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August 11, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Thursday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves: Well, that certainly came fast. While BP'ers like David Cameron, Dayn Perry, and others have all had kind words for Jeff Francoeur in the past, it is fair to say that this sort of debut has come a lot faster than most expected. The general complaint about Francoeur has been his lack of plate discipline, something that was noted both in BP and Baseball America's scouting report this year. As such, Francoeur was bumped down a bit in our prospect rankings for 2005. He has yet to earn a walk, so he certainly still carries that stigma, but to his credit, he's having fun with it. Also to his credit, he is mashing.

Jack 'em out Jeff has already climbed to 7th on the Rookie VORP report, despite having less than half the PAs of everyone in the top 15. He has already established himself as one of the top Braves at the dish as well. While his small sample size prevents us from making VORPr or EqA type comparisons, the breakneck pace with which he has hit homers is notable. Check out this list of most homers in the first 100 career AB's, courtesy of our own James Click:


Player              TM      YR   AGE   HR
Shane Spencer      NYA    1998    26   14
J.D. Drew          STL   98/99    22   11
Mark Quinn         KCA   99/00    25   11
Daryle Ward        HOU    1999    24   10
Robert Fick        DET   98-00    24    9
Mike Diaz          PIT    1986    26    9
Bobby Estalella    PHI   96-98    21    9
Morgan Ensberg     HOU    2002    26    8
Fred McGriff       TOR    1987    23    8
Chili Davis        SFN    1982    22    8
Ron Kittle         CHA   82-83    24    8
Carmelo Martinez   CHN   83-84    22    8
Jeff Francoeur     ATL    2005    21    8

Francoeur still has time to move up this list, which lower down also features Mark McGwire and Manny Ramirez. At press time, Francoeur had completed his 86th walk-free at bat. While some may look at this list and scoff at the number of "steroid era" years are on it, Francoeur's leap to the show has occurred in a season that features the lowest SLG% and ISO% since 2002. In addition, these sort of gaudy numbers are nothing new for Francoeur--in 1078 career minor league AB's entering 2005 he had compiled a .476 SLG.

Francoeur has lived up to his reputation with the glove as well. He is already 8th on the team in FRAR, racking up a +5 FRAR in his first 23 games. Francoeur's contributions add some leather to an already impressive Braves outfield:


Player            OUT   FRAR   WARP3
Andruw Jones      300     19     8.0
Kelly Johnson     169     11     2.1
Ryan Langerhans   168     11     2.1
Brian Jordan      158      9     0.8
Jeff Francoeur     47      5     2.6

Francoeur is more than holding his own with the glove, and performing extraordinarily well with the bat. There are a lot of good comparables in his PECOTA, guys like Brooks Robinson, Sammy Sosa, and Albert Pujols; Pujols in particular is interesting, as his 2001 season is the #1 season in history for a 21 year-old rookie in terms of VORP. While Francoeur likely will not have enough games left in the season to catch or compare with Pujols, he can take comfort in looking at the other great 21-year old rookie seasons--guys like Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Tim Raines, Alfredo Griffin, and Darryl Strawberry. It will no doubt be interesting to see if Francoeur's name will be listed among such elite players in the future, but if nothing else he has had a great first month to his career.

--Paul Swydan

Chicago White Sox: Frank Thomas' current injury may be career-ending and is almost certainly season-ending. After starting the season on the DL, he rejoined the White Sox at the end of May. For the two months he was on the roster, he put up one of the most unusual lines in major league history. In his 105 at-bats, he had 23 hits, 12 of which were home runs.

How may players have had more homers than other hits in a season? The list, as you might expect, is short. In fact, only one person has ever done it in a season where he had more than 70 AB:

Mark McGwire, 2001: 299 AB, 56 H, 29 HR

McGwire came close a few other times, too: in 1998, when he hit 70 homers, he had 82 non-homers, and the next year 65 of his 145 hits left the park. And Barry Bonds' record-setting 2001 ended with 83 hits that stayed in the park and 73 which left it. But the only people to break the 50% barrier in a full season besides McGwire were two pitchers with only a handful of plate appearances: In 1962, Milt Pappas came to the plate 69 times and hit a single, a double, and four homers. Eleven years later, Roric Harrison gave the Braves a double and two homers in 54 ABs.

And that's it, until this year, when Thomas apparently realized the best way to keep his ankle healthy was to only run the bases at a trot. In between that return and the second ankle fracture he suffered in July, Thomas managed to post a VORP of 8.4, nearly identical to Carl Everett's 8.5 in about 1/3 the PAs.

Luckily for the White Sox, their divisional lead is insurmountable, meaning no Big Hurt will be no big deal down the stretch. Since Thomas went down, though, the Sox have averaged 4.8 runs per game (and that's down to 2.9 over the last nine games), as opposed to the 5.5 per game they scored when Thomas was active. The White sox should be able to count on Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and others to keep hitting, but if they don't it'll be a real test of Ozzie Guillen's "Smart Ball" to see how far they get in the post-season.

--Christian Ruzich

Colorado Rockies: Free pitchers are good. Free pitchers who rank fourth on your team in VORP are even better. Marcos Carvajal came from the Dodgers (via the Brewers) in last winter's Rule V draft. Scouting reports weren't terribly optimistic about him, as he'd thrown just 3 innings higher than low-A ball before this season. He's made the jump nicely:


Stat    Total     Team Rank
IP      46.3      8th highest
H/9     8.74      5th best
BB/9    3.50      7th lowest
K/9     6.99      8th highest
HR/9     .97      8th lowest
VORP    6.0       4th highest
BABIP   .301      6th best

It's also worth noting that he has odd reverse-Coors splits, as his home ERA is 2.86 (28.1 IP), while his road ERA is 7.00 (18 IP). (When you're dealing with such small samples of relief usage, a few extra hits allowed on the road can have giant ramifications, so this isn't as meaningful as we'd like.) Carvajal has also ranked highly on our Inherited/Bequeathed Runners Report for relievers, as he's inherited 20 runners and stranded 14. Turning to our WXRL pages, we see that he's been good for a -.119 WXRL, ranking him...318th out of 428 relievers. Hmm.

Well, there's the reality check and the Rule V reminder. Carvajal's got good peripherals for a Coors pitcher, particularly for a Rule V guy, but he's flexed his muscles mostly in pretty low-leverage, relatively harmless situations. Take a look at his LEV score: a .44 indicates that he hasn't exactly been entrusted with precious leads as often as we might guess from his stat line. The Quality of Batter Faced report supports this: his opposition has been a .260/.323/.404 hitter, which is -.003/-.004/-.013 than the NL league average line of .263/.327/.417. He's been an experiment, and is so far working out, but his usage pattern indicates that the Rockies think he's not quite there yet.

Joining Carvajal on the "Inherited/Bequeathed Runner" list is Your 2005 All-Star, Brian Fuentes. Both Fuentes and Carvajal have frequently bailed out their compatriots, and have themselves been let down by their relief brethren a few times, resulting in both players earning lower FRA than their ERAs.

Unlike Carvajal, Fuentes has been used in more high-leverage situations, as his 20 saves partly attest, and as his 1.65 LEV score indicates (which is 29th in MLB). Also unlike Carvajal, Fuentes has been a boon to the bullpen when it counts, as his 3.667 WXRL suggests (which is 3rd in all of baseball). Fuentes' All-Star selection was often indicted as a symptom of the "at least one guy from each team rule," but his season deserves far more respect than that.

His peripherals have been solid, as he's kept the ball in the park (.50 HE/9), and has consistently missed bats (10.00 K/9, 2nd on the team). He has been wild, though, as his 4.50 BB/9 ranks just 13th-best on the Rockies. Fuentes has succeeded because of a number of factors, not all of them sustainable. For one, he also has an extreme reverse-Coors split, with a 1.59 home ERA (34 IP) and a 4.29 road ERA (21 IP). There hasn't been a definitive study on any pitchers just "knowing how to pitch" at Coors field, so we might best label this as "the jury is still out." But fans in Denver have certainly seen him at his best.

He has also held opposing hitters to a .194/.316/.296 line, which is simply filthy. This would be a major turnaround from his 2004, when opponents hit .269/.343/.427 off him (the NL as a whole hit .263/.329/.423 in 2004, and Fuentes' opponents were .264/.337/.424 hitters). The culprit, at least based on what knowledge we do have about such things, appears to be his swing in BABIP. In 2004, his BABIP was .347, fairly high by league standards (it tends to cluster around .300). This season, it's .262, having swung 80 points in a more favorable direction (in 2003 it was .303).

It's terribly easy to just scream "BABIP!" and call it a day, but we don't have a whole lot to go on here. The Rockies rank just 29th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, and so it doesn't look like they've been much help to him. It's possible that by the end of the game (when Fuentes generally makes his appearances), that the defensive subs have entered the game and the defense is on the higher end of their .667 Def_Eff score, but an 80-point swing seems awfully high to attribute to a few innings more of Eddy Garabito instead of Aaron Miles. Plus, even the Rockies' defensive subs don't rank as very good defenders by our measures. His strikeout rate is up from his past performances, his HR/9 rate is way down, and his G/F ratio has gone from 1.16 to 1.57 (it was 1.39 in 2003). If we're willing to accept a null hypothesis, now's the time.

Whether his 2005 performance represents a true, sustained development or not remains to be seen; we're still only dealing with about of a starting pitcher's seasonal line when we discuss 55 IP, a testament to the unpredictability of relievers. But everything seems to be working for Fuentes so far this year, as he's been one of the most valuable relievers in baseball, even despite one of the highest walk rates.

--John Erhardt

Related Content:  A's,  Jeff Francoeur,  Brian Fuentes

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