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March 21, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

Players to Watch

by Rany Jazayerli

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A year ago, I set the stage for the new season with an article on a half-dozen players who I thought, after consulting the statistical tea leaves, were poised for breakout seasons. If you read the article, you would have seen that I predicted Chad Cordero to have a big year. Hopefully you were just skimming, and missed the parts where I foresaw great things from Zach Day, Calvin Pickering, Juan Cruz, and D'Angelo Jimenez.

Well, if you don't want to strike out, don't swing for the fences. Still, by any reasonable measure that was a truly awful piece of prognostication.

Despite my embarassment, I'm back to try my hand at this soothsaying gig once more. But rather than issue foolhardy proclamations of imminent greatness from the three players listed below, I will merely argue that all three are, for various reasons, worth watching very carefully this season.

The Starter

My favorite misconception about Baseball Prospectus is that we're monolithic; we all believe the same dogma, reciting our catechisms about on-base percentage and TINSTAAPP before we go to bed every night.

Anyone who thinks that everyone at BP believes the same things has never seen Joe Sheehan and I argue. Our latest flashpoint is A.J. Burnett. Sheehan has maligned the Blue Jays' signing of Burnett from day one, writing that "no matter how much money he makes, A.J. Burnett doesn't look like more than a mid-rotation guy with some durability questions."

I disagree. I see Burnett as having the distinct potential of taking The Leap this year--especially since it looks like the only thing he tore in his elbow this weekend was scar tissue--from solid but underachieving mid-rotation guy to #1 starter (or at least #1B behind Roy Halladay).

Not that Burnett has been a complete disappointment so far. He has averaged nearly 8 strikeouts per game in his career--and 8.65 K/9 over the past four years. He has also surrendered only 66 homers in 854 career innings, a terrific rate even in the spacious dimensions of Pro Player Park/Dolphins Stadium/Wayne Huizenga Cash Cow Coliseum.

If Burnett were just a power pitcher, there would be no justification for favoring him over a dozen other starting pitchers with great fastballs and high strikeout rates. The reason my optimism is directed towards Burnett is because last season, he was more than just a power pitcher: he became a power pitcher who also gets groundballs.

The distinction may not seem particularly meaningful, but it is. It's hard to fashion a home run out of anything other than a flyball. The same goes for the other forms of extra-base hits. A pitcher who racks up lots of strikeouts, and who racks up lots of groundballs when he isn't getting strikeouts, is a pitcher who isn't allowing opponents to loft those flyballs that can turn into hits of the two-or-more-base variety.

The average major-league pitcher has a groundball/flyball ratio of about 1.25, give or take a few decimal points. In 2004, Burnett's G/F ratio was 1.49, the highest of his career to that point save a 1.78 mark in barely 40 innings in his rookie season.

Last year, his G/F ratio skyrocketed to 2.42, the sixth-highest of any qualifying pitcher in the major leagues. Of the five pitchers above him, not one of them had a strikeout rate of even 7 Ks per nine innings; Burnett was over 8.5. (As an aside, Felix Hernandez had a ratio of 3.31. And you wonder why we like him so much.)

The same story is told if you use the GB% numbers found in BP 2006 instead of G/F ratio. Burnett's GB% of 52% in 2004 spiked to 60% last year, a percentage which only Webb, Jake Westbrook, and Derek Lowe substantially exceeded among qualifying starters.

I can't prove that the sudden spike in Burnett's G/F ratio is a definite indication that he's about to explode on the league. The historical data is spotty, and the data we do have is so fresh that the research needed to extract every piece of useful information has yet to be done. But at least one data point bodes very well for Burnett: new teammate Halladay.

There was nothing distinguishing about Halladay's G/F ratio as a rookie (1.36) or as a sophomore (1.41), even as he completely melted down with a 10.64 ERA and got sent back to A-ball to have his entire motion rebuilt. Upon his return in 2001, Halladay had, among other changes, become an extreme groundball pitcher, with a G/F ratio of 2.56. Halladay's extreme groundball ways have persisted as he has emerged as one of the dominant starting pitchers of the decade.

As other prospectuses will tell you, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. But in Halladay, there is at least one past performance which yields optimism about Burnett's future results. Another comp I like to use, Kevin Brown, was a power/groundball pitcher who upon joining the Marlins in 1996 suddenly morphed into one of the game's best starters. Burnett is heading out of town, but a similar performance spike would not surprise me at all. At the very least, he is no Darren Dreifort; $11 million a year may yet prove to be a bargain.

The Hitter

The label "the best fourth outfielder in baseball" is a compliment that's more left-handed than Jim Abbott, and will remain so until baseball takes a cue from the fairer sport and allows teams to start fielding a rover.

But sometimes a player finds himself a fourth outfielder as a result of circumstances completely unrelated to his ability. Such is the case with Jason Michaels, who has spent most of the past four years on the Phillies bench despite a performance record that exceeds that of the majority of major league outfielders over that time.

Michaels has a career OBP of .380. Of the 60 outfielders who qualified for a batting title last season, only nine notched an OBP of .380 or better. Michaels' OBP last year (.399) bested that of Vladimir Guerrero, or Manny Ramirez, or Miguel Cabrera, or Jim Edmonds, or Gary Sheffield.

True, Michaels' power is nothing special--35 of the 60 had a higher slugging average than Michaels' career mark of .442--but don't you think a player with that kind of on-base ability deserves more than just a part-time job? Especially a player who has above-average fielding metrics at all three outfield positions? His unassuming defensive reputation notwithstanding, Michaels has been worth 7 runs above average in center field, in barely 100 full games at the position.

The Indians have finally liberated Michaels from his bench purgatory, allowing us to see what he can do with a full-time job. The only lingering complaint about Michaels' credentials as an everyday player is that, as a part-timer, he has taken advantage of a disproportionate amount of playing time against left-handed pitching. While it is true that Michaels has faced southpaws in 42% of his plate appearances the last four years, his platoon differential is not out of the ordinary. He has hit .308/.406/.471 against left-handers and .280/.364/.425 against same-side pitching, a fairly typical split.

Here are two lines that approximate what Michaels might hit over a full season. The first one simply extrapolates his past four years into 650 plate appearances; the second one assumes his normal platoon splits and apportions 29% of his plate appearances against left-handed pitching (corresponding to how much left-handed pitching the Indians faced last year.)

Line 1: 561 AB, 163 H, 34 D, 3 T, 15 HR, 79 BB, .292/.382/.444
Line 2: 562 AB, 162 H, 33 D, 4 T, 15 HR, 76 BB, .288/.376/.438
The difference in the two lines is essentially a rounding error. The bottom line is that Michaels is a legitimate everyday outfielder and has been for essentially his entire career. The Indians' willingness to let him prove it may have pennant implications in what is suddenly one of the most competitive divisions in the game.

The Reliever

Call it my Royals upbringing, but I am obsessed with discovering pitchers out of the Dan Quisenberry phenotype. Quisenberry was probably the most unique player in major league history--statistical proof furnishable upon request--but occasionally a pitcher will emerge from the same general mold, a sidearm pitcher who doesn't throw hard but has impeccable control and gets nothing but groundballs. Eliminate homers and walks completely, and you'd be surprised how many hits you can give up and still be successful when your opponent has to string together three of them to score a run. Quisenberry gave up over a hit an inning for his career, and still finished with a 2.76 ERA.

The current holder of the endowed Quisenberry Chair of Sidearm Wormkilling is Chad Bradford, who was never supposed to reach the major leagues, let alone have a chapter in Moneyball devoted to him and a lifetime 3.49 ERA. His successor may well be a pitcher who clawed his way to the majors late last season even though few have even heard of him, which is just as it is supposed to be.

Even if you have heard of Franquelis Osoria, you may not be aware that, after starting his career throwing over the top, the Dodgers converted him to a 3/4 motion, and his arm slot kept dropping until one day he was throwing from 9 o'clock. (Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for the background.) You also may not be aware that Osoria primarily throws a sinker, one he has used to great effect at coaxing groundballs from hitters, with a 3.29 G/F ratio in his major league debut last season, after a 3.20 G/F ratio in Triple-A. Or that, armed with said sinker, Osoria has given up just 13 homers in 300 professional innings. Or that Osoria throws that sinker with rare precision; over the last three years, he has walked just 51 batters in 229 minor league innings, and 15 of those walks were intentional.

Like Bradford, Quisenberry, and all other pitchers of his ilk, Osoria is going to have chronic problems retiring left-handed hitters, who drubbed him for a .392/.426/.569 in his debut last season. On the other hand, right-handed hitters combined for a line of .140/.246/.193 in the majors, after hitting .212 with one home run off Osoria in 2004, and .210 with no homers in 2003.

Maybe he's not Quisenberry--there can be only one Dan Quisenberry. But I'll be rooting for Osoria, as much for the fact that his pitching style will almost certainly be perpetually maligned and underrated as for the fact that he ought to be an integral part of many a bullpen over his career.

Three players. Three stories to watch. Three chances for me to once again be exposed as a complete fraud when it comes to forecasting the future.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

Related Content:  Left-handed Pitcher,  A.J. Burnett,  The Who

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