Usually, the baseball world shuts down for a few days around Christmas, but not this year. On the 23rd, we had the White Sox/Rangers deal. On Christmas Day, rumors about a possible Randy Johnson trade were the rage, especially here in New York.

Between the two, on Christmas Eve, came the mildly surprising news that Jeff Suppan had reached agreement on four-year, $42-million deal with the Brewers. The Brewers aren’t generally a destination for free agents, especially ones coming off NLCS MVPs and who are one of two top pitchers remaining on the market. The Brewers had already made one significant move this offseason, dealing starter Doug Davis for catcher Johnny Estrada, and the financial commitment to Suppan shows that they think they have not just a good team, but a potential winner in the short term.

Suppan’s contract looks like it fits in with the others we’ve seen this winter, a four-year deal for around $10 million a season, in line with what Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla and Gil Meche got. Suppan has some markers than those guys don’t, however. He’s thrown 200 or more innings five times in his career, and hasn’t missed a start in a very long time. He has more seasons of league-average or better work on his resume than those three combined. If you buy that postseason performance is predictive-most people in the industry put some stock in the notion, although there’s no evidence for it-Suppan has had success in October.

With all of that, there’s very little chance that this signing is going to be deemed a success by the Brewers. There’s a void between the pitcher they think they’ve signed and the one who will pitch for them next year, one that has little to do with Suppan himself, and everything to do with the context changing around him. Suppan, remember, isn’t an overpowering pitcher. Even over the past three years, his Stuff scores have been unimpressive (2, 5, 5, respectively, where zero is average) and his DERAs have run a half-run to a run higher than his ERAs. Suppan has posted three of his highest GB/FB ratios the past three years as well, pitching to the strength of the Cardinals‘ defenses.

The following chart shows the Rate for each of the past three seasons for each of the Cards’ four infield spots, along with the PECOTA projections for the Brewers’ infield starters in 2007:

           1B    2B    SS    3B
2004 STL: 108    92    95   114
2005 STL: 105   100    98   113
2006 STL: 111    91    98   107

Average:  108    94    97   111

2007 MIL: 102    96   105   100

That’s J.J. Hardy‘s number at shortstop. Bill Hall is projected to a 99, although he’s expected to play a number of positions while Hardy gets the playing time at short.

This is a pretty generous accounting of the Brewers’ infield defense, including considerable improvement by Rickie Weeks, who has a career Rate of 90 and who looks bad in Chris Dial‘s system as well. (If you just look at the one-year numbers in that system, the Brewers’ infielders were roughly one win worse last year at first base, second base and shortstop than the Cards’ infielders were.)

Even if you accept the generous assessment of the Brewers’ defense in ’07, you can expect Suppan to give up more hits next season than he has been previously. The bounce he’ll get from having Hardy at shortstop is more than lost by the downgrades on the corners. The falloff on the right side of the infield, where the soft-tossing Suppan needs support, is going to cost him hits and runs. (I’m sorry, but I again have to note that the number there for Rickie Weeks just doesn’t feel right. This will be an interesting PECOTA debate.)

Loosely speaking, PECOTA projects the Brewers to have a league-average infield in ’07. Let’s go with that. The Brewers think they’ve signed this guy:

2004:  4.16
2005:  3.57
2006:  4.12

In reality, though, Suppan has been helped by his defense so much that he’s actually this guy:

2004:  4.99
2005:  4.65
2006:  4.51

I suspect that we’re underestimating the actual effects of more Suppan-generated groundballs becoming singles. There’s not just the outs/hits tradeoff, but more pitches thrown, more pitches throw out of the stretch, more pitches thrown under stress, all of which increase the potential for injury to a 32-year-old arm that generall works at max effort.

Whereas Jeff Suppan was pitching to the strength of his teammates the last three seasons, he’ll be pitching to a weakness in 2007. If he were to turn in the exact same performance in 2007 as he did in 2006, it is likely that his ERA would climb by at least half a run just because the defense behind him isn’t as good as the one he’s used to. While that’s not his fault, the difference adds up to real runs; Suppan is a 4.50 ERA pitcher who’s been pitching in front of a defense that saves him a third to a half-run of ERA a year. In front of a defense that costs him that much, his ERA will push 5.00.

That’s the difference between a free-agent signing that gets praised and one that gets hammered.

I mentioned some of the other pitchers who have signed deals this winter. Consider a couple of key 2006 statistics for the pitchers who’ve signed free-agent contracts this winter in roughly the range of Suppan’s deal:

                   K/9   Stuff
Mike Mussina      7.84      27
Jason Schmidt     7.59      23
Andy Pettitte     7.47      20
Vicente Padilla   7.02      17
Ted Lilly         7.93      16
Gil Meche         7.52      14
Jeff Suppan       4.93       5
Adam Eaton        5.95       2
Jason Marquis     4.45      -5

That’s a pretty good ordering not only of those pitchers, but of the contracts they signed. The Suppan deal looks a lot more like an expensive risk-not as bad as the Jason Marquis contract, not as good as the Lilly and Padilla deals-than it does a safe bet. The core skills for pitchers are reflected in their Stuff scores, and Suppan’s pales not only in comparison to the best pitchers on the market, but to his economic peers. The Brewers simply haven’t purchased what they think they have, and unless their infield defense becomes as good as the recent Cardinals’ infield defenses, they’re going to be disappointed.

The issue in play here-the importance of considering the context of performance when evaluating any player-is a critical one when it comes to the last prime free agent (non-might-be-retired division), Barry Zito.

Zito is a flyball pitcher who has been protected by his environment the last few years, pitching in a good-sized home park for a team that often had three center fielders roaming the pasture. Zito isn’t Suppan-his Stuff scores (12, 15, 9) and strikeout rates (6.15 K/9) are considerably better, and he doesn’t have quite the same gap between his actual and defense-adjusted ERAs-but like Suppan, he needs to be in the right situation to succeed, because he isn’t a great pitcher. He’s a good one who has flaws that could be exposed in the wrong context.

The two teams who have been the most prominent in the Zito chase-the Mets and the Rangers-play in two of the more disparate environments in the game, and while each is theoretically bidding on the same pitcher, the Rangers may find that they’d just as soon lose out on the left-hander, who could see his home-run rate, isolated power allowed and ERA skyrocket at Ameriquest Field.

I hope the holidays are treating you well, and I’ll be back before the week is out to put a cap on 2006.