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August 9, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Weekend That Was

by Joe Sheehan

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Friday's column on Hee Seop Choi generated as much e-mail as I've seen in a while, almost all of it looking like this:

Hey, Joe, nice article. I was wondering, though, how Choi's numbers stood up relative to all other hitters as far as how they performed against good and bad pitchers. Without that information, how do we really know if Choi is the same, better, or worse?
Some people weren't as nice about it as that, but you get the gist.

It's a great question, and if I'd had the data to provide the context for Choi's numbers, I would have presented it. My goal was to add some actual information to the discussion of whether Choi really couldn't hit good pitching, because I was curious whether the industry and media commentary on him and his game was accurate. I'm comfortable with the idea that we still don't know, but that at least the numbers didn't disprove the notion.

One way to check this would be to see what everyone, or perhaps a cross-section of batters, have hit against the pitchers Choi has faced in his three seasons. As happens with alarming frequency, though, I'm bumping against the edges of my skill set and available time. I encourage everyone to run with the idea of comparing hitters' performances against good and bad pitching, to see what, if anything, we can learn.

Elsewhere, in the weekend that was:

  • I was so happy to see Greg Maddux get his 300th career victory. Pitcher wins may be a lousy value metric, but big, round numbers still mean something to baseball fans, and few numbers have as much cachet as "300".

    The flood of attention for Maddux over the past week was a little strange, as despite his tremendous body of work, he's never received quite the level of adulation that his two peers, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, have. His two best seasons were curtailed by the 1994-95 strike, and he's always been a much more vanilla character than the other two. Regardless, he's been one of my favorite players for nearly 15 years, and I was glad to see him be the focus of so many tributes over the weekend.

    Win #300 wasn't vintage Maddux so much as modern Maddux: he didn't work deep into the game and he was hit hard at times. He relied on his bullpen and defense. Despite a clear decline over the past two seasons, Maddux still is an above-average starting pitcher whose command and mechanics will enable to be an innings sponge at least through his current contract. That should enable him to pass Steve Carlton (and, most likely by then, Roger Clemens) for most wins by a pitcher whose career began after World War II.

    I think there's a cooler target out there. If Maddux manages to reverse the decline in his groundball-to-flyball ratio--which has slipped under 2.0 in three of the past four seasons, and has led to career-high home-run rates--he could be better than that, and make a run at 350 wins. Just one pitcher born after 1887--Warren Spahn--has reached that figure.

  • As expected, trading season continued into August. The big news was the Rockies getting Larry Walker to accept a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals, after Walker had spent the last week in July rejecting deals to other cities. The deal, for Jason Burch and two players to be named, looks like a steal for the Cards, who only assumed about half of the remaining financial obligation to Walker.

    According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the other players in the trade will be Double-A left-hander Chris Narveson and Triple-A cornerman John Gall. Burch is an A-ball reliever, a generic fastball/slider guy with a good strikeout rate in the Midwest League. Narveson has been around for a while; the Cards' #2 pick in 2000 had Tommy John surgery in '01 and has held his own at Double-A this season (121 strikeouts and 51 walks in 127 2/3 innings). He's a four-pitch guy who doesn't overpower people; in another system, he might come up and be a #5 starter. Denver isn't a good place for four-pitch guys who need their breaking ball, though. Gall is a tweener, a big right-handed hitter who will likely become a platoon first baseman/corner coutfielder in the majors. His bat won't be enough to cover first base, and he's not really any kind of outfielder. As a right-handed hitter who doesn't take walks or have an excessive strikeout rate, he's well-suited for Coors Field. Gall has about a 20% chance to become Dante Bichette.

    Walt Jocketty came through with a big mid-season acquisition again. After Mark McGwire, Woody Williams and Scott Rolen, this shouldn't be a surprise any longer, but I thought the state of the Cards' farm system would make any significant acquisition impossible. Not only did they have a thin system coming into the year, but a number of their significant prospects have been injured this season. Credit Jocketty for making this happen, and Cards' ownership for writing the check.

  • The Blue Jays also made a deal on Friday, sending the disappointing Josh Phelps to the Indians in exchange for Triple-A slugger Eric Crozier. Crozier has never been much of a prospect, but he has hit well at Buffalo this season, and as a left-handed hitter with some pop and plate discipline, he sets up as a potential cheap replacement for Carlos Delgado, who is expected to leave as a free agent. The Jays had hoped to see Gabe Gross or John-Ford Griffin in Toronto by '05, but neither player will be ready by then.

    "Cheap" is the key. Despite a couple of big weeks this summer, Phelps has been a disappointment to the Jays. He's going to be arbitration-eligible after the season, though, and based merely on service time and some raw power stats, would be in line to make well into seven figures in '05. The Jays would almost certainly have non-tendered him after the season, so getting anything for him now was preferable.

  • That wasn't the biggest news the Jays made over the weekend. Sunday evening, they fired manager Carlos Tosca and replaced him, in the interim, with first-base coach John Gibbons. Certainly, the Jays' disappointing season has been brought on as much by injuries--all of their top six players from last season have spent time on the DL--as anything Tosca did. The manager's handling of the bullpen was a problem all year long, though, and J.P. Ricciardi's sense that the team was no longer playing hard was the final straw.

    Who the Jays choose to run this team in 2005 and beyond will be an interesting story. I think you can make an argument that one of the weaknesses of the nominal "sabermetric" teams so far has been that not one has had a particularly good field manager in place. The Jays have to find someone who can not only embrace the organizational approach and work with the front office, but a person who can do those things while maintaining a leadership role in the clubhouse and sustaining a relationship with a skeptical media.

    This may be the most important decision that Ricciardi ever makes, because the Jays--who have made progess in many areas but have gone a bit backward in the standings--have to start having some success. Rogers Communications has been very patient, and rightly so, as the organization was a mess when Ricciardi arrived. Results eventually have to matter, though, and putting the right man in the dugout is an important step in getting those results.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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