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January 14, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Rabbit and the Story of O

by Steven Goldman

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Our work on the Baseball Prospectus 2008 annual wraps up today-please, hurry up, Kotsay-Devine and Glaus-Rolen! Our typesetters are standing by with fresh PECOTAs! As we joyfully toil through the midnight shift in the mine, any number of observations are inspired by the book, things one might like to expand on if only space permitted. Unfortunately for my urges, towards loquaciousness, with roughly 2000 players in the book space is very tightly rationed-as I was forcibly reminded when my 250-word opus on Andy Phillips got chopped down a bit. You'd think that being one of the book's veteran co-editors would earn you a little indulgence, but alas, Phillips' entry is as truncated as his career prospects.

As I go through the book each year, one of the things I most look forward to is the PECOTA comparables for each player. For certain players I'll have a mental wishlist of comparables that I'm hoping will come up, sometimes because the cool computer intellect of PECOTA will justify my perceptions, sometimes because the comparison seems appropriate in an extra-statistical way. For example, Omar Vizquel's predicted comps for his age-41 season include Ozzie Smith, Minnie Minoso, Wade Boggs, and Craig Biggio. You can see a certain thread to the reasoning: great stars maligning themselves. Still, the guy I was looking for was Rabbit Maranville. This winter, the Giants re-signed Vizquel to a one-year deal with an option for 2009 despite his batting .246/.305/.316 as he entered his forties. When Giants GM Brian Sabean did so, he stole a page from Maranville's career. Like Vizquel, Rabbit had a glove that his teams just couldn't tear themselves away from long after his bat had died. The 5-foot-5, 155-pound Rabbit also had a zany, outgoing personality and flamboyant on-field style (he was famed for both belt-buckle catches and acting out between batters) that played to the fans. Vizquel is also popular, and though not given to hamming it up for the crowds, did build a monument to himself out of salsa.

In a major league career which lasted 23 years, Maranville had just two seasons in which he was even a modest asset with the bat: 1917, when he hit .260/ .312/.357, and 1919, when he hit .267/.319/ .377. He did get his average into the .290s in 1921-22, but so did everybody else-the Deadball Era was, in fact, dead. Maranville was popular, and his reputation with the glove was unsurpassed, so he got to play until he was 43, batting a translated .248/.318/.373 (.245 EqA) for his career. Manager Bill McKechnie placed more of a premium on defense than almost any other skipper who had a successful career (most managers who spend their lives trading bats for gloves tend to end up victims of their own leather fetish), and the future Hall of Famer loved Maranville to the point of carting him around wherever he was in the dugout, from the Pirates to the Cardinals in the 1920s, and to the Braves in the 1930s. When McKechnie's Cards won the NL pennant in 1928, Maranville, then 36, was his shortstop. When Maranville got too old to play short, McKechnie moved him to second.

During spring training of 1934, Maranville, then 41, snapped his left leg sliding into the catcher's shin guards on a play at the plate. He missed the entire season. Let us pause to review. In 1932, Maranville had hit .235/.295/.284 (.221 EqA). In 1933, he hit .218/.274/.266 (.219 EqA). Now, at 42, he had missed an entire season. So what came next? McKechnie brought him back. Rabbit opened the year going 10-for-67, and that was finally that-but not before the decision helped set up the 1935 Braves for one of the worst seasons in the history of baseball.

The 1935 Braves were a team that couldn't find a way to use Babe Ruth, after all. They trailed the league in runs scored, helped along by Braves Field, a punishing home park for batters. Despite that same park, they trailed the league in ERA. Their 38-115 record was so bad that ownership changed the team's name to the Bees and the park's name to the Beehive, in hopes of convincing fans that the Braves had died that year and that a new, somewhat better team was now in residence; a claim that the Bees would be "good" would have instantly been smelled out as a lie.

The 2008 Giants aren't going to be as bad as the 1935 Braves-it takes a very special team to lose more than 75 percent of its games, and with pitchers like Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum on hand, the San Franciscans should win the odd 2-1 game. Nevertheless, even with Barry Bonds in tow in 2007, the Giants failed to score even 700 runs. With Bonds gone, the 2008 lineup is likely to be astonshingly weak. Given their current roster, it's hard to even guess what the batting order might look like. How's this for the new Murderers Row:

1.Dave Roberts, LF
2.Omar Vizquel, SS
3.Randy Winn, RF
4.Aaron Rowand, CF
5.Dan Ortmeier, 1B
6.Ray Durham, 2B
7.Rich Aurilia, 3B
8.Bengie Molina, C
9.Sacrificial Lamb Du Jour

The NL West has evolved into one of baseball's most competitive divisions, with the Diamondbacks and Rockies rising, the Padres running a professional operation, and the Dodgers in there punching, handicapped only by their veteranitis. In such company, the Giants are like that amiable cousin who can only think of conjunctions while trying to play Scrabble.

Vizquel will be part of that, though in fairness it should be pointed out that he is a better, more consistent hitter than Maranville was, with translated career rates of .279/.346/.369 and an EqA of .257. Like Maranville, he had only a couple of seasons with the bat that were truly advantageous, in Omar's case, his 1999 is the one that stands out above the rest of his career, with .333/.397/.436 (.291 EqA) rates. Of course, if Omar gets to play through his 43rd year, as Maranville did, his and the Rabbit's final numbers might be all but indistinguishable. Like Maranville, Vizquel is one of the game's longest-lived shortstops, and he and Maranville rub elbows on many of the position's career lists, including games played and assists (Vizquel is fourth, Maranville fifth).

So there you have it: some of the information I might have added to our Omar Vizquel comment if next year's annual had been allowed to run 1200 pages instead of 600-plus. No doubt you're all grateful that limitations of time, money, and wood pulp force us to keep things on the concise side.

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

Related Content:  Omar Vizquel,  Managers Of The Year

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