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August 1, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

The Knee-Jerk All-Stars Revisited

by Jim Baker

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Ah, April—remember it? The world seemed so much more innocent back then. Little did we know what was to come and how it would change us all forever. Or something like that. Back on April 11, I trotted out my annual Knee-Jerk All-Star Team for the very purpose we see here today: so that we might look back and shake our heads in regret over the exultations and naivetÚ of that earlier time—except in the cases in which a superstar was the early favorite at a position, of which there were more than a few.

Catcher

AL: A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox). Two weeks into the season, I crowned him the Knee-Jerk MVP because he was hitting five-sixty-something. The fast burst from the gate was not indicative of anything other than just that: a fast burst from the gate. Of course maintenance of such lofty endeavors was not going to happen, but Pierzynski remains in the better offensive handful of catchers in the American League. He also has the seventh-most plate appearances among major league catchers, and that's saying something at a position where showing up able to play is often half the battle. He's playing at a level fairly consistent with the most recent portion of his career, which is why if one is going to get excited about what a player does in the early going, one should also check his birth certificate first. If it shows him to be over 30, keep a lid on the histrionics. Held spot? No.

NL: Jason Kendall (Brewers). Kendall has slipped considerably from those halcyon days of far off spring. He's been more like his recent self ever since. He's got his slugging average below his OBP, as only he and Luis Castillo can do with any kind of regularity. For a little while there, though, it seemed like the ghost of Kendall past was roaming the halls of the National League manse. Held spot? No.

First Base

AL: Carlos Guillen (Tigers). "What are the chances that the converted shortstop will still be the top first baseman at the end of the season?" That's what I wrote in April and how na´ve does it look now, almost four months later? Guillen was swapped to third base with Miguel Cabrera in a move so reasonable, it ought to be taught in college logic classes. Held spot? No.

NL: Albert Pujols (Cardinals). Wasn't this guy supposed to be hurt this year, or debilitated in some way or something? Instead, he's currently polling at .371, the highest EqA of his career. That's better than current NL first basemen VORP leader Lance Berkman. If the Cardinals are rendered irrelevant in the NL Central race, it will be interesting to see how Pujols fares in the MVP discussion. Statistically, he's got a slight edge on Lance Berkman at this juncture. Although he missed time to injury, he only trails Berkman by 30 plate appearances. Held spot? Arguably yes.

Second Base

AL: Howie Kendrick (Angels). Kendrick's numbers at this juncture are very close to those he posted that landed him on the Knee-Jerk All-Stars, which makes him a most consistent fellow—especially when you consider how close this year's line is to his 2007 performance. Limited by injuries, he's slipped far in the VORP standings at his position, but only Ian Kinsler has a higher MLVr among American League second basemen. Held spot? No.

NL: Chase Utley (Phillies). He grabbed the lead early at his position and has not let go, as one would expect of the premier player at second base. Last year, Utley had a .376 MLVr, the fourth-best for a second baseman since 1957 (trailing only Joe Morgan in 1976, Jeff Kent in 2000, and Morgan again in 1975). He's slipped to .291 this year, but that's still very close to a top-20 figure. Held spot? Yes.

Third Base

AL: Joe Crede (White Sox). With Alex Rodriguez lurking about, there was no way Crede was going to hold onto the top spot in the League. Instead, he had returned to an expected career level of play, sporting a .273 EqA at the time of his injury. Held spot? No.

NL: Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks). Reynolds was leading the league in home runs and RBI at the two-week signpost. Fast forward to August 1, and he has settled into a season in which he's replicating his .281 EqA from his rookie stint of 2007. Held spot? No.

Shortstop

AL: Jhonny Peralta (Indians). He was the only returning 2007 Knee-Jerk All Star. This time around, he has maintained some primacy at his position, currently sporting the highest VORP among American League shortstops. His walk rate is down considerably though, and a downturn in his defensive stats is leaving him somewhat short of previous levels in the WARP department. Held spot? Yes.

NL: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins). It sounds like a mortal lock scenario for the MVP, right? Star shortstop on a surprising, upstart contender. Ramirez barely cracked the top 10 in the MVP voting last year, although he had the highest VORP in the league by a 10 percent margin. One would think he'd have to fare better come voting time this season. Held spot? Yes.

Left field

AL: Luke Scott (Orioles). He's approaching his playing level from last year (425 plate appearances) and doing a remarkable job of replicating the experience. His EqA is nearly identical to his 2007 effort, a very respectable .291. One would be tempted to say that, along with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the Orioles have one of the better young outfields going. The problem with that statement is that Scott is already 30, although he has 600 fewer career plate appearances than does Markakis. Held spot? No.

NL: Pat Burrell (Phillies). Back in April, I was emphasizing Burrell's consistency and insisting that he would return to the safe haven of his .260/.400/.500 lifestyle in due time. (Not only has Burrell been personally consistent, but he plays for baseball's most consistent team. The Phillies won between 80 and 89 games from 2001 to 2007 and are currently playing at an 88-win clip—a fairly narrow band of performance.) Don't engrave his usual line just yet, however. Yes, he's been passed up by Matt Holliday at his position, but while his OBP is basically a repeat of previous seasons, enhanced slugging has him headed for his best year since 2002. Held spot? No.

Center field

AL: Torii Hunter (Angels). Hunter has slipped in the rankings behind Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, and Curtis Granderson, but he's headed for the postseason, something those other three are not likely able to say. When a free agent shows up and replicates the previous season, one has to consider the acquisition passable—provided the previous season in question was decent. In Hunter's case, he's got the exact EqA he had last year in Minnesota: .292. Not only that, but a much-improved FRAA has him projecting to the highest WARP3 of his career. There's still a long way to go on his contract, but year one is looking like a success. Held spot? No.

NL: Nate McLouth (Pirates). This was me, writing in April: "Here's one we can question in terms of long-range sustainability. Something for Pirates fans to hope for: he did have a .292 EqA, and it's not unreasonable that he'll better than that in his age 26 season." In the first sentence I seem to be setting myself up for the scything of hindsight, but I recovered in the follow-up. McLouth has lost his early league lead in total bases, but is still the top guy in doubles with 35. Held spot? Yes.

Right field

AL: Jermaine Dye (White Sox). Dye got off to a great start, helping the Chicagos on their way to a much happier season than last year. In that early going, I offered that after Dye cooled off a bit, if he could come within 5 percent of his 2006 campaign, it would be sunshine and lollipops. He's just about done that, meaning his two best seasons have come at ages 32 and 34. Held spot? Yes.

NL: Justin Upton (Diamondbacks). Man, was I up on this guy back in April. I dropped the Willie Mays bomb and talked about how he and brother B.J. were going to challenge the DiMaggio brothers as the greatest siblings of all time. It hasn't gone according to plan since then, but Upton did have a passable .270 EqA before getting injured, and we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he still hasn't turned 21 yet. Held spot? No.

Designated Hitter

AL: Cliff Floyd/Jonny Gomes (Rays). There is nothing quite so beautiful as a perfectly-synchronized platoon combo, and for the first two weeks of the season, this was a beautiful thing indeed. They're ranked 10th and 11th at DH in VORP these days, though, so the bloom is long off the bougainvillea. On Gomes behalf, I'd just like to say that it takes a real man to slug over .400 on a .191 batting average. Held spot? No.

Starting Pitcher

AL: Zach Greinke (Royals). Picking pitchers for the Knee-Jerk All-Stars is even sillier than doing so with the position players. Did I say silly? I meant to say harder—and it's harder because most of them have only made two starts (or perhaps three) at the time the team is picked. Of course, drawing premature conclusions is the point of the exercise, isn't it? Greinke has held his own, certainly, although he's fallen behind the other two candidates I proposed: Joe Saunders and Felix Hernandez. Held spot? No.

NL: Jake Peavy (Padres). Peavy missed most of May, but has pitched pretty well otherwise. He's had quality starts all but four times, although the definition of a quality start should probably be rethought for Petco Park. Ben Sheets was the other possibility, and he started the real All-Star Game, so that's something. Held spot? No.

Relief Pitcher

AL: Santiago Casilla (A's). At the time, I was trying to choose between Casilla and Joba Chamberlain and wrote this: "Chamberlain is going to get the glare quite a bit, while this may be the only time you see Casilla's name outside of a box score." He's gone from being one of the leaders in WXRL to 50th, but that was to be expected. It is truly a fool's errand to make any kind of prediction about relievers after two weeks of action—even more so than doing it for position players and starting pitchers. Held spot? No.

NL: Jason Isringhausen (Cardinals). Isringhausen had five saves two weeks into the season, and now has only 11 after ineffectiveness and injury knocked him out of the closer's spot. He's back at it now, but the promises of spring have long since become the lies of summer. Held spot? No.

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