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June 11, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Outstanding Performance: It's not every day that we honor a player in two consecutive PTP sessions, but Javy Lopez' performance warrants it. After missing four games due to a sore hamstring, Lopez returned over the weekend to smack five homers in three games, giving him 18 on the season. He's now on pace to finish with 48 for the season, an improvement of 37 over his output from last year.

    We don't mean to make excuses for PECOTA--which was really down on Javy--any more than we need to, but it's a system that works based on carefully-selected historical precedents, and Lopez' performance has been rather unprecedented. Here are the players who improved their home run production the most at age 32:

    
    Top HR Gainers, Age 32
    
    Player          Year    Age 31  Age 32  Delta
    Greg Vaughn     1998    18      50      +32
    Andre Dawson    1987    20      49      +29
    Frank Thomas    2000    15      43      +28
    Bob Cerv        1958    11      38      +27
    Walker Cooper   1947    8       35      +27
    Andre Thornton  1982    6       32      +26
    
    
    Most of these guys had strong track records as power hitters prior to their recovery year at age 32. Cerv is an exception, but 1958, remarkably, was the first time (and the second-to-last time) that he'd have a starting role for a full season. Walker Cooper is the only catcher on the list and makes for an interesting precedent, but even in his case, there are extenuating circumstances, as he was playing in his first full season back from the War.

    Hold on. The BP computer is slow today. Another name is popping up on the screen.

    
    Player            Year      Age 31   Age 32   Delta
    Brady Anderson    1996      16       50       +34
    
    

  • MicroStudy: Greg Maddux has always had a reputation as being something of a flake, but as Michael Wolverton's stats confirm, his performance this year has been worthy of the label. Entering his Tuesday night start at Oakland, Maddux had registered quality starts in half of his 14 tries, not a great ratio, but better than what you'd expect from a guy sporting a 4.64 ERA. The problem is that an overwhelming amount of damage was done in just three appearances--April 5th against Florida, April 9th at Philadelphia, and May 20th at Cincinnati. Maddux' performance can be broken down as follows:
    
                      IP    ERA     H       HR      BB      SO
    3 Bad Starts    11.2    16.20   29      6       6       16
    All Others      71.2    2.76    65      5       12      32
    
    
    Yes, this sort of exercise can be infinitely regressive; take away 200 at bats in which Neifi Perez made an out last year, and--voila!--he was a .370 hitter. For a pitcher, though--and especially one who has etched out a Hall-of-Fame career out of working at the margins of the strike zone--the results can be telling.

    Maddux strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn't any worse in the three bad starts he's had. But he's given up a ton of hits, 29 in just 11.2 innings. Here's a breakdown of the counts on which those hits came:

    
    Count   Hits
    0-0     9
    0-1     5
    1-0     4
    1-1     3
    1-2     2
    2-1     1
    2-2     2
    3-1     2
    3-2     1
    
    
    An overwhelming number of the hits came early in the count--18 of 29 were on the first or second pitch. One of Maddux' strengths is his ability to get ahead of hitters and keep his pitch counts down, but in these outings, that strategy backfired. It may be that losing just a little bit of movement off his fastball, or just a little bit off his command, is enough to send singles blooping into left field, and Maddux' carefully-crafted game plan awry. If that's the case, Maddux could be consistently inconsistent for the balance of the season.

Minnesota Twins

  • Lineup: For those of you who follow the Twins coverage here at Baseball Prospectus, you'll know that one of the main points we've focused on in recent weeks is Jacque Jones' stunning lack of discipline. Jones, as it has been discussed, is currently among the worst hitters in the American League at controlling the strike zone--walking just six times in more than 230 plate-appearances.

    And yet, for all the attention that we've given Jones, the fact of the matter is that a lack of discipline at the plate is something of a common trait among Minnesota hitters. Check out the Twins' lineup from June 1 against the Mariners, their last contest before entering interleague play:

    
    Player               PA   BB   BB%
    ----------------------------------
    LF  Jones           235    6    3%
    SS  Guzman          239    8    3%
    3B  Koskie          240   33   14%
    DH  LeCroy          118    4    3%
    CF  Hunter          251   29   12%
    1B  Mientkiewicz    188   15    8%
    RF  Mohr            168    7    4%
    C   Pierzynski      191    8    4%
    2B  Rivas           163    7    4%
    
    Total              1793   117   6%
    
    

    Now take a good, long look at those totals listed to right. Through Tuesday, the Minnesota Twins are employing six regulars who walk in fewer than five percent of their plate-appearances. Five percent. To put that number into context, HACKING MASS Hall-of-Famer Shawon Dunston walked in roughly 3% of his career plate appearances--among the lowest totals for any player with more than 1,000 career at-bats in baseball history.

    Now, can the Twins continue to succeed while harboring this obvious aversion to ball four? Probably. After all, they play in perhaps the weakest division in all of baseball, and are being "chased" by two franchises that seem more than content to play golf from October on through the winter.

    But does that mean the Twins will continue to score runs at the same clip they are now? We'll say no. Despite the stigma that comes with playing your games on carpet, the Twins aren't a particularly better hitting team at home (.268/.327/.439 at home, versus .273/.334/.426 on the road), nor do they run like a pack of wild monkeys (they're ninth in the AL in stolen bases, with 33). Thus, it seems at least somewhat logical to conclude they'll eventually be hurt by their hacking ways, given that they lack a means of compensating in other areas. After all, for as much flak as we gave the Angels last season for swinging at everything in sight, they were at least a good baserunning team.

    In the end, though, what really matters is the fact that the Twins currently lead their division by a comfortable four games. After all, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one way to build a successful major-league club. We just prefer to see it done with a little discipline.

  • The Rising: With utility infielder Chris Gomez heading to the disabled list this past weekend, the Minnesota Twins were finally given the chance to reach into their grab-bag of good, young hitters and pull out 22-year-old first baseman Justin Morneau. Morneau has been touted by scouts as one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball for a number of years now, dating as far back as 2000 when he batted .402 as a 19-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, while posting an OPS of 1147.

    Here are Morneau's batting stats for the first half of the 2003 campaign:

    
    Level   G   AB  HR  2B  BB  SO   AVG  OBP  SLG
    ----------------------------------------------
    AA     20   79   6   3   7  14  .329 .384 .620
    AAA    37  138  13   6  15  29  .297 .377 .623
    
    Total  57  217  19   9  22  43  .309 .380 .622
    
    
    Dead sexy. Where in the past Morneau was viewed as more of a doubles hitter, 2003 has seen him exhibit his penchant for four-baggers.

    The only concern that we can really voice about Morneau is the fact that he (surprise!) hasn't walked as often in 2003 as he did in the past, while he's beginning to strike out more. Nevertheless, 22 years of age is 22 years of age, and there's a lot of time left for him to develop. As soon as Doug Mientkiewicz turns back into a pumpkin, Morneau should take Minnesota's first base job and never look back.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Losing the Battle and the War: Any delusions the Devil Rays had of a summer-long romance with the .500 mark capsized in the wake of a three-week, 19-game stretch where they went an all-too-familiar 4-15. A quick glance at the team stats page shows this shouldn't surprise anyone, since they are consistently losing the battle of the strike zone, from which game outcomes follow.

    A crude tool to measure how a team (or individual) is faring in the four square-foot combat zone is the base on balls. Tampa Bay hitters make every pitcher look like Jamie Moyer, ranking last in the league with 2.5 walks a game, while their pitchers are allowing nearly four, a figure exceeded only by the Rangers' ensemble of scattershot slingers.

    As shown below, things aren't a whole lot rosier on the offensive side of the ledger down on the farm:

    
    Level        Team              Hitting    Pitching
    AAA          Durham             10/14       1/14
    AA           Orlando            10/10       5/10
    High-A       Bakersfield        10/10       2/10
    Low-A        Charleston, SC      1/16       2/16
    
    
    Note: The first number indicates team rank, the second is the number of teams in the league.

    Not even Cust-clone, Jonny Gomes (38 walks in 201 at bats, .229/.378/.468), can keep O-Ray hitters from residing in the Southern League basement when it comes to free passes. The one clear ray of hope is in The Holy City, where the RiverDogs have the best record among the Devil Rays' minor league clubs. Think anybody in the organization recognizes the correlation?

  • Starting Over: In the two previous Devil Ray Triple Plays, we've tried to keep up with the comings and goings of the club's starting pitchers. However, recent injuries to staff mainstays Joe Kennedy and Seth McClung, shaken and stirred with Lou Piniella's incessant tinkering has made the task more challenging than Joggle.

    The most noteworthy recent change is the team's decision to bite the bullet and designate Nick Bierbrodt for assignment. The Devil Rays' brass had been delaying the inevitable out of fear that the talented left-hander wouldn't make it through waivers unclaimed. But Bierbrodt's complete meltdown (1 IP, 4 H, 7 R, 5 BB) in Houston last Friday should have scared off any potential takers.

    Since being the prize catch when Rays' GM Chuck LaMar foisted Albie Lopez on the Diamondbacks two years ago, Bierbrodt has lost both velocity and control of his pitches. The result is the second-worst starter in the majors this season despite working only 15 innings in the role. Any chance of regaining the form that made him one of the more intriguing pitching prospects in baseball will only come with regular work, which he wasn't going to get in Tampa Bay.

  • Roster Roulette: The Devil Rays have used a major league-high 41 players this season, which doesn't begin to account for the frequent flyer miles logged on the Durham-Tampa shuttle. Chris Kahrl's transaction nightmares aren't going to level off anytime soon, though, as Piniella has announced intentions to "go with the kids", recalling anybody with a functioning liver from Triple or Double-A over the team's final 100 games.

    Normally, we would throw our support behind a floundering franchise giving it's youngsters an opportunity to show their stuff at the big league level, but something here just doesn't smell right. While the announcement certainly carries the typical Devil Ray odor of lacking any sort of a cohesive plan, the timing is curious. Coming on the heels of his public plea for owner Vince Naomoli to open his free-agent wallet this winter, it seems like Piniella is more intent on proving his claim of needing fading veterans from outside the organization than committing to any of the unproven faces in it.

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