26 November 2002

Simon Says Swing at Everything

I once heard someone, I believe a politician from Ohio, saying that he loved watching Jim Thome hit (a sentiment that the Boy of Summer echoes), and that one measurement of his greatness is the fact that he puts the ball in play less often than anyone else in the majors. It made sense to me, given Thome's swing-from-the-heels, grip-and-rip style, but I decided to check on this. Surely enough, Thome only put 253 balls in play in 613 plate appearances, for a 41.2% In-Play%, which led the AL, (I think that Adam Dunn and/or Mark Bellhorn might have him in the NL). But here's the interesting part: Near the opposite end of the scale is Randall Simon, putting the horsehide in play at a 65.8% clip. Two 1B/DH types, totally different approaches at the plate.

A friend wrote to me today to alert me to Simon's trade yesterday, sadly, to his favorite team, the Pirates. My friend, whom we'll call "Tim", wrote:

I'm not sure if you've heard, but the Pirates traded for Randall Simon yesterday, giving up a bunch of minor leaguers. Littlefield hasn't done a bad job, but he's starting to concern me, especially when he makes a comment like the following:

"It's hard to give up good young players when we have a lack of AAA and AA prospects, but as head of baseball operations, I have to make sure we address our needs at the major-league level," Littlefield said.

Excuse me, but isn't the Oakland A's [franchise] successful because they have a great minor league system that can replace guys who leave for FA when they get too expensive?

Yes, of course, Tim, you should be concerned. The Pirates do have a dearth of quality players, at both the major league and minor league levels, but what else is new? Given the fact that they're not really in danger of winning anything anytime soon, they ought to be focusing on developing prospects instead of trading them away for so-so players who are soon eligible for arbitration. Randall Simon only managed to muster 8 (eight!) unintentional walks in 506 plate appearances last year, which means that he purposely walked only 1.5% of the time! Or, to put this in perspective, you were more likely to see Joe Randa go yard than you were to see Simon go to first without hitting the ball or being put there intentionally.

OK, so what have we established?

1) Jim Thome doesn't appear to like running to first base.
2) Stephen Hawking walks more often than Randall Simon.

But is this really a problem? Well, of course it is, but how much of a problem? Simon swings at everything, but incredibly, he hardly ever misses! His 30 K's last year made him the toughest guy to KO in the AL last year. He's only 27, which means he's not likely to get much better, but he shouldn't start any kind of serious decline until 31 or 32, you'd hope, so you can pencil him in for a ~.295/20HR/85RBI season for each of the next few years. In other words, he'll be one of the worst hitting firstbasemen in the NL, now that Rico Brogna's retired. That is, unless David Littlefield suddenly becomes David Copperfield and magically teaches Simon to walk ~50-70 times/year. The Pirates already have Kevin Young under contract to play 1B, who's admittedly an even worse hitter than Randall Simon, but Simon is not enough of an improvement to justify a $7-8 mil/yr platoon. The combination of these two may hit .300/.350/.500, given their respective strengths, but that will still only bring their status up to "mediocre" and they'll have burned a roster spot. They ought to just bide their time with Young for another year, and spend the extra funds scouting minor league free agents who might put up similar numbers.

The Pirates traded Adrian Burnside, 25, who was 6-9 with a 4.55 ERA at Double-A Altoona last season, which means that he is not a prospect in any real sense of the word. As long as the two PTBNLs they send are of similar ilk, it's not a terrible trade, unless the Pirates go and sign Simon to a multi-year contract for more than, say, a million per. But now that Simon's got the ".300 hitter" label, that will never happen.

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