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May 20, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • Big Surprise: After commenting on Jeremy Giambi's wretched start in the last Bosox PTP, naturally Giambi caught fire--he's hitting .360/.484/.800 in May, raising his overall OPS to a respectable 822 despite a .205 batting average. His current OBP/SLG of .356/.466 are very much in line with his career rates of .379/.439.

  • Amazing Game: May 11th, 2003, vs. Minnesota. The Red Sox fell behind 8-0 after 4 innings, and 9-1 after 5 innings, with Derek Lowe getting pounded for 10 hits and eight runs in four innings of work. Boston scored in every inning from the 5th on, including six runs in the last three innings, powered by home runs from Jeremy Giambi (2), Bill Mueller, and Jason Varitek. They entered the 9th down by three runs, and after two quick outs managed to scratch out two runs on three hits and a walk before Eddie Guardado was able to close the door, leading to one of the uglier pitching lines for a pitcher getting the save:
    
    MINNESOTA          ip  h  r  er bb so hr
    E Guardado (S, 8)   1  3  2  2  1  1  0
    
    

  • Streaks: Boston has not lost more than two games in a row all season long--the only American League team that can make that claim (the Cubs are the only NL team). Boston's seven-game winning streak earlier in the year is tied for the second longest in the majors this season, behind only the Royals nine-game win streak.

  • From the Clubhouse: Robert Person has joined the team, and will pitch out of the bullpen, perhaps eventually taking over as closer. The only season Person has been exclusively a reliever in the majors came in 1998, pitching in 27 games for the Blue Jays. That year, he posted career-worsts in ERA (7.04), HR rate (2.11 HR/9IP), and hits per inning allowed (10.57/9IP), and his second-worst SO/BB ratio (1.65, ahead of only his 2002 SO/BB of 1.20). However, 38 innings from five years ago is too small and too old a sample to be of much use in predicting how he'll fare.

  • Trade Rumors: Shea Hillenbrand continues to be the primary trade bait for the Sox, rumored at various times to be headed to the Mets in an Armando Benitez deal, or to the Cubs in a three-way with the Reds. But if the Sox aren't careful his market value could plummet soon. His batting average has dropped 40 points the past two weeks (he hit .338/.387/.495 in April, .231/.255/.328 so far in May), and he hasn't homered since April 25th.

  • Finance/Economics: The Red Sox, traditionally thought of as a good draw on the road, are 18th in the majors in average road attendance so far this year. This is probably just one of the vagaries of early-season scheduling results, as the Red Sox have played a disproportionate number of their away games against the lesser drawing teams; three games at each of Toronto, Minnesota, Kansas City and Baltimore, and four games at Tampa Bay, three games each at Anaheim and Texas).

  • From the Mailbag: Responding to the May 6th Red Sox PTP, G.B. wrote on May 7th:
    BP: "If Manny Ramirez (28 career SB, and none since 2001) starts stealing, I'll start to suspect that Theo Epstein has hired Mike Jittlov as a consultant." From today's box score--"M Ramirez (1, 3rd base off K Snyder/M Difelice)." Wow, I am impressed. Perhaps it's time to start an investigation.

    An investigation is indeed warranted. The supersleuths in BP's crime lab found the following incriminating photo of Jittlov, low budget special-effects hero and maker of the cult film The Wizard of Speed And Time which confirms our suspicions:

Cincinnati Reds

  • Star Performers: In the Top 40 Prospects section of Baseball Prospectus 2002, Rany Jazayerli stated: "There is an incredibly high possibility--maybe as high as 50%--that the Reds' outfield, circa 2004, will rank as one of the greatest of all time." While it is still a bit premature to start actively running the data to see how the current outfield compares, it's safe to say that if they do wind up falling short of that mark, it will be because of Ken Griffey, Jr., a statement that even two years ago would have been laughable. Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns are both putting up slugging percentages in the vicinity of .600 despite both being only 23 years old. (In the case of Kearns turning 23 today.) While there have been cases of young players who have failed to live up to early major league production, in the vast majority of cases, young players who can put up those sorts of numbers become major stars. Even more impressive is the fact that Kearns has done a solid job filling in for Griffey in center field without harming his offensive production. If Griffey's injuries continue to be a concern, the Reds may want to consider moving Kearns to center permanently and moving Griffey somewhere where he's less likely to injury himself.

    Backing up the big two in the outfield has been Aaron Boone. Although he posted career highs in doubles and homers last year, those increases were entirely due to increased playing time, and all of Boone's rate stats declined significantly from the previous two years. The month of April looked like more of the same, but so far in May Boone has produced at an otherworldly .344/.425/.875 rate. No one not named Bonds can keep up that pace for any length of time, but at least for now, Boone's production is helping to drag the Reds back into the muddled NL Central race.

  • Wretched Performance: Dragging just as hard in the opposite direction has been the entire Reds pitching staff. As of right now, the Reds starting rotation ranks as the worst in the majors. The rotation is noteworthy for being poor across the board, ranging from the inconsistent (Danny Graves) to the flat out wretched (Ryan Dempster). Unfortunately for the Reds there is no realistic sign of any immediate help at Louisville either, so Don Gullett has his work cut out for him. If the Reds are to have any hope of staying in the race, Gullett needs to find some way to get at least consistently above-average performance out of some of the rotation.

    There had been speculation that the Reds might experiment with a four-man rotation this season, but now would not be a good time for such an experiment. The proper time to try that would be with a rotation with a wide variation between the best and worst starters. Right now the marginal gain from the fifth starter to the remaining pitchers getting the extra starts is so small that it would be hard to tell what effect the move to the four-man would have.

  • At the Ballpark: After the opening series between the Pirates and the Reds, the media was quick to proclaim that the Great American Ballpark was a bandbox and would lead to wildly inflated offensive numbers that might rival Planet Coors. As always, trying to draw conclusions off of a single series has proved extremely risky.

    Through Sunday's game, the Reds have played 22 games at home and 22 on the road, so a quick comparison is quite possible. So far the Reds have produced better at home, but not significantly so, with the team OBP rising by only six points and the team SLG rising by only seven points. Furthermore the Reds have actually scored two more runs on the road than at home. In addition the Reds' opponents have actually produced better away from the GABP, albeit by almost the identical tiny amount. Park factors can be spectacularly volatile with limited data, especially early in the season when weather conditions can vary wildly from one day to the next, so in the long run the park may turn out to be a hitters' park. However any comments to that effect so far are definitely jumping the gun.

San Diego Padres

  • Lineup Changes: Got a while?

    The Padres are mired in a disastrous stretch--a 3-15 May has dropped them to 13-31, the worst record in the National League--and the roster shuffle has begun in earnest. For those of you scoring at home, pitchers Clay Condrey, Mike Bynum, Roger Deago, and Brandon Villafuerte have all been demoted or placed on the disabled list, with Charles Nagy, Carlton Loewer, and Randy Keisler joining the big-league team. To complete the pitching upheaval, Adam Eaton comes off the DL to start for the Padres today in Milwaukee.

    Two of Nagy, Keisler, and Loewer will join Eaton, the suddenly struggling Brian Lawrence, and Jake Peavy in a rotation that has gone from young and promising to a fire hazard in less than a month. The starting five will struggle on, with the added pressure of knowing any lead they hand to the very disappointing bullpen is unsafe by definition--the pen was responsible for 153 innings (fourth in the majors) of the worst relief pitching in the game as this was written. In fact, the bullpen is more than 10 runs worse than anyone else in the majors by Michael Wolverton's RRE. At a win per 10 runs, that's 2.5 games given away versus the average major league team from the bullpen alone. To add insult to injury, the Padres also demoted their third-most effective reliever when they sent catcher Wiki Gonzalez--who pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a blowout 15-6 loss to the Braves on May 15--to Portland.

    With the horror show in full swing, it wasn't a surprise that pitching coach Greg Booker was shown the door on May 17, despite continued support from manager Bruce Bochy. As Booker pointedly noted, he didn't exactly have the Yankees pitching staff to work with. That doesn't change the fact that things scarcely could have turned out worse in the first two months, whether Booker was working with the Nasty Boys or the Bad News Bears. Double-A Mobile pitching coach Darren Balsley was promoted to the majors to replace Booker. Balsley has a good rapport with most of the Padres' promising young pitchers, having worked with them in Mobile; what he doesn't come with is an effective short man or three, which is what the team really needs.

    It's easy to blame roster construction for the pitching fiasco that the Padres have faced in 2003, but consider this: If Luther Hackman's balky shoulder forces him to the DL, the Padres' arguable top five relief pitchers will be unavailable for duty, as he'd join Villafuerte, Jay Witasick, Kevin Walker, and Trevor Hoffman on the list. It'd be tough for even the deepest team in the league to begin to compensate for that loss.

    At the same time, when does this kind of turnover become a systemic injury or talent evaluation problem? The Padres used a league-record 37 pitchers in 2002; in 2003, they're already at 18. The poor choices to sink millions into middling players with little leverage (Kevin Jarvis, Gonzalez) have necessitated trades like this off-season's Brett Tomko/Hackman deal, further depleting the organization's depth.

    The immolation of the 2003 San Diego staff still looks like a lethal mix of bad luck and a shallow organizational talent pool born of a constricted payroll, but that's not exactly a unique occurrence in major league baseball. Whether there's a larger, scarier problem under the surface is something we'll be keeping an eye on.

  • Streaks: the Padres have had four separate losing streaks of five games or more so far in 2003. The team had five in all of 2002.

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