Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Dave on Saturday, April 17, 2004

Jeremy Bonderman: The One That Got Away

Some explanation is in order. As you, the reader, may have noticed, Talking Baseball has taken on a rather two-flavored approach recently. This has happened for a few reasons. First, Mike is now posting once every eight days, rather than four. The stress of writing every fourth day is high, and he understandably wanted to cut back a bit. Second, it was finals week up at Bates. Normally, schoolwork wouldn't impede my ability to post, however instead of four finals this past week, I had two finals and two papers. With the tests, I can study just enough to do well; they aren't significant time commitments. With papers, however, especially the ones of the 15 and 30 page variety, one must put in an inordinate number of hours whether one wants to or not. Now, the responsible college student would have been doing the papers the entire semester, but there's a problem with that statement; the phrase "responsible college student" is something of an oxymoron. In any case, after one 15-page Holocaust paper about suicide (all these historians believe, probably incorrectly, that suicide was uncommon in death camps), one 30-page Advanced Econometrics paper about the efficacy of public housing (public housing really is effective at improving social welfare for the poverty-stricken), and one extremely long Thursday night (I had to be reminded of the benefits of sleep tonight - I had forgotten for about 40 hours), I've come back home to Talking Baseball.

And what a sweet home it is. Last night, I comatosely enjoyed the Red Sox besting the Yankees 6-2. Given that I was only relatively awake (let's compare...me and a cicada) for the game, all I can really remember was Snazzy Vazzy (look at the web-address, his name is DEB!) consistently leaving pitches up and Red Sox players consistently smacking those haphazard deliveries. After Williamson escaped the 8th it was smooth sailing.

But you read the headline - I'm not here to write about all that. I'm here to write about Jeremy Bonderman. The Tigers acquired Bonderman when they rid themselves of the eternal enigma Jeff Weaver in a three-team trade in which the A's obtained Ted Lilly (Ben was happy about that one), the Yanks got their albatross in Weaver, and the Tigers netted two prospects - Franklyn German and Mr. Jeremy Bonderman.

Looking at Jeremy Bonderman, he looks like just another prospect. The truth is, he carries the burden of a war. Bonderman was drafted 21st in the in 2001 amateur draft. Beane wasn't a little unhappy about the selection - he was furious. Bonderman's selection reportedly prompted Beane to send a chair crashing into a wall. Beane, who had come to trust college statistics as a predictor of success, did not approve of the selection, to say the least. The selection was approved by Grady Fuson, one of the remaining traditional, non-sabermetric, scouts left with the A's. Never content with the selection, it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that Beane was trying to rid himself of Bonderman throughout his stay in the Athletics' organization. When the chance to acquire Lilly came along, Beane seized the opportunity to unload Bonderman. Bonderman has become a symbol of the still raging battle between the polar ideologies in baseball: The sabermetric "computer geeks" vs. the traditional "subjective fools."

Grady Fuson believed he saw a future ace in Bonderman, which is why he endorsed the selection so heavily. Where Fuson saw future greatness, all Beane could see was an unproven and under-developed talent. Bonderman pitched well with the single A Modesto Athletics - but not well enough to convince Beane of his potential, it seems.
Year   Age   IP    ERA   BB   K     K/9 

2002 19 144.2 3.61 55 160 9.954
How can you dislike those numbers? Sure, the walks are a little high, but this is true of all fireballing youngsters. Ignoring the walks, you have a guy with an incredible K/9 at the ripe age of 19.

The age is important because it indicates that there's still about 9 years left of growth before peak value (around 28 for pitchers). The relation of age to potentiality is the chief reason why both sabermetrics and traditionalism exists in baseball. The sabermetricians will tell you that since there's less growth left to be had, collegians are the more probable to perform well once they start playing professionally. The traditionalists, however, argue that since there is more room for improvement, high schoolers are the better selection - a great high schooler could be the next Ruth or Bonds.

Well, Bonderman now looks like the next Kerry Wood. After just the one year in single-A ball, the Tigers shuttled Bonderman up to the majors where his performance was mediocre at best:
Year Age  IP     H/9    BB/9    K/9   WHIP   ERA

2003 20 162.0 10.72 3.22 6.00 1.549 5.56
Scouts were impressed, however. The K/9 still was a bit low - only 6 per 9 innings - but one must keep in mind that Bonderman still has a lot of room for improvement. The K/9 will improve, as will the BB/9. It may improve a little, in which case Bonderman is another Paul Wilson. However, it could improve a lot, in which case he's the next Kerry Wood.

It doesn't even look all too unlikely that he's headed down the road of greatness, given limited statistics this year:
 IP    H/9    K/9    BB/9   ERA

11.1 6.35 11.91 2.38 4.76
The ERA is not there, but if he keeps up those extremely impressive peripherals, that will undoubtedly fall. Another important consideration, he's done this against the vaunted Blue Jay offense which scored the third most runs (comment if that's wrong - they may have scored the second most) in MLB last year.

There's more at stake with the future of Jeremy Bonderman than just one man's success. With his success (or failure), it loads another bullet in the holster of the traditionalists (or sabermetricians) to fire at the adversary should the oft-debated subject arise. Currently, it's looking like Beane is losing the battle, but the season is a long one and Bonderman may bounce back(ward).

Update: Bonderman pitched horribly on Sunday, allowing seven earned through five and a third. Interestingly, the strikeouts were still there. He racked up six on the day, improving his already nice K/9. It seems Bonderman is just too inconsistent at this point in his career. Five or six years down the road, however...

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Posted by Jon on Friday, April 16, 2004

And So It Begins...

In a few short hours, all of us here -- with our differing allegiences -- will be watching the first of nineteen regular season meetings between the Red Sox of Boston and those Bronx Bombers. I'm excited, but not too hopeful for Game One. Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who flew under most American League fans' rader screens, is dominant more often than not. By season's end, he should have the best numbers of all of New York's starters. He's just that good.

Nevertheless, all of the North East will most likely be tuned into the game, as it will be broadcasted in primetime on network television. I just can't wait.

Odds and Ends
Dave's night to post has been pushed back due to children in public housing...or something like that. But it's an understandable excuse. Finals week up at Bates is a bit earler than at most other schools. He apologizes profusely and promises fantastic content tomorrow to make it up to us all.

Hats Off to C.C.
A few days ago a Slate.com article by Josh Levin about the baseball blogosphere linked to a recent post of mine about the flat-billed cap-stylings of new Brewers reliever Jeff Bennett. Check it out the picture if you haven't yet. It's something you may never see again!

In the post, I wrongly credit Dontrelle Willis as the originator of the new style of cap-wearing. Reader Corey Rubin, finding Talking Baseball through the Slate.com article, points out that this new trend looks to have been originated by Indians' starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia. "Tribute to the C.C. Hat" offers better details on the development of the style's popularity, asserting that "the C.C. hat, which entails cocking the brim of the cap to either the left or right, so that the team logo is off-center, is the future of baseball."

As long as the hats don't look like Jeff Bennett's hat, baseball will be alright. Thanks, Corey, for the heads-up.

I'll take this opportunity to point out some interesting links to check out until Dave can get his post ready.

• Idiots Write About Sports compiles a table of 2004 presidential campaign contributions by each MLB team owner's family. A few points of interest from "Putting the 'Fun' in 'Fundraising'":
1) owners are more likely to be Republicans
2) the Liebermans and the Seligs must be pretty close
3) I can't decide whether to disrespect for the White Sox ownership for donating to Bush or to respect them for donating to Carol Mosley-Braun
4) and that Ted Turner donated to John Kerry!

• Cheer up, Red Sox fans. Of all MLB teams' records for each season in the last 25 years, Boston has the best worst season. Their most losses in a season in that span? Only 89. The White Sox and Cards are tied for second with 92-loss seasons. Unfortunately for Red Sox Nation, in the same span of individual seasons, twenty teams have had better seasons than Boston's best, 95 wins.

Still not satisfied? Be sure to check out our last four posts, which have been exceptionally thourough:
Monday: Houston’s Problem: Jimy Williams by Jon
• Tuesday: Missing the Mark by Ben
• Wednesday: 48-Garret Gold by Jon
• Thursday: Defending the Defenders by Ben

Dave will return with some hot stuff tomorrow.

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Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, April 15, 2004

Defending the Defenders

The reigning NL Rookie of the Year beat the floundering Montreal/San Juan Expos' bats on the mound yesterday, and, in the fifth inning, he beat the Expos with his bat, driving home the same amount of runs with one swing that the Expos have scored since last Friday.

Dontrelle Willis pitched five innings of shut-out ball against a Montreal Expos team that couldn't buy a run. Then, in the fifth inning, already comfortable with a 5-0 lead, Willis got his third hit of the game, his second home run of the season. This one was a three-run shot off Jeremy Fikac. For Willis, this was the 22-year-old's seventh hit in seven at-bats, dating back to last season. He's 1-for-1 shy of the Marlins record, held jointly by Gary Sheffield and Preston Wilson. As an interesting side note, Willis now holds a .313 career batting average; he's 20 for 64.

But for both teams, this was more than just a drubbing and another outstanding pitching performance from the man who many baseball people felt did not deserve last year's Rookie of the Year Award. For both teams, this game epitomized the short season. Starting with the Expos, this game was just another in a long run of offensively offensive offense. (Try that one on for size.) In 8 games this season, the Expos have managed to eke across just 10 runs, and they have a team batting average of just .203. The Expos have been shut out 4 times in these 8 games. As a comparison, the 2003 Detroit Tigers were shut out 17 times over the course of the entire season. As this rate, the Expos would blow past that mark by the middle of May. Of course, it's only April, and it's silly to project season stats based on the first 8 games. But the Expos' offense won't get much better. Carl Everett, the man responsible for one-third of the Expos' home runs and 2 of their 10 RBIs, strained his shoulder today and could miss a considerable amount of time.

No one expected the Expos to be good, not with the off-season losses of Vladimir Guerrero to free agency and Javier Vazquez in a trade to the Yankees. But for Major League Baseball, this pathetic start does nothing to help them in their efforts to move or sell the Expos. While this start does not make this team more desirable in the eyes of any potential suitor, it makes it abundantly clear that the 29 MLB owners and Bud Selig's team over at the Commissioner's Office must do whatever they can to move the Expos to a real, stable market and find a real, stable owner who can invest money in this team. The Expos couldn't even make an offer to Guerrero because they have no real owner, and General Manager Omar Minaya reluctantly traded Vazquez because he knew at the end of this season that Vazquez would be gone because the 29 owners wouldn't be able to cough up the money to invest in one of the best young pitchers in the game.

A real owner — in a real market with a new stadium on the way — would be able to reinvest in this team. They would be able to draw fans and revenue from a huge market such as the Washington, D.C., area. With this stability in place, the Expos would become a viable franchise again. A new owner would reward Frank Robinson and Minaya with the players and development program these two overly-qualified and highly-neglected baseball men deserve. Yet, Major League Baseball continues to delay, and as the Expos lose and don't score any runs, the value of this franchise continues to drop, both to the owners and to the fans. It's time for some meaningful action on the Montreal front.

On the other side, Wednesday's game represents all that is right with the Marlins, and absolutely nothing could be better for the vibrant Florida Marlins than this opening 7-1 run. The Marlins currently enjoy the best record in the Majors, and the biggest first-place lead of any team. They have a 3-game lead over both the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. These Marlins were picked by some people to finish fourth or even fifth in the league. The Marlins were supposed to have lost too much talent over the off-season, even if that talented consisted merely of an often-injured catcher, an somewhat unreliable closer who had a strong finish, and an All Star first baseman.

But baseball writers focused more on what the Marlins lost than on what they kept. They still have arguably the top offensive third baseman in the National League in Mike Lowell. (Check out Jon's post from Monday for a look at Lowell's and Morgan Ensberg's offense.) But more importantly, they have Miguel Cabrera the entire season this year. Apparently, Cabrera doesn't understand the idea of a sophomore slump. Or maybe he really is just this good. After Wednesday's game, Cabrera is hitting .387 with 6 home runs. Cabrera, who turns 21 years old has now homered in 4 consecutive games and is quickly becoming a leader of the Marlins' offense. The team now is hitting .302 overall this season, but they've only scored 35 runs in their 7 victories and 1 loss. And that's why this team is more than just the best 21-year-old out there.

What the baseball analysts failed to include in their assessments of the Marlins was the team's pitching. As I've said before, the Marlins have one of the best young rotations in the Major Leagues, and as long as their pitchers are healthy, it's impossible to discount this team. Willis is already 2-0 this season with a 0.00 ERA. In 12.2 innings, he's given up 9 hits and has struck out 12. And the catch is that Willis is not even the best starter on this team.

World Series MVP Josh Beckett this year has silenced all the critics so far. Everyone cited his 17-17 regular season record and his history of injuries. But in two starts, Beckett is 1-0 with a 0.64 ERA. He has surrendered a grand total of 6 hits in 14 innings while striking out 20. Opponents are hitting .125 against Josh. Compared to Willis, Josh at 23 is an old man, but Roger Clemens is old enough to be Beckett's father. Unless a bad arm injury comes along, Beckett is set for a fine career. While some people will say that it's inevitable these days for a young pitcher to get injured, especially after Beckett's workhouse-like nature in the playoffs last October, I think otherwise. Beckett models himself off of his idol, the Rocket, and Clemens has never suffered a debilitating arm injury. There's no reason to think Beckett will one day face surgery; he's just not that kind of pitcher.

Rounding out the rotation are Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Darren Oliver, for now. A.J. Burnett will eventually rejoin this team, but even without Burnett, the top starters are a formidable foresome. These guys are young, and they're not afraid to pitch. Just look at the success they all enjoyed at Yankee Stadium during the World Series. It truly was the world's biggest stage, and the team with the least experience came out on top in a very convincing fashion. So far, this year, the team's pitching has picked up where it left off. The Marlins, in 8 games, have given up 13 runs. That's it; just 13. No team in the American League has given up fewer than 29 runs, and the Reds have surrendered 18 runs in 7 games. For comparison's sake, the league's worst pitching team, the Cardinals, have given up 69 runs in 10 games. The Cards are pitching to an ERA of 6.90 while the Marlins are throwing blanks. Their team ERA is 1.63. Pitching truly does win games, championships and fans.

So then, if this losing is bad for the Expos, the winning — and with young players to boot — is great for the Marlins. Florida's ownership is currently waiting for the city of Miami to decide on the fate of a proposed new stadium planned for the downtown area. The team may have to give up the Florida moniker to become the Miami Marlins. But that's the least of their worries. The State of Florida is not too keen to help the Marlins out financially in their efforts to secure $325 million for a retractable roof stadium in Miami-Dade County. The Marlins' ownership says they need the promise of a new stadium by May 1 to remain financially viable in the upcoming seasons, but it's becoming more and more unlikely that this deadline will be met. There may be a state-wide vote on certain tax matters relating to the stadium, but in the end, the Marlins still need to find a way to get money for the stadium.

The best thing for this team, then, is to keep on winning. As long as they win, they'll keep up the interest of the millions of potential fans in South Florida. If interest is up, attendance is up, and if attendance is up, it's more likely for the fans to support money for a new stadium. I've seen Pro Player Stadium. It's a non-descript, enclosed football stadium located well outside the city. The Marlins need a domed stadium to guard against the constant summer rains, and they need a better located stadium. If the Marlins show they're for real — and a 7-1 start certainly is a big step — Floridians might just be willing to show the Marlins that they too are for real and that a nice, state-of-the-art stadium is for real as well.

On the surface, the pressure may be on Dontrelle to pick up that hit in the next at-bat. But for now, the Marlins no longer need to prove themselves to the baseball analysts. They were ignored World Champions who were supposed to be a flash in the pan team. But in the early going, they've set their reputation, and opposing hitters know it's not a walk in the park to face this team’s young arms. As the rest of the NL East is mired in mediocrity or worse, the Marlins could turn this early start into a runaway season. In the end, nothing could be better for the long-term success of this young and exciting franchise than their first place finish in the history of the franchise. Who knows? Maybe they'll even get another one of these fancy-looking, expensive rings at the end of the season.

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Posted by Jon on Wednesday, April 14, 2004

48-Garret Gold

The market for baseball players has dramatically changed since its heyday back in the summer of 2000. There are no more $20 million annual contracts for fantastic hitters. Never again will we witness the signing of the world’s best all-around player for more than $25 million per season – at least not in the today’s market. These days, the top players sign for much less: Sheffield for $13 million annually with the Yankees, Maddux for $6 million annually, I-Rod for $10 million (if he stays healthy). Even Miguel Tejada, the 2002 AL MVP could only muster a $12 million annual contract with the Birds. Vladimir Guerrero? Although comparable to Manny Ramirez at the time of his free agency, Vlad’s new contract is worth fourteen million dollars per season. Teams across the continent are wising up, paying their players less per the market’s dictation.

Or, at least, so we thought. The Anaheim Angels, one season removed from a World Series Championship and mere months after the signings of Bartolo Colon ($12.75 annually for five years), Jose Guillen ($3 million annually for two years), and the aforementioned Guerrero have signed outfielder Garret Anderson to a four-year contract extension worth $12 million annually with a fifth-year club option or $3 million buyout.

Anaheim should have learned its lesson this winter when they were able to sign Vlad for only $14 million. Back problems not withstanding, Guerrero was the cream of the crop over the winter, and he was signed out of free agency. The Angels then turn around and extend Anderson’s contract for a mere $2 million less annually than what they are paying Guerrero. Furthermore, the ball was in the Angels’ hands during the negotiating process; a player asking for a contract extension eliminates himself from the open market. Anderson reported after the signing that “Never once did I think about leaving. They would have had to nudge me out the door. I just couldn't see myself in another uniform.” This seems like a classic case of rewarding a player for his past contributions instead of his future value. Anderson has spent his entire professional career, since the 1990 amateur draft, in California and led the 2002 squad to their first World Championship. But that was in the past. Looking forward, the $48 million deal appears to be a poor business move for those Haloed A’s of Anaheim.

At this juncture, take a look at Garret Anderson’s stats over the last three years.
Year AB   2B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG   

2001 672 39 28 123 27 100 .289 .314 .478
2002 638 56 29 123 30 80 .306 .332 .539
2003 638 49 29 116 31 83 .315 .345 .541
His production has been undoubtedly consistent, and it even looks as if he’s been hitting better in each subsequent season. What worries me is his career .328 OBP, which is anything but heavenly. You see, Garret is no young’un. Before July, he’ll be 32 years old. If his power wanes even a little, his OBP will not be able to keep his value afloat. If age weren’t a factor, the deal wouldn’t be so preposterous. But understanding that Anderson has most likely peaked already and will probably become less productive over the next four years (certainly the chances are greater that he’ll become less productive than more productive) makes the deal look foolish.

Much analysis has been devoted to defining baseball players’ peak performance years, most finding that right around age 27 is where most hitters top out. I direct your attention to J.C. at Sabernomics’ analysis of age and hitting. J.C.’s study finds that players typically peak at 27 years old, but it is interesting to note that the higher a hitters’ OPS+, the more likely he is to peak at a later age. Considering Anderson’s career OPS+ is 130, it's possible that he is such a late-peaker and that his 31 or 32 year old seasons will be his best. But Anderson will be 33, 34, 35, and 36 years old during the duration of the contract, which should nevertheless be post-peak years. Dwindling production at the plate could easily make Anderson’s contract look really bad in a few years, unless he ages like the man of steel, Barry Bonds.

Could Anderson’s contract possibly look more foolish? Certainly! All it takes is a comparison to one Trot Nixon. Nixon was in a similar situation during the winter. He openly stated his desire to stay with the Red Sox, and with that kind of leverage, Boston was able to sign the 30 year-old to a very reasonable deal: $6.5 million annually for three years. Note that the Angels will be paying an older player almost double that total for one more year. Garret’s higher compensation and his longer tenure are both massive risks that the Angels agreed upon when signing Anderson. Garret, though, is a two-time All-Star, you may be recalling. He must be a better player. Must he really?

Anderson had a 2003 campaign similar to those in his past, while Trot Nixon broke out in a major way, setting career highs in multiple offensive categories. Let’s compare their 2003 VORPs and one Talking Baseball’s favorite offensive measures, Runs Created per 27 Outs.
			VORP		RC27

Garret Anderson 45.1 6.57
Trot Nixon 44.4 8.54
According to VORP, in nearly 200 fewer at-bats, Nixon contributed to just about as many wins as Anderson – about 4.5. The RC27 stat, which tells us how many runs a lineup consisting of nine Garret Andersons or nine Trot Nixons would score with 27 outs to play with, Nixon clearly dominates. Two of Trot’s last three seasons (2001 and 2003) compare favorably to Anderson over that span. While the Red Sox were able to sign the better corner outfielder in 2003 for less money over a fewer seasons, the Angels outbid the market.

All that having been said, Anderson has been somewhat of an anomaly for years, hacking away at the plate and producing while ages, all with a low OBP for an All-Star (actually, he had Shea Hillenbrand to keep him company at the 2002 All-Star game). While it seems impossible for him to live up to this contract’s value, I wouldn’t be surprised if he remains an above average hitter for at least the first three years. Even if this is the case, he had no business being offered the contract extension he just signed. All signs point to a future in which Arte Moreno learns the price of loyalty the hard way.

Don’t get me wrong. Garret Anderson is a valuable outfielder that the Angels should be happy to retain. He’s posted fantastic numbers over his career and should be up there with Captain Underrated himself, Aubrey Huff in consideration for the outfielder least appreciated for his value. But he’s just not $12 million worth of good in today’s market.

Consider this: Albert Pujols’ new $100 million contract averages $14.25 annually. He has absolutely dominated the Major Leagues over his first three seasons, with Barry Bonds his only real rival as best hitter in baseball over this span. But because Pujols was entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, he didn’t have the leverage of a free agent. Garret's new contract is worth only $2.25 million less than Pujols'.

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Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Missing the Mark

While the exorcism of the Steve Bartman ball may have led many Cubs fans to believe the Curse was at end, news out of Chicago probably has many fans rethinking their spring optimism.

The definite news, as ESPN and various other news services have reported, is that Cubs' ace Mark Prior is off a timetable and may not return until late May or early June. That's also the good news.

For the bad news, some newspapers have picked up on a few rumors circulating about the condition of Prior's inflamed right (pitching) elbow. Sunday's edition of The Newark Star Ledger had this to say about Prior's arm:
"MARK PRIOR'S right elbow injury could be serious enough to require Tommy John surgery and keep him out for the whole year, according to the word circulating among baseball executives. Cubs manager DUSTY BAKER, who has a tendency to leave his starters in for extremely high pitch counts, has been confiding in friends that the situation is bleak. Losing Prior for an extended time would obviously be a big blow for the Cubs, who don't have a lot of wiggle room in their payroll budget to trade for another starter."
Dusty, who doesn't think there is such a thing as "too long" when talking about his starting pitchers, has adamantly denied these rumors. While I personally doubt the Cubs would have Prior throwing even long toss if he did indeed need reconstructive elbow surgery, the reality of the situation is that the Chicago Cubs will be without Mark Prior through at least the first two months of their season. While he should be healthy and ready to go for the stretch drive of the summer, these two months could mean the difference between the Cubs' playoff chances and another long October in Chicago. While some people tend to dismiss games at the beginning of the season as meaningless games, when the pennant race promises to be as competitive as the NL Central will be, it's important to remember that every missed start weighs heavily on a team. Just how big will Prior's absence be to the Cubs? (For a different take on the Prior injury, check out Jon's post from March 24.)

Last year was Mark Prior's first full season with the Cubs. In April and May of 2003, Prior made 11 starts. In those starts, he was 6-2 with a combined with a 2.82 ERA. Overall, during that stretch, the Cubs were 8-3 in games Prior started. Furthermore, in those 11 starts, opponents hit just .219 against Prior, and he walked 21 while striking out 83. Tellingly, he also exceeded 100 pitches in nine of those 11 starts, with two starts at 123 and 124 pitches. For a pitcher who at the time was 22, it's no big surprise that his elbow may have been a little sore this year after averaging 113.4 pitchers per game in 30 regular season starts and 122.67 in three post-season starts.

To study Prior's immediate replacement, first I'm going to look at Greg Maddux's numbers. As of now, Maddux is serving as Prior's direct replacement, taking the number two spot in the rotation behind Wood. Maddux so far has not put up pretty numbers in two starts this season. He's thrown 9.2 innings this season and has given up 8 earned runs. He has surrendered 12 hits and has walked 7. This is the same Greg Maddux who never walked more than 52 men when he was with the Braves, and even that was back in 1992, his first year in Atlanta. With an 0-2 record, a WHIP of 1.987 and an un-Maddux-like ERA of 7.45, he has yet to instill faith in the Wrigley Faithful, and some people are beginning to doubt that he can win the 11 he needs to get to 300.

Going back to Maddux's first 12 starts between March, April, and May of last year, the numbers don't look much prettier. Maddux was 4-5 with a 4.89 ERA. If Maddux straightens his ship after two rough outings and manages to meet last year's opening numbers, the Cubs would project to 2.5 games worse with Maddux than with Prior. Those 2.5 games could be the difference between them and the Astros or even the Cardinals come September.

But the trend doesn't stop at Maddux. Remember, Maddux would be pitching and making the same starts whether Prior were healthy or not. I just wanted to illustrate Maddux's recent struggles. The true replacement in the pitching rotation is the number five guy,Sergio Mitre, a second- or third-tier prospect in the Cubs' organization. Researching Mitre, I didn't find too much information that would make me feel good about him. The 2004 Baseball Prospectus book says, "When your ace is on the shelf for a turn or two, and you don't want to taint the psyche or the arbitration status of one of your best pitching prospects, what do you do? You call up Sergio Mitre."

Over on ESPN, John Sickels of Baseball Prospectus elaborated a little. He wrote that Mitre is the "surprise pick as No. 5 starter, taking advantage of Mark Prior's injury. He's received less notice than other hot prospects in the Cubs' pitching-rich system, but his sinker is nasty and he usually throws strikes. Our Bet: He's not quite ready, and will struggle at times until Prior comes back." Faced with a prolonged absence of Prior, it's hard to find comfort in the scouting reports. Looking at the numbers, Mitre was good in his first start of the season. He limited the Braves to two runs and five hits in 7 and a third innings. Yet, last year, in three outings, he surrendered 15 hits and 8 earned runs. It seems that Mitre's effectiveness varies from appearance to appearance, and no scouting report makes him out to be better than a 5th starter. Last season, the Cubs' fifth starter, the seemingly-rejuvenated Shawn Estes, was 5-4 with a high ERA during the first two months of the season. The unproven Mitre would hypothetically have to match those numbers to keep the Cubs on pace to Maddux's hypothetical 2.5 game deficit. If Mitre sticks around for the duration of Prior's absence, the Cubs could be facing a bigger challenge when it comes time to catch up to the NL Central leader.

Before I look at what the Cubs should do, it is important to recognize that a lot of my projections are fairly unscientific. The projections are based upon what this year's Cubs are doing in relation to last year's Cubs. I'm not looking at what the rest of the NL Central is doing this year as compared to last year. I'm assuming that Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano all perform at their 2003 level. If they perform better, they could compensate for the temporary loss of Prior. It's interesting to note that the Cubs right now are 3-4. After the first seven games last year, they were 4-3, the difference right now fitting my theory. Mark Prior in the first seven games of 2003 was 1-0. Greg Maddux in the first seven games of 2004 is 0-2. If Maddux had been the number 3 starter behind Prior from Opening Day, it's possible to assume that the Cubs could be 4-3 or even 5-2 by now.

Finally, I wonder if the Cubs are making the right decision using Mitre if Prior is going to be out until the end of May or the beginning of June. While the Cubs' organization is stacked with pitching, the top prospects have only begun their ascent to Chicago; most of them pitched at an A-ball level last year with one making a late-season leap to AA. Their second-tier prospects will have to fill in for Prior. If Mitre doesn't work out, the Cubs will turn to Todd Wellemeyer to start. Wellemeyer is currently in the bullpen in Chicago, and while he has a great fastball and an effective slider, he's also walked 7 in 4.1 innings.

In the end, things look a little bleak for the Cubs if the bad news rumors come true. Losing Prior for the entire season would probably mean that the Cubs won't win the World Series that was supposed to be theirs. Losing Prior for just two months could mean the same thing, but if Wood, Clement, and Zambrano hold down the fort for a few weeks and Prior can make a successful and healthy return by late May or early June, the fans in Chicago could be primed for a great summer run and an exciting pennant race in the Central.

Picks of the Week

Tuesday, April 13: Tampa Bay at New York Yankees, 7:05 p.m.
For all the reasons to watch this game, see today's trivia question.

Wednesday, April 14: Seattle Mariners at Anaheim Angles, 10:05 p.m.
Here's a shout out to the under-represented West Coast (or at least under-represented on the East Coast). Freddy Garcia had a game during his first start of the season. He threw 7 shut-out innings, giving up 4 hits while striking out 7 and walking 2 against Anaheim. Ramon Ortiz, on the other hand, was horrible. Against the Rangers, he lasted 2.2 innings, giving up 9 hits and 7 earned runs. The two will square off against each other on Wednesday night as Seattle fans hope that Garcia's first outing is a preview of great things from the starter who's struggled the last few seasons.

Thursday, April 15: Toronto Blue Jays @ Detroit Tigers, 1:05 p.m.
The struggling Blue Jays take on the upstart Tigers this week, and during Thursday's matinee, the incumbent AL Cy Young Award winner will look to right a sinking ship. Roy Halladay is 0-2 with a 5.93 ERA this season. While he didn't win a game until May 1 last year, he didn't pitch this poorly during his victory-less start. Canadians everywhere will be holding their breaths as they hope Roy can recover his form. He is after all the only decent pitcher left in Toronto. On the other side, the Tigers will look to continue their strong play against a team with a strong offense. This series against the Blue Jays will be a test of the Tigers' shaky pitching. If they can come away from this series with a few victories, it may be time to start taking Detroit seriously.

Trivia Answer and a New Question

In my post on Friday, I asked our readers to name the two teams against which the Red Sox have a lifelong losing record. The two responses both guessed the Yankees and the Tigers. I have to admit, in the context of the post, it was a trick question. First, the real reason it was a trick question was the Red Sox are 973-928 against Detroit. Second, there are actually three teams that are over .500 against the Bo Sox. The Yankees are 1050-870 against Boston; the Indians are 994-919 against the Sox; and the team I forgot, the Royals, are 192-175 against Boston.

Today's new question has a twist: I don't know the answer. Today, Kevin Brown will for the third time face the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. So far against Tampa this year, Brown is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. If Brown wins, it will be his third start of the season, his third start against Tampa Bay, and his third victory of the season. My question: Has any pitcher in baseball history opened the season with three straight starts against the same team and has come away as a winner in each of those three starts? If you think you know an answer, leave a comment, and I'll attempt to find out whether or not this has happened in baseball history. It's quite possible that with a victory tonight, Kevin Brown will be the first pitcher to accomplish this strange feat.

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Posted by Jon on Monday, April 12, 2004

Houston’s Problem: Jimy Williams

These days, good third baseman are hard to come by in Major League Baseball. There are really only a few top-tier third basemen around: Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen, and now Alex Rodriguez. So when a team develops a third baseman from its minor league system who can not only hold down the position with the bat, but actually posts better than average numbers, he should be a considered a valuable commodity.

Morgan Ensberg, who started this season's Opening Day at the hot corner for the Houston Astros, is such a player. After refining his skills in the Astros’ minor league system, he developed into a Major League asset at the plate last season. In fact, Ensberg was one of the most productive third base bats in limited 2003 action. Clay Davenport’s Equivalent Average (“a measure of total offensive value per out, with corrections for league offensive level, home park, and team pitching”) statistic ranks him third among third basemen, taking into account the fact that Ensberg benefited from Minute Maid Park’s juiced numbers. But numerous other statistical methods reveal the same results.

According to Runs Created, Ensberg was nothing short of excellent in 2003. While Mike Lowell, who generally assumed to be an above average third baseman, created 90 runs in 492 AB, Ensberg created 70 in 385 AB. Translated, this evens out to:

Lowell 492 88.7 .180
Ensberg 385 75.0 .194

Ensberg bettered Mike Lowell in terms of the Runs Created stat in 2003. If they had played the same number of games, Ensberg would have faired better than Lowell. How about Win Shares?

Lowell 492 23 .0467
Ensberg 385 17 .0442
According to Win Shares, too, their values are almost equal.

Incredibly, Ensberg's Runs Created per 27 Outs – a measure of how many runs a lineup of solely Morgan Ensberg would produce in nine innings – is higher than any other National League third baseman, including Mike Lowell (6.36). He trailed only surprise Bill Mueller and Melvin Mora, who was injured for much of the end of the season, in third baseman RC27 rankings last season.

Ensberg, by almost any measure, is among the best-hitting third basemen in baseball. Nonsabermetric-minded fans should take special note of his impressive home run totals. Twenty-five homers in one season is pretty good for anybody, but it's a great total coming from your third baseman's bat. Indeed, Ensberg hit 25 home runs, but he accomplished this feat in fewer then 400 at-bats last season. His 15.4 AB/homerun ratio was the same as Manny Ramirez’s. That’s some pretty good company. Extrapolating his power to a full 550 at-bats, Ensberg would have hit 35 out of the park, bringing him towards the elite soil cultivated by Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen among Major League third basemen.

With fewer than 400 at-bats, Ensberg obviously didn’t play the 2003 season as Houston's regular third baseman. Let's see. He wasn’t injured. And he didn’t go on the DL. Then what kept his potent bat out of the lineup?

Jimy Williams, the Astros' manager. Last season, if you can believe it, he split time with world-renowned heavy-hitter Geoff Blum (and his mind-altering career line of .262/.326/.408). It’s bad enough that Williams mismanages his pitching staff with every opportunity, but last season he single-handedly kept his Astros out of the playoffs by insisting on Blum at third base. Williams’ passion for Geoff Blum was one of the wonders of the baseball season last year.

Gerry Hunsicker, it seemed, was determined to prevent Jimy from again mismanaging the Astros out of the playoffs. So the General Manager, in an effort seemingly solely aimed at eliminating Williams’ third base options, traded Blum to Tampa Bay over the winter for an ordinary relief pitcher, Brandon Backe. So, I thought, Ensberg will finally get the hot corner all to himself. What I should have noticed was that Hunsicker made the monumental mistake of acquiring another backup third baseman in Michael Lamb before the season began.

And again, by the second game of the season Ensberg was already watching the game from the bench. From the view here at Talking Baseball, Jimy Williams is looking more and more foolish every day. Ensberg, arguably a top-tier third baseman last season, is being benched in favor of Mike Lamb, who lost his opportunity to even retain a spot on a Major League roster last season.

Given these choices, which would you want playing the hot corner on your team?

• Player A: a 28 year-old who last season hit .291, reached base 38 percent of the time he took the plate, and slugged .530 with 25 home runs in 385 at-bats, or
• Player B: a 28 year-old who last season accumulated only 38 Major League at-bats, but in 2002 hit .283, reached base 35 percent of the time he took the plate, and slugged .411 with nine home runs in 314 at-bats?

Player A, Morgan Ensberg is clearly the better hitter. Player B, Michael Lamb, is obviously inferior with the bat.

“Well then,” you respond, “Lamb must be a defensive wizard, and Morgan must be walking around third base with his hands in his pockets.

Au contrere, mon ami. In fact, among players spending at least 750 innings at third base, only one NL third baseman accumulated a higher fielding Win Shares per 1000 innings. Take a guess as to who it was and how similar their numbers were. Now look:
		WS/1000 INN

Lowell 3.74
Ensberg 3.73

Furthermore, both Ensberg’s fielding percentage and his Range Factor were better than league-average for third basemen in 2003. Mike Lamb’s career fielding numbers are atrocious. He is well below league average in career fielding percentage at third base, and his range factor has been decreasing since his debut in 2000.

Last season, instead of playing his best option at third base, Jimy Williams consistently platooned Morgan Ensberg with Geoff Blum, who ended up with a paltry .262/.295/.379 line. Ensberg, on the other hand, dominated Blum in ever statistical category in 2003, but he couldn’t receive the nod to become the regular starting third baseman. This season, he faces a lowly Mike Lamb challenging him for playing time. After the 2003 season the Ensburger enjoyed, Lamb should be waiting on Morgan’s table at dinner, not replacing him in the lineup.

Yes, Lamb had a better spring than Ensberg, who was bothered by elbow problems and missed a few games because of personal reasons, but Morgan clearly should have been the Astros’ regular third baseman in 2003 and should be playing every day this season. In the first week alone, Lamb has started in one-third of the Astros’ games.

It’s not Ensberg’s offense that keeps him from holding down a starting job. And it’s not his defense either. So why isn’t he starting every game for Houston? Aside from my first suspicion, which is that Jimy Williams is not sane (have you seen how he deals with his pitching staffs?), he must either hate Morgan Ensberg or have a strong distrust of third basemen in general. While I can only speculate on his personal feelings, it's interesting to note that the last time he allowed one third baseman to receive over 400 at bats in a season was in 2001, when he decided to play Shea Hillenbrand every day even after he began faltering at the plate (he ended up with a terrible seasonal line of .263/.291/.391). And it was six seasons ago that a team he managed featured an everyday third baseman accumulating over 500 at-bats.

After this careful analysis, I can’t even come close to explaining Jimy’s actions. Therefore, I’m reverting back to my original hypothesis, that Jimy Williams is insane. The only way he can prove me wrong is by starting Ensberg over Lamb at least 90 percent of the time. But Dave's already proved Jimy's insanity beyond reasonable doubt.

I’ll be following who Williams sends out to start each game and you can too, by checking the new sidebar as the season progresses.

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Posted by Dave on Sunday, April 11, 2004

Pinch Runners? What an offense!

I am tremendously lucky to have a laptop. I’m sitting here comfortably, writing for Talking Baseball as I watch one of the best pitching match-ups of this young season: Pedro Martinez vs. Roy Halladay. Early indications are that two pitchers’ early struggles were merely an aberration. Pedro looks sharp, though the velocity is still down – something that may plague him for the rest of his career. Halladay has a bright future – he has tremendous control and throws two pitches exceptionally well (fastball and curveball). In addition, he supposedly developed a devastasting change-up in the spring. I’ll give thoughts on the game as it progresses, but the main focus of this article is to discuss the benefit – or cost – of pinch-running.

On Friday, the Red Sox lost 3-2 to the Orioles in 13 innings. In the ninth inning, the game was tied at 2-2, the Red Sox got Manny Ramirez to third with one out. Terry Francona (the Sox manager) pinch-ran for Ramirez by sending in Gabe Kapler. Baseball convention dictates that this is a natural move, but is it really beneficial to the team? I’ve thought about this a lot since the move, and I’ve assembled a cost/benefit analysis for this kind of move, but first…

Middle of the 3rd - Pedro hasn’t broken 90 on the gun. I don’t care about velocity – his “change” is still a screwball, and his curveball is still sharp. I haven’t noticed the cutter yet. His fastball still has solid tailing action. Pedro’s naysayers should shut up – he's downright lethal tonight.

Back to Francona’s pinch-running decision, here are the costs and the benefits for taking out Ramirez and subbing in Kapler as a pinch-runner:

1. Increased probability of scoring on a flyout – if there was a fly-out, Kapler (as the faster baserunner) would, in theory, have a greater chance of scoring.
2. Decreased probability of a Ramirez injury – Ramirez broke his finger two years ago sliding head-first into home.
3. Improved outfield defense for the remainder of the game – it is generally believed that Kapler plays better defense than Ramirez.

1. Foregone at-bats for Ramirez - Ramirez is more productive in his ABs, so the ABs he loses in the future costs the Red Sox runs (and therefore wins).

Bottom of the 4th – Halladay just threw an absolutely unhittable curveball. It landed in Kevin Cash’s mitt just below the knees and painted the outside corner. Millar had no shot at doing anything remotely beneficial with it. Another observation about Halladay: He works extremely quickly. It seems like a lot of elite pitchers work quickly. It’s been theorized that this causes less stress on the arm, but I haven't seen any good evidence to display this. Anyone have any thoughts (I wish Mark Mulder read our blog…)?

The question, of course, is to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs of making the switch. Before I start discussing the tradeoff, I’ll admit to this analysis’ imperfection. I don’t have statistics on Kapler’s speed in comparison to Ramirez’s. What I can tell you is this: Kapler is generally believed to be moderately faster than Ramirez. How much does improved speed matter in the 90 feet between 3rd and home? A bit, but not a lot. It could change a small percentage of flyouts from an out at home to a sacrifice fly. Let’s look at the number of events that have to occur to make Kapler’s speed a benefit in this case: First, the hitter must hit a fly-ball to the outfield. Second, the fly-ball can’t be too deep – both runners would score in that case. The fly-ball also can’t be too shallow – both runners would not score in that case. The fly-ball must be just far enough to give Kapler a chance to score where Manny would not. The probability of hitting a fly-ball the correct distance to allow for there to be a benefit is extremely small. Therefore, Kapler’s speed is a benefit, but not a large one. Let’s look at the rest of the benefits.

Bottom of the 6th – Tom Caron (a field reporter for NESN) just interviewed a Dunkin’ Donuts representative. In a frequently-aired D’n’D commercial, Schilling practices saying various words in a Bostonian accents while he masticates a breakfast sandwich. “I have to buy a new cah.” “It's wicked hot at the pahk.” Etc. In reference to the commercial, Tom Caron asked if Schilling should learn any new words in preparation for pitching against the Yankees. The rep. replied: “Curt…Curt just needs to learn the letter 'K' and 'beating the Yankees.' Good work, Corporate America.

Cesar Crespo had the good fortune to get on with an infield hit – 2 batters later, Halladay hung a breaking-ball, and Ortiz bashed it into the seats in right-center (I own him in fantasy, making it doubly as sweet). Ramirez lined the very next offering from Halladay to right-center for a single. Roy then threw three straight balls to Kevin Millar. Ordinary pitchers would have packed it in, but Roy battled back to induce Millar to fly out. The flyout was a tribute to his composure, but the Sox now lead 2-0 in a game where two runs could certainly be the difference.

Ramirez injured himself two years ago sliding into home and his safety on the basepaths is questionable. Still, the probability of injury is negligibly low and should not factor into the analysis as a tangible benefit. An aside: Ramirez’s status as a frail or injury-prone player seems to no longer be warranted. He has played 142, 120, and 154 games the last three years. However, looking now at Ramirez's stats, aside from two years of only playing 120 games, he's been pretty consistent at 150 games/year. If that's what it takes to make a player fragile in Boston, one wonders why Nomar hasn't garnered that dubious distinction yet.

Bottom of the 7th – Let the record show, both of Cesar Crespo’s hits today were garbage infield hits. Bellhorn showcased the power in his infielder body earlier this inning with a bomb to right. The home run reacquired the insurance run that was lost on Orlando Hudson’s blast (on a fastball that caught way too much plate).

At last, something that can be quantified: By making the switch, the Red Sox take advantage of Kapler’s “improved defense.” I put that in quotes because I’m not so sure that Gabe defends better than Manny. Looking at defensive win shares last year, Kapler actually defended worse than Manny:
                 WS/1000 Innings:

Ramirez: 2.16
Kapler: 1.68
What does that mean? Well, win shares thinks Manny is the better OF. So, it seems it's really a cost to the Sox if they replace Manny in the field.

But that’s just last year, and Kapler didn’t play much. Since I don’t have defensive win shares prior to this year, what about other measures? Looking at range factor (admittedly, an imperfect measure, but defined as: the number of successful chances (putuouts + assists) times 9 divided by the number of defensive innings played), historically:

Ramirez: 2002- 1.80
2003- 1.83
Kapler: 2002- 2.56
2003- 1.85
Even with range factor, you don't see a dramatically better player in Kapler. I know Red Sox fans are quick to malign Ramirez's lack of hustle or seemingly lackadaisical attitude toward baseball, but he still plays reasonably good defense. Kapler may be fleet-a-foot, but it would appear that he doesn't play great dee. The anomolously high RF in 2002 was probably because he was playing for a fly-ball staff in Texas. So, it seems that Kapler isn't much of a defensive improvement - if he is an improvement at all.

Bottom of the 8th – Ramirez absolutely crushed Aquilino Lopez’s first offering. With the swing, it was almost as if he said: “You are not good enough to challenge me. Now, I will deposit the trash you call a ‘pitch’ 420 feet away.” It serves Lopez right. No one should have the first name Aquilino.

What about the foregone at-bats? Clearly Ramirez is a better offensive player, but how much better? Let’s look at Kapler and Ramirez’s RC last year. This stat tells us how many runs would be scored if there were nine Manny Ramirezes or nine Gabe Kaplers hitting in the lineup. Dividing by the number of outs will allow us to understand the number of runs Ramirez and Kapler create per plate appearance (I actually had to get Kapler's RC out of BP 2004 courtesy of Jon - it wasn't anywhere to be found online, e-mail/comment if you have a site):
                      RC         RC/PA

Ramirez: 133.8 .197
Kapler: 23 .093
So, Kapler creates a tenth of a run less than Manny does per plate appearance (no surprise, Manny's a damn good offensive player). I did a little more research, and found that 4.2 RC is the equivalent of one hitting win share. So, if Ramirez goes to bat once more, the Sox forego (.197-.093)/(4.2)*(1/3) wins. That's .000825 wins, an appreciable amount. But how often does Ramirez get another at-bat after the completion of that 2-2 game in the ninth, with one out, with a man on third? Not often, would be my guess.

Top of the 9th – Game’s over. Nothing remarkable happened in Foulke’s 1.1 innings pitched. In the ninth, however, he did induce two batters (Carlos Delgado and Orlando Hudson) to throw their bats in disgust after creating outs. This is relatively unsurprising considering that Foulke does not have the overpowering stuff to make anyone feel good about creating outs. After a series of high 80s fastballs and low 70s palmballs, I’d probably huck my bat if I hit a lazy flyball like Delgado did. A well-pitched game by both sides – a few hangers by Halladay allowed two HRs and three runs. Later in the year, the Sox won’t see those hangers – and I’ll be worried when we face the towering hulk, Roy Halladay, again.

Before the conclusion to this study, let's keep its insignificance in perspective. Removing Ramirez for a pinch-runner could be questioned, but you couldn't hang a man for it. That's something you do to Jimy Williams for sitting Morgan Ensberg, a clearly superior player, in favor of Mike Lamb. So, Francona, right or not, should not be scrutinized for these sorts of moves - ever. They're so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that I would chance that correct decision-making with respect to this situation might create one win over ten years. With that said, let's return to our benefit/costs for removing Ramirez:

1. Increased probability of scoring on a flyout – If there was a fly-out, Kapler (as the faster baserunner) would, in theory, have a greater chance of scoring.
A negligibly small probability, seeing as how the batter has to hit it in the correct band of the OF for this to matter. Still, the benefits are immediate so they needn't be discounted due to their occurrence in the future (as with foregone at-bats).
2. Decreased probability of a Ramirez injury – Ramirez broke his finger two years ago sliding head-first into home.
Negligibly close to zero - though it carries huge risks. It should be considered a benefit, but very small relative to benefit #1.
3. Improved outfield defense for the remainder of the game – It is generally believed that Kapler plays better defense than Ramirez.
Ramirez seems to play better, or at least equivalent, defense to Kapler, so this is not a benefit and may even be a cost.

1. Foregone at-bats for Ramirez
The Red Sox are giving up .000825 wins every time Kapler has a plate appearance instead of Manny. So, on Thursday, when Kapler had the one AB, the Red Sox lost .000825 wins and lessened their chances of winning. But the .000825 wins is discounted due to the low probability that Ramirez will get another AB. Perhaps Ramirez gets another AB 20% of the time (conservatively high, I'd say). That means that the switch costs .000165 wins.

Do you think Kapler's speed is worth more than .000165 wins? I'm sure it does. I'm sure at least .05% (ridiculously small) of fly-outs Kapler would score on, while Ramirez wouldn't. That would mean that the switch would be worth it because the scored run would almost ensure a win (not quite true, but let's simplify, please). This is because .05% = .0005 > .000165 wins. Whew. So, next time Ramirez gets subbed in a game, don't question it for two reasons:

1. The switch probably won't matter (there won't be a sac-fly or the game won't stretch on to extra innings), so it's not worth worrying about.
2. The switch was the right thing to do.

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