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May 14, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Noteworthy Performance (I): He's having a fine season at the plate, but it's pretty clear that Andruw Jones' defense isn't what it used to be. Pick any metric you like, and the downward trend is clear.
    
    Zone Rating
    2001    .888
    2002    .876
    2003    .773
    
    Range Factor
    2001    2.95
    2002    2.71
    2003    2.46
    
    Percentage of Braves' outfield putouts recorded by center fielder
    2001    41.9%
    2002    41.1%
    2003    37.8%
    
    
    Jones' loss of foot speed is apparent from his other metrics, too--he's only attempted one steal this year (he was caught), doesn't have any triples, and has become far more of a flyball hitter. Jones adaptation into a more traditional slugger might well be a successful one, but the next couple of Gold Gloves he wins may be based more on reputation than reality.

    Noteworthy Perfomance (II): Few sluggers do more with less than Gary Sheffield. We live in an era in which productivity and strikeouts go hand in hand, but there are exceptions, and none more consistently than Sheffield, whose tremendous bat speed allows him to hit plenty of long balls while avoiding whiffs.

    Is there a stat for evaluating this stuff? Oh, well, let's make one up:

    DiMaggio Ratio = Bases Gained (TB+BB) / Strikeouts. Here were the leaders in 2002:

    
    Barry Bonds            11.06
    Paul LoDuca             8.61
    Jason Kendall           8.38
    Randall Simon           7.80
    Mike Sweeney            7.09
    Fernando Vina           7.06
    Vladimir Guerrero       6.40
    David Eckstein          6.39
    Gary Sheffield          6.11
    Placido Polanco         6.02
    
    
    As you'd expect from a contrived stat, it's a strange group--how often do you see Barry Bonds, Randall Simon, and David Eckstein on the same list?--but Sheffield has consistently ranked among the league leaders in the category. He has struck out just eight times this year, putting his DiMaggio Ratio at 11.75, better than Barry Bonds' remarkable season of a year ago, but still short of Joe D's career number of 12.84.

    Hall-of-Famer?: OK, so it's premature to be doing something like this, but since it's pretty much acknowledged that Dennis Eckersley will be elected to the Hall of Fame later this year, it's worth nothing that the comparison to John Smoltz is growing stronger with each save.

    
    Eck, '75-'86 (starter)   151-128, 3.67 ERA, 2.6 K/BB ratio
    Eck, '87-'98 (reliever)  46-43, 2.96 ERA, 387 Sv, 6.8 K/BB ratio
    
    Smoltz, '88-'99           157-113, 3.35 ERA, 2.7 K/BB ratio
    Smoltz, '01-'03 (to date) 6-5, 3.03 ERA, 80 saves, 4.4 K/BB ratio
    
    
    Sure, Smoltz still has a long way to go to match Eckersley's exploits as a closer, but he's off to a running start, ranking as one of the best relievers in the game according to both traditional and modern metrics, and had a better run than Eck did as a starter. Facial hair needs work, though.

    Upcoming schedule: The Braves embarked on a nine-game road trip on Monday, taking them to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Cincinnati, which is only fair since no team has played more games at home so far this season. The heavy dose of southern comfort is one minor reason behind the Braves' successful start to the season, but as anyone who has endured Atlanta in the summer will tell you, the Braves are doubtless much obliged for the schedulemakers' hospitality. Don't be surprised if Chipper Jones slips a little bit on the trip to Cali, though, since he's a big fan of the home cookin'.

Minnesota Twins

  • Amazing Game: Well, maybe not so much "amazing" as "nerve-wracking." On May 11, the Twins and Red Sox met up for a Sunday Night Slugfest, featuring two pitchers--Boston's Derek Lowe and Minnesota's Brad Radke--who depend more on the performance of their defense than on their own ability to sit hitters down.

    As I'm sure many of you saw that night on ESPN, the Twins started off the game with a commanding lead, grabbing one run in the first inning, four runs in the second, and three runs in the fourth. With the score 8-0, and with Todd Zeile-wannabe Bruce Chen entering the game for the BoSox, it appeared as if Minnesota had the contest in the bag.

    But then the Red Sox began clawing their way back. Home runs from Bill Mueller, Jeremy Giambi, and Jason Varitek helped cut the Sox' deficit to four runs; and with the help of BP favorite Shea Hillenbrand, Boston drew within one run in the bottom of the ninth against closer Eddie Guardado.

    But alas, that's as close as the Red Sox would come--as the Twins managed to hold on for the 9-8 victory, and take the final game of a three-game series.

    It wasn't pretty, but it sure made for an entertaining Sunday night.

  • Amazing Game, Part II:

    Boston @ Minnesota - May 9, 2003

    
    Team        1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9   R H E
    -------------------------------------
    Boston      0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0   0 5 1  
    Minnesota   1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 X   5 8 1
    
    
    Now this box score might not seem terribly "amazing" to the lot of you, but the fact of the matter is that it is a record of the most impressive thing the Twins have done all season: give Johan Santana a start in the rotation.

    And what a surprise...No runs were allowed.

    If the Twins are serious about catching the Royals in the AL Central and eventually playing games in October, the first thing they need to do is move Santana into role that allows him to pitch more than four innings per week. With such tateriffic alternatives as Brad Radke (11 HR allowed in 47.2 IP) and Joe Mays (8 HR allowed in 46.1 IP) taking up the bulk of the team's innings, the Twins are simply failing to maximize the performance they're getting out of their pitchers--opting for loyalty over actual production.

  • Star Performer: Currently the team leader in batting average, Jacque Jones has been one of the lone suppliers of offensive production this season for the Twinkies, save the brief liberation of one Bobby Kielty.

    That said, there are a number interesting points within Jones' 2003 performance that would seem to suggest that a dropoff is imminent.

    1. Jones' platoon split. For one, Jacque Jones has been way over his head this season against lefties (.310/.333/.452)--posting an OPS of more than 200 points higher than his established level of ability. If you think that's going to last, you've got another thing coming.

    2. Jones' control of the strike zone (or lack thereof). Where before this season Jacque Jones could best be categorized as an impatient hitter who walked in less than 10% of his plate-appearances, in 2003 he's taken it to a whole other level. In more than 130 at-bats this season, Jones has walked a grand total of three times while striking out 30 times--a K/BB ratio of 10:1.

    Jacque Jones has always been an interesting player with a unqiue statistical makeup. Nevertheless, until he reverses what appears to be a negative trend within his performance, the chances of him remaining a productive major-league outfielder are about as good as my chances of winning at Powerball.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Star Performer: Sorry to disappoint those of you expecting to see "This space intentionally left blank," but Aubrey Huff is following up nicely on last year's breakthrough second half. Huff's offense has been major league caliber for a while now, but the Devil Rays haven't been able to settle on a position for him. The defensive roulette continued this season when he was moved back across the diamond to third base to accommodate Travis Lee, a.k.a. J.T. Snow Lite. A week into the campaign, Lou Piniella had seen enough and declared Huff a right fielder though he had never played there before. Huff has adapted surprisingly quickly to the outfield, and while his bat was an asset at first base, it's in the upper strata of his new position. His 7.8 runs above position (RAP) ranks second among American League right fielders.

    Before the season began and the club started filling the fewest seats in the majors, Devil Rays' management made noise about boosting their miniscule payroll next year. Should they follow through on that threat, they might want to throw some money Huff's way. At age 26, he has a few All-Star games in his future. The organization claims that it is now committed to building from within. Showing that commitment by locking up the best homegrown player in franchise history through his arbitration years would add some teeth to that claim.

  • Sticking with a Plan: Since joining the league in 1998, no team in baseball has been worse at formulating a long-term plan and seeing it through than the Devil Rays. So, at first blush, the fact that the club will be auditioning its ninth starting pitcher later this week doesn't seem to indicate that anything has changed. Thus far, though, Piniella has kept at least three youngsters in his five-man rotation at all times-a trend that he says will continue even though Victor Zambrano and Jorge Sosa were recently optioned to Triple-A Durham.

    Piniella has historically had a short fuse with struggling, inexperienced pitchers, and according to Support-Neutral totals, Devil Ray starters rank dead last in the AL. Yet, Piniella has been surprisingly reserved in the Tampa Bay papers (the calm before the storm?). It will be interesting to see if he and pitching coach Chris Bosio can gradually turn the organization's stable of young arms into useful big league hurlers, or if Dave Burba and Andrew Lorraine are haunting The Trop by mid-summer.

  • Prospect Update: Unlike the lesser sports, baseball players can't survive purely on athletic ability at the major league level. Consequently, first round draft picks get a brief splash of publicity on draft day, and after signing are shunted off to some semi-rural landscape to learn their craft in relative obscurity for a few years. And so we find B.J. Upton currently toiling in the land of cotton.

    The first prepster selected and the second player tabbed overall in June 2002, Upton has compared himself to Derek Jeter, as do many scouts. Despite signing too late to play last year, Upton is taking cuts in the Low-A Sally League less than a year out of high school, just like his idol. His .235/.369/.370 line at Charleston falls a bit short of Jeter's .295/.364/.394 full-season debut, but considering the league and Bossman Junior's age (he doesn't turn 19 until late August) and complete lack of pro experience, he's off to a very promising start.

    Most encouraging is that Upton sees a lot of pitches and works deep into the count, resulting in 26 walks in only 119 at bats. That's especially noteworthy in a Devil Rays' organization not known for emphasizing patience at the plate.

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