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February 25, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Fun with Comparables

by Steven Goldman

Being an editor of the Baseball Prospectus annual has its privileges and its burdens. Among the latter is the necessity of making 2:30 AM trips to the local Wawa for sandwiches and coffee. One of the privileges is being able to scrutinize the PECOTA comparables as they emerged from Nate Silver's fevered calculations.

The comparables are only supposed to suggest what a player might do in a particular year; if the top comparables for young outfielder Johnny Wetcougar, 22, are Dave Winfield and Ed Delahanty, the most you can infer is that the system likes him and thinks he's going to be a good hitter in the style of those players at a similar point in their career. The comparables do not suggest either that Wetcougar will deliver 3000 hits like Winfield or get drunk and fall off of an open drawbridge like Delahanty. As I wrote in an earlier edition of the annual, the PECOTA comps are not destiny, and Wetcougar need not invest in scuba gear.

Having made that statement, I am not forced to admit that I like to take them as destiny, or at least a hint thereof. Opening the book at random to the chapter on the Padres, I note that Jake Peavy's top four comps are, in order, Melido Perez, Don Sutton, Dennis Leonard, and Tom Seaver. It's a flattering group, with two Hall of Famers in its midst. The Cooperstown-bound Sutton and Seaver pitched into their 40s, or the proverbial "forever" in pro sports, but Perez and Dennis Leonard had their careers derailed by injuries. Perez had just come off of a year spent in the White Sox' pen when an inexperienced Buck Showalter heaped nearly 250 innings on his 26-year-old arm in 1992, and that was pretty much all she wrote. Dennis Leonard was simply a victim of the 1970s-a three-time 20-game winner, he pitched as many innings as he could for as long as he could, which turned out to be until his 30th birthday. After that, it was all over but for the wasted comeback attempts.

The theme of PECOTA-as-cautionary-note gains further traction when you note that Peavy will turn 27 this year. At 27, Perez was already feeling the effects of his one big year, while Leonard was reaching the single-season high-water mark of his workload with 294 2/3 innings pitched. Seaver had an off year at 27, albeit one in which he won 21 games-he had an ERA of 2.92, which impresses only until you note that his ERA the year before was 1.76, and the year after it was 2.08. Even Sutton's age-27 season seems to make a suggestion. He was tremendous that year, putting up a 2.08 ERA in 272 2/3 innings. It was also his peak, and while it is true that he pitched for another 16 years, and usually quite well, he was never that good again.

Again, these investigations have no more predictive power than sorting through animal entrails. In fact, they're a great example of the adage that the reader brings as much to a book as the author (or, in this case, authors) do. If you're inclined to take the comps at face value, so be it; that's what they're there for. If you chose to delve further, you can find more. As Gene Hackman said in Superman, "Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe."

At the very least, reading the comparables for deeper meaning allows one to unlock PECOTA's hidden sense of humor. Kevin Kouzmanoff's top three comps are Tony Perez, Kevin Mitchell, and Larry Parrish. It's like PECOTA was trying to come up with the answer to the Jeopardy question, "Like these three failed third basemen, Kevin Kouzmanoff will have to move to another position."

Like all oracles, at times PECOTA is inscrutable. I'm not sure what it is suggesting when it names Billy Loes, a 1950s Brooklyn Dodger, as Tim Lincecum's top comp. Nor am I certain why Fred Scherman, a not very distinctive reliever with the Tigers in the early 1970s, appears on more than one comp list. I don't know, if by citing Pete Broberg, Jaret Wright, Jim Nash, and Storm Davis among Phil Hughes' comparables, if it is trying to compile a list of one-hit wonders to compete with the likes of Mungo Jerry and the Nashville Teens.

The only thing I do know for certain is that the game is fun, and that when PECOTA throws in Sam Chapman to rank fourth on the list for Mike Cameron, following Ron Gant, Reggie Sanders, and Eric Davis, it gives me an excuse to revisit an excellent player of 60 years ago who had the misfortune to be the center fielder for the A's ballclubs of Connie Mack's dotage, an error of timing that was compounded by four years of World War II service during what would have been his age-26 to -29 seasons. Still, any center fielder who batted .322/.378/.543 with 25 home runs, as Chapman did in 1941, is worth remembering. Of course, that's not the version of Chapman that PECOTA is thinking of-Cameron turned 35 in January. Chapman played 112 games when he was 35, batting .215/.303/.312. Now, what is it that PECOTA trying to suggest by that?

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

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