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July 20, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • The Very Big Hurt: The White Sox got terrible news on Sunday, learning that designated hitter Frank Thomas would miss another eight weeks with a broken bone in his left foot. At 36, the future Hall of Famer was having his best season since 2000, batting .271/.434/.563. His .334 EqA leads the Sox and ranks fifth in the American League.

    The Sox have no way of replacing Thomas' OBP in the middle of the lineup. While some teams, like the Twins, have a glut of first base/DH types just clamoring for playing time, the Sox are thin at the right end of the defensive spectrum. On the major league roster, Ross Gload has been a replacement-level hitter so far this year, while Timo Perez hasn't even been that good. Triple-A Charlotte boasts little that can be expected to make up for the loss of Thomas.

    Compounding the problem for the Sox is a lineup that can't afford to lose OBP. Jose Uribe hasn't been getting on base for a month now, and Joe Crede is quickly becoming a bust. The Sox also start Jose Valentin, an excellent player whose offensive value is in his power (.320 OBP). A team can only afford so many out makers, and the Sox, sans Thomas, are reaching the breaking point. They scored just 33 runs in the first eight games after losing Thomas, nearly a run-and-a-half a game below their average prior to that.

    On the same weekend that the Sox found out the extent of Thomas' injury, the Twins called up Justin Morneau to be their DH. We might look back in October and see that the first few days after the All-Star break were what determined the race in the AL Central.

  • Meet the New DH, Same as the Old CF: In an effort to patch for the loss of Thomas, GM Kenny Williams re-acquired Carl Everett from the Expos in exchange for Jon Rauch and Gary Majewski. Williams had made a similar deal in '03, picking up Everett from the Rangers for prospects.

    There are some key differences between the two trades. Last year Williams added a presumably healthy player in the middle of a strong season in exchange for three middling prospects. This time, he added an injured guy who is having a lousy year, and gave up two of his better prospects for the privilege. Rauch had been buried by the team in part because of an incident that occurred during his last call-up, but with 61 strikeouts and 25 walks in 72.1 innings at Triple-A, he'd shown that he was just about ready for a major league job. Gary Majewski, the second pitcher in the deal, might be ready to help a major league bullpen right now. The Sox gave up real value in this trade.

    In spite of that, there are reasons to believe this can work out. Because of Aaron Rowand's strong play, Everett will be asked to play right field--and eventually DH, when Magglio Ordonez is 100%--rather than center. Everett has been hampered all year by shoulder, hamstring and ankle injuries, but is reportedly over all of them and healthy for the first time since last season. Everett is a strong batter from the left side, an important consideration for the Sox--just as it was last year--who lean heavily toward the right side.

    Combined with the deal that sent Jeremy Reed and Miguel Olivo to the Mariners for Freddy Garcia, it's clear that Williams believes that the window on his team is closing. Since last summer he's dealt away the organization's top two prospects, a bunch of lesser ones, and a cheap young catcher, for short-term improvements. Williams' job is likely riding on the Sox winning the division this season, because he's mortgaged the future to make it happen.

  • Outstanding Performer: He gets less respect than reality television, but Damaso Marte has shaken off a so-so start to once again be one of the AL's best left-handed relievers.

    Marte blew the save on Opening Day in Kansas City, allowing two home runs and a single as the Royals rallied for five runs in the ninth inning off of him and Billy Koch Since then, however, he's allowed just eight runs in 42.2 innings, while putting up the strong peripherals--37:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 574 OPS allowed--that marked him as an underrated contributor to a good team. He's once again been passed over for the closer role, but look past the saves and you'll see that he's every bit as good as his teammate Shingo Takatsu. In a division lousy with good left-handed hitters, Marte is a weapon.

Oakland Athletics

  • It's Not Just the Playoffs That Are Luck: With nominal closer Arthur Rhodes experiencing a variety of meltdowns, and a desperate need to find someone who could miss bats late in the game, Billy Beane once again mixed the A's up in a multi-way trade. Beane swapped prospects Mark Teahen and Mike Wood to the Royals and received Octavio Dotel and cash from the Astros. The deal was effectively nothing for something for the A's, who had no role for either prospect at the major league level.

    The trade has been anything but a panacea for the bullpen. Dotel allowed four runs in his A's debut, blowing a 7-3 lead in an eventual 8-7 loss to the Giants. In 12 appearances, Dotel has an ERA of 6.59, with five saves in seven chances. Other than in that first game, in which he ended up pitching 2.1 innings, Dotel has been used as a conventional closer, throwing an inning or less in 10 of his 11 appearances since. That's disappointing, especially for a team like the A's that should recognize the value Dotel has in high-leverage situations earlier in the game.

    The thing is, Dotel hasn't pitched poorly for the A's as much as he's pitched in awful luck. His indicators--strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk rate, groundball-to-flyball ratio, home-run rate--are all in line with his Astros numbers, and he posted a 3.12 ERA before the deal. That 6.59 ERA is driven by a ridiculous .500 batting average allowed on balls in play. The number seems even stranger when you consider that the A's are one of the best defensive teams in baseball.

    No one gets pinned with a .500 BABIP (most pitchers oscillate around .290) all year long. To do so for even a month is a bit strange. Dotel's seasonal line may be screwed up by the last few weeks, but there's no reason to believe he's not still a dominant reliever, capable both of pitching the A's into the postseason and helping them get over the Division Series hump once they're there. Fantasy players, consider Dotel a strong buy and start shouting "6.59!" at his owner in your league.

  • Stat of the Month: Pitching coach Rick Peterson, considered to be to the A's success what Leo Mazzone is to that of the Braves, was hired away by the Mets over the winter. Has the move had a negative impact for Oakland? With substantially the same pitchers working for both teams over the past two years, a direct comparison of the staffs is instructive.
    
    K/BB ratio
           2003     2004    Change
    A's    2.04     1.91    -6.4%
    Mets   1.57     1.71   +13.2%
    
    

    You might wonder why we didn't use ERA or RA. The Mets have improved their defense so much over the past year that using runs to measure improved pitching--usually a good idea--would skew the comparison in their favor. Strikeout-to-walk ratio is a better reflection of Peterson's influence, or lack thereof, as he worked hard with the A's big three to get them throwing strikes. It appears that he's done the same in New York.

    Looking at the rotations he handled in '03 and '04 doesn't indicate much, as the A's are a mixed bag, while the Mets have seen three of their top four starters lose ground. The degree of change is interesting; the impact of Peterson on Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Tom Glavine pops from this chart.

    
    K/BB ratio
                       2003     2004    Change
    Tim Hudson         2.66     2.08    -21.8%
    Mark Mulder        3.20     2.33    -27.1%
    Rich Harden        1.68     1.92    +14.3%
    Barry Zito         1.66     1.87    +12.7%
    
    Al Leiter          1.48     1.21    -18.2%
    Tom Glavine        1.24     2.03    +63.7%
    Steve Trachsel     1.71     1.49    -12.9%
    Jae Seo            2.39     1.31    -45.2%
    
    

    That doesn't consider Peterson's work with the desiccated remnants of Ricky Bottalico (3.27 ERA, 2.00 K/BB) or the fact that he's gotten good work from Orber Moreno (3.27 ERA, 2.90 K/BB) and Jose Parra (3.21 ERA, 2.33 K/BB).

    Better command of the strike zone has helped the Mets move to among the NL leaders in run prevention, and Peterson deserves some credit for that. As the charts above show, though, the data aren't clear on just how much. The team changes in command, particularly in New York, are driven by the deltas on just a few players. Eyeballing the names, you might suggest that perhaps Peterson's approach works best with a certain type of pitcher, perhaps ones more inclined to go along with the cerebral coach. That's a bit of a stretch, of course (and a poor fit when considering Al Leiter's numbers). It may just be that this is a half-season of information, and not nearly enough on which to draw conclusions.

  • Upcoming Schedule: The A's season won't be decided in the next two weeks, but we'll certainly see whether they'll have to play from behind or ahead down the stretch. Beginning Thursday, the A's play seven games in 11 days against the division-leading Texas Rangers, the last of those just on the other side of the July 31 trade deadline, and then take a tough road trip to play potential October foes in the Yankees and Twins.

    Their reward for playing well in those games, if they do so, is a three-week vacation: the Tigers and Royals at home, then two weeks of the Orioles and Devil Rays. The latter two teams have been good to the A's the past few years. They went 11-1 against the two in an identical stretch in 2001, a run that helped propel them to the Wild Card. Last year, an 8-4 run wrapped around Labor Day helped the A's get control of the West.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Down on the Farm: With a name like Ryan Howard, you wouldn't expect a singles-hitting, speedy defensive outfielder. No, that's a slugger's name, the moniker of a big kid from the back country who hits it hard and far when he hits it, and changes weather patterns with his whiffs when he doesn't.

    At 6'4" and 230 pounds, the Phillies' first-base prospect fulfills those expectations. The Phils' #5 pick in the 2001 draft is destroying the Eastern League to the tune of .303/.387/.668, having blasted 35 home runs in 343 at-bats. With six weeks to go in the Eastern League season, Howard is a near lock to shatter the circuit's record of 41 bombs, set back in 1930 by...oh, come on, you know this...Hazelton's Ken Strong in 1930, and tied by Rick Lancellotti in 1979 for Buffalo.

    Combined major league at-bats for the two record-holders? 65.

    Howard is an appropriate heir to that legacy, His prodigious power aside, he's not a great prospect. Howard isn't particularly young, 24, and he has all the defensive value of Ural. He strikes out a ton: once every three at-bats this year, a slight uptick from his rates the past two seasons. Striking out at unacceptable levels, and losing ground in your command of the strike zone as you move up in the system, are two red flags in evaluating hitting prospects. Being in Double-A at 24 is another.

    Howard's greatest value to the Phillies is as trade bait. He's never going to play for them, because the Phillies have the major league version, plus 80 walks, in Jim Thome, and he's signed though 2017 or so. The A's had a similar situation with Mark Teahen, and they turned him into Octavio Dotel. With the Phillies locked in a tight race with three other teams, and with addressable weaknesses, General Manager Ed Wade has to do the same with Howard. If he doesn't, and the Phillies fall short for a third straight season, it will be time to wonder if Wade is up to the task of finishing what he started.

  • Welcome Back: One of the notions floated about the 2004 Phillies was that they didn't need any great performances to win, just solid seasons from their starting lineup and rotation. Had they gotten even average performance from third base and left field in '03, they probably would have won the Wild Card going away. David Bell and Pat Burrell had disastrous years, though, combining for a season-and-a-half of replacement-level play.

    This year, both players have been assets. Bell is having perhaps his best season, batting .279/.364/.471 and playing a very good third base. He's increased his walk rate since coming to Philadelphia, but unlike the spike we often see when an older player loses his bat speed, the 31-year-old Bell has also added power. He's on pace for the highest slugging average and isolated power marks of his career.

    Burrell is still striking out at a prodigious rate, and his power isn't where it was during his excellent '02 season, but at .271/.384/.465, he, too, is helping the Phillies stay in the NL East race. Burrell is on a career-best pace for walks and K/BB ratio, and improvements in those areas indicate that Burrell is also getting himself into more hitters' counts. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him locate his power stroke and have a monster second half, something like .300/.400/.600.

  • Fantasy Tip: Kevin Millwood's batting average allowed on balls in play is .327, well above both the league average and the team average. Millwood's peripherals are good--7.57 K/9, 2.31 K/BB, a homer every eight innings--which means that his 4.92 ERA is more a reflection of too many balls falling in than of a decline. Like Burrell, he's a player who could have a big second half, and with the Phillies' strong offense, that will mean wins on top of good rate stats. Go get him.

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