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October 3, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • PECOTA mini-evaluation: No team, not even the record-setting Red Sox, beat its PECOTA projection by more than the Braves did. Atlanta scored 907 runs, or 154 more than our system anticipated. No projection system is without its misses, but the Braves had a particular concentration of players who exceeded their projections by a substantial degree. As the Braves get set to battle the Cubs in what could be an instant classic at Wrigley, let's take a closer look:

    • C: Javy Lopez: .230 Weighted Mean Projected ERA, .337 Actual (90th percentile +++)

    No player in baseball, and certainly no other Brave, exceeded his projection by more than Lopez did. PECOTA saw in Lopez an aging, injury-prone catcher whose EqA had declined in each of the previous three seasons, and extrapolated the trend outward, assigning Lopez a 40.4% chance of a further collapse.

    Instead, Lopez trimmed down, stayed healthy, and put up video game numbers, exceeding his EqA projection by more than 100 points. He would have been a viable MVP candidate in a world without Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols--like, say, the American League.

    What next year will hold for Lopez we don't know--it will be a couple months still before we have the 2004 PECOTAs up and running. But his season is a reminder that no projection system is determinative. Or, if you're looking for a less abstract lesson: the superior conditioning and training techniques available to today's player can help him to fend off a declines that, during the olden days when the athletic ballplayer was an oxymoron, would have been all but inevitable.

    With the exception of Robert Fick, whose disappointing second half pushed his EqA just below its weighted mean line, the other Atlanta infielders excelled. Marcus Giles put off-the-field distractions behind him, and now looks like he could be a Jeff Kent type of player. His double play partner, Rafael Furcal, is another player that PECOTA whiffed on--didn't see that power spike coming. And Vinny Castilla, at age 35, turned in his strongest season since his Rocky Mountain high ended.

    While Gary Sheffield had an outstanding year--he wasn't the only contract-year player to do so--the Joneses didn't quite keep up with expectations. Andruw managed a strong first half, but finished below his projection after regressing in the second. With each passing year, the chances that Andruw joins the Pantheon diminishes, and his numbers don't reflect the tremendous athleticism that they used to. Chipper, too, between his position switch and his slightly disappointing numbers, is a player who looks like he might end up falling just short of Hall of Fame standards.

    In fairness, though, when the only complaint you can lodge is that the Joneses were merely very good players, and not spectacularly great, that's a sign of a superior offense. Some of the credit should go to hitting coach Terry Pendleton, whose relaxed approach may have been particularly helpful to Giles, as well as the training staff, who kept Lopez, Castilla and the rest healthy.

    We'll take a look at the Atlanta pitchers next time around.

Minnesota Twins

  • Ministry of Silly Arguments: Here are three words most of us never thought would appear in the same sentence: Shannon, Stewart, and MVP.

    And yet, writers and broadcasters from all across the country are beginning to hype the Twins' leadoff hitter as just that. Never mind that Stewart had only one month where his OBP ventured above .370. Never mind that Stewart's .283 Equivalent Average ranks ninth among American League left fielders. And never mind that Stewart wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, according to VORP. What matters to the voters is that Shannon Stewart plays for a winning team, and that his arrival somewhat coincided with the Twins' resurgance in the AL Central.

    Needless to say, from an objective standpoint, Stewart's MVP argument holds water about as well as Nate Silver holds his liquor. While Stewart was certainly a valuable addition to the top of the Twins' lineup, he's not the high-percentage base-stealer that he once was, and he simply doesn't hit for power, especially on the road. According to Keith Woolner's calculations, Stewart was roughly the 57th best position player in the American League this season, on par with the declining John Olerud and a couple of Devil Rays.

    
    Rk  Player           Team  Pos   AVG   OBP   SLG   VORP
    -------------------------------------------------------
    1.  Rodriguez_Alex    TEX   ss  .297  .394  .598   86.3
    2.  Boone_Bret        SEA   2b  .294  .366  .535   75.8
    3.  Delgado_Carlos    TOR   1b  .302  .426  .593   72.2
    4.  Ramirez_Manny     BOS   lf  .325  .427  .587   69.2
    
    27. Suzuki_Ichiro     SEA   rf  .312  .352  .436   35.8
    28. Berroa_Angel      KCA   ss  .289  .339  .453   34.0
    29. Palmeiro_Rafael   TEX   dh  .260  .359  .508   33.9
    30. Young_Michael     TEX   2b  .306  .339  .446   33.8
    
    54. Lee_Travis        TBA   1b  .275  .348  .459   20.2
    55. Olerud_John       SEA   1b  .269  .372  .390   20.2
    56. Baldelli_Rocco    TBA   cf  .289  .326  .416   20.1
    57. Stewart_Shannon  TO/MI  lf  .307  .364  .459   19.9 *
    
    
    Like we said, though, none of this really matters to the voters. What matters to the voters is Stewart's impeccable timing. Minnesota went 17-8 in the 25 games immediately following his acquisition in mid-July. It couldn't be a coincidence, could it?

    Well, in a word, yes. Check out the Twins' schedule following the trade for Stewart:

    
    Date    Team   Date    Team   Date    Team   Date    Team
    -------------  -------------  -------------  -------------
    Jul 26 @ Cle.  Aug 01 v Det.  Aug 06 @ Bal.  Aug 11 v Cle.
    Jul 27 @ Cle.  Aug 02 v Det.  Aug 07 @ Bal.  Aug 12 v Cle.
    Jul 29 v Bal.  Aug 03 v Det.  Aug 08 @ Det.  Aug 13 v Cle.
    Jul 30 v Bal.  Aug 04 @ Bal.  Aug 09 @ Det.  Aug 14 v Cle.
    Jul 31 v Bal.  Aug 05 @ Bal.  Aug 10 @ Det.
    
    
    And now check out the regular-season winning percentages for each those opponents:
    
    Team		WPct
    --------------------
    Baltimore       .438
    Cleveland       .420
    Detroit         .265
    
    
    That's 19 consecutive games against sub-.500 competition, and in some cases, sub-.300 competition. Is it possible that the schedule could have had something to do with the Twins' sudden ascent to the top of the division? Yeah, we didn't think so.

    On top of which, adding Stewart to the lineup wasn't the only significant move the Twins made in mid-July. After receiving dozens of threatening phone calls from BP's own Gary Huckabay, Ron Gardenhire and the Twins' front office also moved some guy named Johan Santana into the rotation, where he immediately proceeded to do to the American League what Ice Cube only hints at in the song "No Vaseline."

    
    After 7-11-03      ERA     IP    H/9   BB/9   SO/9
    --------------------------------------------------
    J. Santana        3.32   92.0   7.04   2.54   9.00
    
    
    But does Santana get any credit from the BBWAA for pushing the Twins over the top? Does listening to David Justice air his views from the broadcast booth make you thankful for the SAP button on your remote?

    And even then, it's not as if Stewart was gangbusters down the stretch. Aside from July when he hit .340/.407/.491, Stewart was about league average with the bat, hitting a combined .294/.349/.439 in August and September. Meanwhile, teammates Doug Mientkiewicz and A.J. Pierzynski hit .305/.438/.433 and .332/.391/.450 in the second half, respectively.

    The argument for naming Shannon Stewart the American League's Most Valuable Player is about as weak as they come--a complete media concoction which has absolutely no basis in reality, or regard for what "valuable" means in any other context. It's a flawed argument made by individuals who would rather reward a mildly intriguing story than legitimate production.

    In other words, it makes the argument for selecting Ichiro Suzuki over Alex Rodriguez back in 2001 look like a pinnacle of rational thought.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Hello Silver Lining: The Devil Rays finished 63-99, last in the AL East, and with the second worst record in the major leagues. However, there is reason for optimism in Tampa Bay, and the team actually showed signs of improvement throughout the season. At the all-star break, they stood 32-60, allowing over six runs per game. In the 70 games after the break, they finished 31-39, cutting their runs allowed down to 4.4 per game. Their Pythagorean record of 67-95 was four games better than they actually finished. Strong second half performances from Travis Lee, Jeremi Gonzalez, and late season call-up Doug Waechter helped propel Tampa to respectability. It might just be small steps, but they are steps in the right direction.

  • A Star is Born: We've spent more than our share of HTML code on Aubrey Huff in this space, but he earned it this year. Huff established himself as one of the best outfielders in the American League and a premier run producer. He accumulated 117 Equivalent Runs, good for seventh in the American League. His Runs Above Position was higher than Magglio Ordonez, Edgar Martinez, Eric Chavez, and Derek Jeter. His .309 EqA is squarely between his 75th and 90th percentile PECOTA projections. We could go on. Huff had an outstanding year and turns 27 in December. Now arbitration eligible, we would like to see the Devil Rays do the right thing and lock him up through his prime years. If Lou Piniella can fetch a four-year contract, so can Aubrey Huff.

  • Reviewing the Farm: Despite picking near the top of the draft in each season since they were awarded a pick, the Rays have not managed to turn those opportunities into talent. The system is still thin, especially at the upper levels, but several prospects turned in solid seasons. Here is a snapshot of the most promising players rising through the system:

    • B.J. Upton, Shortstop. He was featured in Dave Cameron's Prospecting column several months ago, but went on to have a sensational finish in Double-A and has now made his way to the Arizona Fall League, despite being just 19 years of age. There is no question that Upton is the best prospect Tampa has, and one of the best in the game overall.

    • Pete LaForest, Catcher. While his major league position is probably hitter, he continued to show that he has the bat to live up to it, despite his struggles during a September call-up. With 30 extra base hits and 36 walks in just 61 games at Triple-A, LaForest showed the power and patience combination that we so dearly love. Expect to see him stick on the Devil Rays roster in 2004 with a chance to play regularly if Travis Lee does not return.

    • Jon Switzer, LHP. Switzer continued to progress through the system after a solid year at Bakersfield in 2002. He spent the year in Double-A before getting a spot start in Durham and finally a promotion to the big club late in the year. He has flown under the radar due to the lack of a true out pitch, but his command of three offerings and ability to keep hitters off balance have served him well to date. He projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter, but he could be ready to pitch for Tampa next spring.

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