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  • David Cone had the Cone Heads. In Philadelphia, a bunch of people put wolf masks on when Randy Wolf pitches, and they form the Wolf Pack. In San Francisco, there were the Snow Men in praise of J.T. Snow (they always seem to sit in the upper deck). And in Atlanta, there were Francoeur’s Franks, which looked like a bunch of college kids in rented Oscar Meyer getups.

    But is there a more frustrating lot in life than being a member of the in-game fan club of Jeff Francoeur? Here’s a typical game for them: get dressed up in a hot dog suit, go to the ballpark, get all a-twitter when he gets to the on-deck circle, stand up and do your thing when he steps into the box, watch him swing at the first two pitches, and then you sit down for two more innings before you can do it again. Francoeur saw just 3.41 pitches per plate appearance in 2005, which ranked 417th in the NL (it would have ranked 66th–just ahead of Neifi Perez–had he gotten enough ABs to qualify). Here’s hoping Francoeur can gain a little patience for next season, if only to help out his most devoted followers.

  • Rafael Furcal hits the free agent market this winter. Furcal’s career line at this point is .284/.348/.409, and he’s currently the best shortstop in the National League (he out WARPed Jimmy Rollins and Felipe Lopez by a considerable margin).

    People still refer to Furcal as a top of the order catalyst with good OBP, and a base stealing machine to boot. His critics point to the fact that his reputation was largely formed in 2000, and he’s completely unlikely to be visited by the .394 OBP Fairy again. Small beans, really, as his EqAs have remained fairly stable even without the career-high OBP, and he seems to have recovered from his sophomore and junior year bouts with the Hacks.

    If there’s a main concern, it’s that whoever signs him is looking at his age 28+ seasons, though this didn’t make the shortstop market last year show any restraint. Additionally, he’s reportedly not as fast as he once was. If that’s true, then he loses a bit of shine. Not enough to make him unpalatable, but it’s a caution. He still draws walks (about one per ten ABs) and keeps his strikeouts low. He didn’t start 2005 strongly at all, though, as he only hit .254/.310/.393 prior to the All-Star Break. After the ASB he exploded, hitting .322/.394/.474 to salvage his season, and likely earned himself an extra couple million dollars in 2006 salary.

    Despite the scouting report on his speed, he’s still a good base stealing threat–his 82% success rate (46 SB, 10 CS) last year is above the magical 75% break-even point, and he’s at 78% for his career. Concerns about his speed are largely reacting to his recent rise in GIDPs. Last year saw him ground into 9, and this year he upped it to 11 (albeit in 53 more ABs than in 2004). Still, for a player supposedly built on speed, it’s worrisome, though it’s not always easy to say “beginning of a trend” with conviction in these cases. He’s still legging out infield hits, though, which is one more piece of evidence that his wheels are still turning acceptably:

    2000    455    134      25
    2001    324     89      11
    2002    636    175      19
    2003    664    194      24
    2004    563    157      27
    2005    616    175      34

    More troubling for potential suitors may be his home/road splits. From 2002-2004 he hit .306/.372/.448 at home (as opposed to .266/.325/.412 on the road). This past year he hit .321/.383/.508 at home and .246/.311/.346 away from Turner Field, which is Neifi Perez territory. While players are expected to have some sort of home-field advantage, Furcal has been a league average shortstop when not playing in Atlanta. Perhaps he takes advantage of the nooks and crannies that only Turner Field provides, perhaps it’s meaningless, or perhaps its an artifact of playing in the NL East, where most parks are pitcher’s parks (though Turner Field itself rates as a slight pitcher’s park). In any event, it’s a pretty big split, and if he winds up hitting .270/.325/.410 next year for $12 million, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised after all.

    He’s certainly the marquee name among shortstops this offseason; after Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra there’s a pretty steep decline, in stark contrast to last winter’s saturated market for shortstops. Furcal looks to do pretty well for himself, wherever he winds up.

  • After the Yankees failed to reach an agreement to hire him, pitching coach Leo Mazzone looks headed to Baltimore to meet up with childhood chum Sam Perlozzo and the Orioles’ young pitching staff. We’ve written about this staff and their troubles before, and now they get to work with a pitching coach who doesn’t just have a philosophy, but gets measurable results with it.

    Mazzone will inherit a staff that ranked 10th in ERA in the AL at 4.56. They were third in K/9 at 6.63, though they were 10th in BB/9, so the K/BB ratio wasn’t anything to write home about, despite the high K totals. New Diamondback pitching coach Bryan Price has much the same job in Arizona: take a young, raw pitching staff and cut down the walks, trying to contend in a damaged division. Any money on who’ll be more successful?

James Click contributed research to this column

John Erhardt

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It has been a couple of weeks since the Tigers named Jim Leyland their new manager. We could respond by debating the logic of not retaining Alan Trammell. However, since the Tigers are trying to find a better way, let’s focus on the future. In order to assess the Tigers’ future, however, we will need to look at Jim Leyland’s past.

More specifically, we need to look at how we can expect Jim Leyland to manage his pitching staff. Between Jeremy Bonderman, Roman Colon, Franklyn German, Wil Ledezma, and Justin Verlander, the Tigers have some young’uns on their staff, and Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson aren’t exactly the graybeard duo that Pettitte and Clemens are.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 seasons for Leyland pitchers ranked by STRESS:

Top 10 Leyland pitchers by STRESS
Pitcher          Year    Age    STRESS
Tim Wakefield    1993     26       252
Livan Hernandez  1998     23       238
Tim Wakefield    1992     25       169
Jason Schmidt    1996     23       156
Pedro Astacio    1999     29       104
Rafael Medina    1998     23        95
Doug Drabek      1992     29        95
Jesus Sanchez    1998     23        68
Alex Fernandez   1997     27        67
Jamey Wright     1999     24        61
                  Avg.    25.2     130.5

We can see here that in the extreme case–the top ten pitchers–the average age is quite young. However, if you stretch out the comparison a bit further, it evens off:

Leyland SP, ranked by STRESS
#         Avg Age
Top 20      27.05
All 118     26.96

Basically, this means that overall Leyland has not overextended his young pitchers too much, but there are a few extreme cases. And half of these cases do not paint a favorable picture. Wakefield and Hernandez we can toss out the window–Wakefield being a knuckleballer and Hernandez being the fellow built like a horse. However, looking at some of the other names, there are pitchers who have had arm trouble during their careers–notably Jason Schmidt, Pedro Astacio, Doug Drabek, Alex Fernandez, and Jamey Wright. Now, it would be taking an awfully simplistic view to say that Jim Leyland was the reason that all of these pitchers ended up being hurt, but we can probably say that in these cases he certainly didn’t help matters.

The Tigers of 2005 had better hitting than pitching. The team ranked 11th in AEqR, but figures to lose some of their main run producers, like Rondell White, Dmitri Young, and perhaps even Ivan Rodriguez. While they may be able to shuffle around the outfield in such a way that Curtis Granderson will help make up for White’s production, they face the prospect of being weaker offensively at DH and C next year. Couple this with what was a mediocre pitching staff (23rd in AEqRA), and it will be even more important for Leyland to properly manage his young hurlers properly. Looking at the extreme cases, it is not out of line to envision a scenario where Leyland leans too hard on some of his young bucks, something that could have negative repercussions in later years. Leyland’s pitching management, especially Bonderman, will be a key factor in his success or failure during his Tigers tenure.

(thanks to Keith Woolner and Will Carroll for their research and input)

Paul Swydan