Continuing our statistical tour around the major leagues…
Rule 5 picks are supposed to be for strong-armed relievers and toolsy outfielders in A-ball. You’re not supposed to be able to grab a major-league-ready middle infielder who can step into the everyday lineup and hit .282 with 27 homers. Nevertheless, that’s what Dan Uggla did for the Marlins as a rookie. Even though he was 25 years old and looked like the perfect candidate for a sophomore jinx, he might have had an even better season last year: his average dropped to .245, but he drew 20 more walks (going from 48 to 68), and his surprising power took an even more surprising step forward, as he hit 31 homers, and chipped in 49 doubles and three triples. That’s 83 extra-base hits from a middle infielder. Impressive? Here’s the list of every second baseman or shortstop who had amassed 83 or more extra-base hits in a season prior to 2007:
Ernie Banks Nomar Garciaparra (twice) Charlie Gehringer Rogers Hornsby (four times) Cal Ripken Alfonso Soriano Alex Rodriguez (four times) Robin Yount
That’s five Hall of Famers and, in A-Rod, a top-shelf Hall of Famer in the making. There may be more, because I think Soriano has a real shot at the Hall of Fame-let’s face it, once Jim Rice gets in next year, the standards for entry make every outfielder better than Joe Carter a viable candidate. Nomar looked like a sure Hall of Famer until roughly the moment he left the Red Sox, and still has a shot if he can pad the superstar-shortstop portion of his career with a lot of counting numbers in the overrated-first baseman portion of his career. (Hey, it worked for Ernie Banks.)
And then there’s Uggla… and then there’s also the two other guys who earned a place on that list by turning the trick last season. One was Jimmy Rollins, who won the MVP award and has a shot at the Hall of Fame himself. Rollins needs 193 hits this season to reach 1500 before his 30th birthday, which would put him in excellent position for a 3000-hit career.
The other guy is Uggla’s teammate, Hanley Ramirez. A feat that had only been accomplished by eight players previously-all Hall of Famers or potential Hall of Famers-was accomplished by both members of a single double-play combination. Together, Ramirez and Uggla combined for 166 extra-base hits. Needless to say, no double-play combination has ever combined for that many extra-base hits in a season. The runner up? Let’s just say it was a good year for middle infielders in the NL East:
Year Team Shortstop 2B 3B HR XBH Second Baseman 2B 3B HR XBH Total 2007 FLA Hanley Ramirez 48 6 29 83 Dan Uggla 49 3 31 83 166 2007 PHI Jimmy Rollins 38 20 30 88 Chase Utley 48 5 22 75 163 2001 SFG Rich Aurilia 37 5 37 79 Jeff Kent 49 6 22 77 156 2006 PHI Jimmy Rollins 45 9 25 79 Chase Utley 40 4 32 76 155 2005 BAL Miguel Tejada 50 5 26 81 Brian Roberts 45 7 18 70 151 2005 TEX Michael Young 40 5 24 69 Alfonso Soriano 43 2 36 81 150 1996 SEA Alex Rodriguez 54 1 36 91 Joey Cora 37 6 6 49 140 2003 TEX Alex Rodriguez 30 6 47 83 Michael Young 33 9 14 56 139 1950 BOS Vern Stephens 34 6 30 70 Bobby Doerr 29 11 27 67 137
Incidentally, if you’re looking for evidence on how much the offensive standards for middle infielders has changed in the past 20 years, you’ve found it. If we use the play-by-play database (which only goes back to 1957, so far) and calculate the exact number of times that the second baseman or shortstop then in the game managed an extra-base hit, the Phillies get a boost from Tadahito Iguchi, who filled in for Utley when the latter spent a month on the DL. That list looks like this:
Year Team XBH 2007 Philadelphia 174 2007 Florida 173 2001 San Francisco 159 1997 Boston 158 2006 Philadelphia 156
Consider this particular duel to be still unsettled, as all four players involved will be under their clubs’ control for the next four seasons. On one side, you have Rollins and Utley, the MVP and near-MVP of the National League, each earning over $7 million in 2008 (and underpaid at that). On the other, you’ve got Ramirez and Uggla, who were paid less than a million dollars last year. Unless the Marlins have some long-term deals in the offing, they likely will make less than a million dollars this year-combined.
Ehren Wassermann does not have the kind of pedigree you’d expect from a major leaguer. Born in Alabama and a graduate of Samford University, he signed with the White Sox as a non-drafted free agent out of a tryout camp. Wikipedia claims that after graduating from college and before he signed, he made a living by selling knives, though with a name like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was actually serving as a colonel in the German army.
How does a guy go from a tryout camp to the major leagues in four years? It helps if he throws side-arm and keeps the ball about three inches off the ground at all times, the basic Chad Bradford starter kit. Wassermann had a 2.36 career ERA in the minors, and had given up just three homers in the past three seasons combined, when he got the call from the White Sox in July. He kept his homerless streak alive in Chicago, and his G/F ratio with the White Sox was an impressive 3.77.
More importantly, in just half a season Wassermann may have taken the evolution of the modern bullpen forward another step. We’ve had LOOGYs-Left-handed One Out GuYs-for years. Under Ozzie Guillen‘s care, Wassermann may have been the game’s first true ROOGY.
For one, he made 33 appearances for the White Sox, but threw just 23 innings and faced just 94 batters. No right-handed pitcher had ever made 30 or more appearances and faced fewer than 100 batters. Here’s a list of the fewest BFP with 30+ G; take special note of player #2.
Year Pitcher G BFP 2007 Ehren Wassermann 33 94 2005 Chad Bradford 31 104 2007 Gary Majewski 32 113 2002 Oscar Henriquez 30 115 2005 Antonio Alfonseca 33 118
The reason Wassermann faced so few batters per appearance wasn’t that he was ineffective-he managed a respectable 2.74 ERA-but that he simply could not retire left-handed hitters. n a small sample size (very small, as we shall see), lefties hit .533/.632/.733 against Wassermann. He held right-handers to .174/.227/.203. Our boy was a wee bit imbalanced-that’s an incredible OPS split of 935. Since 1957, here’s a list of the greatest OPS differentials by a right-handed pitcher with 20 or more innings:
Year Player IP OPS v. LH OPS vs. RH Diff 2001 Steve Reed 58.1 1532 412 1120 1985 Bob Sebra 20.1 1526 416 1110 2007 Ehren Wassermann 23.0 1365 430 935 1980 Bob Babcock 23.1 1315 382 927 1990 Jose Bautista 26.2 1369 482 887
That Steve Reed split in more than twice as many innings as everyone else on this list is as hard to believe today as it was in 2001 (especially since the following year, he held left-handed hitters to a lower OPS than right-handers). It’s hard to find a useful role for a pitcher that gets spanked by all left-handed hitters like they’re Barry Bonds on a hot streak. But it’s not impossible, especially if you’re Ozzie Guillen and you’re not averse to using five pitchers in the span of five pitches (as Guillen did once last season).
That .533/.632/.733 split against LHB comes in a ridiculously small sample of 15 at-bats (eight hits, including a double and triple). Wassermann faced 94 batters in the majors, but just 19 of them batted from the left side. No right-handed pitcher in at least the last half-century has been used so exclusively against right-handed hitters (min: 90 BFP):
Year Player BFP RHB BF RH% 2007 Ehren Wassermann 94 75 79.8% 1958 Babe Birrer 149 118 79.2% 1958 Don Bessant 107 84 78.5% 1993 Jeff Nelson 269 207 77.0% 1968 Chuck Hartenstein 156 120 76.9%
It’s way too early to start labeling Wassermann as some sort of new pitcher prototype. He has barely two months of major league experience, and these freak numbers are less a reflection on him than the usage pattern his manager used him in. His performance against left-handed hitters is in such a small sample that it may mean nothing, though it’s worth noting that Wassermann allowed Triple-A hitters batting from the left side to hit .290/.421/.355, against .186/.260/.267 from the right. It will be worth keeping tabs on Colonel Wassermann this season, to see whether the inability to retire left-handed hitters no longer precludes a pitcher from a major league career.
Tampa Bay Rays
It was a good year to be an Upton. While Justin went from the Midwest League to the majors in less than a year (and we’ll talk more about that in another article), big brother B.J. was finally freed from the demands of playing shortstop and became the hitter everyone thought he could be. B.J. Upton announced his arrival with a .365 average and 13 extra-base hits in April, and while he slowed down subsequently, he never stopped hitting, finishing at .300/.386/.508. Not bad for a 22-year-old.
Upton’s April was harbinger of things to come in more ways than one. While he was hitting .365, he was also striking out in a full third of his at-bats, a rate which seemed unsustainable. He didn’t hit .365, but he did hit .300, while striking out 154 times in just 474 at-bats (a “strikeout average” of .325). Technically, Upton didn’t hit .300; he hit .2997, and yes, I’m a stickler about things like that. However, if we look at all players who hit .295 or better (min: 300 AB), no player in history has struck out as often as Upton did:
Year Player BA K Avg 2007 B.J. Upton .300 .325 2000 Jim Edmonds .295 .318 2006 Ryan Howard .313 .312 1998 Mark McGwire .299 .305 2004 Jim Edmonds .301 .301 1971 Willie Stargell .295 .301
Upton’s closest challenger was probably Jim Thome, who in 2001 hit .291 despite a whopping strikeout average of .352. Thome, Edmonds, Howard, McGwire, Stargell…we’re talking about some prodigious power hitters here. It’s undoubtedly easier for power hitters to rack up high batting averages despite striking out a ton, because 40 or 50 times a year they hit a ball that no defense can make a play on. Upton, on the other hand, only hit 24 homers last season; despite keeping the ball on the field of play, he was able to turn a low contact rate into a high batting average. On balls in play, Upton hit an impressive .399. (This is slightly higher than his traditional BABIP score, because I’m not counting sacrifice flies against him here.) In the last 70 years, only seven players have recorded higher BABIP scores (again, not counting sac flies) in 450 or more at-bats:
Year Player AB BA HR K BABIP 1977 Rod Carew 616 .388 14 55 .411 2002 Jose Hernandez 525 .288 24 188 .406 1993 Andres Galarraga 470 .370 22 73 .405 1967 Roberto Clemente 585 .357 23 103 .405 2004 Ichiro Suzuki 704 .372 8 63 .401 1999 Derek Jeter 627 .349 24 116 .400 1985 Willie McGee 612 .353 10 86 .399 2007 B.J. Upton 474 .300 24 154 .399
Upton’s high BABIP certainly raises the possibility that 2007 was a fluke year, but considering that four of the other seven names above are Hall of Famers or soon-to-be Hall members, there’s no reason to be unduly alarmed by his good fortune last season.
Upton’s teammate, Carl Crawford, managed a .372 BABIP, which given his world-class speed is hardly unusual; he’s managed at least a .320 BABIP every season since his rookie year. Crawford improved his batting average to .315 from .305 the year before, and his OBP to .355 from .348. What’s impressive is that 2007 was the fifth straight year Crawford improved both his batting average and OBP; his closest call came in 2005, when his OBP improved from .3308 to .3314. Twenty-five players have improved both their batting average and OBP (with a minimum of 100 at-bats each season) four times in a row, most recently Michael Young, who did so from 2001 to 2005. But Crawford is only the fourth player ever to sustain that increase for a fifth straight season:
Player Yr 1 Yr 6 BA Progession OBP Progression Jimmy Johnston 1916 1921 .252 .270 .281 .281 .291 .325 .313 .321 .328 .334 .338 .372 Cesar Tovar 1966 1971 .260 .267 .272 .288 .300 .311 .325 .325 .326 .342 .356 .356 Jason Giambi 1996 2001 .291 .293 .295 .315 .333 .342 .355 .362 .384 .422 .476 .477 Carl Crawford 2002 2007 .259 .281 .296 .301 .305 .315 .290 .309 .331 .331 .348 .355
Despite improving across the board for five straight years, Crawford really hasn’t had a career year yet. He’s only 25, and should exceed a .315 average and .355 OBP multiple times in his career. If 2008 is one of those years, he’ll be the first player to increase his batting average and OBP for six straight years.
Bil Burke and Kevin Goldstein both contributed research for this column.