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April 4, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

Picking the Under

by Nate Silver

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It's actually much more difficult to come up with an 'anti-' list than a 'pro-' list. Not only do I really feel like I have to bet against my own system, but it seems like I'm picking on individual players and teams. If it makes you feel any better, two of the eleven names you see below play prominent roles on one or another of my fantasy teams.

C Josh Bard, Padres: I don't see any obvious targets at the catcher position, but I'm moderately skeptical about Bard, who has considerably outperformed his minor league track record over a couple of smallish, catcher-sized samples. I also worry about guys who rely a lot on talking walks when they don't represent much of a power threat; there's little reason for pitchers not to challenge Bard, especially in Petco.

1B Prince Fielder, Brewers: Something you probably didn't know, or maybe you did-Fielder became a vegetarian this winter. In the long-run, that is probably a good thing for both his health and his performance. I saw Prince play at Wrigley on Wednesday and at first had the impression that he was bigger than last year, but realized that this was an artifact of his uniform looking baggier (it also might have been that I had much better seats than usual). I actually think that he's lost some weight, but in the near-term this is potentially a pretty big change in his routine, and the worry I have is that the change was apparently not motivated by health reasons; Prince was persuaded by his wife that it was the right thing to do for ethical reasons. Perhaps worth noting is that Fielder was mediocre in spring training, hitting just one home run in 65 at-bats against Cactus League pitching.

2B Freddy Sanchez, Pirates: One theory I've had for a long time, but never really gotten around to testing, is that the easier time a guy has playing defense, the more he can relax at the plate and focus on his offensive game. There's some evidence of this pattern with Sanchez-he had his best year in 2006, when he spent the entire year playing his best defensive position (third base). He's not a good second baseman, and I'm not sure that the Pirates aren't harming themselves both offensively and defensively by playing him there.

3B Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks: I don't entirely trust PECOTA's ability to distinguish relatively high-strikeout guys who take their share of "healthy" Ks from the other extremely high-strikeout guys. Reynolds is an extremely high-strikeout guy, whiffing in more than a third of his at-bats last season, and managing to post a nice batting line only by maintaining a Manny Ramirez-like BABIP. Reynolds is aware of the strikeout issue, but literally gave up on a plan to revise his hitting approach midway through spring training. That might have been the right decision for him-each hitter has his own unique plate approach, and my guess is that most hitters have found the one that is pretty close to optimal for their own peculiar combination of strengths and weaknesses by the time they reach the majors. But that doesn't mean the strikeouts aren't a problem.

SS Miguel Tejada, Astros: Tejada's PECOTA forecast is not optimistic to begin with; he's projected for a .296/.349/.452 batting line, which is superficially a dead ringer for last year's numbers (.296/.357/.442), but really a fair bit worse because he now has the benefit of hitting against a weaker league's worth of pitching (his EqA is projected to drop from .286 to .274). But I still think there's more downside in those numbers than upside. For one thing, Tejada is not much of a pull hitter-in fact, he hit more fly balls to the opposite field last year-so he's not particularly well adapted to take advantage of the Crawford Boxes. For another thing, there is a concomitance of peripheral indicators that point toward a steep decline: his speed is gone, his defense has gotten much worse very quickly, and he spent a lot of time on the shelf last year.

OF Aaron Rowand, Giants: Consider three small things that add up:

  1. Rowand is a high-intensity guy who has spent his entire career on competitive teams, which certainly is not likely to be the case in San Francisco this year;
  2. I wonder if there isn't something equivalent to overuse for certain types of hitters. Rowand played in 161 games last year; the only other time he approached that total was in 2005, and he broke down the next year;
  3. I tend to be skeptical of guys who had uncharacteristically big seasons in walk years.

OF Josh Hamilton, Rangers: I've never quite understood why Hamilton's comeback isn't generally a bigger story; if someone had offered me 1,000-to-1 odds last February that Josh Hamilton would hit 19 home runs in the big leagues that year, I would have passed. The performance was so off the beaten path, so Toe Nash-esque, that I think PECOTA ought to be regressing to mean more heavily than it is, especially since Hamilton has only about 400 professional plate appearances over the three-year window that PECOTA analyzes. Still, even if you take ten percent off the top of those numbers, the Rangers still made a nice deal for themselves.

OF Felix Pie, Cubs: I very much like his future, but a .291/.345/.480 PECOTA forecast sets an awfully high bar. As far as his performance last year, the sense I had is that Pie did not respond all that well to having to fight constantly for playing time, and while Lou Piniella has been well-behaved in the very early going, the Cubs have enough potential, superficially-attractive alternatives (Reed Johnson, Sam Fuld, maybe Eric Patterson) that the pattern could come to repeat itself.

LHP Jamie Moyer, Phillies: We caught a break this year when Julio Franco went unsigned and we didn't have to run a PECOTA for him, but it isn't much easier to find comparables for Moyer. Just five pitchers in our database made it to their age-45 season; four of them are Hall of Famers, and the other is Tommy John, who might make it there someday. What's unusual about Moyer is not that he's old, but that he's made it this far without ever being particularly good. Anyway, I don't see any way in hell that he posts a 4.22 ERA.

RHP Josh Beckett, Red Sox: As if I wasn't already going to get enough e-mails about the Prince Fielder thing... Beckett is a pitcher who I had a little bit of a red flag on before the winter began, simply because he got up to 230 2/3 innings counting his post-season work, a high total for a pitcher who had crossed the 200 IP threshold just once before in his career. Throw in the back spasms he's had coming out of Florida-that's a completely new injury for him and the sort of problem that can linger-and I'm taking the under, though more so on his innings pitched than his ERA.

RP Matt Capps, Pirates: There are a couple of names here that might be a little too easy-Eric Gagné, Bobby Howry-but I'll pick on the Pirates and go with Capps. I have concerns about a guy who is a one-pitch pitcher when that one pitch isn't all that good. Capps has benefited a lot from throwing a ton of first-pitch strikes, but his fastball is pretty hittable when opponents decide to swing at it; he's yielded a .333 batting average and a .495 SLG over his past three seasons when the first pitch is put into play. If his scouting reports catch up on that kind of thing, his ERA could wind up closer to 4.00 than the 3.13 that PECOTA has down for him.

Mind you, none of the guys you see on the list above belong on your Hacking Mass squad (well, maybe Jamie Moyer does); they're all pretty good ballplayers And that was by design; I don't think it would be very interesting to tell you, say, that Elijah Dukes' PECOTA is a little goofy (although it is), or that Corey Patterson might have trouble re-acquainting himself with Dusty Baker, or that Ramon Hernandez might really suck, instead of just kind of sucking. We'll check back in on Unfiltered over the course of the season and see how I've done.

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

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