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May 2, 2012

Overthinking It

Five Interesting Things from Yesterday's Games

by Ben Lindbergh

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Five things I wanted to write about happened in last night’s games, but none of them was substantial enough on its own for an article. The solution: drop all five unrelated observations (plus a few more for good measure) into the same article draft and call it a column. Trick of the trade.

Derek Jeter goes 3-for-5 and gets accused of steroid use by this one guy I talked to
I live in a baseball discourse bubble.

I don’t listen to sports talk radio. I don’t often read comments sections, except at BP, where the readers are smarter than I am. I don’t often sit in the stands at stadiums. Most of the conversations I have about baseball are with people who write for BP or other online outlets. I don’t read much mainstream local media coverage. There’s a certain sub-section of the sabermetric community that reads writers it’s already deemed to be bad, purely for the snark potential. I’ve dabbled in that activity, but I don’t do it often, mostly because I can’t seem to find enough time to read all the things I think are good, let alone anything else. I follow selectively on Twitter, which means that the tweeters I see in my timeline are more likely than the average person to agree with me and to approach the process of answering questions in a similar way.

All of those tendencies combine to build a near-impenetrable bubble of baseball discourse. So sometimes I forget that the objective approach to baseball isn’t for everyone. Sometimes I forget that there’s still a large portion of the populace for whom an unexplained change in performance is most conveniently pinned on—simple!—steroids. Every now and then, I receive a reminder.

Yesterday evening, I was at an event that was also attended by my mother and a few of her friends. One of her friends, a sharp 75-year-old, has been a Yankees fan for years. Since I was the only person at the table who writes about baseball, he quickly cornered me. “So what do you think about Jeter?” he asked. “He’s taking steroids, right?”

At first, I assumed he was kidding. Then I noticed that he wasn’t smiling. I checked his cheek. His tongue wasn’t in there. Uh-oh.

I hemmed and hawed, not particularly eager to argue about Derek Jeter’s drug use with an elderly man. Eventually, I stammered out something about there being no evidence that Jeter was juicing. “But what about Barry Bonds?” he pressed. “Look what he did when he was 37.”

Bonds supposedly started taking steroids because his pride couldn’t take the sight of inferior players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa stealing his headlines. Jeter is known for being a proud player. Maybe he’s taking similar measures. But maybe—no, probably—he isn’t. “I can’t prove that he’s not taking steroids,” I allowed. I’d meant for that line to emphasize the absurdity of the argument, but my adversary seemed satisfied. We both dropped the subject.

When I got home, I Googled to see whether anyone else had decided the Cap'n was getting chemical assistance. I found this question and declarative sentence with question mark after it: “Is Derek Jeter on steroids? He has 4 homers already and is on pace for 59?” Yahoo! Answers seemed like the sort of place where I might get some answers, so I scrolled down. The first answer: “Well he used to do steriods [sic] before they were illegalized in the mlb [sic].” So now I was up two ironclad facts: not only is Jeter taking steroids now, but he took them before, too.

After his 3-for-5 Tuesday, Jeter is hitting .400/.440/.590. That’s a damn good line for any player after April, let alone a soon-to-be-38-year-old shortstop who looked like he was on his last legs two seasons ago. Like everyone else, I’ve been wondering how this could be happening since his second-half surge last season. Can we attribute it to a mechanical change, like restoring his old stride after a calf strain last June? Is he hitting fewer grounders? Is his even-higher-than-usual BABIP a sign that he’s getting good bounces? Did Minka Kelly weaken legs in a way that the gift-basket brigade never could?

I don’t know which of those factors, if any, is responsible for Jeter’s success. I’m curious, but not so curious that I’d invent an explanation to settle the matter in my mind. I’m okay with not knowing. Everyone inside my bubble is, too. But as I’m periodically reminded, most baseball discourse isn’t inside the bubble.

“You heard it here first,” my mother’s friend said to me at the end of the night. “Yes. I did,” I responded. But if Jeter keeps hitting, that might not turn out to be where I heard it last.

Dee Gordon hits a home run
If Bryce Harper had hit his first home run last night, this whole article would’ve been about Gordon and Harper hitting their first home runs on the same night. Two top prospects, one expected to hit a ton of homers, one not expected to hit any. One who took 10 at-bats to go yard, one who took 300. They come in all kinds.

Instead, Harper went 0-for-3 with a strikeout as the Nationals fell 5-1 to the Diamondbacks despite a quality start by Jordan Zimmermann. (Actually, by Nats starter standards, three earned runs over 6 1/3 is embarrassing.) That leaves Gordon.

Major-league players come in many shapes and sizes. Gordon’s shape and size are roughly those of the pimply-faced kid who cuts your lawn, the one who hit his growth spurt but hasn’t filled out yet. Gordon knows this: his Twitter handle is @skinnyswag9.

Gordon doesn’t look like he could hit a home run, and until last night, he hadn’t shown that his appearance could be deceiving. Over a year ago, Jason Parks wrote that Gordon lacked the strength to keep major-league pitchers “concerned about challenging him at the plate.” For a while, that article made Jason look smart. Then it made him look stupid. Now it’s mostly making him look smart again, except for one swing last night.

That swing came on a 90-mph fastball down the middle from Jhoulys Chacin. Gordon was the first batter of the game, and when Chacin fell behind in the count 2-1, he decided to challenge him. Why not? It wasn’t like Gordon was going to hit it out. Except he did.

Here’s the most surprising thing about this homer: you’d think that if a guy like Gordon were finally going to hit one out, it would just barely clear the fence. Maybe it would get a gust of wind behind it, or be clasped between the talons of a passing bird, or bounce off Jose Canseco’s head. There was no way he would go from not hitting a home run since May 29, 2010 with Double-A Chattanooga to hitting a home run that looked just like other home runs.

But Gordon’s home run not only cleared the fence under its own power, but cleared it by a wide margin. Hit Tracker classified it as a “No Doubt” home run, which means it “cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet AND landed at least 50 feet past the fence.” Yes, it was Coors Field, and crazy home runs have been hit at Coors, but according to Greg Rybarczyk’s math, that one would have been out of all 30 parks. The average “True Distance” of an NL home run this season is 399 feet. In Coors, it’s 405.2. Gordon’s traveled 419.

One home run like that probably might not be enough to earn a major-league pitcher’s respect, but it’s enough to earn mine.

By the way, this is Dee Gordon's "I just hit a home run" face:

And here's Matt Kemp reaching out to touch Dee Gordon and hoping some of Gordon's power will rub off on him:

Chris Davis goes 3-4 with a HR, is now hitting .333/.378/.627 
Sometimes I’m not sure we know anything about baseball.

Before the 2008 season, Baseball America named Chris Davis its 65th-best prospect. (Kevin Goldstein had him 74th.) They did this for a pretty good reason: Chris Davis hit 36 home runs in 2007. Yes, he hit 24 of them in Bakersfield, but he was only 21, and man, 36 is a high number of home runs.

I’m going to point the finger at our own player comments now, both because it’s easy and because everyone likes someone who’s self-effacing. In BP2008, we called Davis “one of the top power prospects around,” saying, “if he can stay on the left side of the infield, his upside falls somewhere between Dean Palmer and Troy Glaus.” As it turned out, he couldn’t, but still, offensively, we said he could slot in between a guy with 275 home runs and a guy with 320. So, 300-homer upside.

A year later, we were still cautiously optimistic, telling the reader to “…use [Ryan] Klesko as your guide, and enjoy the bopping to come.” Then there was the 2010 season, when Davis bombed as the Rangers’ everyday first baseman at the start of the season, refined his approach in the minors, and hit .308/.338/.496 after a second call-up in August. That late-season success addressed all our concerns in BP2010: “With off-the-charts raw power, he’s learned the valuable lesson of just hitting balls and letting the home runs come naturally, and all systems should be go for a big 2010.”

In 2010, Davis hit .192/.279/.292 in 136 plate appearances. His off-the-charts raw power resulted in one home run for the Rangers. Most of his season was spent in the minors. In BP2011, we totally changed our tune. The comment included the line, “Once a very promising power bat, Davis looks to be a one-hit wonder.” It called him a “newly christened Quad-A player” and invoked the name of Matt Murton. Last season, Davis played at a level between the success of 2008 and the disaster of 2010, and we hedged our bets in the most recent annual, saying he could either break out or bust. In other words, “shrug.”

A couple months ago, an author submitted an article for the site that began with the line, “This will not, in all likelihood, be the year Chris Davis breaks out.” I decided not to run the article as it was written, not because I disagreed with the premise—I didn’t—but because I didn’t think another article about not knowing what to make of Davis was anything new.  

The results keep fluctuating, and we can’t seem to decide what we think Davis is. If he hits, he’s promising, and his contact difficulties and defensive shortcomings are obstacles that can be overcome. If he doesn’t hit, he’s not a prospect. Right now, he’s hitting and not striking out, so he could be breaking out. If we were to write a post-April player comment for Davis, we’d probably cite his lofty BABIP as evidence that his average is about to come down but point out that the power is real. Of course, it always has been.

Clay Hensley pitches an inning
I really should have come up with a catchier title for this section, because baseball doesn’t get much more boring than Clay Hensley pitching. Once you saw something about Clay Hensley, you probably stopped reading. Now I’m writing for myself, just like I do in my diary. If you’re still reading, please stop snooping.

There wasn’t anything remarkable about the inning Hensley pitched last night, but here’s how it left his seasonal line:

7.1 3 4 0 4 9

Hensley has pitched 7 1/3 innings. He has a 0.00 ERA. He also has a 1-2 record. He’s averaging a decision every 2.4 innings. (Matt Cain has pitched 46 1/3 innings with a 2.33 ERA, and his record is also 1-2.) Hensley is a vulture in that he’s stealing decisions from starters, but he’s mostly stealing losses, which makes him more of a good Samaritan.

The really interesting thing, though, is how deceptive his ERA is. Hensley has already allowed four unearned runs. Three of them came on his own throwing error in a game against the Reds on April 25th:

The other unearned run scored four days before that, when Hensley started the ninth inning of a tie game against the Mets, allowed a single and a walk, and gave way to Jeremy Affeldt. Affeldt gave up an infield single to load the bases, and the winning run scored on a Buster Posey throwing error. Hensley put that runner on, but it didn’t count against his ERA. If those four unearned runs had been charged to Hensley, his ERA would be 4.91. This is one case where win-loss record might not be the worst indicator of a pitcher’s performance. That distinction goes to ERA.

Bad bats sit on the bench
Peter Bourjos hasn’t been to the plate since Mike Trout took over in center on Sunday. Bourjos has the second-worst TAv (.176) of any AL hitter with at least 50 PA this season, and Mike Trout (who plays a capable center himself) doesn’t make outs in the minors, so it’s tough to blame the struggling Angels for benching Bourjos, at least in favor of Trout. (Vernon Wells is another matter.) This season, at least, the less Bourjos has batted, the better. Even though there's currently no place for him at the plate, though, the Angels haven't sent him down to get regular work, since his speed and glove give him value as a substitute.

Meanwhile, in Boston, Kevin Youkilis hasn’t played since Saturday because of a strained back. For added infield depth, the Red Sox demoted Junichi Tazawa and promoted Triple-A shortstop Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is, by all accounts, a fantastic fielder. He’s also hitting .200/.274/.212 in Triple-A this season, and .229/.283/.258 at the level lifetime. That’s more than a caveat—it’s a potentially career-ending weakness.

What this makes me wonder is: How great a fielder do you have to be to stick on a roster when you can’t hit at all? Obviously, you have to play a premium defensive position, and play it well, as both Bourjos and Iglesias do. Lumping the two together offensively isn’t fair to Bourjos, who was a well-above-average-hitter in the major leagues last season, though that performance probably represented the best he can do with the bat. Iglesias is the real offensive zero, and while this promotion is only temporary, the Sox will eventually have to decide whether his leather is worth a deep, dark hole in the lineup. If he’s Ozzie Smith, perhaps they can. If he’s anything less than an all-time great in the field, though, utility work might be the most he can hope for.

Bonus observations

Matt Kemp gets caught stealing, is officially a bust
Matt Kemp predicted he’d go 50/50 this year. After a month, he has two steals in five attempts. Talk about your disappointing seasons.*

*I tweeted those same three sentences last night and received this response: “Unless he meant 50 HRs in the 1st half and then 50 SBs in the 2nd half.” Crazy, right? Not even Matt Kemp could’ve meant that. But the more I see him play, the more I’m convinced that he might have. NL pitchers are making the power part too easy, so he’s handicapping himself. Expert fantasy advice you should follow for sure: trade Kemp at the All-Star break unless you need steals in the second half.

Two other unlikely players hit their first home runs, but one doesn’t count because it’s off Ubaldo
Gordon Beckham had a .148 TAv before his home run last night, the worst mark of any American League hitter with at least 50 plate appearances this season. (Now he’s up to .184, which is only sixth-worst. Baby steps.) Then he faced the TAv fairy formerly known as Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez gave up eight hits, three of them to Beckham, and seven runs (four earned) over 4 2/3 innings, walking six and striking out one. Except for his having played in the big leagues and being really rich and tall and athletic, I would not want to be Ubaldo right now. Behold, Ubaldo’s average four-seam fastball velocities since 2007, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Ubaldohno, amirite? That’s not a pretty progression. When Steven Goldman and I discussed Ubaldo Jimenez in February, I was hearing alarm bells. Now I hear the siren that sounds when they scramble the TIE Fighters anytime I so much as see a name that starts with “U,” which has pretty much ruined all my Uncle Tupelo records.

By the way, Beckham rounding the bases and scoring wasn’t the only unusual thing that happened when Beckham hit a home run. The clouds of smoke from the fireworks they set off in the Cell after the homer took their sweet time to disperse, and before they did, Alejando De Aza got an infield double out of a popup that got lost in the haze. Blame Ubaldo.

The other unexpected first homer was a pinch-hit, eighth-inning game-winner by Mark Kotsay. In Petco. This is what my loss for words looks like:

 

And since you were wondering, Albert Pujols went 0-for-4. You can't hit your first homer when you go 0-for-4.

Nick Johnson gets a hit
And extra bases, to boot. At 0-for-29, Johnson was about to enter Eugenio Velez territory, so the long-awaited hit, a clean double to right off Rafael Soriano, came as a relief to everyone. Of course, he’s now hitting .033/.147/.067, which is kind of anticlimactic and still screams “Release me.”

Jesus Montero goes 4-for-4
In a game in which he played catcher and didn’t do anything particularly embarrassing defensively, Montero also collected four hits. Now he’s hitting .294 on the season and .361 with two homers and a double over his last eight games. Granted, he’s walked only twice, but you still get the feeling that Yankees fans are about to be even unhappier about the Pineda trade. To add insult to injury, Jose Campos gave up eight earned runs in 2 2/3 innings in his Saturday start for Charleston, temporarily making the “but we also got this awesome guy in A-ball” argument more difficult.

A.J. Ellis goes 2-for-4
After reaching base twice on Tuesday, Ellis has a .449 on-base percentage in 79 plate appearances for the Dodgers, even better than the .441 OBP he recorded across four Triple-A seasons. Hey, you’ll never guess which catcher with at least 300 PA from 2008-2012 has the second-highest OBP over that span. Okay, maybe you’ll guess, since I asked you in the A.J. Ellis section: A.J. Ellis! (Please pardon my arbitrary endpoints and carefully selected plate appearance thresholds.)  This season, Ellis has chased a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone than any other player with at least 20 PA. He doesn’t hit for power, so it might not be long before pitchers stop trying to toy with him.

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

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