Matt Meyers, ESPN Insider: Welcome to the latest ESPN Insider Roundtable, and thanks in advance for participating. This week’s topic: “Is he for real?” Or, as I like to call it, “how I learned to stop worrying and love Fernando Nieve.”
For this exercise, we’ll be discussing a few of this season’s surprise performers, and I’d like to get your take on whether or not you think they are real or a mirage. Spirited debate is encouraged.
The player I’d like to start with is Red Sox shortstop Nick Green. This guy was a career .240 hitter entering this season (.263 in the minors), and suddenly he’s hitting .284, and what’s more impressive is that he is slugging 438. We just ran a piece in the magazine that talks about how Green has incorporated a toe-tap into his swing that he picked up from working with Chipper Jones. I normally don’t read too much into that sort of thing, but that same toe-tap is what turned Mark DeRosa (the original Nick Green) into a viable big-leaguer. So I ask, Nick Green, is he for real?
Buster Olney: Green may not be a .290 kind of hitter, but guys, I’d say he’s not a fluke: he’s a decent player who is taking advantage of his surroundings. He is playing as part of a deep lineup, in Fenway Park, and hitting .310 at home. One scout mentioned this week that Fenway has a knack for making average hitters into above-average hitters. He has always been able to hit a high fastball, and he’s playing in a park where there’s some payoff for that (12 extra-base hits in 87 at-bats).
John Perrotto: Green has always been a guy with some tools, decent pop, and a strong arm, so I don’t think it’s totally unexpected that he has put together a pretty good stretch for the Red Sox. He was always the kind of guy who was awfully hard on himself, and perhaps now that he is getting older he has learned to relax. Like Buster said, he is in the right ballpark with the right lineup to succeed. He is a one-year wonder? Perhaps. At the very least, he is a viable major league player.
Jay Jaffe: Coming into the year, Green had done nothing to distinguish himself from among dozens of Quadruple-A futility infielder types. He was a 30-year-old who owned a career line of .240/.309/.347 in nearly 800 PA, he’d gotten just seven at-bats in the majors since 2006, and his 2008 minor league numbers at Scranton were horrible, with a .191 EqA. On that basis alone, for him to be where he is right now is a total fluke.
Which isn’t to say he hasn’t learned a trick or two (the Chipper Jones tip) or gotten some breaks in his favor (a starting job in a great hitters’ park? Yes, please!), but I’m not terribly optimistic it can continue. Would you be, if you were Theo Epstein or Terry Francona?
Green’s numbers look to be the product of Fenway, where he’s hitting .310/.348/.517 in 92 PA, compared to .256/.326/.354 in 92 PA on the road, which is the Nick Green we know and love. His overall line is being driven by a .344 batting average on balls in play, and his batted-ball types say he should be around .290. That 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn’t suggest he’s got the control of the strike zone for all of this to continue, and that pitchers will figure out how to exploit him.
Matt Meyers: Some dissension, I like it! But even conceding some “realness” to Green’s performance, wouldn’t it be foolish for the Red Sox to have any faith in him beyond this year? Didn’t we just see this last year with Mike Aviles? I am not sure Jed Lowrie is any sort of long-term answer, so the Sox might actually have a hole at short. Is there a world in which Green is more than just a stopgap for them?
Jay Jaffe: In the context of Lowrie’s slated return in July, Green’s a perfectly suitable stopgap. I just don’t think the Sox should let themselves get overly attached to the guy based on a park-driven 92 PA sample that’s well out of context of the other ~900 PA for his career.
Kevin Goldstein: Mike Aviles is a really good comp on a performance level. I’m all for toe-tapping your way to greatness and all that, but this guy has never been anything more than a grinder who can play of the middle and have decent power for the position. He hit .233/.285/.373 last year at Triple-A; toe taps don’t turn that guy into a good big leaguer when he’s almost 30. I think this is lightning in a bottle, nothing more, not that I wouldn’t want to have him around as a utility guy.
John Perrotto: I certainly don’t think Nick Green is the Red Sox’s starting shortstop on Opening Day in 2010, and I certainly don’t think he’s the starting shortstop when Jed Lowrie comes back. However, he’s proven to be a good fill-in and I think he has reached the point where he is certainly in the major leagues to stay as a utility man.
Buster Olney: If Green were my only shortstop, I’d be fretting. But they’ve got Lowrie coming back, they’re still paying Lugo and hoping to get just a little return, and as we know, they’ve been monitoring the shortstop market. He’s pretty good depth for a guy who is essentially a third-stringer in their organization (or at least that was the plan).
Matt Meyers: And while they have made their mistakes (the Lugo contract, for example), I think the Red Sox have earned the benefit of the doubt that they will handle the situation well. As for an organization that might not have the benefit of the doubt, let’s move on to our next “is he for real” candidate: Mets righty Fernando Nieve. Yes, he’s looked good in starts against three good teams (the Yankees, Rays, and Cardinals), but this guy was killed the last two years in the minors. I guess if you squint you can still see the guy who was well regarded as a prospect a few years ago, and he does throw hard, but this can’t be real, right?
Jay Jaffe: I’ll let Kevin speak to what he once was as a prospect, and concede that I’ve only seen him throw a few innings this year. From a numbers perspective, he’s not missing a tremendous number of bats (5.6 K/9) and he’s gotten outstanding luck in balls in play (.181 BABIP). His FIP based on his strikeout, walk and homer rates is 3.88, which is certainly respectable, though as an extreme fly-baller (with a ~40 percent ground-ball rate) there’s no way he’ll avoid the long ball forever. Then again, Citi Field is where home runs go to die, so he’s not a horrible fit for that park.
What stands out to me the most when I look at his numbers isn’t any of the above. It’s that he’s relying a lot more on his changeup, which he’s throwing about 15 percent of the time, compared to about 4-5 percent in years past. We’ve seen lots of pitchers take big steps forward when they integrate the change effectively with their 90-something heat; that tells me he’s really figured something out. I don’t expect him to be the second-best pitcher in the Mets’ rotation after Santana, but he certainly seems poised to give the Mets some innings and settle in as the fifth starter.
John Perrotto: This guy has always had a pretty good arm, and it seems as though he has figured a few things out this year, primarily that he needs to throw his changeup more often and pitch inside with greater frequency. That being said, I’m not about to project him as a 15-game winner, but he certainly has the ability to be a solid No. 4 or No. 5 starter. I will make this prediction: Nieve will end up having a better season than Oliver Perez-just what was Omar Minaya thinking when he re-signed Perez for three years and $36 million in a buyers’ market?-when all is said and done.
Kevin Goldstein: Nieve has always been a live arm, but it’s important to note that his performance never really went downhill until he was moved to the bullpen. On some levels (smallish guy who throws with some effort) it made sense, but as a guy who never really had an effective breaking ball, it really hurt him. He seems to be more effective with his changeup these days, but more importantly, he came up with a second fastball, more of a cutter than anything else, which gives hitters a bit of a different look, as the four-seamer is awfully straight. I’m with the mob here, and I could see him lasting another five or six years as a fourth or fifth starter.
Matt Meyers: Wow. For Nieve’s sake, I hope his agent is an Insider subscriber. Moving on: Ben Zobrist. Seriously, what gives here? The guy is third in MLB in OPS. He profiled as a decent utilityman, and suddenly he’s one of the most potent bats in the league.
Buster Olney: He reminds me a little bit of Mark DeRosa in how he’s improved-look at the pitches per plate appearance, the improved on-base percentage, the ability to put himself into better counts. I remember seeing him play in an Opening Day game a few years ago, and it looked like you could knock the bat out of his hands. Now he looks much stronger, in person-an angular strength-and he controls the at-bats in a way that he didn’t a few years ago.
Jay Jaffe: In a more cynical time-as if some people have really left that cynicism behind-somebody would be asking what Zobrist is taking. In his first four years of pro ball (2004-07), he’d never topped eight homers, though he hit for average and collected enough doubles to reach the high .400s in slugging a few times. Still, the prospect reports were damning in this department; in BP2K7 we noted, “He doesn’t have much power to speak of… .” He had a breakthrough last year, hitting .253/.339/.505 with 10 homers in 227 PA, and now he’s second in the AL with a a .622 slugging percentage, and tied with Evan Longoria for the second-most homers on the Rays.
In 2006-07, when he hit a horrendous .200/.234 /.275 in about 300 PA, 12 percent of his fly balls were infield popups. Now that number’s down below four percent. Meanwhile, his HR/FB rate has gone from four percent in those first two years to above 20 percent since, including 24.2 percent this year, the second-highest mark in the league behind Jim Thome. It’s a nice run that’s done great things to help the Rays, but even with the advances in his approach that Buster noted, it seemingly came from nowhere, and I don’t believe he’ll sustain the .404 OBP or the high slugging percentage for very long.
John Perrotto: There is no way in the world that Ben Zobrist is going to be among the AL OPS leaders when the season ends. That being said, I do think that he isn’t a complete fluke. Zobrist has always had solid tools across the board and won high marks for his intelligence and baseball aptitude. He has started to figure out what he is capable of doing in the major leagues, and his confidence has grown with that. Zobrist was a smaller kid growing up, and had to learn to more of a slap hitter. He has just figured in recent years that it is OK for a fully-grown 6-foot-3 man to turn on some balls. Any manager would love to have this guy because he brings so much to the table, including his ability to play all over the field. I know Joe Maddon adores the guy he calls the “Zo-rilla.”
Kevin Goldstein: I’m a mild believer here. The guy always walked a ton in the minors, and it took him some time to bring that kind of approach to the big leagues-that kind of thing happens quite a bit. The power might be a bit fluky, but the guy blasted 12 home runs in last then 200 ABs last year. There’s definitely something real here, just not this real.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .