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July 13, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles

  • Pon(son)dering What Went Wrong: Sidney Ponson is enormous, and so is his ERA. Our Support-Neutral stats show that the ERA isn't masking a good performance, ranking Ponson the eighth-worst starter in baseball, and below replacement level.

    (This just isn't the Year of the Fat Pitcher, especially not the Year of the Fat Pitcher Newly Inked to a Lucrative Deal: Anaheim's Bartolo Colon is one of the seven pitchers on the list ahead of Ponson.)

    If it's any consolation for Ponson, he's also been the eighth-most unlucky starter in the bigs by our metrics, which is an interesting combination: most of the unluckiest starters are guys like Freddy Garcia, Tom Glavine and Zack Greinke, who have pitched very well but not received run support).

    All this is just the latest in a career that has established Ponson as one of the most maddening pitchers in baseball. He was supposed to be an ace, but last year was the first in which he managed a sub-4.00 ERA. Baltimore got a good haul from the Giants for him (Kurt Ainsworth, Ryan Hannaman and Damian Moss, all pitchers; Ainsworth and Hannaman are still in the system) and then grabbed him back in the off-season, signing him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Finally it seemed that Ponson had turned the corner and become the stalwart innings-eater he was always supposed to be.

    He eats plenty besides innings, but we're loath to blame his troubles on that. Players with bad bodies have succeeded in the majors, and much of the time they are perceived to have a poor work ethic on account of their corpulence, even when that's not true. His stuff has certainly always been excellent, and he has honed it over the years as he's cut out pitches like the changeup, which he used to use more often but with less success (one of the knocks on Ponson was that he had a lot of pitches but not good enough command of any of them). His fastball gets up to the mid-90s and he can put a lot of sink on it; his curve is fast (around 80) yet does not want for motion; his slider is a strikeout pitch, and he'll use a wicked cutter on lefties that sits at around 88, which is darned fast for that sort of pitch.

    We can't help but wonder if his body type helped him in the past to be labeled as a guy who loses concentration on the mound and "doesn't know how to pitch"--that is to say, doesn't know how to mix pitches and location to get hitters out. (You will never hear of a pitcher with mediocre stuff who doesn't know how to pitch, mostly because if that is so you will never see them anywhere close to the majors.) But his enormous weight gain between last year and this one is increasing the alarm.

    In the absence of comprehensive studies on the effect of obesity on pitchers, we will just have to take Ponson as a data point for now, and see how he pitches in the second half.

  • Another Casualty?: John Maine is finding life in the high minors a bit more difficult than eating Single-A bats for breakfast:
    
    COMPOSITE MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS
    Level      IP  HR/9   K/9  BB/9   ERA
    Low-A    10.3   0.0  18.2   2.7  1.74
    A       109.3   0.0  12.1   1.8  1.48
    High-A   70.3   0.6   9.9   2.6  3.07
    AA       28.0   0.3  10.9   2.3  2.25
    AAA      69.7   1.3   8.4   4.4  4.52
    
    
    Maine's time in Triple-A has been marked by a huge increase in homers and walks allowed, which seems to indicate that his extraordinary command, which enabled his dominance of the lower-minors even with his average stuff, is slipping. Maine had worked away from a reliance on his fastball and had even polished his changeup to the point that it was an effective pitch for him. But in Triple-A he seems to be reverting to old habits, and two-pitch pitchers with low-90s fastballs don't go very far, even in Triple-A, and certainly not in the major leagues.

    We're inclined not to think that Maine has rather suddenly hit his ceiling: his strikeout rate remains high, so he's still fooling a fair amount of the hitters he faces. His other numbers may indicate that he was just getting away with a lot of mistakes in the lower levels that Triple-A hitters are feasting on, but most likely this is simply an adjustment period and he will find his sharp command again soon. It's important that Maine uses all three of his pitches. If he can't--or if he won't--he simply will not succeed.

Colorado Rockies

  • Money Matters: Because of a new equity partnership with Fox Sports, the Rockies should have an extra $6 million a year to play with, although they've already said that not all of that will be dedicated to player payroll. At the very least, however, it should result in a slight bump, or at least forestall more salary cutting.

    Part of the reason that the Rox need cash is the huge contracts by which they are hamstrung: $121 million over eight years to Mike Hampton, from which--in the persons of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson--they are still suffering, $51 million over five years to Denny Neagle (oops), and the huge deal signed by right fielder Larry Walker, which pays him $12.5 million this year and next, plus a $1 million buyout on a mutual option for 2006.

    When healthy, Walker is a phenomenal player. Here are his rate stats over the life of the deal:

    
    Year   AVG  OBP  SLG
    1999  .379 .458 .710
    2000  .309 .409 .506
    2001  .350 .449 .562
    2002  .338 .421 .602
    2003  .284 .422 .476
    2004  .311 .508 .711
    
    
    If rate stats ruled the world, Larry Walker would be a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, feared and famed for his power stroke, his high average, his judicious eye, and his laser arm in right field. But he hasn't been able to stay healthy, and as such has become for the Rockies just another albatross contract. So they might trade him, if they can find someone to take the contract (and they already tried it once, a swap with Arizona for Matt Williams, but Walker nixed it). And Walker has now said he'd accept a trade to a contender. But who would take the risk? The Rockies might have to pick up half, or more, of Walker's deal to get anyone to bite. Which would mean they'd want to get something pretty good back.

    The Rockies won't contend this year, so if they can deal Walker by July 31st, anything that they save this year is a plus. PECOTA only has Walker for a 1.2 WARP next year, so even if the Rockies have to pick up 75% of the money he's still owed, they'll still have over $4 million more to play with than they otherwise would, and it should be a piece of cake to get 1.2 WARP for that kind of money elsewhere. (Only two clubs, the Mets and Rangers, failed to get under $4 million spent per marginal win in 2003.) Walker's present pattern of aging and injury means that, at least from an actuarial standpoint, the Rockies should deal him under almost any conditions--if they can.

    Of course, if Walker doesn't get hurt, the Rox will look mighty foolish. Though the actuaries say otherwise, the PR hounds will tell you that dealing him is the risky move.

  • Midseason Hardware: We at BP are introducing a big new award, and the All-Star break seems like a good time to unveil it. Say hello to the MHBC: the Most Helped By Coors award, a quick-and-dirty look at who's for real and who's just a Coors Field mirage. (A minimum of 50 at-bats at home and 50 on the road is needed to qualify.)
    
    Player   RdOPS  HmOPS   %Diff
    Greene    .843   .691  -18.0%
    Sweeney   .823   .897   +9.0%
    Johnson   .852   .930   +9.2%
    Helton   1.018  1.163  +14.2%
    Burnitz   .792  1.023  +29.2%
    Miles     .652   .850  +30.4%
    Holliday  .664   .995  +49.8%
    Gonzalez  .575   .871  +51.5%
    Clayton   .599  1.019  +70.1%
    Castilla  .622  1.124  +80.1%
    
    
    Surprise, surprise. Congratulations, Vinny.

New York Mets

  • Carlos Who?: The Mets hid their jewel, David Wright, from the prying eyes of Royals GM Allard Baird and his "I Need A Third Baseman--Any Third Baseman!" shopping spree, and while Baird settled for the A's Mark Teahen, the Mets made a low-risk move that to date has had just as much reward, swapping the middling David Weathers (the word is true in every sense) for Richard Hidalgo and cash.

    That move has been golden: Weathers' subpar innings have been filled by the resurgent Ricky Bottalico (3.1 ARP), one-time Royals prospect Orber Moreno (2.3), and Jose Parra (4.1), and in only 90 plate appearances Hidalgo has been worth 13.0 runs of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), compared to 1.8 runs of VORP in 220 plate appearances for the Astros.

    It's July 12 and this rebuilding team is only two games off the division lead. Might another move follow? Another starter could give this team a boost: Al Leiter, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel have been good, but neither Jae Weong Seo nor Matt Ginter has been exciting. The Mets are one of a few teams rumored to be interested in the services of Pittsburgh's Kris Benson, probably the best pitcher left on the trade market, with Ty Wigginton and pitching prospect Matt Peterson the primary trading chips.

    Leaving Benson's merits aside for a moment, the idea makes sense: the back of the rotation stinks, and the Mets are perfectly equipped to make this sort of deal. With Jose Reyes back from injury, Wigginton has been able to return to third--but the aforementioned Mr. Wright might be able to outperform him right now. Moreover, Wigginton (.273/.317/.500) is probably playing over his head: his .281 Equivalent Average exceeds his 75th percentile PECOTA projection.

    Much like when they had Jason Phillips around when trying to teach Mike Piazza how to play first base, the Mets find themselves perfectly set up for their needed move.

    But there's something wrong with the trade market when you can describe it by saying that Kris Benson, currently sporting a VORP under 10, is the best pitcher available. Not that Wigginton and Peterson is an enormously high price to pay, but the Mets might be better served looking into other options. Which, indeed, they are. Scott Erickson, who has been shutting down Triple-A, may be called up soon to see if he can put together another good half-season. (We beg for a sanity check. This is Scott Erickson we're talking about. One more time: Scott Erickson. He is not a prospect. He has been around for a long time, and we know what he can do. Or, more to the point, what he cannot.)

    Or they might turn to Alain Soler, the 24-year-old Cuban defector they're signing to a $3 million contract. Mets officials have never seen him pitch, but believe that after a handful of minor league starts he may be able to join their rotation.

    Yes, you read that right: they have never seen him pitch. Far be it from us at BP, noted slaves to the slide rule and spreadsheet, to wonder at the lack of first-person scouting, but this is a curious vote of confidence.

    The Mets may have actually turned to their crosstown rivals for a little scouting report. Said the inconsistent Jose Contreras of his former Cuban teammate: "When I left, he became the number one pitcher on our team."

    Soler, the poor man's Contreras? Say, we hear that Benson kid in Pittsburgh is available...

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Divisional All-Star Te... (07/13)
<< Previous Column
Prospectus Triple Play... (07/08)
Next Column >>
Prospectus Triple Play... (07/14)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (07/14)

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