- The Life of Riley: There was a time when Matt Riley was the jewel of the Orioles’ farm system. Now, his time in the orange and black may be coming to an end after a grand total of four major league wins. The whispers out of Baltimore indicate that Riley could be dealt by Opening Day. He was in the mix for the fifth starter spot when camp opened but seems to have fallen behind Bruce Chen and the leading candidate, Rick Bauer.
Small sample size warning: Riley has a 13.50 ERA in six spring innings, and it’s likely that with a better spring, he wouldn’t be staring at a trade. But the post-surgery Riley, coming off of a disappointing major league season in 2004, isn’t the top prospect he used to be. His strikeout rates in the minor leagues were always very good; he’s averaged over ten per nine innings pitched in his minor league career, a total admittedly boosted by his ridiculous rookie performance at Delmarva, but still impressive. Last year in the big leagues his K/9 ratio was 8.44, which over a full season would have cracked the top ten in baseball:
2004 K/9 LEADERS Oliver Perez 10.97 Randy Johnson 10.62 Johan Santana 10.46 Jason Schmidt 10.04 Ben Sheets 10.03 Matt Clement 9.45 Pedro Martinez 9.41 Jake Peavy 9.36 Roger Clemens 9.15 MATT RILEY 8.44 Kelvim Escobar 8.25 Jeremy Bonderman 8.22 Cliff Lee 8.09 Carlos Zambrano 8.07 Curt Schilling 8.06
Unfortunately, though, Riley’s control deserted him in 2004. While never superb, it was always good enough because of his high strikeout numbers; he was working on a career high of almost five walks per nine innings in AAA-Ottawa, and in Baltimore that zoomed to over six. Riley’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.36 would have comfortably trailed everyone else on the above list. In fact, only Cliff Lee (1.99) was below 2.00.
In addition, Riley couldn’t stop the ball from flying out of the park. Eleven batters went yard on him in just 64 innings; that’s 1.55 per nine, a far cry from his career minor league ratio of 0.37.
You can’t help but notice, looking at Riley’s PECOTA card, that some of his comparables are successful relievers: Arthur Rhodes is first Tug McGraw makes an appearance on the list, Kent Mercker appears twice and even Eric Gagne pokes his head in at #20 with a meaningfully similar score of 29. (Cliff Lee, we ought to note, is #7.)
The problem for Riley in this respect is that the Orioles are up to their neck in left-handed relievers. Their likely closer, B.J. Ryan, is left-handed, and this winter they brought in lefty setup man Steve Kline. On top of that, there’s Chen, who has made his case this spring for some innings, as well as John Parrish. Like Riley, Parrish is also rumored to be on the block, perhaps to one of those NL East contenders looking for a lefty reliever.
This starts to look like a question of “fit,” and Riley may not be a good fit. But he can still miss bats, and there’s a chance the Orioles will regret it if they jettison him but keep one of their other, harmless arms.
- Right Into The Fire: The Orioles will face the Yankees and Red Sox a lot this year, but they won’t have much of a chance to get rolling before they do. Their schedule is front-loaded, with two April series against each club, not to mention their opening series at home against Oakland. They’ll get a little break by playing Tampa Bay (twice) and Toronto, but to avoid getting buried right out of the chute they’re going to have to round into midseason form immediately.
May will be welcome, featuring mostly home games and games against the weak AL Central, including seven against Kansas City. How the Orioles beat up on doormats like Tampa and K.C. may determine the entire arc of their season.
- Gimme Five: We’re going to look at the way a couple of roster situations are shaking out for the Rockies, not from an absolute, is-this-player-better perspective, but on the Rockies’ own terms. The approach du jour is not to worry about older players and to go with the kids wherever possible, hoping to save money and raise the core of the next contending team.
Retaining skinny young right-hander Marcos Carvajal, snagged in the Rule 5 draft in December, certainly fits the plan. With only three innings on his resume above Low-A, Carvajal is not a known quantity, but he’s struck out a batter an inning so far in his professional career and is plenty young to have completed a successful first year in full-season ball. He’s got three viable pitches and his fastball is in the mid-90s; in fact, he’s only in the bullpen because scouts don’t think his frame can handle a starting workload. He also throws ground balls at an above-average rate, making him a possibility when the game calls for a double play. Besides their closer, the Rockies don’t have a right-hander who can induce a ground ball, which is of paramount importance at altitude.
Getting Carvajal essentially for nothing (just the $50,000 drafting price plus the $25,000 they paid to the Brewers, who first picked him) and letting him stay on the roster during a meaningless year is a low-risk, high-upside move.
Something notable about Carvajal: his BABIP (batting average against on balls in play) was a scant .250 last year, so some regression to the mean is to be expected there. PECOTA expects an equivalent ERA just shy of 5.00, which will look lousy in Coors Field, but Carvajal, especially since he will be used in low-pressure situations, could come out of 2005 looking like one of the better pitchers on the staff.
He walks a few batters, though – 85 in 184 professional innings to date. As we’ll see when we deal with the Mets, pitchers with suspect control are becoming a motif in today’s PTP. We didn’t plan it that way. Honest.
- Boy Meets World: As roster decisions go, Cory Sullivan is something of a Cinderella, a non-roster guy who hit the stuffing out of the ball and essentially bludgeoned his way into a job.
He’s probably a fluke. Sullivan missed all of ’04 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but his 2003 at Double-A was stunningly mediocre. (We mean that. The average Texas League outfielder has a .350 OBP and a .419 SLG. Sullivan went .300/.347/.417 in ’03.) You need to hit a lot better than that in the Texas League to translate into something decent at the major league level.
We’re not expecting much from him, but he is one of the most interesting roster additions this spring. Here’s his career to date, and we’ll check in on him every now and then to see what line he adds to it in Colorado.
CORY SULLIVAN 6-0 180 8/20/79 College: Wake Forest Selected by the Rockies in the 7th round of the 2001 draft YR CLUB LVL AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG 01 Asheville A 258 12 1 5 25 56 13 9 .275 .344 .388 02 Salem A+ 560 42 6 12 36 70 26 5 .288 .340 .448 03 Tulsa AA 557 34 8 5 39 83 17 13 .300 .347 .417 04 DID NOT PLAY - TOMMY JOHN SURGERY
- Cardiac: Legend has it that when George Stallings, who managed the Miracle Braves of 1914, baseball’s original worst-to-first story, was on his deathbed, the doctor asked him why his heart was so bad. “Oh, those bases on balls!” Stallings allegedly shot back, and died.
It’s probably apocryphal, but the point holds: walks can drive a manager’s blood pressure through the roof. That being the case, Willie Randolph may wonder what he’s gotten into in the pressure cooker that is New York. Whether due to Rick Peterson’s “I Can Fix It” approach or simply a coincidence, the Mets have brought in two starting pitchers over the past year who are most famous for their excessive walk totals: first Victor Zambrano, and now Kazuhisa Ishii. (Well, not really…now, Zambrano is most famous as the answer to the question, “For whom did the Mets trade Scott Kazmir?”)
In 2004, Ishii and Zambrano combined for 22 games in which they walked more batters than they struck out. Ishii’s 13 were more than any pitcher except Kirk Rueter and Shawn Estes (14) and Daniel Cabrera (15). Since 2002, Rueter and Estes lead this statistic with 36 and 31 respectively. Ishii ranks seventh, with 27. Of course, the recently departed Al Leiter comes in at 25 (12 in 2004), and Steve Trachsel, whose injury opened the door for Ishii, performed the feat 24 times in those three years, with eight coming in ’04.
Players like Rueter and Leiter are on this list not because they’re lousy but because they are control artists who don’t strike guys out. Not so with Zambrano, who throws very hard but has no idea where the ball is going, or with Ishii, who doesn’t throw all that hard but still has no idea.
If you’re wondering, by the way, who lies between Estes and Ishii on the leaderboard, take a look…
Kirk Rueter 36 Shawn Estes 31 Aaron Sele 30 Jon Garland 29 Josh Fogg 28 Mike Hampton 28 KAZUHISA ISHII 27 Kenny Rogers 26 Damian Moss 25 Miguel Batista 25 AL LEITER 25 Russ Ortiz 25 TOM GLAVINE 24 STEVE TRACHSEL 24 Jason Jennings 24
It should come as no surprise that the 2004 Mets were 26th out of 30 teams in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. (Conversely, they walked the fifth most batters in the league.) They were also fifth worst in pitches per plate appearance, meaning that when batting against the Mets one would have longer at-bats than against all but four other teams. That by itself isn’t bad: there are some good staffs (the Mets, Astros and Cubs) near the top of that list, and some poor ones (Colorado, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit) near the bottom. But the Astros and Cubs, who throw a lot of pitches, were also 1-2 in strikeouts per nine. They provided plenty of George Stallings moments for Art Howe in 2004.
That shouldn’t change in 2005. If anything, the changes they have made, not only to the pitching staff but to their defense, portend even more of the same.
- Cliff Diver: There’s no doubt that Roberto Alomar is a Hall of Famer. But the slew of articles defending him, both here and elsewhere, shows that many analysts felt that there was an opposition party. Had Alomar not suffered one of the most precipitous one-season declines in baseball history, and never recovered, nobody would worry.
When he was traded to the Mets before the 2002 season, Alomar was coming off of his greatest season, worth 12.2 WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Level). With the Mets, he slumped to 4.3, and in only eight fewer plate appearances. Below are the ten greatest one-season WARP3 declines in major league history, the only condition being that the player must have made at least 250 outs in each season. (In other words, they have to have played a lot each year.)
PLAYER YEARS -WARP3 PA1 PA2 Babe Ruth 24-25 -9.8 671 418 Richie Ashburn 58-59 -9.0 712 643 Hoot Evers 50-51 -8.4 597 433 Cal Ripken, Jr. 91-92 -8.2 703 701 George Scott 67-68 -7.9 628 376 Ted Simmons 83-84 -7.9 641 527 Roberto Alomar 01-02 -7.9 655 647 Rich Aurilia 01-02 -7.9 683 575 Roy Campanella 53-54 -7.8 586 439 Darrell Porter 79-80 -7.7 654 487
Alomar ranks seventh, and he rises to sixth when you adjust the effects of the Babe’s loss in playing time in 1925. Most of these players rebounded, even a little, from their dropoffs. Only Alomar, Aurilia and Ripken did not. (Ripken’s dropoff was from a mind-boggling 15.6 WARP to a still-excellent 7.4, so he can be forgiven for not rebounding.) It speaks volumes of Alomar’s accomplishments that he could weather such a swift decline and still have his Cooperstown plaque all but etched.
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