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Continuing our statistical tour around the major leagues…

Florida Marlins

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.

Chicago White Sox

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.

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