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April 21, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Diamondbacks, Brewers, Mariners

by Baseball Prospectus


ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Team DT Cards | Team Articles | Team Statistics

On Monday night, Shawn Green and Eric Byrnes helped ensure a Randy Winn double became a Randy Winn Trip Around the Bases. Green ran to field a bouncing ball in the right-center gap, and wound up having to chase after it. He eventually caught up to it, only to have the ball kick off the heel of his glove and squirt even farther toward the wall. When he finally reached it and fielded it cleanly, Byrnes, who had moved over to back up the play, instead wound up in front of it, standing between Green and the plate. Byrnes crouched to get out of the way of the impending relay throw, but Green instead let loose a weird little shuffle pass to Byrnes so that he could throw it back in. Byrnes was facing the wrong way, though, and never saw the ball.

It's just one defensive gaffe, so although it was comical to watch, and despite it being part of "the worst three innings of baseball I have ever seen at the big league level" according to manager Bob Melvin, it's not indicative of any long-term problem. Though that probably didn't stop D'back fans from collectively wondering when the Chris Young era could begin in Phoenix.

Young, you'll recall, was the prize from the Javier Vazquez trade this winter with the White Sox. Often likened to a young Mike Cameron, he instantly became the best center field option on the team. Baseball America ranked Young the #2 prospect in the Sox' organization. Kevin Goldstein, who wrote BA's Arizona chapter and compiled the organizational rankings, said he would have placed Young second in the D'backs organization had the trade happened earlier.

Young fell during an agility drill in February, and broke his right hand. He missed all of Spring Training, and though it may take him a while to get back on track in Tucson this summer--he didn't even swing a bat until mid-March--his estimated arrival time in Phoenix wasn't until mid-year at the earliest, anyway.

In the meantime, the Diamondbacks have a pair of capable veteran placeholders. Byrnes drew the assignment the other night, but former Angel Jeff DaVanon has gotten about a third of the playing time in center so far.

DaVanon and Byrnes have both proven to be reliable, if unspectacular, fielders there in the past: Byrnes has a career Rate of 100 (exactly average), and DaVanon's is slightly better at 103. This year, though, both have pretty substandard Rates in the early going: Byrnes is at 90, and DaVanon at 61. We're still in silly season as far as individual performances are concerned--no one expects Orlando Hudson to continue a Rate that's about 20 points lower than his career low--but this has contributed to one of the NL's worst defenses so far (ranked by team Defensive Efficiency):

Team  Def
----------
CHN  .773
NYN  .731
MIL  .729
COL  .725
SLN  .718
LAN  .712
SDN  .707
SFN  .706
FLO  .702
HOU  .700
ATL  .699
WAS  .694
ARI  .684
CIN  .671
PIT  .667
PHI  .654

Though we're not yet out of April, that Rate continues a trend that's been in place since 2001:

Year    Def_Eff   NL Rank
--------------------------
2001     .709        3
2002     .705        7
2003     .698       11
2004     .695       13
2005     .688       13
2006     .684       13

This shouldn't continue, obviously. Now that Hudson's installed as the everyday second baseman, Counsell's at short, and Young is on the way, Arizona has remade its current and future up-the-middle defense for the better. (The jury's still out on Stephen Drew and Justin Upton, but both are athletic, and Justin doesn't appear to have his brother's hands.) Carloses Quentin and Gonzalez are also set to take over the corners--Quentin in the next year, Gonzalez after that--and both are better fielders than current corner outfielders Green and Luis Gonzalez. This is not to say that there's a calculated effort to populate the roster with slick-fielding glovemen, but merely that any pent-up frustration at the team's recent defense is going to be a thing of the past in the near future. Fans won't feel nearly the same way about the Diamondbacks of 2007 and beyond.

--John Erhardt

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Team DT Cards | Team Articles | Team Statistics

After winning all five of their games in the first week of the season, the Brew Crew has hit the skids, losing eight of their last 11. Part of it is the schedule--the Brewers opened at home against the Pirates and Diamondbacks, but then took to the road to face the two teams who played in the 2005 NLCS, and also the hottest team of the extremely young 2006 season, the New York Mets.

The team actually hit pretty well during this trip, scoring 51 runs in nine games. But they also allowed 55 runs, and finished 3-6. Two one-run losses earlier this week against the Astros were particularly painful. On Monday, the Brewers received a quality start from David Bush, only to see Matt Wise, one of the last season's bullpen mainstays, cough up five runs in an 8-7 loss. On Tuesday another 2005 mainstay, starter Doug Davis, spit the bit allowing nine runs in two innings of work. The Brewers' comeback fell just short, 13-12, and the game ended with the potential tying run on first.

Tuesday happened to be the 33rd birthday of Brady Clark, the club's starting centerfielder. Clark only won a full-time starting job last year, after spending his salad days earning All-Star Game invitations in the minor leagues. This is the sad reality of Ken Phelps All-Stars--by the time they finally land a major league job, their careers are usually pretty much over. Clark and J.J. Hardy have borne the brunt of criticism on offense, slumping out of the gate in the top two lineup spots. Happily, Hardy's ten years Clark's junior, and no matter how he does this month, he'd be hard-pressed to replicate last year's April performance, a .143/.284/.179 atrocity that tested the organization's patience with young talent.

A look on the bright side starts with Chris Capuano, currently the Major League strikeout leader. Capuano has logged quality starts in each of his four games pitched, admittedly a less sexy statistical category than strikeouts, but important nonetheless. Despite an early deterioration of his peripherals (nine safeties and only three strikeouts in six innings) that trends toward his unflattering PECOTA projection, Derrick Turnbow has been perfect so far, leading a crew that ranks second in the NL in WXRL, a statistic which measures the change in win expectation--set against the replacement level and normalized for the quality of lineup faced--each time a reliever enters and leaves the game.

With the bats, Prince Fielder learned that the only time an 0-for-11 slump looks like the end of the world is when it comes at the very beginning of your rookie year. Two weeks later, he's raking like everyone thought he would, maybe even better. Carlos Lee came into Thursday's action the league's third-best hitter, by VORP (13.9), while Gabe Gross's production off the bench argues, to no avail, for better opportunities on a team that features two entrenched corner outfielders.

With the team back at home, the Brewers have the chance to try and show that their losing skid was just one bad road trip bookended by a couple of losses. After all, Rickie Weeks and Ben Sheets are still shaking off the effects of Spring Training injuries, and it is only April.

--Derek Jacques

SEATTLE MARINERS
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  • In Baseball Prospectus 2006, we took our best shot at predicting the future for the unpredictable Adrian Beltre:

    Beltre will never hit .334 again, but he still has power in his arsenal. Look for production somewhere between the 2004 masterpiece and the dregs of '01-'03 and '05, something along the lines of .280/.340/.500.

    Please excuse the typos in that passage. We meant to say "along the lines of .080/.140/.200."

    Beltre's woefully slow start is no laughing matter in the Emerald City, not when he's in the second year of a five-year, $64 million contract that's paying him to be a star performer. Through Wednesday's game, Beltre was hitting .161/.266/.179. He didn't garner a single extra-base hit until the 16th game of the season. Beltre continues to play solid defense at third base, and he's even shown some basestealing ability (5 SB, 0 CS) early this season. But a .183 Equivalent Average won't get it done, even if he became Brooks Robinson with the leather and Rickey Henderson on the basepaths.

    Some have speculated that the leg injuries which periodically plagued Beltre in Los Angeles may have returned. But scouting reports and the numbers both offer a simpler explanation: he's just not seeing the ball. Beltre has repeatedly flailed at pitches well out of the zone this season, often keeping the bat on his shoulder on hittable offerings near the middle of the plate. His strikeout rate of 1 for every 3.7 at-bats is miles ahead of his previous marks for Ks. Though strikeouts at their core aren't worse than any other out, at extreme levels they can point to a major flaw in a hitter's approach. Small sample size caveats apply this early in the year, but it's an area worth watching.

    Whatever the reason, Beltre has been one of the worst hitters in the American League so far this year, as shown in Baseball Prospectus' Value Over Replacement Player sortable stat report (through Wednesday):

    Player             VORP
    Rondell White     -11.2
    Dan Johnson        -9.8
    Casey Kotchman     -7.1
    Jay Payton         -6.8
    Adrian Beltre      -6.1
    

    Mariner fans can rest assured that they won't see a .183 EqA out of the third-base position all season. Beltre will almost certainly improve, or the M's will look elsewhere for an answer.

  • Put Team Defensive Efficiency on the list of areas where the M's will also surely improve as the season wears on. Seattle ranks just 24th in the majors in converting batted balls in play into outs, with an anemic 68.2% success rate to date. The Mariners ranked a solid 11th in MLB last year at 70.7% and brought back plus defenders at multiple positions this year. Only two teams fared worse than 68.2% in 2005--the reliably horrendous Rockies and Royals. Unless the M's have Carl Everett play all three outfield spots by himself and six paleontologists covering the rest of the field, they won't do that poorly. Look for that regression toward the mean to help the Mariners' pitchers, especially two who've given up hits on balls in play at hugely inflated rates: Jamie Moyer (.354 BABIP, where around .300 is league average) and Gil Meche (.340).

  • With all that helpful regression likely to take place, you may be surprised when you check out BP's Postseason Odds Report. Through Wednesday the report showed the Mariners with the highest expected winning percentage (Pct3) of any team, .490, in the AL West. It's unlikely that all four AL West teams will finish the year below .500, whether in expected or real winning percentage. Then again, if the A's want to keep believing lines about, say, Jason Kendall's value to the team due to his leadership skills and ability to handle a pitching staff, you never know. In tapping Mike Matheny to be our test case when tackling the question of a catcher's ability to influence a pitcher's performance in our new book Baseball Between the Numbers, we may have picked the wrong guy. We're thinking about "Is Jason Kendall a Catching Genius?" for the paperback.

    In the meantime, the M's will settle for Kenji Johjima's .325 EqA, with or without a Mensa membership.

--Jonah Keri


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