month in 1998. The fact that he was never that hyped as a prospect due to his age only made his early success more stunning. Spencer’s brief but bright peak might be used as a danger about judging a player based on a small sample size, but sometimes it’s fun just to be along for the ride and the story. —Sam Tydings

9) Brian Bruney
I’m still carrying a torch for Brian Bruney. Well, maybe it’s not a torch. Maybe it’s more like a flickering match that wouldn’t survive a stiff breeze or another unsuccessful season. Whatever it is, it was lit late in 2006, when Bruney allowed two runs over 20 2/3 innings for the Yankees, striking out 25. It wasn’t just that Bruney pitched well. I grew up a few subway stops from Yankee Stadium during a dynasty, so I was used to seeing people pitch well. It was that he pitched well and was inexpensive, which was almost unheard of in the Bronx.

After their 2001 downfall—if you can call it a downfall, considering they still made the playoffs every season—the Yankees spent a lot of money on free agent relievers (not to mention free agent everything else). In 2006, they paid Mariano Rivera $10.5 million, a substantial sum for 75 innings, if not an unthinkable one for the best reliever in baseball. But they also paid Kyle Farnsworth $4.6 million to be borderline bad and got even less out of the $2.25 million they gave Ron Villone. Mike Myers made $1.15 million for 30 2/3 innings of lousiness against lefties. Tanyon Sturtze took home $1.5 million and allowed 10 runs in 10 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, Bruney mowed down hitters while making the major-league minimum after the Diamondbacks released him in late May and the Yankees pounced at the start of July. For once, they'd pulled some young, fungible talent out of another team’s trash instead of adding another Karsay or Quantrill to their own pile.

It couldn’t last, of course. Despite his ERA, Bruney didn’t seem quite as dominant as Joba Chamberlain would in 24 frames the following season, when he looked almost good enough to maintain his 0.38 ERA. Bruney walked too many batters (then as always), and he got by with a .271 BABIP and some good fortune on fly balls. It didn’t even take a change in luck for him to regress in 2007: his BABIP was the same, and he still kept a high percentage of his flies in the park, but he struck out fewer batters, and his ERA ballooned above average.

The nice thing about a small-sample success, as disappointing as it’s generally doomed to be, is that it can happen again, given enough time and a succession of sufficiently small samples. In 2008, Bruney posted another eye-popping ERA in a partial season, though this time it took a .188 BABIP. Last season, he allowed three runs in 20 2/3 Triple-A innings—20 2/3, just like in 2007—striking out 30. Now about to leave his twenties behind, Bruney will be in White Sox camp this spring after drifting from DC to Milwaukee to the Mets to Chicago in the few seasons after he hit arbitration and the Yankees gave up on his velocity-gifted, control-challenged arm. He probably won’t make Robin Ventura’s team, and if he does, he probably won’t stick for the season. But as long as Bruney is still bouncing around, I’ll be looking for another lightning strike. —Ben Lindbergh

10) Roger Freed
I grew up in rural southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1970s in what was the media equivalent of the Stone Age—no internet, no Twitter, no cable television, no satellite radio. A couple of things I did have were the APBA Baseball Game and The Sporting News. APBA is a simulation board game that is still sold today, though it is harder to find than in my youth. How accurate the game is has been open to debate over the years, but it was accurate enough for me. The Sporting News was a goldmine of baseball information, with reports on every team from newspaper beat writers and box scores from every game played the previous week.

One of my most indelible memories from reading TSN was that every spring there would be a dispatch from Florida talking about how rotund slugger Roger Freed was looking good in the Grapefruit League after tearing up Triple-A the year before. Freed, however, received 401 plate appearances for a dreadful Phillies team in 1971 but just 427 more in his other seven major-league seasons. Yet he had quite the 95 plate appearance cameo with the 1977 Cardinals, hitting .398/.463/.627. When his APBA card arrived in the mail the follow February, Big Roger looked better than Babe Ruth. I was convinced Freed was finally headed for stardom, not grasping back then that 31-year-old journeymen didn't turn into stars. Sure enough, Freed played just two more years in the majors, making 137 trips to the plate for the Cardinals before fading from view. With spring training now on the doorstep, I miss those stories about Roger Freed, though. —John Perrotto

11) Dan Pasqua
I know it seems like a petty thing to complain about given their 437 pennants and 396 championships, but the decade of the 1980s was a dry one for the Yankees. After losing ALCS in 1980 and the World Series in 1981, they spent the rest of the decade teasing but failing to make the postseason despite some pretty good teams. Lack of pitching was usually the culprit, followed by weak shortstops. Since the farm system was perpetually without first-round draft picks due to free agent signings and (though we didn’t know it then) collusion was limiting how much money George Steinbrenner could throw at the team’s problems, the only hope for the team to improve was for someone to bubble unexpectedly up from Columbus. Left fielder Dan Pasqua seemed like one such player.

Taken as a 20-year-old in the third round of the 1982 draft, Pasqua was only New York’s second pick due to their venting their first-round pick on Dave Collins in a misguided effort to become a Whitey Herzog team. They did better with their second-round choice, but failed to sign Bo Jackson. Finally, there was Pasqua, a local product drafted out of New Jersey’s William Paterson University (then William Paterson College; he is the only major leaguer from that institution). He hit .301/.358/.570 in 64 games spent mostly in the rookie leagues, and was named Appalachian League Player of the Year. He slugged .499 in A-ball in 1983, led the Southern League in home runs with 33 in 1984, and hit .321/.419/.599 at Triple-A in 1985, earning his second Player of the Year award and two big-league call-ups.

Pasqua hit only .209/.289/.426 in 60 games. The Yankees farmed him out after a poor spring training in 1986, but brought him back about a month later and he raked from then on, hitting .293/.399/.525 with 16 home runs in 280 at bats. He also walked 47 times. There were a lot of strikeouts, 78, and he had trouble making contact in the few at-bats he had against lefties, but he also slugged .451 against them. People spoke of him as a future cleanup hitter. I did too, and very excitedly, for the Yankees seemed to need a left fielder who had more power potential than an aging Ken Griffey Sr.

Alas: Pasqua never hit that well again. Left-handed hitters would be a career problem; he hit only .192/.275/.321 against them with 110 strikeouts in 386 at-bats. His overall batting average the rest of the way was .240 despite a manageable strikeout rate. As a defender, he was just a left fielder, though an adequate one, but knee injuries set in and diminished him there. He had off-field difficulties as well. The Yankees, is as their wont, grew tired of him when he opened 1987 in a severe slump, didn’t notice when he hit better after coming back, and made a typical Yankees trade, sending him to the White Sox for a faded pitcher, Rich Dotson. He had his moments in Chicago, did not reward their attempts to break him out of the platoon role, suffered many injuries, and was out of the majors at 32.—Steven Goldman

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