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June 2, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Father Time Comes Calling: What could be worse than starting the season 18-33? Looking at your 18-33 team's stat sheet and realizing that your three best players are 40, 39 and 36 years old.

    That's where the Diamondbacks find themselves. Despite the best efforts of Steve Finley (.291/.359/.551), Luis Gonzalez (.242/.353/.521), and Randy Johnson (76 IP, 90 K, 2.59 ERA), the Diamondbacks are 10 games out of first place. It's time to hoist the white flag and start planting "Fire Sale" signs all around the neighborhood.

    Finley should be an easy call--he can't cheat Father Time forever, and his contract expires at the end of the year. The Diamondbacks should take advantage of the hype surrounding the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes, shipping Finley to whichever runner-up shows the most desperation.

    Johnson, despite being the oldest of the three, is actually the one most likely to still be effective when the Diamondbacks are ready to contend again. Don't even worry about how many years Johnson has left until he stops leading the major leagues in strikeouts. The problem isn't that Johnson has nothing left; it's that he'll be a free agent after next season, so unless the Diamondbacks can sign him to an extension now, they'd be well-advised to get an appraisal of his market value. It's not often that the best left-handed starter in baseball, with a year-and-a-half left on his contract, is put on the trading block.

    Gonzalez, who the Diamondbacks might be inclined to keep owing to his age and the fact that he's signed through 2007, is actually the player they should be most aggressive about moving. He's still a valuable player--valuable enough that a contending team might be willing to take on most of his remaining contract--but he shows all the signs of a hitter whose bat and feet are starting to slow down:

    • His batting average (.242) is a career-low.
    • His strikeout rate (one per 6 AB) is the highest since his rookie season.
    • He's seeing a career-high pitches per plate appearances (4.13).
    • He's on pace for a career high in double-plays, despite the lowest G/F ratio (0.73) of his career.

    Gonzalez has all the hallmarks of a player who is resorting to taking and/or fouling off as many pitches as possible to compensate for the fact that he can't turn on them as well as he used to.

    The Diamondbacks need to avoid the sentimentality that comes with breaking up the last remnants of a World Championship team, and realize that trading their veteran stars will only accelerate, not hinder, the development of their next playoff team.

    The extra wrinkle in this situation is that all three players have ten-and-five status, which gives them the right to veto any trade. (There's also the matter of deferred payments on their contracts, which combined runs into the tens of millions.) Nevertheless, Joe Garagiola needs to use his charm--and, if necessary, financial inducements--to convince his veterans that there's no future for them on a last-place team.

    Of course, he first needs to convince himself.

Detroit Tigers

  • Who?: Quick: guess who's leading the American League in strikeouts per nine innings?

    It's not Pedro Martinez, who ranks second with 9.17 Ks per 9. It's not Rich Harden or Curt Schilling or Johan Santana.

    It's Nate Robertson.

    The Tigers' left-hander, who is still virtually a complete unknown throughout baseball, came into the 2004 season with just 53 career innings--and only 36 strikeouts. But he opened eyes when he struck out 7 batters in relief in his first outing of the season, quickly earning a place in Detroit's rotation. After striking out 7 in 6.2 innings last night, Robertson has 63 whiffs in just 61 innings.

    What happened? As you might expect, Robertson owes his increased strikeout rate to an uptick in his velocity; the lefty who typically threw 88-92 last season is now regularly hitting 94 on the gun. The extra velocity is also manifesting itself in the form of fewer groundballs, as his fastball has less time to sink; Robertson's G/F ratio has dropped from 1.79 last year to 1.25.

  • Youth Shall Be Served: In a year of pleasant surprises throughout the Tigers' roster, one of the most surprising breakthroughs has gone completely unnoticed.

    Omar Infante is hitting .287/.365/.506.

    The same Omar Infante who hit .222 as a rookie last year. With 18 walks and no homers in 221 at-bats. Infante's 536 OPS was the second-worst in all of baseball (ahead of only Jermaine Dye) among players with at least 200 plate appearances.

    But evidently, the most important number from Infante's rookie season was 21--as in, his age as a rookie. Twenty-one year-old players, even 21-year-olds who show no sign of being able to actually hit, sometimes take big leaps forward.

    Still, that's one hell of a leap. Granted, he's only had about 100 plate appearances this season. But he's already swatted 11 extra-base hits in 87 at-bats; he had 11 career extra-base hits coming into this season, in 293 at-bats. He's drawing a walk every 6.7 at-bats; his career rate before this season was a walk every 14.0 AB. He's also seeing more pitches (4.03 P/PA) and getting more air under the ball (0.79 G/F).

    In short, he looks like a completely different player than the Omar Infante of a year ago. If he were 27 years old, we'd say there was an alien involved. Since he's 22, it's possible he just got better.

    The Tigers certainly ought to give him the chance to prove otherwise. After batting only 16 times in April, Infante has started 22 of the Tigers' last 25 games. The extra playing time has only made him better; he hit .294/.386/.559 in May.

    Jose Vidro hit .249/.297/.367 at age 22, and .220/.318/.278 at age 23, before developing into one of the best-hitting second basemen in baseball. There's no reason that Infante can't do the same.

  • Reality Check: The Tigers are still holding close to a .500 pace, with a 23-28 record. Better still, their record isn't the product of unsustainably good luck. If anything, they're underperforming their record; they've scored exactly as many runs (275) as their opponents, and their OPS of 794 is just slightly below their opponents' mark of 796.

    According to our Adjusted Standings page, the Tigers are actually the second-best team in the division. It's unlikely to last. But for a team that went 43-119 last year, they can be forgiven for taking pleasure in mediocrity.

Kansas City Royals

  • Strike One: A year ago, Nate Cornejo set a new standard for pitching to contact, striking out just 46 batters in 195 innings. His ratio of 2.13 K's per 9 innings was 3.98 K's per 9 innings below the league average, which set an all-time major-league record.

    His record may not last long. Jimmy Gobble has whiffed a total of 13 batters in 58.1 innings. His season-high is three, and that was accomplished only once. All told, he's averaging 2.01 K's per 9 innings. This, even though the league average has actually gone up, to 6.25 K's per 9 innings. Here's how Gobble ranks in the annals of baseball history:

    
    Year  Pitcher        K/9  League   Difference
    ---------------------------------------------
    2004  Jimmy Gobble  2.01   6.25       4.24
    2003  Nate Cornejo  2.13   6.11       3.98
    1969  Joe Niekro    2.45   6.02       3.57
    2002  Kirk Rueter   3.36   6.77       3.41
    1999  Scott Karl    3.37   6.69       3.32
    
    
    It's bad enough that Gobble puts so many balls in play. Toss in the fact that he's a flyball pitcher--he has a 1.01 G/F ratio this year, and 0.80 for his career--and that's going to lead to an awful lot of gopher balls. Gobble has been lucky to give up "only" seven homers this season; those homers combined with good control (just 15 walks) have resulted in an ERA of 4.94, only slightly below league-average.

  • Strike Two: Of course, Gobble's ERA is better than his team's combined ERA of 5.17, in large part because the rest of the team shares his aversion to strikeouts. Brian Anderson, when his pitches aren't being tattooed like Justin Miller's epidermis, has whiffed only 23 batters in 61 innings. Much-ballyhooed Jeremy Affeldt may hit 97 on the gun, but he's only struck out 26 batters in 52 innings. In fact, for the second straight year, Darrell May leads the Royals in strikeouts. (That may be the saddest sentence I have ever written.)

    All told, the Royals have struck out only 242 batters in 430 innings, or 5.07 per 9 innings. Since 1995, only two teams have had a strikeout rate that low: the 2002 Tigers, at 5.05 per 9, and the Cornejo-led 2003 Tigers, with an amazing mark of 4.78.

  • The 0-2 Pitch Is Lined Into The Gap: So, you've got a pitching staff that doesn't strike anyone out. The best way to mitigate the problem is to 1) keep walks and homers down to a minimum, and 2) field a terrific defense that can turn those balls in play into outs. The Whitey Herzog Cardinals did just that; they won NL pennants in 1982, 1985 and 1987, despite ranking 12th, 10th and 11th (in a 12-team league) in strikeouts in those seasons.

    The 2004 Royals do not resemble the mid-1980s Cardinals in any way, shape, or form, other than the fact that Tony Pena was the catcher for the '87 squad. The Royals rank 8th in the league in walks allowed, and 13th in homers surrendered, thanks to May and Anderson, who are tied with each other for second in the league.

    And when balls are put into play, the Royals have to contend with a defense that is, according to our defensive efficiency ratings, the second-worst in all of baseball. Royals' opponents are hitting .327 on balls in play, and the Royals have surrendered the third-most doubles and fourth-most triples in the league. I guess manning the corners with Matt Stairs and Juan Gonzalez wasn't such a good idea after all.

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Prospectus Matchups (06/01)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (05/27)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (06/08)
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