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August 16, 2006

Prospectus Today

Mid-Week Grab Bag

by Joe Sheehan

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I received lots of responses to Monday's AL MVP column. Whether you necessarily agreed with my conclusion or not, I like that this is something a lot of people have well-crafted opinions on, and I hope I added to the discussion. Even my stated opinion that Derek Jeter is the AL MVP to date is a very tenuous one; he and Joe Mauer are 1 and 1A for me right now, and the feedback I got from the piece has me tossing and turning over that ordering.

Aside: someone asked why, when the metrics mostly point Mauer's way, I have Jeter on top. It's the extra playing time and a sense that Mauer's fielding runs (FRAR) may be a tad inflated. So may Jeter's, however. Ask me again after Labor Day.

There's just no way to reach a definitive conclusion right now, which isn't bad. Sometimes, all you can hope for is to put it out there and hope that it serves the discussion. Judging from my inbox, I think that happened.

And then there's stuff like this…

I stumbled across your MVP drivel. As always, you are a joke Joe. You can honestly sit there and tell me that there no MVP candidates on the White Sox? That makes me giggle.

It'll be full blown laughter when we repeat. Jackass.

--E.

I get my share of these, which comes with the territory. There is still a segment of the readership that thinks I have some kind of bias against the White Sox, or that I would take pleasure in their demise. Well, I picked the White Sox to win the AL wild card at the start of the season, and I spent most of June and July saying that they were the best team in the AL and would eventually catch and pass the Tigers. I was profuse in my praise for their defense last year, as well as their power. I've written and said many positive things about how Ozzie Guillen manages a pitching staff and a bench, and have made a specific point of noting Kenny Williams as someone who has developed into an excellent general manager.

To think that I have some kind of bias against the White Sox is to ignore probably 90% of what I've put out there about the team. I spent much of last season skeptical of them. It doesn't mean I want to see Disco Demolition II, and it doesn't mean that Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome were left out of Monday's column because I hate the "Fundamentals" sign (which is really silly).

Dye and Thome didn't make the cut because, well, you have to stop somewhere. The initial version of the column also didn't have Grady Sizemore, but I didn't think I could include Vernon Wells without including him, since Sizemore's been about as good this year. I don't think Dye or Thome is going to receive any serious consideration for AL MVP from either the writers or the Internet Baseball Awards voters. Downballot voting, perhaps, on a plurality of ballots? Sure, and that's not necessarily wrong. But is either player a candidate for the top spot, or the top five, on ballots that don't emanate from shouting distance of the Dan Ryan Expressway?

Thome is fairly easy to dismiss: he's the second- or third-best DH in the league, depending on what he and David Ortiz did in their last few at-bats, and that guy isn't going to be an MVP. VORP has him as the seventh-best position player in the AL, RARP says sixth, and neither of those give any extra credit--as I do--for playing a key defensive position.

Dye is a slightly different story. He's hitting roughly as well as Thome is while also playing a good right field. He's the best right fielder in the AL, the kind of hook that Thome can't claim. As many people pointed out, his WARP score of 6.4 puts him right in the mix with Jeter, Mauer and Sizemore. If Sizemore was a last-minute addition, why not Dye? There's no answer that's going to make E. happy, but for the rest of you, I'll provide two. The first is that I didn't dig up Dye's WARP; I cut off the hitters using the VORP lists, stopping at Miguel Tejada. Had I done so…hell, I still might not have added him. There's a meta-discussion to be had here about how much we can trust derived fielding ratings based on two-thirds of a season. Dye's MVP candidacy, such as it is, rests pretty heavily on his 14 FRAR. They vault him into the discussion. On the other hand, FRAR was a factor in the rankings of every other player, so why hold it against Dye?

The second reason is that even if I'd noticed his WARP, I would probably have listed him, but hand-waved him away. He has a better hook than Thome, but what are we really talking about here? The sixth- or seventh-best hitter in the league who plays a corner-outfield spot fairly well. Is that guy cracking the top five in a year where there are four guys having big years from up-the-middle slots, plus two guys out-hitting him by a win and some pitchers with cases?

Every other player I listed either should get MVP consideration or will. Perhaps Jermaine Dye should have been included because he's one of the top ten or so players in the league. I don't think he's a real MVP candidate, someone we actually need to consider for the award based on either their performance or their presence in the discussion (c.f., Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon). He wasn't left out because I hate the White Sox, though; he was left out because you have to stop somewhere, and I cut off the list at the guys who are going to be considered for league MVP. Dye, as good a year as he's having, isn't.

I'll leave you with this, something I wrote a long time ago.

I don't expect to change the world by saying this, but it's important to me to make this point: when you read The Daily Prospectus, or any written work, give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he's thought about the issue and done some analysis and reached a reasonable conclusion. Maybe he does believe what he's saying, and wants to share that information with people, free of an agenda. Maybe the information presented even goes against what his preconceived notions, or established preferences, are. (I can tell you that this happens more than you might think.)

--

  • Anybody notice what Grady Little has been doing with the Dodger relievers? The team's last three saves are by three different pitchers, the last of those a two-inning job by Giovanni Carrara, who's no one's idea of a closer but who was left in after a solid ninth to protect a three-run lead. What was really weird was that the world kept spinning.

    Some of the usage has been due to circumstance. The Dodgers' spate of low-scoring, close games has caused Little to ride Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton quite hard. Still, consider the last week or so. On August 8, Little used Broxton in the eighth and Saito in the ninth to preserve a win. The next night, he brought Saito in with two runners on and two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game. On the 10th, Saito, pitching for the third day in a row, blew a save in the ninth inning. Little gave him the 11th off and used Broxton for a one-inning save. Saturday, it was back to Broxton/Saito. Sunday, Saito threw a scoreless tenth inning in his fifth outing in six days. Monday, Little used Carrara in the eighth, and despite a save situation starting the ninth, stayed with the journeyman righty against a Marlins lineup loaded with right-handed bats. He gave up a solo homer and a single, but notched the save.

    The decision to use Carrara and not the rested Broxton was exactly the kind of situational, rather than statistical, decision that more managers need to make. With a three-run lead, the platoon advantage and the bottom of the order coming up, you don't need to use your best pitcher. Little made the right call, one that was highly unlikely to cost him a ballgame and bought his best relievers an extra day of rest during a time when they've been pitching a lot. If managers did this 10 times a year--used a secondary reliever in an "easy save" situation when matchups and lineup allowed for it--and got 10 high-leverage outings in non-save situations from their best reliever because of it, they'd come out ahead on the deal.

    Let's be honest. Little gets to do this because he's not passing over Eric Gagne to do so, but it would be just as good an idea if he were. The Dodgers are in the driver's seat in the NL West. If Little continues to show flexiblity with his talent, they'll not only play into October, they'll have a edge in the dugout when they do.

  • It may be time to just abandon all distinctions among plays that don't get made by the defense. Eliminate the concept of the "error" and all the scoring issues that stem from it. I mean, it's clear that official scorers have. Twice in three days I've seen outfielders flat-out drop baseballs and not get called for errors.

    Mike Cameron dropped a tailing fly ball while standing still on Sunday in Houston, and they gave Lance Berkman a double and a gift receipt. Last night in Boston, Wily Mo Pena botched a short fly ball down the right-field line; he was moving more than Cameron was, but the ball hit him in the glove while he was upright and decelerating. Hit and an RBI for Craig Monroe, earnie for Mike Timlin.

    The trend for many years has been to err on the side of not. We've pretty much reached the absurdum at the end of that reductio now. As long as defenders don't suffer a compound fracture on the play, they avoid the error. This may seem trivial, but as long as pitchers are being paid in part on their ERAs and some segment of the baseball world regards fielding percentage as an evaluative tool, the unwillingness of official scorers to do their job is meaningful.

    Either call errors errors, or just eliminate the concept entirely. The current system is an embarrassment, perhaps the only one that could overshadow that play by Pena last night.

  • When the Astros don't make the playoffs for the first time since 2003, consider some sequences from Monday night's shutout loss to the Cubs:

    • In the first, Carlos Zambrano started off both Willy Taveras and Craig Biggio with three straight balls. He struck out Taveras and walked Biggio on five pitches. With Zambrano showing command problems, Lance Berkman promptly stepped up, swung at the first pitch and lined out to second.
    • In both the second and the sixth innings, Brad Ausmus grounded into double plays. Ausmus has grounded into 17 double plays this year and knocked 15 extra-base hits. He's grounded into all those double plays while batting behind Preston Wilson (.309 OBP) and Adam Everett (.293 OBP) for most of the year, so it's not that he's a victim of circumstance. He's just terrible.
    • In the eighth, with Zambrano edging towards 120 pitches, he walked Aubrey Huff on four straight balls to open the inning. That brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Morgan Ensberg. Zambrano walked the last guy on four pitches and went 3-1 on the last batter of the seventh inning. Is it possible that a plan would begin to form in Mr. Ensberg's head, the one attached to the body of the tying run?

      First-pitch fastball in on the fists, Ensberg pops out to first. No, wait, there's more. Luke Scott steps in, and again I note that in the last five batters, the only ones Zambrano hasn't fallen behind are the ones who've made outs at the first pitch while not hitting the ball out of the infield.

      First pitch grounder topped to first for a fielder's choice.

    • And yet, there's still more. With one out in the ninth inning and the Astros now down 3-0, Mike Lamb worked a six-pitch walk out of Ryan Dempster. Taveras came up with the tying run in the on-deck circle, and better still, Lance Berkman in the hole. One baserunner would assure the Astros of getting their best player to the plate, from his good side, against a pitcher who's allowing a .316/.396/.453 line to lefties. Opportunity!

      Taveras swung at the first pitch, a fastball on the inner half, and inside-outed his way into a double play to end the game.

    Now, I got into a debate with another BPer about this. His defense of the actions was, essentially, that the players might well have seen a pitch they liked and gone after it, and that the failure to do anything helpful wasn't necessarily the sign of no plan in place. I don't agree, but let's concede the point; let's say that the actions of Ensberg, Scott and Taveras were the result of an approach at the plate, an actual plan.

    What a stupid plan.

    This isn't some kind of Stathead 1996, walks-uber-alles argument. This is just baseball. When you have a struggling pitcher on the mound, make him work. When that pitcher is tired and struggling, and prone to control problems, make him work harder. When you have a reliever on the mound who's shown an ability to disintegrate, give him a chance to do so. Swinging at the first pitch--and in Ensberg's case to be sure, a terrible first pitch--cuts off an entire segment of paths to a win. There's a reason that the Yankees make the playoffs every year behind one of the game's better offenses; they make pitchers work, and by doing so, get into hitters' counts and middle relief and get all kinds of bonuses for their time.

    The Astros did none of that on Monday. When Zambrano got into trouble in the first and the eighth, they threw him a rope faster than I can come up with a way to finish this simile. When Dempster opened the door in the ninth, Taveras immediately closed it.

    This worked last year, when the Astros had a truly historic rotation. Their march to the World Series on the backs of three incredible pitchers obscured just how little they got from about 13 roster spots. With no history being made on the mound this year, we're seeing just how unimpressive the rest of the team is. You just can't overcome having Ausmus, Everett and Taveras, plus a pitcher, plus a half-season of Preston Wilson. It's like starting up a baseball-content provider and hiring…hey, I can't finish that one, either.

    Bad baseball is bad baseball, whether the guy pointing it out played 15 years in the majors or had his career highlight at 15 years old. The Astros played bad baseball on Monday night.

  • Knee-jerk reactions don't add much to the discussion. I was watching Monday night's Diamondbacks/Rockies game--say, anyone notice who's a game out of the wild card?--and learned that the Rockies had signed Vinny Castilla. Immediately, I was off on a rant (in my head; Sophia and the cats don't care) about what a ridiculous waste of time, money and especially roster space this was…

    My god, how can you even think about cutting Garrett Atkins off like this, and even if Castilla is just going to be a backup, how can you justify having a slow, right-handed power guy who plays one position backing up your other slow, right-handed power guy who plays one position? Castilla might be a better defender than Atkins, but he's lost enough steps that the difference is tiny, and not at all worth the roster spot, not for a team that can justify carrying a dozen pitchers. Was there a memo, a directive, a plume of smoke that inspired…hey, is that cake?

    Well, that was premature. The Rockies actually signed Castilla to a minor-league contract, and have no plans to call him up before September 1, when rosters expand. Beyond that, and the usual talk about how Castilla's veteran presence will help this young Rockies team deal with late-season pressure, this move is a gesture. However overrated he might have been during his first term in Denver, Castilla is a significant part of Rockies' history and will always be identified as a Rockie. He plans to retire after this season and indicated that he'd like to do so as a Rockie. The team accomodated him.

    Rather than a disaster in the making, this decision is essentially a non-factor for the team on the field and a nice move both from public-relations and player-relations standpoints. Castilla won't bring anything to the Rockies, but he won't cost them anything either. He understands that there won't be a spot for him until September, and even at that there won't be much playing time. He'll get a month of nice ovations, presumably, and the Rockies can plan Vinny Castilla Day to draw some people to the park on the last homestand.

    Maybe I'm going too soft on this, but the practice of wanting to "retire as" a member of a certain team strikes me as one of the few ways in which players get to show something like loyalty. It seems more common in football, but it's not unheard of in baseball. That this is an in-season move, and not something happening as a paperwork move in the offseason, is a trivial difference. Call it a graceful move on both sides, and save the stathead rants for another day.

    And yes, it was cake.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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