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July 7, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Expos, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • June Swoon: Heading into June, the Astros were in great position to take over the division by July; other than a road trip through Boston and New York, they were facing a soft interleague schedule, along with home-and-away series with Arizona. Beat up on the bad teams, do OK against the good ones, and a sizeable division lead would be in the bank.

    Part One of the plan went off without a hitch, but unfortunately for the fans in The House That Enron Embarrassed, the Astros got creamed during Part Two, with a 1-5 record in their AL East road trip, then again in their home-and-away against the suddenly-good Diamondbacks.

    Now into July, playing .500 ball against the likes of Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, they're stuck in a race where three underwhelming teams are rarely separated by more than a game in the standings, with Cincinnati one hot week away from making it a four-team race again.

  • Excuses, Excuses: If the Astros miss the playoffs, a lot of ink, virtual or otherwise, will be spilt over the injuries hitting the Astros. However, every team should expect a few injury bugs, and if anything, they've come off better than you might have expected.

    Sure, the repeated loss of Roy Oswalt is unfortunate, but it turns out to not have hurt that much. We can get a quick-and-dirty estimate of how much an injury has hurt a team by comparing the player's expected Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) to his replacements', prorated to the injury's timeframe. (This early in the season, I'm using the injured guy's preseason projection, and his replacements' stats to date.) When Oswalt starts Monday he'll have missed a total of about four weeks, during which he was projected to contribute a VORP of about 10. The sub for his May stint was arguably Jeriome Robertson, and for June/July stint it's been Ron Villone. Due to Villone's fantastic run, the pair has contributed a prorated 9.9 VORP during that time, canceling out Oswalt's absence.

    Meanwhile the loss of Brian Moehler has actually helped the Astros. Moehler was projected for a VORP of just 2.5 over the first half, and Scott Linebrink contributed around 6.0 before being designated for assignment in May for no apparent reason. Jonathan Johnson and Rodrigo Rosario were a slight negative (about -2 VORP), but Villone is about to take over as the replacement for Moehler with Oswalt due back, so the group should still end up being more valuable than the Plan A, Moehler.

    More disturbing is the loss of Jeff Kent, who's already cost the team a projected 5.3 VORP, and whose replacements have piled on another -1 VORP so far. Even with Geoff Blum taking over the 2B replacement slot (thereby foiling Jimy Williams' plan to make Morgan Ensberg a part-timer), they can't get Kent back fast enough.

    Add in the time Colin Porter spent subbing for Richard Hidalgo, and the replacements have hurt the team by just 4.5 VORP. This is nothing compared to, say, the Cubs, whose replacements have played about 19 VORP below the starters' levels, driven largely by Troy O'Leary during his absences.

    As for the rest of the division, Kiko Calero and Bo Hart have pushed the Cardinals' replacements into positive territory, keeping them in the race. Even with Jose Guillen wrecking the curve, the Reds' replacements have been worse than the Cubs', though since the damage has been largely confined to some astonishingly bad starts, this can't excuse their being out of the race.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Amazing Game: On Friday night the Rockies brought a touch of home with them when they arrived in Milwaukee for a three-game set. They combined with their hosts to throw 409 pitches in the nine-inning game. Aaron Cook was making his first start since being recalled from Triple-A, and possibly his last under Clint Hurdle. It was Dave Burba's second start since being brought up from Indianapolis to replace Ruben Quevedo.

    Batting practice continued through the first inning, when Burba and Cook combined to allow seven runs on five hits, two walks, one hit batter, a wild pitch, and a passed ball. Taken together they lasted eight innings and threw 200 pitches. The middle innings went calmly enough until Leo Estrella took the hill in the eighth with the Brewers leading 6-5. Before getting ejected for arguing the strike zone, he walked four of the eight batters he faced and allowed the three runs that made up the margin in the Rockies' 8-6 victory.

  • Questec Kvetching: After the game the Brewers blamed Estrella's meltdown on Questec and home plate umpire Mark Carlson's need to keep up with Questec. Catcher Eddie Perez said: "It's not (Estrella's) fault. It's the freaking computer. It's somebody else's fault. They know they have to be careful. Every time we go to a place that doesn't have the computer, we know there'll be strike calls."

    If Carlson was squeezing pitchers, the effect would be seen in walks and hits. Using Keith Woolner's Umpire Report, we can find this information. Walk rates and batters per game when Carlson works the plate are relatively high, but not goofily so. The rates of hits and runs in his games are at the top of the chart. Last year, Carlson's walks and batters per game were again relatively high, but his runs and hits were rather low. His 2001 rates are like this year's.

    That's two years out of three. A disproportionate number of good lineups and bad pitchers--or games played in hitters' parks--could influence these rates, but you'd think those factors would even out over 1500 innings. Taken together these numbers suggest that while Perez was wary of singling out Carlson, the Brewers' anger might have been justified. If you're going to get angry, do it for the right reason: Given that his tendencies run back to 2001 at least, Carlson looks like he's a squeezer by nature. Whether his inclinations have anything to do with Questec is arguable. The interesting question is whether a desire to keep pace with Questec has been the booster that launched the offense in his games to the top of the charts. We can get back to this issue when we have three full seasons behind us.

Montreal Expos

  • Dealin' Omar?: Despite Joe Sheehan's plea for the Rangers to stand up to Juan Gonzalez with the threat of no playing time if he vetoes the proposed trade to Montreal, the Expos couldn't land the man with the 22nd-best EqA among major league right fielders with 150 or more plate appearances. Putting aside how much a 33-year-old, injury-prone slugger with a .322 on-base percentage in one of baseball's best hitter's parks could have contributed on the league's worst turf--the same turf that severely damaged the health of Andre Dawson, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd and now Vladimir Guerrero--Gonzalez's veto has forced Expos General Manager Omar Minaya into scramble mode.

    In his 1 1/2-year history as Expos GM, Minaya has shown a preference for the big splash trade over less trumpeted but perhaps more useful moves. While last year's deal for Bartolo Colon paid off short-term as Colon electrified Expos fans with some dazzling performances, the ransom paid to get Colon--Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore--left the Expos' farm system completely barren. No team in recent memory paid as high a price in perceived prospect value as the Expos did in acquiring Colon last year; the result has been a bare cupboard with which Minaya's left to negotiate. That a flawed, poorly-suited-for-Montreal player like Gonzalez may be the best the Expos can hope for in trade is a nod to a farm system devastated by years of cheapskatery, poor drafting, and poor player development (thanks Claude Brochu and Jim Beattie!).

    Flip through a few Expos games on MLB Extra Innings and you're liable to hear the announcers--obviously not Expos announcers, given management's ineptitude in securing TV contracts as well--praise the Expos for their great farm system, the one that they say continues to produce star players year after year. They're wrong. When the farm's best offerings include bench fodder like Henry Mateo, Jamey Carroll, and Ron Calloway and a smattering of relievers, you're in deep trouble.

    The best Minaya has left to bargain with are:

    • An injury-prone pitcher who's seen his K rate plummet from 11.5 to 5.5 per nine innings over the last three years (Seung Song),

    • A corner outfielder who's put up a strong season and may very well help several teams, but who's also coming off years of lukewarm performance, possesses limited power, and is 26 years old (Terrmel Sledge), and

    • A 1998 signability pick who spent four years doing nothing before putting together three months of solid numbers (Josh McKinley).

    Tip of the cap to Minaya for finding such gems as Rule 5 snag Luis Ayala and Rookie of the Year candidate Claudio Vargas (a throw-in from last season's Cliff Floyd trade with the Marlins). But if Minaya can grab a meaningful player given the awful hand he's holding and the club's inability to add a penny of payroll, that would be his best trick yet.

  • Cuffed Around: While the Diamondbacks' injuries have garnered plenty of attention--rightfully so, given the Snakes' losses of Schilling, Johnson, Spivey et. al. and the incredible job done by the club's rookie replacements--the Expos are right there with any team this season in talent eaten by the injury bug. While Guerrero's injury status remains a mystery--the latest had Manager Frank Robinson predicting an end-of-July return--the pitching has been hit even harder. Given the injuries that have wiped out Orlando Hernandez, Tony Armas, Zach Day, Ayala, and most recently reliever Dan Smith for various amounts of time, you'd expect Robinson to lose it if he hears the words "rotator cuff" one more time from his medical staff. After heroic performances all year long from plug-in arms like Ayala, Vargas, and Julio Manon, the dyke may burst soon, at least if Saturday night's 9th-inning meltdown in Atlanta is any indication. The team's recent brutal glovework and 11th NL rank in runs per game has already left the starting rotation and bullpen with no margin for error.

    Give the Expos players and coaching staff credit for going this long while hanging in the race, given the skeleton crew they're trotting out there every night. It's amazing that the house of cards didn't come crashing down weeks ago.

Oakland Athletics

  • Mongo Only Pawn in Game of Life: For A's fans who routinely listen to games on KFRC, hearing Bill King and Ken Korach call a game is everything that baseball on the radio should be. Bill and Ken call an accurate game, build and release tension exceptionally well, poke fun at each other routinely, and usually have some spot-on commentary about the A's and baseball in general.

    Lately, they have been harping on Erubiel Durazo's lack of production in June, a month in which (as they frequently point out) he amassed an RBI total that you could count on one hand. They've misplaced the blame on this issue. Yes, Durazo has been camped out in the cleanup spot longer than Cameron Crazies waiting for a Duke-Carolina game, and being there does carry a responsibility to produce offense. However, teams around the league have figured out that they don't need to pitch to Durazo (who drove in 38 runs in the first two months of the season) and would rather take their chances with the A's fifth-place hitter, usually Jermaine Dye, Eric Chavez, or Ramon Hernandez.

    Largely, that tactic has been successful. Durazo's OBP in June was his highest of the season (.469) but he has more walks (24) than hits (21), leaving him with a slugging percentage of .411, 58 points below his OBP. Durazo's patience and willingness to take the free pass rather than pressing to put the ball in play has been admirable, as he has rarely taken the A's out of an inning--something that cannot be said for those players hitting behind him, who have combined for .240/.298/.442 in June.

    The fact that Durazo (.288/.469/.411 in June) has the same number of RBI as Dye (.127/.222/.182) is just another in a long list of reasons that stats like RBI and runs scored rarely tell the whole story about what's happening on the field. Nearly a month ago, Chavez approached manager Ken Macha and requested to be moved down in the order because he was slumping and felt he was hurting the team, mostly due to his complete inability to hit southpaws. Macha needs to recognize that Chavez is starting to turn things around--he went .291/.333/.553 with 7 HRs in June--and put him back in the fifth spot in the order for good (not against lefties though, where his putrid .177/.217/.363 line cries out for a platoon partner). Until then, Durazo's impressive ability to get on base is going to continue to go for naught.

  • Wasted: On July 4th against the Angels, Mark Mulder pitched one of the best games of his career, allowing three hits and no walks in nine innings on 99 pitches, with 14 ground ball outs. And he lost 1-0. The Angels' three hits were two infield singles and a double down the right field line that was fair by the width of your computer monitor.

    While tough luck losses are part of baseball and certainly make for great games that John McGraw would love, this game was the A's season so far in a nutshell. Oakland managed just two hits, Chavez left the bases loaded in the first inning, and Durazo, who was robbed of a double in the ninth, drew two of the team's three walks. The whole thing was over in 2:10. The Angels' lone run came on that leadoff double followed by a sacrifice and a squeeze. The fact that the A's need another big bat in the lineup has been clear for most of the season, and that point was driven home thoroughly when the A's were stymied by none other than Aaron Sele.

    Fans in the East Bay are eagerly awaiting Billy Beane's annual July blockbuster, but the surprising competitive balance around baseball may reduce the number of trade deadline deals available to the A's front office, as more teams than usual feel they have a shot at the postseason. The Royals and Blue Jays, two of Beane's favorite trading partners, are in the middle of close pennant races; the teams that are out of it in the AL (Detroit, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Cleveland) have almost nothing that the A's need; and none of the big bats seem willing to leave Texas. Beane rarely visits the NL for trades, but he may have to learn some new area codes this month in order to acquire the extra lumber the A's lineup so desperately needs.

San Francisco Giants

  • Accentuating the Positive: San Jose Mercury-News columnist Ann Killion makes a good point about Giants fans and media: While many teams' followers see the bright side of everything the hometown boys do, Giants coverage and chat is full of doom and gloom even when the team has trouble seeing the rest of the division in the rear view mirror. To avoid falling into that trap ourselves, we'll spend a few paragraphs paying tribute to everything the Giants are doing right at the midway point in the season.

    The Giants have used a balanced attack to open up a five-game lead in the NL West. They have the third-best offense and the fifth-best starting rotation in the NL. And while their bullpen has been merely average so far, that's still impressive considering they've had to deal with the loss of one of the league's best closers.

    The Giants have arguably the best pitcher in the NL (Jason Schmidt) and the best player in the world (Neifi Perez, uh, I mean what's-his-face). In fact, it's not inconceivable that the Giants could sweep the three major postseason trophies come October, as rookie Jerome Williams is resembling Greg Maddux more and more every start. (Who else throws a 96-pitch shutout?)

    While the Giants have had a couple of mild pleasant surprises--Marquis Grissom duplicating his 2002 numbers, for example--nobody on this team is having a fluke career year. So there's no one poised for a huge second half collapse. And there are plenty of candidates for improvement in the second half, from young players like Jesse Foppert to underperformers like Edgardo Alfonzo.

    Finally, when a hole does need to be filled in the second half, Brian Sabean has both the track record with successful deadline deals, and the minor league pitching depth to pull another one off.

    Yes, the Giants' 16-5 record in one-run games has involved some luck. And yes, the names "Johnson" and "Schilling" are becoming more ominous in the papers these days. But Giants fans should forget those things for a second and appreciate the team for what it is: a heavy favorite to produce another memorable October.

  • Foppert Update: In the last Giants PTP, we raised a red flag about Jesse Foppert's disappointing velocity, which has been sputtering along in the high 80s all season. We weren't the only ones concerned about it. Dave Righetti and Foppert made an adjustment in the angle of Foppert's step toward home plate before Friday night's start in San Diego, and they got the velocity boost they were looking for.

    Against the Padres, Foppert was regularly throwing in the low 90s, hitting as high as 94 on the Fox gun several times. He had his usual sharp breaking pitches to go along with the newfound zip, and the combination helped him strike out a very healthy 1/4 of the batters he faced. He did have some trouble with command, getting a little wild both in and out of the strike zone, and that led to a couple of Padre homers and five runs allowed in five innings. But those are ordinary problems for a rookie pitcher, far less disconcerting than a suddenly limp fastball.

    It'll take a few more starts to know whether those readings were for real and sustainable, but if they were, Foppert is that much closer to living up to the promise he showed in his dominant minor league career. It may not have looked like much in the box score, but it was an encouraging start.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Outstanding Performer: We've already given him a nod as half of the high-octane catcher platoon Toronto has been running out there earlier this season, but since then Greg Myers has escalated his game. Through July 6:
    
    G   AB    H   2B   3B   HR   BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   MLvr   VORP 
    69  186  64   13    0   10   28   33  .344  .428  .575   .404   26.9
    

    How unlikely has this first half been for Myers?

    • He's a 37-year-old catcher with a career line of .250/.307/.384 in over 2500 AB of playing time, and there's no late-career slump to drive down those numbers.

    • His next home run will tie his career high with 11--though, to be fair, he set that mark splitting time with Oakland and Baltimore in 2001 in just 161 at-bats.

    • His best season prior to this was probably his 1991 campaign with the Blue Jays, when he hit .262/.306/.411 in 309 AB. Back before the days of monstered-up shortstops crushing the ball, that wasn't bad. The year was good for a .266 Equivalent Average and 42 Equivalent Runs.

    • His top comp by PECOTA is Jeff Reed, which makes some sense--he and Reed are two of the relatively few lefty catchers in baseball history. Reed had a nice Coors-assisted run towards the end of his career, but by age 37 he was in the middle of an uninspiring last season in Chicago.

    That's not really the profile of a player who leads the league in production from his position in 2003, which is what Myers is doing, with a VORP of 26.7. The closest player by VORP is Jorge Posada with a mark of 25.7--in almost exactly one-and-a-half times the plate appearances.

    You'll probably read about several All-Star snubs in this space over the next few days, but Myers certainly seems to have a gripe here. Posada's a must-invite, as the ranking catcher in the American League, but beyond that, there aren't really any established stars to add to the squad based on their career achievements. Jason Varitek and Ramon Hernandez have more impressive counting stats than Myers, but that's to be expected considering the playing time Myers' platoon partner Tom Wilson has gotten.

    Myers faced two problems here--he hadn't gotten enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, which leaves him off most leaderboards and subjects him to an "out of sight, out of mind" perception problem. He also faces a bias against players who are part of a rigid platoon, with the thinking that since they aren't hitting against the tough lefties in the league, their performance should be adjusted for accordingly.

    Let's take a closer look at this. Here is Myers' production against left-handers from 2000-2003:

    
    AB   H   2B   3B   HR   BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    81  21    5    0    2    6   20  .259  .310  .395
    

    That's not pretty, but incorporate that into his 2003 stat line to approximate the numbers he might have as a full-time player, and you get this:

    
    AB    H   2B   HR   BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    267  85   18   12   34   53  .318  .395  .520
    

    With the additional playing time, Myers is now tied for eighth in the league in batting average, further adding to his visibility. Is that an All-Star catcher? With Myers' favorable defensive reputation, if I'm Mike Scioscia, I'd probably take him over Varitek, definitely over Hernandez, and there's no way Ben Molina sniffs the 32nd slot, even if he does play for me. Giving credit in this fashion is a slippery slope, but it's something to keep in mind--especially when a player has been as effective as Myers has in 2003.

    All-Star musings aside, that Greg Myers in the running for the top player at his position at the break this year was about as likely a scenario as Wil Wheaton's work on the next Star Trek movie not ending up on the cutting room floor, and the Jays and their fans have to be pretty happy with what they've gotten at catcher this year.

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