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September 16, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Improved Performance: Predictions of a Carlos Lee breakout were as ubiquitous as Beniffer gossip this spring. Peter Gammons liked him; PECOTA liked him; a lot of analysts, looking at his improved walk rate in the second half of 2001, also liked him. But Lee's first-half performance left much to be desired. His walk rate regressed to its career levels, and he managed a line of just .262/.315/.441, barely adequate for a corner outfielder.

    Since the All-Star break, however, Lee has caught fire: his .338/.367/.601 line is among the best in the league. Unlike last year, though, Lee's breakout has not been accompanied by an improved walk rate:

    
                           BB Rate         K Rate            OPS
    2002, Pre All-Star      9.9%            13.5%           .772    
    2002, Post All-Star     16.9%           12.0%           .928
    
    2003, Pre All-Star      6.5%            16.1%           .756
    2003, Post All-Star     5.0%            12.5%           .958
    
    

    What can we learn from these figures? While big walk rates lead to gaudy OBPs--and it's disappointing that he has not been able to sustain his improvement in that area--strikeout rates are also important for a player like Lee, who has never been the big, brooding slugger that he's sometimes mistaken for, but rather has good plate coverage and hits well early in the count. Although we don't mean to open up a big can of worms with respect to lineup protection, it may not be a coincidence that Lee's breakout in each season was precipitated by a promotion in the batting order (to the #3 slot in 2002, and the 2-hole in 2003), positions in which he may be seeing more hittable first and second pitches.

  • At the Ballpark: BP was at The Cell for last Wednesday's division battle between the Sox and Twins, a 4-1 Twins victory. What did we notice?

    • Johan Santana is good. Really good. OK, you knew that, but we're talking Pedro Martinez good. Like Martinez, Santana has wicked movement on his fastball, and a devastating changeup. Also like Martinez, he's learning to use the inside part of the plate. While his HBP totals don't reflect it yet, Santana was keeping Sox hitters off balance by brushing them back, setting them up for embarrassment when his two-seamer dovetailed away from them later in the plate appearance.

    • Though it didn't pay many dividends in this game, the Sox have a peculiar team strength in terms of fouling away pitches. It's a particularly important skill for Frank Thomas--with as big a strike zone as he has, he doesn't draw all those walks simply by laying off bad pitches. Rather, he extends the-at bat by fouling off pitches that he isn't able to drive; Thomas has drawn 42 walks this season on a full count in 123 PAs with the count full.

    • Carl Everett's arm is weak. Really weak.

    • Corey Koskie, on the other hand, turned in one of the better defensive performances that BP has seen all season. His arm, range and instincts were all outstanding.

    • Kelly Wunsch's Frisbees were really floating; he nearly threw the ball away during his intentional pass of Torii Hunter. He may not be as effective down the stretch run as his ERA suggests.

    • One of the great things about a pennant race is seeing the players stay more involved in the game. Rather than sitting in the dugout and chewing sunflower seeds (or chaw), players from both teams leaned intently on the rails while their respective teams were at bat. The Twins were especially strident in their display of neato-keen enthusiasm, as will be noted on their Permanent Records.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • The Future is Now: While it's an extremely small sample size, Doug Melvin and Jack Zduriencik have to be extremely happy with their first-round pick putting up a .265 Major League Equivalent Average in just under 100 plate appearances in the Midwest League. It appears that batting skills do translate from the SWAC. While Rickie Weeks is up with the Brewers for the last few weeks of the season due to a contractual obligation, the Brewers do seem to think that he'll be back in the majors again some time next season.

    Depending on where the Brewers slot Keith Ginter next year, Weeks' competition could be sparse at second base, with Bill Hall looking like Neifi Perez without the glovework and no one else in the organization (Rich Paz? Chris Barnswell?) ready to challenge for the keystone slot. Weeks will likely start 2004 in Double-A Huntsville and be placed on the Mark Prior career path of "don't screw up and we'll see you in June." I only hope that Callix Crabbe doesn't get buried behind Weeks. Just imagine the fun Chris Kahrl could have with that name.

  • Arms and The Man: While prospects with bats are starting to emerge from Zduriencik's reign under both Doug Melvin and Dean Taylor, there's an almost complete dearth of arms. Sure, I know the TINSTAAPP doctrine, but the antidote to TINSTAAPP is what we can call the BHABA (Better Have A Bunch of Arms) theory. Since the burnout/fadeaway ratio of pitchers is so high, teams should collect as many arms as possible and protect them with a collection of organizational types who should be allowed to rise to their highest level.

    With the loss of pitchers like Nick Neugebauer and Ben Diggins, it becomes all the more important for the Brewers to keep Manny Parra and Luis Martinez healthy and to find more arms to come up behind them and support them in the bullpen. With Bo Hall, Jason Shelley, and acquisition Greg Bruso showing signs of being real pitchers, the pen is one area that Melvin will need to address in the off-season. Luckily for him, good pens can be built on the cheap.

  • Free Agents Aren't Free: The Brewers enter year two of the Doug Melvin era with only two big contracts and a lot of pre-arbitration talent like Scott Podsednik. Does this free up the profits of used cars and summer blockbusters to go after someone like Gary Sheffield? Probably not. It's more likely that one of those big contracts will be traded away than it is that a new one will be brought in. With a sudden-appearing influx of talent between one and two seasons away, the Brewers would be better off with freely available stopgaps. That's how they found Podsednik and Danny Kolb in the first place, and given the same circumstances--team not a contender, limited funds, more freely available talent on the market due to non-tenders--the Brewers would be smarter to go that route versus running the risk of signing the next Jeffrey Hammonds.

  • Going Deep: Where the Brewers might want to open up their purse a bit is in the bullpen. While freely available arms like Kolb would mesh well with pitchers like Shane Nance and the Childers brothers, going out and signing one or even two bullpen arms could be the smartest move available. While spending money on a closer or last year's hottest commodity has failed over and over, it's often worth overspending for a reliever that has demonstrated consistent performance. As Michael Wolverton's Adjusted Runs Prevented numbers show in year-over-year comparisons, consistently good relievers are not only hard to come by, past performance is almost the only way to find one. Tom Gordon or Ugueth Urbina could be a good fit, if they can be convinced to take part of their pay in sausage.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Running Down: The Cardinals were swept at the hands of the Astros, reducing their playoff chances from slim to Calista Flockhart. What has gone wrong?

    For one thing, the infield has quit hitting. Numbers in September:

    
    Scott Rolen             .220/.304/.380
    Edgar Renteria          .205/.380/.231
    Fernando Vina           .290/.380/.336
    Tino Martinez           .161/.316/.194
    
    

    OK, so Vina has been a boost to the lineup since returning to replace Bo Hart, and Renteria is still taking his walks. But playing every day takes its toll on middle infielders in September. Renteria is on pace to play in 159 games and Rolen 155; Martinez has been rested more frequently, but may just have a case of the olds. It's a theme we've harped on all year, but the Cards' weak bench means the cost of resting the starters is higher, and now they may be paying the price. Renteria in particular is playing like he's worn down.

  • Morr is Less?: While Matt Morris has been effective since his return from the DL, logging four consecutive Quality Starts, there are signs that his game has changed. In particular, his groundball-to-flyball ratio has eroded:
    
                                    GB      FB     Ratio
    Through July 21                198     121     1.64
    After August 23                 42      41     1.02
    
    

    Though his strikeout rates remain healthy, Morris has been more of a finesse pitcher since his return. His fastball is registering at around 91 and 92, rather than in the mid-nineties, and doesn't have the same sinking action that was generating so many groundball outs to the Cardinals' excellent infield defense.

    On the other hand, Morris has been remarkably economical with his pitches. He needed an even 100 to complete his Sept. 7 start against the Reds, then used just 83 in nine innings in his Saturday loss to the Astros. Morris is a smart enough pitcher to transform himself into a finesse guy when he's not at 100%--but it's not clear that he isn't still suffering from some of the effects of his fractured finger.

  • Congratulations, Tony: Tony La Russa won his 2,000th game last Wednesday, a threshold that almost assures his ascendancy into Cooperstown. Seven other men have reached the mark, and all of them have a little bronze plaque in their honor:
    
    2000 Game Winners
    Joe McCarthy    2125-1333       .615    9 Pennants,  7 Championships
    John McGraw     2763-1790       .591    10 Pennants, 3 Championships
    Walter Alston   2040-1613       .558    7 Pennants,  4 Championships
    Sparky Anderson 2193-1834       .545    5 Pennants,  3 Championships
    Leo Durocher    2008-1709       .540    3 Pennants,  1 Championship
    Tony La Russa   2001-1786       .528    3 Pennants,  1 Championship
    Bucky Harris    2157-2218       .493    3 Pennants,  2 Championships
    Connie Mack     3731-3948       .486    9 Pennants,  5 Championships
    
    

    La Russa's track record is comparable to that of Leo Durocher or Bucky Harris (those PECOTA managerial scores are coming any day now), both of whom are in the Hall. Here's hoping he retires in the same year as Randy Johnson to give Dale Petrovsky the all-mullet induction ceremony that he so richly deserves.

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