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July 11, 2003

Prospectus Today

First Half Disappointments

by Joe Sheehan

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With the All-Star break just around the corner, it's getting kind of late to dismiss disappointing performance as "just a slump." A number of hitters counted on to put up numbers in the middle of their teams' lineups haven't come close to expected performance. Is the problem with the players or the expectations of them, and which guys can be expected to bounce back in the second half?

(All stats through Wednesday.)

Edgardo Alfonzo


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .280  .370  .431  .293
Actual    .236  .316  .333  .239

Signing Alfonzo was a risky play for the Giants, who got an extremely talented hitter and superior defender, but one with a history of back problems. Those problems have hindered him all season, showing up in his complete lack of power; he's not hitting the ball in the air, or getting anything into it when does. His performance is even worse than it was in 2001, when he hit .243/.326/.403 for the Mets, and it's not just the park: Alfonzo is hitting .243 and slugging .368 at home, better in both cases than what he does on the road.

Alfonzo's ability to bounce back will depend entirely on his back letting him drive the ball into Pac Bell Park's gaps for 20 doubles the rest of the way. The average will perk up, but he won't slug .400 this year.

Adrian Beltre


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .270  .328  .440  .273
Actual    .212  .277  .340  .219

Observers say that Beltre looks lost at the plate, with his bat speed gone and his swing out of whack. His GB/FB ratios agree; beginning with his first full season in 1999: 1.16, 1.07, 1.09, 0.99, 1.40. That kind of outlier is consistent with something being off-kilter. Beltre's plate discipline is as good as it's been in years, but until he gets some balls in the air--which probably requires a different approach, hitting coach, or uniform--he's not someone you can expect to perform well.

David Bell


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .258  .326  .416  .262
Actual    .199  .299  .289  .216

Is it the Dusty Effect? In Baseball Prospectus 2003, Michael Wolverton presented a list of hitters who had performed much better under Dusty Baker than during the rest of their careers. Coming into 2003, Bell had been 16% better under Baker than he'd been before getting to San Francisco, with an adjusted OPS of 97 pre-Baker and 113 under him.

Like Beltre and Alfonzo, Bell has actually improved his strikeout and walk ratios while hitting a lot more balls on the ground than he used to, with a career-high 1.09 GB/FB ratio. All those grounders are helping him hit .217 on balls in play, which is about what you'd expect from a pitcher.

I haven't done a lot of research into this, but given what we're looking at with the first three players on this list, I wonder if an uptick in GB/FB ratio indicates that an older player is losing it, the way a big spike in walk rate does. It's something worth looking into, depending on the availability of enough GB/FB data. Without that information, and without indication that Bell is fighting an injury, I'd expect him to hit around his original projection in the second half.

Pat Burrell


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .269  .379  .513  .307
Actual    .192  .300  .377  .240

Maybe the biggest disappointment of the 2003 season, Burrell has gone backwards following a monster 2002 performance. Fans and media in Philly are all over him for having the poor timing to hit like this after signing a six-year, $50-million deal in the off-season, which hasn't helped.

Whether it's mechanical or mental--I've been told both--Burrell's biggest problem is that his strikeout rate has returned to the level of his rookie season. It's hard to put up any kind of numbers striking out in a third of your at-bats, which is what he's been doing. Anecdotally, I'd say that his first real slump as a major leaguer seems to have affected his swing, making him tentative and jumpy at the plate.

More than anyone on this list, Burrell needs one hot week to get himself straightened out, to get his confidence back and make him stop jumping at the ball. That week will come, although it might take a seven-game stretch against the Padres and Rockies (at Coors Field) in August to get it done. Burrell will hit .280/.360/.520 in the second half, and would make a great pickup for your fantasy team.

Shawn Green


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .282  .380  .542  .319
Actual    .248  .309  .421  .257

The Dodgers have been hitting so poorly that it's unfair to blame any one player. Nevertheless, having their best hitter put on a year-long Michael Tucker impersonation has been a big part of their problem.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. As good as Green was in 2001 and 2002, the underlying indicators weren't as strong, and he'd been becoming an increasingly one-dimensional player.


Year    AB/K   AB/UIBB   K/UIBB   SB/CS

2000    5.04     7.53     1.49     24/5
2001    5.79     9.98     1.73     20/4
2002    5.20     8.20     1.58      8/5
2003    4.82    11.57     2.40      2/1

Ten intentional walks in 2001 and a robust 22 in 2002 kept Green's OBP and strike-zone indicators impressive on the surface, but masked some decline. Both figures have gone in the tank this season, taking his average and OBP with them. He stopped running last year, another trend that has continued in 2003. I think Green will continue to struggle in the second half, perhaps improving his numbers a bit, but not enough to make a difference in the Dodgers' season. The change in his plate discipline is a huge cause for concern, and warning flag as he heads out of his peak seasons.

Paul Konerko


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .285  .346  .490  .287
Actual    .183  .258  .274  .185

A nod to Nate Silver here; PECOTA flagged Konerko as having an unusually high collapse rate for a 27-year-old, due largely to his old player's skills and body. Konerko has been an utter disaster this year, and has gotten worse with each passing month, a sign that the slump has affected his confidence.

The thing about Konerko is that he's never been as good as people thought he was. His popularity in Chicago has been as much about his being a different personality than Frank Thomas, while cashing in on the Big Hurt's great OBP to rack up RBIs. In Konerko's peak years, 2001 and 2002, he put up EqAs of .292 and .296. Those figures wouldn't even register on Thomas' career line; the Big Hurt's "bad" 1998 and 1999 seasons came in at .306 and .307, respectively, and the worst non-injury year of his career, 2002, was good for a .293 EqA.

Put another way, Konerko at his best has barely matched Thomas at his worst. For this, he gained hero status and millions of bucks. Life is not a meritocracy.

There's nothing in the performance record that indicated Konerko can bounce back this year, no obvious flaw he can correct. He's lost a lot of playing time to Brian Daubach, and will probably be the odd man out every time Jerry Manuel needs to get Carl Everett out of center field. The White Sox can't afford to let Konerko play his way out of this, not with a division title within their grasp. Check back in 2004.

Mark Kotsay


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .288  .360  .435  .286
Actual    .244  .331  .329  .242

I'm including Kotsay here because he's been a major disappointment to me, personally. Over the winter, I'd flagged him as a breakout candidate, and the only things he's broken are my spirit and his back. As Edgardo Alfonzo will attest, back problems will destroy a hitter about as readily as any injury. Kotsay has the same markers as Alfonzo: a huge spike in groundball rate as he struggles to get anything behind his swings, coupled with an improvement in his plate-discipline markers that would normally be a sign of development.

Kotsay needs a few months of rest--and perhaps a few hours on an operating table--to even begin thinking about returning to his 2000-02 level. He'll be just 28 next season, so it's too early to give up on him. Just remember that back problems can become chronic, and pay careful attention to Will Carroll's reports on Kotsay in spring training 2004.

Miguel Tejada


           AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
PECOTA    .281  .335  .487  .285
Actual    .244  .298  .428  .254

Here's the thing: it's not that Tejada has been way off his game this season. It's that he wasn't that much above his game last season.

Here are his career stats, with each event expressed as a percentage of plate appearances


Year     PA      1B   2B   3B   HR   UIBB    SO

1998    407    13.0  4.9  0.2  2.7    6.9  21.1
1999    674    14.5  4.9  0.5  3.1    8.0  13.9
2000    681    15.2  4.7  0.1  4.4    9.0  15.0
2001    683    14.8  4.5  0.4  5.0    5.6  13.0
2002    715    19.6  4.2  0.0  4.8    4.9  11.7
2003    393    13.2  5.3  0.0  3.8    5.6   8.4

The biggest outlier on that chart (other than his rookie-year strikeout rate) is Tejada's singles rate in 2002, and it's basically the entire difference between his 2002 season and the rest of his career. Some of that is the lowered strikeout rate, but most of it is the Crash Davis "one hit a week" credo that separates millionaires and Quadruple-A players. Or in this case, unwarranted BBWAA hardware and a nightmare season.

Tejada hit in good luck last season. He's hit in poor luck this year. That's exactly how a career .266 hitter has one year at .308 and another at .244. There's no other explanation in his performance line, and really, no other difference in his record.

You almost feel for Tejada a little. If he'd had his 2002 season in 2003, there's no telling how much money he might have made in the free-agent market. He'll still be a desirable commodity, but expectations should be tempered; he's a good player, not a great one, and remarkably consistent outside of the extra hits that fell in last season.

--

SoCal readers, remember to R.S.V.P. for Sunday night's Pizza Feed in Orange County. I'll be there along with Jonah Keri and, making his West Coast debut, Nate Silver. The Braves and Cubs will provide background noise, and we'll give you all a look at the voting for BP's midseason awards, to be announced next week.

Sign up today! First 25 guests get to make fun of the sunburn I'll have after taking in Angels/Twins that afternoon!

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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