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June 12, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Rumsfeld Numbers, AL

by Jim Baker

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The American League Rumsfeld Numbers

Last time out, we discussed the Rumsfeld Number, the percentage of a team's plate appearances handled by players who are below replacement level. It is so named because of Donald Rumsfeld's statement that you go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the army you want.

We have not had any threatening cease-and-desist letters from Mr. Rumsfeld's legal representatives, so we might as well press on. Friday's column contained the National League figures; today we'll cover the American League.

Tigers (4.2): Is enough time spent kissing Bengal butt over what has transpired there in the past four years? Shouldn't shrines of gold supported by columns of marble be erected to honor this turnaround for the ages? First it was oblivion to the World Series in three short years, and now this: nearly an entire offensive roster functioning above replacement level. True, Sean Casey is just barely scraping by at the moment, but the Tigers have given plate appearances to just 13 men so far this year. As for the 4.2 percent of players in negative VORP, it all belongs to one man. This is a man whose name probably need not be mentioned, a man who needs no introduction; a man without whom sabermetrics would be a much more positive pursuit. I speak, naturally, of Neifi Perez. It's maddening, really: assembling a group that has the capability of plussing the entire season but putting a guaranteed sabotaging agent like Perez in the mix. Yes, to think that his presence on the roster is all that stands between the Tigers and an all plus-VORP team is pretty vexing. The good news is that he bats less than once a game on average, and there's always the chance he'll go on some kind of Neifi tear like he did with the Cubs two years ago to claw his way above replacement level. Stranger things have happened.

Yankees (10.2): As my friend Tim Walker says, when you've got a $200 million payroll and your best foot forward at first base and reserve catcher is Doug Mientkiewicz and Wil Nieves, you've done something wrong. Giving 40 PA to Nieves is no great sin, I suppose; I mean, somebody has to hunker down behind the plate when Jorge Posada needs a break, and it's not like the world is teeming with great-hitting backup catchers. In fact, there are 60 catchers in baseball this year with at least 30 PA, and fully half of them are below replacement level. That literally means one plus-squatter per team, although, getting back to Tim's comment, you might assume that the team with the biggest package of cabbage rollups would snag one of the better ones. Everyone has to cut corners somewhere, one supposes, and Nieves and Miguel Cairo are the rare Yankees purchased at John's Bargain Stores. Mientkiewicz, too, was a bit of planned obsolescence on the Yankees part. If everything else had gone according to plan, his great stretches of nothingness wouldn't have seemed so detrimental.

Mariners (14.0): Calculating a team's Rumsfeld Number is not necessarily a fault-finding mission. Take Seattle, for instance: you can't really blame them for not having the lowest number in baseball. Yes, their continued infatuation with Willie Bloomquist is nearly a built-in guarantee that they'll never achieve an all-plus-VORP roster, but even Wee Willie is just a few bloop hits away from zeroing out. The bulk of Seattle's negative plate appearances (just over 10 percent) come from Richie Sexson who is operating about 40 points below his career EqA of .293. You certainly can't blame the Mariners for giving him the at-bats.

Athletics (21.4): The largest chunk of this percentage belongs to Jason Kendall, who has somehow managed to continue his habit of posting higher OBPs than slugging averages in spite of only getting on base 23.6 percent of the time. This is the nub of the Rumsfeld Number concept right here: what else are they to do? The A's are on the hook for $8 million of his $13 million this year. That's a hard bit of cheese to swallow for a team of their financial wherewithal.

Indians (22.4): There are two types of trades people seem to like to talk most about. First are the trades that turned out to be lopsided. (These should be called Mattyrusies, after the infamous Giants-Reds swap of Christy Mathewson for a washed-up Amos Rusie in December of 1900.) The other type is the trade that works out for both teams. It makes everyone go "Aww," like they were looking at a picture of a kitten cuddled up next to a puppy. "Isn't that a happy ending for everyone? Aww…." However, the third kind of trade, the one which people don't seem to talk about as much, is the type where both teams get stiffed. As of this moment, half of the Tribe's Rumsfeld Number is provided by players who came over in such trades. Andy Marte-for-Coco Crisp and Josh Barfield-for-Kevin Kouzmanoff aren't really working out for any of the teams involved as it concerns the principles, although there were other players involved. The talent is also young enough that it's too early to pass final judgment on either deal. On another note, a good week from David Dellucci (-0.2 VORP) would also make a third of the team's Rumsfeld Number disappear.

Angels (23.4), Devil Rays (25.3), Red Sox (25.8), Blue Jays (27.0) and Rangers (28.0): The median Rumsfeld Number in the American League is 25.6, so these are the teams that are closest to being typical. Among them we see an abject failure, a mediocrity, an entity on the make, and two division leaders. The Red Sox are thriving in spite of the 489 PA given to Crisp and Julio Lugo. One could look at Boston and offer the theory that if you're going to score the fourth-most runs in the league while having a league-average Rumsfeld Number, it's probably best to accumulate the majority of its mass at up-the-middle positions.

Royals (29.8): Again, there are a lot of different ways to get a high Rumsfeld Number. One of them comes from giving someone a chance. Alex Gordon accounts for nearly one-third of Kansas City's Rumsfeld, but you certainly can't blame them for sticking with him. He's 23 and is supposed to be an exemplary player. When a team's best player is John Buck, there is absolutely nothing to lose in expending 9.4 percent of its plate appearances trying to find out if the franchise's top prospect can work through his problems.

Orioles (32.3): After Corey Patterson's 2006, you can't blame Baltimore for expecting more from him than providing a quarter of their Rumsfeld Number. Aubrey Huff is no franchise savior, but again, you have to expect more from him than what he's shown so far. Jay Payton's 7.1 percent of team PA has been a total waste, but that at least was predictable and is all on Orioles management. I've said this before about Baltimore (as well as some other teams), but when you've got the keystone combo covered the way they have, you would think assembling the rest of the team around them would be the easy part. The Orioles' own Earl Weaver used to talk about "stealing" runs by playing non-traditional types at second, short, and catcher. Here are the Orioles getting max potential out of second and short, and then giving it away at other positions.

Twins (37.5): In 2006, the Twins found a fairly unique way to inflate their Rumsfeld number--they used their DH to account for over half its worth. Rondell White's -13.1 VORP last year was the 12th-worst ever for a DH; Eddie Williams of the 1996 Tigers was the worst ever at -19.0. A DH with a negative VORP is like a stripper with a skin rash: there's not much point of putting them on display. White's contribution is minor this year, so it's been left to Nick Punto to be the biggest drag. This is also Jason Kubel's second straight season below the line; he was a major contributor to the Twins' 2006 number. Having Jason Tyner around is always a guarantee that you won't challenge the Tigers for the lowest Rumsfeld in the league.

White Sox (49.6): Back in March, Nate Silver caught holy hell when PECOTA saw the White Sox winning just 72 games. Looking at their Rumsfeld Number, you can see why a pessimistic outlook was in order. As with a lot of teams, you can't hold them accountable for a poor start by a decent regular--Jermaine Dye's in this case. He has the second-highest percentage of the team's PA at 10.6. Third base has been a black hole for the club, as the injured Joe Crede and his replacements (Pablo Ozuna, Angel Gonzalez, and now Josh Fields) are all Rumsfeld contributors to various degrees. What is especially scary is that this team could be a lot closer to 60 percent because of their big offseason acquisition. While you can't blame Chicago for Dye, you can certainly kick them around the block for the decision to bring in Darin Erstad. With a VORP of 0.5, he's a couple bad games away from kicking his 9 percent of team PA over to the dark side, and pushing the Sox's Rumsfeld to over 58 percent.

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