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March 22, 2006

From The Mailbag

Cubans, Standards of Greatness, and Hockey Hair

by Baseball Prospectus

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Rolling Some Cubans

You wrote this article a year or so ago and I found it incredibly interesting at the time. As I was watching the Cubans play in the World Baseball Classic tournament I couldn't help but think back to this research and wanted to get your impressions.

It's tough to imagine a Double-A team--say a Southern League All Star team--performing this well. Are we seeing a Cuban team that is significantly better than the average play in their league? Or is this performance in the WBC more due to getting hot at the right time and having a small sample size for us to examine?

--S.B.

There is a big difference between the American minor leagues and the national leagues of other countries.

When I say that the talent level of the Cuban league is approximately that of short-season A ball, I am talking only about the average level of play. The standard deviation of the level of play is much tighter in American leagues than in other leagues--because the top players get promoted out. In Cuba, or Korea, or Japan, there is no higher league for promotion, so the players remain there and dominate.

I think most of the players--the ones who actually played in the WBC--for Cuba (and Japan, and Korea) would be either in the majors or, at least, on their way up through AA if they had identical skills and ages and had grown up here. Osmani Urrutia is a very good player. However, the only reason he has hit .400 for four (five?) straight years in Cuba is because the average level of play is so low and his home park of Las Tunas has to have a park factor of at least 115. His translated line is sort of between Eric Chavez and Derek Jeter; same overall EqA, with BA and SLG between the two. Imagine one of them playing in Asheville--that's a 114 park in the low minors South Atlantic League. I don't think a .400 season would be at all remote for them.

So, yes to one of your speculations; while the average player on a Cuban team may be comparable to the American low minors, the best ones are substantially better, because the best ones in America get promoted. Five years ago, Urrutia was playing in a Sally League equivalent and still is. Without promotion, the SAL All-Star team would feature the players who were there five years ago; just from 1999 (grabbing the 2000 Baseball America Almanac), the Sally league included Juan Pierre, Matt Holliday, Rafael Furcal, Jay Gibbons, Travis Hafner, which would be a more reasonable match for a Cuban All-Star team than a current SAL All-Star team.

--Clay Davenport

All Jacked Up

Seeing the Pirates' signing of Jack Wilson to that 3-year deal sends my stomach tumbling like a rock down a steep hill. The McClatchy regime has been a failure for years and this just reinforces that fact. It's like McClatchy and/or Littlefield had decided he wanted to read the theoretical book 'John Hart's Methods of Building a Young Contending Team.' Except he bought the Cliffs Notes version and had someone else read it to him while he was busy running a conference call, surfing the web, drinking coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal all at the same time. The words might have been heard, but comprehension remains on the centennial plan. It's stupid moves like that sent me screaming from the house of Pirate fandom, and until a real owner comes in, I will remain in exile.

I wish I had a quarter of a billion kicking around, because I'd love the challenge of rebuilding that franchise...

--Dan Graulich

It's exactly this sentiment that has me worried about the near-term future of the Pirates franchise. I recognize that the slow, agonizing process of rebuilding is fraught with disappointments, but what's going to happen to attendance when this team doesn't end up being an improvement over last year's, especially with all of the build-up that seems to surround the pick-ups of guys like Sean Casey or Jeromy Burnitz? You and I know the product won't be better this year, and that the franchise's real future depends on what's going to happen with Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, and the like, but will average fans care after that doesn't happen this year, or next?

My concern is that the Pirates will falter and start teetering into the same "wards of the state" category that already counts the Nationals, with the Devil Rays and Marlins constantly on the brink. I think it speaks volumes for this franchise that, with one of the best of the new ballparks in the game today, they've managed to fall from 11th in attendance in 2001, when PNC opened, to 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th in the four years since. However well or poorly the team does, they should finish ahead of the Marlins this year, but that's not improvement, any more than finishing ahead of the Expos in their last year or two is something you brag about. This franchise isn't in a good place, and it won't be as long as it continues to operate the way it has.

--Christina Kahrl

Whither Mr. November?

First of all, relatively new subscriber to BP here--I signed up primarily in order to view your JAWS work, which made for interesting reading.

Just a quick question that I need to get off my chest, and I don't seem to ever see this one asked around the various baseball places I visit: at this stage in his career, how do you rate the chances of Derek Jeter making the Hall of Fame? Reading your comments recently about the perceived Yankee bias just got me, indirectly, to thinking about this.

--M.S.

You made my day. This is a first in terms of somebody telling me they joined BP on account of my work. Thanks.

As for Jeter, the conventional wisdom is that he's a lock for the Hall thanks to his accomplishments to date and his presence on those Yankee championship teams. JAWS shows that he's not there yet, however. He comes in at 76.9 career WARP/60.6 peak/68.8 overall, where the average HOF SS is at 102.4/62.0/85.7. He's weighted down by his defense, which stands at -134 runs over the course of his career, a loss of 13.4 wins and probably about 10 JAWS points (since those wins are attached to some of his top 7 seasons, they essentially count double).

But no matter. Jeter's approaching his Age 32 season, and even at a very modest rate of 5.0 WARP/year through the life of his contract (which runs through 2010), he'd be at 101.9 WARP and just a few hairs below the current positional HOF average, and still only facing his Age 37 season.

I don't expect Jeter to turn into that mediocre a player overnight. Even on the wrong side of 30, he's posted two of his four best seasons in 2004-2005, and is more likely to wind up among the top ten HOF shortstops in terms of JAWS:


First     Last         Car   Peak    JAWS
Honus     Wagner     185.6   83.6   134.6
Arky      Vaughan    123.0   85.0   104.0
Robin     Yount      127.7   66.7    97.2
Ernie     Banks      114.9   75.2    95.1
Ozzie     Smith      123.7   63.1    93.4
Luke      Appling    117.3   68.2    92.8
Lou       Boudreau    99.8   74.1    87.0
Joe       Cronin     102.9   68.7    85.8
George    Davis      111.3   56.6    84.0
Pee Wee   Reese       99.5   62.1    80.8

By then, health willing, he'll be within hailing distance of 3,000 hits, which will make what's already more or less a moot point (given the media adulation and his legitimate levels of accomplishment thus far) even "mooter." Short of a catastrophic injury or Pete Rose-sized scandal, he'll be a lock for Cooperstown very soon.

--Jay Jaffe

Rock-y Road?

Nice piece, but I'm more optimistic about Tim Raines. I think he'll start with about 50% of the vote, will improve each year in voting total, and then be inducted in his fifth year of ellibility or so.

In that way, Raines is less like Bert Blyleven (who started with less than 20% of the vote) and more like another long time Expo, Gary Carter. Carter took a few years because he was directly compared to Carlton Fisk who was on the ballot at the same time; in the same way, I think Raines will be compared (as you note) to Rickey Henderson.

--B.G.

Carter may indeed be a better comparable for Raines when it comes to the Hall. I found it hard to believe that it took six ballots for Carter to gain election. As I wrote back in 2002:

Friends, I was never a fan of Gary Carter. For some reason, I always found him annoying, though I can't really put my finger on why. It probably had something to do with his earnest, gung-ho attitude combined with the fact that I rooted against the '86 and '88 Mets as hard as any teams I ever rooted against. That said, I am absolutely convinced that Gary Carter is a Hall of Famer. I had an unshakeable feeling of watching a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career when I watched him, and I'll wager that was a consensus perception among those of you reading this right now. If you thought about the question the best catcher in the National League after Johnny Bench declined, there simply wasn't any other credible answer besides Gary Carter.

In any event, it's nice to hear somebody offer a reasonable amount of optimism in Raines' case. Let's hope you're closer to the truth than I am.

--J.J.

Hockey Hair

I'm from Montréal, and hockey always has been a way bigger thing than baseball here (especially since we sadly don't have a baseball team anymore). As you might have been made aware, the Montréal Canadiens' goalie, José Theodore, was caught for the use of a banned substance by a pre-Olympic urine test, as he was on a Olympic team preliminary roster. (He would not have made the team this year, he's not playing very well.)

The substance in question is a masking agent: 'finasteride', which is found in a product called 'Propecia', used commonly to help prevent hair loss. However, it's been recently added to the list of banned substances by the IOC because it can also be used to mask the use of a steroid, Nandrolone.

Theodore won't be suspended by the NHL, since the product is not banned by the league. While nobody except Theodore knows for sure if he was indeed masking steroid use, I am appalled by the inaction of the NHL (and other sports) when athletes get caught. Can this be an opportunity for the sport to actually try to clean itself, after allegations from the World Anti-Doing Association (Dick Pound) that close to a third of all NHL players are using illegal substances, the recent steroids/Bryan Berard (another player) incident, the pressures undertaken by the American Senate/Congress...?

I'd be curious to know your thoughts on this issue when you have a chance. I know this is a baseball column, but I think that the impact of prominent athletes (Theodore won the MVP of the league and Best Goalie Award back in 2002) getting caught for banned substance usage can have ripple effects in the North American sports world, since steroids are sadly forever associated with baseball.

--Philippe Jacques

Theodore had a therapeutic use waiver for Propecia--and seeing that his hairline is looking like mine, it's certainly understandable. I can't believe that steroids would have any real use for a goalie. That position is all about concentration and reflexes, not strength and recovery.

As you know living in the beautiful city of Montreal and home of WADA, Pound has a penchant for talking out of some lower orifices. I don't believe the 30% number has any basis in reality. Looking at Olympic and international hockey, sports WADA has jurisdiction over, I don't see any big rash of steroid suspensions (or any other substance.)

Berard, as you know, is an unusual case and the guy is obviously desperate to keep playing. That's precisely the type of player that is tempted to use steroids or other enhancers.

Should hockey clean itself up? I'm not sure it's that dirty, but yes, I think they should definitely bring itself more in line with baseball's testing policy or submit to WADA. If that costs Theodore a couple hairs, I guess he could try minoxidil.

--Will Carroll

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