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May 4, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Mark McClusky

Houston Astros

  • Life with the Fast Lane: Jason Lane has spent the past three seasons looking for a way to crack the Astros lineup. All he’s done is hit the ball at every level he’s played at, but the Astros’ campaign to field the oldest team east of San Francisco has kept Lane on the bench or in New Orleans long after it was apparent that he was ready for an everyday job in the majors.

    He got his chance this year, with the off-season injury to Lance Berkman, the departure of Carlos Beltran, and the resulting chaos in the Astros’ outfield. But when opportunity knocks, you’ve got to take advantage, and that’s just what Lane has done so far in 2005, posting a solid .287/.343/.532 line in his 94 at-bats. That’s good for a 9.5 VORP so far this year, and enough to make him the fourth most productive right fielder in the NL by that measure so far. Not bad production from a guy who was only able to get 232 at-bats for the Astros in the previous three years.

    Lane has been almost exactly league average defensively, which is good enough given his offensive contributions. In fact, when you look at the Astros using Equivalent Average, Lane tops the list, with a solid .293 EqA. Now, admittedly, you’d like your best offensive player to be a little better than that, but offense has been a problem so far in Houston, as they struggle to replace the production they got from Beltran and Jeff Kent last year, and deal with Berkman's absence rom the lineup.

    The good news for Houston fans is that Berkman is currently on a rehab assignment, and may rejoin the team as early as Friday in Atlanta. The better news is that instead of messing with Lane, the team plans to slot Berkman into left field and leave Lane alone in right. We can’t be sure that Lane will keep hitting at this rate, but it’s a lock that he will be more productive than the players that Berkman will replace--such luminaries as Mike Lamb, Chris Burke, and Luke Scott.

  • Useless Trivia, Part One: Allow us a slight digression here. Whenever a long tenured player passes some round number statistical milestone, you get some sort of accounting of how many other players have passed similar thresholds. So, when Craig Biggio stole the 400th base of his career on May 2, the AP story on the contest included this gem:

    Biggio is the fourth player in major-league history to have 400 steals; 1,000 RBI; 225 home runs; 1,500 runs; 1,000 walks; 2,600 hits; and 500 doubles. The others are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor.

    That’s some pretty good company, and you’ve got to assume that we’re meant to be mightily impressed by that list of players. But let’s keep one thing in perspective: These sorts of “the fourth player in major league history” lists are basically meaningless. Craig Biggio has been a truly outstanding baseball player; he just doesn’t measure up to the company implied by that list:

    
    Player          Career WARP3 (entering 2005)
    Craig Biggio       112.4
    Paul Molitor       127.9
    Rickey Henderson   165.3
    Barry Bonds        210.9
    
    Lists like this are so arbitrary as to be laughable. Change the parameters to 200 homers rather than 225, and Roberto Alomar qualifies. Go to 300 steals, and Willie Mays sneaks on. Taking off 100 doubles lets Joe Morgan get in.

    We like round numbers as much as anyone, but it’s a sad thing that this sort of list passes for a statistical perspective on the game. Biggio has been a great player--he doesn’t need some manufactured list to confirm it.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Dizzy Mr. Izzy: As Will Carroll has already mentioned, Jason Isringhausen’s injury history is a worry for the Cards. Isringhausen's latest ding is a strained oblique muscle on his right side, near the bottom of his rib cage. The strain was bad enough to land him on the DL; St. Louis is hopeful that he will be back when he’s eligible to return on May 11.

    But that’s still another week without their closer. Who should Tony La Russa lean on to get the job done in the meantime? So far, Randy Flores, Julian Tavarez and Al Reyes have all picked up saves, but given La Russa’s long-standing preference for a Capital-C Closer, who’s his best option?

    
    NAME                      G         IP        WXRL         LEV
    Jason Isringhausen        10        8.3        0.930       1.48
    Julian Tavarez            11       12.3        0.458       1.07
    Randy Flores               8        8.7        0.382       0.64
    Ray King                  12        7.3        0.252       0.92
    Kevin Jarvis               1        1          0.033       0.73
    Cal Eldred                 2        2          0.012       0.13
    Carmen Cali                2        1.3       -0.019       0.39
    Bill Pulsipher             3        1.7       -0.025       0.69
    Al Reyes                  10        8.3       -0.123       1.04
    Jimmy Journell             4        3.7       -0.299       1.07
    
    If you haven’t had a chance to poke around in our new Relievers Expected Wins Added report, it’s worth your time. What WXRL measures is the increase in Win Expectation a particular relief pitcher has added (or subtracted) in his appearances, based on the game situation and performance. In BP 2005, Keith Woolner has an essay explaining the system.

    Looking at these choices in St. Louis, it seems fairly clear that, psychology aside, Tavarez would be the best bet to close out games in Isringhausen’s absence. He’s been the most effective pitcher other than the injured closer, and he’s done it in high-leverage situations. Reyes, on the other hand, has been called on in tough situations, but he hasn’t performed particularly well. Ray King figures to remain the LOOGY, which is what bumps up that leverage number in the chart above.

  • Surpassing Expectations: After his off-season shoulder surgery, there were some real doubts about how effective Matt Morris would be in 2005, especially coming off a 2004 season where he was 15-10 with a 4.72 ERA, and, more ominously, saw his home-run rate and walk rate take big jumps while his strikeout rate dropped.

    That’s why Morris’ first three strong starts have been such a nice surprise. He’s won two of them, and his ERA is 2.12. The endurance still isn’t there, as he hasn’t gone over six innings yet, but if Morris can pitch effectively, and give the Cards 25 to 28 starts, that would be more than most people expected in 2005.

    Morris struggled with his velocity at the end of last year; he’s been throwing in the low-90s so far this season, which has let him throw his off-speed pitches more effectively. If Morris can maintain this form, and pitch like the elite starter he was earlier in his career, it will be a major boost to St. Louis’ quest to get back to the World Series.

Texas Rangers

  • Park Place: The rumors of the death of Chan Ho Park’s career have been greatly exaggerated, it seems. Just imagine the shock for Texas fans when they cracked open their paper Saturday morning to see the following line:
    
    Texas          IP    H    R   ER   BB   SO   HR   ERA
    Park (W, 3-1) 7.0    3    2    2    4    7    0   3.86
    
    We’re well aware of the small sample size demon lurking around the corner, but for Park to be standing at 3-1 on the young year, with a 3.86 ERA, well, that’s just not at all expected.

    The sad story, for anyone who’s ignored the slow-motion unfolding of this disaster over the past few years: Park signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Rangers before the 2002 season; injuries limited him to just 48 starts in 2002-2004; total ineffectiveness has limited him to a 14-18 record with the Rangers. Simply put, it’s been one of the most disastrous free-agent deals ever signed.

    Park is making a cool $15 million this season. But for the first time, all that money is buying the Rangers a major league pitcher. How low were expectations for Park? Well, the 6.6 VORP he’s compiled so far is just under halfway to his PECOTA projection.

    Around here, we talk about sunk costs quite a bit, and Park is one of the all-time cost sinks: His contract, frankly, is one of the reasons that Alex Rodriguez plies his trade in the Bronx these days. If Park can pitch even acceptably for Texas this year, it will be a huge boost for a team desperate for effective starting pitchers not named Kenny Rogers.

  • Want a Lick? Psych!: There’s something that puts us in mind of Eddie Murphy’s classic comic routine about the Laynce Nix/Adrian Gonzalez merry-go-round in Arlington. Last time, we talked about how Gonzalez had won the DH job coming out of spring training, and how Nix had been beaten out by Gary Matthews Jr. for the center field spot.

    Now, we talk about small sample size--do the Rangers understand it? Because this is twice that they’ve relied on very few at-bats to make personnel decisions. Gonzalez raked all spring, so he stayed with the team; meanwhile Nix’s bad Cactus League got him a ticket to Triple-A. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Gonzalez has hit a cold streak and Nix smacked around the PCL, so the Rangers flip-flopped.

    You’ve got to feel for these guys. Gonzalez vented some frustration at the Rangers’ indecision to MLB.com:

    "I don't know where I stand here," Gonzalez said. "I thought they were going to give me a shot to be the DH. They said they needed Nixy up here, and I'm the guy with options. I'm glad I started here, but I wish I had had more at-bats and more time to settle in."
    You’d be frustrated too, if you were playing for an organization that doesn’t seem to demonstrate any understanding of the nature and meaning of streaks. Gonzalez got into nine games, and hit .194. That’s not good, obviously. But is that somehow more meaningful than the 79 at-bats he got this spring, where he hit .392? Which one is more reflective of his “true” value?

    The element that separates good organizations from bad boils down to one simple point--intelligence. Sure, money helps, but if you have good people who understand what’s really important and can move past the conventional wisdom, that’s the key. This kind of reflexive, twitchy move tells us that the Rangers aren’t quite there yet.

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

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