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April 7, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Mark McClusky

Houston Astros

  • Won't Someone Set the Table?: At this point, in the Year of Our Sabermetric Enlightenment 28 (a gold star if you recognize what we're counting from), you would think that we'd have most of these things figured out by now. What old-school baseball people refer to as the Book is pretty much written--through research and simulation, we've got a pretty decent understanding of the optimal strategy in a given situation.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that it will be followed.

    How does this relate to the Houston Astros? Well, Astros fans, say hello to your leadoff hitter, Adam Everett:

    
    Year  Team  Lg   AB   H   BB  SO  SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG  EqBA EqOBP EqSLG
    2002  HOU   NL   88   17  12  19   3   0  .193  .297  .227  .191  .293  .236
    2003  HOU   NL  387   99  28  66   8   1  .256  .320  .380  .251  .315  .379
    2004  HOU   NL  384  105  17  56  13   2  .273  .317  .385  .271  .313  .382
    
    Yes, that's right, Phil Garner has decided that the leadoff spot in his batting order is best filled by a player who sports a career on-base percentage of .315. Just to put that into perspective, the average OBP in the National League in 2004 was .329, so a player who is below average at the essential skill required for a leadoff hitter--getting on base so that he might, you know, score some runs--will be frustrating fans until the hue and cry becomes so large that he'll be moved down to the seventh or eighth spot where he belongs.

    To put it another way, Everett would have to outperform his 75th percentile PECOTA projection just to get to the league average for OBP.

    Why would a presumably knowledgeable man like Garner make a decision like this? He explained his rationale on MLB.com.

    "At this moment, Biggio handles the bat really well," Garner said. "He's probably a little better hitting to all fields than Everett is. I think Everett's strength is left-center field and from second base around. I don't want to put Everett in a position where he's taking away from his strength to try to hit behind a runner or try to take pitches."

    Garner said Biggio's game is "see it, whack it," so it would make sense for Garner to try to have someone on base already when Biggio comes to the plate.

    "The trick is having Everett on there, who we know will steal bases," Garner said. "[If] Biggio sees something he likes, he's going to hit it. I think that puts pressure on the opposition."

    From this discussion, it seems like Garner has only considered batting Everett first or second--which is crazy--but we're going to let that go for now. Garner, correctly, recognizes that Craig Biggio is a better hitter than Everett, and has a greater ability to hit to all fields. So far, so good. Even the part about not wanting to ask Everett to hit behind runners (this is where it seems like batting second is the only other thing Garner has thought about) is reasonable, we guess.

    But you have to love a line like "the trick is having Everett on base." We're not major league managers around here, but yes, it does seem like the trick is having your leadoff hitter on base. Too bad that the selection of Everett makes that highly unlikely.

    This is the same thing that causes some people to think that players like Alex Sanchez (pre-steroids, one supposes) are credible leadoff hitters. You take a player with no power and some speed, like Sanchez or Everett, and you think that they're potential leadoff men, somehow failing to recognize that their limitations are just that, and not somehow a job qualification.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Generation K 2.0: Back in 1996, the Mets planned a marketing campaign, not to mention a return to respectability, around "Generation K," who were the Big Three back when Barry Zito was still in high school. Generation K was the Mets' two young starting pitchers, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher, as well as rookie Paul Wilson, who was slated to join them that season.

    Things didn't really work out. All three pitchers suffered season-ending arm injuries, and the Mets finished the year 71-91.

    Fast forward nine years. Wilson is in the rotation in Cincinnati and Isringhausen is the closer in St. Louis. And now, joining him in the bullpen at Busch Stadium is his teammate from all those years ago at Shea, Bill Pulsipher.

    Pulsipher hasn't pitched in the majors since 2001, when he appeared in 37 games for both the Red and White Sox. Since then, he bounced through some minor league stops and spring camps, and struggled mightily with anxiety, which he now manages through medication.

    This off-season, Pulsipher pitched for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican league, going 5-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 40 innings, enough to get an invite to join Isringhausen in Cardinals' camp.

    During the spring, he pitched well, and seemed to have a roster spot locked up, until suffering a right hamstring injury and a fractured toe in the last week of camp. Those issues put his spot in some jeopardy, but Pulsipher ended up clinching a spot in the Cards' pen by throwing two-thirds of an inning in his last spring appearance without issue. Pulsipher had been effective enough that the Cards traded Mike Myers to Boston to open up a spot for him.

    What will Pulsipher's role be? He's no longer a power pitcher; his fastball is in the high-80s now. But Pulsipher was effective all spring, especially against left-handers. St. Louis already has Ray King and swingman Randy Flores throwing from the left side, but if Pulsipher can stay healthy, he gives them another option, as well as one of the year's best stories.

  • Left Short?: One of the biggest changes in St. Louis this season is at shortstop, where David Eckstein, America's favorite scrappy ballplayer, replaces Edgar Renteria, who's now in Boston. What might we expect the difference between the two to be?
    
               AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO  SB CS    AVG  OBP   SLG  WARP Defense
    Eckstein  471 126  23   2   3  37  37  12  4  0.267 0.336 0.342  4.3  127-SS 0
    Renteria  546 165  34   2  12  46  67  19  6  0.302 0.356 0.440  6.3  142-SS -4
    
    These are PECOTA's weighted mean projections for the two players. What jumps out here isn't Renteria's large offensive advantage over Eckstein--that's a given. But look at those defense numbers. We actually project Eckstein to be a league-average shortstop (although he'd be a much better second baseman with his arm). Renteria, on the other hand, is rated as a below-average shortstop, about four runs worse than average. That's not a gigantic difference, but it does point out once again that evaluating defense simply by watching players-- Eckstein looks like he couldn't get the ball to first without his running start on his throws, while Renteria looks, you know, like a shortstop--is a good way to get fooled by appearances, instead of evaluating performance.

Texas Rangers

  • Little Sarge: The biggest surprise coming out of spring training for the Rangers was Laynce Nix being sent down to Triple-A, as Gary Matthews Jr. won the starting center field job. This is the sort of thing that almost never happens, where an incumbent starter is beaten out in the spring, but hey, we all know that Buck Showalter does things his own way.

    But if you line the two players up, there's not much difference between them:

    
    Percentile      EqBA    EqOBP   EqSLG   EqMLVr  WARP      EqA    Defense
    Nix             0.266   0.327   0.459   0.001   3.9     0.271   85-CF -2
    Matthews Jr.    0.264   0.341   0.436  -0.007   3.5     0.272   87-RF +4
    
    Again, these are PECOTA weighted mean projections. Really, these two are almost identical at the plate, with Nix sporting a little more power, and Matthews a little more discipline. Nix gets the nod in WARP and MLVr as this projection has him playing centerfield, while Matthews is projected in right, which means that Nix's numbers are slightly more valuable in the context of position.

    What you have to wonder now is what the Rangers are looking to do. At 24, Nix is six years younger than Matthews, and presumably still has some upside to show us; if Matthews were to suddenly improve, he'd join a short list of players like Luis Gonzalez who discovered a new level of offensive ability in their 30s.

    Neither of these players solves the Rangers' lack of outfield production, but it would seem that Nix would be the logical choice. You can suspect that the two players will be about the same, but Nix has a larger possibility of improvement--why wouldn't you take a flyer and see if you get it?

  • Go Go Gonzalez: The Rangers entered training camp with about a billion different options at designated hitter--Greg Colbrunn and David Dellucci were at the head of the list. But now it appears that top Ranger prospect Adrian Gonzalez is going to get the job most days, especially while Colbrunn nurses an injury.

    Gonzalez went 31 for 79 this spring, with 2 homers and 22 RBI, and slugged .557. That's how you go out and win yourself a job. But really, does spring performance matter?

    Over at USS Mariner, Derek Zumsteg and David Cameron have been talking about the difficulty in evaluating a player's performance in the spring. As they write, there's a difference between putting a lot of weight on spring training statistics and putting weight on spring training performance.

    The statistics suffer from the classic small sample size dilemma that BP readers should be familiar with at this point. So, when I write about Gonzalez batting .392 over those 79 at bats, you're right to wonder if that really shows his true ability, or if it's just the small sample.

    What Zumsteg and Cameron point out, however, is that players can, and do, change and improve in the offseason, and while we might wonder about the relevance of the stats, a (gasp) scouting-oriented evaluation might capture that information. Getting back to Gonzalez, the major complaint about his offensive game has been a lack of power at the plate. During the spring, the Rangers saw an increase in his power, and that gave them the confidence to slot him in at DH, at least for now.

    Of course, putting Gonzalez at DH renders one of his superior skills, his defense, irrelevant, but that's an issue for another discussion.

Mark McClusky is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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