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February 21, 2008

Winter League Top Performers

The Pitchers

by Clay Davenport

Pitching performances are, in many ways, harder to evaluate than hitting performances, and even more so in the winter leagues. The biggest problem is the restricted range of performance-the difference between the best and worst pitchers, in terms of runs per game, is only about half the range of performance for hitters. Add in that their performances are more concentrated-which leads to individual particularly bad or good days on the mound-and also more dependent on which teams and in which parks you face (because the assumption of "league average" is a lot less valid for pitchers), and you've got a veritable soup to wade through.

There's also the problem of selecting the right metric, and all of the problems I noted above also show up, regardless of whether you want to base your evaluation on runs or on run components. Run-based translations generally give a better picture of the reality that actually happened, while the component-based measures are better at showing what the underlying reality was that the real reality came from. Well, at least I think so, since I haven't finished building my interdimensional transporter to see what happened in all of the other winter leagues in the multiverse. I guess you could say I infer that from being more stable from one year to the next.

Still, a choice has to be made, so I'm going to rate the pitchers based on a pure component measure. I've been calling it the luck-free ERA or ERALF, but it's essentially the same thing as DIPS, done in a translation scheme where a perfectly average major league pitcher is 4.50. It is not the same thing as PERA-that uses actual hits allowed, while this uses expected hits. I'll also give the pitcher's regular translated ERA, based on actual runs, just so you can see the differences.

I should also point out, again, that these stats cover the regular season and playoffs of each individual league, but not the interleague Caribbean Series.

Top Winter League Starters (five starts minimum)

1. Nelson Figueroa, 3.95 ERALF, 5.39 NERA, 50 IP; Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League, Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League: We've got a lot going on with Nelson. He last pitched in the majors in 2004, when he contributed 27 forgettable innings to the Pirates. He missed all of 2005 after having rotator cuff surgery, spent 2006 in the minors, and spent most of 2007 in the Mexican summer league, where he was the winning pitcher in the All-Star game. In September he jumped to Taiwan, a late-season surprise sprung on the rest of the league; there, he won four starts in the regular season, his only start in the first round of playoffs, and then three starts in the best-of-seven championship series, taking playoff MVP honors there. So the run of performance he then showed in the Caribbean has a history. He played in the Mexican Pacific League during the regular season, moved over to the Dominican when his first team didn't make the playoffs, and then went back to the Mexican champion (Obregon) for the Caribbean Series, where he was named the series MVP. If you're trying to figure out where his real loyalties lay, he was born in Brooklyn, with Puerto Rican heritage. The Mets have staked a claim on the world traveler, inviting him to their spring training camp.

2. Dana Eveland, 3.99 ERALF, 4.24 NERA, 58 IP; Mexicali, MWL: Eveland started his pro career with the Brewers organization, went to the Diamondbacks as part of the Doug Davis/Johnny Estrada trade, and most recently became an Athletic thanks to the Haren trade. "Athletic" isn't a word used around Eveland too often, since his weight seems to be one of the reasons why he keeps getting stuck in the minors. In all fairness, it's not as big a reason as his terrible major league performances, despite minor league dominance. Interestingly enough, his luck-free ERA in the majors and minors is virtually the same over the last four years (4.69 major, 4.72 minor); in the majors he's given up 21 more hits than expected in only 63 innings, so his translated ERA is up around seven. Winter ball not being a major league, he did predictably fine, but we'll see how it goes in Phoenix this spring.

3. Cory Bailey, 4.15 ERALF, 4.47 NERA, 76 2/3 IP; Aragua, Venezuelan Winter League: Bailey is 37 this year, and spent last season playing for the Iowa Cubs, doing a really nice job, mostly in a relief role. He hasn't tasted the majors since 2002 with the Royals; since then he's played in Japan, Taiwan, and the Atlantic League. He doesn't appear to be in camp with anybody right now.

4. Johnny Cueto, 4.24 ERALF, 4.34 NERA, 29 1/3 IP; Aguilas, DWL: Cueto is a top Reds prospect, a fireballer whose biggest future concern is whether he's too small to hold up over a full season. If that's your worry, then any pitching in winter ball, even if only for 29 innings, has to be a negative.

5. Brian Bass, 4.34 ERALF, 4.71 NERA, 40 1/3 IP, Aragua, VWL: Bass turned 26 last month; drafted out of high school, he spent his first six years as a marginal pitching prospect in the Royals organization before going to the Twins last year as a minor league free agent. They mostly used him in Rochester as a reliever, the first time in his career he'd been used that way, and Bass responded with arguably his best season (although his 2003 in Wilmington was pretty good too). He impressed the Twins enough to make their 40-man roster over the winter, and will get a (long) shot at the fifth starter's job this spring. His Venezuelan work is encouraging, in a finesse-y, low-K sort of way.

6. Sean White, 4.35 ERALF, 4.18 NERA, 44 IP; Lara, VWL: White was a Rule 5 pick last year, snagged from the Braves and ending up in Seattle, and perhaps predictably he spent a good chunk of the year on the DL. The M's used him strictly in a mop-up relief role; everything else in his career has been as a starter. Like Bass, he's a finesse pitcher, and it looks like he keeps the ball down pretty well. He'll return to Seattle, but with a now-regular contract they'll be able to send him down to Tacoma at any sign of trouble.

7. Omar Beltre, 4.43 ERALF, 3.66 NERA, 43 IP; Azucareros, DWL: Beltre is still a member of the Rangers organization contractually speaking, although he hasn't played for them since pitching for High-A Stockton in 2004. He missed all of 2005, 2006, and 2007 with-no, not injuries-visa problems. It seems he was part of a scheme that involved claiming a false marriage so that the "wife" could get into the US on his visa, and the State Department hasn't been keen on entrusting a new visa to someone who's already defrauded them once, even if he was just a pawn of the real fixers. So for the last few years, winter ball and events like the Pan-Am Games are all that we've been able to see of him.

8. Joselo Diaz, 4.44 ERALF, 4.42 NERA, 50 2/3 IP; Azucareros, DWL: Sharp-eyed observers will remember his seven innings as a Royal in 2006, his only major league appearance in six years; his career highlight may have been his inclusion as a now-forgotten part of the Victor Zambrano-Scott Kazmir trade. Four years and a trip to Japan later, Diaz is going back to the Mets this spring. In the Dominican this winter, it looks like he actually knew where the ball was going, with a translated walk rate of "only" 3.6 per nine innings; that's outstanding for him, less than half of his career average. A cynic might suggest that maybe it's just the result of hitters swinging at everything.

9. Radhames Liz, 4.45 ERALF, 3.08 NERA, 16 1/3 IP; Estrellas, DWL: I set a standard of five starts, and I end up drawing someone who pitched 16 innings in six? That's just weird, but it looks like something that was team-wide on Estrellas, as a four-inning average looks pretty typical for their starters. As has generally been the case with the 25-year-old Oriole, he was both wild and hard to hit. The Orioles already have Daniel Cabrera doing that for them, so unless he gets creative with his job description, his skill set says he'd be better off in relief, and the Orioles have a ginormous gaping void at closer right now. I've got no inside info here, so I'd look for apartments in Norfolk were I he.

10. Andrew Lorraine, 4.49 ERALF, 5.69 NERA, 33 IP; Lara, VWL: Lorraine will be 35 this year, and hasn't touched the major leagues since 2002. He spent most of 2006 in the Atlantic League, and all of 2007 in Taiwan-he was the losing pitcher in the championship game, the guy beaten by Nelson Figueroa. It doesn't appear that his exploits have attracted any major league interest.

11. Bartolo Colon, 4.51 ERALF, 9.26 NERA, 17 2/3 IP; Aguilas, DWL: Like the rest of you, I've been reading Derek Jacques' reports from the Caribbean, and I knew how bad Colon looked down there, so it was quite a shock for me to run the numbers and come up him on my "best" list. The main reason for that is because he didn't allow any home runs in his 19 genuine innings, and that goes a long way towards holding peripheral ERAs down. It is also very likely in this case that the "luck-free" assumption of expected hits is to blame; did he give up four more hits than expected because he was unlucky, or because he was throwing softballs? The scouting reports say softballs, but the White Sox will apparently take the chance that it's the former.

Relievers

1. Carlos Marmol, 0.78 ERALF, 0.00 NERA, 12 1/3 IP; Licey, DWL: If this was an audition for the Cubs' closer spot, then the Cubs really should tell Kerry Wood to step aside for the good of the team. Marmol was essentially perfect: he faced 40 batters, and 22 of them-more than half-struck out. One of them got a walk, but he was wiped out somehow, either on a double play or a caught stealing. Another got a hit, and was left on base. That's 13 innings, facing one batter above the minimum, which is just total, complete, utter, domination.

2. Gabe DeHoyos, 2.31 ERALF, 1.92 NERA, 26 IP; Mazatlan, MWL: He's been with Kansas City for four years, and this looks like the first time he's ever been mentioned on baseballprospectus.com beyond his PECOTA card. That's a little surprising, because you'd think his raw numbers-a career ERA around 2.50, striking out a batter per inning, a batting average against under .200-would get him some attention. The downside is that he's just done it almost entirely in relief, and the standards to make it from the minors to the majors as a full-time reliever are really, really high. He also isn't helped by the fact that he didn't start working his way up from the Midwest League until he was already 24. Now 28 (OK, not until April), the two times he's stuck his head into Triple-A, he's gotten hit so hard you'd think he was a hat in a western.. The Padres claimed him in the Triple-A phase of the most recent Rule 5 draft.

3. Travis Hughes, 3.06 ERALF, 2.05 NERA, 22 IP; Oriente, VWL: The 30-year-old Hughes saved 24 games for Pawtucket last year, but was never able to parlay his minor league successes into the majors. He's signed with Yokohama in the Japanese leagues for 2008.

4. Brandon Villafuerte, 3.07 ERALF, 2.60 NERA, 15 2/3 IP; Los Llanos, VWL: The former Padre closer-for a month, when Trevor Hoffman was hurt, five years ago-barely played in 2007 and doesn't appear to be on anybody's radar for 2008.

5. David Cortes, 3.37 ERALF, 2.12 NERA, 23 IP; Mexicali, MWL: He obviously likes thin air, spending the past three years pitching in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Mexico City.

6. Bartolome Fortunato, 3.40 ERALF, 0.00 NERA, 18 1/3 IP; Gigantes, DWL: Fortunato was as good as Marmol in some respects-no runs allowed is no runs allowed, after all-but he wasn't as dominant getting there. After missing most of three of the last four years to injury, he looks to be momentarily healthy, and will be joining the Giants in Scottsdale.

7. Jose Rojas, 3.51 ERALF, 6.19 NERA, 24 1/3 IP; Oriente, VWL: The 24-year-old split his 2007 season between the Midwest and Florida leagues in the Reds organization. His strikeout rates are impressive; his walk and homer rates are too, but in a double-plus ungood way.

8. Chris Hernandez, 3.57 ERALF, 1.98 NERA, 28 IP; Los Llanos, VWL: Another old minor leaguer, the 27-year-old Pirate made it to Triple-A this past year. Thanks to a mistake on my part, the line above includes a dozen good innings in the Arizona Fall League; he slipped in by playing in both winter ball and the AFL. His performance was pretty much identical in both leagues, and quite a bit better than he's done in the regular season leagues recently.

9.Greg Aquino, 3.59 ERALF, 4.90 NERA, 12 1/3 IP; Estrellas, DWL: I'm so used to his being around that I hadn't realized he's still never spent a full season in the majors without also spending some time in Triple-A. If he can't stay up in the Oriole bullpen this year, he really should consider retirement. There's still a fair chance for him to emerge as Baltimore's closer, scary as that may sound.

10. Oneli Perez, 3.61 ERALF, 4.23 NERA, 24 1/3 IP; Licey, DWL: He's had consistently good numbers in the minors, but he's another someone who's worked exclusively in relief while being a little old for his levels. He really wasn't challenged at Double-A last year, and would seem to have a shot at breaking into the White Sox pen this spring. How marvelous.

11. Alay Soler, 3.62 ERALF, 6.03 NERA, 22 2/3 IP; Aguilas, DWL: After the way he pitched in Altoona last year (posting a plain old ERA of 6.00), its hard to believe that any winter performance could lead to a major league audition, and so far, it hasn't.

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