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June 21, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Belles

by Joe Sheehan

A longstanding blind spot in the mainstream media is that a player who starts very hot or very cold will have his season perceived that way no matter what kind of performance follows. The obvious reason is the reliance on counting stats; a ten-homer, 30-RBI April can embed you in the league leaderboards for most of the first half, while low numbers in those categories can render you invisible.

Teams, unfortunately, can also make decisions based on this phenomenon. If Troy Glaus had started 1999 with a .130/.180/.185 month, he would have surely ended up in the Pacific Coast League. But that was his May; that monstrosity came on the heels of a .341/.438/.683 April, so his overall stat line looked decent. The memory of his success was fresh in the team's mind, and Glaus kept his job through the slump and eventually for the entire 1999 season. Having success before failure made all the difference, and if you don't believe me, ask Aramis Ramirez.

There are players whose perceived performance in 2000 is currently running well ahead of their actual performance, and it's all because of their hot start. Conversely, there are players like Albert Belle who are having a June bloom in near-anonymity because their April was filled with...uh...gloom.

We'll start with the former. Pokey Reese got a lot of attention in April thanks to a brief stint atop the batting average chart. His offense, or lack of same, has been a big part of the Reds' struggle to keep pace with the Cardinals: since May 1, his OBP is just barely over .300. His overall .282/.350/.416 makes him just the tenth-best hitter among NL second baseman, according to EqA. Reese's defense is above-average, but he's really a problem at the top of the Reds' lineup, because he's not going to hit .360, or even .282, all year.

Like Reese, Derek Bell hit for a high average in April, and like Reese he was profiled by a national sports magazine for his trouble. And like Reese, Bell has been sucking up a lot of outs ever since at the top of a lineup that doesn't need helps sucking up outs. His .320 OBP since the season's first month hasn't made the loss of Rickey Henderson any easier for the Mets to endure, while Bell's contract and hot start ensure that he'll get the lion's share of at-bats as the team's right fielder. That's a problem, yo.

You remember the Cardinals, right? Lots of runs, lots of home runs, were going to break every offensive record in baseball history by Labor Day? Well, it's not quite working out that way, and part of the reason is the problems Fernando Vina has had.

Vina, whose .436 OBP and sustained health were major factors in the Red April, wound down not long after that. His damaged hamstring can explain some of the decline, but no injury can account for his having just one walk since Memorial Day. That and his sub-.200 batting average left him with an OBP in the low .200s since then. His EqA has even slipped below that of Reese, for 11th among the league's second basemen. When Vina comes back, he needs to stay away from DiSar legends Placido Polanco and Shawon Dunston, who have three walks total in 219 at-bats.

Just to show we're not just picking on hitters with disappearing batting averages, let's toss in a pitcher who hasn't been as effective as you think. In 1999, Tom Glavine had his worst year since 1990, with an ERA of 4.12 and a league-leading 259 hits allowed. Glavine started 2000 like a house on fire, with a 1.73 ERA in his first seven starts. He allowed just 31 hits in his first 52 innings pitched. Since then, he's posted an ERA of 5.33 with peripherals that look more like last year's: 57 hits and 23 walks in 52 1/3 innings.

Glavine is still the seventh-best starter in the NL according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement, but it's clear that his ranking is not related to how he's pitched since his early effectiveness. His performance certainly isn't as good as many people who have touted his "comeback" believe. Like all the players here, the perception of his season has more to do with the order in which he's had his good and bad streaks than with what he's done in its entirety.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the true "Belles," the ones who started out cold and have really begun to perform.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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