29 December 2003

Not Standing on Harden Ground

Your hero and mine, Rob Neyer, makes some interesting points with regards to the relative qualities of two candidates vying for the title of “Best Fifth Starter in the Majors.” However, like most of us, Neyer appears be guilty of seeing what he wants to see in the numbers and ignoring what doesn’t agree with the argument he’s trying to construct. Maybe he's been spending too much time hanging out with Jayson Stark.

In an article he wrote last week, he indicated that with the addition of Mark Redman to their staff, the Oakland A’s probably have the best starting five in the majors, and Neyer’s probably right about that. He also indicated that Rich Harden is therefore the Best Fifth Starter in the Majors, which seems to be a more debatable issue. In particular, a few of Neyer’s readers posited Brett Myers as a better option for said title.

Rob’s response:

His (Harden’s) ERA in the majors last season was essentially the same as Myers' and his peripheral numbers are better. Looking at all of Harden's professional innings in 2003 – roughly half of them in Triple-A -- he struck out nine hitters per nine innings, and his control was decent. Myers, meanwhile, struck out seven batters per nine innings. Granted, Myers spent all season in the majors (Harden didn't), but Myers, a National Leaguer, also faced a lot of pitchers (Harden didn't). [italics added]

Let’s look at the pieces of the argument one-at-a-time, shall we, just like the great philosopher, Nuke Laloosh, tells us we should.

1) Similar ERA with better peripherals = better pitcher? Generally this is true, but the quality of the hitters they faced can influence those peripherals significantly. At the major league level, Harden and Myers faces roughly the same quality of batters overall (.744 OPS vs. .735, respectively), but they didn’t only face major leaguers. But I’ll get back to that… Rob's statement also begs the question of which peripherals, exactly, were better? Look at them (Harden's numbers were projected over the same number of at-bats):

          AB    R   H   2B  RBI  BB  SO   SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

Myers 754 99 205 43 88 76 143 16 5 .272 .342 .424 .766
Harden 731 100 189 32 87 105 176 24 5 .259 .349 .363 .712

Was Harden better? Sure, but marginally.

That ~50-point difference is nothing at which to sneeze, but most of the disparity rests in the difference in their hits allowed, which is hard to predict from year to year, and a few more extra-bases given up by Myers. Those numbers could easily flip-flop next year, especially since both pitchers' home ballparks behaved out-of-character last season. (Veterans Stadium, usually a pretty neutral park, was a better pitcher's park than Dodger Stadium in 2003, and Oakland/Network Associates/Grace L. Ferguson Airline & Stormdoor Co. Coliseum, usually a pretty good pitcher's park, was a slight hitters' park in 2003. Nobody knows what the Phillies' new Stadium will do to offense in 2004, and, similarly, no one knows what the Athletics' stadium will be named next year.)

2) Harden had decent control. I’m not sure what Rob uses as the benchmark for “decent” control, but according to my (admittedly limited) analysis, Harden walked 40 batters in less than 75 innings at the major league level in 2003. That walk rate (4.82 per 9 IP) would rank him in the worst ten in the majors if he had pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. Of course, you can still succeed as a pitcher walking a batter every other inning if you get enough strikeouts (just ask Kerry Wood) or if your teammates score six and a half runs every time you go out there to pitch (just ask Russ Ortiz). But neither of those means you qualify for “decent” control. And of course, Myers’ control was much better (about 3.5 walks per nine innings.)
3) Harden spent about half of his season in AAA, but Myers spent the whole season in the NL, where you have to face pitchers, so it evens out? Rob may not have said this explicitly, but he does seem to imply that we can somehow just glaze over those differences as we analyze them. Personally, I don’t see how you can equate facing roughly 75 pitchers a season (out of almost 850 batters faced) with facing 400 hitters who aren’t even good enough to make it to the majors (out of about 700 to 750 batters). I’m not totally sure how to compensate for this difference, but I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t just call it a wash.

And besides, if you’re looking for the Best #5 Starter in the Majors, he’s probably in the Yankees’ rotation anyway. The Yanks’ 1-3 starters are Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina and Javier Vasquez, with their #4 and #5 slots taken by some combination of …

…David Wells - owner of 200 career wins, career *ERA+ of 110 (i.e. 10% better than average)

…Jon Lieber (LAIM, perhaps, but still capable of posting 200 innings of 10% better than average work when healthy)

…Jose Contreras (purportedly one of the best Cuban pitchers ever, even though he’s probably 32 going on 40)

Seems to me that not only was Rob making a shaky argument, he was making the wrong shaky argument.

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17 December 2003

No Longer the Zer0rioles?

When I was in college, not so long ago, the Orioles didn’t suck.

At least not all the time. I was at Lehigh University from the autumn of 1993 to spring of 1997, and as you probably know if you’re a sufficiently intense baseball fan to be reading this website, the O’s made the playoffs a few times in that span. They were decent overall, finishing 2nd or 3rd every year from 1992 to 1996. They won a Wild Card in 1996, losing to the Yankees (and Jeffrey Maier) in the ALCS, and then they became one of the very few teams ever to lead its division wire-to-wire in 1997, though they lost the ALCS then as well, to the Indians this time.

And they haven’t had a winning season since. That 1997 season preceded an immediate and precipitous drop-off, due largely to the fact that so many of the regulars on that team were on the wrong side of 30 (Jimmy Key, Randy Myers, Scott Kameneicki, Cal Ripken, Harold Baines, Chris Hoiles, B.J. Surhoff, Eric Davis, etc.)

I recall, in the seasons and off-seasons prior to the O’s successful years, arguing about the relative merits of those Orioles and my Yankees with fans of the O’s on Lehigh’s Internet discussion boards, which was fun. For a certain fan, (we’ll call him “Mark Passwaters”) it seemed that no matter what the Orioles did in the off-season, they were going to win, and no matter what the Yankees did, they were going to lose, at least to the Orioles.

I recall one time in particular, in which Mark pointed out that Arthur Rhodes was AL Pitcher of the Month for August, 1994, as an indication that Rhodes was really going to make something of himself (as a starter, at the time). Indeed, Rhodes was undefeated in August that year, pitching two shutouts…in only two games, since the season ended on August 12th that year. This analysis, though accurate, ignored the fact that Rhodes had an ERA of 7.17 in his first eight games pitched that season.

I suppose I was guilty of the same thing though, as I recall being pretty excited about getting Jack “The Finger” McDowell in a trade just before my birthday in 1994. I used the fact that he had gone 2-7 in the first two months of the season with Chicago and 8-2 in the next two and a half months to explain why he would be great for the Yanks. (Alas, he was only good in 1995, but he was the best we had until David Cone came along in a late-season trade.

Anyway, the point of this tiresome, rambling introduction, is that Mark Passwaters (and other semi-delusional Orioles fans) have something about which they can be excited again. The Orioles are picking up big-name free agents like they’re barrels of hard pretzels and boxes of Fun-Dip at BJ’s Wholesale Club. Inappropriately-Voted 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada has signed with Baltimore for six years and $72 million, which is a lot of money, but a lot less than the $189 mil for ten years that Derek Jeter’s getting for comparable (if not lesser) performance.

Rumors Sunday and Monday had the Orioles signing Vladimir Guerrero and either Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez to catch (and presumably hit a little). I looked at the BP Prospectus' offensive WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) numbers for these three players and those they'd replace. I-Rod, who seems a much more probable signee than Javy at this point, would most likely replace most of Brooks Fordyce and Geronimo Gil's at-bats, though I suppose Gil would still be the back-up back-stop. Tejada replaces the dreadful Deivi Cruz. Guerrero does NOT replace Jay Gibbons, his 23 homers and 100 RBI, as ESPN has said. Rather he replaces either Jeff Conine or David Segui and BJ Surhoff. Gibbons is young, cheap, and still a good hitter, so they'll place him at first base or DH, keeping that bat in the lineup, and so Vlad effectively supplants some combination of the other three aging monsters.

Anyway, here's how those WARP numbers shake out. I took the averages of the players for 2001-2003 seasons, combining some where a platoon existed for whatever reason. Here's what I got:

Vlad 7.8 7.8
Rodriguez 7 Miggy 6.7 Conine 4.1
Brooks/Gil 2 Cruz 1.5 Segui/BJ 2.9
difference +5 diff +5 diff +3.7 +4.9

Holy cow.

This makes it look like the Orioles just bought themselves fifteen additional wins (about five more at each position). That's HUGE. Fifteen more wins still only gives them 86, a tie for third in last year's AL East, but that's an enormous improvement in one year.

Of course, they've still got to have somebody pitch those games, and having traded their best pitcher (albeit a LAIM one) in mid-season last year, there's not much of anybody to pick up the slack. Jason Johnson? Another LAIM guy. Rodrigo Lopez? Nah. Eric Dubose? I don't think so. They're gonna hafta go out and spend some more on the free agent market, and there just isn't enough pitching talent out there to buy to get them ten more wins (than the assumed 85 mentioned above), which is what it will take to even be a contender in the AL East in 2004. They'd probably have to sign both Greg Maddux and Kevin Millwood, plus another LAIM with some upside just to have any kind of shot at 2004. I just don't see it.

But hey, Rome wasn't built in a day, and I'm sure they suffered through some 84-78 disappointing seasons before they built up that big empire.

**By the way, Mark Passwaters, if you should happen across this page, drop me a line. If you're nice to me, I may even give you Dave's email address so you can tell him what an idiot he is.

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16 December 2003

Flashes of Adequacy

Douglas Coupland has “Generation X.” to characterize anyone born between 1968 and 1988, especially if they’re lazy or indifferent.

Pat Riley’s got “Threepeat”, so that now even when the Bulls or Lakers win back3back championships, he makes money.

Somebody came up with LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) to characterize the Dan Plesacs, Buddy Grooms and Jesse Oroscos of the world. Write me if you know whom, so I can give them credit.

And now it’s my chance to coin a term.


The St. Louis Cardinals yesterday announced the signing of LAIM Jeff Suppan for two years and $6 million.

LAIM stands for “League-Average Innings Muncher” and is generally applicable to the likes of Jeff Suppan, Dave Burba, Steve Trachsel, Sidney Ponson, and lots of other pitchers.

Some pitchers, like Suppan, are basically LAIM their entire career, racking up about 200 or more innings without their league adjusted ERA deviating from average by more than 10 or 15% in any given season, and typically ending up within about 5% over the courses of their careers.

Some pitchers, like Aaron Sele, Rick Helling and Charles Nagy, have the benefit of spending the majority of their LAIM career pitching for a good team, and so they win many more games than you might expect for such a LAIM guy. Hence, their LAIMness is disguised somewhat, to the casual observer.

Some pitchers, like Orel Hersheiser, were once great, but due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness, become LAIM and finish out their careers that way. David Wells and Roger Clemens come to mind. (Hey, this isn’t a knock on either of them: If you’re good enough that the “tapering off” stage of your career looks like about 200 innings with an approximately average ERA, you must be pretty talented, right?)

Some pitchers are so bad/inconsistent/often-injured when they start their careers that they aspire to be LAIM and consider it an accomplishment when they plateau for a while, making 32-35 starts and racking up a 4.30-4.70 ERA. (cf. Chris Haney, 1996 and Brian Anderson, 1998)

LAIM pitchers are most certainly not useless ones. You can't jst take them out into the back pasture and shoot them, even with a water pistol. You have to get those ~200 innings pitched anyway, and it’s better to let one Jeff Suppan do it than, say, Brian Meadows, Rob Bell and Joe Beimel, right? I mean, at least you know what you’re getting, it’s better than awful, and you get it just about every time out there: Mediocrity at its finest. You can pencil those guys in to be Decent-if-Unspectacular 30 to 35 times a year, and that’s what you get.

On a good team, only the fourth/fifth starters will be LAIM, while the first two or three rotation slots will be filled with somewhat more studly fare. One measure of a team’s quality, and perhaps more usefully, its understanding of what is needed to win, is how the front office bills the signings of/trades for LAIM pitchers. If they make a lot of fanfare and/or pay more than about $5 million/year to a LAIM pitcher, they clearly don’t get it. If, on the other hand, they use phrases like “shoring up” or “filling out” the rotation, or they talk about “consistency” more than “greatness”, maybe they understand that this LAIM guy is useful, but replaceable, and not worth overspending for.

And, if you’re lucky and he has a decent year or wins more games than you’d expect but your team is out of the race, you can trade him to some unsuspecting contender for prospects. Their GM will think they’re getting a stud for the home stretch when really the guy was just LAIM all along. And you make out like a bandit.

So there you have it: hopefully the newest term to catch on inthe baseball world. Be sure to give proper credit. You heard (or read) it here first. LAIM. League Average Innings-Muncher.

Now go tell your friends.


By the way, if you like historical comparisons, go check out Dan McLaughlin's Baseball Crank, with a look at Bob Gibson vs. Pete Alexander. Should be pretty interesting.

Also, Alex Belth has an interview with Tom Verducci, whom, I hear, has written a little himself. Some sports magazine, I think. Should also be good.

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11 December 2003

Fool's Gold

Andy Pettitte is on the brink of changing the course of history, and he doesn’t even know it.

Rumors out of Houston yesterday, and subsequently all over the country this morning, indicated that the erstwhile Yankees left-hander was on the cusp of signing a contract with the Houston Astros. These rumors are not new, only recently solidified, and unless King George pulls another multi-year, multi-million dollar trick out of his hat (as he did when it appeared that Bernie Williams would soon become – horror of horrors – the Boston Red Sox centerfielder) Pettitte has thrown his last pitch as a Yankee.

This is where history comes in. You see, Pettitte’s not really that good. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of other teams would love to have a pitcher who’s “not that good” like Pettitte, but the fact of the matter is that the guy is a little overrated because

A. He’s left-handed, and

2. He’s a Yankee.

Or at least he was. Yankee Stadium is not as biased to left-handed pitchers as it used-to-was, back when the left-centerfield fence was 461 feet from home plate and Joe D. or The Mick got to everything hit in their general direction, but it’s still comparatively kind to lefty pitchers, not to mention pitchers in general. As Pettitte is not predominantly a fly-ball pitcher, he may not benefit from this advantage as much as someone like Roger Clemens or David Wells would, but it still helps.

The other, and in my mind, more significant factor, is that the Yankees have been all but spectacular during Pettitte’s tenure in Pinstripes. Since 1995, when Pettitte began pitching essentially full-time for the Yankees, they’ve won 79, 92, 96, 114, 98, 87, 95, 103 and 101 games in his seasons. Pettitte’s own 149-78 record gives him a stellar .656 winning percentage (21st all-time), which is even better than the Yankees’ .602 winning percentage in that time. There is not a long list of teams that could reasonably be expected to win 60% of their games over the next decade (only Atlanta and the Yankees have done so over the last one), and Houston certainly isn’t on it. This fact brings Pettitte’s legacy into jeopardy.

Now as I mentioned, Pettitte is quite good, with a very high career winning percentage, owed largely to the fact that the team he’s played for has scored runs for him pretty consistently throughout his career, and won a lot of games in its own right. But his career park-adjusted ERA is only 17% better than average, right between the likes of Al Leiter/Chuck Finley (15%) and Jose Rijo/David Cone (20%).

None of these names are particularly high on the list of expected Cooperstown enshrine-ees, and Pettitte probably wouldn’t be either, if ERA were the only number anybody in the BBWAA examined while they’re pondering their Hall of fame ballots. But the baseball writers like wins. They always have, and they’re probably not going to just abandon that tendency within the next decade and a half. Which means that by the time Pettitte comes up for consideration, the best thing he could have going for him is his wins and his winning percentage. Say what you want about the irrelevance of such statistics in measuring the true worth of a pitcher, and I’ll probably agree with most of it, but in the end, you and I don’t get to decide who is Hall-worthy, the baseball writers do. And they like their wins. Three hundred of them is a sure ticket to Cooperstown, and Pettitte’s chance at such an accomplishment essentially dies with the demise of his career as a Yankee.

Lee Sinins pointed out in his Around The Majors report this morning that Pettitte has the fifth highest difference between his expected (.573) and actual winning percentages, behind Vic Raschi, Johnny Allen, Allie Reynolds and Jack Coombs. You might notice something about those names: three of them spent significant portions of their careers as Yankees too, and won a lot more often in Pinstripes than out. The fourth, Jack Coombs, spent a lot of his career pitching for the very good Philadelphia Athletics and Brooklyn Dodgers of the early part of the last century. Winning teams breed winning pitchers, and ain’t nobody wins like the Yankees wins.

Making a lot of BIG assumptions, finishing his career in Pinstripes might have afforded Andy another 130 to 150 wins, if he remains healthy and reasonably talented for the next ten to twelve years (a big if for anyone). He could average something like 16-11 with a 4.30 ERA for nine or ten years and end up with almost 300 wins at the age of 40. That gives him a good shot at serious consideration for the Hall, though he may need to wait quite a few years to get enough of the vote. The BBWAA is sometimes dense, but not blind to the fact that those win totals have a lot to do with the players around him.

In Houston (no laughingstock of a baseball organization, but one that can hardly hope to be as consistently competitive in today's economic climate as the Yanks will) those numbers might be something more like 13-12 or even 12-15 on average per year, which makes a difference of about 40 wins over the course of his career. Perhaps his career won't be as long either, if he's not winning as much, further reducing the possible win totals at the end of it. There aren't many pitchers with career numbers like 240-200 in the Hall, especially if they don't have some other spectacular numbers, lemme tellya.

Just wait, it gets worse: Houston's ballpark (whatever they're calling it this week) is not kind to pitchers in general, as Baseball Prospectus' 2003 edition labels it a "Severe Hitters' Park", increasing offense by over 5%. That number may drop a little, as 2003 marked the second year in a row that the JuiceBowl did not significantly increase offense for Houston's opponents, but it's still generally regarded as a bad place to be on the mound. So now maybe Pettitte's typical ~4.00 ERA becomes 4.30 or 4.50, and maybe over 5.00 in a bad year. Take those higher ERAs, toss in a few losing seasons (for the team and for Pettitte), a healthy dose of late-inning pinch hitters to lower his innings totals, and a dollop of missing the playoffs (in which Andy's career record is 13-8, and where a good record could have been the tie-breaker for Pettitte's Cooperstown candidacy), and you've got yourself a formula that will appease any critics of Pettitte's Cooperstown credentials: He hasn't any. And Andy's OK with that.

Or at least he won't now. The official word came this morning that Pettitte's definitely signed. Three years, $31 mil, about $8 mil less than the Yankees offered him, but we all knew that Andy never cared much about the money. A reasonable man realizes that there's not a whole lot of difference in the lifestyle you can lead making $13 million a year compared to $10 mil, and that if your relationship with Jesus is priority #1, you can have that anywhere. If your family is priority #1a, then they're limited by existing in our current time-space continuum, and can therefore only be in one place at a time. If that place happens to be close to a different employer who's willing to pay you (slightly fewer) gobs of money to do what you love, then you'd be a fool not to take them up on that offer.

If Pettitte knows God like he says he does, then he realizes that it's about God's glory, not his own, and that a piece of bronze with his mashed-down likeness in a small town in upstate New York is not going to last as long or reward him as much as his family, and his Lord, will. He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. In the end, all George Steinbrenner had to bait him with was fool's gold. And Andy wasn't biting.

Good for you, Andy. We'll miss you. God Bless.

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10 December 2003

Braves New World

Has there ever been an off-season with more big question marks in it?????

Probably. It seems to me that the 1994-95 off-season was pretty up-in-the-air, if for no other reason than the fact that no one was quite sure when/if there would be an on-season.

But given that we all kind of expect most of the more-or-less usual suspects to actually be playing professional baseball at the major league level next year, it seems to me that there is a surprisingly high number of players, especially high-profile players, for or against whom we have no idea where to go to actually root in 2004. Not only are we talking about some of the big-name free agents (Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmiero, Javy Lopez, Vladimir Guererro, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, etc.) but some players who are already signed to pretty significant deals (Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez) may not be with their current teams next year either.

And it seems to me that the Atlanta Braves may be the most severely affected by this phenomenon. Rob Neyer rightly points out that they’ve lost two of the five best players in the NL to free agency, and you just can’t make up for that. Not without a whole lotta luck.

Maddux has spent the last eleven seasons with the Atlanta Braves, and they have not failed to make the playoffs in any of those seasons. Maddux pitched at least 200 innings in all but one of them, won at least 15 games in each of them (194 total), won three Cy Young Awards, and more than solidified his stature as a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. But these Braves are not in the habit of overpaying for anything, certainly not a once-great pitcher in the twilight of a HoF career (cf. Glavine, Tom), and so he’s out.

In his stead, the Braves signed journeyman John Thompson, a 30-year old pitcher who’s never had a winning record and whose career ERA approaches 5.00. Heck, last year’s ERA approached 5.00 (4.85). He had had the misfortune of spending only a handful of his career games pitching for a team that plays in a pitchers’ park (nine games in 2002 with the Mets), the bulk of it having been spent in Texas (yuk) and Colorado (yukker). The Braves aren’t paying him much ($7 mil total) or for very long (two years, plus an option), and Leo Mazzone has a knack for taking pitchers who have struggled/underachieved and making them worth their pay (Paul Byrd, Mike Hampton, Mike Remlinger, etc.), so it’s a somewhat fair guess that Thompson could take a step forward in 2004. Or, having just had the best season of his lackluster career, the Braves may have deluded themselves into thinking that the career year was a breakout year, and hafta pay $7 million for two years of continued mediocrity. I suppose that’s about the going rate for mediocre these days, so maybe it’s not a bad deal either way.

In addition, Javy Lopez, who had easily his best offensive year (.328, 43 homers, 109 RBI) at age 33, is also gone, because the Braves know better. They know that it’s not often that a player sets personal bests in hits, runs, doubles, homers, RBI, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS and a bunch of other stats as he enters his mid thirties and then repeats the performance. And it’s not often that such a player would be content to settle for a paycut from the $7 mil he made last year, even though he had been grossly overpaid in 2001 and 2002, making almost $14 million in two years in which he hit at a level roughly 80% of mediocre. So Javy’s gotta hit the pavement too.

Gary Sheffield, no slouch himself with 39 homers, 132 RBI and a .330 batting average, is also looking for a new employer, which he may have found in George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. Steinbrenner, unlike John Schuerholtz in Atlanta, never met an aging, overpaid free agent he didn’t like. However, unlike Atlanta, and pretty much every other team in professional sports, Steinbrenner can afford to make such mistakes. I’m not sure that signing Sheffield to a three-year, $36 to $39 million contract is exactly a mistake, but Sheffield isn’t young, probably just had the best year he’s ever going to have, and is headed to a park that’s not traditionally kind to righty power hitters. Besides this, he’s got a reputation as a troublemaker, and seems to have already begun this process before even having signed with the Yankees, by asking for $3 million more than their alleged handshake agreement originally called for. No wonder the Braves let him go.

Atlanta’s front office has its work cut out for it. It seems like every year we say this, “No, really, this year they’re gonna drop off from contention…No, wait, I mean this year…no wait…” but honestly, this could be it for the Braves’ run of division titles, which is sad. Thirteen seems like plenty though, and it won’t be broken any time soon (the Yankees currently have a 6-year streak for division titles, 9 playoff appearances, plus a quasi-division title in the unfinished 1994 season.)

The Braves won’t just disappear. They’ll be decent, but it’s hard to see them losing all the offense they (surprisingly) got from Lopez and Sheffield, not to mention the relative rotation stability afforded them by Maddux (albeit in an “off” year) and still winning 100 games next season. There just isn’t a catcher out there who can make up for what Lopez did this year, and they can’t afford to get someone like Vladimir Guerrero if they’re attempting to pare $20 mil from the payroll. Add to this the facts that Marcus Giles and/or Rafael Furcal aren’t likely to be quite this good again and that the journeymen stalwarts of the bullpen may be due for a drop-off, and you’ve got a recipe for backsliding, if not disaster.

Should be interesting watching to see what the Braves do to figure out how to beat the pants off the rest of the NL East. I don’t see it happening in 2004, but then I didn’t see it last year either, and it did. Rob’s smarter than I am when it comes to thinking about baseball, and the Braves continue to confound him, too.

I should know better than to guess by now.

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04 December 2003

Vazquez Right-Wing Conspiracy

I am not happy.

My favorite team has just officially announced a trade for one of the ten best pitchers in all of major league baseball, and I'm not happy about it.

It would appear that there is some vast conspiracy, some grandiose plan to rid my favorite team of anyone who might be both successful and cheap at the major league level, thereby neccessitating these continuous, infernal ticket price increases. Sadly, the conspirators in this process happen also to be the ones who actually run the team, so there's nothing I can do about it.

Evidently it was almost too good to be true to think that an up-and-coming young LHP (Brandon Claussen) might have actually earned himself a rotation spot next year, so they dumped him off on Cincinnati. And now, the possibility of having not one, but two or three relatively inexpensive, home-grown players who might not just be good parts of a championship club, but actually stars on it, was just too much to bear. So, out go Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera, and in comes Great Pitcher about to Get Expensive.

Oh, sure, I'm looking forward to watching Javier Vazquez win some games in Yankee pinstripes. The 5-6 runs per game the Yankees could score when he pitches mean that he could win 20 games even without matching the kind of stellar performance he has compiled with the Expos over the last few years. You couldn't do any better to fill a hole in your starting rotation via trade. Well, unless you can get Curt Schilling, but who could pull that off? Besides, with the age difference, I'll take Vazquez long-term any day.

As a Yankee fan, I won't especially miss Juan Rivera, even though he's young, cheap, and could have been the heir to Bernie Williams in CF if the organization ever admits to itself that Bernie doesn't belong out there anymore. Rivera's kind of projected as Juan Gonzalez-lite, which is a pretty good guy to have on your team, as long as he doesn't come with Juan-Gone's trips to the doctor.

I won't miss LOOGY (Lefty-One-Out-GuY) Randy Choate. Heck, I don't think I even knew that Choate pitched for the Yankees in 2003. I think I sneezed once in April or something and I missed it.

But I'll miss Nick. Oh, will I ever miss Nick. Nick Johnson is the kind of player you dream about your team developing. The kind of player a stat-head like me lays awake at night trying to figure out how to make one of these for the computer baseball game I play to pass time between loads of laundry on quiet Saturday afternoons. The kind of player you tell your kids you got to see play before anyone knew how good he was gonna be.

BP said last year that he might end up a cross between Barry Bonds and John Olerud, in terms of his hitting. This is a guy with already tremendous plate discipline, now walking more than he strikes out, developing power (slugging percentages from .313 to .402 to .472 the last three years in NY) and a pretty decent glove to boot (or not to boot, as is the hope with infielders...) Johnson's 1999 season at AA-Norwich, at age 21, saw him rake for a Bonds-ian .526 on-base percentage, not to mention 52 extra-base hits in only 420 at-bats for a .538 slugging%), which made him one of the best prospects in all of baseball, if not for his health.

This guy's talent might be once-in-a-lifetime. The problem is that his injuries are more like once-in-a-season, and tend to cost him a month or two at a time. Consider:

1998: Separated shoulder. Misses six weeks.
1999: 37 hit-by-pitches, due to plate-crowding. Plays 132 of 140 games at AA.
2000: Does not play. Undiagnosed wrist injury keeps him out entire season.
2001: Plays 110 games for Columbus and 23 for Yankees
2002: Wrist sprain. Misses four weeks.
2003: Stress fracture in his right hand. Misses over two months

If not for the injuries (which, I realize, is right up there with "If Woody had gone right to the police...") Johnson would not be traded for anyone. You couldn't offer a GM enough to let this guy go. His career numbers, to this point, compare favorably to John Olerud's after three years in the majors, and Johnson hasn't even had three full years. Take a look:

Johnson	Age   AB   R    H  2B  HR RBI  BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

2001* 22 358 32 69 11 11 43 37 80 .194 .308 .313 .621
2002* 23 454 67 110 18 18 70 58 118 .243 .347 .402 .749
2003* 24 458 85 130 27 20 66 99 81 .284 .422 .472 .894

1990 21 358 43 95 15 14 48 57 75 .265 .364 .430 .794
1991 22 454 64 116 30 17 68 68 84 .256 .353 .438 .791
1992 23 458 68 130 28 16 66 70 61 .284 .375 .450 .825

I've normalized(*) for Johnson's relative lack of playing time, since he saw only 23 games in the majors in 2001, and only 96 in 2003.

Now I'll grant you that John Olerud is not Lou Gehrig, but who is? And the fact that Johnson displays the command and ability he's shown at this young stage in his career, though he is a year older, but without the benefit of as much playing time as Olerud had through three years in the bigs, is impressive. Think about it: If you could get John Olerud's skills, with more power, even more patience and possibly better defense, wouldn't you take it in a heartbeat? Omar Minaya would. And did.

And if he gets enough playing time, Johnson could break out next year, just like Olerud did, win a batting title, lead the league in OBP and OPS, and lead the Yankees to a World Series.

Sorry, I meant the Expos. So much for the World Series. So now, instead of fulfilling his destiny of becoming the neext, great cog in the Yankee Championship Machine, Johnson gets to be the shiny chrome bumper on the rusty '78 Pinto the Montreal Expos organization has become. Very sad.

But the Yankees needed to make a splash, and they needed some solid starting pitching, and they felt that with the injury risk that Johnson seems to be, it would be a worthwhile opportunity cost. The ironic part is that in three or four years, Nick Johnson will be elligible for salary arbitration, and if he's as good as I think he'll be, the Expos won't be able to afford him. So the Yankees could get him back anyway. And he may still do great things in Yankee pinstripes. Just not for a long while.

So long, Nicholas Robert Johnson. We hardly knew ye.

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I recently added a few new links:

Redbird Nation, a Cardinals (duh) blog, was kind enough to post a reference to my ALMVP analysis posts, and I got a nice spike in hits for a day or so because of it. Thanks. Redbird Nation is now a permanent link on the left, the old-fashioned St. Louis logo toward the bottom of the image links.

Another kind soul, General Zod, made reference to my body of work as "[his] top 5-7 of best overall baseball blogs" for which I am flattered, on a discussion forum called Birds on the Bat. Though I don't have the time to become an actual member and spend that much time discussing these things, I have added a link on the left for them also, in case you do have such time, in which case, you should probably go out and get a job.

Also, I noticed that a website called 2-Headed Monster was linking to me, which is a blog about Chicago baseball (both teams, as you might have guessed), so the picture of the Cubbies pez dispenser on the lower left is a link to them.

In addition, one of my least new links, Jay Jaffe from the Futility Infielder, has a long break-down of the starting pitching on the market and how some of them might help the Yankees, or your own team, for that matter. Jay does good work. Go read his stuff.

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Milton For All He's Worth...

Here's a headline:

Phillies Get Former Yankees LHP...

...Eric Milton?

Where did this come from? The Andy Pettitte rumors of previous off-seasons might have suggested to us that we could expect the Phils to make a splash picking up someone like this, but nobody guessed it, as far as I know. I suppose we get so used to hearing the rumors long before any trade actually occurs that when a GM actually does a good job of hiding his intentions, we're all surprised. I was.

In truth, Milton never got a chance to throw a pitch at the Major League level for the Yankees, despite having been so excited about being drafted by the Bombers out of college that he immediately went out and got a Yankees tattoo. (reason #257 not to get permanent markings on your body...). He was traded to the Twinkies with three other players for Duck! Chuck Knoblauch before the 1998 season, and immediately became…mediocre?

Baseball Reference.com indicates that Milton’s adjusted ERA has never been more than 13% better than average in his career, and that his career ERA overall of 4.76 is not appreciably better than the 4.80 average for the AL in that time span, though his career numbers are hurt significantly by that 5.64 he posted over 170 innings as a rookie in 1998. He's Livan Hernandez without the durability.

The Yankees caught a lot of flack at the time of that trade for letting this “future of the franchise” get away, and the heat intensified when Milton was winning 15 games and making an All-Star team in 2001 as Chuck Knoblauch’s aim, batspeed and career abandoned him, but Milton’s never really been as great as his hype suggested. Slightly more than 200 innings/year with slightly better than average ERAs is NOT a star, and not worth the $9 million for which the Phillies are now on the hook for 2004.

Baseball Prospectus’ synopsis of Milton’s career suggests that, like Ron Guidry, who didn’t have his first great season until he was 27 years old, Milton might still have his best years ahead of him, but I tend to disagree. Milton’s a big lefty (6’3”, 220) who throws hard and has decent control, but a lot of scouts have questions about his mechanics, and besides, the reason Gator suddenly became so successful was his discovery and perfection of the slider (more of a cut fastball by today’s standards) in 1977-78. BP's reviews of each of Milton's seasons through 2001 are always gleaming, in spite of the fact that the numbers just don't seem to support their hope in him. His 2002 season saw all of Milton's numbers drop off, across the board: fewer innings, higer ERA, lower strikeout rate, and perhaps not all of that is attributable to the knee injury. Perhaps he was hitting the plateau before he got hurt.

Milton’s knee surgery essentially wiped out his 2003 season, in which BB Prospectus expected him to take a step forward and become one of the 10-15 best pitchers in baseball. Didn’t happen, though it could in 2004. Or the arm injury everyone’s been waiting for could happen instead, and the Phils could end up paying $9 million for another pitcher not to live up to expectations. The more likely result is what we usually see from Milton, if he’s healthy: about 200 innings of league average or slightly better pitching, which any team can use.

Kudos to the Phillies, who didn't give up too much for Milton. Knowing that they would have to pick up an All-Star salary, they leveraged the deal by taking something the Twins couldn't afford to keep (an expensive but oft-injured and ultimately replaceable starter) and gave up a replaceable relief pitcher in Carlos Silva and a middle infield prospect with some speed and patience but no power at all, in Nick Punto. And a PTBNL. No big losses. Serviceable pieces of a decent major league team, but all replaceable.

And if Milton does what BP thinks he can do, Ed Wade looks like a genius. Worth the risk, I think.

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02 December 2003

Yankee Roster Moves...

Well, I have to admit that I'm somewhat less than impressed by the Yankees recent signings.

The first official signing they've made was to re-up with a thirdbaseman who hit .254/.302/.418 as a Yankee, who hit .297/.366/.530 at the Great American Phonebooth and .251/.308/.413 everywhere else. If he can keep up the .295/.337/.534 pace he hit for in September, Aaron Boone will be worth the $5.75 million they'll pay him in 2004. But I have my doubts that he'll do much more than .260 with 20 homers and 70 RBI. Some would argue that his ALCS heroics make him already worth that money, but I don't play that way, and neither do the New York fans. If he's hitting .160 in May, they're gonna forget all about him ever having blasted a hanging knuckler into Bronx Bomber history.

Tom "Flash" Gordon was also signed to a two-year, $7.25 million contract, to bolster the bullpen, though it's was not clear from the deal which half of which season he would actually be pitching. Since he became a full-time reliever in 1998, he's had exactly two seasons in which he's pitched more than 45 innings: 1998 and 2003. The rest of the time he was either stinking, recovering from arm injuries, or both. Now don't get me wrong, he was great last year:91 strikeouts, 31 walks and 57 hits in 74 innings with an ERA just over 3.10 is stellar for a relief pitcher in this age, but giving seven million dollars to a 37 year old pitcher with a history of arm trouble and only one season of "proof" that he's past them is rarely a wise move. Maybe they figure that between Gordon and Steve Karsay they might actually get a whole season's worth or right-handed relief pitcher, and for the bargain basement price of just over eight million dollars! It's all starting to make sense now...

Gary Sheffield, on the other hand, would be a great addition. Sure he's got his health problems too, but he's managed at least 130 games in each of the last eight seasons, and has averaged 145 games the last five years, which isn't completely awful. Heck, it's more than Bernie Williams. I argued over a year ago that Sheffield could have been a lock-Hall-of -Famer if not for his injury history, and that was before he hit .330 with 39 homers and 132 RBI in 2003. A few more years like that and he will be a lock for the Hall. A few more years even close to that and he should have little trouble getting into Cooperstown, but there are no guarantees, and for $36 million, you sure wish there were.

Incidentally, is it just me, or is "Yankees Looking to Trade Jeff Weaver to Dodgers for Kevin Brown" the silliest headline since "O.J. Looking for the 'Real' Killer"?

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