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June 22, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Don't Let the Door Hit You: The White Sox have finally seen the light. The much maligned Billy Koch was dealt to the Marlins last week for Wilson Valdez who, for the purposes of the deal, may as well have been a bag of baseballs. Never an organization to stray too far from the mainstream, though, the Sox quickly announced that Shingo Takatsu has been named the new closer.

    After allowing three runs in his first three innings of work, Takatsu hasn't allowed a run since. It's interesting, though, that the White Sox didn't choose to promote Damaso Marte who's in his third year with the team and is again putting together a very good season. Especially with a player's manager like Ozzie Guillen, service time seemed like it would be the main factor in determining Koch's replacement. The only blemishes on Marte's record are four blown saves, the last of which came over a month ago, and while he hasn't been quite as good as Takatsu so far this season, he has the longer-term track record in Chicago of top performances.

    This is not to say that Takatsu doesn't deserve the job. He's the career saves leader in Japan, and his performance thus far more than validates his talent. However, the question remains what the White Sox will do when he finally slumps for a period. His role is not yet established, and if his slump comes sooner rather than later, the White Sox pen could be thrown into flux again.

    While the closer role may be the most overrated in baseball, having established patterns of use may not be. Knowing when to warm up, how much, and having set days off would certainly seem to increase the chances of most relievers performing their best and, should the Sox make another change or waver between Marte and Takatsu, the pen as a whole could suffer.

    As it is now, though, GM Kenny Williams deserves applause for finding the sucker in the room who decided to look too long at Koch's save totals and, amazingly, agreed to pay his salary. By removing Koch and his -5.1 ARP, the Sox bullpen immediately looks much better from top to bottom. Now if they could just figure out where to put Cliff Politte, things would be even better.

  • Incoming: The Sox seemed mainly in the market for pitching at this year's draft, taking only three position players in their first 12 picks. Despite that preference, they first tapped Oklahoma State third baseman Josh Fields. Fields hit .352/.465/.580, with 32 out of his 88 hits going for extra bases this year. He showed a marked improvement in plate discipline with a 45/47 K/BB ratio, after a mediocre 46/24 mark in 2003. Having already signed, Fields will likely move quickly to short-season ball to start his way up the Sox ladder.

    After Fields, the Sox selected Tyler Lumsden, a left-hander out of Clemson. With 88 Ks in 81.1 IP this year, Lumsden certainly has the stuff that we like here at BP, but he's also prone to wildness, walking 37 this year. He posted nearly the exact same line in 2003 with a 72/31 K/BB ratio in 86 IP.

    Immediately after Lumsden, the White Sox took high school pitcher Giovany Gonzalez. There's little information available on Gonzalez other than the fact that he's a moderately hard-throwing, left-handed high school pitcher. Those last three words should tell you all you need to know about his risk factor. With the pendulum swinging towards the safer bets of college pitchers lately, though, taking a flier in the supplemental round may be just the right kind of calculated risk that takes advantage of the market.

Oakland Athletics

  • White Knuckles: No matter how you look at it, the A's bullpen has been downright awful this year. They're 24th in the league in ERA, sporting 14 losses against only 13 saves. BP's Reliever Statistics rank the Oakland firemen as the eighth-worst in the majors. Even worse, nearly every reliever posts a negative Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) which means that the A's can't even cut a few bad apples from the tree. Only Justin Duchscherer, at 6.8, has pitched anywhere close to respectably. The only other hurlers to post positive numbers are Chad Harville, who was released and signed by Houston, and the newly recalled Justin Lehr, who's pitched one scoreless inning.

    This situation is not one to which A's faithful are accustomed. Ranking sixth, 15th, and second the last three years, the sight of a reliever (other than a notable exception or two) hasn't been cause for great concern in the East Bay. Now, it seems, starter's pitch counts are watched with more dread than before, and the sight of any movement in the rickety excuse for a bench down the left-field line is enough to send people screaming for the exits.

    Looking at the core of the Oakland pen's performance over the past few seasons (as measured by ARP) yields the following:

    
    Player          2003   2002   2001
    Arthur Rhodes    5.1   14.4   23.9
    Jim Mecir       -2.2    6.3    5.9
    Ricardo Rincon   6.6    9.5   15.8
    Chad Bradford   17.3    9.4    1.7
    Chris Hammond    9.9   26.2    DNP
    
    

    (Duchscherer, having been a starter until this season, has been excluded.) With the exception of Chad Bradford, this looks like a group stuck in a steep decline. Also with the exception of Bradford, this is a group of old players; Arthur Rhodes, Ricardo Rincon, and Jim Mecir are all 34, while Chris Hammond is 38.

    All that said, this isn't necessarily a call to blow up the pen and start over. Bradford has been one of the best in the league at stranding inherited runners for the past few seasons, and there's little reason to think that this is more than a slight bump in the road. Hammond's so far down the depth chart that there's little value in trying to upgrade there. Duchscherer has been performing well and hopefully will be given more high-leverage innings.

    The rest of the pen may need some help, though. Here's a look at the list of suspects:

    • After performing at a consistently high level in Seattle in 2001 and 2002, Rhodes showed a slight decline in K/9 and a jump in BB/9 and H/9 last year, none of which bode well for future performance. Before arriving in Seattle in 2000, Rhodes was an average reliever who showed consistent, excellent strikeout numbers, but was consistently undone by his wildness. In fact, his ERA could be tied almost exactly to his BB/9. How closely? The correlation is .771 (on a 0 to 1 scale, the higher the number, the better the correlation). So far this year, his BB/9 is 5.1, correlating to an ERA of 6.23. If he can get his walks down, he could come around, but until then, he doesn't look like a good bet to reach his 2001-2002 levels again. He still has a place in the A's bullpen, but the contract the A's gave him after Keith Foulke departed for Boston is looking worse and worse.

    • Rincon has been on a slide for the past three seasons, and he's quickly becoming one of those fungible lefty relievers who always seem to find a job. There are other quality options freely available, and it may be time to wish Rincon the best of luck and send him on his way.

    • The A's have publicly stated that Mecir, when healthy, is a quality reliever. There's little argument against that, but the problem is that Mecir just isn't healthy and hasn't appeared so in quite some time. After spending significant time on the disabled list last season, Mecir has avoided it so far this year. But with the A's refusal to leak medical information, it's nearly impossible to get a qualified opinion on his state of health. He got off to a good start this season, but he's been terrible lately and, with a player whose performance is tied so closely to his health, it seems likely there's an injury in play. Even without the rumor and speculation, Mecir hasn't shown that he can do the job, and the A's would be best off moving him at this point, especially with fellow right-hander Duchscherer's performance record.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Double Standard: Sunday night, the Phillies sent center fielder Marlon Byrd down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Manager Larry Bowa cited Byrd's 45 strikeouts as the main reason that the club decided to move Byrd for the time being, but it's pretty certain that his 224/.297/.304 line wasn't making much of a case to keep him either. It seems certain that Byrd will be back up with the club soon, but, on the surface, this seems to be a highly questionable decision, mostly because there isn't a clear goal for Byrd while he's in Triple-A other than to "get out of the slump."

    Of course, one of the more famous slumps in recent memory was Pat Burrell's lost 2003. Hitting just .209/.309/.404 for the season, Burrell suffered through one of the most unexpected slumps of last year, all while striking out 142 times. Of course, Burrell wasn't sent down to the minors to tinker with his swing like Byrd was. Whether or not the Phillies are basing their decision to move Byrd on the fact that Burrell never really recovered in 2003 is unclear, but referencing the strikeouts as a justification for sending down their center fielder is just wrong.

    Strikeouts, as a game event, don't cost a team significantly more runs than any other occurrence. They can, however, for certain types of players, be an omen that their skills are degrading. Given how much the other Philly batters strike out, we must assume that Bowa was leaning towards the latter line of reasoning when using the whiffs as the validation.

    The only problem here is that Byrd isn't striking out terribly more than he always has. The last three years, Byrd has struck out in 17.0%, 17.1%, and 17.2% of plate appearances, the last two in the minors. This year it's 19.0%. While that's not an insignificant amount, it's more than likely just a blip on the learning curve; it's certainly no reason for demotion.

    His early going this year notwithstanding, Byrd is a competent major league player and, at 26, still has plenty of room for improvement. Philly faithful will have to hope that he sorts himself out quickly in Triple-A, because the longer the slump continues in the minors, the harder it will be for Byrd to earn his way back to a spot that is rightfully his. Taking playing time away from a young player with a track record of success in the middle of a pennant race is exactly the type of move that could be looked back on as justification for why the Phillies have yet to live up to their preseason hype.

    Bowa can at least make the best of the situation by platooning the capable Ricky Ledee with the also capable Jason Michaels. If Doug Glanville starts getting significant playing time, better hide the batteries from Phils Phans.

  • Gone Fishin': With 20 games to go until the All-Star break, the Phillies have finally climbed back into a tie with the Marlins for the lead in the NL East. With seven games against the Expos as well as four and three against the Mets and Braves, respectively, the Phillies have an opportunity to turn the NL East into the two-team race that's been hinted at lately. If they can run away and hide with Florida, they'll have a good chance to take advantage of the 12 games against the Marlins in the second half to make the push for the division.

    Of course, all this assumes that the Phils can turn around a few slow starts, such as Kevin Millwood's and Byrd's, and return to the favored status they enjoyed after a solid off-season, highlighted by the acquisition of closer Billy Wagner. For now, though, the Phillies should consider themselves uniquely lucky to find themselves as high in the standings as they are.

    While other teams like the Reds, Twins, and Giants have all exceeded their expected records by a greater amount, the Phillies have shown the greatest discrepancy between their first-order winning percentage (based on their actual runs scored and allowed) and their third-order percentage (based on their adjusted equivalent run differential). Simply put, while the Phillies don't appear lucky based on the comparison between their record and run differential, they have been scoring more runs than they should given their individual statistics. However, lucky wins count just as much as deserved ones, and Philadelphia is as good a bet as any to take advantage in the next month or two.

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