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September 11, 1998

Prospectus Notes - American League

Roberto Alomar, Chuck Knoblauch, Mariano Rivera, and the Texas bench

by Joe Sheehan

Decline at the Deuce?

In 1996, second basemen Roberto Alomar and Chuck Knoblauch were two of the six best players in the American League. Each was right in their prime, putting up a .900 OPS season and, rightly or no, hailed as defensive wizards.

Alomar 1996: .328/.411/.527, .318 EQA
Knoblauch 1996: .341/.448/.517, .316 EQA, 45/14 SB/CS

Two years later, both players are apparently in the throes of a fairly steep decline, one that further illustrates the difficulty second basemen have staying productive for more than 5-7 years.

Alomar 1997: .333/.390/.500, .309 EQA
Knoblauch 1997: .291/.390/.411, .288 EQA, 62/10 SB/CS

Alomar 1998: .286/.354/.421
Knoblauch 1998: .261/.357/.406, 27/12 SB/CS

Alomar, in particular, has fought nagging injuries throughout both 1997 and 1998. At 30, it's an open question about whether he'll be able to rebound enough to match both his reputation and what is likely to be a lucrative free agent contract. He's lost much of his power, the injuries have nibbled away at his already-overrated range and his speed is more perception than reality these days (41/14 SB/CS in the last three years).

Knoblauch, on the other hand, has been mostly healthy over the past three years. Maybe too much so through his 1994-1996 peak, when he played on the demanding turf of the Metrodome. While Knoblauch's secondary skills are still in evidence, his performance has fallen off. Part of the decline may be attributable to a change in approach after the big power surge of 1996. Either way, at 29, Knoblauch is unlikely to be a bargain for the remaining three years on his contract.

Both players are illustrative of the problems second basemen have maintaining high production levels over even a six- or seven-year period. The toll of the position works against long careers, retards the development of young second sackers and, as we see, may curtail the peak of even the best at the position.

Power Rangers

Johnny Oates and Doug Melvin have taken a lot of heat from analysts for their moves, both in Baltimore and Texas. But if you're Mr. Oates, in the fifth inning of a typical ballgame, you look down your bench and see the following:

Roberto Kelly: .319/348/.547
Bill Haselman: .299/.315/.563
Mike Simms: .297/.378/.601
Luis Alicea: .277/.371/.429
Lee Stevens: .256/.314/.484

The bullpen's setting more fires than Beavis, the starting lineup has some seriously overrated players, and only two starting pitchers have been useful at all. But that bench has been fantastic for the Rangers all season, and may collectively be the least-appreciated contributor to any contender in the game.

Whither Mariano's Ks?

Mariano Rivera's 1996 was a season for the ages, with 107.2 innings of 2.09 ball, most of them high-leverage. He allowed a mere 73 hits and struck out a whopping 130 batters, for a 10.86 K/9 ratio.

In last year's Prospectus, we noted that while Rivera had a good year on the surface, there was considerable decline in his performance as measured by his peripheral stats: he was much more hittable, both for average and power, and considerably less of a power pitcher. This was accompanied by a much smaller workload, as the Yankees moved the righthander into the closer role.

Rivera is once again among the league leaders in saves, and has an ERA that has hovered between 1.00 and 1.40 all year. But his strikeout rate has dipped to a mere 5.0 per nine innings. Over the past three years we've seen this dip:

1996: 10.86 K/9
1997: 8.54 K/9
1998: 5.00 K/9

Now, Rivera's other numbers have been more or less stable from 1997 to 1998, and his workload will be about the same. But a decline of over 50% in any pitchers' strikeout rate is an enormous warning sign. In a fastball pitcher with a declining workload it is potentially fatal. Rivera will be a very interesting player to watch in the postseason, as well as 1999 and beyond.

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

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