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May 11, 2004

Prospectus Today

Addition by Subtraction

by Joe Sheehan

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"Addition by subtraction" is one of those terms that seems exclusive to sports, and more specifically to baseball. While it would seem to apply in other walks of life, you just don't see it used very much. "Tina, you know Bob from accounting? He quit." "Heck, that's addition by subtraction; he never made deadlines, and he was always hitting on me."

In baseball, however, addition by subtraction has a long and storied history. Over the past 48 hours, we may have the seen the concept have its all-time peak.

  • The Angels and their sycophants can say whatever they want about the blessed leadership of Darin Erstad. The fact is, when he went on the disabled list with a pulled right hamstring--and remember, the sole benefit of moving him to first base was to keep him healthier--the team got better. He was hitting .264/.294/.333 when he went down, the fourth straight season in which he's provided little or no value with his bat.

    Casey Kotchman, called up from Double-A despite just 635 at-bats as a professional, is almost certainly a better player than Erstad right now. He was hitting .368/.438/.544 at Arkansas, a major-league equivalent average of .272, far outstripping Erstad's .226. Conceding that Kotchman's PECOTA projection is based on a small amount of data, even his weighted-mean projection of .236/.309/.350 would be an upgrade on what the Halos were getting from their punter. I think his hammering of Double-A this year indicates that he'll out-hit that projection, especially for average. Most importantly, Kotchman has managed to go five weeks without getting injured, nearly matching his career-high.

    The Angels are a better team with Erstad on the disabled list and Kotchman in the lineup. Erstad is a replacement-level first baseman, and until the Angels move him back to center field or into a reserve role, they're going to be hurting themselves.

  • Working our way east, we find the newly unemployed Jimmy Haynes, released Monday by the Reds. I don't know that you would have seen this type of move five years ago, but teams are becoming more willing to rid themselves of sunk costs. That's one of the less-heralded real-world impacts of performance analysis.

    Haynes is just a bad pitcher, a tremendous example of why you should never judge one based on his win total. After being credited with 15 Ws in 2002--a year in which he posted basically the same peripheral stats he'd had in in his 8-17 2001 campaign--the Reds dubbed him a solution and signed him to a two-year deal worth $5 million. From that point until yesterday's release, Haynes allowed 91 runs in 109 1/3 innings.

    The Reds have rid themselves of a mistake, one that pushed them further from respectability every time he took the mound. Presumably, they won't settle for Todd Van Poppel in that rotation spot, and whichever of their young, effective starters at Louisville comes up and takes the role--I'd lean towards Matt Belisle on performance--will be a big upgrade of Haynes.

  • Also on Monday, the Pirates received the news that Raul Mondesi was planning to take the rest of the season off, the suitably bizarre end to Mondesi's strange trip though the headlines this spring. Embroiled in a lawsuit with a former coach over money that was supposedly promised to him, Mondesi didn't receive his first few paychecks from the Pirates, the team instead putting them into an escrow account. That situation ended last week, but over the weekend, Mondesi left the team for the Dominican Republic, and has apparently decided to stay there.

    Unlike the other two guys, Mondesi wasn't performly that badly this year, hitting .283/.355/.424. Having him around, though, created a logjam for a team with a lot of corner players vying for at-bats, and Lloyd McClendon wasn't going to take playing time from one of his Proven Veterans to find out if, say, J.J. Davis could become the player that Mondesi is now. With Mondy gone, the immediate effect is that Craig Wilson is assured of his starting spot for the first time in his Pirates career. Davis may get a chance to carve out a greater role for himself, especially if Tike Redman continues to post a .240 OBP, with Jason Bay picking up time in center field. If Davis falters, erstwhile prospect Tony Alvarez and erstwhiler prospect Ruben Mateo are both vying for a call-up from Triple-A Nashville.

    All of these players are close to Mondesi in value right now, and all have more chance to improve over the next two seasons than Mondesi did. The Pirates are better for his decision, unexpected though it was, and have a chance to get real benefit from his departure.

  • Finally, the Cubs released Double-A right-hander Ben Christensen over the weekend. This wouldn't be notable--Christensen has a career ERA of 4.55 and never got past the Southern League--except for how Christensen's college career ended. In April 1999, the Wichita State product threw a warmup pitch into the face of Evansville second baseman Anthony Molina. Molina was 25 feet from home plate at the time, never saw the throw coming and has suffered debilitating vision problems since the incident.

    The act was made worse by Christensen's lack of remorse in its aftermath. While he eventually offered half-hearted apologies, and reached an out-of-court settlement with Molina that paid his target an unspecified amount of money, his stance, and the stance of the Wichita State staff, at the time was that Molina's effort to "time" pitches from the on-deck circle warranted having a 90 m.p.h. fastball hurled in his direction. Neither Christensen nor Shockers coach Gene Stephenson ever received appropriate punishment for their actions that day, while Molina is forced to live with the results for the rest of his life.

    Baseball won't miss Ben Christensen, who was responsible for one of the ugliest moments in the game's history and never quite grasped that he wasn't the victim of it. For everyone who loves the game, his release is addition by subtraction.

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

Related Content:  Raul Mondesi,  Anthony Molina

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