March 20, 2009
First, a quick admission of guilt-I have a fascination with the freak show, or as they're called in a day of more political correctness, "human oddities." Long gone are the days where they were the main attraction at the circus and cultural icons, and it's long forgotten that someone like Zip the Pinhead made the equivalent of millions of dollars a year, was as well known during his time as any celebrity is now, and, when he died, his obituary was printed on the front page of the New York Times. What we have now are specials on The Learning Channel, but let's be honest, you are watching those for the reason people lined up for a ticket to the show a century ago. Among my collection of memorabilia from that age is a one-sheet poster of the Ringling Brothers sideshow from the early 20th century that features, among others, "The Moss-Haired Girl," "The Human Skye Terrier," and "What Is She?" all under the label of "The Peerless Prodigies Of Physical Phenomena."
Baseball has its own peerless prodigies, players who are so unique on either a physical or ability level that projections become quite difficult. Whether you're a scout or a stathead, but hopefully a little bit of both, projecting the future is all about knowing your past. Our PECOTA system is based on finding comparable players as an insight for what to expect next, while scouts do the same-looking for physical and tools comparisons to help provide some patterns in the tea leaves to go on for future reference.
Still, there are those who are difficult to categorize, those without precedence. So, step right up folks, don't be shy, as we take you to a land where ballplayers break the mold.
The Giant Pitcher: One of the questions we've gotten the most over the offseason concerns CC Sabathia's workload. He threw 253 innings last year, 241 the year before, and the Brewers worked him very hard following the trade deadline blockbuster, averaging 111 pitches per start and crossing the 120 mark four times. Was this cause for concern? Standard logic would say yes, but big pitchers tend to have better stamina, and Sabathia isn't just big, he's huge. We just don't know how well 6'7" pitchers who weight over 300 pounds (yes, he's listed at 290, but c'mon, we have eyes) hold up. There are always a handful of pitchers who can handle consistently large workloads-Roy Halladay comes to mind-with little concern, and it's possible that Sabathia is one of them, but we don't have enough pitchers like him to really learn from a past.
The Tiny Pitcher: As big as Sabathia is, that's how small Tim Lincecum, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, is. He's listed at 5'11" and 160 pounds, but that's classic aggrandizing (just like Barnum used to do) on the scale of five to ten percent. Theoretically, you might believe that pitchers his size should never be able to throw 227 innings in a season, but Lincecum is one of the most unique pitchers in recent memory, with unteachable mechanics, arm speed that borders on the unreal, and just something about him that works in the sense that allowed him to rack up downright abusive pitch counts at the University of Washington without injury or even any soreness, as he'd often do without even icing his arm. Before he was drafted, one team dreamed on him as the next Mike Marshall, a high-leverage reliever who could throw 160 innings out of the pen over 100 appearances. His arm seems to be made of an inhuman material, and he's likely to pitch like this for years.
The Contact Machine: Every year, PECOTA thinks Ichiro Suzuki is going to hit around .290 or so. Of course, he'll likely be much better than that, as he enters the year with a career average of .331, and his .310 average last year was the second-lowest single-season mark of his career. As anyone familiar with PECOTA knows, the system is based on similarities to other players, and the system measures the quality of those comparable players with a value called Similarity Index. A score of 50 or higher means the player has many highly similar players, and anything lower than 20 is historically unusual. Ichiro's score is a lowly 17, and the players it compares him to are guys like Lance Johnson, Matty Alou, and Al Bumbry-hitters with generally similar skills, in that once in a while they might reel off a 200-hit season and a .320 batting average or better, but they could never do it on a consistent basis. Suzuki is a rarity, with his ability to put a bat on ball that is so off the charts that the system just doesn't know what to do with him. When it comes to PECOTA and Ichiro, always bet the over.
The Ageless Wonder: Randy Johnson could fit into this category as well, but he was a guy with some of the most dominating stuff in baseball history during his prime, so even the basic skill atrophy that comes with age would allow him to stay good for a long, long time. But Jamie Moyer is a different beast. He's never been dominating, averaging just 120 strikeouts for every 200 IP. He's only been an All-Star once in his twenty-two years. Yet he's been good, often very good, seemingly forever, this after looking like his career was all but over in the early '90s. Modern baseball has never seen a pitcher like him, and he's so unique that he practically broke PECOTA this year, as the system simply refused to provide a projection for him for lack of valid comparable players. He also creates a reverse psychology in the world pf prospects, as every organization has a lefty who is low on stuff but can throw strikes, spin a breaking ball and put up good numbers in the lower levels. More often than not, people start comparing him to Moyer without the knowledge that on nearly every statistical measurement we have, there has been only one Jamie Moyer.
The Metamorphosis: It's almost ancient history at this point, but Rick Ankiel was quite simply the best pitching prospect in baseball more than a decade ago-the David Price or Felix Hernandez or Josh Beckett of his day. Then came massive control issues in the spotlight of the postseason in 2000, and he was never the same again. In 2001, trying to work his way back all the way down in the Appalachian League, Ankiel asked to be used as a designated hitter on occasion, and ended up slugging .638 in 41 games with ten home runs. In 2005, after more injuries and control problems, Ankiel decided to give becoming a full-time hitter a shot, and put up impressive numbers at Low- and Double-A that were discounted by many, as he was 25 years old at the time. A knee injury in 2006 put him even further behind the age/development curve, and he entered 2007 in a make-or-break year as a 27-year-old in Triple-A, but 32 home runs in 102 games later, he was a starting outfielder in the big leagues, and one who delivered 25 home runs in the 2008 season. PECOTA gives him a high Similarity Index of 56, with comparable players like Henry Rodriguez, Dan Pasqua, Franklin Stubbs, and Geoff Jenkins making a lot of sense on the surface, but none of them took the extended path Ankiel did to get where he is now. While he turns 30 in July, he has roughly the amount of experience as a position player that your standard 25-year-old does, so you have to ask, is he still getting better, just getting older, or somewhere in between? We don't know, because we don't have enough (or really any) players in history to go by.
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A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider.