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September 19, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

More Than Their Fair Share

by Jim Baker

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It's a good thing for the Cubs Juan Pierre has played somewhat better in the second half than he did in the first. Driven mostly by a better batting average, he has improved from .275/.321/.361 before the All-Star Game to .313/.347/.415 since. It's good because he may well set an Expansion Era record for the greatest percentage of his team's Plate Appearances hogged. Right now, he's on top--but just barely. What is more, he has competition from another current player, Ichiro Suzuki.

These are the highest percentage of team plate appearance figures since 1960:

12.2% -- Pierre, 2006 Cubs
12.2% -- Sandy Alomar, 1971 Angels
12.2% -- Dave Cash, 1974 Pirates
12.2% -- Pete Rose, 1972 Reds
12.2% -- Ichiro, 2006 Mariners
12.2% -- Omar Moreno, 1980 Pirates
12.1% -- Pierre, 2004 Marlins
12.1% -- Kirby Puckett, 1985 Twins
12.1% -- Ichiro, 2005 Mariners
12.1% -- Ozzie Smith, 1981 Padres

Pierre's 2003 season is also ranked among the leaders at 13th. Of the 22 players who have been given 12% of their team's plate appearances since 1960, Pierre's 2006 VORP of 16.7 ranks 15th. From the no-accounting-for-taste department, these players were given nearly one out of every eight batting opportunities by their teams:

-0.6: Smith, 1981 Padres
2.8: Moreno, 1980 Pirates
7.7: Roger Metzger, 1972 Astros
9.2: Alomar, Sr., 1970 Angels
15.2: Puckett, 1985 Twins
15.4: Alomar, Sr., 1971 Angels
15.8: Dick Groat, 1962 Pirates

Since only top-of-the-order men would have a decent shot at being on this list, it's amazing to note that four of these players didn't even crack a .300 OBP in these seasons. Metzger was worse at .286. Smith was at .294. Alomar finished at .298 and .293 in '70 and '71 respectively. Moreno was at .305 in 1980 and Groat was at .325. Pierre hasn't been much better than that this year, currently boasting a .330 OBP overall.

In all, these 12 percenters haven't really represented well. Ichiro's 2004 season is the best at 68.7 VORP. Rickey Henderson had a .408 OBP in 1981 in his sole 12% year. Matty Alou had an EqA of .293 in 1969 in his 12% season. The rest, while better than the '06 version of Pierre, did not post a VORP higher than 40.0.

Expanding the search to the 200 players with the highest percentage of their team's batting turns usurped, we find these gems:

-27.1: Bill Virdon (1962 Pirates): Virdon and teammate Groat teamed up to use nearly a quarter of the Pirates' opportunities. Their version of setting the table at the top of Pittsburgh's order didn't include knives, forks or plates. They made a staggering 1,008 outs between them. The Pirates still managed to win 93 games, although they were barely over .500 against the non-expansion teams.

-13.0: Del Unser (1968 Senators): In manager Jim Lemon's defense, there were no Eddie Yosts on this version of the Senators. Even in a season of extreme hitting deprivation, Lemon's choices for the top of the order were slim. Unser, a rookie, posted a .282 OBP (and an even lower slugging average!). Ed Stroud often batted second and got the top spot a couple of times. His OBP was .284. Fred Valentine got a few leadoff assignments before being shipped to Baltimore. His OBP was .294. Sam Bowens and his .262 OBP got a handful of starts at leadoff as well. Of the 324 starts given to one-two hitters on this team, only about 10% were assigned to players with OBPs over .300. Please, let us never see 1968's like again!

-9.1: Ivan DeJesus (1981 Cubs): There is every possibility that, had the strike not occurred, DeJesus would have come closer to his career norm than the .276 OBP he posted in 1981. That was about 50 points below his career average. About 65 games into the truncated season, manager Joey Amalfatano came to his senses and dropped DeJesus to eighth in the order. Unfortunately, this only lasted a dozen games before he was permanently inserted as the number two man.

-0.6: Ozzie Smith (1981 Padres): This was back when Smith's protoplasm was merely a conveyance for a glove. He would never hit this badly again--at least until he was past 40 and there was another season shortened by a strike.

1.8: Warren Cromartie (1979 Expos): Cromartie would have a much higher percentage except that he spent the first third of the season batting in the three spot. At that point, manager Dick Williams swapped batting order positions with Andre Dawson. Neither was an OBP machine (Cromartie .312, Dawson .309). The best hitter on the team was third baseman Larry Parrish. Oddly, Williams kept him in the seven-hole all year. Can you make the case that giving Parrish 100 extra chances and Cromartie 100 fewer would have made up the two-game difference between the second-place Expos and the first-place Pirates?

1.9: Roy White (1973 Yankees): It's surprising to find White on this list as he always had the reputation of being an extremely competent ballplayer. His counting stats for 1973 don't look especially poor: 18 home runs, 88 runs scored, 78 walks. The problem is that, with 723 plate appearances at his disposal, he should have done more.

2.0: Pete Rose (1982 Phillies): Please don't accuse me of kicking Pete Rose while he's down. I've been kicking at him much longer than that. Rose had actually been decent in 1981. This season, though, marked the real beginning of the end. Except the end didn't arrive. There were another 1,648 plate appearances to come as Petey shamelessly tracked Ty Cobb's hit record.

2.8: Omar Moreno (1980 Pirates): The forward movement of his career was gone by this point. Two years before, he had received 77 unintentional walks in 628 plate appearances. In 1980, it was 46 in 745. He stole more but was caught much more frequently. Batting average, the biggest tentpole of his flying circus, fell off by 33 points and took much of his value with it.

3.4: Bobby Richardson (1965 Yankees): In hindsight, Richardson's career seems like some sort of hoax. He made the All-Star team seven times in spite of only having one very good season (1962). In the seasons we have data for (1960-1966) he had a negative PMLV in every year but 1962 and was the worst among regular American League second basemen a couple of times. He had a career EqA of .236 without experiencing a decline phase in that he retired at the age of 30. The only thing he did less than walk was strike out. Since he rarely homered, just about every one of his plate appearances resulted in him hitting the ball at somebody--even his singles. Can you imagine his impact on fielding statistics in the early 1960s?

3.9: Sandy Alomar, Sr. (1972 Angels): We will probably never see his like again: a player with a career .290 OBP and an even lower career slugging average (.288) who was entrusted with a staggering 2,140 plate appearances in a three-year period between 1970-72. There was a time that players who fit a certain profile were naturally assumed to belong at the top of batting orders. Smallish, scrappy, fast, middle infieldery or centerfieldery--those were the things that mattered, all else be damned. If it looked, smelled and tasted like a leadoff man, it must have been one.

Fortunately, that way of thinking has long since been on the wane. That's why there are so few players on these lists from recent times.

Pierre is an exception and we owe it to the efforts of three managers: one who is old school by dint of being old (Jack McKeon), one who is old school by choice (Dusty Baker) and one who was a bit of both (Jeff Torborg). Torborg was the first to install Pierre as a leadoff man every single day of the year. His replacement, McKeon, continued the practice. When Pierre moved to Chicago, Baker left him right there at the top every single day, even though he spent the first part of the season not getting on base very regularly. He's now in a position where he'll get 200 hits for the fourth time in his career and everyone will marvel at that, even though it's being done with an EqA of .250. Meanwhile, he's walking less than ever.

A more forward-thinking manager--and if one is a Cubs fan one hopes that is what will be at the helm in 2007--will drop Pierre to the bottom of the order if he keeps him at all. At that point, his days of copping one of every eight or nine of his team's chances will come to an end.

Related Content:  The Who,  Managers Of The Year,  OBP

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