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June 14, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Farm Aid

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Recalled 1B/OF Mike Carp from Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A). [6/8]
Optioned OF Mike Wilson to Tacoma Rainiers. [6/8]

In 2009, Carp hit .271/.372/.446 at Triple-A Tacoma, the kind of line that a middle infielder might salivate over but that doesn’t bode well for an aspiring major-league first baseman. His entry in Baseball Prospectus 2010 said it all: “While Carp acquitted himself quite nicely in his big-league debut, he's more of a .270-.280 type who can draw a decent number of walks and smack some doubles. While that's nice, it's not quite up to the standard one expects from a major-league first baseman, and Carp's limited athleticism restricts him to that position.”

Carp actually improved on his minor-league line after making his major-league debut, putting up a .315/.415/.563 line in 65 plate appearances, but that small-sample success earned him even less time in the Show in 2010. He spent most of last season in Tacoma, where he appeared to make a conscious effort to trade patience for power, robbing from what had been a strength to shore up an area of weakness. His new approach lopped three percentage points off of his walk rate and grafted them onto his strikeout rate, an act of statistical vivisection that elevated his Isolated Power to .259, a figure of which even a first baseman without a reputation for defensive excellence could be proud.

As a result, he nearly doubled his home run total in fewer at-bats than he’d received the previous season, but while his slugging percentage climbed over .500 for the first time in his career at any level, his on-base percentage dipped to .328. Now he had something approaching a first baseman’s power, but nothing like a first baseman’s on-base ability, which still left him short of a starting gig in Seattle, even in the midst of a historically awful season by Casey Kotchman.

This season, Carp has seemingly managed to unite superior power and on-base ability in a single stat line, producing a whopping .348/.409/.661 performance that earned him an invitation to Seattle. For the first time in his career, the lefty has forsaken first base entirely this season, spending most of his defensive innings in left field. That position switch is no accident; the arrival of Justin Smoak closed Carp’s window as a first baseman in the organization, but left field has been an unproductive abyss for the Mariners since Raul Ibanez’s last tour of duty in the Pacific Northwest in 2008.

A motley crew of M’s left fielders—Milton Bradley, Carlos Peguero, Michael Saunders, Mike Wilson, Ryan Langerhans, and Greg Halman—has produced an unsightly .200/.269/.339 line while passing through the position this season, outdone in ineptitude only by the vortex of suck (to borrow a term from Jay Jaffe) that has surrounded Chone Figgins and Luis Rodriguez at third base.

Since his promotion, Carp actually hasn’t appeared in left field, instead spelling Jack Cust at DH, a position almost as much in need of reinforcement. He’d be capable of helping in that capacity if his minor-league line could survive his promotion anything close to intact, but will it? Carp has maintained the reduced walk rate he began sporting last season, but he’s striking out less often, and he’s hitting for even more power than he did during his 2010 outburst. Carp simply isn’t a true .300 hitter, and as one might expect, that .348 average rests on the shaky foundation of an uncharacteristically high BABIP.

The increased power suggests that there might be some real improvement here; what’s more, Carp is only 25, so it’s plausible that he’s progressed as a player. It’s unlikely that he’s progressed to the point of being an asset at premium offensive positions—the only ones that he’s capable of playing—but merely managing not to deepen the Mariners’ offensive deficit would make him an improvement over his predecessors at DH or in left

Carp need look no further than the rapid rise and fall of Mike Wilson, who makes room for him on the roster after following a .367/.427/.684 line in Tacoma with a .148/.179/.185 small-sample showing in the majors, to know that his major-league leash isn’t long, but if he shows anything at the plate, he could easily see more major-league action this season than he did in the his last two campaigns combined.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed RHP Aaron Harang on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 10 (sore right foot). [6/13]
Activated CF Cameron Maybin from the 15-day disabled list. [6/13]
Called up 1B Anthony Rizzo from Tucson Padres (Triple-A). [6/9]
Placed RHP Luke Gregerson on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 7 (strained left oblique). [6/9]

When it comes to Padres pitchers, there’s good, and then there’s Petco good. Pitchers of the first type rely on the park’s forgiving dimensions and marine layer to obscure their mistakes, while those of the second type benefit from the same lenient environment without completely depending on it.  Traditional pitching stats don’t always reveal which is which: Harang, for example, is Petco good, but he boasts a better ERA and record than Mat Latos, whose superior stuff would play in any park.

Harang’s 2011 SIERA is almost identical to what it was last season, but his ERA has fallen by more than a run and a half. That’s not all Petco—he’s probably been the beneficiary of some better luck, to boot—but most of it can be traced to a change of scenery. In light of the superficially impressive stats of pitchers like Harang and Dustin Moseley—who has already started more games for the Padres this season than he did in any of his years pitching outside of his new cocoon—it’s hard not to regard Petco as something of a GameShark for pitchers, a shortcut to success that can make anyone look good by rendering actual skill an inessential ingredient. Of course, that’s not quite the case—put Moseley in Petco and he might manage a league-average ERA, but put a more talented pitcher in the same park, and he’d still derive a sizeable benefit from his new digs.

Still, there’s likely something to the notion that a park like Petco levels the playing field. Hypothetically, at least, a pitcher who allows more balls in play should profit more from a pitcher’s park, where balls in play do less damage (primarily in the form of deep fly balls that turn into doubles, triples, and outs instead of home runs—somewhat paradoxically, pitcher’s parks can actually saddle pitchers with higher BABIPs, since the greater the ground to be covered, the fewer batted balls will be converted into outs).

What this means is that a pitcher like Tim Lincecum, who racks up strikeouts at roughly twice the rate Moseley does, wouldn’t get an equivalent boost from pitching in Petco. (Strikeouts, after all, have the same outcome in every park.) Pitchers who strike out more batters tend to be better at pitching. As a general rule, then, the worse the pitcher, the more he’ll benefit from Petco. That’s an overly simplistic statement—plenty depends on which pitcher’s park we’re dealing with, as well as the batted-ball profile of the pitcher in question, and some pitchers might even tailor their approaches to their parks—and one that I’ll aim to complicate in an upcoming article, but it’s safe to say that if the Padres were online gamers, they’d be consistently accused of using hax and sploits.

That doesn’t mean that the San Diego success of pitchers like Harang and Moseley is all a mirage—it might vanish if they were to relocate to another park, but as long as they stay put, they can expect to keep outperforming their park-neutral ERA estimators. It might be helpful here to think of talent and value as akin to mass and weight. Mass is constant regardless of context (especially when you’re trying to stick to a strict diet), while weight can change depending on the environment. The usual scenario used to illustrate this concept is a trip to the moon: Apollo astronauts were just as massive on the moon as they were at Cape Canaveral, but they weighed less in the moon’s weaker gravitational field. Harang isn’t any more talented in San Diego than he was in Cincinnati, but he is more valuable, since his skills are better-suited for his new surroundings (or, perhaps more accurately, his weaknesses—such as allowing fly balls—are less onerous.)

One implication of this is that it might actually be easier for the Padres to build a pitching staff than it is for most teams, since the Padres needn’t pay a premium for the skills in high demand across the league—they can pull their pitchers off the clearance rack and get the most bang for their buck while continuing to field a contender. In that sense, at least, it’s good to be the Padres.

Cameron Maybin and Anthony Rizzo represent two more reasons why it’s good to be the low-budget team from the city where it’s always 75 and sunny. The Padres dealt from an area of strength in acquiring Maybin last November, trading the disposable bullpen arms of Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb for the then-23-year-old center fielder. Despite those dual departures and a slightly worrisome drop in Heath Bell’s strikeout rate, the Padres pen hasn’t missed a beat.

As has tended to be the case in recent years, the club’s relief corps has few rivals (outside of Atlanta’s overworked arms), reflecting the legacy of Kevin Towers as well as some successful pick-ups by his successor, Jed Hoyer. That the last man out of the Padres pen this season has been Pat Neshek, the owner of close to a strikeout per inning whose control figures to improve as he puts more distance between his transplanted UCL and the operating table–while his former team, the Twins, goes to battle with the worst bullpen in the big leagues—is nothing short of inspiring, provided you’re the type to be enthralled by bullpen construction done right.

But enough about the bullpen. Maybin is giving every indication that the Marlins cut bait too soon, playing a fine defensive center field while hitting .316/.375/.532 away from Petco, but he wasn’t the most highly-touted young Padre to reach the active roster last week. It’s one thing for a GM to tell his fan base about the wonderful prospect haul he extracted in return for a star player, but for some segment of the paying public, those prospects don’t really exist until they make an impact on the major-league level. In that sense, the swift arrival of Anthony Rizzo takes some pressure off the Padres brass as Adrian Gonzalez enjoys a predictably superb season in Boston, since Padres fans can now enjoy the proceeds of their sacrifice without cracking open a trade value calculator.

Rizzo ranked third on Kevin Goldstein’s Padres Top 11 in February, behind Casey Kelly, whom the Friars also obtained in the Gonzalez deal, but the two may have flip-flopped in the first few months of this season. Rizzo is just 21, and the Padres were in no mood to rush him, but he left them little choice, tearing up Triple-A to the tune of a .365/.444/.715 triple-slash line before being called up and getting off to a hot start last week (although as Geoff Young observes, we shouldn't let his 2011 stats unduly affect our expectations).

With Rizzo ensconced at first, Brad Hawpe hitting in right, Maybin back from the DL, and Ryan Ludwick manning left, Chris Denorfia becomes an overqualified fourth outfielder and occasional platoon partner for Hawpe, giving the team some offensive depth it lacked at the start of the season. The only obvious victim of all these improvements is Kyle Blanks, who’s left to sing “Yesterday’s Papers” softly to himself in Triple-A while thinking thoughts of 2009.

Blanks is just 24 himself and was expected to make it back from Tommy John surgery before Rizzo could establish himself, but he took his time in Double-A and only recently climbed to within one stop of the Show. With Rizzo likely at first for years to come and a crowded outfield picture throughout the upper levels of the organization, Blanks may have to wait a while before the Padres roll out the red carpet. And that’s why you always keep your original UCL intact.


For further reading, check out R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis Blog entries since the last installment of TA:

Padres Designated Poreda for Assignment (6/13)
Mike Moustakas Arrives (6/11)
The Catch-Up Edition (6/9)

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

8 comments have been left for this article.

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