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August 13, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Rebuild: Minutes before the unrestricted trading deadline, the Orioles traded Sidney Ponson off to the San Francisco Giants for three pitchers: Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss, and Ryan Hannaman. In doing so, the Orioles did a couple of things that would have any BPer beaming with pride:

    • Selling high: Ponson has always been regarded as a talented pitcher, but the facts of the matter are that he entered 2003 with a 4.74 ERA (4% below average), a 41-53 record, and a lot of innings prior to age 25 on his right arm. Suddenly he goes 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA, and the Orioles decide to cash out while his value his high. He should look great in San Francisco over the final two months (big stadium, teams that haven't seen him), but there's no reason to believe this won't be the best season of his career. He's a free agent, negotiations had begun poorly, and he was probably unsignable to the Orioles (who were determined to pay for him at his established career rate of performance, not his 2003 rate). To which we would all say: Brav-O.

    • TNSTAAPP: Since there's no such thing as a pitching prospect--by which we mean, the attrition rate of pitching rates is so high that they cannot be counted on--getting pitchers in bulk is the way to go. Moss is an established pitcher already, with 21 major league wins to his credit; Ainsworth was rated among the 15 best pitching prospects in baseball this year by Baseball America, John Sickels, and BP; and Hannaman is a raw lefty who throws in the 90s, is well regarded by both BA and Sickels, and is a more classic deadline deal prospect--in recent years, a Hannaman-level player might have been the entire return for a trade.

  • Cust: The Orioles got some use out of the option they burned on Jack Cust back in May. Back then, they called him up from Ottawa and sent him back down three days later, never getting into a game. Just before the All-Star break they did it again, calling him up and sending him back 10 days later without ever playing. This time, with Melvin Mora's hand still sore from a Greg Maddux pitch in June, he finally got the chance to show his stuff. In his second game he hit a three-run homer in a 5-3 Oriole win, and in his fifth game had another homer and three RBI in another 5-3 win.

    Still, Cust elicits some curious comments from the Oriole brass, such as: "Since he's been here, I haven't seen him be as selective at the plate as spring training," manager Mike Hargrove said.

    Nothing unusual about that, except that it was an out-and-out compliment, given what the O's brass has preached. Orioles officials have been nagging Cust to be less patient at the plate since day one. It is having some effect, as we can see by breaking his Ottawa season into halves:

     
                     AB   H   DB  TP  HR   BB  SO   BA   OBA   SLG 
    First 49 games:  163  42   8   0   3   45  50  .258  .418  .362    
    Next 48 games:   170  53  10   1   6   35  44  .312  .429  .488    
    
    

    Despite a 54-point rise in batting average, his on-base average is only up 11 points. As is, every stat in his line except walks is better in his second half, when he was following the team's advice.

Colorado Rockies

  • Turnabout: The point has been made, seconded, and beaten into the ground that the Rockies cannot win on the road. This year is no different. Through yesterday, Team Jekyll and Hyde stood at 41-19 at Coors, 19-42 away, making them the fourth-best home team and the second-worst road team in the majors. Two months ago, we pointed out that Colorado's Home-Road split this season was bordering on ludicrous, a fact that could be attributed to small sample size. That trend has continued through the summer and now the Rockies are nearing the completion of one of the most insane home-road splits in major league history, outpacing the bar set high by Rockies teams from the past few seasons.

    Baseball Prospectus 2003 stated that the Rockies need to find a way to win on the road if they're going to compete for the division title or the Wild Card. Far from moving towards that goal, the Rockies are heading in the wrong direction; Colorado's road win percentage has declined each of the last four years to 2003's new low of .311. The bats haven't been appreciably different on the road this year as they have in years past--it's true that Rockies hitters have been consistently worse on the road than Coors, but they've been fairly consistent in major offensive categories on the road over the past four years. Though the Rockies batters have been experiencing a slight convergence of their home-away numbers since 2000, the narrowing of the gap has been due more to the decline of their performance at Coors, even while maintaining they've remained crummy on the road.

    The real difference this season lies in the pitching, and the change is dramatic. Here are the Rockies opponents' major offensive statistics expressed in home-road splits over the past four years.

    
    Coors
           AVG   OBP   SLG  RS
    2003  .281  .346  .470  314
    2002  .284  .349  .497  491
    2001  .289  .362  .514  531
    2000  .303  .367  .512  531
    
    Away
           AVG   OBP   SLG  RS
    2003  .289  .358  .453  325
    2002  .270  .344  .433  407
    2001  .259  .329  .443  375
    2000  .257  .334  .425  366
    
    Difference
           AVG   OBP   SLG  RS
    2003 -.008 -.012  .017  -11
    2002  .014  .005  .064   84
    2001  .030  .033  .071  156
    2000  .046  .033  .087  165
    
    

    The good news is that Rockies pitchers have been doing a better job at Coors. The bad news is what they're doing on the road. Showing utter disdain for park factors and pitching's version of Hades, Rockies pitchers have turned themselves around and are now, amazingly, slightly better in the mile-high air than they are on the road. A likely explanation would be that the Rockies have moved towards a different type of pitcher, preferring a pitching style that would be more successful in Coors Field's unique playing environment. Perhaps Colorado is now favoring pitchers who throw more ground balls or higher strikeouts to try to combat the effects of pitching at altitude.

    Unfortunately, there's very little in any peripheral numbers to suggest a change in pitching philosophy. Nor do these stats shed any light on why the Rockies pitching staff is taking such a beating away from Coors. Looking at both home and away numbers, the staff's K/9 is a bit lower, the defense is a bit worse, but HR/9 is down, GB/FB is up, and BB/9 is about the same. But the differences are too slight to appreciably account for the drastic changes in the results above.

    If the Mile High brain trust can figure out how to reverse the trends of their pitching staff, the Rockies will have a shot to win some more games away from Denver. But until then, GM Dan O'Dowd and the rest of the team is going to start feeling more and more like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill.

New York Mets

  • Mike Piazza has a grand total of two innings of experience as a first baseman in his major-league career. Nevertheless, for years he's been the subject of rumors that he would be moving to the cold corner.

    Those rumors will only increase in volume now. Sunday, Piazza matched his career total in first-base innings by playing the last two innings of a rehab appearance at first base. The future Hall of Famer caught the first seven innings for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides before changing positions for the eighth and ninth.

    Piazza will be 35 years old when next season opens, and he's under contract for the Mets for the next two years at $15 million per. The Mets need him healthy to have any chance of getting into a playoff race, or--more likely--if they're going to be able to trade Piazza, who holds veto rights. With Jason Phillips establishing himself as a possible regular behind the plate, a move to first base would seem to be the best chance the Mets have at getting full value--on the field or in the market--for Piazza.

    Catchers move, especially the good-hitting ones. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect that Piazza's next few years would look something like Mickey Tettleton's 1993 and 1994: 50-60 games a year behind the plate, the rest at first base and DH, maybe some outfield. Yogi Berra was only a part-time catcher after the age of 32, but still played 120 games a year for four more years.

    Even Piazza, who has never been thrilled about the idea of moving, has to recognize that catching less and playing some first base is more enjoyable than missing 50-60 games a year to various injuries. A plan that splits his time will allow him to still consider himself a catcher while maximizing the chance that he'll stay healthy and productive.

  • On the Farm: On August 2, right-hander Bob Keppel threw a no-hitter for the Mets' Double-A affiliate in Binghamton. Keppel, a 21-year-old who was the team's compensation pick in 2000 for losing John Olerud to the Mariners, has moved up a level a year as a professional, which may have been a bit too fast.

    This year, Keppel has an impressive ERA of 2.09 in 77 2/3 innings for the B-Mets, but his strikeouts have fallen through the floor: a total of 36 for a rate of 4.2 per nine innings. Baseball Prospectus 2003 reported that while Keppel throws hard, he struggles with his slider and curve. That could explain the reduced strikeout rate, as Keppel is less successful at making hitters miss as he advances to higher levels.

    Whatever the case, Keppel's big night stands out as a peak performance for a pitcher who illustrates the concept of TINSTAAPP, rather than a sign of greatness to come.

  • Upcoming Schedule: The Mets are playing out the string, but their opponents aren't. Thanks to the crowded conditions in the National League, the Mets will be playing almost the entire rest of their schedule against teams fighting for a playoff spot. Only a trip to San Diego and a home series against the Pirates in late September loom as irrelevant games (although six matchups with the Expos could look that way by the time next month rolls around).

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