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April 12, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Off In The Distance: It's funny how quickly prospects--even the best prospects--can fall off the proverbial map. A year ago, Hee Seop Choi was among the best young hitters in the game, and for all intents and purposes was ready to contribute at the major league level in a big way. Mix together a concussion, a low batting average, and just dash of Dusty Baker's veteran fetish, however, and you've got yourself a one-way ticket to Florida and a boot out of prospect discussions all together.

    Well, just because Chicagoans weren't able to appreciate Choi's burgeoning talent doesn't mean that he's worthless. As the mighty Korean has shown with his hot start this season (.765 SLG through first week of play), there's reason to believe that stardom is still part of his future. PECOTA, after all, pegs Choi for an AVG/OBP/SLG of .252/.353/.465 this season--a particularly strong projection when one considers the conservative nature of PECOTA and its handling of players with little major league experience.

    So Choi's a polished hitter who's likely to hit the ground running; you knew that already, right? The bigger question is, how will he fair in the long term? After all, if this is a franchise that's concerned with competing today and in the years to come, it's going to need an offensive centerpiece to build around. Can Hee Seop Choi be that player, with some assistance from this Miguel Cabrera fellow we've been hearing so much about? Let's break it down.

    Like we said, Choi's short-term outlook is strong. With an abundance of power and a Gilesian command of the strike zone, there's a better-than-even-money chance that he'll be among the most productive corner men in the National League in 2004. Everything in Choi's minor-league profile points to this conclusion, and we see no reason why he shouldn't fulfill expectations set for him in Florida. He's an All-Star waiting to happen.

    Problem is, in the long-term, Choi doesn't appear to have nearly as much room for growth as his Floridian counterpart, Cabrera. Thanks to a profile that's already heavily dependant upon secondary skills, PECOTA forsees minimal growth for Choi over the next few seasons (five-year projected WARP: 2.0, 2.1 2.2, 2.0, 2.0), despite major-league ready skills in a number of departments. Observe:

    Of course, it's not so much the advanced control of the strike zone or the fully-developed power stroke that's holding him back--it's the deficiencies in the other areas like "speed" and the ability to put the ball in play, where Choi ranks among the lowest in the game. This should be of no surprise to those of you who have followed Nate Silver's work over the years; as the Wise One concluded in one of his more memorable "Lies, Damned Lies" columns last year, speed is perhaps the most important factor in determining how a position player will develop over time. From Rickey Henderson to Steve Finley, players who maintain value well into their 30s are almost always those who were light on their feet as youngsters.

    Another mark against Choi's chance for development is his age. Despite accumulating just 252 at-bats at the major league level, Choi is already 25 in baseball years, and at the beginning of his prime. All major growth, it is safe to say, is probably behind him.

    Another disconcerting bit about Choi's long-term outook are the individuals who populate his PECOTA Comparables list. From Paul Sorrento to Mo Vaughn to Pete LaCock to Sam Horn, this is a list mostly comprised of players who suffered through a precipitous decline in their early 30s, and were out of baseball by their mid-30s. Each of these players were corner men like Choi, and all of them possessed a skill-set that was heavy on the Take & Rake, but light on the Run & Gun. Of course, correlation does not equal causation, and this isn't determinative for Choi--but it's certainly not a point in his favor, either. Historically speaking, players with his profile have not aged particularly well at all.

    All that being said, none of this matters in the here and now. Choi does the important things well at the plate, and will serve as a more-than-adequate replacement for his predecessor, Derrek Lee. On top of which, he'll be cheaper than Lee by a significant amount--enough to justify the marginal difference in their production over the next three years. Marlins fans can only hope, however, that management realizes their new first baseman's long term outlook, and doesn't sign him to any long-term deals just yet. It's a long road ahead, and Florida should take full advantage of Choi's indentured servitude while they can.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • The Fast and the Furious: On Sunday, the Dodgers stopped by at the Milton Bradley fire sale, picking him up from the Indians for top outfield prospect Franklin Gutierrez and a PTBNL. As Chris Karhl noted, Bradley may be just what the doctor ordered, for the L.A. media at least (since the two headliners from that other sport seem to be getting along just fine heading into the playoffs).

    PECOTA predicts significant regression to the mean for Bradley in 2004 (and a collapse rate of 30.8%)

    
                           EqBA   EqOBP  EqSLG   EQA
    2003                   .345   .448   .542   .328
    2004 (90th percentile) .305   .400   .509   .310
    2004 (50th percentile) .270   .358   .440   .278
    
    
    Here's how that median projection compares to relevant other Dodgers (Ventura included since Green takes over at 1B):
    
                           EqBA   EqOBP  EqSLG   EQA
    Shawn Green            .295   .375   .539   .307
    Milton Bradley         .270   .358   .440   .278
    Robin Ventura          .240   .349   .429   .271
    Juan Encarnacion       .272   .324   .457   .267 
    Dave Roberts           .263   .329   .339   .245
    
    
    ...and to Bradley's top five comps for this year:
                           EqBA   EqOBP  EqSLG   EQA
    
    Roy White (1970)       .308   .394   .525   .314    
    Bradley (90%)          .305   .400   .509   .310
    
    Orlando Merced (1993)  .314   .418   .466   .306
    
    Wes Parker (1966)      .275   .385   .449   .286
    Bradley (50%)          .270   .358   .440   .278
    
    Ken Henderson (1972)   .266   .328   .488   .277   
    
    Jose Cruz (1973)       .233   .318   .415   .258   
    
    Even Bradley's 50th percentile projection above compares pretty favorably to Dave Roberts or Juan Encarnacion to first with a net result of Robin Ventura and Dave Ross on the bench.

    Improving the offense was must for the Dodgers--who had the most anemic lineup in baseball last year, batting .243/.303/.368 as a team - in essence equivalent to a lineup full of Jose Hernandezes. DePodesta had already picked up useful bats in Jason Grabowski and Jayson Werth, who made the Opening Day roster, but Bradley has clear advantages: he has significant major league experience, he switch-hits, and is a plus outfielder. Whether speedy Dave Roberts really needs that much playing time - well, that's a question for another column. Meanwhile, the prospect they gave up for Bradley is only spending his first full season in double-A ball, and PECOTA projects Bradley as worth more wins annually through 2007.

    While we're talking about the lineup, one parting question for Jim Tracy: why, is Cesar Izturis--he of the career .272 on-base percentage--batting second? Wouldn't he make more sense in Alex Cora territory--where you have Adrian Beltre parked? Just asking...

  • Pitching Question Marks: The Dodgers allowed the fewest runs in the majors last year by a substantial margin. Take another look at last year's staff--a starter and a swingman with sub-2.50 ERAs and three relievers with sub-2.00 ERAs. However, they may not post a gaudy team ERA like 3.16 this year. Not that ERA is the best measure of performance, but there are a couple of question marks going into 2004. You'd assume Kevin Brown would be hard to replace (although Joe Sheehan believes this hole may be filled). There may be other problems lurking ahead for two members of the rotation. Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii both struggled in spring training. Nomo's projection for this year is a substantial regression -
    
               ERA   EqERA  PERA  VORP 
    2003      3.09   3.72   3.54  47.4 
    2004      3.98   4.46   4.64  22.2
    
    
    and one of his top comps is Kevin Appier's 2003 season (ouch!) Adding to the concern is this article from the L.A. Times. Nomo looked bad in his first start of the season but did rebound against Colorado on Saturday.

    PECOTA isn't excited about Ishii this season either:

    
               ERA   EqERA  PERA  VORP 
    2003      3.86   4.76   4.51  13.6
    2004      4.41   4.94   5.05   6.8  
    
    
    Meanwhile, Dodger options at fifth starter include one-good-sneeze-away-from-injury Darren Dreifort, tater-riffic Jose Lima, or "I haven't pitched 100 innings since 1999" Wilson Alvarez.

    The bullpen outlook is brighter. The Dodgers still have Eric Gagne in the bullpen (is it too soon to call him the "Great One"?), as well as Guillermo Mota, each of whom had a higher 2003 VORP than anyone pitching for the Astros, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Marlins, Mets, Padres, Phillies, Reds, or Rockies. However, Paul Shuey is injured and possibly out until June and Paul Quantrill is in New York with Kevin Brown.

New York Yankees

  • Moose and Squirrel: As those of you who caught the Neverending SportsCenter on Sunday night are no-doubt aware, Yankees starter and Joe Sheehan's perennial preseason Cy Young selection Mike Mussina picked up his 200th career win yesterday, putting him in the top-100 all-time in that category. This, for better or for worse, adds Mussina to the growing list of pitchers on the Hall of Fame bubble, along with David Cone, John Smoltz, and Curt Schilling, among others.

    But does Mussina deserve to be on the bubble? While the answer is far from clear-cut, the question can be evaluated in two, distinct ways: 1) What should happen (i.e., an objective evaluation of Mussina's performance), and 2) What will happen (i.e., an evaluation of Mussina's performance and its relationship to similar pitchers already in the Hall of Fame).

    Objectively speaking, Mussina is among the most consistently great and durable pitchers of his generation. Mussina has posted above-average park-adjusted ERAs in every season of his career, save 1993, and has been 25% better than average in 10 different seasons. In terms of career value, Mussina has been worth in the neighborhood of 100 more wins than a replacement level pitcher--more than Pedro Martinez (who's been in the league one fewer season than Mussina), and just nine fewer than to Tom Glavine, both of whom are contemporary shoe-ins for enshrinement.

    The problem with Mussina's case is two-fold: 1) he lacks the peak value of someone like Pedro or Randy Johnson, and 2) he's yet to go through his decline phase, which will topple his career rate stats just a bit. Aside from that, the man has done about as much as anyone could do to build a HOF case for himself at the age of 35. He even has a postseason ERA of 3.05 in exactly 100 innings of work; not too bad for a pitcher some people still refer to as a "choker."

    From a traditional perspective, Mussina's case is equally strong. With 200 wins and a career winning percentage of .644, Moose is comparable (if on the low end) to fellow-Yankee Whitey Ford, Jim Bunning, and Catfish Hunter. All three of these pitchers are currently in the Hall of Fame, though if statheads ran the world, there's a pretty decent chance that two of them would have their membership revoked.

    In the end, it appears that come 2015 or so, Cooperstown, New York will be making room for one Michael Cole Mussina, assuming the rest of his career stays on track. That, of course, can be a pretty mighty assumption for some people--paging Dale Murphy--but for someone as durable and consistent as Mussina has been since entering the league in 1991, that's a pretty decent bet, all told.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: When you really get down to it--when you're able to get past the numbers, the misconceptions, and the contrarian attitude that's sometimes included in our writing--what "we" as performance analysts are really trying to do is institute a system of accountability within the front offices of Major League Baseball. That's it. Sabermetrics isn't about inciting the proletariat to rise up and change the way baseball is covered; it's not about drafting college pitchers, OBP, or Billy Beane; hell, it's not even about pitch counts--though all those ideas are at least somewhat related to the cause. Analyzing performance through statistics--adjusted statistics that strip away the illusions and tell you what's really going on--is just a way to make the decision-makers in MLB more accountable for their actions. Because the minute accountability is introduced into any business, productivity, and the quality of the product in question, improves significantly.

    That's it. Performance analysts are just really big fans of the greatest game in the world, and want to see the best product on the field as humanly possible. The only difference between us and your normal, everyday fan is that we happen to believe that improvement can be achieved through the introduction of modern-day business principles into the arcane world of major league front offices.

    So imagine our reaction when it came over the wire last week that both Lloyd McClendon and Dave Littlefield had their contracts extended by the Pirates. What's the motivation behind a move like this? What have either McClendon or Littlefield done since their hiring to warrant a contract extension? What's holding them accountable for their performance as baseball decision-makers?

    In a word: nothing. Since taking over as manager of the Pirates, the biggest impact Lloyd McClendon has made on the city of Pittsburgh has been to go all crazy that one time and run off with first base under his arm. Everything else has just been fluff. Sure, he's talked the talk and has garnered the reputation of as a Leader of Men, but when you really look at his performance--i.e., his ability as a manager to help his team win--he's been almost negligible (209 W, 276 L, .431 W%) from a laughingstock like Tony Muser (317 W, 431 L, .424 W%). Granted, Muser's performance came in twice the number of seasons as McClendon has been at the helm of the Pirates--so there's still some time before that comparison is totally apt--but it should also be noted that, unlike Pittsburgh, the Royals were notably more eager to cry poor during Muser's tenure than the Pirates have been with McClendon, thanks to that new stadium and all.

    Littlefield's story isn't much different. A stathead favorite for a number of years, many thought that he'd bring a better understanding of player evaluation and fiscal responsibility to Pittsburgh when hired. Since the summer of 2001, however, he's done little aside from acquire a handful of thirtysomething veterans on the cheap for one year at a time. He's failed to instill anything resembling a plan in his two-and-a-half years in charge, leaving the organization in essentially the same place it was when he took over: near the bottom of the National League Central and without much to look forward to in the immediate future.

    So why would owner Kevin McClatchy want to re-sign this duo when all they've done is make the franchise yet another data point against the idea that new stadiums result in instant competitiveness? The answer is anyone's guess. On a general level, however, these signings seem to reflect failure to understand the connection between decisions made by front-office members and the outcome on the field. After all, if you're convinced that winning 43% of your games since the dawn of the 21st century is merely an accident--and that it's the product of something other than the decisions made by your personnel--then why not re-sign your current GM for another three years? Hell, sign 'em for another 10 years and avoid the next decade's inflation rates all together. What does it really matter?

    Some people might think we're overreacting, and they'd be right, in a sense. There are worse people to be throwing your money at, theoretically, as both McClendon and Littlefield have their positives. But the fact of the matter is that both men have had time to get their respective act together, and after three years, fans of the Bucs are still waiting for a season finished above .500. In short, if baseball was a real business with a real system of accountability, chances are that both men would be pounding the pavement right now, looking for employment in another city. But because this is baseball, here they are, leading yet another Pirates squad to the depths of the NL Central.

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