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May 23, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Super Joe and less-super Scott

by Rany Jazayerli and Christina Kahrl

The Ballad of Super Joe

I'm not a big fan of David Howard. Regular readers probably know that. Last year, in his first season with the Cardinals, Howard hit .245 in 102 at-bats, with four extra-base hits and 12 walks giving him a sad .322 OBP and a meek .333 slugging average.

All three averages were his career highs. That, folks, is one consistently awful hitter.

But even awful hitters have standards. Howard has never hit below .216 in a season; his OBP has never sunk below .267. To reach those depths--to have a worse season than David Howard at his nadir--is there an adequate term for that? Where's a thesaurus when you really need an alternate word for "execrable"?

Now imagine doing that in the Texas League.

That was the plight of our hero--we'll call him Joe--just three years ago. As a 23-year-old utility infielder in the Texas League, Joe hit .209/.252/.296 in 216 at-bats, spread out thinly over 106 games. Somehow--probably because of the shortage of human beings willing to live and work in Little Rock, Arkansas--Joe was brought back for another round in 1997, and spiked his average up to .259, with a .659 OPS. Heady stuff for Joe, who hadn't had an OPS that high since his days in the Midwest League.

Then last year, something funny happened. Well, not funny. Weird. Eerie, almost spooky, as if it were calling out for Mulder (Mark?) and Scully (Vin?) to come investigate.

The Alien--possibly the one that helped Brady Anderson hit 50 homers in 1996, but we're still checking our leads--paid Joe a visit. And Joe must cook up a mean lizard casserole, because the Alien has stuck around.

All Joe did in 1998 was hit .354 with 21 doubles in 60 games at Arkansas, slugging over .600 in the process. Promoted to Triple-A Memphis, he cooled off to a .334 average, with 30 more doubles and seven triples. Joe, who had hit 11 triples and 14 homers in his previous six seasons, hit 11 triples and 15 homers in 1998 alone. He also hit 51 minor league doubles, and in a brief callup to St. Louis went 4-for-20 with his 52nd double of the season, giving him the lead over Craig Biggio and the rest of organized baseball.

Take a look at his translated numbers from 1996 to 1998:

Year  AB    H     D   T  HR   BB   R   RBI  SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
1996  214   36    5   1  2    11   7   7    2   2   .168  .209  .229  .117
1997  258   50    3   1  3    15   10  10   1   2   .194  .238  .248  .149
1998  538   154   29  5  10   33   61  62   11  9   .286  .327  .414  .254

Now it's 1999, and with Matt Morris down and the Cardinals unable to trade pitching for Fernando Vina, Joe McEwing took the roster spot grudgingly handed to him at the end of Spring Training, and made himself a cult hero inside of six weeks. Suddenly, he's everywhere. He's starting at second base. No, wait a minute, that's him in center field. Center field? With Ray Lankford and Willie McGee manning the corners? Back to second the next day. Over to third in a double switch. Back to second in another double switch. J.D. Drew is healthy, let's move him to left field for a few days. No, right field. Let's see how he handles shortstop, and--just for laughs--how about some first base?

Jack McKeon, master of the obvious, gushed about McEwing, saying "he has a chance to be the next Rex Hudler." And Keith Law has a chance to lose some hair. Only once, in 1990 with the Cardinals, did the Wonder Dog play all seven non-battery positions, something McEwing accomplished in a month. Here's his playing time at each position:

       Games   Starts  Innings
1B:      1       1        6
2B:      22      22       171
SS:      1       0        1
3B:      6       0        15
LF:      9       5        51
CF:      5       5        34
RF:      3       0        7

And he's hitting. A lot. With 43 hits in his first 36 games, he has an outside shot to be the first National League rookie this decade to rack up 200 hits. And it's not just singles; he's hitting .352/.410/.459, or roughly like the late-1990s Tony Gwynn. What on earth is going on here? From David Howard to Honus Wagner in two years?

Call him what you want--Super Joe, Little Mac, the love child of Rex Hudler and Jose Oquendo. Call him an overachiever, a late bloomer, an affront to analysts everywhere.

Just don't call him a fluke. This Alien is here to stay.

Brewing It Up

Is Scott Karl finally getting better, or is he continuing to lose his tenuous grip on mediocrity? With the Brewers having lost or demoted three of the their five starters (Bill Pulsipher, Jim Abbott and now Rafael Roque), Karl's 5-1 record is being touted as evidence of his success. But is it really that valuable a contribution?

While he has an above-average 3.75 ERA, Karl has gotten good run support. A quick glance at Michael Wolverton's updated Support-Neutral data tells you that you should expect a 3-2 record. Beyond that, the peripheral data doesn't suggest he's going to keep pitching well. He's giving up more than a hit an inning and over four walks per nine innings, with a miserable strikeout rate of 3.39 K/9. Pitchers with K/W rates under one do not succeed for any length of time.

Additionally, his platoon data is beginning to suggest his best role may be as a reliever. Right-handed batters are tattooing him at a .325/.402/.472 clip, versus .129/.206/.161 for lefties. He's also had the advantage of getting support from the tenth-best bullpen in the majors, according to Michael Wolverton's reliever evaluation tool. These rates are all relatively consistent for his career. Even with the perceived shortage of useful left-handed starters, Karl may be making a case that he shouldn't be a starter for much longer.

There are other fun things going on in Milwaukee. In center field, they've got a classic dilemma: the long-term contract versus superior, freely-available talent. Marquis Grissom has been using injuries as an excuse for over two years now, but he's been a miserable offensive player, his speed is shot and his defense isn't what it was.

Put that against waiver-wire pickup Richie Becker. Becker's still the player he was when Tom Kelly ran him out of the Twin Cities: a patient hitter with decent speed who can contribute against right-handed pitching. In limited duty this season, Becker's OBP is above .400 against right-handers while putting up a .268 EqA. That may not sound like much, but compared to Grissom's absolutely awful .280 OBP and .215 EqA, and with little hope of his outperforming last year's .237, it's a significant improvement. If the Brewers are going to get better, they're going to need every little upgrade they can get.

On that score, chalk up a major coup for the Brewers this year for letting Dave Nilsson pick up the tools of ignorance again. Yes, he's not going to be that effective against opposing runners, and that will only get worse with Nilsson catching notoriously indifferent Hideo Nomo. But the number of stolen bases Nilsson has allowed hasn't been very high, less than a stolen base per nine innings, and the offense he's providing--a .330 EqA--over the execrable Mike Matheny is an important addition to a team that needs all the help it can get.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here
Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Joe Kelly,  The Call-up,  Rex Hudler

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