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December 29, 2006

Prospectus Today

What I Learned

by Joe Sheehan

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I have to confess that the pace of news over the last week has taken me by surprise, with the last two big free agents coming off of the market, a decent-sized trade and the appeals court ruling. It's a bit frustrating to be off-track-I'm in New York seeing family and friends, and more importantly, I'm on dial-up-when all of this is happening, because finding the time and the Internet access to write it up isn't easy.

With that said, I wanted to be sure to write one more piece before 2006 ends. Normally, I take the last column of the season as an opportunity to look back on lessons learned during the year. I don't know that there were any major breakthroughs in '06. The biggest thing I'm taking into '07 from this year is a growing sense that no subset of a baseball season is predictive for either teams or players.

Remember that this was one of the things that came up in 2005, when the Astros, Indians and A's all bounced back from brutal starts to contend for postseason berths and, in the Astros' case, reach the World Series. The takeaway there was that six weeks or two months of baseball, particularly at the start of the year, might not be completely informative, and could even be deceptive. When I look at the rides that the Cardinals and Tigers took last year, each at times among the best and the worst teams in baseball, and moving from one to the other on a dime, I wonder if any amount of games can tell us what that team is really about, and what it may do going forward.

The Tigers went 70-35 through the end of July, then 25-32 after, including 19-31 in their final 50 games, the worst mark ever for a postseason team. Written off at the start of October, they went 7-1 to reach the World Series...where they looked like '03 Tigers for a week in losing four of five. The Cardinals didn't play as well for as long, but they built an early lead off a 34-19 start, which allowed them to close 49-58 and still win their division after nearly blowing a massive edge with two weeks to play. They then went 11-5 in the postseason and will be picking up some very large pieces of jewelry in a few months.

If a team can be the best in baseball for four months and then one of the worst for two, nothing less than that can seem unreasonable. We've come around to the idea that player performance bounces around within a season for no apparent reason, and now I think we have to acknowledge that team performance is just as unpredictable in the short and medium terms. Heck, even the Royals were respectable for the last four months (49-62) after a 13-38 start. I don't know what I'll be writing about come Memorial Day, but please, if I'm reaching conclusions about teams off of 60 games, you should come at me with both barrels.

I suppose the other thing I'm taking with me is dissatisfaction with the postseason. As much as people don't like to hear the words "random" and "luck," the six-small-division, three-level-playoff system doesn't add much to our body of knowledge about the teams that get into the tournament. The playoffs can be enjoyed because elimination series are fun, but the need to understand the difference between "best" and "champion" has never been so important. The 162-game regular season, even with its screwed-up scheduling, remains the best gauge of what a team really is.

--

Knocking off a few news items before we turn the page on 2006:

  • The news that the government will be allowed to access the names of players who failed drug tests under the 2003 survey-testing system wasn't good for baseball. It is inevitable that the names will find their way into the public sphere, and while most of them will no doubt be nonentities, some famous ballplayers will likely be on the list, and they will bear the brunt of the attention.

    There's no news value to this, of course. The three years of penalty-phase testing have shown that steroid use is not nearly as rampant as originally thought, and virtually nonexistent among stars. (For those who would interpret a lack of big-name positives as evidence that the cheaters are just cheating better, all I can say is that you're describing your belief system at that point.) Pitchers have been just as culpable as players. There has been no relationship between the stages of the drug-testing plan, with increased penalties, and things like offensive levels, home-run rates or power. Just based on the real evidence at hand-not "he looked like…" stuff, or the absolute joke that the treatment of Mark McGwire has become, but the data from the four years of testing-the steroid problem in MLB appears to have been overblown.

    But when the names leak, as they inevitably will, a half-dozen or a dozen guys will have to answer for their actions of four years ago. A program in which players were promised anonymity in exchange for their willingness to help MLB find out the extent of its problem, will instead be used to embarrass the players who trusted the agreement reached in 2002.

    The steroid "problem" isn't about drug use or the purity of statistics or protecting the children. It's about eyeballs and ad space and ratings and votes, and how you can use famous people to attract all of those things. The fact that 5-7% of players were found to be using steroids in 2003 isn't new information, and the drug use of players four years ago shouldn't be newsworthy. That it will be tells us a lot more about the media than it does those players.

  • Barry Zito reached agreement on a seven-year, $126-million contract to pitch for the Giants, and I'm not sure a single part of that sentence makes sense. I wouldn't give any pitcher a seven-year contract, not Johan Santana, not Felix Hernandez, not Kool-Aid Man. The $18 million average annual value is pretty much the top end of the 2006-07 free-agent market, so that's not terribly surprising, although it is a hell of a number.

    The fact that the Giants pulled in Zito was a surprise. I didn't see starting pitching as a big hole for them, certainly not as opposed to, say, the right side of the field. Zito makes them better, although they're not as equipped to support him in 2007, because of their poor defensive outfield, as the A's have been. Even with him, I don't think the Giants are as good as the Diamondbacks-yes, another year of me talking up the D'backs-and they may not be on par with the Dodgers or Padres. This is the rare free-agent contract that might be better for the team after the initial season.

    San Francisco is probably a good fit for Zito, though. AT&T Park has a big outfield and is fairly good at suppressing home runs. I suspect that 2007 may not be that much fun for him, as the Giants don't have a good defensive contingent covering that ground. Zito may only give up 20-25 homers, but allow 60 doubles and 15 triples along the way. Down the road, a younger, faster Giants outfield could make Zito a threat to push his ERA below 3.00, and I have to say that I wouldn't be surprised to see him challenge for a Cy Young Award a couple of times during this deal. For Zito, the move to a pitchers' park in the National League is perhaps the best thing he could have done to sustain his value over the course of a contract.

    I don't think this is a great parallel, but the one that keeps popping into my head is Jamie Moyer getting traded to the Mariners. I think Zito, who's a better pitcher than Moyer was at that point, could have stat lines and value comparable to Moyer's peak as he enters his thirties. That would make this a terrific deal for the Giants.

--

Thank you so much for making 2006 the most successful year in Baseball Prospectus' 11-year run. With the 11th edition of the annual, Baseball Between the Numbers, BP Premium, BP Fantasy and BP Radio, we're reaching more people than ever before, and we're proud to be able to . We'll continue to work hard in 2007 to be worth your time and your money, and we'll count on you to let us know how to make the BP experience a better one.

Personally, I want to wish everyone who reads this space a happy, healthy and successful 2007. I have an amazing readership, one that makes me think about the game and my own work in a way that makes me better. We should all be so lucky as to work for this kind of crowd.

USC 26, Michigan 21. See you on the other side...

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

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Giants Outfield

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