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July 29, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • Deee-fense!: As just about the only member of the offense not hitting over the past month, there's been speculation over whether Todd Walker's bat (hitting .243/.284/.408 since June 27th) makes up for his defense shortcomings, especially with a ground ball pitcher like the struggling Derek Lowe is on the mound.

    One way to approach this would be to look at the team pitching totals when the player is at the position, versus when he is not, remove the so-called defense-independent outcomes (home runs, strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches) from the totals, and look at how often balls-in-play went for hits. If the theory, popularized by Voros McCracken, that pitchers have little influence on the outcome of balls in play holds, the defense should allow more hits when bad players are on the field.

    For example, when Todd Walker plays second base, the Red Sox allow a ball-in-play batting average of .304. When anyone else plays second base, the Red Sox allow a BIP average of .308. Surprisingly, there's not much of a difference, and it's actually slightly in Walker's favor.

    So, are there any players for whom there is a big difference? I looked at every position player on the Red Sox roster, and determined the ball-in-play batting average when each was in the game vs. not in the game, with a minimum of 50 innings in each sample. The top and bottom 5 players/positions are shown:

    (Diff = difference in batting average on balls in play when the player is at the position)

    
    Player          Pos   Diff
    --------------------------
    Giambi_Jeremy    LF  +.054
    Millar_Kevin     LF  +.048
    Jackson_Damian   SS  +.047
    Ortiz_David      1B  +.036
    Hillenbrand_Shea 3B  +.034
    
    [...]
    
    Millar_Kevin     1B  -.024
    Hillenbrand_Shea 1B  -.026
    Nixon_Trot       RF  -.033
    Sanchez_Freddy   3B  -.051
    Jackson_Damian   LF  -.055
    
    Looks like the trio of Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar, and David Ortiz have earned their reps as born DH-es. Or at least, they pale by comparison to Damian Jackson, may be responsible in part for the team's better defensive when he's in left field. Freddy Sanchez (third base) and Trot Nixon (right field) also appear to be strong by this measure.

    Now some strong caveats apply as this is a very imperfect way of estimating defense. There is the usual small sample size problem, as well as statistical noise since we are lumping in the performance of every other player on the field and trying to discern the effect of a single player. Also, having particularly capable position-sharing teammates will make you look worse by comparison. There can be biases in which parks a player appeared in (playing on a bad infield more often that your position-sharing teammates can unfairly make you look worse than you are). Differing distributions of ground balls vs. fly balls, or lefty-righty handedness among the pitchers can cause the observed results to be different without it being the player's fault as well.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Opportunity Cost: While Elmer Dessens isn't someone any reasonable person would call a rotation savior, the Reds probably miss him more than any of the other teams miss their cog in last winter's four-team deal. Dessens' middling 5.1 VORP would still be far and away the best pitcher on a Reds team that doesn't have a pitcher who has both 10 starts and a positive VORP. With the Reds rotation among the worst in baseball by any measure, the steadying influence of even a league-average pitcher would be worth the gain from...oops, there's been no gain from acquiring Felipe Lopez. Lopez (-4.4 VORP) not only did nothing in the majors despite every opportunity, he managed to tear up his ankle in Triple-A Louisville and is done for 2003. While it's hard to call the trade a bust in any manner with less than a year of perspective, it sure has all the earmarks. While John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold may change our view of the trade in the future, the Reds seem to be at least one of two teams to have been snookered by the "best looking General Manager in baseball."

  • Monetary Cost: With another year essentially lost for Ken Griffey Jr., the Cincinnati fans have clearly lost patience for their prodigal. Instead of looking at his difficult rehab from a shoulder injury or the solid numbers he put up when healthy, they seem fixated on the $12.5 million he is drawing from notorious cheapskate Carl Lindner. When beaten over the head long enough with Bud and Carl's small market mantras, fans have bought into the idea that Griffey is holding them back rather than questioning why a publicly-financed new stadium didn't boost the salary structure even a bit. With much of Griffey's salary deferred and six more years left on the deal, Griffey will be a financial part of this team for years to come. His production per dollar remains among the worst in the majors, along with Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle--but unlike those others, there is a future for Mr. Griffey in baseball. Somewhere.

  • Cost of Living: As the Reds head into the final two months of the season, they are left in that most precarious of positions: a so-called small market team with a new stadium, lots of talent at the majors and low minors but not enough payroll space to fill the gaps, and playing in a town that both worships the team and has lost its patience. Unless Carl Lindner has a visit from the Ghost of Machines Past and opens his pocket book to buy some new players, the Reds will head into 2004 just as they did in 2003. They with talent that other teams envy like Austin Kearns and Aaron Boone, but whatever plan Bowden had, it did not work. The cost was his job. Likewise, Poppa Bob Boone finds himself looking for work today. The players, for the most part, seem safe. Outside of Kearns, Boone, and the enigmatic Adam Dunn, there aren't many parts that could be spun into useful additions. Worse still, there are scary rumors circulating regarding Lindner's intended replacement. Let's hope Lindner notices that he has good candidates on his own staff or that he's read Moneyball.

  • Cost of Rebuilding: Don Gullett has developed a reputation as a miracle worker, finding retread, worn out, or broken pitcher and turning them into serviceable pitchers. That reputation and the Reds seeming belief in his powers may have led to a weakness. If Gullett can work wonders with question marks, Jim Bowden has failed to see what he could do with real pitching talent. While it is too early to give up on Danny Graves or John Riedling as starters, it's clear that the LIMA Plan doesn't work at the major league level. Whoever the GM is this off-season might want to consider pooling the money he might spend on a handful of castoffs and buying one strong pitcher.

San Diego Padres

  • Trade Winds: the Padres are being mentioned as players in several different trades as the deadline draws near, which is an interesting position for a team stuck squarely in last place. While short-term contracts Rondell White and Mark Loretta are in play to be dispatched to contending teams, Padres management has always maintained that the team will give a healthy kick to the payroll as they move into Petco Park in 2004. If the team can pick up a core player at the deadline, they'll be in a position where they don't have to bid against the Yankees during the offseason.

    • White to Florida for Ramon Castro: the Fish are rumored to be considering White and Pittsburgh's Reggie Sanders to upgrade their outfield in their quest for the wild card. A month ago, White looked like the better pickup, but after a .240/.300 July he's actually fallen behind Sanders at the plate. Then again, White's the All-Star of the two.

      The Padres are apparently asking for Castro; since the team is running Gary Bennett out there every day, Castro, who is cheap, effective, and young, would be a huge pickup.

    • Someone to Cleveland for Milton Bradley: according to the Union-Tribune, the Padres have expressed interest in the Angry Man. It's easy to see why--Bradley is a cheap 25-year-old outfielder whose 39.0 Runs Above Replacement Player places him right behind Jim Edmonds at the top of the major league centerfield list, which gives him a pretty good claim to the most valuable center field property in the league. Cleveland is in full-scale rebuilding mode, but Bradley's got a good chance to being part of the next good Indians team, so it's tough to see how this deal would make sense on their part.

    • Someone to St. Louis for J.D. Drew: it sure doesn't approach fair value, but the Padres would love to move Kevin Jarvis, and if you're Walt Jocketty, you've got to be looking for pitching pretty desperately at this point. Drew is an obviously talented player who has a tough time staying healthy, and that's got to be frustrating for St. Louis. A Jarvis and White for Drew deal would be pretty one-sided, but more lopsided deals have already occurred this month.

    • Xavier Nady and Oliver Perez as part of a package to Pittsburgh for Brian Giles, Jason Kendall, and cash: this is the big one, and depending on who you talk to the teams are already in agreement on everything but the amount of cash involved. How lopsided would this be over the next few years? One of the cool things about the PECOTA cards is their Five-Year Forecasts of Wins Above Replacement, which can help answer this question.

      
      Player     2004    2005    2006    2007    Total
      Nady        0.8     1.0     1.0     1.1      3.9
      Perez       0.9     0.0     1.4     0.7      3.0
      Kendall     1.5     1.0     0.6     0.7      3.8
      Giles       5.0     4.4     3.3     3.7     16.4
      

      The Padres would be giving up at least a couple of promising players, but opportunities to acquire a game-breaking talent like Brian Giles are few and far between. Assuming the Padres won't be serious contenders for the services of Vlad Guerrero this off-season, they won't get another chance at getting a talent of this magnitude before Petco.

      Moving salary is a great concept where roster flexibility is concerned. Moving a player like Giles for anything less than a king's ransom is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face, and if he comes this cheaply and he'll sign his next contract with the standard hometown discount, the Padres should jump at the chance.

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