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August 22, 2003

Prospectus Today

A Day in the Sun

by Joe Sheehan

I love day baseball. To me, there are few things better than sitting in the sunshine and watching a ballgame. Better still if it's a weekday, because it adds that sense that you're getting away with something, even when you don't work a 9-to-5 job. Well, a.m. to p.m., anyway.

So when I was offered tickets to Thursday's Dodgers/Expos tilt at Chavez Ravine, I was all over it. Truth be told, I don't get to as many ballgames as you might think, thanks in large part to the availability of so many games on television. It's lazy, I guess, but seeing 25-30 teams in one night has a lot of appeal, especially when so many games right now have playoff implications.

Like this one. Both teams started the day four games out of the Wild Card slot, having split the first two games of their series. Neither team has been able to get much traction in the Wild Card chase, in part because neither scores all that often. Both are heavily reliant on good starting pitching.

The final was 2-1, Dodgers, but to say that the Dodgers won would be overstating things. It was more like they happened to be standing there when the Expos had a ballgame to give away. The 'Spos opened the game 9-for-22 and got exactly one run out of it, on a solo home run by Vladimir Guerrero. They allowed the Dodgers to tie the game in the sixth by giving up a single to Odalis Perez--batting .045 at the time--and a double to Cesar Izturis--slugging .295 at the time. It wasn't really a double as much as it was a fly to right field that Guerrero still hasn't seen.

Two innings later, Dave Roberts dragged a two-out, none-on bunt past the mound that Henry Mateo could only make a play on by bare-handing. He gloved it instead, getting no throw off. Four pitches later, Izturis lined a ball down the right-field line for another double. This time, though, there was a play to be made. Guerrero made a strong throw to Mateo, but Mateo made a weak throw to the plate, short and up the first-base line. Brian Schneider nearly made a great tag, but couldn't hold on, and Roberts scored what proved to be the winning run.

The Expos lost this game entirely because of their defense. No, it didn't help that they couldn't convert scoring opportunities, but they had no reason to allow any runs in this game. Guerrero should have gloved the first Izturis double, Mateo could have made a play on Roberts' bunt single and he certainly had an opportunity to make up for it on the relay throw. Any kind of on-target peg--even just a half-decent one--nails Roberts by a wide margin, but Mateo made the one throw that wouldn't get it done, both short and off-line to the first-base side.

One of the misconceptions about statheads is that because we spend so much time talking about offense, we don't care much about defense. That's far from the truth; we just recognize that measuring individual defensive performance isn't easy, and that the way defense is popularly evaluated--a mix of athleticism and handedness--has some significant flaws. The ability to make plays is important, and having a team that doesn't give up extra outs is important. The Expos, in the middle of the pack when it comes to converting balls in play into outs this year (they're eighth in the National League in Defensive Efficiency), missed a couple of key plays yesterday, and that cost them a game that was both winnable and important.

For the first time in a while, I kept score at the game. I'd been going to games more as social events lately, so it was nice to break out a scorecard and pencil. (By the way, a nod to the Dodgers for selling a scorecard separate from the game program. It's a nice eight-pager, on good stock with rosters and some ballpark info. It doesn't allow for extra innings or pitching lines, but given how many teams don't even sell stand-alone scorecards, I'm not complaining.)

I took a bunch of notes with said pencil:

  • I was out much of the day Wednesday, and completely missed that the Expos had signed Todd Zeile. I got the information when the lineups were announced, which was a bit weird. How often does a guy get released, then show up a week later batting fifth for a .520 team playing for a playoff spot?

    Zeile will help the Expos, who have mostly played Yawning Vortex of Suck at third base this year. He'll be good for a .340 OBP, which will help this team, even if he slugs .340, too.

  • I know he's a tools monster who is fun to watch and who puts up great stats, but I have to say that Vlad Guerrero, for all the positive press he gets, just doesn't act like a smart baseball player. He made the worst play of the day on the Izturis fly ball, and didn't exactly look smooth on his two other chances. He also kept trying to steal third base with two outs and Zeile batting, which is a pretty poor percentage move no matter what you think of Zeile's skill set these days (Zeile fouled off the pitches). Guerrero's talented and strong and athletic and can throw BBs from right field, all of which make him great, but he costs the Expos a lot of runs on the bases (120-for-190 in his career as a basestealer) and in right field with his interesting routes.

    I don't know why his fairly obvious shortcomings get so little attention. They don't make him a bad player by a long shot, but they are the kind of "little things" that so often get dragged out to sully the name of superstars.

  • I mentioned that the Expos started the game 9-for-22. They were 0-for-10 against Perez from that point until he left the game. Perez threw strikes and, after the first inning, worked quickly. I don't think he's a great pitcher, but he does strike me as someone who might walk some obscenely low number--maybe 30 guys--in a full season some year down the road.

  • After Cesar Izturis grounded out to second on the first pitch he saw in the first inning, I made a note that reads, "Cesar Izturis cannot bat second ('All-boy power lineup')."

    Now, Izturis was the day's hero, with RBI doubles that tied and won the game, so this was clearly a bad day for me to make that particular note. That said, he's an awful hitter, a .300/.300 guy who plays great defense and needs to be in a lineup with at least seven guys who can hit. Seeing him bat second--and Jolbert Cabrera sixth, and Alex Cora seventh--called to mind something from fifth grade: the All-Boy Power Lineup.

    See, Brother Robert would organize kickball teams, and every day at lunch, we'd go over to the park and play a scheduled game. This was a big deal, at least to a cadre of boys who were competitive about lots of things and saw each other every day for eight years. Unfortunately, Brother Robert insisted on having the girls involved, which created all kinds of problems for 10-year-old boys who wanted to win. So we'd spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to minimize the damage the girls could do.

    Well, what we finally arrived at one point was stacking all the boys at the top of the lineup, figuring that our best chance to win was to have Derek Hammel on base so that Joey Sheehan could kick one deep and be on base for Michael Martir. The next inning, we'd watch the girls make their outs, then bat again in the inning after that. Clustering the boys would give us a decent shot at multiple-run innings every other frame, and we figured, the best shot at winning.

    I honestly don't remember how it did. I do know that kickball games in fifth grade under Brother Robert are some of my best childhood memories, and that I've let this little aside go on way too long.

    The point is that if you have four good hitters, or three, or two and a couple of guys who might be hot this week, it's worth thinking about grouping them. I'm not running a simulation on this, but I think the theory behind the All-Boy Power Lineup works well: get the people who can do something good together and see what happens. Plopping Izturis and his .207 EqA in between two of the useful Dodger hitters just increases the chance that something bad will happen between two good things.

  • In the fifth inning, Cora hit a line drive that Orlando Cabrera knocked down before picking the ball up and throwing to first base. Cora dove into the bag and was called out. I can't prove this, but I had a great view of the play, and I'm convinced, as I usually am, that Cora would have been safe if he'd just run through the bag.

    The BP staff went around on this a couple of months ago, but to summarize my position: the fastest way to get to first base is to run hard for 95 feet. Too many guys dive, which causes deceleration and actually moves the part of the body closest to the base (the feet) further away in an effort to get there sooner. Many others take an extended last stride to reach the bag. I think running, in a straight line, through the bag, without a stretch or a reach or, certainly, a dive, is by far the best method.

    Some day, an enterprising young executive is going to test this with some group of speedy ballplayers and prove that running through the bad is best. Until then, the Alex Coras and Roberto Alomars will go on making outs and getting credited for their hustle.

  • I know I've picked on Henry Mateo, pretty hard, but one other thing: he can't bunt. He was 0-for-4 in trying, failing to advance the runners in a first-and-second, no-out situation in the fifth and a tying-run-on-first, no-out spot in the ninth.

  • I was at the game with Sophia and our niece, Ann. In the eighth inning, after Izturis' second double knocked out Day, Joey Eischen came in to pitch. My niece Ann suddenly perked up and told us that she'd gone to school with him. Apparently, he was one year ahead of her in high school (yes, we have a niece that old; it's a long story), and as she put it, "had always wondered what happened to him."

  • He's not my favorite player, but Eric Gagne is certainly in the top five, if for no other reason than when he comes in, he makes Dodger Stadium feel like a place where people care.

    The fact that he's insanely, ridiculously, stupendously dominant doesn't hurt. I got shot down when I asked some of my colleagues whether he was having the best relief year ever, and rightfully so. He won't have the innings to measure up to the top seasons by Rich Gossage or Dan Quisenberry or Hoyt Wilhelm. But for sheer freakshow dominance, how can you not love the guy allowing a .131 opposing BA, a 378 opposition OPS, and striking just shy of half the men he faces?

  • My favorite part of the day? Getting the chance to stand up and applaud for Rickey Henderson for what I'd imagine was the final time. Thanks, Rickey.

--

Yesterday, the BP staff got into an extended e-mail exchange about the possibility of baseball in Portland, one that should be available as a Roundtable some time next week.

For now, here's the last e-mail I sent on the matter. To be honest, I didn't intend for it to end up in my column, but after I read it I realized that it was pretty much everything I wanted to say.

I'd like to point out that this is part of my objection to Portland. It's honestly about sixth on the list of best places to put a team right now: I'd list Washington, Sacramento, Newark, Brooklyn and probably the Inland Empire above it, and that is just the U.S. (I don't think any of the Mexico/P.R. ideas are viable, though.) I think the Triad would be a better choice, although I don't like what it might do to minor league baseball.

MLB isn't looking to place the Expos in the best available home for a franchise. MLB is looking to place the Expos in some place that will cough up lots of public money without infringing on a current owner. MLB DOESN'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT VIABILITY. Swear to god, if Montana coughed up $300MM to build a ballpark and an owner to cough up another $300MM for the team, the Billings BigSkyzz would be the Rockies' Opening Day opponent.

The process sucks, and it's bad for the game. Adding another "small-market" team, one that's going to face all the same challenges the current ones do, just exacerbates whatever the current problems in MLB are. After the initial rush of excitement, the Portland team will either be another D'backs or another Devil Rays. They're not going to be the Cardinals.

So what if Portland is bigger than Milwaukee or Cincinnati or Pittsburgh? Some place has to be the biggest market with an MLB team, and it's them. It's like one of the "most X without being in the Hall of Fame" argument. That, in and of itself, doesn't make you viable. And "viable" is a lousy reason to go anywhere. It's the girl with the good personality, or the meal described as "edible."

Moving the Expos to Portland doesn't do anything but transplant a problem. It's a non-solution that's only being considered because the governments are playing along with MLB better than anyone else. The various rationales for moving the team there are just...oh, what's a good CK word...puffery. Foofaral.

I think we're focusing on the wrong question. "Is Portland viable?" isn't the issue. The issue is "What should MLB do with the Expos?"

Portland is about the sixth-best solution.

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

Related Content:  Mlb The Show,  The Who,  Cesar Izturis,  Running Game

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