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September 7, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies and New York Mets

  • Regrettable Performances: "To last as long with the skills I had, with the numbers I produced, was a triumph of the human spirit." -- Bob Uecker

    Losing teams have more than their share of the subpar and the ugly, and we will indulge in a bit of rubbernecking and highlight some of the worst aspects of these three clubs.

    • The Mets are one of just five major-league teams without a .300 EqA hitter. Three of the other four (Diamondbacks, Expos and Devil Rays) won't surprise you. The fourth will: the Rangers. (Technically, the Royals don't have one; their only .300 EqA batter is Carlos Beltran, now an Astro.) The Mets' only hitter above .290 is stud rookie David Wright (.295), who through Sunday had all of 172 plate appearances. Only the D'backs (Richie Sexson, .285 EqA in 104 PA) can claim to be worse than that; at least the Expos (Brad Wilkerson, .291 in 568 PA), D-Rays (Aubrey Huff, .293 in 550 PA) and Rangers (Mark Teixeira, .297 in 503 PA) can boast that their players closest to .300 have been up the whole season.

    • Mike DeJean amassed a -19.9 Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) in 39 2/3 innings as an Oriole, making him easily the worst reliever in the American League. (DeJean's traditional numbers: 0-5, 6.13 ERA, 1.94 WHIP.) Only six relievers in baseball had positive ARPs greater than DeJean's was negative.

      Something about this made DeJean attractive to the Mets, who seem to have struck gold: before going on the DL Friday, DeJean had a 1.69 ERA in just over 21 innings for his new club.

    • All of that pales in comparison to the pitching of the Rockies' Denny Stark, which sank to mind-boggling depths before a strained groin mercifully placed him on the DL in July. Stark was born on October 27, 1974. In his lifetime, only five pitchers have put up lower VORPs in a season than he has this year.
      
      NAME              YEAR    G  GS    VORP
      Andy Larkin       1998   17  14   -39.9
      Roy Halladay      2000   19  13   -36.8
      Jesse Jefferson   1976   19   9   -29.6
      Frank LaCorte     1977   14   7   -29.2
      Pedro Astacio     1998   35  34   -28.0
      Denny Stark       2004    6   6   -26.2
      
      Stark's feat is particularly (un)impressive because he has amassed his -26.2 runs of VORP in just six games. In fact, in those six games he has only thrown 26 innings, which means that he has averaged more than one run below replacement level per inning pitched. Opposing batters hit .427 against him with a 1215 OPS. Another three decades might pass before someone else pitches worse than this.

  • Turmoil: "Was it difficult leaving the Titanic?" -- Sal Bando, asked how he felt leaving the Oakland A's

    All that losing often goes hand-in-hand with a disgruntled player, a manager or GM on the hot seat, fans calling for someone's head, or all of the above. These three teams are no exception.

    • O's skipper Lee Mazzilli has one year left on his contract, but owner Peter Angelos is growing impatient. The Orioles aren't underachieving by much--the PECOTA projection system pegged them for just 83 wins this year--but with all of the money that Angelos paid for free agents Miguel Tejada, Sidney Ponson, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, internal expectations were high. Adding to the problem is that Angelos notably allowed his baseball guys, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, to select the new manager. So Mazzilli isn't an Angelos hire.

      Prior to this season, Mazzilli's reputation throughout baseball was excellent; like the rest of the Yankees coaches, he was considered a wise and steadfast guide. Rumors, then, that he has lost the clubhouse may have originated from Angelos himself. Mazzilli hasn't shown himself to be the next Earl Weaver, but neither has he performed so poorly that one year is all deserves.

      Peter Angelos needs to make a decision and stick to it. If he's going to allow his general managers to choose a manager and sign that manager for two years, then he needs to let his general managers decide if they want to fire the man after only one.

    • Pardon us for reading between the lines, but Vinny Castilla's comments on being named the Rockies' candidate for the Hank Aaron Award (given to the best offensive player in either league; is there any contest?) are in line with his recent angling for a much larger contract in 2005.

      "It feels like I never left," Castilla said about his return to Colorado. "The fans have welcomed me with open arms since the day I signed. They've made me feel wanted. There's nothing like being appreciated for what you do."

      It's an open question whether or not Castilla will even get any lucrative offers from other clubs. In order to make the kind of money he's looking for, he and his agent will need to find multiple teams who:

      a. need a third baseman
      b. are willing to sign one who is 38
      c. don't know anything about park factors.

      So the Rockies, if they are wise, will wait him out. In the end, how much they have to spend will come down to their discipline. Castilla is a fan favorite, which is no surprise considering how well he has hit in front of his home crowd (he hits just .202/.267/.470 on the road) If another team is willing to throw a wad of cash Castilla's way, the Rockies should hold back, knowing that a winning team will make the fans cheer harder. An expensive Castilla will not propel them toward that goal.

    • Mike Piazza wants a position. "If they want to keep doing what we're doing, fine. If they want to half and half, it is what it is." The philosophers among us may debate the sage wisdom contained in the statement, "It is what it is," but Piazza has made himself clear, and the Mets will, as they likely planned to anyway, have to choose whether Piazza is a first baseman or a catcher.

      We are mystified by the backlash that has come from the move to first base. Piazza's struggles playing there seem to have made people forget the reason he was moved there: he is one of the worst-throwing catchers in baseball history. The idea behind the move is not that he will be an expert first baseman, but that the Mets have other capable catchers, no good first basemen, and, finally, that moving to first will keep Piazza healthier and get his potent bat in the lineup more often.

      Waiting until the off-season is a smart idea, because it gives the Mets more flexibility. Piazza's free agency looms after 2005, and while he is one of the best players in Mets history, his defensive struggles at any position make him a much better fit for an American League team in need of a DH. Neither Jason Phillips nor Vance Wilson may be a long-term solution at catcher, and certainly not at first base. With Justin Huber gone, the Mets are wide open at both positions down the road. Where they put Piazza for 2005, or whether they deal him, can thus depend partly on what options they find available via trade or free agency.

      Only an offseason acquisition should change the Mets' original plan. A cheap first baseman is usually much easier to find than a cheap starting catcher. For now, though, it's like this: Piazza can't catch or play first, and does equal damage at both. (In a small sample size at first base, his Davenport fielding numbers attest to this.) All of his value is in his bat, and he should therefore play whichever position affords him the most plate appearances.

  • Props: "It's a pretty big shadow. It gives me room to spread myself." -- Lou Gehrig, on living in Babe Ruth's shadow

    Things haven't been all bad for these clubs, and each has a player who's been doing well all season but hasn't gotten nearly enough recognition. We'll try to give them the credit they deserve.

    • So you haven't looked twice at Joe Kennedy since he started the season 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA, figuring that Coors Field, and his own middling history, would catch up to him. Well, it hasn't. It's September, and Kennedy's ERA is still under 4.00.

      Among pitchers with at least 100 batters faced, Kennedy's quality of batters faced rating does put him in the lowest, and luckiest, quartile, but his luck does not extend to what happens once the ball is hit; he has a pedestrian .306 opposing average on balls in play. The most extreme hitter's park of the modern area has not fazed him at all (3.73 ERA at home; 3.78 on the road). His 27.3 VORP leads the Colorado staff, and would place him in the top five on any pitching staff in baseball. Here's the breakdown:

      
      Joe Kennedy's 27.3 VORP would rank...
      1st   ON   5   pitching staffs
      2nd   ON   8   pitching staffs
      3rd   ON   10  pitching staffs
      4th   ON   5   pitching staffs
      5th   ON   2   pitching staffs
      
      If he were a Yankee, he'd have a higher VORP than any of their current starters. This is not just a fluke month anymore; this is a good season. Kennedy is still just 25, and deserves to win back the attention he lost with his miserable 2003.

    • Tom Glavine has gotten more attention all season long, but Al Leiter's performance is more impressive. His 46.0 VORP ranks 12th among all major-league pitchers, and Support-Neutral Value Added (now updated) ranks him as the seventh-best starter in the NL. Leiter has pitched all season with a frayed labrum so distressing that he may opt for retirement instead of surgery after the season. Even when the Mets showed flashes of contending, Leiter didn't get enough of the credit, which is surprising given the city in which he plays.

    • Whoever thought Melvin Mora and David Newhan would steal Miguel Tejada's press? In Baltimore, that's exactly what's happened. Mora's incredible year at the plate, Newhan's surprising resurgence, and the team's overall mediocrity have combined to overshadow Tejada, who is having a career year. We've come to expect excellence from Tejada, but he is exceeding career highs in every aspect of his game. Take a look:
      
      YEAR   AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA  FRAA  WARP1
      2000  607  .275  .349  .479  .271   -8    5.0
      2001  622  .267  .326  .476  .268   -11   4.4
      2002  662  .308  .354  .508  .289   -8    6.8
      2003  636  .278  .336  .472  .274   -17   4.4
      2004  540  .309  .367  .528  .293    12   8.9
      
      With time to spare, Tejada has already established 2004 as his best season. You can't blame park effects, either: EqA and WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) both adjust for them. We take the enormous increase in fielding runs with a grain of salt, because Mora's struggles at third base may be leaving more balls for Tejada. But he's been excellent. Tejada may find it difficult to justify that enormous contract during all six of the years for which it binds him, but so far, so good.

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