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April 23, 2008

Prospectus Today

Grab Bag

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, I haven't done this in a while…

  • Christina took on the absurdity of the Brewers' roster alignment yesterday. It is my hope that the two-game Cardinals/Brewers series, featuring rosters of 27 pitchers and 23 hitters, will come to mark the nadir of the trend towards carrying more pitchers that began nearly 30 years ago. I hope that the silliness of Tuesday afternoon-three pitchers being used as pinch-hitters, Albert Pujols playing second base, sacrifice bunting with one out and a runner on first because there were no real hitters available-makes managers and GMs realize that it's all gone too far, that the desire to make sure you can play matchups on the mound has led to a dearth of options on offense. The first manager to reverse field and concede platoon advantages on defense in exchange for getting them at the plate and restricting usage to five relievers is going to have an edge on the field.

    It's not like Ned Yost is using the eight relievers at his disposal with any dexterity. Despite a bullpen so crowded it could pass for the uptown 1 at 5:15 p.m. and an opponent with no bench, Yost managed to bring Brian Shouse into a situation where he would have to face three straight right-handed batters. Two hits and a sac fly later, the Cardinals were back in the game. If you can't use your six right-handed relievers to ensure that Shouse and his specialist skill set don't have to face righties, you're just not paying attention.

    I want to put a thought into the head of Cardinals' fans. After Cesar Izturis was forced from the game by an Eric Gagne fastball, Albert Pujols took over at second base. Starting the bottom of the ninth, Prince Fielder singled. For the next two batters, the following scenario loomed: Prince Fielder barreling down to second base while Pujols stood over the bag and waited for a throw as the middle man on a double play. That's what, $100 million, $150 million worth of value hinging on a guy playing out of position getting himself out of the way as 270 pounds of game-winning run bears down on him?

    Add a player, Tony. In fact, add two. And if it ever comes to it again, play Jason LaRue at second base. The last thing the Cardinals need is to invite the disaster scenario into their living room and offer it a cup of tea and a biscuit.

  • Nomar Garciaparra has started five of six games at third base since his return, batting third in the last two. I know I use the term "naked emperor" a bit much but…come on. Garciaparra was a star through 2000, on a Hall of Fame track. He missed most of 2001 to wrist surgery and rehab and returned a diminished, but still viable, player right up until the Red Sox famously traded him to the Cubs in 2004 to improve their defense. Since then, Garciaparra has been a below-average corner man, his numbers bolstered by a couple of good months upon joining the Dodgers in '06. Here are the three phases of his career:

    
                  PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   Play%
    1996-2000   2673  .333  .382  .573     88%
    2001-trade  1671  .306  .351  .520     63%
    Since       1442  .290  .345  .443     63%
    
    Play%: percentage of team games played
    

    Garciaparra is an popular player in Los Angeles, in part because of his local roots, in part because of his Mexican heritage, and in part because he played so well upon joining the team. Since July of 2006, however, Garciaparra has been hurting the Dodgers, not helping them: .258/.327/.378. He declined during 2006, from '06 to '07, and at 34, he's continuing to decline. Perhaps Blake DeWitt isn't a better player, but Andy LaRoche is, and when LaRoche is ready to play, Joe Torre has to get him into the lineup. Nomar Garciaparra is nearing the end of his career, if he's not there already.

  • Is the Jack Cust Era already over? Cust's problems making contact limit his value as is, and those problems have actually gotten worse this season-he's striking out in 44 percent of his at-bats, up a couple of ticks from 42 percent last season. To survive at that rate, you have to hit almost .400 when not striking out and hit for power as well. Whereas last season Cust hit an unsustainable .437 on contact with 45 extra-base hits and an isolated power of .248, this year those figures are .267, three, and .093. Given that Cust brings absolutely nothing to the table but walks and power, it won't take long for him to play himself out of the league at this rate.

    It's instructive to contrast Cust to Ryan Howard, a similar player in type. Even last season, setting the MLB record for strikeouts, Howard whiffed in 38 percent of his at-bats. He also hit a spectacular .426 on contact, but he'd established himself at that level, with a career mark of .444 prior to last season. The combination enables Howard to hit for a high enough average to buoy the rest of his game. It seems that the outer limits of an acceptable strikeout rate is around 38 percent of any one player's at-bats. Any more than that, and the strikeouts eat your career. Cust is about to get munched.

  • I got into an interesting exchange with Clay Davenport yesterday about measuring strength of schedule via the difference between a team's AEQR/A and EQR/A on the Adjusted Standings Report. He says that it can be done, but cautions that you have to "keep in mind that the entire 'strength' is being measured by the EQR/EQRA of their opponents, based only on games to date." It's a fair point, because the limited number of games means that teams' head-to-head performances are a distorting factor. Nevertheless, for funsies, the toughest and easiest schedules through Monday belong to:

    
    Toughest        Easiest
    Nationals       Cardinals
    Rockies         Marlins
    Pirates         Cubs
    Giants          Braves
    Indians         Angels
    

    Clay notes the the AL has had a lot more parity so far, with the four NL teams having a bigger EQR-EQRA gap than the AL-leading Red Sox, and four NL teams having a worse mark than the AL-trailing Indians. Given what we know about the teams other than their records and schedule, it's fair to say that the division-leading Marlins are a sandcastle in the sand, and that the Cards' position between the Cubs and Brewers is not sustainable.

    Of course, at this point in the season it's an open question whether performance or projection is a better indicator of a team's true quality. Vegas Watch digs into this problem a bit.

  • Say, does anyone know if the NFL still has an annual draft of players?

  • I don't remember why I was looking, but I discovered yesterday that the Yankees don't play on Labor Day, which seems silly. Looking deeper, it appears that MLB is continuing to kill the tradition of holiday baseball. There are 11 games on Memorial Day, just five of them in the daytime, one of those in Toronto. Labor Day features 10 games, eight of them during the day.

    Everybody plays on July 4, but that's only because it's a Friday. Six of those games are scheduled for the daytime, although a handful of others have late-afternoon or early-evening starts, presumably to allow for fireworks.

    I'm sure there are reasons for this trend, but you would think that an industry that so desperately tries to connect itself to its past in some ways would embrace the idea of an American pastime on American holidays, baseball in the sunshine on a Monday afternoon as a means of kicking off the summer or ending it. It seems that if the schedule makers are capable of bringing back the two-day series and all the travel fun that entails, they'd be able to give the country 15 games on two of its three biggest summer holidays.

  • As I was getting ready to file this article, the news broke that Wayne Krivsky was going to be fired and replaced by Walt Jocketty. The only surprise is the timing, which seems silly. When Bob Castellini hired Jocketty and Dusty Baker, it was clearly that Krivsky's days were numbered. I can't say I understand the decision to let him go three weeks into the season; it's not like you shake up a team by firing the GM.

    Krivsky's work in Cincinnati was a mixed bag. He had an absolutely terrific record on minor deals, acquiring contributors such as David Ross, Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips, Dave Weathers, and others for next to nothing. On the other hand, he may be best remembered for his biggest deal, in which he dealt away Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez in an attempt to bolster the Reds' bullpen back in 2006. The trade was a disaster, and overshadows what was actually a solid record outside of it. Krivsky inherited a flawed team, and if he didn't push it into contention, he made it marginally better over the years by identifying upgrades. Certainly Jocketty has a longer and more impressive c.v., but this decision is more about personal relationships-Castellini and Jocketty go back a long way-than performance. It was inevitable, but that doesn't make the timing any less strange, and in fact, counterproductive. When the Reds win down the road, as they will, Krivsky will deserve a significant piece of the credit that will no doubt go largely to Jocketty.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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