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May 24, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

On the Bubble

by Nate Silver

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I'm going through the process of finding a new apartment right now, which has reminded me an awful lot of the selection process for the 50 most valuable list. In each case, you wind up judging something by its worst quality: the dog barking upstairs, the berber carpet in the den, or the strikeout rate that's a little lower than you'd like. And in each case, you wind up feeling like a jerk in the process; people take both their living spaces and their baseball very personally.

Fifty isn't very many players at all--just one or two per team, which roughly corresponds to the number of Hall of Famers that a team is likely to have playing for it at any given time. A player can do everything right and not qualify for the Top 50, provided that someone else does everything a little bit better. Nevertheless, I received dozens of e-mails asking why certain players had been excluded, and while a couple of those suggestions were ridiculous--Rob Mackowiak's name was mentioned--there were six players who were mentioned more than once. Let's review those cases, in declining order of frequency:

  • Matt Cain

    The Case For: The ERA is good, and the scouting reports are better. He's young, healthy, and very pitcher-y.

    The Case Against: I'm just not that into you, Matt Cain. You've got a great pitcher's body and you throw hard, and I'd gladly take you as my #3 starter for the next half-dozen years. But a Top 50 player? I don't think that's where you belong. Your command has never been good and only SBC Park saves you from having all those flyballs you give up turn into home runs. When I plug your statistics from this year into the QuikERA formula I come up with 5.10. And while I see that John Smoltz is your #1 PECOTA comparable, the prevailing scenario is that you wind up in a class of pitchers like Andy Benes.

    The Verdict: Absolutely nothing wrong with being Andy Benes; he won 155 games in the major leagues. He also lost 139.

  • Josh Beckett

    The Case For: Beckett had a stronger case than Cain heading into the season--his five-year PECOTA Upside score was 138.5, as compared against Cain's 120.9. He's also been far and away the better pitcher this year, with his QERA at a tidy 3.02 in spite of the disadvantages of pitching in Fenway Park in a league in which the pitcher doesn't hit for himself.

    The Case Against: He's gotten the best of Boston's schedule this year, having faced the Yankees just once, but the Orioles twice, and the A's, Angels, Mariners, and Royals once apiece; his average opponent has had a 711 OPS. He's hurt--again. And his lifetime ERA as a member of the Red Sox is 4.55.

    The Verdict: Beckett probably deserves a slot on the Honorable Mention list in lieu of someone like Ian Kinsler; even if PECOTA understates his injury risk, it also can't account directly for his plus stuff. But before we anoint him among baseball's elite, let's see how (and if) he's pitching against the Yankees in July.

  • Adrian Gonzalez

    The Case For: He's hit at an elite level since last year's All-Star break, and his defense around the first base bag is superlative. Arguably, his numbers before 2006 can't really be taken at face value because of the significant roadblock represented by Mark Teixeira; although we haven't studied this issue specifically, incentives matter in any human activity, and it can't be easy to remain focused when it feels like the possibility of a future job in the big leagues might be outside of your hands.

    The Case Against: Gonzalez has cooled off slightly since the time when I was getting a lot of e-mails about the Top 50; his line in May was an uninspired .247/.317/.479. He's also slow for a player his age, having grounded into 24 double plays last year and with just one stolen base at any professional level since 2004. Finally, there's a lot of competition at first base.

    The Verdict: His EqA on the season now stands at .301, which is right in line with PECOTA's 75th percentile projection and probably not enough over a 45-game sample size to cause us to deviate significantly from PECOTA's 129.2 Upside score, which is more in line with someone in the 75-100 range than the Top 50. I see a player who should make a couple of All-Star teams and maybe has a Tino Martinez-circa-1997 season hidden somewhere in there, but not necessarily a long career.

  • Ichiro Suzuki

    The Case For: He has every tool except hitting for power, including some hidden ones like staying extremely healthy. The PECOTA forecast is pessimistic, but it's been wrong before on Ichiro and it can be wrong again, especially as he has such an unusual skill set. Furthermore, his DT fielding scores don't jibe with consensus opinion. He's playing center field now and playing it well. He's fun.

    The Case Against: Ichiro would be the oldest player in the Top 50; both Ichiro and Derek Jeter are listed at 33, but Jeter is eight months younger. Though power is just one tool, it's an awfully important one, especially for an outfielder. Any decline in reflexes could be disastrous, given his plate approach.

    The Verdict: PECOTA is probably wrong on Ichiro. It wants to treat him as a glorified slap hitter along the lines of Lance Johnson, when Ichiro's unparalleled bat control makes him completely unique and much more capable of sustaining higher batting averages. Still, a 37.1 Upside score is just a little too much ground to make up. If you add 5-7 points a year to his Upside score because PECOTA underrates his offense, another 5-7 points because the DTs underrate his defense, and another 3-5 for his baserunning, that would get him somewhere in the range of 100-130, which is perhaps good enough for Honorable Mention but not for the Top 50. If you're willing to consider off-field value and marketing intangibles, you can make the case for Ichiro, but I still think this is likely to be one of the worst free agent signings of next winter.

  • Carl Crawford

    The Case For: He's improved his game every year and is still just 25. Like Ichiro, he deserves some bonus points for baserunning above and beyond his stolen bases.

    The Case Against: Crawford did get an Honorable Mention nod, so it's not like we're ignoring him completely. In fact, I wanted to find a spot for him in the Top 50, but he kept losing most of the battles when I asked myself whether I'd trade Player X for Crawford. As I mentioned in the SI.com piece, his lifetime OBP is just .329, which is a bit deceptive since he shouldn't be punished for having reached the majors so young, but we're still talking about a corner outfielder whose lifetime high in EqA is .293.

    The Verdict: Defense is probably the key variable. One ambiguity with Crawford is that PECOTA is treating him as a left fielder, when you'd probably consider him for center if you were building a team from scratch; my gut says that I'd rather have his next six years than the next six years of Vernon Wells. Still, there is some evidence that his defense isn't as good as it once was; he's bulked up a bit, and both the DTs and PMR regarded him as no better than average in left last year. I'll stick to my guns for now, but he's probably moved into the honorary #51 slot, ready to take advantage of the next injury.

  • Placido Polanco

    The Case For: I received a rather sarcastic e-mail asking why Placido Polnaco wasn't in the Top 50; I assumed that it was a joke, but another one came in a day later. He is hitting .333 this year, and plays outstanding second base defense.

    The Case Against: He's into his 30s, his VORP last year as 7.9, and slowish players who rely on batting average don't tend to age well.

    The Verdict: I'm a Tiger fan so there's no hate here; Polanco has been an underrated player for a long time. But he's this year's version of Freddy Sanchez.

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

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