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April 17, 2006

You Could Look It Up

Tales from PECOTA

by Steven Goldman

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We at Baseball Prospectus long ago fell into referring to PECOTA, our player projection system, as if it were a living thing. “What does PECOTA think about Jeremy Hermida?” we ask. “Why is PECOTA so down on Victor Martinez?” You can see hints of this in the last few editions of our annual book, small “Star Trek”-like rebellions against the central computer. “PECOTA is being too conservative with this projection,” you will see occasionally.

Like all oracles, PECOTA can be inscrutable if you’re not familiar with its frame of reference. This has become more apparent with the inclusion of each player’s top three comparable players in the book. Sometimes what PECOTA is getting at is simple. Rondell White’s top three comps were Lou Piniella, Glenallen Hill, and Bob Watson, three right-handed hitters who didn’t walk a whole lot but put up good batting averages and midrange power. In other words: expect more of the same. White is a well-established veteran, so PECOTA was right not to look for surprises--though judging by White’s early showing with the Twins, perhaps PECOTA’s 40% “collapse” rating was too conservative.

It is important to note that when PECOTA lists its comparables, it is not saying that Player A is Player B, but simply that Player A is very similar to Player B at the same age. Yet, the comparables do seem to establish a taxonomy of ballplayers, grouping players of similar styles together--though this reading of PECOTA’s “motivation” is sometimes complicated by comparisons of round pegs and square holes; Marcus Thames is not Dwight Evans no matter how hard you squint.

It’s the prospects and unestablished players where PECOTA enjoys its little jokes. Consider Luis Terrero, Diamondbacks outfielder (page 22 of Baseball Prospectus 2006). Now, we all know that Terrero isn’t a prospect; all you have to do is look at the stats. But PECOTA wants us to be really certain, so it drops the name of two of the all-time busted prospects in its top comparables list, Brad Komminsk and Dave McCarty.

McCarty was a Stanford first baseman made the third overall pick in the 1991 draft by the Minnesota Twins, allowing teams with better records to claim Dmitri Young, Manny Ramirez, Cliff Floyd, and the great Pokey Reese. That’s all hindsight, of course, and it wouldn't have mattered if McCarty had developed as the Twins had expected, but though he made it to the majors by 1993 he never developed a consistent approach at the plate and proved to be stretched even as a platoon first baseman.

McCarty was a typical story, but Komminsk’s was the rarer case of the fully developed player who couldn’t make the jump to the big leagues. Komminsk, a high school first baseman-outfielder, was the fourth overall pick of the June 1979 amateur draft. Given the special weakness of that particular class, he had a chance to be the outstanding player of the first round, one of the least impressive in history.

The Mariners had the top pick and took Al Chambers, an 18-year-old outfielder. The M’s rated him a major power threat. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Playing at Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League from 1982 to 1984 prior to his first big league call-up, Chambers hit .303 but and .506 but hit just 33 home runs in 1030 at bats. As we know from experience, then and now, these numbers are subject to a big discount. Chambers hit two home runs in 120 big league at bats.

With the second pick the Mets took UCLA righty Tim Leary. With a 13-year big league career, Leary has to be considered a successful pitcher, though he was more often bad (very bad) than good. After a pinched supra scapula nerve in his shoulder seemed to have destroyed his potential, the Mets traded him for Frank Wills, who they held just long enough be traded to the Mariners for the immortal Wray Bergendahl.

The Blue Jays used the third pick to take catcher Jay Schroeder, who went to the Superbowl with the 1987 Redskins. The A’s took shortstop Juan Bustabad. Fortunately for them he didn’t sign. The Indians missed with high school lefty Jon Bohnet with the seventh pick, the Astros whiffed with catcher John Mizerock at number eight, and the White Sox failed to sign the ninth pick, high school shortstop Steve Buechele. These were bracketed by two solid selections, with Andy Van Slyke going to the Cardinals at number five and Tim Wallach to the Expos at number ten. Some useful pitchers did go later in the round--Scott Garrelts, Steve Howe, and Atlee Hammaker at 15, 16, and 21, respectively, but the best players went later in the draft, including Jeff Russell (5), Bill Doran (6), Storm Davis (7), Von Hayes (7), Jimmy Key (10, to the White Sox; he didn’t sign), Orel Hershiser (17), Bud Black (17), Don Mattingly (19), Don Slaught (20, to the Brewers), and Brett Butler (23, to the Braves).

Komminsk was 18 years old on selection day. After a weak first season in the Appalachian League, his power blossomed at Anderson of the Sally League, where he hit 20 home runs in 425 at bats. He moved up to Durham of the Carolina league as a 21-year-old and rained fire on the competition, batting .322/.464/.606. He led the league in batting, hit 33 home runs, walked 110 times (eight intentional), and stole 35 bases in 47 attempts (the league leader in home runs, 22-year-old Padres outfield prospect Gerry Davis, batted .306 with 34 home runs and 161 walks, but he’s a story for another day). “I have never been fortunate enough to have another player of Brad Komminsk’s ability,” Durham manager Al Gallagher told the Sporting News,. “He has a chance to be a superstar. This is the first player I’ve ever seen in my managerial career in A ball who was so defined at his age.”

Atlanta’s player development program was then run by Hank Aaron. Aaron loved Komminsk, thought he was going to be a star, but resisted the urge to move him too fast and put him in the Double-A Southern League in 1982. Komminsk had another good year, batting .273/.376/.515 with 26 home runs in 454 at bats, 72 walks, 14 steals in 17 attempts. He was third in the league in home runs, finishing behind two players who made the majors but didn’t pan out, Mike Fuentes (37 home runs) of the Expos and Brian Dayett (34) of the Yankees. The batting average was above league average. At the end of the season he had a cup of coffee with Triple-A Richmond and hit well.

Aaron and Braves manager Joe Torre sent Komminsk out for more seasoning in 1983. The defending National League West division winners had a packed outfield anyway, with starters Dale Murphy, Claudell Washington, and Komminsk’s draft-mate, Brett Butler, whose 1981 .335 average at Richmond had sped him to the majors. Komminsk, now 22, didn’t sulk, conquering Richmond with .334/.431/.596 in 114 games. He had the third-best average in the league behind two players who, again, didn’t quite work out, Jack Perconte (.346) of the Mariners and Dave Meier of the Twins. He hit 24 home runs, walked 78 times, and stole 26 bases in 31 attempts. This was a multidimensional player who would have ranked at the top of any prospect list compiled at the time. He had patience. He went the other way when pitched outside. He had power to the opposite field. He played a good left field. “He looks like another Dale Murphy to me,” said Toledo manager Cal Ermer after Komminsk hit a grand slam against him that June.

Komminsk finally got the call in mid-August, when injuries attacked the Braves’ outfield. At that moment, Atlanta had a .602 winning percentage and a 5.5 game lead over the second-place Dodgers. Komminsk had one hit in his first three games. The Braves lost all three. Not only was Torre an impatient man, but he was insecure in his position, nervous about the whims of owner Ted Turner and convinced that Phil Niekro was after his job. Komminsk was suddenly a pinch-hitter, then he didn’t play at all. He got occasional playing time in September after the Dodgers had blown past the Braves. He hit a few singles. There were no home runs, no stolen bases.

Nonetheless, Komminsk had already changed the history of the Braves franchise. When the Braves needed an extra arm during the 1983 stretch drive, they traded for Indians righty Len Barker. Among the players who went to Cleveland in this ultimately disastrous deal was young outfielder Butler. Butler was the leadoff hitter the Braves desperately needed--Torre’s alternative was shortstop Rafael Ramirez (career OBP .295)--but with Komminsk on the way the Braves felt they had the depth to let him go.

During spring training, 1984, Komminsk was beaten out for the open spot in the Braves’ outfield by Gerald Perry. When he went back to Richmond, something had changed for the worse. It would never change back. Komminsk batted .257/.384/.479. He hit 11 doubles in 144 at bats, but his home runs dropped to five. Recalled when Claudell Washington hit the disabled list in late May, Komminsk played regularly throughout June and batted .242/.291/.358. This is slightly better than it looks--the National League batted just .255/.319/.369 that season. Still, the Braves began slipping out of another close race, and Torre soon restricted Komminsk to a platoon role.

Komminsk struggled with lefties to a degree unusual in a righty hitter, batting just .159/.219/.261 against southpaws that year. It would be a career-long problem. Torre kept Komminsk playing part time through the rest of the season, even as he endured a horrific July-August slump in which he hit just .160. The Braves, competitive in the first two months of the season, fell out of the NL West race in July, and Komminsk deserved part of the blame.

“You know what, he had an asthma problem,” Torre said before a recent Yankees game. “He was Henry Aaron's favorite. He was strong. He never really got a chance to play under me like the other guys in the outfield. I remember having to take him out of a game in L.A. because of the smog in the daytime.” According to Torre, a lack of oxygen wasn’t the youngster’s only drawback. “He was strong. What I thought I noticed about Brad Komminsk was he had only one swing. But it was more mechanical than anything. He was a good kid. A big, strong kid.”

After that season, Torre went into broadcasting exile, but Komminsk could made little headway against major league pitching. Torre’s replacement, Eddie Haas, platooned Komminsk with Washington. Once again, Komminsk struggled to hit lefty pitching, not hitting a home run until mid-August despite regular appearances. The Braves organization was largely done with him after that, and he was traded to the Brewers for Dion James after spending nearly all of the season at Richmond. He didn’t hit there either.

The Brewers let Komminsk play for Triple-A Denver in 1987. He led the American Association in home runs, but it didn’t lead to any playing time. In fact, there’s no happy ending; though Komminsk did get some playing time with the Indians and Orioles in 1989 and 1990, he never rediscovered the offensive potential of his early years. PECOTA really doesn’t like Luis Terrero.

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

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