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June 23, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Microstudy: Ever since the Astros acquired Adam Everett from the Boston Red Sox in a rare surname challenge trade, the buzz has been that his glove would someday propel him into the starting job in Houston. While defense is tricky to evaluate, either objectively or subjectively, the reports were uniform and glowing. To quote his entry in BP 2000: "Some consider Everett to be the best middle-infield glove ever to play at Trenton (a Boston affiliate at the time)."

    Unfortunately for Everett, shortstops do have to hit as part of their living, and his track record at the plate has been uninspiring. He has shown generally respectable plate discipline (including a strong 75 walks in 453 AB with New Orleans in 2000), and has always been an effective basestealer (53 SB vs. 12 CS over the last three years). But that's where the skills end; even in that 2000 season, he managed just a 707 OPS, and has stagnated since then, including posting a 524 OPS in 100 plate appearances with Houston last year.

    So, when the decision was made to give him Julio Lugo's old job, reactions were mixed. In the weeks since then, Everett has blown the defensive expectations away. Ranked against NL shortstops who've played in at least half their teams' games, his Range Factor (5.34) blows away the field, and his Zone Rating (.887) just misses the pace-setter. (Recovered from last year's back problems, the Expos' Orlando Cabrera scores a 4.83 for RF, .891 for ZR.) Naturally, defensive stats are unreliable, and Everett's sample size is even more limited than the other shortstops' (he'll crack the 50-game mark this week), but there are reasons to think the lead is for real, if a bit inflated:

    • The biggest external influence on a player's fielding statistics is the pitching staff's ground/fly tendencies, and the Astros are an essentially neutral ground/fly team, 10th in the league with a 1.29 ratio according to ESPN's way of measuring it.

    • Another major influence is the pitching staff's K rate, but Houston is 4th in the league in strikeouts (about one K/9 above average), so if anything, we expect they're suppressing his range factor slightly.

    • Middle infielders' skills are especially prone to being masked by abnormally high or low double-play rates, but Everett has participated in (pro-rated to full season) 42 double plays, right around the NL average. And this is another area where, if anything, the pitching staff is keeping his numbers down, as it's average or slightly better in the categories that encourage double-play opportunities (singles and walks).

    However, the big flaw in Everett's game is his error rate. As a rough guide, if a shortstop commits one error every 100 innings he's doing OK, but Everett has been doubling that rate in the majors. Still, from a defensive ranking standpoint, that just shaves some off the gap between him and Cabrera--and five of Everett's seven errors this season have been on throws, so perhaps the problem is still correctable.

    Everett's offense has also made some progress, albeit minor. He currently sports a line of .260/.302/.405, above the weighted mean of .247/.319/.336 that PECOTA had projected for him. Everett's walk rate has been abysmal though--about one every 20 times up. If Everett improves with the bat, he could be a real asset. If he doesn't, the Astros may end up with the next Rey Ordonez--only Everett would be earning those Gold Gloves.

  • Disastrous Performer:
    
    Third Baseman A      2.85 RF  .821 ZR  .989 FLDG
    Third Baseman B      2.28 RF  .743 ZR  .969 FLDG
    
    

    And the better hitter is...Third Baseman A, whose OPS is a full pitcher (347 points) better than B's. Explain to us again why Geoff Blum ever starts over Morgan Ensberg?

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Draft Day Detritus: So the Brewers took Rickie Weeks. At face value, this was an abrupt departure from Milwaukee's trend of taking high schoolers in the first round. It was Doug Melvin's first draft with Milwaukee, and conceivably a change of regime could signal a change in tone, but the selection of Weeks was less of a shift than a simple matter of taking the best talent available. The Brewers' draft was run, as it has been for several years, by Jack Zduriencik, who had run Milwaukee's drafts from 2000 through 2002 and had used each of his first-round picks on high schoolers. But the Brewers aren't the Dodgers; it's not as if they take high schoolers on principle or out of spite. Weeks was a no-brainer, a safe pick, and a solid choice for an organization in need of older talent. But while they're not the Dodgers, they're not the A's either. Milwaukee still used about half its picks on teens. The Brewers took collegians in rounds one and two, and a juco player in round three, but their next three picks were high schoolers. Overall, their draft was, give or take a couple of picks, balanced.
    
    Rounds     Four-Year College     Junior College     High School
    1-20               6                  5                  9
    21-40              11                 2                  7
    
    

    After the 40th round they went green, taking eight high schoolers and two jucos. They were very conservative between rounds 19 and 30, when all but one pick went for a college or junior college player.

  • Noteworthy Prospects: The Brewers have already gotten some good returns on middle-round collegians from last year's draft. First-rounder Prince Fielder is the star of Milwaukee's Class-A affiliate in Beloit, but they're getting value out of their 21st and 33rd round picks as well:

    • Jeff Housman was taken at #979 out of Cal State Fullerton. He pitched in 19 games for CSF last year, starting only two. He had a high strikeout rate and he whiffed twice as many as he walked:
      
      ERA     W-L     IP     H     BB     K     HR
      4.89    0-4     35    50     15    32      4
      
      

      A college reliever with an ordinary statistical profile, he's flourishing in the pros. The Brewers have him in Beloit's rotation, where his 1.54 ERA is third in the Midwest League. His strikeout rate is down to 5.4 but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is well over 2-to-1. There's a potential problem veiled by that ERA. He has allowed only 51 hits in 70.1 innings, a figure as pretty as his college rate was ugly, and maybe as misleading. Your take on it depends on how much of a DIPS proponent you are. But Housman has allowed only two home runs, so even if the improvement is a bit inflated it's not a total illusion.

    • Josh Alliston was taken at #619 out of Long Beach State, where 27 of his 29 appearances last year were in relief. Unlike Housman, he's still working out of the bullpen, but like him, Alliston has improved substantially on his last year in college. His statistical profile last year was very similar to Housman's:
      
      ERA     W-L     IP       H     BB     K     HR
      4.53   2-4      45.2    45     19     46     5
      
      
      This year Alliston has struck out 37 in 36 innings, allowing only eight walks and a single home run. At 6'4" and 200 pounds he has the size scouts like. So does Housman, who is 6'3" and 180. At their age, they need to be pushed to Double-A and to survive it before Zduriencik should feel free to crow.

    If the two pitchers work out, should Zduriencik take credit? Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you, and maybe anyone can be the blind squirrel who gets lucky a couple times every draft. But GMs aren't cynical enough, modest enough, or dumb enough to pick blindly. They do try to make their picks count. Zduriencik or his scouts saw something in Houseman and Alliston that made them take a chance on these two instead of the hundreds of others who had yet to be drafted. This might be giving him too much credit, but maybe Zduriencik knew that Cal State Fullerton had the nation's fourth-most difficult schedule last year, and that Long Beach State's was sixth. Strength of competition is everything in college baseball. Houseman and Alliston were good in the significant sabermetric categories, put up their numbers against strong schedules, and are doing well in the pros so far. It's a bit early to draw conclusions about them yet, but these are two more anecdotes in favor of the projectability of college stats.

Oakland Athletics

  • Follow the Leader: There's nothing quite like having a team in your division jump out to the best record in baseball to get the fans anxious. While the Mariners have definitely hit a hot streak propelled by great pitching, it's not a situation that should shock or trouble the Oakland faithful. The A's recent winning streak has propelled them to the third-best record in the AL and put them a nose in front in the wildcard race. Furthermore, their current record is better than it has been the previous two seasons at this point, and the wealth of games remaining against the AL West will provide Oakland with more control of its division standing.

    These days in Oakland it doesn't seem to matter who's submitting the visiting lineup, just the fact that the A's are at home in the Coliseum. The Athletics have posted one of the best home records in the bigs (27-11) so far this season, a mark bolstered by the aforementioned seven-game win streak at home beginning with sweeps of the Expos and Rangers. After completing a two-week road trip with a mediocre 5-7 record, the A's found they had dropped from two to eight games back of streaking Seattle. Since then, their recent success at home has done little but help them keep pace, as the Mariners seem to enjoy home cooking as much as hotel food. Looking ahead, after a quick jaunt to Texas next week, the A's stay on the "road" against the Giants before heading into the All-Star Break with a nicely packaged two-week homestand against the Mariners, Angels, Devil Rays, and Orioles. Playing in their own friendly confines, Oakland has a significant opportunity to close the division gap.

    Misappropriation of Funds: It's a well-known fact that spending money on the right players and in the right places is what keeps the A's competitive. However, take a look at VORP vs. Salary (in millions) for the A's starting lineup so far this year:

    Immediately, one of two facts jumps out from this data: Either the A's are really good at finding some serious bargains (Eric Byrnes, Erubiel Durazo) or they have so far grossly misplaced what little payroll they have to work with (Jermaine Dye, Miguel Tejada). One or two months into the season, these numbers could be looked at as simply players having a hot or cold month or two. It's no longer May, however, and the trend remains. Tejada and Dye are both good players and based on their career numbers, it is likely they will return to past performance levels, but so far this season they should be signing their checks over to the guys on the right end of that trend line.

    The A's pitching staff, however, is a little bit of a different story:

    While the trend isn't quite as uplifting as it could be, that fact could be attributed more to baseball's free agent and arbitration rules. The most important difference to note between the two charts is the scale of the salaries. The A's pitching staff totals $19 million, while the hitters rack up $29 million (not including the bench)--yet a quick glance at ranks of RS (16th) and RA (3rd) shows that it's still the pitching staff that's keeping the A's in contention. There are many other factors at play than simply salaries and on-field performance, but considering the A's financial disadvantage, egregious errors in salary distribution could hamper the front office's ability to make mid-season trades for the stretch run and to keep key free agents during the off-season, two areas critical to Oakland's success.

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