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July 14, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

Anaheim Angels

  • Power Outage: Quick, whose numbers are these?
    
     AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA    OBP   SLG
    352  94  22   0  2   23  .267  .320  .346
    
    
    No, it's not a utility infielder with a great glove, or even Alex Cora, Cesar Izturis or first year disappointment Kazuo Matsui--each of those listed players have been more effective than the above line. Even the tattered remains of Roberto Alomar have come to life long enough to make it look paltry by comparison.

    In this case, it's not the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (although Apocalypse may be appropriate), it's the four-headed first baseman of the Anaheim Angels, including Darin Erstad, Casey Kotchman, Robb Quinlan and Shane Halter this season. Kotchman's penchant for getting hit by pitches (four in 101 AB) helped to pad the OBP a bit, keeping it from hovering dangerously close to .300.

    The Angels are on pace to get just under four home runs from their first basemen. Since 1972, outside of strike-shortened 1981 there have been five instances in which a team has received four home runs or fewer from a 1B:

    
    TEAM YEAR  HR
    CAL  1982  4
    KCA  1991  4
    PHI  1982  3
    SFN  1984  3
    PHI  1980  1
    
    
    Only one team--Rany Jazayerli's beloved Royals--managed this feat after the offensive explosion that became too difficult to ignore in 1987. Who can forget Wade Boggs and his 24 homers?

    Kudos to Pete Rose, who holds another place in infamy--that was his 1980 season with the Phillies, a whopping one home run from the left end of the defensive spectrum.

    A recent surge by Erstad has helped keep this from bordering on being historically bad. If the .296 BA doesn't keep up, though--watch out! Other teams have had their issues at first base as well, but nothing quite like the Angels. For all the good they've done, the Indian's haven't been blowing away the world at first base this year (more Ben Broussard than Travis Hafner--don't ask, we could only guess strange loyalties going back several years). Doug Mientkiewicz is making it difficult on the Twins, although he at least can fall back to two mitigating factors; first, his established level of performance is higher than this, and second, he carries a solid reputation for his glove. Still no reports of a Justin Morneau sighting. (Twenty-two home runs and a .615 SLG at Triple-A Rochester, in case you're wondering.)

    If we want to look for reasons why the Angels haven't done better, this is one big place to start--the upshot is it's an obvious place to look for improvement. Arte Moreno's an established businessman, and surely has a solid grasp of the concept of sunk costs. Erstad's the logical place to start, much moreso than the expensive shiny new ace pitcher who might rebound in the second half of the season.

  • Dallas, The Sequel: Since our last soliloquy on Dallas McPherson was published, all he's done is gone and slugged 1.000 at Triple-A after his promotion.

    After reaching the 1.000 mark, apparently Dallas had an off day (or a day off, you decide), as he went 0-for-6 with six strikeouts (!) in his last game before the MLB Futures Game. That's the first time we know of that's ever happened in the 101-year history of the Pacific Coast League. That doesn't diminish anything he's done, though. He's gonna rake, and he could certainly help to lessen the pain from free-agent-to-be Troy Glaus going down.

    
    Lvl    G  AB  R  H  TB 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS DP  AVG  OBP  SLG
    AA    68 262 53 84 173 17  6 20  69 34 74  6  5  2 .321 .404 .660
    AAA   16  62 18 22  56  4  3  8  20  7 26  2  0  0 .355 .414 .903
    
    
    Probably the next-best thing the Angels could do (after hiring Tonya Harding to 'bump in to' Erstad) is to promote McPherson to the show. They seem to be happy with Chone Figgins and a random mix of players at third base. If the Angels are set on keeping Figgins at third, perhaps they could give McPherson a little time at first base in AAA to see what he can do, then promote him.

    If the Angels are staunchly against bringing up McPherson (maybe they don't want to start his service time clock or some such thing), they're fortunate that they have a relatively easy to fill position at 1B. The Minnesota Twins, among others, have a treasure trove of 1B/OF/DH types they don't seem to be using, and they could be incredibly valuable to the Angels down the stretch. Relying on Tim Salmon, Erstad and others who have faced injury and productivity issues is sketchy at best. Given that the Twins don't seem to be doing much with their surplus, perhaps the Angels could work out a deal. If it's not the Twins, plenty of other teams will have useful & productive players available--that's the upside of having a hole at first base or designated hitter, rather than at shortstop.

  • Bad, Bad Bartolo: When Arte Moreno opened up his wallet last offseason, signing the best free-agent pitcher on the market sounded like an OK move. It hasn't worked out that way.

    Bartolo Colon is making a valiant run at the all-time record for home runs allowed in a season. He's sitting at 27, within reach of Bert Blyleven and his record of 50 home runs allowed in 1986. Blyleven was reasonably effective that season--or about as effective one could be while allowing 50 home runs in a single season. Colon's a different story; he looks like a whiplash victim waiting to happen, and there's no truth to the rumor that the Angels are going to have a promotional night where the outfield fans receive Kevlar vests.

    Yes, he's fat. In and of itself, that's not the end of the world. Many effective pitchers have been a little thick through the midsection and trunk. But we're not talking about a little. We're talking Cecil Fielder territory. The realm of Terry Forster. Funny how that works. When you're fat and effective, it's cute. When you're not, it's not.

    Opponents are hitting .296/.347/.563 against Colon in 2004. Put another way; that's pretty close to Hank Blalock.That's good for -7.2 VORP in just over 104 innings pitched.

    Thankfully, the rest of the rotation has stabilized. None of the others are challenging for the Cy Young, but they're also not dragging the team down with them. The difficulty in that situation is there isn't an obvious place to look for a replacement. Mediocrity is hell. The only logical place to look for a fix is Colon, but he's expensive and there's not an obviously better alternative. Which brings us back to the offense and first base...

    Simply put, the Angels need Colon to turn his season around. Helping Colon turn it around and addressing their offensive woes from power positions need to be priorities, and could be the key to a playoff run. Otherwise, the players may be shopping for comfortable barcaloungers come October.

Chicago Cubs

  • Clemens, Clement--what's the difference?: Roger Clemens has been fantastic this season. No doubt about it. Of course, Matt Clement has also been very good. But he's got a losing record, so the two of them shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath, right?

    The other day something intriguing happened--in going over All-Star selections and looking at mid-season performances, the following jumped out:

    
    Player    IP     H  HR  BB   SO  K/9  P/GS  G/F  ERA    W  L
    Clemens  116.7  89   9  49  121  9.33 105.0 1.63 2.62  10  3
    Clement  117.1  94  10  45  123  9.43 104.6 1.63 2.91   7  8
    
    
    Has anyone seen these two in the same room this year?

    Outside of mildly better peripherals and ERA for Clemens, they look like twins. OK, maybe fraternal twins.

    Clemens has been the better pitcher, though not markedly so. We can pontificate all we want about pitching to the score and "clutch," but most of what this boils down to is that Clemens has gotten better run support.

    Clement can make a case for some Cy Young votes if he keeps this up; that doesn't mean he'll actually get any, unless the Cubs start scoring some runs for him. Oh, and those Jason Schmidt and Ben Sheets guys have to help out a little, too.

  • Andruw & Corey: Rumor and innuendo have been flying around lately, with some variation of a trade between the Cubs and Braves involving Corey Patterson and Andruw Jones.

    Rather than trying to validate or dispute those discussions, let's take a look at whether such a move would be worthwhile. Here are PECOTA mean projections (pAVG, pOBP & pSLG) and actual numbers from this season:

    
    Player    Age  pAVG pOBP pSLG  AVG  OBP  SLG  SB CS
    Patterson  24  .265 .315 .427 .274 .329 .443   9  4
    Jones      27  .265 .341 .485 .250 .344 .491   2  4
    
    
    If nothing else, let's give PECOTA a brief nod for sussing these two out correctly so far. (It's too hard to resist mentioning Wily Mo Pena as well.) Patterson's a little ahead of his projection, but those two forecasts look pretty accurate. Patterson gives away about 60 points of OPS and a bit on defense. Jones' defense is still excellent, yet not quite what it was in his early years. Jones definitely seems more desirable for the here and now--however, with a fairly rich contract that escalates from $12 million to $13.5 million in 2007, we have to take into consideration where he'll be at that point.

    Patterson's plate discipline is still far less than optimal, but it's interesting to note that he's shown improvement from 2002 to 2003 to 2004. He seems sound after his knee surgery, and he's young enough to have room for growth. He's also cheap, at least for the time being.

    Jones is a fantastic player. Sometimes it seems, though, that he's a fantastic player who's aging faster than Magda, the cigarette-smoking, leather-faced neighbor woman with the dog in There's Something About Mary. He's 27 going on 35; his stolen base rates have seen a steady decline since 1998 (from 27 down to two this year), and he's been caught twice as often as he's stolen a base this season. He has bounced back with three triples this year, but overall he seems to have stagnated. We don't like to put too much faith in subjective reports about work ethic, but objectively Jones hasn't developed like some of us had hoped. Will he age gracefully?

    Initially, this sounded like an intriguing deal. Now, it's hard to tell--especially if the Cubs have to give up a quality reliever and/or prospect as part of the deal, getting saddled with Jones' expensive contract in the process. Jones is a quality player, but Patterson isn't a problem that needs fixing.

  • Is it really that bad? At the All-Star break, the Cubs' record is 47-40. That's nice. The Cardinals record is 54-33. That's nicer.

    On paper, it looks like they may be too far back from the Cardinals to make a run at them. Digging deeper, things don't look quite so grim for the long haul (although it's still a steep climb):

    
    Team       W    L   RS   RA  W1   L1  AEQR AEQRA  W3   L3
    Cardinals  54  33  455  356 53.5 33.5  445  351  53.0 34.0
    Cubs       47  40  400  345 49.4 37.6  423  343  51.8 35.2
    Astros     44  44  396  379 45.8 42.2  405  372  47.5 40.5
    Brewers    45  41  375  378 42.7 43.3  371  356  44.6 41.4
    Pirates    39  47  389  402 41.7 44.3  366  393  40.2 45.8
    Reds       47  41  411  452 40.0 48.0  404  454  39.1 48.9
    
    
    (Table courtesy of BP's Adjusted Standings Report.)

    In a nutshell, W1 & L1 are Pythagenport expected wins and losses, based on RS and RA. W3 & L3 include adjustments for equivalent runs scored and runs allowed with adjustments for the quality of their opponents' pitching & hitting.

    Hypothetically, the Cubs should be doing just fine. Maybe a game back of the Cardinals (give or take).

    That noise you hear in the background would be Dayn Perry, chuckling as he realizes all the hypothetical records in the world don't mean much until it translates to the field. With Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa back in the lineup, the Cubs are in an excellent position to do something about the stretch run. There's only one glaring hole, and we'll get to that soon enough...

    The Cubs need two things: (1) The Cardinals to cool off and (2) They need to stay healthy. It's hard to see the Cardinals' pitching holding up the rest of the way, but stranger things have happened. A bigger threat might be the Astros making a run--if they don't give up first.

    Either way, the Cubs are in excellent position to make a run at the playoffs; the wild-card is clearly within their grasp even if they don't catch the Cardinals.

  • That Gaping, Gonzalezian Hole: Even when Alex Gonzalez returns, the Cubs have an obvious issue to address. Looking through the Cubs lineup, by any measure shortstop is the gaping black hole, especially offensively in terms of VORP. The worse VORP from the rest of the positions is 15.3; the aggregate shortstop performance offensively has been just over zero VORP (around one), with Ramon Martinez leading at 4.8, but Rey Ordonez nicely negating that with a -4.4 VORP.

    Sure, it would great to get Nomar Garciaparra. "And I want a pony, and a fire truck, and a Red Rider BB Gun, and..." Hard to see that happening, isn't it?

    Unless there's something horribly wrong with him, there's a low-risk, low-cost option out there.

    Rich Aurilia just got his walking papers from the Mariners. Yeah, the guy who was a much better option than Carlos Guillen. Although it was silly to dump Guillen, Aurilia was a reasonable risk for the Mariners. As long as he's healthy, it's worth giving him a try if you're the Cubs. His potential upside is worth the risk, especially considering they have tolerable yet mediocre alternatives if he doesn't cut it.

    The other option is to go out and trade for a big upgrade at shortstop--that would be wonderful, but it's also going to be expensive.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Where to Next?: One of the most difficult things a GM has to do is make a decision to fish or cut bait. Sometimes, you have Geoff Blum stinking up your lineup and it becomes obvious Julio Lugo should be moved to 2B to make room for B.J. Upton. Wait--that hasn't happened yet.

    Doug Melvin's done a great job rebuilding this team on the cheap. Now he's gotta dismantle it. Or at least part of it. The Brewers can't delude themselves into thinking they're contenders. They've got one offensive player--Lyle Overbay--carrying most of the team in a career year that's going to be tough to maintain. Overbay's VORP is 43.0--next closest is Scott Podsednik at 15.3. They've got one certifiable stud pitcher in Ben Sheets, who's finally breaking through with the promise we've touted. Sheets' VORP is 42.1; the next closest is Doug Davis at 24.1, which will be difficult to maintain based on his history and peripheral numbers. After that, there's a steep dropoff.

    We don't want the Brewers to lose the positive momentum they've established. At the same time, they've got a great opportunity to turn some of their current roster into future value via trade. As good as they've been thus far, they don't look to be contending when all is said and done. They're too financially restricted to acquire any veteran salaries.

    This is a difficult recommendation to make, because following the Brewers is enjoyable for the first time in a while. It's also important, because falling in love with your own accomplishments can be dangerous. Here's hoping Melvin can maintain the fan base without retaining mediocre players with unnecessary contracts as others have done.

  • Cy Sheets?: Yeah, we know we've spent lots of time effusively praising Ben Sheets. The thing is, every time we do it he goes out and does something more impressive to renew our interest.

    He's now moved to the front of the pitching pack in the majors, with a VORP of 42.1 to Jason Schmidt's 41.3. Let's take a look at how his career has progressed:

    
    Year    IP    H   HR  BB   SO  SO/BB  G/F   ERA
    2001  151.3  166  23  48   94  1.96  1.59  4.76
    2002  216.7  237  21  70  170  2.43  1.47  4.15
    2003  220.7  232  29  43  157  3.65  1.23  4.45
    2004  123.3   91  10  19  133  7.00  1.36  2.26
    
    
    Interesting that until this season, Sheets was becoming progressively more of a flyball pitcher while making his improvements. This year, he's bounced back with a few more ground balls. The two obvious things that jump out, though, are the great reduction in hits allowed and the improvement in control (BB, SO, K/BB ratio). Subjectively, he seems to be locating his fastball very well this season. Objectively, it's possible he's learned a new pitch or a variation on an existing pitch--this is fantastic, but too big a jump to easily explain. The control improvements fit a pattern, but the significant reduction in hits allowed is a surprise.

    Sheets gives the Brewers a nucleus around which to build; most of the current roster won't be around the next time they contend, so it will be interesting to see what moves get made in the meantime.

    Until then, let's enjoy the ride.

  • He Ain't Heavy, He's My Sinker: Who substituted pewter bocce balls for the baseball? Is this Baseketball?

    Rany Jazayerli has covered this in much greater depth than I can here, but suffice it to say Danny Kolb has been having a very special, unique season. While writing this article, we noticed that Kolb hadn't given up an extra-base hit all season. He also is walking very few people--five in 33.1 IP. That's a good recipe for success.

    He's made a significant change. He's always thrown ground balls, but he's also been a power pitcher getting strikeouts in the past, with an SO/9 of 8.80, 5.63 and 8.49 over the last three seasons. This year, he's at 2.97. If he keeps that up, he's going to need to keep his G/F ratio over 4.00. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season unfolds for Kolb.

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