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June 3, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • The No-Longer-A-Rumor Trade: The Shea Hillenbrand for Byung-Hyun Kim trade is no doubt known to BP readers. The deal has been (and will continue to be) analyzed from every angle, with most of those on the stathead side of the debate coming down in favor of the Bosox. The central issue seems to be: How special of a player is Shea Hillenbrand?

    Hillenbrand had over 1300 plate appearances for the Red Sox in his three years in the majors, posting averages of .283/.317/.431 AVG/OBP/SLG, or, to use Marginal Lineup Value, a -0.020 MLVr, and 33.6 VORP. Including Hillenbrand, the Red Sox have had 13 players in their history who have amassed 700 at-bats playing primarily third base through age 28 (which Shea turns this July). Among those, Shea ranks 10th in VORP, just behind Scott Cooper. Now, some of the players ahead of him, such as Wade Boggs and Jim Tabor, had an extra 1500+ plate appearances in which to amass those totals. However, looking at MLVr (a rate-based stat, like OBP or OPS), Hillenbrand ranks 11th, one spot lower.

    You could make the argument that Shea didn't emerge into the player he is today until last year, in which case, his "career" rates are .295/.331/.455 AVG/OBP/SLG, 0.054 MLVr, and 38.7 VORP. Which raises his rank to 10th in MLVr, and 8th in VORP, without giving the same consideration of dropping early years to the remaining dozen Bosox third basemen.

    In Bosox 3B history, there's a clear separation between the group of players significantly more valuable than Hillenbrand, and those roughly comparable. The former group includes the obvious Wade Boggs and Carney Lansford, but also less familiar names like Larry Gardner, Jim Tabor, Harry Lord, Billy Werber, and Joe Foy. Only one player, Bobby Reeves, was clearly worse than Hillenbrand (-0.9 VORP, -0.171 MLVr).

    The two players closest to him on most of these rankings are Butch Hobson and Scott Cooper, two players who, in a way, set the bounds for Hillenbrand as a player. Hillenbrand has more power, though less on-base ability than Cooper, while having less power but more on-base ability than Hobson. And Hillenbrand is a better fielder than Hobson, but not as good as Cooper. And neither had lengthy or valuable careers after age 28.

    Hillenbrand's most optimistic credible scenario is probably that of yet another Bosox third baseman, and one who happens to be his best PECOTA-matching player--Frank Malzone. Malzone played his first full season at age 27 in 1957, and was, on balance, a league-average hitter and fielder for the either years he was a regular. Remarkably, he made the All-Star team six times, including four in a row from 1957 to 1960, perhaps to have someone to represent a lackluster Boston team besides the great Ted Williams. However, he was never the best third baseman in the American League, and only twice placed higher than 4th in 3B VORP in the considerably smaller AL of the time. Shea Hillenbrand is unlikely to play in six All-Star games, but he will probably be a league-average player for a number of years. And there's always the chance he could be a late bloomer, a la Luis Gonzalez (who never hit 20 HR in a season until age 30), although that could be said about any number of decent major league bats in their presumed prime years.

  • From The Mailbag: R.D. wrote in commenting on the past two Red Sox PTPs:
    "[] I also was not a big fan of the Jeremy Giambi comments from the May 6th PTP, which were based on some 50+ at bats in sporadic playing time. For example, calling his .291 OPS over a subset of the 50 at-bats (!) "stunningly desolate" was very odd; there's nothing "stunning" about a player's performance in some random subset of 50 at-bats."

    Sample size can explain a lot of variation, but rare events still happen, and they can still be considered surprising. Let's look at 2002:

    • Number of times a player got 50+ PA over a two-week period in 2002: 1039

    • Number of times those players who posted less than a 300 OPS: 1

    Is a one-in-a-thousand event uncommon enough to be stunning?

    Or, looking at it another way:

    • Lowest two-week OPS by a player posting a 750+ OPS for the 2002 season: 342 OPS

    • Number of times a 750+ OPS player posted < 450 OPS over 14 days: 10

    No player with even a merely average bat put together a two-week stretch within 50 points of Giambi's. And only 10 average or better hitters had a fortnight within 150 points of what Giambi's stretch had been.

    Your stun threshold may vary, but I'd still say a 291 OPS from Giambi over even as few as 50 PA is stunningly desolate.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Bright Spot: The Reds' pitching staff has been wretched all season long, but there have been a few positive signs in the bullpen. Felix Heredia and Scott Williamson have been solid contributors, and Gabe White has been one of the best relievers in the majors. Heredia shows every sign of being a fluke since his K/9 rate is below four and he is getting an insanely high percentage of ground balls, but the other two relievers are following their established history.

    However, having these solid relievers is not doing the Reds much good since they have one of the worst starting rotations in the majors. This raises the question: might the Reds be better off trying to convert White and Williamson to starters? Both pitchers have been starters at points in the past; Williamson fared well in 10 starts back in 2000. The biggest argument against the idea may be that it would take a while to work the pitchers into shape as starters--especially given that Williamson is coming off Tommy John surgery--to the point where the gains would be minimal. However if the Reds are going to take advantage of the weak NL Central this year and contend, they need to do something to patch the black hole that is their rotation.

  • Lineup Madness: Bob Boone has been coming under a lot of heat for sitting Adam Dunn recently, and deservedly so. However what he did when he put Dunn back into the lineup on Sunday is even more baffling: he put Dunn in the leadoff position. While we are hardly about to argue that a leadoff hitter needs to be speedy (most of the BP staff thought Jeremy Giambi in the leadoff spot was a reasonable move last year), it's absolutely essential that a leadoff hitter have a good OBP. While Dunn has been an on-base machine during his progress through the minors, this year has been a different story--just a .325 OBP. While his power still makes him a valuable member of the lineup, he'd have more value further down in the lineup, where he's more likely to have men on base when he comes up. If Boone was intent on putting someone unusual into the leadoff spot, Sean Casey would have been a better choice.

  • Upcoming Schedule: As always, the six-team NL Central is a nightmare when it comes to scheduling interleague games. As a result, the Reds play only 12 interleague games, together comprising a study in extremes. They start with series at home against the Yankees and streaking Blue Jays before going to Tampa and finishing with a series against Cleveland. For those who like high-scoring games, the series against Toronto should be one to look forward to. Toronto and Cincinnati are two of the five teams to have already allowed 300 runs, while the Blue Jays have scored more runs than any other team in the majors. The odds of a 10-8 slugfest or two are high.

San Diego Padres

  • Microstudy: The Padre bullpen is beginning to look historically bad. We noted their last-place-with-a-bullet standing in Relievers' Run Expectation last time around.

    But that's old news. Since then, Bam!--the relief corps has kicked it up a notch, Emeril style:

    
    Date    IP   ER   Dec
    5/21   2.2    6
    5/23   1.2    3    L
    5/25   5.0    6
    5/24   0.0    0*
    5/26   2.0    1
    5/27   0.2    2    L
    5/28   8.0    1    W
    5/29   0.1    0
    5/30   4.0    5
    5/31   3.0    3
     6/1   3.1    3
     6/2   4.0    0
    ---------------
    11    34.2   30 
    

    * In recognition of QuesTec Tantrum Day, Brian Lawrence gave the pen the night off.

    The beatings have been brutal, morale has not been improving, and after another ugly two weeks against teams that don't normally drop shock and awe on opposing pitching, the Padres are way out in front for the worst bullpen performance since Michael Wolverton started compiling RRE reports in 1998.

    Ten Worst Bullpens (by ARP/IP) in MLB, 1998-2003

    
    Team Year      IP     R    ARA     APR     RRA    ARP   ARP/IP
    SDP  2003   193.0   125   6.56   -40.8    6.85  -47.0   -0.244
    BOS  2003   178.3   118   5.79   -22.4    6.07  -28.0   -0.157
    FLA  1999   490.7   302   6.20   -57.9    6.45  -71.2   -0.145
    SEA  1999   471.0   337   6.08   -49.2    6.37  -64.1   -0.136
    PHI  2000   434.3   299   6.28   -52.1    6.42  -59.0   -0.136
    DET  2002   449.7   270   5.58   -46.1    5.86  -59.8   -0.133
    CHC  2002   469.0   277   5.67   -52.8    5.84  -61.3   -0.131
    NYM  2003   160.3    99   6.03   -24.4    5.84  -20.9   -0.130
    KCR  1999   485.3   336   5.97   -44.4    6.25  -59.6   -0.123
    BAL  2000   437.0   291   6.01   -39.5    6.28  -52.6   -0.120
    

    ARP/IP is Associated Runs Prevented/Innings Pitched; the Padres are allowing nearly a quarter of a run more than major league average for every inning their bullpen sees.

  • Lineup Changes: It's an old, hackneyed comic book plot device--when things look darkest, a hero emerges from the chaos to save us all. Will the crucible of the Padre bullpen frame the origin story of The Shooter's phoenix-like rebirth?

    On Monday, the Padres set the stage by sending Charles Nagy packing and signing Rod Beck to a major-league deal. Beck had fashioned a 0.59 ERA in his 21 games with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs this season, and despite his arm being a shadow of its once-formidable self, he's got a great chance to give the battered team a lift in the late innings. The Shooter's formidable control (7 BB in 30 IP with the Cubs) helps make up for his now pedestrian fastball, and his placement and pitch selection drew praise in Iowa.

    Beck immediately steps to the front of the line for whatever save opportunities the Padres can scrounge up. Whatever happens, he's a tremendously fun pitcher to watch, and he'll give fans of this moribund Padres team something else to root for in 2003.

    In other lineup news, the team is slowly but steadily upgrading its personnel as it struggles to recover from the rash of early-season injuries.

    • The Padres came out ahead in plucking center fielder Gary Matthews off the waiver wire and designating Shane Victorino; Matthews brings the defense and speed Victorino did, and he's much more of a threat to hit major-league pitching.

    • Scott Linebrink can pitch a little, which makes him a rare talent out of the San Diego bullpen.

    • Brian Tollberg rejoined the rotation on May 31, about a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. His rehab starts in Portland went fairly well:

      
      GS   IP   H  BB   K   ER   ERA
      4  23.1  19   4   9   10  3.84
      

      Tollberg's not a good bet to set the league afire, but that's not a bill he's ever filled. He is a much more qualified pitcher to face major-league bats than Randy Keisler, and he'll be given some time to recuperate on the job.

    To ice the good-news cake, endlessly rehabbing starter Carlton Loewer netted his first win since being an important part of the Andy Ashby trade with Philadelphia in 1999 with five strong innings against the D-Backs last night.

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