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June 23, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Thursday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Cincinnati Reds: As you probably know by now, the Reds are under new management. The watershed moment of the Dave Miley administration was May 24, when the former skipper allowed a pair of "massage chairs" in the clubhouse--tricked-out recliners belonging to star outfielders Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.--to become to him what the strawberries were to Captain Queeg.

Dunn reacted in two ways to his chair being removed from the clubhouse: He began to complain publicly about the manager's every decision before every form of media known to man, and his already-slumping performance worsened. Prior to the removal of the chairs, Dunn was batting .255/.413/.638 with 13 homers in 43 games. Afterward, he hit .224/.359/.424 with only five homers in 24 games.

Dunn's partner-in-massage-chair, Griffey, took a turn in the opposite direction after Miley's outburst. With the assistance of a clubhouse massage chair, Griffey was batting just .248/.317/.441 with six home runs in 42 games; denied the chair's services, Griffey hit .313/.367/.545, with six homers in 25 games since the incident.

Griffey's hot hitting is the type of occurrence that could spur odd speculation. One could suppose that Miley finally found a way to motivate Griffey, or that chair-delivered massage might have been bad for Griffey's swing. But it is probably best to view Griffey's post-chair hitting in the context of a larger recovery from a brutal April, in which the one-time superstar batted a miserable .244/.315/.366 with only a single roundtripper.

The most important aspect oif Griffey's performance is the number of games he has played. Griffey's been able to answer the bell in 67 of the 71 contests the Reds have participated in so far. For the first time since 2000, Griffey is on pace to exceed 600 plate appearances for the season. He's not and likely will never again be the superstar-level player he once was, but a healthy, somewhat diminished Griffey does help the club.

On the other side of the ball, pitching coach Don Gullett joined Miley on the chopping block, on the strength of a pitching staff which leads the majors in home runs allowed, and is third to Tampa Bay (5.95) and Colorado (5.66) in ERA.

Now, we don't know if Eric Milton has a recliner in the clubhouse or even the bullpen at the Great American Ballpark, but if he did, Gullett should have considered taking the darn thing away.

Some of us, particularly Matchups maven Jim Baker, suspected that Milton, a tateriffic pitcher, was a bad match with homer-friendly Great American Ballpark. Even PECOTA, however, didn't think Milton would be this bad. If Milton's season ended right now (and we're sure some Reds fans wouldn't be heartbroken if they heard that news) his -23.6 VORP would be among the 20 worst over the past 33 years (list courtesy of BP's new sortable stats page):


#   NAME             TEAM YEAR  W  L   IP   HR9  RA+  VORP

1.  Steve Blass      PIT  1973  3  9   88.7 1.12 0.40 -48.9
2.  Andy Larkin      FLO  1998  3  8   74.7 1.45 0.43 -39.9
3.  Roy Halladay     TOR  2000  4  7   67.7 1.86 0.47 -36.8
4.  Lloyd Allen      TEX  1973  0  6   41.0 0.66 0.33 -35.8
5.  Jesse Jefferson  CHA  1976  2  5   62.3 0.58 0.45 -29.6
6.  Frank LaCorte    ATL  1977  1  8   37.0 2.43 0.40 -29.2
7.  Pedro Astacio    COL  1998 13 14  209.3 1.68 0.81 -28.0
8.  Mike Hampton     COL  2002  7 15  178.7 1.21 0.79 -25.8
9.  Brad Havens      MIN  1983  5  8   80.3 1.23 0.56 -25.8
10. Sean Bergman     MIN  2000  4  5   68.0 2.38 0.57 -25.7
11. Ryan Bowen       HOU  1992  0  7   33.7 2.14 0.32 -25.7
12. Dick Pole        SEA  1978  4 11   98.7 1.46 0.57 -25.6
13. Mike Parrott     SEA  1980  1 16   94.0 1.53 0.58 -25.5
14. Aaron Myette     TEX  2002  2  5   48.3 2.05 0.50 -24.9
15. Mike Moore       DET  1995  5 15  132.7 1.63 0.65 -24.3
16. Todd Van Poppel  DET  1996  2  4   36.3 2.72 0.43 -23.7
17. Bryan Rekar      COL  1996  2  4   58.3 1.70 0.65 -23.5
18. Steve Carlton    PHI  1986  4  8   83.0 1.63 0.57 -23.4
19. Tom Hume         CIN  1984  4 13  113.3 1.11 0.65 -23.1
20. Jim Clancy       HOU  1989  7 14  147.0 0.80 0.62 -23.1

If he stays healthy and in the rotation, Milton will have the opportunity to "improve" his standing on that list. New pitching coach Vern Ruhle's got his work cut out for him.

--Derek Jacques

Houston Astros: It takes a wild turn of events for a player to rank eighth on his team in hitters' VORP one year, and comfortably first the next. The sad thing for the Astros is, much as Morgan Ensberg has improved, this phenomenon is not the byproduct of one slugger overwhelming the lineup with his newfound brawn, but rather a result of talent lost as a team.

The 2004 Astros, were a run-scoring machine, particularly in the second half with Carlos Beltran on board.

Top 10 Leaders in VORP, Astros hitters, 2004


Rank  Name    VORP
1     Berkman 83.7
2     Kent    55.2
3     Beltran 43.8
4     Bagwell 41.0
5     Biggio  33.1
6     Lamb    22.9
7     Everett 13.9
8     Ensberg 11.4
9     Lane     8.7
10    Vizcaino 7.8

They led the NL in scoring after the All Star Break, sparked by a nucleus of stars that kept the pressure off the likes of Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus, and Jose Vizcaino. From that core, Beltran and Jeff Kent left as free agents. Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman spent much of the 2005 season on the DL, and even in their healthier moments have not been their prolific selves. Moving down the VORP list, Craig Biggio is, well, Craig Biggio, Mike Lamb lost his job, and Everett's value still lies solely in the leather on his left hand. Finally, we unearth Ensberg, buried deep in the annals of pennant contention.

As this year's BP annual mentioned, 2004 was a terribly disappointing season for Ensberg. For years, he was a stathead favorite, a darkhorse, late-blooming hitter who was the rightful owner of the Houston Astros' unimpressive hot corner. He only needed a chance, we cried. Then came this glitch of a season, and Ensberg was once again lost in the shuffle: darn that Jimy.

So how does a 29-year-old with a such a shaky professional track record erupt like Ensberg has? The players to whom PECOTA compares him are almost all late bloomers, including a top three of Ray Boone, Tim Naehring, and Kevin Millar. Edgar Martinez is the only star found on that list, and besides that no other player has hit more than 25 home runs in a season. So while the power spike wasn't unprecedented in his career (see 2003, when Ensberg himself hit 25 in just 385 ABs), this type of power display is uncommon for players of Ensberg's ilk.

In fact, project out 2005 to 385 ABs, and the similarity is striking (stats through Tuesday):


Year  AB  2B 3B HR SB SO BB  AVG  OBP  SLG
2003  385 15 1  25 7  60 48 .291 .377 .530
2005  385 19 0  28 9  98 62 .269 .378 .534

The only noticeable difference is a tradeoff between a lower batting average and increased patience, compensating the lost AVG with OBP. The biggest difference for Ensberg v.2005 is that he's been given a full-time chance. When Bagwell's shoulder went out for good, Lamb shifted to first base. Now that Berkman's healthy, he's been playing at first and Lamb has been phased out of playing time. This year, there's no Lamb or Geoff Blum cramping Ensberg's style, and Phil Garner (former Astro 3B himself) has finally given the hitter his due props. Now he is third in VORP among a strong crop of NL third sackers, and Ensberg's current pace of 37 homers would destroy his own Astros record for third basemen (25, tied with Doug Rader's 1972 campaign).

So what about that lineup? Through Tuesday, Houston has posted a stat line of .242/.309/.382, and is easily the lowest-scoring lineup in baseball at 3.75 runs per game. Thanks to intrepid data massager Tom Gorman, we see they're on pace to rank among some of the largest year-to-year scoring drop-offs in recent history (since 1972):


League Team                Year_X Runs_X  Year_Y Runs_Y Dropoff
NL     St. Louis Cardinals 1987   798     1988   578    220
AL     Milwaukee Brewers   1996   894     1997   681    213
AL     Chicago White Sox   1977   844     1978   634    210
AL     Minnesota Twins     1977   867     1978   666    201
NL     Houston Astros      2004   804     2005   606*   198

* Projected, through Tuesday

If only Beltran could go back in time and rip up that Mets contract

--Dave Haller

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Premium Article Crooked Numbers: Seein... (06/23)

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