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May 11, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Chasing Four-Tenths

by John Perrotto

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Sabermetric study has long ago proven that batting average is not one of the better indicators of a player's offensive prowess. On-base percentage, slugging percentage, and a host of other, more advanced metrics paint a clearer picture. A look at Chipper Jones' OBP, SLG, and EqA shows the venerable Braves third baseman is off to an outstanding start this season. Jones' 1144 OPS and .389 EqA are both second in the major leagues to the Astros' Lance Berkman (1243, .393), while his .459 OBP and .685 SLG are both third.

However, the number that stands out the most in Jones' stat line for many is his .400 batting average, which leads the majors. While average is an archaic measure to more contemporary analysts, there is still something magical about the mark, and it still appears on every scoreboard in the major leagues.

"It's such a special mark in the game of baseball," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I don't think that will ever change, regardless of the new statistics you see nowadays. For someone to hit .400 for an entire season would be one of the greatest feats in sports. Heck, just to hit .400 for as long as Chipper has is a great accomplishment. You've seen how long it's been since someone has done that."

Sixty-seven years have passed since Ted Williams hit .406 for the 1941 Red Sox. Only four players have hit even .380 since--Tony Gwynn (.394 for the Padres in strike-shortened 1994), George Brett (.390 for the 1990 Royals), Williams (.388 for the 1957 Red Sox), and Rod Carew (.388 for the 1977 Twins).

"I always though Pete Rose would be the one guy who could do it, but he never came close, which tells you how hard it is," Cox reflected. Rose holds baseball's all-time hits record with 4,256, but his highest batting average in a 24-year career was .348.

While Cox isn't about to say that Jones is ready to become the first player since Williams to finish at .400, he does see why the 15-year veteran could at least have a fighting chance at the mark. "When you look at the last two guys who made a serious run at .400, Gwynn and Brett, those guys used the whole field as hitters and didn't strike out very much," Cox said. "Chipper is the same kind of hitter. He has a little more power than those guys, but he sprays the ball from gap to gap and makes consistent contact. I'll tell you this much, though, if he keeps swinging the bat all year like he has so far this season, he'd have a chance. I've seen him get hot a lot of times over the years, but I've never seen him this hot for this long."

Jones isn't getting caught up in any kind of .400 mania at this early point of the season, saying "I'm swinging the bat well but it's far too early to be thinking what my batting average might be at the end of the year."

Jones believes he has been the beneficiary of hitting behind the pair of players in the top two spots in the order, second baseman Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar. Johnson has a .328 on-base percentage and a .267 EqA but had a .375 OBP last year, while Escobar's figures are .399 and .301. That trio at the top has helped the Braves rank third in the majors as a team in EqA. "When they are on base all the time, pitchers have to come right at me," Jones said. "They can't afford to try to pitch around me and put another runner on base. It always helps when you're getting pretty good pitches to hit. We've got a pretty good offense and when Johnson and Escobar are getting on base the way they are, we're really good. There is no reason why we shouldn't score a lot of runs."

What has the 36-year-old Jones more excited from a personal standpoint is that he is just four home runs away from 400 in his career. The only other switch-hitters to reach that mark are Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (511). Jones appreciates being in that company. "When you think of Mickey Mantle you think of home runs and when you think of Eddie Murray, you think of longevity and his ability to produce runs," Jones said. "I'd like to be remembered as a combination of the two, a guy who could be counted on to hit home runs, drive in runs, hit for a high average, get on base, hit for power and be consistent from both sides of the plate, a consistently good switch-hitter."

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The Twins seemed to be the forgotten team in the American League Central when the season began. The defending champion Indians were expected to face a major challenge from the Tigers, the White Sox had made a number of off-season moves to recover from a 90-loss season, and even the Royals promised improvement. The Twins were supposed to slide towards the bottom after center fielder Torii Hunter left for the Angels as a free agent and left-hander Johan Santana was traded to the Mets.

However, the AL Central hasn't quite held to the form that had many expecting it to be the toughest of the major leagues' six divisions, and the five AL Central teams are a combined 10 games under .500. The Twins certainly haven't held to form, as they are tied at the top of the division along with the White Sox, albeit with an 18-17 record.

"First place in the second week of May doesn't really mean anything," Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "It does feel good that we are playing good baseball. It does feel good that we are winning games in different types of fashion and we are winning one-run games (8-4). That's big to be able to do that, first place or last place."

How long the Twins can stay near the top remains to be seen, but they are talking like they plan on being in the race for the long haul. "I heard some people talking on the radio, saying the Central is not a good [division]," said third base coach Scott Ullger, who filled in as manager for five games last weekend and early this past week while Ron Gardenhire was attending the funeral of his brother. "I think that's wrong. I think everyone is beating up on each other, that's why it's so evenly balanced from top to bottom. Even Kansas City is better. Unless someone goes on a tear, I don't see anyone running away."

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Mariners president Chuck Armstrong raised some eyebrows around baseball this past week when he talked to USA Today about his desire to bring Reds right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. back to Seattle, where he starred from 1989-99. Armstrong said, "I think everybody in Seattle would like to see him retire in a Mariners' uniform. He was born a Mariner, and I'd like to see him finish up as a Mariner."

Not only could that comment be construed as the Mariners being on the brink of trading for Griffey, it could also be seen as a violation of baseball's tampering rules, which prohibit club personnel from talking about their desire to acquire players under contract with other teams.

Through Mariners media relations director Tim Hevly, Armstrong clarified his comments by saying he was not suggesting there was any pending acquisition of Griffey, but just that he could envision the man with 597 home runs joining Seattle at some point as a free agent, even for just a day to retire in the uniform.

Asked if he desired to have Griffey on his team, Mariners manager John McLaren skirted the issue. "Kenny's always been one of my favorites of the 1990s," McLaren said. "I can't comment on it because he's somebody else's property but I'm very anxious for when he gets his 600 home runs. That's an accomplishment."

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Milwaukee fans are losing patience despite the Brewers having posted their first winning season since 1992 last year. They believe manager Ned Yost is to blame for the Brewers blowing an 8-game lead in the National League Central last season and finishing only second in the division, two games behind the Cubs. Yost is feeling the heat again, as the Brewers are off to a 17-19 start. Yost, though, insists he is only focused on getting his team turned around, not his job security.

"When the team doesn't hit, it's your fault. When the team doesn't pitch, it's your fault," Yost observed of his plight. "That's OK. It's the wonder of being one of 30 [major league managers], you just sit back and be amused by it all, I guess."

The Brewers' offense is averaging only 4.3 runs a game, 12th in the NL, and ranks even worse in EqA, 14th, ahead of only the hapless Nationals and Padres. First baseman Prince Fielder's EqA is .279, down from last season's .324, and many in Milwaukee are wondering if his off-season decision to become a vegetarian has cost him strength and power.

However, Yost refuses to point the finger at Fielder or anyone else for the Brewers' woes. "We don't depend on one player," Yost told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "The game doesn't revolve around one player on our team. It revolves around all 25. I don't believe as this guy goes, we go. We all go together. We all intermingle as a group and win ballgames. One day it'll be a reliever. One day it might be a hitter. One day it might be a great defensive play."

---

American League rumors and rumblings: The Rangers' 5-2 road trip through Oakland and Seattle has given manager Ron Washington a reprieve, as his job status appeared to be tenuous a week ago. Contrary to some reports, the Yankees have no interest in bringing back free agent left-hander David Wells for another stint in pinstripes. The White Sox are expected to recall outfielder Jerry Owens from Triple-A Charlotte sometime soon to add some speed.

National League rumors and rumblings: Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan, now 66, is strongly leaning toward retirement at the end of this season, if not sooner. The Marlins and shortstop Hanley Ramirez have agreed to the framework of a six-year, $70 million contract extension that would buy out his first two years of free agency and keep him under Florida's control through 2014. The Diamondbacks and right-hander Brandon Webb are closing in on a three-year contract extension that would keep him under Arizona's control through 2013. Webb is the first pitcher to win his first eight starts in a season since the White Sox's Jon Garland in 2005, and the first National Leaguer since the Expos' Pedro Martinez in 1997. The Phillies are still expected to promote assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to GM when Pat Gillick retires at the end of the season, but could have a change of heart if GM Brian Cashman parts ways with the Yankees. Yost says Eric Gagne's job as Brewers closer is safe, but there are some in the organization who believe Salomon Torres should begin getting some save opportunities. While the Diamondbacks plan to give rookie Max Scherzer every opportunity to succeed as a starting pitcher, many scouts are convinced he would be a top-flight closer with his 98 mph fastball.

---

Interesting facts as Week Six of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Pirates center fielder Nate McLouth hit two home runs in consecutive home games, April 27 against the Phillies and this past Tuesday against the Giants. The last Pirates player to have back-to-back multiple home run games in Pittsburgh was Ralph Kiner on September 11 and 13, 1949.
  • When the Yankees had a six-run third inning against the Mariners last Sunday, they became the last major league team to score at least five runs in an inning this season.
  • Rangers right-hander Kevin Millwood has 10 straight road losses, tying the franchise record set by the Washington Senators' Joe McClain in 1961-62.
  • The Blue Jays' sweep of the White Sox in four games last weekend was Toronto's first four-game sweep since beating the Yankees from May 22-25, 2003; the winning pitchers in that series were Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar, Cory Lidle, and Doug Davis.
  • Wednesday night, rookie center fielder Carlos Gomez became the first Twins player to hit for the cycle since Kirby Puckett achieved the feat on August 1, 1986. The only two teams who have gone longer without a player hitting for the cycle are the Dodgers (Wes Parker in 1970) and Padres, who have never had a player hit for the cycle.
  • When the Blue Jays beat the Rays 6-2 on Wednesday, it ended a string of 20 straight games in which Toronto scored five or fewer runs. The last team to go that long without scoring more than five runs was the Tigers, from August 28-September 24, 2002.
  • Reds rookie first baseman Joey Votto became only the third Canadian to have a three-homer game when he performed the feat Wednesday against the Cubs. The others are Larry Walker, who did it twice--for the Expos on April 5, 1997, and for the Rockies on June 25, 2004--and the Twins' Justin Morneau last July 6. The last time the first three-homer game in the major leagues came this far into the season was when the Indians' Carlos Baerga hit a trio against the Tigers on June 17, 1993.
  • Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez has allowed either zero or one earned run in each of his first seven starts this season. That is the longest such streak to begin a season since the Athletics' Mike Norris did so in eight straight games in 1980.
  • Red Sox rookie center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has been successful on each of the first 23 stolen base attempts of his career. That is the longest streak since the Expos' Tim Raines started his career by going 27-for-27 from 1979-81.
  • Dodgers rookie third baseman Blake DeWitt hit an inside-the-park home run and Mets veteran left fielder Moises Alou stole home in the same game Tuesday. The last time both of those feats were accomplished in the same game was July 29, 1989, when the Athletics' Felix Jose hit the homer and the Twins' Brian Harper had the steal. Alou also became the first 41-year-old to steal home since the Twins' Paul Molitor in 1998.
  • Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols has reached base in all 38 games this year, the longest streak to begin a season since the Yankees' Derek Jeter reached in 53 straight games in 1999.
  • Indians left-hander Cliff Lee is 6-0 with a 0.81 ERA. The only pitchers since World War II who have won their first six starts in a season with a lower ERA are Fernando Valenzuela (0.33 for the 1981 Dodgers), Roger Clemens (0.73 for the 1991 Red Sox), and Martinez (0.79 for the 1997 Expos).
  • When the Rangers blanked the Mariners on Wednesday and Thursday and the Athletics on Friday, they became the first major league team to throw three straight shutouts since the Marlins in 2005, and the first American League team to do so since the Twins in 2004.
  • Tigers left-hander Kenny Rogers set the all-time pickoff record with 92 when he caught the Yankees' Wilson Betemit off first base Friday.
  • Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado batted seventh on Saturday against Cincinnati, the lowest he has hit in the order since also being used in the No. 7 slot by the Blue Jays against the Yankees on Sept. 30, 1995.

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Three series to watch this week, with rankings based on Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

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

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