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February 20, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Fun With PECOTA Comparables III

by Steven Goldman

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As a co-editor of the BP annual for four editions running, I'm always discovering new facets of the project that keep me awake and motivated during the long winter hours spent pounding out the book. This year's new pleasures include "Goodfellas"-style trips to the New Jersey woods to dispose of writers who missed their deadlines. I also began a personal crusade to eliminate the word "pretty" from our descriptions of players. I let a few slip through, just for variety's sake, but for the most part you will not read that "Miguel Cairo is a pretty good bunter," "Bobby Abreu is pretty bad at catching fly balls," or "Alex Rodriguez is pretty much a deceitful person." These are ballplayers, not Schrödinger's cat, and imprecision is not what BP is all about.

As I have written in previous years, one of my consistent joys is discovering the secret stories inherent in PECOTA comparables. As I explained last year:

The comparables are only supposed to suggest what a player might do in a particular year; if the top comparables for young outfielder Johnny Wetcougar, 22, are Dave Winfield and Ed Delahanty, the most you can infer is that the system likes him and thinks he's going to be a good hitter in the style of those players at a similar point in their careers. The comparables do not suggest either that Wetcougar will deliver 3,000 hits like Winfield, or get drunk and fall off of an open drawbridge like Delahanty. As I wrote in an earlier edition of the annual, the PECOTA comps are not destiny, and Wetcougar need not invest in scuba gear. Having made that statement, I am not forced to admit that I like to take them as destiny, or at least a hint thereof.

At times, PECOTA comparables suggest themes. I'll pick a random page: say 199. Luis Gonzalez's top comps are Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, and Harold Baines. If this were "Jeopardy," we could probably guess that the clue was, "Name some guys who played too long." Country Slaughter played 19 seasons, not including a three-year time-out for World War II service. He was a regular through his age-37 season, then spent six years as part of the Yankees/Athletics' system of interchangeable parts; he finally finished in 1959 at the age of 43, having batted .171/.269/.342 in 85 games. Baines was a viable DH right through the age of 40, then petered out with .226/.307/.354 rates over his final two seasons. Yaz also lasted until he was 43, but unlike Slaughter and Baines, he remained a serviceable player right until the end, though the .269/.354/.424 rates he put up from age 38 on were on the light side for a first baseman/left fielder/DH, and that's before you apply a healthy Fenway discount. Even Stan the Man, so good as a 41-year-old in his penultimate season (.330/.416/.508-Frank Thomas would give his eyeteeth for a sip from that cup), finally wound down to .255/.325/.404 as a 42-year-old grandfather in 1963. Since PECOTA predicts Gonzalez will hit only .262/.344/.391, it's safe to assume that the system is saying, "Don't push your luck," and not, "You have a three-out-of-four chance of going to the Hall of Fame." Of course, the last laugh may be on PECOTA, because L-Gonz has yet to land a job-at last report the Pirates were kicking the tires, but it seems as if nothing will come of it.

Other themes garnered from flipping pages at random: Jonny Gomes' top comps are Kevin Maas, Marcus Thames, Bob Robertson, and Bob Hamelin. Here PECOTA seems to be screaming "flame-out!" and calling for the fire department. Maas was one of the great one-year wonders, and if you want to get really specific about it, he was actually one of the great two-month wonders, swatting 16 home runs in 160 at-bats in July and August of 1990 (.269/.371/.613). Robertson had the misfortune of being a first baseman on a 1970s Pirates team that owned Willy Stargell. Still, he made the most of his swings in 1970, hitting .287/.367/.564 with 27 home runs in 390 at-bats, crazy-good numbers for 1970. He had another solid year in 1971, then went crazy in the playoffs, hitting six homers in 11 games as the Pirates won the World Series. He was only 24, but thanks to subsequent injuries, he was basically finished. In 1972 he hit .193/.291/.346, and spent the next six years trying to get his swing back. His post-1971 numbers: .224/.319/.393 in 540 games. No doubt few readers require an introduction to Hamelin, the heavy AL Rookie of the Year from 1994, or to Mr. Thames, who is the outlier on this list.

Shorter themes requiring less explanation. Jhonny Peralta gets Jay Bell, Gary Gaetti, Clete Boyer, Travis Fryman; "I'm pretty sure you should move to third base." Alex Gordon's quartet of Pat Burrell, Eric Chavez, Troy Glaus, Darrell Evans: "I still believe, so ask again later." Kenny Rogers has Warren Spahn, Jamie Moyer, Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro: "There have been so few pitchers at your age that you are the pool and the pool is you." Cody Johnson? Rob Nelson, Eric Duncan, Matt Winters, Ian Stewart: "The dream is over and reality is a cold, hard place." Justin Upton gets Bob Horner, B.J. Upton, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Burroughs; "Sure, you can hit, but don't expect Christmas cards from any of your managers."

Each year, PECOTA seems to seize on a few players as generic types who recur again and again throughout the comps. Two that I've noticed this year are outfielder Walt Moryn and fill-in first base/outfield guy Larry Biitner. Moryn is a good example of a journeyman who got a late break and turned it into a five-year career as a regular. Traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs at 30, he got a chance to play and hit .285/.348/.478 with 23 home runs. On May 30, 1958, he hit three homers in a game against his old team, one each against Don Newcombe, Ed Roebuck, and Sandy Koufax (in that order). On defense, Moryn was an error-prone corner guy, so when his bat slowed up, which it did when he was 34, he was quickly ushered out of the major leagues. PECOTA sees echoes of his story in Luke Scott, among others.

Biitner was in the majors from 1970 through 1983, starting with the expansion Senators/Rangers and bouncing around to the Expos, Cubs, and Reds before finishing with the Rangers again. A left-handed hitter, he wasn't much of a hitter for a platoon corner guy, batting only .282/.331/.375 against righties in his career. The Cubs, in their wisdom, let him play every day in 1977, and while he hit .310/.356/.489 against right-handers, they only got .269/.318/.297 from him in 157 PAs against southpaws. He also hit only .272/.318/.376 on the road. Thanks to Rick Reuschel, Bruce Sutter, Willie Hernandez, and good luck, the Cubs somehow went 81-81 in spite of themselves. Biitner did have a solid platoon year for the Expos in 1975, hitting .322/.384/.417. He was known as a good pinch-hitter, and his 96 career pinch hits rank in the top 20 of all time. He batted only .257/.316/.329 in the role, though he did have a few solid singles-hitting years. Having him among your comps isn't exactly flattering (Mike Lamb, for example, has Biitner, Joe Orsulak, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dane Iorg as his comps). Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Biitner is the trade that brought him to the Cubs-they gave up Andre Thornton to get Biitner and pitcher Steve Renko. Renko happens to be the number one comp for Seth McClung, so that should give you an idea of how off that trade was.

Another player who comes up quite often, and who has in previous seasons as well, is the 1978-1983 outfielder Hosken Powell (for example, see Denard Span and Melky Cabrera). Powell seems to be PECOTA's shorthand for "non-hitting outfielder." The Twins #1 pick in the secondary phase of the 1975 draft, Powell batted .259/.314/.349 in a 594-game career spent mostly in right field. Yeah, right field-that's not a comparable, that's a cautionary tale. And in the end, that's part of what PECOTA is all about, isn't it?

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

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