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March 3, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • No News Is Good News: In the words of every WWII movie ever made, it's been quiet out there in the Oriole camp...too quiet. There haven't been any real surprises from Ft. Lauderdale thus far: nobody has wowed the team by showing up with a new physique or by being involved in any tragic injuries. After what happened to Steve Bechler last spring, boring is good. Very good.

  • Happy Birthdays to You: The most important news to date was bad: prized prospect Denny Bautista ran into visa problems (he still hasn't gotten out of the D.R. yet) and is now acknowledged to be two years older than previously thought. Being a pitcher, that's not such a bad thing. Pitchers get hurt, even for teams that pay attention and don't do anything to aggravate the situation; the minor leagues weed out pitchers not only based on their quality but also on their durability. Bautista is two years farther along than we thought, and he can still lift his right arm--that's good.

    On the downside, looking at his reported problems with wildness and immaturity, it means he's had two more years of work where he hasn't learned to control his stuff or himself. The longer you go without getting a handle on those, the less likely it becomes that you ever will. The STUFF scores, used to track pitching prospects, doesn't like the two years. In the book, his STUFF averaged a 17 over the last three years, which suggests a solidly above average prospect (an average major league starter would score 10). Adding two years brings that down to an 8.

  • Bauering: The wide open race for spots in the rotation gained another entrant, when the team started talking about using Rick Bauer in a starting role. They thought his two-pitch repertoire (sinker/slider) was too limited for starting,which is why he spent 2002 and 2003 in the bullpen, but he added a split-finger pitch last summer during a two-month demotion to Triple-A. Now, it is certainly true that he had a 5.05 ERA before the demotion and a 3.54 ERA after he came back, so you'd think that the additional pitch had made him a better pitcher.

    But take another look. Bauer didn't allow any unearned runs before going down, but his post-demotion ERA hides five unearned runs; that pushes his run average up to 5.75, which is worse than before (and since all five unearned runs came in an outing during which he faced eight batters, giving up four hits and two walks, I don't think we can blame the runs on poor fielding. Bauer earned those unearned runs). His K rate was a little better, his walk rate a lot worse; in short, there is nothing to suggest he was a different pitcher with his third pitch, and making decisions from a superficial improvement in ERA represents the worst sort of statistical analysis.

  • Ouch: The Orioles deepest position this spring is second base, where Jerry Hairston is trying to hold off Brian Roberts and minor leaguer Mike Fontenot. So it was a little odd when expected regulars filled every position but second base for the Orioles' first intrasquad game on Tuesday. Roberts has been having back spasms, while Hairston had something like the flu, giving Mark McLemore and Eddy Garabito a chance to show off.

Colorado Rockies

  • Only a Moron Wouldn't Cast a Vote for Monty Burns: Sometimes we at Baseball Prospectus get accused of coming across a bit dogmatic. And you know what? It's true; whether it's discouraging the use of certain in-game tactical choices or advocating specific methods of player evaluation, we can get caught up in the doctrine of our own beliefs from time to time.

    One of those beliefs is that pitchers are always better used as starters rather than relievers. Granted, we've never stated this explicitly, and I doubt that many analysts would actually stand by that statement. But there's little denying that, at times, our analysis has implied the above statement as truth.

    Is it the case, though? To a degree, yes. Starters do, on average, make a larger contribution toward a team's success than relievers, strictly by virtue of playing time. But does that mean that all good relievers should be made into starters? Hell no. For one, good relief pitching is absolutely vital to success. We don't call them high-leverage innings for nothing, and no team ever won a championship with a bullpen full of Giovanni Carraras. And for another, not all pitchers are cut out to be starters. Whether it's physical, psychological, or a little bit of both, some people just aren't built to take the ball for 110 pitches per night, 35 nights per year.

    Which brings us to Shawn Chacon-erstwhile starter, and newly-named closer for the Purple Mountains. Sure, it's easy to look at the Rockies' decision and roll our eyes-Chacon was, after all, the team's most effective starter in 2003, despite suffering through "elbow tendenitis" for a portion of the year-but is it possible that this is one of the rare situations where a moving a pitcher to the pen is wise? Let's consider the arguments:

    Pro:

    • A move to the pen keeps Chacon healthy. As Will Carroll has noted, Chacon's arm-problems aren't to be ignored, and there's even some evidence to suggest that they could blossom into something much worse down the road. By putting Chacon in the pen, there's a better chance that he'll be able to avoid going under the knife, as a lighter workload in an increased number of appearances isn't likely to augment his injury risk.

    • Chacon, as a starter, could be a risky bet. Granted, Chacon has been the Rockies' best starter for two out of the last three seasons, but there's some evidence to suggest he's a risky bet going forward. In both '01 and '03, for instance, Chacon was among baseball's "flakiest starters," according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral reports, and in '03 he was the recipient of the fourth-most relief-help in the National League. Couple that with a GB/FB ratio that's gone from 1.14 to 1.00 to 0.86, and that could very easily be a receipe for disaster in too many innings.

    • The right profile? Granted, Chacon's PECOTA comparables don't bare it out, but check out the similarity between he and a reliever you may have heard of before:

      Translated Pitching Statistics (Career)

      
      		   IP   ERA   W   L   H/9  HR/9  BB/9  K/9
      Pitcher X	470.7  3.98  27  26   7.5   1.1   3.0  7.7
      S. Chacon	445.0  4.57  22  28   8.4   0.9   3.1  7.4
      
      
      Would you believe that Pitcher X is actually Eric Gagne?

      Let me say that again: Pitcher X is Eric Gagne.

      While none of us is trying to suggest that Chacon is destined to transform into a fire-breathing Canadian, the above comparison is nevertheless compelling. Of course, Gagne's line was compiled through a couple of years as a failed starter, then for two years as the most dominant closer in the game, while Chacon's was compiled entirely as a semi-healthy starter. But you get the point: there's some common ground there.

      The question of statistical profile brings up another salient point about Chacon-one, however, that is probably more of a point against Chacon being moved to the bullpen than anything else. Better than any pitcher on the Rockies' staff-and perhaps in Colorado history-he has shown a distinct ability to depress opponents' batting average on balls in play. Check it out:

      Despite playing year-after-year in front of defenses that make the Yankees look good, Chacon has consistently allowed fewer than 10 hits per nine innings-performance that puts him in the 99th percentile of all major league pitchers over the past three seasons in that category. And needless to say, an ability like that is certainly more valuable to a team the more it's used.

    OK, now let's look at the negatives associated with making Chacon a reliever.

    Con:

    • On the whole, Chacon's value is dimished as a reliever. This is a biggie, not to be overstated. Chacon was pegged for roughly 130 innings in 2004-he's been brittle-by our forecasting engine, PECOTA. If you make Chacon a closer, that number probably gets cut by 60%. Any way you slice it, you're getting less bang for your buck there.

      And, you know, while we're on the subject: what do the Rockies need a top-flight closer for, anyway? To hold down the lead in all those low-scoring pitchers' duels Colorado plays in? (Not to mention that, of all the teams in Major League Baseball, Colorado is probably least suited for traditional bullpen roles-and that's saying something.) This is a team that won 74 games in 2003 and failed to make a meaningful upgrade all offseason. Does Dan O'Dowd & Co. honestly believe there will be an abundance of save opportunities for Chacon, anyway? By making Chacon the team's closer, they're effectively committing to use their best pitcher the least out of all the members in the top-half of that pitching staff.

    • More likely to rack up saves, become expensive. Where Colorado starters are pretty much always destined to go under-valued, Colorado relievers have a bit more going for them: the almighty save. By giving Chacon the closer's role, the Rox are handing him a first class ticket to an arbitration payday. Because if there's one thing arbitration panels love, it's saves.

    All that being said, we're still going to have to conclude that moving Chacon is a waste of resources, despite having the possibility of preserving his health (and thus his trade-value) in the short term. The benefits simply don't outweigh the costs of relegating your best overall pitcher to 40% of his previous workload.

New York Mets

  • But I Just Got Here!: If you believe the trade rumors, Alfonso Soriano could be headed back to New York. Texas wants Jose Reyes or Scott Kazmir, and the Mets don't want to give them up. Should they? Let's take a look.

    Soriano for Reyes: Here's the Equivalent Average (EqA) that PECOTA projects for each player over the next five years.

    
    	Soriano		Reyes
    2004	 .292		.261
    2005	 .294		.269
    2006	 .285		.282
    2007	 .288		.280
    2008	 .276		.298
    
    
    Starting in 2006, Reyes should be just as good. He's also seven years younger, and a whole lot cheaper: he won't even be a free agent until these projections are in the past, while Soriano will cost $5.4 million this season, and a lot more in arbitration over the next two, and then even more as he becomes a free agent. If you're one player away from contention, then you think about it. The Mets aren't. Pass.

    Soriano for Kazmir: Oh, boy. You know what they say: There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. But if there is such a thing, then Scott Kazmir is it. Who else has Kazmir's ceiling? Zack Greinke, maybe Cole Hamels. Nobody else. Kazmir's the type of prospect that makes even TNSTAAPP loyalists quake in their boots.

    There are two reasons the Mets should not trade Scott Kazmir for Alfonso Soriano. One: it's a sub-optimal use of resources. Soriano's value to the Mets is less than to most teams, since they're set at both short and second. If they have to make Soriano an outfielder, he loses a ton of his value; heck, with Mike Cameron on board, they couldn't even move him to center. Two: the Mets are rebuilding. They do not need to trade a stud pitcher who could be in their rotation by July 2005 for someone who will be a free agent in three years and will cost them $25 million before then. As with Reyes, the difference between Soriano and Kazmir isn't just on the field but at the bank, and that money could be used elsewhere.

    So unless the Rangers will settle for less (Justin Huber, maybe?), the Mets would be better served keeping the kids.

  • It's About Time: The most persistent Mets story of the last few years is reality: Mike Piazza is finally moving to first base. They'll break him in slowly, but you can bet that from here until the end of Piazza's career, he'll see progressively less time at catcher.

    As overdue as the move is, it still seems like a real bummer for the Mets. At catcher, Piazza's hitting was unparalleled by anyone in baseball history. At first base, he's good, but an EqA around .300 is distinctly below the top tier-and you don't want to pay $15 million a season to anyone but a top-tier first baseman.

    But Piazza's getting that money no matter what, and the Mets are the perfect team for this problem: Piazza's not blocking anyone at first, and its current inhabitant, Jason Phillips, is a better catcher than Piazza. Even if Piazza didn't have injury problems, it would make sense for the Mets to swap them, just because of the difference in their defense.

    As for those health problems: yes, Piazza should stay healthier playing first base. But the many years he spent behind the plate will never leave him. Piazza will be an injury risk for the rest of his career, no matter where he plays.

  • So That's How He Does It: One of the reasons the Mets picked up Mike Cameron is because, except for Glavine, they've got a bunch of fly ball pitchers in their rotation (notably Jae Weong Seo, who is the most extreme). David Pinto of Baseball Musings links to a neat article on the unique way in which Cameron tracks fly balls. It's basically instinct. Sometimes you either have it or you don't...

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