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Florida Marlins

  • For Openers, Part I: In the words of Eppy Calvin LaLoosh, sometimes you just want to announce your presence with authority. Josh Beckett and the Fish did a good job taking Nuke’s advice, opening the season with a 9-0 wipeout of the Atlanta Braves.

    Of course, the national story in this game was John Smoltz‘s failure in his first outing as a starter since 2001, overshadowing the fact that the Marlins posted the most impressive opener in franchise history. Overall, the Marlins are 7-6 in their openers, their previous high margin of victory an 11-6 drubbing of once and future Marlin Al Leiter and the Mets in 1999.

    The Marlins went on to repeat the feat with another 9-0 victory later in opening week, with Dontrelle Willis going the whole way to shut out the Washington Nationals on just 96 pitches. They almost triplicated the feat on Sunday, with Beckett throwing blanks on the mound and the Fish scoring six runs in the eighth inning for an 8-0 win.

    The Marlins have had some trouble winning their non-shutout/blowout games. Between blowouts, the Fish lost two extra-inning, one-run games, as well as a 4-2 matchup against the Braves. Still, a team that wins big and loses small will sooner or later see its actual record bounce closer to its Pythagorean record. That potential is part of the reason the Marlins are #1 on the Prospectus Hit List.

  • Small Sample Size Theater, Part I: With apologies to Nate Silver, there are lies, damned lies, and spring training statistics. Aside from the fact that spring stats are based on just a few weeks’ worth of games, you have additional challenges when it comes to discerning the level of competition individual players face. Particularly early in spring training, a fellow who appears in the first five innings is facing a completely different team from someone who plays in the last four.

    With those caveats in mind, and taken with a large grain of salt, let’s look at some select spring training numbers out of Jupiter:

    
              Spring Training       Career          PECOTA
               ERA   IP   SO      ERA  EqK/9      ERA  EqK/9
    Beckett   0.98  27.3  24     3.49    7.9     3.51    7.5
    Moehler   1.37  19.7   5     4.57    4.6      N/A    N/A
    Willis    3.86  28.0  25     3.70    6.0     3.76    6.1
    Burnett   5.52  31.0  23     3.86    6.6     3.76    7.3
    

    The stats up there are the player’s spring training numbers, plus some career and projected rate stats for comparison. PECOTA is our projection system–the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm–and EqK/9 is just strikeouts per nine innings, translated by the incomparable Clay Davenport to normalize for league conditions and ballparks. Willis, Beckett and A.J. Burnett finished at or near the top of the March strikeouts leaderboard. Brian Moehler…not so much so. Moehler outpitched Ismael Valdez all spring, lost the fifth-starter job anyway, then snagged Valdez’s first start away from him when Valdez was struck by a liner in a minor-league warmup.

New York Yankees

  • No Room at the Inn: Another Yankee spring training has ended, and again, the Yankee bench looks like the team’s Achilles’ heel. Some might wonder about the team’s inability to procure–BP watchword alert!–freely available talent to fill backup positions on the club. Is this a failure of the team’s scouting department and performance analysts?

    The theory of “free” talent is that, because of inefficiencies in the way players are valued at the major-league level, the minor leagues and the waiver wire are practically teeming with players with the ability to perform in The Show. The team that can identify and acquire these players will have a bunch of good complementary talent on the cheap. The problem is, it’s not quite “any” team that can nab this low-hanging fruit.

    The reasons why players in a free market would go to one team or another vary. Some players want to be closer to home, others want to maximize their chances at postseason glory. Most often, money tells the tale. The player will join the highest bidder, then talk about how good the public schools are in [insert name of high-bidding team’s town here]. Your freely-available type, on the other hand, won’t set off a bidding war, so money usually won’t be the determining factor. Most often these guys are playing for their next contract, after one or more make-good years with a big-league club. So what it comes down to for them is opportunity.

    With the Red Sox and Yankees opening each other’s ballparks to start the season, there will probably be a number of opportunities for George Steinbrenner to needle Brian Cashman about “the one that got away,” David Ortiz. To hear The Boss tell it, back when Ortiz was non-tendered by the Twins, before the 2003 season, the owner gave his baseball men the direction to get that large Dominican fitted for some pinstripes. Cashman reminded the Boss that the Yankees already had two pretty good lefty-hitting first basemen (Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson) and they didn’t have space for a third. History ran its course, and by the following October, Ortiz was torturing the Yankees in the playoffs. One October after that, he was hauling around a World Series trophy, in part at the Yankees’ expense.

    Going back to the offseason before 2003, though, would any agent in his right mind let David Ortiz go to the Yankees, rather than the Red Sox, on an inexpensive contract? During that same off-season, the Red Sox had compiled a bunch of relatively cheap players at the corners, and set them loose to compete for roster slots: you had Jeremy Giambi, a disappointment with the Phillies; Kevin Millar, who was heading to Japan before Theo Epstein butted in; Bill Mueller, an injury-prone third baseman with little to no power. These guys came on to complement the Red Sox fixtures in the outfield corners, Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon, and to compete with the incumbent third baseman, Shea Hillenbrand.

    The opportunity for Ortiz was far greater in Beantown than it would have been in the Bronx, where there were established players at each of the slots Ortiz could occupy, and any short slump could mean exile to the bench, or maybe even a nice vacation to Columbus, Ohio. Given the choice, would you rather compete with Little G or Big G for a job?

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • For Openers, Part II: Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon raised some eyebrows with some of his lineup choices for the home opener. First, he benched his team’s second-best hitter, Craig Wilson, against Brewers’ starter Ben Sheets. Then, McClendon installed Tike Redman and his career .394 slugging percentage as the #3 batter in the lineup.

    Justifying his Opening Day benching of Wilson, McClendon had this to say (as reported by MLB.com):

    “It’s Opening Day and there is a lot of excitement, but the fact is I’m trying to put the lineup out there that gives me the best opportunity to win the game. If it wasn’t Opening Day, nobody would say a thing about it. What’s the big deal? The guy is 0-for-13 with seven strikeouts and I’m trying to win a game.”

    True, it’s not a big deal, although it does show a bad understanding of sample size. Wilson is 0-for-13 with a walk against Sheets, which is admittedly pretty lousy. Daryle Ward, who replaced Wilson in the lineup, was 6-for-29 with two walks, a double and a homer against Sheets coming into 2005. Sure, Ward was doing better than Wilson, but in more than twice as many opportunities. Redman, the middle-of-the-lineup guy, was 5-for-19 with no walks and a double against Sheets. If Wilson reaches base four times in his next six plate appearances against Sheets, he’ll have matched Redman’s .263 OBP against the Brewers’ ace.

    Statheads are often reminded that players aren’t just lines of numbers, they’re people with complex psyches and motivations. What does it say to Wilson–who for years has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Pirates organization–when his manager basically says “You just can’t hit that guy. I wish I could play you, but I’m trying to win here”? What does it say to the fans when you’re sitting one of the team’s most popular players on Opening Day?

    Again, benching a player for one game against a tough pitcher like Sheets isn’t, in the long run, a big deal. Neither is batting Redman third–an experiment that lasted all of one game–although James Click’s research suggests that McClendon shouldn’t spend so much time thinking outside the box.

    What could hasten McClendon’s managerial Doomsday Clock is the early ineffectiveness of Oliver Perez, who hasn’t looked good losing his first two games of the year. As anyone who dropped Johan Santana in their fantasy league last year could tell you, you shouldn’t panic when your lefty wunderkind struggles in the early going. Still, Santana’s struggles didn’t feature the control problems that Perez has experienced through his first two starts.

  • Small Sample Size Theater, Part II: Again, spring stats with a statistical sprinkling of salt:
    
              Spring Training       Career          PECOTA
               AVG/OBP/SLG        AVG/OBP/SLG     AVG/OBP/SLG
    Mackowiak .351/.410/.568    .252/.325/.423  .252/.328/.418
    Castillo  .329/.363/.539    .256/.298/.368  .251/.308/.383
    Sanchez   .273/.310/.364    .203/.225/.232  .262/.327/.377
    Duffy     .339/.439/.429      Minors (AA)   .264/.325/.375
    Ross      .087/.192/.217    .207/.292/.411  .233/.322/.432
    Doumit    .400/1.080/.464     Minors (AA)   .250/.318/.416
    

    Jose Castillo won the second-base job out of spring training with a performance that–if you’ll pardon the cynicism–we doubt he’ll continue at the major league level. Castillo’s success left the Pirates’ roster with a logjam of four second basemen: Castillo, Freddy Sanchez, Bobby Hill and Rob Mackowiak. Once Castillo hit the DL with a strained oblique, Mackowiak took over primary duties at the keystone, which means that one of Hill or Sanchez is dead weight when Castillo comes back. Chris Duffy has taken over Castillo’s roster spot, returning the team to a more natural balance of infielders and outfielders.

    Dave Ross was purchased from the Dodgers just as Humberto Cota was about to hit the DL. This means that another layer of sod has been tossed on Ryan Doumit, who is now buried behind Benito Santiago, Cota, Ross, Craig Wilson, Tony Pena and Manny Sanguillen on the Pirates’ depth chart at catcher. Doumit had a really nice spring (5 HR) in, admittedly, an extremely small sample size (25 AB).

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.