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August 3, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Knee-Jerk All-Stars Revisited

by Jim Baker

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Let's take a walk back in time to the halcyon days of April 17: Charles Lindbergh was inventing the hamburger using nothing more than bread and meat, a young Amelia Earhart was wowing World's Fair crowds with her seductive fan dancing, and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was number one on the charts asking the musical question, "If My Heart Were on Fire Would You Stoke or Extinguish It?" Yes, those were high-flying times, indeed. In baseball, I wrote a column that named the Knee-Jerk All-Stars, the players at each position who had gotten off to the most torrid starts two weeks into the season.

Why did I do this? For the very purpose you see served here today: so that we might look back and see who held their own and who was soon enough exposed as a mere pretender. Let us, then, review what has transpired in the months since.

AL Catcher: I went with John Buck because his good start was more of a surprise than that of Jorge Posada, and the conceit of the Knee-Jerks is that you're supposed to jump to unrealistic conclusions about players off to hot starts. Posada has maintained his molten beginning and now boasts the fifth-highest VORP in all the land. Buck is not seeing a lot of his batted balls fall in, but he is having his best season yet, cranking out an Isolated Power rate of .264.

NL Catcher: Russell Martin got the nod based on his .324 EqA; he's dropped to .298, but started the All-Star Game and is pacing league catchers with a VORP of 35.9. No other National League backstopper is anywhere close.

AL First Baseman: For the second year in a row, Ty Wigginton got off to a hot start. He settled down and was replicating almost to the letter his 2006 battering average (.275) and OBP (.330) when he was shipped off to non-contender Houston. At 29, his versatility is either going to be his salvation or his undoing, in that it could keep him around forever without anyone giving him a regular job.

NL First Baseman: Mike Jacobs burst out of the gate, only to get injured soon thereafter; his 6.6 VORP after two weeks is now at 4.8. Dmitri Young was suggested as another good candidate, and he's ridden his resurgence to a two-year contract by reason of Jim Bowden's big-hearted largesse.

AL Second Baseman: Another victim of injury is Ian Kinsler, a player who had six home runs two weeks into the season. Still, fellow young second sackers B.J. Upton and Dustin Pedroia have done a lot more with similar numbers of plate appearances-Upton's VORP is three times that of Kinsler's, and Pedroia's is two times as high.

NL Second Baseman: Orlando Hudson was off to a Morganesque start, boasting an EqA in the .330s in the early going. He's cooled off, but if he can maintain his current level of play, he could still end up with a career year.

AL Third Baseman: Why it's old Chokey McChokerson! If Alex Rodriguez does leave the Yankees at the end of the year, here's a vote for him going to a place where the press and fans understand that no good can come of always laying blame on a team's best player. Does such a place exist, or is that practice ingrained in our culture on a national level? On April 17, I wrote: "Rodriguez has got a higher VORP than the next two American League third basemen combined. For him and the current crop of AL third sackers, that's actually a sustainable ratio." That continues to be the case-he's still leading the American League, but the major league lead is now in the hands of the left side of the Marlins infield, including this next player.

NL Third Baseman: I thought there would be more pretenders among the Knee-Jerk All-Stars, but a lot of very good players established themselves quickly in 2007. Miguel Cabrera has raised his EqA each year he's been in the majors. It's currently sitting at .350, a bar that is going to be hard to clear in 2008, except that you could have said the same thing about the .340 he posted last year.

AL Shortstop: There's nothing like a good start to follow up a season in which one's perceived value has been questioned. Jhonny Peralta was the best choice in the early going, and he's done good maintenance on his start; he's well over his 50th percentile PECOTA projection.

NL Shortstop: I got a little carried away on this entry, chucking around huge projected numbers for Jimmy Rollins. He could still hit those 30 homers and drive in 100 runs I suggested, though, so the talk wasn't quite that crazy. He's been passed by others, but it's still looking like the career year it did two weeks into the season.

AL Left Fielder: It's taken a while, but the best have finally come up at this position. The early leader, Scott Podsednik, not only found his level but also got injured.

NL Left Fielder: Chris Duncan has long since been passed by others at this station, but he has done a nice job of repeating last year's success. He's way above his PECOTA projection, and until Albert Pujols got going Duncan was the lone offensive bright spot for the Cardinals.

AL Center Fielder: Hyperbole is the single greatest facet of language. I wrote in this spot that Grady Sizemore was "teeing it up for an MVP run." He's still having a fine season, but there's no MVP in his 2007 future. In fact, he's way behind at his own position-his WARP3 is 8.4, while Ichiro Suzuki is at 11.5, and Curtis Granderson checks in at 11.2.

NL Center Fielder: Ryan Church has played mostly in left since the early going, but he's not registering among the leaders there, either. There's nothing like getting the value portion of your season out of the way in the first two weeks.

AL Right Fielder: The surprising turn by Magglio Ordonez has bumped Knee-Jerk All-Star Vladimir Guerrero out of the top spot in right, but he's still got a Hall of Fame-level EqA of .329.

NL Right Fielder: Eric Byrnes got the honors here, and he's maintained pretty well. Since the first two weeks, he's amassed more games in left, but he's got the third-highest VORP there behind Matt Holliday and Barry Bonds. Sometimes, when a player's personality seems to be their best trait, we forget that they really can play.

Designated Hitter: Big Papi must have been out having a sandwich or something, because Kevin Millar was in the top spot after two weeks. He's since seen most of his playing time come at first, and he's hit sort of like he always has, posting a .305 EqA.

AL Starting Pitcher: This Felix Hernandez thing just isn't working out like we want it to. He made the Knee-Jerk All-Stars because in the early going it looked like he was going to live up to the hype. He's pitched well, just not the insane level of well we all anticipated.

NL Starting Pitcher: Jake Peavy continues to make life miserable for National League batters. He is the only starter in the league with 100 innings or more who has whiffed more than a batter per inning.

AL Reliever: What are the odds that the Knee-Jerk All-Star relievers would still be at the top of the heap? Remember, we're talking about seven or eight innings of work at the most that they needed to qualify for inclusion. Todd Jones got the nod in the AL based on seven scoreless appearances. It hasn't been too swell for him since then, but he's got a lot of saves, so the masses are sated. His team did try to trade for a better closer, though.

NL Reliever: Looking back, it's really best not to choose a Knee-Jerk All-Star from out of the bullpen. We're talking about guys who've faced 25 batters, after all, and you can get a lot of skew in 25 batters. In the end, I went with Henry Owens of the Marlins, and his line still looks pretty good-he's 2-0 with four saves and a 1.96 ERA.

So, what have we learned from our Knee-Jerk All-Star Team experience? Don't jump to conclusions, unless those conclusions are about players with an established level of success. Then it's perfectly OK to make all sorts of wild assumptions.

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