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August 19, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Throwing a Marte Part-ay: Now that Joe Mauer, David Wright and B.J. Upton are well on the way to exhausting their prospect status, there's a strong chance that Braves' third-base prospect Andy Marte will top our annual Top 50 Prospects List for 2005.

    Marte, who ranked third on the 2004 list, will likely be the highest-ranking returnee. He could face some stumping for Dallas McPherson or Felix Hernandez, but Marte will likely marshal the most compelling case for top honors.

    Marte, whom the Braves signed in 2000 as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican, boasted a career batting line of .273/.350/.456 coming into the season. He achieved those numbers despite his being young for the league at every stop and his spending an entire season at the hitter's Hades of Myrtle Beach. In 2004, Marte would face high-minors competition for the first time.

    This season, Marte is hitting .277/.359/.554 at Double-A Greenville. The Southern League this season, in terms of runs per plate appearance, is playing as the most run-suppressing circuit in all the minors. In 2004, Greenville has a park factor of 0.981 relative to the rest of the league, which means it's a below-average hitters' park in a league that's already hostile toward run scoring. Add in the fact that Marte, at age 20, is comfortably younger than his peer group, and you have a highly impressive performance.

    Marte's batting average of .277 may not impress, but his secondary skills do. He's drawn an unintentional walk in 10.1% of his plate appearances, and his isolated power is a robust .277, which points to his substantial level of projectable raw power. The jump in those power indicators from previous levels is also encouraging. Additionally, more than half of his 89 hits this season have gone for extra bases. Marte also ranks second in the loop in slugging percentage and third in extra-base knocks.

    
    Month          Rate Stats          ISO         XB%
    
    April        .281/.343/.453       .172        27.8
    May          .265/.345/.618       .353        70.4
    June         .229/.308/.400       .171        75.0
    July         .368/.493/.789       .421        47.6
    August       .254/.303/.441       .187        46.7
    
    It's somewhat encouraging that Marte's best months have been May and July. Had an aberrant April buoyed his numbers for the season, one might be concerned that pitchers had adjusted to him after a hot initial month. That hasn't been the case. It's also worth noting that In June, Marte's worst month, six of his eight hits went for doubles, and from May 1 through the end of June, an astounding 25 of Marte's 35 hits were for extra bases.

    If there is a source of consternation to be found in Marte's profile, it's in his home/road splits. At Greenville this season, Marte is hitting .301/.372/.607, while elsewhere he's hitting .252/.343/.490. Still, his road ISO of .238 is impressive, and he's actually showing better plate discipline away from Greenville.

    As mentioned, Upton, Wright and Mauer will probably be removed from the prospect fray before the end of the season. Account for Marte's advantage over McPherson in terms of age relative to peer group and Hernandez's TINSTAAPP-inspired concerns, and it's clear that Marte will likely top next year's list.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • The Disputed Region of Kazmir: Eh, work with me on the headline. The deadline trade that sent Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato to the Mets for lefty phenom Scott Kazmir and relief prospect Joselo Diaz is looking even better right now.

    Zambrano will miss at least his next start, and perhaps more than that, after coming down with an inflamed elbow. He's headed back to New York for tests, and the Mets, who had no business trading for Zambrano in the first place, now have no business pitching him again in this lost season.

    The Rays, meanwhile, are enjoying the pitching chops of Kazmir. In four starts and 25 innings since the trade, Kazmir, who's pitching for Double-A Montgomery, is allowing 2.52 runs per game and has a 24-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This is his third stop this season, and his combined numbers are strong: 101 IP, 2.94 R/G, 79 H, 104 K, 42 BB, 3 HR. Kazmir needs to cut back on the walks, but that's hardly a unique dilemma among hard-throwing young port-siders.

    What's also impressive is that Kazmir has now given up just nine homers in 229 career innings. Remember: this is a 20-year-old who's faring quite well against Double-A competition. After posting a 6.14 R/G and giving up a pair of homers in April for High-A St. Lucie, Kazmir has settled down nicely.

  • Ridiculously Premature Upton Assessment: It's been a piddling 44 plate appearances since überprospect B.J. Upton (the best prospect in all the world, according to one of our scribes) made his major-league debut on August 2. Despite the peril of angering the vengeful, Old Testament god of sample sizes, let's see how he's fared so far.

    His batting line of .357/.386/.548 is obviously impressive, and his EqA of .317 is tops among shortstops (we'll say it again: he's had only 44 plate appearances). On the downside, he ranks near the bottom of the league in quality of opposing pitchers faced.

    Still, it's encouraging that a 19-year-old who's been promoted aggressively from the outset has met with such success in the early going. Upton has drawn only a pair of walks, and that .357 average certainly won't last, but his isolated power of .191 is fairly strong, and exactly one-third of his hits have gone for extra bases. Of course, the sample size is far too small to lead us to any firm conclusions--have I disclaimed this enough?--but so far so good.

    Let's hope the Rays continue holding off on the temptation to plug Upton into the DH spot on a semi-regular basis. This idea has been bandied about, but so far he's seen 80 innings at shortstop. The biggest knock on Upton is his raw defensive skills. Some think that he'll eventually be moved to second base. What he needs is defensive repetitions, and if he's not going to get that at the major-league level, they need to option him back to Durham to polish his glovework. He's a future MVP, but in order to maximize his value, the Rays need to ensure he's given the necessary cultivation and instruction to allow him to stick at short.

    But, like I said, so far so good.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Less Offensive Than a "Hee-Haw" Episode: It's not uncommon to hear pundits and fans grousing about the putatively shoddy state of the Blue Jay pitching staff. This may be the perception, but it doesn't square with reality. Presently, the Jays rank a respectable sixth in the AL in runs allowed, while the Toronto offensive attack places only 12th in runs scored in the junior circuit.

    Given the relative struggles and injury problems that have beset defending AL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, the implosion of Pat Hentgen and the failure of some of the more high-profile bullpen acquisitions, that may come as a surprise. Even so, the offense shoulders most of the blame for the disheartening season in Toronto.

    Using the Team EqA page and then accessing the individual PECOTA projections for this season, we discover this:

    
    Player              PA     EqA   10th-Percentile EqA
    
    Eric Hinske        475    .243        .254
    Carlos Delgado     368    .279        .290
    Josh Phelps        320    .245        .246
    Chris Woodward     178    .206        .211
    
    That's four regulars or semi-regulars who have failed to reach even their 10th-percentile PECOTA projection. In fact, Eric Hinske, Carlos Delgado and the now-jettisoned Josh Phelps rank first, fourth and sixth, respectively, on the team in plate appearances. That's a lot of underperforming to overcome. Throw in Frank Catalanotto (265 plate appearances) and Vernon Wells (421 plate appearances), who have both failed to reach their 40th-percentile EqA forecast, and the systemic run-scoring problems are little wonder.

    So where exactly is this year's model coming up short? Let's take a look at some selected offensive events and see how they stack up against 2003 levels:

    
    Event            2003       2004       %Diff.
    
    UBB/PA           .080       .076       -5.0%
    1B/PA            .157       .159       +1.3%
    2B/PA            .056       .050       -10.7%
    3B/PA            .0052      .0052      0%
    HR/PA            .030       .021       -30.0%
    
    While there's some hope in the fact that so many key players underperformed to such a staggering degree, the table immediately above is troubling. At hitting singles, which are quite prone to random fluctuation, the Jays are actually better than they were in 2003. Had much of their offensive foundering this season been attributable to a drastically lower singles rate, it would be easier to write off 2004 as an unlucky aberration. Instead, the Jays have been significantly worse in the areas that matter most: controlling the strike zone and hitting for power. Note especially the precipitous drop in the team's home run rate and the declining doubles rate, which reflects the teamwide rise in groundball-to-flyball ratio.

    The organization is cobbling together an impressive stable of young pitchers, and Halladay should be back at full force in 2005. In light of that and the numbers above, it won't be surprising if the next contending Jays squad is one crafted around run prevention instead of run scoring.

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