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June 28, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Astros, Mets, Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus


HOUSTON ASTROS
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  • Last week's Roger Clemens-Francisco Liriano matchup was a disappointment for Astros fans looking for a splashy return from the Rocket, but it underscored a bigger problem for Houston. Not only do they face a nasty batch of interleague opponents, but they haven't even managed to beat the easier ones. Coming off a stretch of eight wins in nine games against the Cubs and Braves, the 'Stros dropped a three-game set to the Royals before facing the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers, and Rangers in succession.

    As Houston lies down for a string of the AL's best, it's all the more apparent that their presence at the fringes of the NL Central race is precarious. Even after a weekend series with the White Sox, the Astros have faced the second weakest schedule in baseball--only the Cardinals have had it easier. Houston's third-order winning percentage of .449 would qualify them for last place in three divisions in baseball; only the general mediocrity of the Central, where no team has a third-order winning percentage above .500, gives them the appearance of a team with a chance.

    That chance-7.8 percent, to be precise-hinges on the strength of Roger Clemens's return but, as Will Carroll points out, may depend just as much on a timely recovery from Brandon Backe. Those additions to the rotation not only take the pressure off of Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve, but by shifting Nieve to the bullpen, Phil Garner finally has a long man who doesn't belong in Round Rock.

  • Last time we checked in on the Astros, they had an entirely VORP-less outfield of Jason Lane, Willy Taveras, and Preston Wilson. Since then, Wilson has crept his way into positive territory, but it has taken the return of Chris Burke to push the starting trio's cumulative numbers above the replacement threshold. Still, Phil Garner has needed to take imaginative steps--Mike Lamb at third? Lance Berkman in right?--to keep from having a lineup full of holes.

    Lamb's EqA of .298 far exceeds his career average of .263, and his SLG of .519 is just barely behind Morgan Ensberg's for third on the team. He'll come back to earth soon, but in the meantime Garner is right to use him. Of the 13 players who have usually made up the Astros offense this year, six are performing below replacement level, and only four--including Lamb and Burke--have been worth more than ten runs. When Taveras, Brad Ausmus, and Adam Everett account for more than a quarter of your team's plate appearances, you ride the hot hand, no matter how big a surprise that hand is.

--Jeff Sackmann

NEW YORK METS
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  • Two-time reigning NL Player of the Week Jose Reyes has been otherworldly for the past couple of weeks. After missing two games on June 6th and 7th with wrist discomfort, Reyes came back and hit his generic .286/.333/.429 over three games. The following game, he went 0-3, but drew three walks, which is quite astounding given his well-documented lack of plate discipline. Till that point, in 356 career games, Reyes had drawn three walks in a game once (earlier this year no less) and two walks in a single game just four times.

    He drew three more walks (two intentional) the next game, but also supported that on-base effort with a single and a double in three at bats. That game set Reyes off on an amazing 13-game stretch (just snapped) in which he amassed 32 hits (13 for extra bases) in 57 at-bats for a.561/.583/.912 line while scoring 19 runs.

    Reyes still hasn't drawn a walk since that hat trick game, but it's hard to criticize him for not getting on base via four balls when he's smoking the strikes to the tune of .561. Besides, walks aren't the goal anyway--they're the byproduct of a good hitting approach. To wit, at the beginning of the season, Reyes was noticeably looking to take walks, which he attempted to make happen by robotically taking pitches. On the surface, that had the look of progress. However, the point isn't to just take pitches, it's to take (and subsequently swing at) the right pitches.

    Reyes' deliberate attempts to coerce bases on balls often worked against him, as he took a lot of hittable pitches and later in counts remained just as over-anxious and willing to chase a bad pitch as ever. However, as a phenomenal athlete with extremely fast wrists and hips and excellent eye-hand coordination, Reyes has never needed to anticipate pitches, whatever the count may be. His anxiety also tended to make him pull off a lot of pitches, and so he fouled off many hittable pitches. His problems were also compounded by some bad luck on balls in play as he stroked a number of liners right at fielders. His BABIP of .264 before the streak was significantly below his career mark of .306.

    Contrast his early-season approach to his more recent approach. In this admittedly short stint, Reyes isn't just deciding in advance whether to swing or not. He'll still rip at a hittable pitch early in the count, but he's laying off pitches just out of the zone or even right on the edges. He seems much more comfortable in his ability to wait for a better pitch, which he's getting and lacing. Later in the count, he trusts his quickness and eye, staying back just a tad more and avoiding chasing terrible pitches.

    The underlying reason for the transformation seems to be confidence. Confidence in his abilities to hit in any count has helped him avoid forcing the action early in the count, which was often counter-productive, and offering at terrible pitches late in the count. The new attitude is practically visible in his recent at-bats.

    So who's to credit for the transformation? Willie Randolph has maintained his confidence in Reyes well beyond most other people's limits, and he and hitting coach Rick Down have continued to work Reyes into having the right approach at the plate. Add to that the presence and influence of intelligent, patient hitters like Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright, and the message seems to be finally coming across.

    As a result, Reyes' season line has skyrocketed to .302/.361/.495, close to his 90th percentile PECOTA. With 18 net steals, his EqA stands at .292--roughly 40 points over his below-average career mark--and he's tied for 14th in the majors in VORP (31.9) behind fellow Metropolitans Wright (39.7) and Beltran (34.0).

    Reyes has been in the league for four years, so it's easy to forget that he's still just 23 and capable of further, equally significant improvement. This is especially true since he was rushed and injured; in the meantime, fans waited impatiently for stardom and analysts continually questioned his placement in the lineup. With all the talk of unachieved potential, it's easy to overlook Reyes' steady, if slow, improvement over those years. He's tightened up his defense considerably and his leg injuries, which were verging on chronic and threatened to end his career, are well behind him. Now, he seems to be whittling away his last major weakness.

    Clearly, Reyes isn't going to going to continue to hit .500, or .400 for that matter. But the longstanding hopes of .300+ with 70 walks a year and some decent pop all of a sudden might even be conservative.

  • The season is far from over, but with a double-digit lead in the standings, and all divisional foes under .500, the Mets are in a pretty comfortable situation. Going through the lineup, there are few major weaknesses to consider as one looks forward to a deep October run.

    The early season hole at second base has been filled ably. In 160 PA, Jose Valentin is fifth in batting VORP (11.3) on the team, just behind Delgado (14.1) who's had exactly twice as many plate appearances.

    With injuries to Cliff Floyd and Xavier Nady, Endy Chavez and Lastings Milledge have provided replacement-level production, and the front pair should be healthy well before the Mets might really need them again.

    Despite injuries and lack of production at the back of the rotation and some occasional blips of unreliability from some of the relievers, both the starters and the bullpen still rank highly in run prevention, not surprisingly due in part to a very good defense. Again, with a large cushion, the Mets can be patient handling injuries, waiting for El Duque to show which form he will really revert to and bringing along prospects to join the emerging Alay Soler.

    Randolph has managed his bench well, too, getting decent to very good production throughout as he mixes and matches to keep subs sharp and regulars rested. The one area Randolph should seriously consider addressing is catcher. Not only is Paul Lo Duca already suffering from nagging injuries, he's a notoriously bad second half performer, and he's barely out-hitting Ramon Castro to date in significantly more playing time. Add to that Castro's considerable edge in shutting down the running game and as often stated in the off-season, and there's a good argument that it is Castro who should be starting.

--Jason Grady

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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The Blue Jays are currently third in the American League East, five games behind first place Boston, and 1.5 games back of the Yankees. They do rank sixth in this week's edition of Prospectus Hit List though, which gives you a better idea of just how good this team is. Considering all of the trouble they have had with pitching and injuries, the Jays could easily be better.

As Jay Jaffe pointed out, the Jays are 40-24 in games started by pitchers other than Josh Towers. This is not a hard luck situation for Towers; his ERA of 9.11 might look like a product of his .355 batting average on balls in play, but that is due more to his getting slapped around like he's forgotten how to pitch than it is due to poor luck. With A.J. Burnett back in the rotation--and looking healthy after Tuesday night's 92 pitch, complete game shutout--the Jays might be able to gain a little more ground in the division. In fact, even with his poor start to the season, Burnett has already canceled out Josh Towers' poor Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Over Replacement figure:

Pitcher           SNLVAR    SNLVA
Roy Halladay      3.3       1.8
Ted Lilly         1.6       0.1
Casey Janssen     1.0      -0.2
A.J. Burnett      0.9       0.5
Gustavo Chacin    0.4      -0.5
Ty Taubenheim     0.2      -0.3
Scott Downs      -0.2      -0.5
Josh Towers      -0.8      -2.0

Canceled out might not be the appropriate phrase, since those ten losses in Towers' starts aren't coming back, but having Burnett around--even as a league average starter--would be a massive improvement. PECOTA projected Burnett to have a Peripheral ERA of 3.83, and a healthy Burnett should be able to finish somewhere around that, unless he catches the Beckett Flu.

With Dustin McGowan still not showing the flashes of dominance displayed prior to his injuries, the Jays might need to deal for another starting pitcher, or risk wasting a great offensive season. The Yankees are as vulnerable as they have been for years, especially after an injury to Robinson Cano, and the Red Sox seem to be on the upswing after injury trouble almost derailed their divisional campaign. So far Casey Janssen has been getting the job done, but after seeing Towers implode, the Jays might not want to play with another control guy with low strikeout rates and high home run rates who relies on a low BABIP for success. With Gustavo Chacin's elbow bringing out the last words anyone wants to hear, the Jays have stretched their pitching depth to the limits.

J.P. Ricciardi has shown interest in Tony Armas Jr. and Livan Hernandez, but both of those pitchers are currently injury risks or pitching ineffectively. The price Nats general manager Jim Bowden will ask for is most likely too high for the value they would get out of a trade anyways, so it may be for the best if Ricciardi stays with the current roster incarnation, and instead seeks out help in middle relief.

In an extremely thin pitching market with relatively few choice bargaining chips in the Jays system, help is going to have to come from within. Gustavo Chacin will be out for two months before his elbow can handle the stress of pitching, Towers looks like he is done, and Scott Downs never looked like much of an answer to begin with. The Jays will just have to hope that Doc Halladay and Burnett form the 1-2 punch they dreamed of when they opened their wallets this winter, while also hoping that the useful Ted Lilly continues to show up on the mound.

--Marc Normandin


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