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March 3, 2008

You Could Look It Up

More Fun With Comparables

by Steven Goldman

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We received such an enthusiastic response to last week's look at the wonderful world of PECOTA comparables that we've decided to spend some more time looking at the sometimes subtle suggestions that one can, accurately or not, read into the lists of players that the system says stand alongside our current heroes.

As I wrote last week, the PECOTA comparables are meant merely to suggest what a player might do in the coming season by pointing out a broadly similar player from the past. Joe Mauer's comparables list includes first baseman Bruce Bochte, who took a one-year sabbatical at 32. This means that the system sees some similarities in the two players' on-field results-for the sake of Twins fans, we will hope this refers to Bochte's .316/.385/.493 season at age 28 and not his .258/.346/.311 age-25 season. It does not mean that Mauer will decide to take a year off in the middle of his career. Similarly, if a player's comparables included Pete Rose, Chick Gandil, and Hal Chase-a list not possible under the system, which consults a data pool that cuts off well after the Deadball Era, but bear with this hypothetical-the player in question is a light-hitting first baseman, not a gambler. PECOTA is not Arthur C. Clarke's HAL. It has not, that we know of, achieved sentience.

Having said all of that, we will now proceed as if exactly the opposite were true, and that a similarity in results can lead to a similarity in destiny. As I suggested last week, this would account for PECOTA's subversive sense of humor. Greg Luzinski, one of history's most staggeringly terrible defensive outfielders, shows up second on Billy Butler's comparables list, and Russ Ortiz numbers among his group Craig Swan, a pitcher who won one ERA title (1978) and then spent the rest of his career making two- and three-month stays on the disabled list a habit. Kansas City is trying to figure out where 2006 first-rounder Luke Hochevar will fit into its pitching staff. By listing Kris Benson, Jason Young, Chris Bootcheck, and Dewon Brazelton beside his name, PECOTA seems to be responding, "Not anywhere good."

From the humorous, we move to the mysterious and tantalizing. Robinson Cano, the Yankees standout second baseman, has four comps that seem to point in different directions: Carlos Baerga, George Brett, Chris Brown, and Al Oliver. Brett is, of course, a Hall of Famer. Through his age-24 season, the third baseman hit .308/.353/.453, rates not too different from Cano's .314/.346/.489. Injuries meant that Brett bounced between good and great years, and his age-25 season, the one upon which Cano now embarks, was his weakest until he turned 38. Between those two points, however, he batted .314/.390/.525, including his MVP-winning .390/.454/.690 season of 1980.

Like Brett, Oliver had a long career, playing 17 seasons in the majors and knocking out 2,743 hits for a .303 career average. Though Oliver was a six-time All-Star, a three-time top-ten finisher in the MVP balloting, and an annual threat to win a batting title at a time when batting average was still widely accepted as the supreme hitting statistic, he was more of a reliable presence than a star. A contact hitter, Oliver lacked the secondary skills that Brett had-even after knee problems slowed him, Brett could stretch a double into a triple, and steal a few bases a season. Brett also used a pre-Bondsian high total of intentional walks (his 229 free passes rank fifth on the career list, and at one time ranked third) to goose his on-base percentage.

Slower, less patient, less powerful, everything that Oliver did revolved around his ability to hit .320 in most seasons. To this he might contribute 10 to 20 home runs and some really high double-play totals. Superficially, Cano has more in common at this moment with Oliver than with Brett, but one possible takeaway here is that this kind of player can have a very long career. Oliver, who reached the majors at 21, had the best season of his career at 35, and Brett won his last batting title in 1990 at the age of 37.

Or is it? Baerga was a famous case of early burnout. Having hit .305/.345/.454 through his age-26 season, Baerga lost everything during what should have been the peak portion of his career, batting only .272/.313/.378 over the final 800-plus games of his career. Chris Brown, who died in odd circumstances in December, 2006, lost all utility after his 24th birthday, when his career was derailed by both injuries and his own lack of motivation. Again, it's worth noting that PECOTA isn't "thinking" about character comparisons, and in any case, Cano has a reputation as a dedicated player, at worst prone to the occasional mental lapse in the field.

Another young player with a fascinating line is Travis Buck of the A's, the potent but injury-prone lefty swinger. Buck's comparables line carries Mel Hall, the highly variable tormentor of Bernie Williams back in the early 1990s, the aforementioned singles-hitting first baseman, Bruce Bochte, a fringy early Astros outfielder named Norm Miller who had just one season approaching even regular playing time, and Ben Grieve, who packed his entire productive career into two seasons.

As with the presence of Baerga and Brown on Cano's list, it is difficult to infer much from such strange outliers as Miller and Grieve, while Bochte and Hall couldn't have been more unlike. Both were inconsistent, but while Bochte was a Keith Hernandez-lite kind of hitter, with a dozen home runs and 60 to 70 walks a season, Hall started out walking 40 times a year but quickly lost even that modest amount of patience; by the time his career ended, his 20-something walks a year were a real problem for an OBP-strapped Yankees team. One of those players who didn't contribute unless all aspects of his game were in perfect alignment, Hall was capable of 17 or 18 home runs a year, a .280 average, and an OBP 50 points lower than Bochte's.

All of this is a way of saying that PECOTA isn't quite sure what to make of Buck. It sees him as something of a misfit in a corner outfield spot given his lack of a traditional right fielder's power, so it starts looking around for other square peg/round hole players. Unlike many of its comparables, the insight on Buck's future isn't immediately apparent. Like the computer voiced by Majel Barrett, PECOTA's answer is to say, "Working!" and hope that everyone wanders off for a cocktail and doesn't come back until Buck gives it something more to chew on.

Speaking of things to chew on, this concludes our two-week look at PECOTA comparables. Still, seeing the popularity of PECOTA at this time of year, I will soon be rolling out a line of microwavable PECOTAburgers, each packaged with a slim packet of my own condiment creation, KARK-Ketchup Above Replacement Ketchup. Our slogan? "PECOTAburgers have no comparables!" Fortunately, we don't have to say the same about PECOTA itself.

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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