Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Sunday, April 04, 2004

Opening Day 2004
Updated at 3:46 p.m. on Sunday

Today is the day we've all been waiting for. The regular season starts in earnest tonight as the Red Sox square off against the Orioles at 8 p.m. (Don't forget to spring ahead.) From today until the end of October, hardly a day will go by when they are not multiple baseball games. It's what true baseball fans yearn for through the winter.

On another level, it's great for those of us who are members of the baseball blog world. Throughout the off-season, it's possible to go days without hearing anything of note from Major League Baseball. We've certainly spent our fair share of time complaining about how there was not much to write about during January and February (and parts of March, too). Now, we'll always have stuff to write about so make sure to check the site daily during the season. If you thought Talking Baseball was good before, it will only get better as the season progress.

Enough shameless self-promotion. In honor of Opening Day, I've decided to tackle a few subjects. They are all interesting but none of them are long enough to be a post by themselves. So here goes.

The Challenges of Hitting .285

In 2002, Jeff Cirillo paid for my entry into a fantasy baseball league.

Allow me to explain: In 2002, Cirillo was coming off two seemingly stellar seasons, and he was slated to be the answer to the Mariners third base questions. The Mariners had given him a multi-year contract worth nearly $7 million annually, but I had my doubts as to whether or not he was worth it. Before the 2002 season started, I looked at his home-road splits and saw that Cirillo's success was largely due to Coors Field factor. I told Dave about my findings, but he doubted it. So we put some money on it.. I bet Dave $20 bucks that Cirillo would hit less than .285. Dave thought that, based on his last year in Milwaukee when Cirillo hit .296, he was a better hitter than that and took the bet. Needless to say, I won that bet with room to spare. Cirillo hit .249, and fantasy baseball was free for me that season.

In 2003, Cirillo fell even further. He hit .205 for the Mariners and forgot how to field. The Mariners during the off-season paid the Padres $5 million to take Cirillo off their hands. As the saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute. Once it was the Mariners; now it's the Padres. But Cirillo hasn't always been this bad, has he? I mean, a few years ago, the Mariners were willing to pay a lot for Jeff's services. I think the Mariners got hoodwinked, and here's why.

In the early part of the 21st Century, Jeff Cirillo was the toast of the Rockies. In 2000, he hit .326/.392.477 with 111 runs scored and 115 RBIs. The next season, he missed a few games of the season, but still put up seemingly solid numbers. In 138 games, he hit a career-high 17 home runs, stole a career high 12 bases, and turned in a solid .312/.364/.473 line. After that second stellar season in Colorado, the Mariners rewarded the All Star with a large contract worth close to $7 million a year.

Last year, that $7 million bought the Mariners 3 win shares or 1 win. Cirillo's VORP was -8.7, meaning that his replacement player would, and did, play better than he did. He had a -19 RCAA (Runs Created Above Average, thanks to Lee Sinins), marking the third year in a row that Cirillo was worse than average. Suffice it to say, a good player will create more runs above average, but Cirillo had created fewer runs than average for three years running.

Wait, a second. Three years running? Doesn't that mean he turned in a negative RCAA performance in Coors Field too the season before he landed a big contract? Yes, in 2001, Cirillo's RCAA was -3. All of a sudden, Jeff Cirillo appears more overrated than ever. He couldn't, in a hitter's paradise, turn in average production numbers.

Looking at the Baseball Prospectus stats for Cirillo, I noticed some interesting trends in his park-adjusted statistics. During his years with the Rockies, Cirillo's EQA (his park-adjusted equivalent batting average, adjusted for season averages) was .266 in 2000 and .267 in 2001. While those numbers are better than his Seattle production, it certainly takes away the mirage of Coors Field.

If you're one of the people out there who for some reason don't buy the Prospectus stats, looking at 2001 pure home-road splits should do the trick. In 2001, Cirillo hit .362 in Colorado and .266 everywhere else. He slugged .571 in Coors and .383 everywhere else. Ouch. It seems clear that someone pulled a fast one on the Mariners.

But why bring all this up, except to remind Dave that he made a stupid bet? Well, Cirillo broke his finger on Monday and will miss four to six weeks of the season. Never mind that Cirillo broke his finger bunting, and if he had good bunting form, his finger would still be in tact. Apparently, Cirillo's absence constitutes something of a crisis for the San Diego Padres. While Cirillo would have been a utility infielder on this team, manager Bruce Bochy still needs to fill that 25th roster slot. In my opinion, the Padres would be better off fulfilling this slot permanently with someone else.

The two replacement candidates are right-hander Jason Szuminski, who the Padres took from the Cubs in the Rule V draft, and Damian Jackson who is already on Chicago as a minor leaguer. While Jackson just signed with the Cubs last weekend, a trade between the Padres and the Giants would be simple. In a second, I'll explain how that will work, but first let's look at the particulars of these two guys.

Szuminski, if he makes the roster, would be the first graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to play in the Majors. I can only imagine what it's like having an MIT grad and David Wells in the same clubhouse. Furthermore, Szuminski went to MIT on an ROTC scholarship, meaning he has to get approval from the Air Force to play baseball every year. In the minors, Szuminski has improved at every level. He had an aggregate ERA of around 3.00 in three stops last year and struck out 73 in 96.1 innings. He issued only 29 walks. He relies on a sinking fastball, and this year's Baseball Prospectus book thinks he'll make a really good reliever. Szuminski, this spring, has pitched to a 3.38 ERA, striking out 7 while walking 7 in 13.1 innings. He has a lot of up side, and we at Talking Baseball love the up side.

Damian Jackson is a light-hitting back-up infielder. He's a good defender and a poor hitter with a career. 246 batting average. He'll steal some bases, as he recorded 16 swipes while earning only 161 at-bats for the Red Sox last season. More importantly, he won't make nearly the same amount of money as Cirillo. While it's true that the Padres would still have to pay Cirillo, Jeff is nearly useless on the team. He can no longer hit, turning in a Spring Training batting average of .157 in 51 at-bats; he can't field anymore; and he can't steal bases. Jackson would be a minimal upgrade over Cirillo, but he's no right-handed pitching stud from MIT.

So how then would the Padres go about getting Jackson from the Cubs, who just signed him to a minor league contract? Easy. Since Szuminski is a Rule V player, the Padres need him on the Major League roster or he automatically goes back to the Cubs. Since Chicago would probably want Jason back, the Padres would put him on their roster, and then, General Manager Kevin Towers would trade him back to Chicago for Jackson. It's all a part of baseball politics and the Rule V (read that 5 not the letter V) draft.

But in my opinion, it would be foolish of the Padres to make that trade. The Padres should just go with Szuminski. Jackson is not that much better than Cirillo, and he's certainly not worth a promising young right-hander. With Cirillo out, the Padres should see what they have with Jason Szuminski. If San Diego finds something good, they may be hard-pressed to find a spot for Cirillo. I don't think Cirillo's really worth it, and his numbers don't really help him out with that one either.

Update: It seems that Towers made the right move. Jason Szuminski won the last roster spot on the Padres. He'll be the first MIT grad to make the majors, and he has a degree in aerospace engineering. Who says rocket scientists can't play baseball?

The Victors Don't Always Get The Spoils

This is certainly old news now, but the Yankees lost their Opening Day game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays by a score of 8-3. Mike Mussina pitched as though he had no idea what to do. And the Devil Rays hit as though they were the Yankees. Some people, ESPN and New York Times reporter Buster Olney included, believed that the loss meant the end of the season for the Yankees. The Yankees were in last place a full game behind the team with the best record in the Majors Leagues. After the Yankees thumped the Devil Rays 12-1 the next day, the critics backed off a little. Order, it seemed, had been restored.

As you may have been able to tell, I wrote that last paragraph a little tongue-in-cheek. The Yankees lost one game to the Devil Rays, and while, as my dad pointed out, we Yankee fans always assume the Yankees will destroy the Devil Rays, Tampa is not going to go 0-162 and the Yankees are not going to go 162-0. Inspired by all of the naysayers who proclaimed the Yankees to be a flop after day 1, I looked up the Yankees' previous Opening Day records during the years in which they reached the World Series. The Yankees have won the World Series 26 times. During those 26 season, they were 17-9 on Opening Day. That's a .654 winning percentage. However, in the 13 seasons where the Yankees have made it to the World Series but then have lost in October, they were 10-3 on Opening Day, good for an astounding .769 winning percentage.

While the Yankee-haters may have gotten a lot of joy out of the Opening Day loss, an Opening Day loss is no reason to write off the Yankees. In the end, this little analysis is highly convoluted, and I write it with intended sarcasm to prove a point: Opening Day is one day, one game. It is impossible to predict a team's success during the regular season based upon how they perform on Opening Day, and the writers should refrain from sounding the death bell after just nine innings of baseball.

But the opening series can indicate certain trends that may prove to be a team's undoing. Let's look at the Japan series pitch counts. The Devil Ray hitters saw a grand total of 286 pitchers while drawing three walks from Yankee pitchers in 18 innings of play. On average, Yankee pitchers threw less than 16 pitches an inning. The Yankees, on the other hand, saw 391 pitches, or almost 22 per inning. The Yankee lineup also recorded 11 walks in the two games in Japan. While the Devil Rays have some experienced hitters, this is not a team that will walk too often this season. If they don't walk, they won't put much pressure on the opposing pitchers. If they are overeager at the plate, this team will strike out a lot and hit weak ground balls. Piniella must teach his team patience for the Devil Rays to show their potential.

From the "It's only Spring Training" Department

During Spring Training, teams work out the kinks in their lineup. There are of course battles for positions and rotation spots. Managers get a glimpse at young talent and new players. It's also a time to work on fundamentals, but it looks like someone forgot to tell that to the Tigers. After Saturday's game against the Yankees, the Tigers have played 33 Spring Training games. While their 14-17 record (along with a few ties) shows a greatly improved team, they have managed to commit 64 errors in those 33 games. Last season, in 162 regular season games, the Seattle Mariners committed only 65 errors, and while last year's 119-loss Tigers made 138 errors during the regular season, their Spring Training pace puts them on pace for 314 team errors this season. While Dave was quick to dismiss this stat as a Spring Training stat (the young kids can't field, he says), I'm not so sure about that. Looking at today's five-error effort against the Yankees, the Tigers responsible for four of the errors will be with the team when they head north. The same holds true for almost all of the Tigers' games. If the guys on the 25-man roster are making the errors, things could get ugly in Detroit.

Interesting Match-Ups: Week 1

As the season gets going, I'll probably end each post with a look a few interesting match-ups that will occur in between posts. To start things off, here are three games to watch this week.

Sunday, April 4: Pedro vs. the Orioles. Pedro gave up 6 runs before recording an out earlier this week. Supposedly, his velocity was topping out at 89-90 mph. But most Sox fans and Pedro himself are not worried. How will he pitch now that the regular season is upon us?

Monday, April 5: Giants vs. Astros. Roy Oswalt got the home Opening Day nod over Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The pressure is on him to go out there and win the game against the defending NL West champs. As Bonds begins his assault on Babe Ruth and 714, Oswalt will go up against Kurt Rueter.

Tuesday, April 6: Tigers vs. Blue Jays. Mike Maroth lost 21 games last season. He started the season 0-9 before defeating the Chicago White Sox on May 23. If Maroth wins his first game this season, it may bode well for the Tigers. Also, check out Blue Jays pitcher Miguel Batista. If he's sharp this season, the Blue Jays may remain pretty competitive atop the AL East.

Now play ball!

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