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April 1, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Opening Night

by John Perrotto

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Jeff Francoeur elicited one of the best statistical-themed lines uttered by a major-league player last season. Reliever Josh Sharpless was making his major-league debut for Pittsburgh on Aug. 1 against Atlanta when he fell behind in the count to Francoeur, the Braves' right fielder.

"I was so nervous to begin with, then I let Francoeur get a three-ball count and I'm thinking to myself, 'What I am doing? He never draws a walk,'" Sharpless said.

Sharpless wasn't far from the truth. Francoeur was one of only six major-leagues last season to hit at least 10 home runs and finish the season with more homers than walks:

PLAYER                   HR BB

Joe Crede, CWS           30 28
Jeff Francoeur, Atl      29 23
Juan Uribe, CWS          21 13
Miguel Olivo, Fla        16 9
Rocco Baldelli, TB       16 14
Eliezer Alfonzo, SF      12 9

Francoeur finished last season with a .260 batting average and only a .293 on-base percentage. That came after his dazzling rookie season in 2005, when the Sports Illustrated cover boy batted .300, though his OBP was just .336 due to 11 walks in 257 plate appearances.

Francoeur says one of his objectives this season is to show better strike-zone judgment.

"Am I always going to be an aggressive hitter? Absolutely," Francoeur told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I can be a more disciplined aggressive hitter. I'm a better hitter than .260."

Francoeur hit .309/.319/.519 with four home runs in 68 at bats during exhibition play. However, he drew exactly one walk all spring despite working deeper counts and waiting for pitches he could drive.

"Finishing at .260 drove me to work and figure out what I could do to make me a .290 or .300 hitter," Francoeur said. "I'm not going to be a .340 hitter but there's no reason I can't be a .290, .300 hitter every year."

Francoeur will have to hit in that range to have even a reasonably decent on-base percentage. PECOTA sees that happening despite his lack of plate discipline, projecting him to have batting averages of .283, .289, .288, .302, .301 over the next five seasons to go with OBPs of .330, .344, .345, .353, .350 and home run totals of 24, 29, 31, 32, 32.

PECOTA also doesn't expect any of last year's six members of the more homers than walks club to repeat that feat this season, forecasting 31 walks and 24 homers for Francoeur, 34 walks and 25 homers for Crede, 29 walks and 20 homers for Uribe, 14 walks and 11 homers for Olivo, 28 walks and 20 homers for Baldelli and 15 walks and 10 homers for Alfonzo.

Speaking of plate discipline, we would be remiss not to mention that Detroit utility infielder Neifi Perez drew nine walks in 56 plate appearances this spring, leading to a .411 on base percentage. That's pretty amazing, considering he has a .298 career OBP in 11 seasons and had just eight walks in 241 plate appearances with the Chicago Cubs and Tigers last year.

---

We've looked at the importance (or lack thereof) of spring training statistics over the past few weeks.

However, four of the American League's more recognizable players hope that poor springs have no bearing on their regular-season performance: Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore and designated hitter Travis Hafner, Boston catcher Jason Varitek and Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer.

Sizemore had a downright dismal Grapefruit League performance as he hit .115/.154/.246 in 61 at bats. This from a player who established himself as a superstar last season when he batted .290/.375/.533 with 92 extra-base hits, including 28 home runs, and 134 runs scored.

Hafner wasn't much better. He failed to homer in 53 at-bats while hitting .208/.264/.323. Last year, Hafner hit .308/.439/.659 with 42 homers and 117 RBI in only 129 games.

"I'm not worried about either one," Indians manager Eric Wedge told the Lake County News-Herald. "They both know how to get themselves prepared for the season. Grady's swing is fine. He's hit a lot of balls hard and I like the way he is covering the plate."

Varitek posted .159/.260/.295 numbers in 44 at bats, which could be the continuation of a decline from last season when he hit .238/.325/.400 in 103 games. Nearly 35 and with 1,017 career games caught, it wouldn't be a stretch to think Varitek might be finished.

"I'm just working on my timing mechanism," Varitek told the Boston Globe. "I'm trying to combine some of the old things I did with some new things. Hopefully, things will start to click soon."

A year after becoming the first catcher ever to win an AL batting title when he hit .347/.429/.507, Mauer's numbers this spring were just .220/.298/.341 in 41 at bats as he was bothered by a stress reaction in his left fibula.

Mauer, though, hit a three-run double off Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm in the exhibition finale, giving him hope everything is back on track.

"I should be fine heading into the season," Mauer said.

PECOTA sees good years ahead for all four players with the following projections:

Sizemore: .282/.364/.504 with 25 homers and 91 RBI

Hafner: .296/.407/.585 with 37 homers and 109 RBI

Varitek: .274/.357/.453 with 14 homers and 57 RBI

Mauer: .331/.411/.500 with 16 homers and 84 RBI.

A note of caution, though--PECOTA has a 40 percent collapse rate and a 29 percent attrition rate for Varitek and a 36 percent collapse rate for Hafner.

---

Spring stats apparently don't matter to Texas as perennial righthanded whipping boy Jamey Wright won the fifth starter's job despite clearly being outperformed by righty Kameron Loe during the exhibition season.

Loe had a 0.92 ERA in 19 2/3 Cactus League innings while Wright had a 6.20 ERA in 20 1/3 innings.

The Rangers say the reason they chose Wright is that they wanted a veteran to go with two inexperienced right-handers--Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda--at the back end of their rotation.

However, much of Wright's experience hasn't been good. He is 67-98 with a 5.14 ERA in 267 games, 237 starts, in 11 major-league seasons.

No one unearths bad pitching statistics quite like the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant, and he came up with this gem: Wright's career winning percentage (.406) and ERA both rank 332nd out of the 335 pitchers who have started at least 200 major-league games over the past 50 years.

Jason Johnson (.359), Jack Fisher (.382) and Glendon Rusch (.390) are the only pitchers with a lower winning percentage; those with a worse ERA are Jimmy Haynes (5.37), Jose Lima (5.26) and Jason Bere (5.14).

Despite Loe's better spring, PECOTA doesn't see a whole lot of difference between his 2007 season and Wright's.

Loe is projected to go 5-6 with a 5.02 ERA and nine-inning averages of 9.8 hits, 2.9 walks and 4.5 strikeouts. The projection for Wright is a 5-7 record and 5.15 ERA to go with nine-inning averages of 9.6 hits, 3.4 walks and 4.4 strikeouts.

---

San Diego opens Tuesday at San Francisco but will be back in the friendly confines of Petco Park on Friday for the home opener against Colorado.

The spacious 3-year-old ballpark has been very kind to the Padres, especially in close games.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Padres are 56-22 in one-run games at Petco Park for a .718 winning percentage. The only major-league teams better in that category over the last three seasons were Boston (45-14, .764) and the New York Yankees (46-18, .719).

The Padres have had winning seasons in each of the three years and won the National League West twice. While Petco Park greatly depresses home runs, Padres pitcher Shawn Estes believes San Diego's bullpen is the biggest reason for the one-run success, particularly with all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman and set-up man Scott Linebrink.

"As a member of visiting teams, I can tell you that their offenses pressed a little bit because you knew how good the Padres' bullpen is," Estes told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Estes played in the NL West with Colorado in 2004 and Arizona in 2005.

"In the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, you knew it was going to be tough to score, so you press to score early. Plus, the Padres have had good starters. It's a good combination."

Padres relievers were second in the NL in ERA the past two seasons and sixth in 2004. However, Hoffman traces the success to a mindset created by familiar surroundings.

"You know going in that every game is going to be tight at home," Hoffman said.

Only the New York Mets (80) and Oakland (79) have played more one-run games at home in the past three seasons. Conversely, the Padres have played 15 fewer one-run games on the road in that span, going 28-35.

The Padres have failed to score before the sixth inning in 20 percent of their games at Petco Park and are averaging just 2.32 runs over the first five innings in 243 games there.

Hoffman says that playing at Petco Park for hitters is "sort of like if I had to pitch 81 dates in Coors Field."

The Padres finished second, third and fourth in the NL in runs scored on the road during the past three seasons but were 13th in overall runs scored the last two years after being eighth in that category in 2004.

"On the road, guys are running out of the dugout to get to home plate," Hoffman said. "People are trampling each to other to get to bat."

---

You know the guy is a drag on the lineup when BP polls its staff to see who each member's pick is for the Cristian Antonio Guzman Award, which goes to the position player most likely to put up the lowest VORP in regular playing time.

Washington hitting coach Mitchell Page, though, believes Guzman is ready to have a big year for the Nationals after watching him hit .419/.449/.543 in 46 at bats this spring. Of course, the shortstop hit .219/.260/.314 in 142 games for the Nationals in 2005 then missed last season because of shoulder surgery.

"Every at-bat is a quality at-bat," Page said. "If he carries it over into the season, he's going to hit .290-plus and be an All-Star."

Guzman has been a monumental bust since signing a four-year, $16.8-million contract as a free agent following the 2004 season, not long after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington.

"I know everybody's talking," Guzman said. "So I have to do something."

Guzman also had eye surgery this past winter. PECOTA pegs him to deliver at a .240/.284/.328 clip.

---

From the Rumor Mill:

  • Baltimore unsuccessfully tried to trade for Kansas City outfielder Reggie Sanders in the final days of spring training. Sanders is the odd man out with the Royals, as rookie Alex Gordon is taking over at third base, forcing Mark Teahen from the hot corner to right field. The Royals are trying to accommodate Sanders, a classy veteran, by moving him to a club where he could play more.
  • The Chicago White Sox are in the market for a veteran backup catcher after Toby Hall suffered a season-ending shoulder injury after diving for a ball while inexplicably being used at first base late in an exhibition game. One possibility is veteran Sandy Alomar Jr., who was sent to minor-league camp by the New York Mets this past week and has already had three stints with the White Sox.
  • Look for Felix Lopez, the lesser-known of George Steinbrenner's two sons-in-law to be soon given a position of some power with the Yankees. Steinbrenner's other son-in-law, Steve Swindal, was in line to succeed The Boss as the Yankees' chief executive until his wife Jennifer filed for divorce this past week. That came six weeks after Swindal was arrested for drunk driving on Valentine's Day night while an hour away from his Tampa home.
  • Scouts who watched Houston's Brad Lidge this spring believe his confidence is still so shaken--perhaps he hasn't let go of those Albert Pujols and Scott Podsednik homers from the 2005 posteason--that the Astros will likely be forced to put one of their set-up relievers, Dan Wheeler or Chad Qualls, into the closer's role by the end of April.
  • Hope and faith may actually be at work. Various major-league executives cited more teams believing they have a shot at the postseason as the primary reason behind the lack of trades during spring training.

John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. He can be reached at here

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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