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April 21, 2004

Prospectus Today

Bag Man

by Joe Sheehan

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While waiting for the Expos to get a hit with a runner in scoring position, I answered some e-mail.

If you're going to be so harsh on the Mariners, you should have addressed their PECOTA projections, which puts them right in the thick of the AL West race. Why do you disagree with the projection?

--E.N.
You know, a lot of the feedback I get these days reads, "But PECOTA says..."

I think PECOTA is a great forecasting system, but if I followed it blindly, I'd be exactly the robo-journalist that lives only in mainstream cliché.

I think PECOTA is overestimating the Mariners' pitching, by underestimating the loss of Mike Cameron. It's a flyball staff that doesn't strike out a ton of guys, and they're going to miss him terribly. Randy Winn isn't a bad center fielder, and Raul Ibanez isn't a bad left fielder, but the overall effect is going to put runs on the board.

It's not very stathead to say this, but I also wonder if it's not problematic to have your two best OBP guys be as unbelievably slow as Edgar Martinez and John Olerud are. Our systems miss that, but it definitely lessens, albeit a little, the value of their OBP.

Anyway, it's mostly the defense. PECOTA can't see that, and I doubt that, if it could, it would see the drop-off I'm predicting, anyway.

I caught your comment about Jose Valentin batting second against Brian Anderson (a lefty) in the chat on April 5. I was wondering if you're aware that Valentin is going to mostly bat left-handed against lefties this season and if you have any thoughts on that or any knowledge of how veterans have fared historically after abandoning switch-hitting. Valentin supposedly felt good against lefties this spring and there were comments that he looked much improved. If batting left-handed doesn't work for Valentin, the White Sox seemingly have a problem with Valentin and Willie Harris both incapable of hitting lefties and Juan Uribe only capable of platooning with one of the two.

--Jeremy Barr
There just aren't enough data points to say for sure. Wally Backman flopped, J.T. Snow has been OK, although never anything much against lefties, Todd Hundley hasn't hit anyone since he switched...

I have a hard time thinking of someone who went to batting left-handed exclusively and thrived. Some guys, notably Mariano Duncan, have given up batting left-handed and had success.

I think re-adjusting to breaking balls, as well as trying to pick up new arm slots, would doom most efforts to failure. Valentin was so bad against lefties that I can't blame him for trying, though. At worst, he's the same should-be-platooned guy he's long been.

The Sox's bigger problem is that neither Harris nor Valentin is capable of a .330 OBP, and if you have two guys like that batting 1-2, you're screwed.

All of this, of course, is Frank Thomas' fault.

How come Chipper Jones (.305/.406/.517 in 2003) "isn't a star anymore", but Bobby Abreu (.300/.413/.468 in '03) is the eventual MVP??? Granted I'm an unabashed Braves' fan in central Illinois, but what am I missing about Abreu...has he figured out something about lefties that he missed out on in 2003 (.272/.330/.378)??? Jones has been better offensively the past three seasons than Abreu and it's not like he's ancient. His PECOTA weighted-mean projection is nearly identical, so what gives???

--C.F
Well, you're pulling two comments from two places in my NL preview, but I was projecting a big year from Abreu, including the kind of MVP-winning counting stats and team performance that we know makes a difference. Telling me he had something of a down year in 2003 doesn't change that for me.

Jones is still a very good player, but instead of being a fair third baseman slugging .600, he's now a poor left fielder slugging .520. Looking at his player card...6.2 WARP last year, his worst season since 1997, and coming off a career high in '02. No, I spoke too harshly. He's still a star, and while I think he's lost value that he's not getting back, he's still a great ballplayer.

I'm going to make a confession now...I thought Abreu was younger than he actually is. He's 30, which means my projecting him for a growth season is a bit optimistic. Then again, there's a 39-year-old left fielder with a 2000 OPS, so who knows?

Surely you jest with your remark about Freddy Guzman taking over for Jay Payton in center field this season in San Diego. If not, please explain why you think so.

--P.L.
Mostly because the Padres are going to need a guy to cover all that ground between Brian Giles and Ryan Klesko. I don't think much of Payton on either side of the ball, and Guzman will bring true center fielder speed to San Diego National Park. The Padres don't strike out a ton of guys, and they have a pretty good offense with no bad hitters. If any team can sacrifice some defense for offense, it's them. Promoting Guzman would be that kind of move, and Guzman could hit .260/.330/.340 for two months, which wouldn't hurt them.

Guzman's torn right ulnar collateral ligament has stopped bothering him enough to let him start his season (just the other night, actually, down at Double-A Mobile). Obviously, it will have to hold up for my prediction to come true, but Luis Gonzalez has survived this far, so there's hope.

Actually, the Pads should be the team rooting hardest for the Royals to fall apart. They have talent to deal, and Carlos Beltran might elevate them to co-favorite in the NL. But that's another column.

I was hoping you would comment about Tony La Russa's awful lineup construction. I know that lineup is supposed to not be that important, but come on...Tony Womack #1, Roger Cedeno #2??? Edgar Renteria bat fifth and sixth? Can Albert Pujols even get 100 RBI from the #3 hole in this lineup? This strikes me as the height of ridiculousness.

--Dave Glass
Tony La Russa is a genius, and you're not.

Seriously, I have no idea. Even with Cedeno out, Renteria has been batting sixth, while Womack leads off and a corner outfielder bats second.

Batting Renteria sixth...look, maybe lineup construction doesn't matter much, but it's still dumb. He seems to me like a great choice for second, kind of like Derek Jeter, where you just concede some double plays from the right-handed groundball hitter and take the OBP and doubles.

In short order, Womack will stop batting .350, the Cardinals will have trouble scoring runs, and we'll once again get to watch the best four-player core in baseball win 84 games.

In your recent chat, you asked how many current major leaguers had been All-Stars. I made a list and you nailed it on the head. The number I came up with was exactly 200. Although there are probably a few that I missed and there are a few guys who are still sort of shuffling around, that's a huge number (26% of active major leaguers). They sure use the term "All-Star" loosely!

--Conor Glassey
Folks, Conor's list is just hilarious. You can't really make an "All-Star?" team from the names, but some of my favorite bar-bet-winning names include Brad Ausmus, James Baldwin, Royce Clayton, Robert Fick and Todd Jones.

Being an All-Star in this day and age just doesn't mean what it used to mean. Given how rosters get constructed, here's hoping future Hall of Fame voters weight All-Star appearances, or the absence of them, much less heavily than their predecessors have.

Conor, thanks for taking the time to research this.

Joe, well said. I am not a big fan of the word "luck."

Perhaps someone could review the play-by-play summaries of postseason games and make a determination on "performance failures" (e.g. Bill Buckner's misplay, Bob Stanley's wild pitch, Eric Byrnes failing to touch home).

Using that data, would it be possible to create some type of measure on how performance failures impact a team's ability to win a post-season game, thereby testing the general statement "the team that makes fewer mistakes wins more often"? That might be just one variable in some larger equation (because some teams might have a high number of performance failures but make up for it by scoring a tremendous amount of runs, outperforming their expected runs created/game). Also, like you mentioned, some individual players could have a particularly great/crappy series by performing outside their statistical norm.

Maybe that is what it all boils down to...individual players overperforming/underperforming vs. their seasonal/career norms against the opposing team.

--M.E.

M.E., you're isolating one element; what you're calling "performance failures" seem largely to be high-profile events. Performance is also the fly ball that gets to the warning track and no further; the 3-2 pitch that is just high--and the batter that takes it to start the rally; the single that might be a 6-4-3 on another day.

It's all performance, but it's the meaning we attach to the performance that changes in October. That's not about baseball; that's about us. What happens is just baseball, even as we decide that this particular stretch of five or seven games is going to be very meaningful.

Playoff teams are so closely matched that you can't draw conclusions from a short best-of series.

Maybe that's the phrase that should replace "luck" in the vernacular.

Your April 15 column reminds me of a point that doesn't seem to be made much in your space. That is, even though it is obvious (to all those not named Bud Selig) that small-market teams can compete, small-market teams have a much smaller margin for error.

Since I follow the Twins mostly, I can't help but think of how much the losses of LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado hurt the Twins' bullpen. Yes, they couldn't afford to pay those guys because of bum contracts to their starting pitching, but if they had a $100 million or even $75 million payroll, they could afford to make mistakes like that and still acquire top-tier talent like Vladimir Guerrero, or, more appropriately, Miguel Tejada. (Yes, it still hurts to see Cristian Guzman's name in the lineup.)

--M.S.

Actually, what hurts the Twins isn't so much the size of their market as the content of their lease. They're one of the few teams that legitimately might not be able to sign a top-tier free agent, because they wouldn't keep enough of the marginal revenue he would create. That money goes to the Vikings.

That's got nothing to do with the structure of major league baseball, though. Like the Marlins, the Twins' problems are largely of their own making. Good luck getting Bud Selig to hold a press conference about that.

For even "small-market" teams, signing a top-tier free agent makes sense, assuming you have the capital to do so. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether Carl Pohlad does.

I know you guys have done research on blowing leads in the ninth and ace-reliever usage. In the first two games of the Yankees/Red Sox series, Keith Foulke came in in the ninth inning with a four-run lead. I know the chance of Alan Embree blowing these games is probably the same, but do you think the magnitude of the head-to-head games against the probable division winner justifies the usage (i.e., games vs. Yankees are more important than ones against the Devil Rays)?

--S.N.
I could probably get lynched for saying this, but I don't know if that usage bothers me all that much. I know that I've occasionally done similar things in Strat--save the e-mails, folks, I'm not saying it's the same thing--when the value of the win was high enough that I didn't care about losing the inning of usage.

The Yankees are so good offensively that it might make sense to be aggressive with Foulke. He'll come in after two baserunners anyway, and then he might have to deal with baserunners. Heck, you probably have to have him up in the bullpen at the start of the inning, anyway. Why not bring him in to start the inning and all but lock up the win? With switch-hitters either coming up or waiting on the bench, there was no messing with platoon issues, either.

I don't recommend this in all cases, but against the Yankees' lineup, in a division game...sure, why not?

Thanks for all the great feedback!

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

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