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January 28, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

The Other Side of the Pool

by Jim Baker

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Nate Silver's PECOTA projections are out, and they're always lots of fun to play with. In fact, you might want to skip work on Monday and do just that. On the other hand, you could probably just do what you're already doing: reading BP at work. So, when you're done reading this, switch over to the projections and dump them into an Excel file entitled "2005 Market Projections," so as to keep The Man off your tail, and have at it. Hey, at least you're not calling in sick.

On Wednesday, Joe Sheehan took you through some of the higher-end projections provided by PECOTA. Today, as is often my wont, I will wallow in the other end of the swamp.

Among players with a projected 400 at-bats, there are ten men with negative VORPs. Seven of the ten are 20 or 21 years old. Two are 22. One of these 22-year olds is Diamondbacks shortstop Jerry Gil, who clocks in with a -23.1. This low number is caused in great part by the projected four walks PECOTA sees him getting in 450 plate appearances. Could you imagine such a thing? At that level of frequency, it could just as easily be zero, although you'd have to think some misguided manager is going to walk him to get to the pitcher once in a while. So, the point is, the majority of these players are guys who haven't shown they're quite ready to take on the real world just yet.

The tenth man in this group is Reed Johnson, a 28-year old with more than 1,000 major-league plate appearances to his credit. Basically, what PECOTA is saying is this: Johnson is likely to be the most replaceable regular in the majors. He came awfully close to that crown of thorns last year. He was in the bottom five among players who qualified for the batting title. (I'm not really sure how else to phrase that, even though batting titles are pretty useless these days. The 502-plate appearance requirement is still a decent dividing line to separate the regulars from the non-regulars, though. If you can think of a better way to phrase it, we'll do what we can on this end to get it institutionalized as part of the lexicon of our national game.)

Here is that bottom five from 2004:

-2.2, Eric Hinske, Toronto (634 plate appearances)
1.2, Joe Crede, Chicago White Sox (543)
2.4, Johnson, Toronto (582)
5.9, Alex Cintron, Arizona (613)
7.9, Aaron Miles, Colorado (566)

Johnson's projected VORP is -0.2, so he could just easily match last year's number and still do Nate Silver's invention pretty proud. As for the others in the bottom five, here's what their future may well hold:

Hinske: 13.9
Crede: 11.0
Cintron: 14.5
Miles: 7.3

Hinske and Johnson were first and third in plate appearances for the Blue Jays last year, which certainly helps explain the Jays' 19-game collapse. That's a combined 1,200 trips to the dish with about as close to replacement level as a pair can combine to be. Hinske's looking better for something of a turnaround, though. PECOTA has him with a 69.6% chance to improve while Johnson has just a 29.4% of doing so. On the other hand, Johnson is four times more likely to collapse. Defining collapse for a player with a 2.4 VORP might take some doing.

Was anyone who truly had a rough go of it last year in line to put up a decent VORP in 2005, or is it going to be more of the same forever and ever, amen? Let's go position-by-position and look at the poor souls who had forgettable 2004s and see what PECOTA says is their fortune in the season to come. Below are the players who came to the plate at least 300 times and wound up with the worst VORP at their respective positions. For the pitchers, the starter had to exceed the inning-per-game limit and the relievers had to make at least 60 appearances:

Catcher

Chad Moeller, Milwaukee Brewers

Last year: -10.7
This year: 4.0

That's a big climb for Moeller, done on the back of a .243/.311/.381 line--a jump from last year's .208/.265/.303. This is the "You Gotta Have Heart" portion of the PECOTA equation: "…you gotta get better cuz you can't get worse…"

First Base

Doug Mientkiewicz, New York Mets

Last year: about zero
This year: 12.7

First of all, let me just say that I typed Mr. Mientkiewicz's name without any help from spell-checker. So, hats off to me. Second of all...no, you don't want to hear me go off on the Mets' folly with this deal, do you? Mientkiewicz will be an improvement on Todd Zeile and Jason Phillips. Of course, so would a lot of people who didn't cost so much.

Second Base

Rey Sanchez, New York Yankees

Last year: -3.1
This year: -3.4

It's better to be a major leaguer than not...right? Even if all the pitchers are big and mean and throw balls that make hitting a dodgy business, it's still better than most other jobs one could have. Sanchez isn't projected to play too much this year. PECOTA gives him a 5.2% chance of having a breakout season. How does that rate? Among 898 position players, it's in the bottom 4%.

Third Base

Desi Relaford, Colorado Rockies

Last year: -10.8
This year: -3.9

So far, a number of these fellows have been free-agent pickups or tradees. That's not good. It's one thing to be stuck with somebody whose upside still puts him on the wrong portion of the great VORP divide, it's another to surrender goods, services and playing stock for him.

Shortstop

Neifi Perez, Chicago Cubs

Last year: -10.3
This year: -6.2

Perez is dialed in for 273 at bats this year, which may prove generous if Nomar Garciaparra is in for his full measure. The unfortunate Perez--who will soon be driving Cubs fans to distraction with his patented running bunt attempts--has a 51.6% chance of collapsing. That's 90th percentile stuff among players projecting negative VORPs for 2005. Who will we pick on when he's gone?

Left Field

Reed Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays (see above)

Center Field

Marlon Byrd, Philadelphia Phillies

Last year: -8.7
This year: 14.0

Byrd missed his 2004 projection by more than a little. PECOTA had him at a 22.4 VORP, which was a fairly modest forecast considering he dropped a 39 on the world in 2003. This year has him rebounding somewhat, but it's a hard-knock life when you're most comparable player is Derek Bell.

Right Field

Timo Perez, Chicago White Sox

Last year: -8.3
This year: 0.2

The man who cost the Mets the 2000 World Series (who's bitter and irrational? Me?) is getting to that portion of his career where it might be time to resume his international vagabond playing ways of the late '90s. His chances of collapse and improvement are about equal at about 35%. If you're Albert Pujols, you'd welcome that state of equilibrium, when you're at this level, status quo is not the way to go.

Starting Pitcher

Derek Lowe, Los Angeles Dodgers

Last year: -11.5
This year: 17.6

PECOTA likes Lowe's chances of getting off the red-ink portion of the ledger, although his improvement rate (52.4%) is slightly lower than last year's projection, when he tanked badly. He has the largest expected increase of any of the players discussed here. Lowe will be better. Whether it's enough to justify his contract will be debated in the minds of men and women for decades to come.

Relief Pitcher

Shawn Chacon, Colorado Rockies

Last year: -11.9
This year: 3

PECOTA cannot predict the actions of team management, so how Chacon ends up being used will, no doubt, be fluxing for a good part of the season. Yes, Coors Field was cruel to him but he did have an ERA of 6.19 on the road in 2004, so, if he's to make that 15-point VORP jump PECOTA foresees, he's got to tighten up his act everywhere.

Related Content:  10-year Projections,  The Who

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