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July 9, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Star Performer. Seven of them, to be exact. Atlanta, which had previously led the world only in air traffic, bling bling, and Chick-fil-As per capita, will send nearly 30% of its roster to the All-Star Game.

    As you'd expect with such a large contingent, the selections run the gamut from deserving to Dicksonian. No quarrels with Gary Sheffield or John Smoltz, star players in the midst of star seasons. Javy Lopez belongs too, unless you really want to punish him for his poor performance in previous seasons. Rafael Furcal's selection has upset some Sea Bass devotees, but Furcal has the higher Equivalent Average, and is less likely to be an embarrassing pick five years from now. Andruw Jones might be in the midst of his best offensive season, and it's a testament to the respect he has around the league that he finished fourth on the players' ballot, behind only the three starters, and ahead of a lot of guys that the media treats more favorably.

    That leaves two. Given that we've gone to 32-man rosters, Marcus Giles has a good case to be on the team: his improvement in all phases of his game has been impressive, especially since he was waging some off-the-field battles last season, and hell, you can give him a little bit of extra credit since big bro' Brian was snubbed in favor of a pitcher with a 37.29 ERA (all figures are rounded). He really shouldn't be starting in front of Jose Vidro, though, and Jeff Kent and Ray Durham can make equally good claims for the backup role, depending on what you think about their defense.

    Giles' selection highlights one of the vagaries of the All-Star process as it's currently designed. You don't need to take it to the level that Joe Sheehan does, and toss out first-half performance completely except as a component in assessing who the best players truly are. After all, the problem isn't that fans are evaluating players on the basis of a few months worth of performance, but rather, that they're evaluating players on the basis of a few weeks worth of performance, as All-Star ballots are available in many locations as soon as the last week of April. For a player like Giles, who sported a 1.074 OPS in April but has since tailed off badly, that can make all the difference in the world.

    And then there's Russ Ortiz. Though he's been far better than Damian Moss, Ortiz' selection was brought about his won-loss record first (11-4), his status as a Friend of Dusty second, and the actual quality of his performance third. Then again, what do you expect from a guy who thinks that Lenny Harris makes a good regular?

  • Pedestrian Performer: Not included among the Braves' All-Star selections was Mike Hampton, who had seen his ERA dip into the mid-threes before a poor start against Philadelphia and a disastrous one in Florida. Hampton's ERA is middling, and his K/BB ratio is poor (though right about where PECOTA expected them to be); there seems to be little chance that he'll ever be a No. 1 or No. 2 type starter again.

    That doesn't mean he hasn't contributed. While Hampton doesn't throw his sinker quite as well as he used to, he still does a good job of keeping the ball down, avoiding home runs and inducing double plays. He hits well. His numbers are a little bit better than they look because he's been victimized a lot by his bullpen--more than any other pitcher in the league, according to Michael Wolverton's numbers--enough to have increased his ERA by half a run or so. The only sense in which he's been a disappointment is if expectations were too high to begin with.

    What's interesting, however, especially in contrast to the Maddux/Glavine stereotype, is Hampton typifies the new breed of Brave pitcher in that he doesn't throw very many strikes. Among the 122 pitchers that have faced at least 300 batters so far this year, 16 have a strike percentage of less than 60%. Three of those pitchers--Hampton, Ortiz, and Horatio Ramirez--are Braves starters (Shane Reynolds isn't much better at 60.8%). That leads to shorter outings, which is a big deal when you've got a top-heavy bullpen like Atlanta does. The Braves have a good enough defense to succeed with a lot of balls put into play, and while it's not as simple as willing oneself to throw more strikes, this is an area in which Leo Mazzone could work to get better results.

Minnesota Twins

  • Wha' Happened? On June 13th, the Minnesota Twins were standing tall. They had won seven of their last 10 and were comfortably ahead of the Royals--a team that was set to turn back into a pumpkin by the end of the month. To many people it seemed like a forgone conclusion: Minnesota would take the division going away, and the Royals would return to that familiar place they like to call "mediocrity."

    Only that's not what happened at all. Since June 13th, the Minnesota Twins have been living the Detroit Tiger Experience--losing 17 of their last 23 games, good for a .261 winning percentage--despite facing such juggernauts as the Royals, Brewers, White Sox, Rangers, and Indians. That's exactly one team playing better than .500 baseball, for those of you scoring at home.

    The problem, you see, has been pitching. Despite a rotation that ranks in the middle of the pack according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral measures and a bullpen that's among best the AL, the wheels have all but fallen off for the Twins' staff over the past three weeks. Check out the breakdown of their runs allowed since their slide began:

    
    Runs
    Allowed		Games
    ---------------------
    8+		   10
    4-7		    6
    1-3		    7
    
    Whether the Twins like it or not, a race has developed in American League Central. If they truly want to be a part of that race, going forward, one of these columns is going to need to be far less gaudy.

  • Free At Last: Though it's not likely to solve the Twins' recent pitching woes with one fell swoop, adding BP favorite Johan Santana to the rotation while subtracting Joe Mays and his 6.57 ERA is at least a step in the right direction.

    We've been covering Johan's unlawful oppression since the beginning, so we'll be sure to keep on eye on his progress. For now, we'll let his arm do the talking.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • There's No Al in All-Star: When faced with the shocking realization that there were two legitimate all-star candidates on the D-Rays, Mike Scioscia managed to find room for neither and instead opted for Lance Carter. Rather than rehash the candidacy of Rocco Baldelli or Aubrey Huff, I have to wonder what Al Levine is feeling right about now. Consider the following:
    
    Name		IP	H	HR	BB	K	ERA	ARP
    Lance Carter	45.1	44	6	13	30	4.17   -2.1
    Al Levine	43.0	37	4	12	23	1.67	7.0
    
    Meanwhile, Michael Wolverton's work shows that Travis Harper has actually been the best reliever in the state of Florida this year. However, the insanity of the save is just as obvious with the selection of Carter over Levine as it is anywhere. Levine ranks fourth in the AL in ERA among relievers, behind two guys Mike Scioscia did take (Brendan Donnelly and Shigetoshi Hasegawa) and Mariano Rivera. Not that we advocate selecting second-tier relievers with average peripherals, but Levine has actually been a solid reliever this year, while Carter has gone 14-20 in save situations and is on the verge of losing his job. Given the choice between Carter and Levine, we'd ask to see door number three, but Levine would certainly look less out of place on an all-star team.

  • Hey, wait a minute!: Jason Tyner was optioned to Triple-A Durham on Sunday to make room for Bobby Seay. Tyner's not exactly the poster boy for a Prospectus-type player with his career line of .258/.293/.301, but he deserved better. The Rays actually have three talented players manning the outfield on a day-to-day basis, but it isn't often that you see a team sending down a guy in the middle of what looks to be a career year, or a career 70 at-bats in this case. With his .290/.355/.391 performance, Tyner had managed to post the fourth highest EQA of any member of the 25 man roster (behind Huff, Baldelli, and the equally sample-sized challenged Jared Sandberg. His seven extra base hits are more than twice what he had last season and over 25 percent of his career total. He's also drawn as many walks (seven) as he did in 2002, despite taking 99 less trips to the plate. At age 26, with a history of getting on base in Triple-A along his improved power and plate discipline, it's possible that Tyner may be establishing himself as some sort of useful fourth outfielder. Players who can cover center field, steal bases without making outs (career 83 percent success rate), and not embarrass themselves at the plate have their place in the major leagues. Apparently, however, that place is not Tampa Bay.

  • Noteworthy Prospect: Don't look now, but the Devil Rays have another kid from the sugar canes of Louisiana making headlines in the minor leagues. Joey Gathright may just be the fastest person in professional baseball, and he's putting his speed to use in the Cal League. Through 73 games, Gathright has 50 stolen bases and has been caught just 11 times, and has singled his way to a .346/.437/.386 campaign. Amazingly, 86 of his 94 hits this year have ended with him stopping at first base, a remarkable percentage for someone with a batting average that high. A 32nd round draft pick in 2001, he has maximized his one tool and put himself on the map. How little power does Gathright have? Well, this quote from his amazingly funny biography should say it all: "His biggest thrill in baseball was hitting a double last season. Joey's biggest disappointment was hitting only one double." Thankfully, next year, Joey can talk about the five thrills he's had so far in 2003.

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