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June 4, 2004

Can Of Corn

'Bag Man

by Dayn Perry

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Let's hit the mailbag...

I have also heard that Bengie and Jose Molina's younger brother (sorry, don't know his name) is also in the Cards' system as a catcher (surprise). Given how thin the Cards' system is right now, I was surprised he didn't make your list.

--Rob McMillin

I'm guessing you're referring to my recent piece on the Cardinals' top pitching prospects. Since it was exclusively about hurlers, I didn't make mention of Yadir Molina, the prospect you're referring to. Nonetheless, let's have a look at him.

Molina, a fourth-round choice in 2000 out of Puerto Rico, earns praise for his defense first and foremost. He has soft hands behind the plate and last season led the Southern League by gunning down 40% of base-stealers. The organization favors his deft touch with pitchers and leadership skills, particularly considering his young age.

On the downside, he's brutally slow of foot, and his offensive performance has been mostly unimpressive. Prior to this season, Molina had shown very little power or plate discipline at any stop, but we can glean some modest positives from his performance last season.

Not only was Molina, at age 20 and 21, young for the Double-A Southern League, but he'd also skipped over High-A ball entirely. In spite of those factors and his being hindered by a sore ankle for part of the year, Molina put up a vaguely tolerable line of .274/.328/.367 on the season. Those numbers don't bellow "stardom!" from the rooftops, but the Cardinals were impressed enough to slot him in the three hole by the end of the season.

It's early this season, but there are more reasons for cautious optimism. In Triple-A-Memphis, where he was again quite young for the loop, Molina still didn't show anything resembling a power stroke, but he did bat .311 with a .394 OBP. Also encouraging was that Molina drew 16 unintentional walks in 142 plate appearances. It would premature to classify that as genuine skills growth, but it's a positive that bears following. For his efforts, Molina earned a promotion to the big club this week, thanks to Mike Matheny's injury.

Molina will probably never be a potent hitter at the highest level, even after lowering the bar because of positional scarcity. However, if he's able to home in on the one skill he might possess--getting on base--and combine it with his plus defensive skills, I'm open to the idea that he could become an effective regular in St. Louis. How his plate patience holds up this season will be telling.

I am puzzled by your suggestion that Steve Finley is now a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder. The defensive metrics were unanimous about his 2003 defensive year. He was the worst everyday center fielder in the league, not that this is really surprising because he is the oldest. Is there something I've missed? Finley's defensive decline is very important when combined with his offensive decline. He really doesn't deserve an everyday job now. His hitting is not good enough to carry his D. Terrero deserves the job.

--M.G.

Thanks for the feedback. In point of fact, I didn't say Finley was a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder. I did say that he has a "good glove." That, in my mind, isn't tantamount to being the best. Finley's last three seasonal Prospectus Fielding Runs ratings go -3, 5, 3. While he did have a sub-par year in the field last season, I'm not ready to call him Lonnie Smith just yet. Yes, he's old, but there's still only one year of data to support the idea that he's not longer a capable glove man. According to Finley's Davenport Translations, he's 11 runs above average for his career as a center fielder.

As for the assertion that Finley was the worst defensive center fielder in the league last season, it simply doesn't square with statistical realities. For instance, in the NL alone, Preston Wilson, Marlon Byrd, Juan Pierre, Craig Biggio, Scott Podsednik and Marquis Grissom all fared worse than Finley in terms of Fielding Runs. Additionally, non-qualifiers like Reggie Taylor and Ken Griffey Jr. also graded out below Finley with the glove.

And Finley doesn't deserve an everyday job? I know quite a few teams that would go a week in burlap underwear for a shot at a center fielder who's hitting .291/.359/.551 and in the final year of his contract. Sure he's old and helped notably by his home park, but Finley remains a quality player, and it won't surprise me if a contender scoops him up this summer.

As for Luis Terrero, I fail to see how a 24-year-old who, coming into this season, had hit .276/.330/.418 in the minors despite playing in a collection of wildly accommodating parks constitutes an upgrade over Finley.

So are the Reds for real?

--P.T.C.

Rather than write at length about this matter, I'll refer you to Joe Sheehan's highly cogent take. Joe's spot-on about the Reds' run differential being a genuine trouble spot in terms of projecting their performance for the remainder of the season. At this writing, they're in first place in the NL Central with a record of 32-21, but they've actually scored just two more runs than they've allowed. It's certainly possible that they'll continue to defy the logic of that run differential, but it's not likely. The Reds are a below-.500 squad according to BP's Adjusted Standings, and that should be troubling for Cincy backers. Additionally, I just don't think they have the team defense in place to support a staff that ranks 13th in the NL in strikeouts.

You recently did some analysis on the Astros' use of Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge, showing they were not using Dotel optimally. Are the Cubs doing a better job of this by having Joe Borowski as their closer and LaTroy Hawkins as their set up man? I think you alluded to some teams not having their best reliever as their closer. I would love to know how prevalent that is. In a way I think the Cubs organization has outsmarted itself.

--M.B.

Borowski, despite being manifestly inferior this season, is indeed working as the Cubs' closer. Hawkins, who's been the fourth-best reliever in baseball according to Adjusted Runs Prevented, has toiled as the setup man. Titular distractions aside, let's see who's been pitching the most critical innings:


           Avg. Run Diff.  % High Leverage    % Close Game
Borowski      3.14          42.9 (9 of 21)     42.9 (9 of 21)
Hawkins       2.56          40.7 (11 of 27)    44.4 (12 of 27)

While Borowski has been garnering most of the save chances, Hawkins has actually been seeing action in more crucial situations. The average run differential when he enters a game is much lower, and a higher percentage of his appearances have come with the Cubs down by a run, tied or ahead by a run. Borowski, meanwhile, enters the game more often when the tying or go-ahead run is at bat or on base, as measured by % High Leverage. Still, Hawkins has been the more important reliever thus far. Despite believing that they're using one of their worst relievers to pitch the most vital frames, the Cubs in fact aren't doing this. Such is the occasional serendipity of faulty logic.

Good insights in your article on the challenges facing DePo. Why would there be park factors for BB and strikeouts? Is this due to the effect of different hitting backgrounds? I don't see why a park would affect BB and K rates.

--P.M.

A good question. You've hit on one of the reasons for park-to-park variations in strikeout and walk rates: hitting visuals, which is a term that encompasses all sorts of variables like background colors, shade and light patterns, etc. Other possibilities include slight variations in mound quality and how the prevailing run-scoring tendencies of a park persuade pitchers to nibble at or challenge hitters. One thing that often gets overlooked when we're talking about home plate sightlines is that the umpires--those, of course, who call the balls and strikes--also can be affected. If these variables can alter a batter's visual judgments, it's not a great leap of logic to posit that the same happens for umpires.

Thanks to all for the engaging e-mails. 'Til next time...

Related Content:  Run Differential,  The Who,  Bengie Molina

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