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September 6, 2002

Breaking Balls

Sleepless in Seattle

by Derek Zumsteg

Certainty changes everything. Baseball's exciting, if for no other reason, because the Devil Rays--an abjectly bad franchise--can beat the Yankees every couple of times they meet. Unlike in football, the outcome of a single contest between a defending champion and a perennial cellar-dweller is relatively uncertain, thus every game has the ability to provide a legitimate sense of drama. It's the lack of certainty that makes it the greatest sport in the world. On that note, however, watching the A's rack up wins as the Mariners continue to struggle has begun to make me numb. Every game, the A's are victorious. They're not playing out of their minds--or like they're in another league--they're just winning every single game they play, and it's scary. Intellectually I know that there's luck, chance, and the simple fact that teams go on tears once in a while, but in my gut I know that the A's are going to win tonight, simply because they're taking the field.

That said, the A's success really makes being a fan of any other team in competition with them hard. Every Mariners game for three weeks now has gotten more depressing. In fact, I've taken to watching this Mariners road trip flipping back and forth to ESPN to see the current A's score. When the A's are behind, I've found hope, but even then I dread knowing they're just coming back. Because, you see, they win every game.

In the beginning, I thought the A's would flounder--their outfield sucked and they had no bullpen. And yet, in the back of my mind, I knew that Eric Chavez wasn't going to be cold forever, that Jermaine Dye would return, and that even if they couldn't figure out who was going to play second they'd make an absurdly good trade to get someone. It was just a question of when.

I look at the scores each morning and sigh. It was bad around five games, as the Mariners started to play some terrible baseball (Piniella: "I don't know why we're not hitting. Go to the locker room, ask the players. Why do you ask me this every night?"), and it only got worse.

Mike Cameron's way off his form, including a June where he went .191/.255/.383 and the people in the stands were suggesting the team should DH for him and let the pitchers bunt. What's happened? He's seemed more passive, watching perfectly good pitches go past, swinging weirdly through fastballs and breaking balls alike. There's something in particular going on, though: in April he got a contact lens for his right eye after the team eye doctor examined him and found his right eye was 'different' from his left.

"It's been so long, it felt natural to me," Cameron said of the vision problem. "Dr. Nikatani found out what I was trying to tell everybody. I was not picking up the spin or the speed of the ball. I was just able to get by." Then he went out and hit four home runs in one game a week later. But having gone through eye problems myself, I can't imagine that trying to adjust to vision correction mid-season is easy. His lines, month-by-month, post-vision diagnosis:

         AVG  OBP  SLG
May     .217 .339 .467
June    .191 .255 .383
July    .267 .379 .477
August  .273 .364 .468

Edgar Martinez came back into the lineup in mid-June and was in the starting lineup in July. Now, in the annual we've talked about Cameron learning from Edgar, but can his presence in the lineup mean that much to him?

Maybe. I pulled some data from game logs--which means these are a bit off, since they don't have HBP/SF/so forth--and there certainly appears to be a difference in production when Edgar's around compared to when he's not.

Through August 28, 2002:

					  AVG  OBP  SLG
Games where Edgar gets at least 2 ABs*:  .270 .384 .474
Games where Edgar sits:                  .220 .303 .459

* I picked 2 to exclude the 1 AB-per-game of pinch-hitting he did coming off the DL.

That's an increase of 50 points of batting average, 30 points of on-base percentage, and 15 points of slugging goodness over a sample size of over 225 PAs both ways. It's the most interesting Cameron-related stat I turned up.

Even with his offensive struggles, though, Cameron's still one of the best center fielders in baseball: a guy who, defensively, gets to balls standing up that other players make highlight catches on, and offensively--using park-adjusted stats--is still about eighth in baseball, which isn't too shabby. It's not like he's Carl Everett out there (well, there's also the Cameron-as-sane-and-cool-guy thing, too).

In truth, though, I think he's unlucky--that he's a guesser. He goes up there looking for a pitch he wants, and if it looks like the pitch, he's after it. He's been a big strikeout man his whole career, which makes these slumps look especially bad. For whatever reason, people seem to have a lot more tolerance for a player who makes weak ground-outs and popouts to second base than a guy like Cameron, because they put the ball in play. Sure, maybe the scouting's caught up to him and they've figured out a way to beat him at rock-paper-scissors consistently, but how long could that sort of advantage keep up?

That said, I don't think that his offensive ascent is over, and I fully expect his 2003 to look a lot more like his 2000 or 2001 than 2002. But for now, the M's have to hope he's finally getting used to two-eyed vision as they struggle to get into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Bret Boone's come on strong the last two months to salvage a good season that started terribly. As we wrote in BP2002, it appears his 2001 performance against lefties--a Bondsian .444/.497/.715 that drove his season line into the historic--was a fluke. This year he's returned to a much more reasonable .289/.363/.547--still ahead of his career numbers against lefties, but much more in line with his true level of ability.

And then there's Jeff Cirillo. Yeah, I thought this was a good idea before the season started. And yeah, I feel really dumb now. Cirillo's said the departure from altitude was far tougher than he'd imagined it would be, and that he thinks it'll take a year or longer to get adjusted, during which he's going to need to put on 20lbs of muscle ("the natural way," he added). Anyone who knows what to make of him, and whether he's going to come around before he's chased from town by a torch-wielding populace, drop me a line, because I'm stumped.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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Swinging for the Hall (09/05)
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Breaking Balls: Though... (08/29)
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2002-09-09 - The Week In Quotes: September 2-8
2002-09-06 - Breaking Balls: Sleepless in Seattle
2002-09-03 - The Week In Quotes: August 26-September 1
2002-08-29 - Breaking Balls: Thoughts on Strike's Eve
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