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April 18, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Favorite Player/Executive Attributes

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Giancarlo Stanton's Power
I fell in love with watching power hitters take batting practice in 1974 during a Sunday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates and Padres held a pre-game home-run derby and the participants included two first basemen named Willie, both of whom were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame (McCovey and Stargell), and two young outfielders named Dave, both of whom would emerge as superstars (Parker and Winfield). It was quite the sight to see them pepper the upper deck with home runs.

Nearly four decades later, my favorite player to watch take batting practice is Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. His swing looks so effortless, yet he routinely hits BP pitches over 400 feet. Stanton is just 22 years old and already has 56 major-league home runs to his credit. And who knows how many he has hit in batting practice. —John Perrotto

2. Sergio Romo's Slider
For all the intrigue surrounding Brian Wilson's beard and Tim Lincecum's Freak-ish-ness, the most interesting pitcher on the Giants roster might be Sergio Romo. Imagine a 29-year-old man with the ability to grow mutton chops that are the envy of anyone this side of General Ambrose Burnside. Now, imagine a man throwing a frisbee with pinpoint accuracy. And, finally, put those two things together: Voila, Sergio Romo.

A look at Romo's player card on Brooks Baseball yields some of the most eye-popping statistics you'll find on the site. During the 2011 season, when Romo posted an incredible 70-to-5 K/BB ratio over 48 innings, he threw his slider 53 percent of the time, one of the highest rates in the league. But this thing is no ordinary slider—it resembles something closer to a frisbee, moving more than a foot away from a right-handed batter, with late sink. Not surprisingly, righty hitters whiffed on more than half of their swings (52.24 percent) against it last year.

Here's Romo striking out the side on 12 pitches on June 10, planting fastballs on the outside black to Chris Heisey and Ryan Hanigan, before delivering the frisbee of death to Paul Janish. Here's Alberto Gonzalez looking silly in extra innings (1:15 mark) on July 6. Here's Scott Hairston looking even sillier in Romo's first save of the season on July 9.

If only Gen. Burnside had such a weapon at his disposal at Fredericksburg... —Daniel Rathman

3. Coco Crisp's Arm
The A's have a strong recent history of outfielders who have little business patrolling the pasture: Jason Giambi played left for a piece whilst blocked at first by Mark McGwire, Jack Cust spent some time in both outfield corners for reasons lost to the mists of time, and Ben Grieve, oh Ben Grieve. The immobile lefty with the sweet swing once claimed that he had a throwing arm worth talking about when he was drafted, only to see it disappear mysteriously while climbing the professional ladder, but I'm not sure that grafting Roberto Clemente's cannon onto Grieve's body could have salvaged his -17 run defensive season in 1998.

Erstwhile Oakland center-fielder Coco Crisp doesn't quite fit this pantheon of defensive laggards, but the tool that comes to mind as my favorite in all of baseball is Crisp's arm. It has never been clear to me how a major leaguer gifted with such athletic talents (+60 runs on defense for his career, 81 steals in 93 attempts the last two years) simply cannot throw the baseball. His motion is some sort of weird, over-the-top grenade-toss thing, and the ball comes out of his hand with zero explosion. It loops out. It goes nowhere. And it promptly dies, having barely known the world. It is, in other words, entirely delightful for those of us who value levity with a touch of the absurd in our baseball contests. —Jason Wojciechowski

4. Nate Schierholtz's Arm
It isn't that Nate Schierholtz has the strongest arm, the Rick Ankiel arm. He doesn't. Nate Schierholtz has the sneaky great arm, a strong and accurate arm and great footwork and a wonderful relationship with his home ballpark's right-field wall. Ryan Howard once lined a leadoff hit into the right-field corner, and Nate Schierholtz threw him out at second while Howard wasn't even bothering to look.

Two innings later, Howard again lined one to deep right field, another easy double, and this time Howard didn't even try it. He just stood at first base and watched Schierholtz field, spin, and fire another strong throw to second base.

The rest of the Phillies weren't as quick to learn. Chase Utley was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double in the ninth inning of the same game. Schierholtz started just 41 games in the outfield that year, and he threw out seven runners. In 2,300 career innings in right field—about 250 games worth—he has 27 assists, and he might have had 28 if Ryan Howard had been a bit more ambitious. —Sam Miller

5. Derek Jeter's Hit Tool
Jeter's defense isn't getting any better, but since returning from a calf strain last July—an absence during which he retooled his swing and arrested his slide into mediocrity with the stick—he's hitting .335/.385/.468 in 358 plate appearances, on par the best of his seasons of the past five years. With so much of the focus on what he doesn't do well—field, hit for power, draw a boatload of walks—it's still worth appreciating his signature skill as a pure hitter, one able to go the opposite way as reliably as he has pulled the ball over the course of his 18-season career:

Split

Pct PA

AVG

SLG

BABIP

Pulled

22.6%

.446

.631

.425

Up Middle

56.6%

.318

.430

.301

Opp Field

20.8%

.453

.709

.423

Jeter is as good as hitting 'em where they ain't as anyone who has come along in the past four decades. He ranks fourth in batting average on balls in play since 1901, with his career .355 mark behind only Ty Cobb (.383), Rogers Hornsby (.365), and Rod Carew (.359); it’s better than Ichiro Suzuki (.351) or Wade Boggs (.344) or anyone else you'd care to name. He's already past 3,100 hits, with an excellent chance at a top-10 spot (3,316 or more), and a fighting chance to surpass Stan Musial (3,630) for fourth on the all-time list before the end of his current contract. If this era has a Hit King, as skilled in the basic art of bat meets ball, it's Jeter. —Jay Jaffe

6. Ichiro Suzuki's Bat Control
I'm worried my selection for favorite tool might be disappearing—whether due to age, or perhaps to pumping out 3,718 hits (and counting) across MLB and NPB. After years of seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleased with his bat, Ichiro's skills at the plate seem to be fading. At his best, he was an absolute magician, capable of hitting a pitch that bounced. Yes, we've all heard the jokes about how he could hit 50 home runs if he wanted to, but watching Ichiro bat, whether in batting practice or in the game, makes me want to believe he really could. And it's a little sad to see such an amazing thing fade away. —Dan Turkenkopf

7. Josh Tomlin's Control
Josh Tomlin walked 3.2 percent of the batters he faced last season. Yuniesky Betancourt has walked in 3.3 percent of his career plate appearances. When facing Tomlin, whose walk rate was the DH league’s lowest last season, batters collectively become Betancourt with better power. The “better power” part is important, and it helps explain why Tomlin’s impeccable control hasn’t made him a star. If you gave a pitcher with better stuff that kind of control, it wouldn’t be fair to batters. A completely hypothetical super-pitcher with Tomlin’s control and the ability to miss bats and get grounders would probably pitch a perfect game and win multiple Cy Young awards and have a nickname like “Doc.” Tomlin doesn't even have a nickname, let alone those other things. His control is incredible, but it’s also the only thing keeping him in uniform.

Tomlin had the fifth-slowest average fastball velocity of any non-knuckleball pitcher who threw at least 150 innings in the AL last season. He also had the fifth-highest home-run rate. In fact, Tomlin allowed more home runs than walks, even if you count the two intentional passes Manny Acta asked him to issue.* Those home runs hurt him, but not nearly as much as they would have had he put more runners on. On the whole, Tomlin is, at best, a mediocre pitcher. If his BABIP regresses, he’ll be less than that. But he does do one thing better than almost anyone else, and I enjoy that ability all the more because he’s unremarkable in all other respects.

* There’s something profoundly wrong with telling Tomlin to walk someone intentionally, like relieving Old Hoss Radbourn or getting one of the Goonies to say die. Ben Lindbergh

8. Mariano Rivera's Cutter
Do I honestly have to explain this one? Louisville Slugger has doubtlessly become Mo's biggest fan since he learned a cut fastball that also serves as a buzz saw to left-handed hitters' bats. As Michael Kay is always keen to point out when the opening chords of "Enter Sandman" fill Yankee Stadium, Rivera has fashioned a career by primarily throwing a single pitch. Sure, Mo has other pitches in his repertoire, including a two-seam fastball, but hitters usually have a fair idea of which pitch will be coming at them when they step to the plate. Do I really need to repeat the results, too? Okay, put on some sunglasses and be dazzled by some career totals: 605 saves, a 1.00 WHIP, 4.03 K/BB, 2.22 ERA (2.81 FIP), 0.5 HR/9, and a 205 ERA+. 

Aside from the annual What's Wrong With Mariano Week, Mo is seemingly unhittable on the mound, serving as the ultimate contrast to David Robertson's Houdini act. And Mo is going to pitch forever, right? —Stephani Bee

9. Theo Epstein's Cool
I'll define "cool" as being relaxed, avoiding freakouts when things get dicey, and remaining above the fray. There are probably people cooler than Theo Epstein. Maybe in baseball even. But I sure can't think of any. When Epstein took over the GM job in Boston, he was 28. The local media referred to him somewhat derisively as "The Kid." He won a World Series the next year, and another three years following that. After that, he was Mr. Epstein. Could've been Your Honor or Your Greatness if he wanted, but why bother when everyone already knows it?

In between World Series wins, he called the team owner's bluff and escaped his job and Fenway Park in a gorilla suit. What's cooler than that? Nothing. Nothing is cooler than that. Of course, he got his job back when he wanted it and probably with more money and a trained hairless cat to sit on his lap during Baseball Ops meetings. That seems safe to assume. "Cool" is also looking like you don't care when you really do. When the Cubs opened Wrigley this year, the picture on the cover of one of the local papers was of Epstein confidently striding across Lake Michigan with Chicago in the background. He was looking ahead and a little upward, as if to say, "I'm aware I'm walking on water right now, but that doesn't matter. The Cubs matter, and we're going places." They are. Also, I'm not totally sure that picture was Photoshopped. In the end, you can have a winning team without a cool GM. Heck, you can win the World Series without a cool GM. But who would want to?—Matthew Kory

10. Cole Hamels' Changeup
Pitchers don't "have" pitches. Pitches inhabit the husks of healthy arms and elbows for periods of time. Sometimes, they come and go quickly and then disappear into the corn fields. Other times, they are passed on from one pitcher to the next like so many L. Ron Hubbard creations. Cole Hamels grew up in San Diego, where his role model was Trevor Hoffman. And Trevor Hoffman always had one pitch in the same way that The Ramones had one song or George Romero has one movie. So despite his high school injuries and other setbacks, Hamels nevertheless developed one of the most effective secondary offerings of any pitcher in the 2002 draft. Did Hoffman's changeup slowly pass from Hoffman's body into Hamels' sometime in the mid-2000s? No, the timelines don't quite work out, but the coincidence makes it too good to check. And while it is by no means the only weapon available to Hamels, the change of speed has been his most devastating offering since he entered the league in 2006.

You have to understand: Cole Hamels' changeup is probably the best single pitch in baseball. In 2011, he threw it for a ball less than any of his other three pitches; it was four times more likely to result in a ground ball than a fly ball, and 29 percent of all batters who faced the pitch swung and missed. It's not a surprise pitch, either. Hamels relies on his change as his primary out pitch. He keeps it low in the zone; his arm action is fast, and the circle grip he learned from his high school pitching coach makes sure it fades away from righties. Why else would right-handed batters have posted an OPS of 577 against him in 2011? Because the changeup dies 20 feet from the plate, two feet off the ground, going about 84 mph. And by the time the hitter gets the guitar line from "Hells Bells" out of his ears, he's sitting back in the dugout and pondering his oh-fer. —Tommy Bennett

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