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July 20, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Wednesday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Baltimore Orioles: Prior to this season, Baltimore was second to Cleveland in many analysts' eyes for title of "AL dark horse contender," a starter or two away from being taken more seriously. As the Yankees limp their way into the second half with more weaknesses than strengths, and with the Red Sox seemingly unable to take advantage, the Orioles are technically still in contention for the AL East title. They are, at this point, buyers heading in to the trading deadline, and are the highest bidders for free-agent-to-be A.J. Burnett. They are reportedly willing to take on Mike Lowell's contract in order to strengthen the following rotation:
  • Bruce Chen had a good start to the season, which ultimately turned into a league-average performance:
    
    Pitcher    ERA   RA    H/9   BB/9   K/9   G/F   WHIP
    Chen       3.76  4.09  8.75  2.70   6.22  1.21  1.27
    AL Avg.    4.34  4.73  9.19  3.03   6.20  1.52  1.36
    
    
    He's shown slightly better control, a slightly better strikeout rate, and a better hit rate (opponents are hitting .254 off him, with a .279 BABIP). Other than his RA and ERA, though, he's pretty close to a league-average pitcher. His HR/9 rate of 1.23 isn't outrageous (league average is 1.04), but it isn't encouraging.

  • Erik Bedard is the latest in a line of lefty Oriole prospects that included Matt Riley and Eric DuBose (and will soon include Adam Loewen).

    Though he was on the DL from May 26 until last Monday, Bedard has been the best Orioles starter so far this year. His VORP total of 27.1 is pretty shocking when you consider the second-place pitcher--Chen with 21.1--has had eight extra starts in which to compile his VORP. But a knee injury has interrupted an otherwise breakout season for Bedard, as he's only been healthy enough to throw 66 2/3 innings, putting up a 1.89 ERA in that time. He's demonstrated terrific control (2.16 BB/9) and has been able to put hitters away consistently (7.97 K/9). After being activated from the DL, he had a terrific reintroduction against the Twins, pitching six innings, allowing no runs on four hits while walking two and striking out seven.

    Bedard's return from the DL is a kind of midseason trade by itself, though it should be noted that both of the other teams in the hunt for the AL East title are also making trade-free additions that will improve their rotations in some way. (Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright qualify as improvements since they can't be any worse than Sean Henn, Tim Redding or Darrell May).

  • Whenever a player leaves an organization and later returns, the media invariably labels it "the return of the prodigal son," conveniently ignoring everything pertinent about the actual prodigal son story. And so now "return of the prodigal son" essentially means any kind of return, Biblical metaphor be damned.

    Sidney Ponson "returned" from San Francisco after the 2003 season and resumed his life of league-averageness. His BB/9 rate is currently 3.49, and his K/9 is at 4.93. Ponson has a hit-unlucky BABIP of .359, so even if his peripherals all stay the same, he's likely to improve somewhat. With James Baldwin DFAd, though, he's most likely to turn into a fifth starter/long man. At this point, no one should ever confuse him for a front-of-the-rotation starter again. Consider this: Ponson has 62 strikeouts in 113 1/3 innings; teammate B.J. Ryan has 62 K's in 42 1/3 innings.

  • Rodrigo Lopez got no love from Eric Chavez earlier this year. He survives despite a low strikeout rate (5.68) by showing good control (2.51 BB/9), which keeps his WHIP fairly low (1.31) despite a high H/9 (9.26). He's allowed 16 home runs so far, an increase from his past performance. He's been a serviceable innings-muncher this year, but these indicators point to his ERA rising should his performance remain unchanged. He's the type of pitcher who doesn't hurt your chances to contend, but certainly doesn't help you much.

  • During Hayden Penn's June 30 start against the Indians, he threw seven straight change-ups to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (all for balls). ESPN announcer Jeff Brantley said something like this in response:
    "This young man has a great fastball, and for him to throw seven change-ups in a row is terrible."
    That's not a direct quote, but it's close enough.

    When Penn finally threw a fastball for ball four to Martinez, Brantley said something like "See? When you don't throw your fastball consistently, you can't throw it when you need it."

    The beautiful thing about that observation is that he couldn't be wrong. If Penn had thrown seven straight change-ups to Hafner and Martinez, then thrown a fastball for a strike, Brantley could have said, "See? I told you the fastball is his best pitch. He needed that pitch."

    Of course, Penn's change-up is reportedly his best pitch. But that's beside the point, as Penn really hasn't had much success in the majors regardless of what he's thrown. Pressed into action by Bedard's injury, Penn wasn't ready yet, as he jumped from Double-A Bowie and didn't bring any of his success with him. Prior to his promotion he had an ERA of 3.79 in the minors in 59 1/3 IP, had struck out 65 and walked 20 (a bit of a spike from his career-to-date numbers), while allowing four homers. His time in the majors is a bit less memorable: in seven starts, he had a WHIP of 1.74, had a BB/9 of 5.13, a K/9 of 3.78, and averaged just under five innings per start. He seems to have brought his struggles back with him to Bowie, as he threw 4.1 innings in his first game back, allowing five runs, walking three and striking out just two, raising his ERA to 4.04.

  • Here's a quick illustration of the selectivity of information presentation. Two tables appear below. The first ranks all Orioles starters according to K/9:
    
    Pitcher    K/9
    ---------------
    Cabrera    8.12
    Bedard     7.97
    Chen       6.22
    Lopez      5.68
    Ponson     4.92
    Penn       3.78
    
    
    Now the same group of pitchers, ranked by a slightly different measure:
    
    Pitcher    K/PA
    ---------------
    Bedard     .217
    Cabrera    .206
    Chen       .166
    Lopez      .146
    Ponson     .120
    Penn       .090
    
    
    Daniel Cabrera leads all Orioles starters in strikeout rate, but since he elongates so many innings by walking 4.36 men per nine, it's not really fair to credit him with striking out so many batters when he's putting himself in that situation due to erratic control. By measuring his K/PA, we see he's still got solid strikeout numbers, but Bedard stands out as the superior strikeout pitcher by this other measure.

    This isn't meant to devalue Cabrera's stuff, which is so good it's made him virtually untouchable in trade talks. However, K/9 by itself doesn't contain the whole narrative of a player's performance (no statistical measure does). If he improves his command, he could become a front-of-the-rotation starter himself, not all that different than Burnett.

--John Erhardt

San Francisco Giants: At the break, the San Francisco Giants were the proud owners of the Worst-Best Players in baseball.

What's that? The Worst-Best Player concept hails back to BP 2002, where it was revealed that Baltimore stalwart Jeff Conine was the team's MVP, and was also the worst player in baseball to be the best player on his team.

We hadn't followed up on this concept, so Notebook dug through the stats and, using Clay Davenport's Wins Above Replacement Player, collected the names of the worst best players from Conine in 2001 to this season, up to the All-Star Break:


Year    Player           Team    WARP2

2001    Jeff Conine      BAL      5.7
        Tanyon Sturtze   TBA      5.9
        Elmer Dessens    CIN      6.1
        Troy Glaus       ANA      7.0

2002    Mark Redman      DET      5.1
        Aaron Boone      CIN      6.5
        Tony Batista     BAL      6.8
        Mark Kotsay      SDN      6.8

2003    Aaron Boone      CIN      5.7
        Melvin Mora      BAL      6.1
        Milton Bradley   CLE      6.5
        Steve Trachsel   NYM      6.8

2004    Zach Greinke     KCR      6.1
        Julio Lugo       TBA      6.6
        Carlos Delgado   TOR      6.8
        Adam Dunn        CIN      7.0

2005    Omar Vizquel     SFN      3.2
        Moises Alou      SFN      3.2
        Torii Hunter     MIN      3.8
        Joe Mauer        MIN      3.8
        Mark Kotsay      OAK      3.8

The 2001 Worst/Best standings remain much as described in BP 2002, though our means of calculating replacement level have become a little more refined. This means that Conine's value is now higher than the 3.3 wins above replacement reported at the time, and Tanyon Sturtze replaces Fred McGriff as Tampa Bay's best player and leapfrogs over Elmer Dessens for second place on the list. In 2002, Mark Redman was a little more valuable to the Tigers than Jeff Weaver, who'd accumulated 4.9 WARP before being traded to the Yankees (for whom he was 2.0 wins above replacement).

There is some controversy about 2003: Aaron Boone was the best player on the Reds, with 5.7 WARP until the time he was traded to the Yankees. As a Yankee, he earned another 1.9 WARP, meaning that overall, he'd had a pretty good individual season: 7.6 WARP is nothing to be ashamed of. It might be more appropriate to award the Worst-Best "honor" to Melvin Mora, for his singular 96 games of work for the Orioles. Actually, the only one of the 2003 top finishers who actually played a full season for their squad was the Mets' Steve Trachsel. In 2004, rookie Zack Greinke managed to lead a rather respectable crop of Worst-Best wannabes.

What does any of this have to do with the Giants? The common thread between the two teams which appear most often on the above leaderboard is that of injured superstars--the Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. and the Orioles' Albert Belle. Both players had been acquired to be the centerpiece of their teams, and neither star was able to suit up regularly due to injuries: Griffey lost playing time to various leg and shoulder injuries, while Belle couldn't play at all due to a hip condition. Without the superstars to carry those teams, the supporting players were thrust into the limelight, with middling results.

Omar Vizquel and Moises Alou were complementary parts added to a team with a true ace pitcher and the game's best player. Their performances so far have been nifty--Vizquel's .262 EqA has been just average, but his defense at short (103 Rate) has been good. Alou (.313 EqA) is hitting like a man who has forgotten he's 38 years old--but they were never intended to carry the club. In the absence of Barry Bonds and with the ineffectiveness of Jason Schmidt, Alou and Vizquel have had no other choice.

--Derek Jacques

Related Content:  The Who,  Jeff Conine,  Best

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