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August 28, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Prelude to the Great Unplugging

by Jay Jaffe

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Just about every year around this time, I go through what I've come to refer to as the Great Unplugging. For a few days, I escape the grid and all of my gadgets and head off into the Wind Rivers mountain range in Wyoming to backpack with my father. No phone, no iPod, no internet, no baseball scores, and no Baseball Prospectus columns. Hell, no plumbing or electricity either while we're at it, just a camera to take some photos and a flashlight to read a book by at night. It's a great way to recharge my mental batteries while spending some quality time with my dad-whose boundless energy even at age 67 still puts me to shame-and I look forward to it every year.

As I'm about to embark on this year's Unplugging, I figured it would be a good time to clear out my notebook and tie up a few loose threads from recent articles and correspondence with readers. Interacting with a devoted and intelligent readership is one of the pleasures of writing for Baseball Prospectus, whether that means meeting readers in person on our spring promotional tours for the annual book, grabbing a pint at a pizza feed where the pizza is conspicuously absent, or answering emails regarding something I've written. I'll talk baseball with just about anybody who has taken the time to make heads or tails of my scrawlings, whether they're asking me for a more detailed explanation, challenging me to defend an assertion, or suggesting a further line of inquiry.

So here are a few loose ends. If the recent PADE and third-order discrepancy topics are noticeable by their absence, rest assured I've got research in progress that will yield full-length follow-ups at some point once I plug back in.

A Tale of Two Pitchers

Last week I wrote an article devoted to two rookie pitchers for the Red Sox, Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson. The former, as footnoted at the end of that piece, was sent down to Double-A Portland just after his most recent start, a tough break for a team whose rotation has been dinged up as they fight for a postseason spot, and a rough blow as well for a hurler who was hailed as the game's top pitching prospect coming into the year. That's quite a fall from grace, but in the context of the broad range of fates that can befall a pitcher who has just turned 24 years old, it's hardly unprecedented. Not for nothing does the mantra There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect have such currency.

In preparation for my now-weekly radio spot on "The Young Guns Show" on Boston's WWZN, host Chris Villani asked me to research some precedents for young pitchers who struggled in their first extended taste of the big leagues but turned it around the following year, citing John Danks and Fausto Carmona as recent examples. With the help of BP researcher Bil Burke, I dug up a list of pitchers who met the following criteria:

  • Their first year of over 50 innings pitched-their rookie season, technically-came when they were 24 or younger.
  • They posted an ERA of 5.00 or above in that year.
  • They shaved at least 1.5 runs off that ERA the next year and produced at worst a 4.50 ERA while throwing at least 150 innings.

The criteria are admittedly tailored to include the aforementioned names that sprung to mind, and the cutoffs aren't park- or league-adjusted, but the results should suffice for Sox fans looking for a glint of optimism regarding their golden boy's ultimate fate:


Pitcher        Age  Year1     IP     ERA  Year2     IP    ERA
Jim Kaat        21   1960    50.0   5.58   1961   200.2   3.90
Bill Greif      22   1972   125.1   5.60   1973   199.1   3.21
John Smiley     22   1987    75.0   5.76   1988   205.0   3.56
Greg Maddux     21   1987   155.2   5.61   1988   249.0   3.51
John Smoltz     21   1988    64.0   5.63   1989   208.0   3.42
Tommy Greene    23   1990    51.1   5.44   1991   207.2   3.68
Steve Avery     20   1990    99.0   7.09   1991   210.1   3.81
Willie Banks    23   1992    71.0   5.83   1993   171.1   4.04
Bartolo Colon   24   1997    94.0   5.65   1998   204.0   3.71
Mac Suzuki      24   1999   110.0   6.79   2000   188.2   4.34
Wade Miller     23   2000   105.0   5.14   2001   212.0   3.40
Mark Mulder     22   2000   154.0   5.44   2001   229.1   3.45
Jeff Francis    24   2005   183.2   5.68   2006   199.0   4.16
Fausto Carmona  22   2006    74.2   5.42   2007   215.0   3.06
Mike Pelfrey*   23   2007    72.2   5.57   2008   163.0   3.70
John Danks*     22   2007   139.0   5.50   2008   156.2   3.10
*season in progress

Among this group are a slam-dunk Hall of Famer (Maddux), a should-be Hall of Famer (Smoltz), a near-Hall of Famer (Kaat), three Cy Young winners (Maddux, Smoltz, and Colon), a pair of pitchers who helped kick-start the Braves' dynasty (Smoltz and Avery), a trio of two-time All-Stars (Miller, Mulder, and Smiley), and a quartet of pitchers whose emergence over the last few years helped put their teams in contention (Francis, Carmona, Pelfrey, and Danks). There are also a few guys whose careers amounted to only one or two decent seasons, some of whose names seem prescriptive when it comes to the fates of young pitchers (Greene and Greif). What, you were expecting a list free of grief?

As for Masterson, I noted that his time in the bullpen had been remarkably free of critical situations, as indicated by his 0.42 Leverage score. According to his inning/score/appearance matrix at Baseball-Reference.com, he had yet to make an appearance in a game the Sox led by one to three runs (a save situation), and had pitched just once in a game in which the Sox were tied or down by a run. While I won't claim that anybody among the Red Sox brass was paying attention to my yammering, Masterson has clearly received a field promotion in the past week, as his three appearances since then have come in important situations:

  • On August 22nd, he came on in the seventh inning to protect a two-run lead against the Blue Jays, and while he got into a jam by loading the bases, he wriggled free when Vernon Wells tapped out to Jason Varitek.
  • On August 24th, he again entered in the seventh, holding the Jays in place during a tie ballgame and working past both Alex Rios and Wells in a four-out appearance.
  • On Tuesday night, in the opener of a critical series between the Sox and Yankees, he came on in the seventh inning of a 7-3 game with the bases loaded, one out, and Alex Rodriguez at the plate. Helped by the fact that the defending AL MVP has been brutal in key situations lately, Masterson got A-Rod to ground into an inning-ending double play on just his second pitch, invoking the memory of Ramiro Mendoza in the most favorable sense, while hammering one of the final nails into the coffin of the Yankees' season.

Masterson's Leverage score has climbed to 0.80 in just three appearances, and he now ranks fourth on the team in WXRL, fifth in VORP and sixth in combined Win Expectancy (SNLVAR + WXRL). It appears the Sox are finally remembering what a valuable commodity he's been this year.

One final note on last week's piece: as reader MD pointed out, when I wrote "Buchholz has obviously hit a stumbling block somewhat akin to what the Yankees have gone through with Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy this year, minus the former's fluky injury," I neglected to mention that Kennedy had suffered an injury as well. In late May he went on the DL with a lat strain, but unless he had been pitching through it, I don't think that explains his poor performance. If he did pitch through the injury, he deserves the grief he's gotten for a performance that's been far below replacement level (8.17 ERA, -12.5 VORP).

A Tale of Two Teams

I received an email from reader CW regarding the AL Central race as it pertained to the August 15 Hit List:

Could you please explain why the [White] Sox are 10 places above the Twins in the rankings but yet only one game ahead in the standings? I understand that PECOTA has a lot to do with the rankings but 10 spots? Seems to me the Sox are a little over-rated and the Twins a little under don't you think?

Though they form the basis of the pre-season Hit List and are incorporated into the ones early in the season, at this stage of the year PECOTA has nothing to do with the Hit List rankings. It all comes back to the Adjusted Standings and the various ways we refine a team's run differential to determine its true strength. Rather than tackle a ranking that's nearly two weeks old, let's take a look at the Twins and White Sox through Tuesday, when the 76-56 South Siders held a two-game lead over the 74-58 Twins.

Both teams have positive run differentials, but the White Sox have a more favorable one that's nearly double that of their pursuers. They've outscored opponents 684-568, a margin of 116 runs, while the Twins have just a 65-run advantage on their opponents, 664-599. The first-order Pythagenpat projections based on those actual run totals have the White Sox playing at a 77.5-win clip, the Twins at a 72.5-win clip, expanding the gap between the two teams from two wins to five.

Adjusting for the run elements which went into scoring those runs-hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, etc.-as well as their park and league scoring environments, the White Sox's margin shrinks to 109 runs (684-575); they've scored as many runs as their run elements suggest they should, but have allowed slightly fewer. The Twins' margin shrinks even more drastically to seven runs (609-602); they've scored 55 more than they should have. That's the widest margin in the league, and as I pointed out last week, that has much to do with their .312/.388/.457 performance with runners in scoring position, the league's best with regards to batting average and OBP. The two teams' second-order projections derived from their Equivalent Run totals double the spread between the two teams to a hair over 10 wins, with the White Sox at 76.8 and the Twins at 66.7.

Adjusting for the quality of their opponents' hitting and pitching via their own EqA and their EqA Allowed maintains the White Sox's margin at 109 runs (692-583) while restoring a bit of favor to the Twins offense (624-608). The third-order projections derived from these Adjusted Equivalent Run totals maintain a nine-win margin between the two teams (76.7 wins to 67.6).

Now, many would be content to leave it at that, but the Hit List actually incorporates the winning percentages derived from all four runs-scored/runs-allowed sets. In doing so, it gives weight to the fact that the Twins have bagged more wins than their run differential suggests (mainly thanks to some good high-leverage work by their hitters and bullpen), without ignoring the fact that teams' projected records are better predictors of future performance than actual records are. Using the numbers discussed here, the White Sox's Hit List Factor is .581, the Twins' is .532, equivalent to a 6.5-win margin at this stage of the year.

Giant Prospects (with a nod to Josh Wilker)

In the aforementioned August 15 Hit List (which hopefully will never achieve the notoriety of the August 6 Memo), I tweaked the Giants' player development system with the following comment:

...[The] Giants shuffle the deck chairs on their sinking ship, replacing a pair of sub-replacement-level corner infielders in Jose Castillo (.244/.290/.381) and John Bowker (.247/.296/.397), the latter tied for second on the team in homers despite having none since July 2. They'll be replaced by some guys Brian Sabean found at the bus station (you know, their "minor league system") and really, you'll scarcely be able to tell a difference

Almost immediately I was greeted with a flurry of e-mails from Giants fans so indignant you'd think I'd besmirched the virtue of Willie Mays himself. "Busting on the Giants minor league system is so played out and incorrect!" admonished reader BW before reeling off a laundry list of "good to great prospects" (his term) from the Giants' system. Now, I'm not Kevin Goldstein, but eyeballing BW's list I see a handful of players-pitchers Tim Alderson, Madison Bumgarner, Henry Sosa, and hitters Angel Villalona and Nick Noonan-who despite their promise aren't out of A-ball yet, and some aren't out of their teenage years, either. I also see a list of players-including Buster Posey, Conor Gillaspie, and Rogers Kieschnick-from a very highly-regarded draft who haven't had a chance to make an impact on the professional level at all yet. Posey wouldn't even sign his contract with the Giants until several hours after that e-mail was sent, just before the deadline later that night.

There may well be enough talent there to push a system which Goldstein ranked 25th coming into the year into the middle of the pack or even higher, but there are a ton of "ifs" to go with any players that young and inexperienced, and anyway, my point was more directed at the relatively barren upper levels of the system, the players that Sabean might employ this year. Regarding Pablo Sandoval and Travis Ishikawa, two of the three players recalled, reader DF pointed out their translated statistics via our Minor League EqA pages:

Here are their regular translations between levels (keep in mind Sandoval is only 21 and has been the best or second-best player in both the Cal and Eastern Leagues this season).
Sandoval  .325/.365/.535
Ishikawa  .275/.345/.535
Both project immediately as above-average performers. They will be way better than Castillo and Bowker.

Those are nice translations, but they only represent about 300 plate appearances apiece split between High- and Double-A for Sandoval in his Age 21 season, and Double- and Triple-A for Ishikawa in his Age 24 season. Neither player had a very promising outlook coming into the year based on much larger sample sizes. In his pre-season Top 11 Prospects list, Goldstein rated Sandoval a two-star prospect, while PECOTA scored him at a 15.1 Upside, not impressive enough for Nate Sliver to include him in his round-up of catching prospects. Ishikawa didn't even make Goldstein's list, and with a PECOTA Upside of 4.2, was excused from Silver's take as well. We weren't alone in dissing these guys, either. John Sickels skipped both in choosing his Top 20, and Baseball America omitted them from their Top 30 for the organization in the Prospect Handbook. All told, that's a fairly damning indictment of the two players' long-term outlooks.

True, both may have turned a corner in their developments this year, particularly Sandoval, whose hitting has drawn positive comments that have been somewhat offset by those regarding his expanding waistline. While the early returns are promising-Sandoval's put up a .328 EqA in his first 42 PA with the Giants, Ishikawa's at .281 through 35-their track records offer a reality check, and it's far too soon to claim the duo as above-average performers.

Score That E-6

A couple of minor errors to unburden myself of, thanks to vigilant readers:

  • In the now-notorious August 15 Hit List, I erroneously noted that Kosuke Fukudome got four hits in a doubleheader. As reader BG points out, he got two hits in the nightcap, and two hits the next day.
  • In the June 27 Hit List, I parroted an ESPN item which said that Mark Teixeira was the first Braves player to hit three home runs in a game since Bob Horner did so in 1986. As reader MS pointed out, several Braves have actually done it since then: Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jeff Blauser, Jeff Treadway, and Ken Griffey (links to their games here). What nobody pointed out was that Horner's effort was actually a four-homer game, something that's happened only 15 times. So now you know.

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

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