25 November 2008

Red Sox Pursuing Junichi Tazawa

The Boston Red Sox are pursuing yet another Japanese pitcher. No surprise there. But the background of the pitcher in question raises some real questions, and that's where things do get a little interesting.

Twenty-two year old right hander Junichi Tazawa was reportedly offered a contract by the Red Sox for something in the neighborhood of $6 million, though the number of years, and how much of that counts as a signing bonus are as yet unknown. Some reports suggest the contract offer could be as little as $3 million, so we'll have to wait and see.

Boston's already got two prominent Japanese pitchers on its major league roster, Daisuke Matsuzaka and reliever Hideki Okajima, and this supposedly will help them to sign Tanazawa, but I don't buy that. Seattle has Ichiro Suzuki, who is still, apparently, worshipped like Babe Ruth in Japan, catcher Kenji Jojima, and their new manager is of Japanese descent as well.

The Yankees have Hideki Matsui and (if he ever gets out of AAA...) Kei Igawa, though it seems that they're taking the high road and refusing to enter the bidding, a foolish decision, if you ask me. The Dodgers have Hiroki Kuroda and Takashi Saito, (plus three Koreans, if you don't mind lumping the Asians together).

Several other teams have at least one Japanese player, including the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays and the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. Why wouldn't he want to play for one of them? Even Detroit, apparently as incapable of producing good baseball players stateside as they are at producing good cars, has sent an envoy to scout Tazawa in hopes of signing him. If you can't beat 'em, join em, right? No word on whether the Tigers expect Congress to pay Tazawa's contract.

Here's the thing, though: Tazawa has never pitched professionally, so you may not even see him in the majors this year, no matter whose contract he signs. ESPN's Keith Law ranks Tazawa just 25th among his top 50 free agents, and not even the top Japanese pitcher. That honor goes to 33-year old Koji Uehara, a righty finesse pitcher with lots of experience but some injury history the last two years. Given the right environment, he could be a decent 4th or 5th starter right now, whereas Tazawa will need to prove himself in the minors for a while first.

Tazawa pitched for Nippon Oil in Japan's corporate league, which is a much bigger deal than it sounds. Japan, like many Asian countries, has an economy dominated by large corporations, and these companies have tens of thousands of employees from which to choose. It might be comparable to the talent level you'd get in a league of NCAA I-AA schools or something like that. Most of the time it's not worth paying them much attention, but every once in a while a Jim Bunning or Bob Gibson or Eddie Plank comes out of a school like that, so you can't just write them off.

We forget that this was exactly how a lot of the great players were found during the first 50-75 years of organized baseball in this country. Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, there was no farm system to speak of, and the so-called minor leagues were not nearly as expansive as they are now, plus they paid peanuts. One hundred and thirty years ago, you couldn't make a living at baseball yet, unless you were one of the very best. But if you were good enough, you could get hired by a steel mill or a mining operation or an insurance company to work in some cushy job by day and serve as the company baseball team's ringer on weekends. Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit All-Star Pinky Higgins was discovered this way.

Of course, those were companies with a few hundred employees, maybe a few thousand at the most. Nippon Oil has something like 13,000 employees. Japan Central Railway has over 15,000. Honda has over 150,000. That's a much bigger talent pool than Providence Consolidated Insurance or Indian Valley Tin Company or whatever, and those companies put a lot of money into these teams.

Look at this video of Tazawa pitching against the Japan Railway team in this year's playoffs, and look at the size of the stadiums, how many fans are there, the quality of the equipment, etc. Heck, the fact that it's broadcast in HD ought to tell you something about how seriously these corporate leagues are taken over there.

Then, as now, if you were good enough, some scout might get word of you and sign you to give up the pretense of a day job and play baseball full-time, in the majors, which was what you wanted to do in the first place, right? So the notion of a player dominating a corporate league and eventually making it in the majors is not as far-fetched as it might appear at first glance.

Not that Tazawa was necessarily hired by Nippon Oil for that purpose, but regardless of that, the fact is that the young man has some talent. He can throw in the low-90's and has a serviceable splitter and curve. Initial reports had indicated that he could reach 97 mph, but those kinds of stories are almost always inflated. Keith Law says he throws 88-92 mph, which is good enough if he's got decent off-speed stuff, but not so good that they'd be likely to put him in a major league rotation right away.

InterWebs scouting reports differ significantly on his talent level, with some saying that he's got good movement on his fastball, while others say it's pretty straight. The latter looks about right to me, and while it's true that he's got a curve and a splitter, I don't see the slider that one report suggests, just an off speed pitch, probably the split. That's plenty, I think, if he's got control of three pitches. No need to attribute a 4th pitch to him.

Specifically, he'll need to demonstrate that he can get his stuff over for strikes when the umpires aren't as generous as those in the video. One report suggested than this year with Nippon Oil, he walked only six batters in 54 innings, with a 1.00 ERA, which is like Greg Maddux vintage 1995 control. Nobody is that good (well, except Maddux...) not against an appropriate level of competition, which Tazawa has clearly not yet seen.

He could eventually be a pretty decent starter, but he'll have a rude awakening when he gets to AA or AAA and meets a bunch of guys who have faced major league pitching and aren't fooled by his big, looping curve and straight, low-90s fastball. Still, a few million dollars for a 22-year old with this much upside is a pretty decent investment, and the Red Sox could get a lot for their money.

Just not this year.

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19 November 2008

Yankees Possible Free Agent Signings

The Yankees have made no secret of the fact that they have a lot of money to spend this winter. As I detailed in my last post, they have about $70 or $80 million coming off the books this winter, and Brian Cashman has already begun putting the spin on the money they'll spend this winter. He told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick,

"Even if everything that we hope and dream for happens, we'll spend less money this free-agent market than we did last free-agent market,"

As though there were another player on whom the Yankees might be tempted to spend over a quarter of a billion dollars, as they did on A-Rod.

Obviously, nobody else in in that stratosphere, so keeping the 2009 winter's budget under the $400 million mark should not be a problem. However, there is no shortage of talent available on the market this year, and the Yankees will fill some holes, mostly pitching, via that route.

First things First:

There was an apparent hole in the 1B/DH spot in the lineup when the Yankees chose to buy out Jason Giambi's option for $5M instead of paying him another $22M to hit .250 with 30 homers again next year. However, with the acquisition of Nick Swisher, that hole may be filled. Swisher was a first round pick for Oakland in the famed Moneyball draft of 2002, and he moved through the ranks quickly, making it to the majors just two years later. He hit 35 homers for Oakland in 2006, walking 97 times and then drew another 100 walks with decent power in 2007, during which he also cut down on his strikeouts a bit.

Traded to the White Sox last winter, Swisher ran into a lot of bad luck and hit only .219 this year, though he did hit 24 homers and walk 82 times. His BABIP was almost absurdly low, .249, compared with a league average of .302, which likely just means that he hit into a lot of bad luck. A return to the norm in this area will bring his batting average a little closer to respectability, to about .240, not far off the production they were getting from Giambi. The Yankees are probably going to let him try to prove that 2008 was a fluke.

All of this is to say that Mark Teixeira is probably not on the agenda. He's the best position player on the free agent market, who plays a position for which the Yankees had a vacancy just a week ago, but all the news out of New York seems to be suggesting that the Yankees are going primarily after pitchers.

So, without further ado...

Pitching the Pitchers:

Before I get to which players the Yankees might sign, a few comments on the ones they did not:

Ryan Dempster: Won 17 games last year with a 2.96 ERA and got some CYA votes, this after spending most of the previous four years as a reliever, and not always a good one. It's not like he'd never been a good starter before, it's just that it had been a long time, and in those days, Dempster typically gave you about 100 walks with your 200+ innings.

With much-improved control, it looks like Dempster has turned a corner, and that's what the Cubs obviously believe as well, or they would not have given him that 4-year, $52M contract. I'm not as convinced, though I can find little in the statistical record to suggest that the season was an unrepeatable fluke.

Jeremy Affeldt: After six years of mostly awful pitching in Kansas City and Denver, Affeldt finally had a decent year in 2007, for the Rockies, of all teams. Then, as a free agent in 2008, he signed with Cincinnati, another team with a brutal park for pitchers, but somehow he made it work, tossing 78 innings with 80 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA. He was all but unhittable on the road, with a 1.77 ERA in 36 innings, but considerably more pedestrian at home, 4.64 in 43 innings, mostly due to the fact that he surrendered 7 of his 9 homers there.

In 2007, Affeldt had a bizarre reverse-ballpark split, with a home ERA of 1.74 (at Coors Field!) and a road ERA of 5.46. Relievers are a fickle lot, and he could just as easily post an ERA of 2.5o as 5.50 next year and nobody would be particularly surprised either way. A lefty reliever with stuff good enough to pitch in long relief, not just LOOGy spots, Affeldt got $8M for two years, which seems to be the going rate for a good southpaw (Damaso Marte got $12M for three years from the Yankees.)

Keith Law commented that going to AT&T Park, which suppresses homers, if not runs, should only help him. While I would not have agreed with Keith about ranking Affeldt #15 among all available free agents this winter (ahead of K-Rod, Brian Fuentes, Ben Sheets, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina?), I do agree that San Francisco is as good a fit for him as he could have wanted.

Anyway, moving on to guys the Yankees can sign...

C.C. Sabathia: The Yankees have reportedly put an offer on the table for something like $6 years and $140M for Sabathia, which would be the biggest contract for a pitcher in history, both in terms of total value and average annual salary. The big lefty won the AL Cy Young Award in 2007 ans then was even better in 2008, with a lower ERA, more innings, more complete games and shutouts, and a lot more strikeouts. Since he spent about half his season in each league, he didn't win the Cy Young Award for either, though he got some votes in the NL.

Sabathia led the majors in 2008 in Starts, Innings, Complete Games and Shutouts, and was second in strikeouts and fourth in ERA and adjusted ERA. He was 5th in the majors in WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched, a rough measure of a pitcher's ability to keep men off base) and strikeouts per nine innings, and 8th in Strikeout to walk ratio.

In addition, until the last two seasons, C.C. had not logged an overabundance of innings on that precious, young arm. He finished second in MLB in Pitcher Abuse Points (a metric calculated by Baseball Prospectus, which can help predict pitcher's chances of injuries and/or loss of effectiveness), but before that, he'd never finished higher than 17th. Add to this the fact that he's only 28 years old, still in the prime of his career, and you've got yourself the best free agent pitcher to hit the open market since, well, maybe since Greg Maddux in the winter of 1992.

Most of the big contracts doled out to starting pitchers in the last decade fall into one of three categories:

1) Exclusive Negotiating Rights: Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter - these were all contracts with no direct competition, since the players were still in their arbitration years. C.C. can negotiate with anyone he chooses.

2) Great, but Much Older: Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine - all older when they hit the free agent market, most in their mid 30's already, so you knew (or should have known) that their best years were already behind them. C.C. just turned 28 in July and should have ten more years as a useful major leaguer, and as a superstar for some of those.

3) Same Age, Lower Quality: Mike Hampton and Barry Zito both hit the market around age 28, but both had a history of success based largely on pitching for good teams in pitcher's parks, and both had only decent fastballs and a penchant for walking guys about 100 times a year. Those kinds of flaws manifest themselves more clearly as a pitcher ages. C.C. has a blazing fastball (94-97 mph), plus a nasty slider and change up, and typically only walks a batter about once every five innings.

All of this likely means that, if he has a good agent, he ought to get a contract in the range of eight years and $160 million. The Milwaukee Brewers' GM Doug Melvin was complaining last week that he thought the Yankees were overbidding by offering $140 million when the only other offer on the table was for $100 million, but the Yankees know what they're doing. They're still $20 mil under his market value.

Notes of Caution: Despite the relative paucity of innings before 2007, C.C. has seen more innings in the last two seasons than any pitcher in the game. Those numbers are not extraordinary for a pitcher of his quality, by any means, but it's worth remembering that the Brewers, in their push to make the playoffs for the first time in a quarter of a century, regularly rode C.C. pretty hard.

Also, Sabathia is not exactly a statue of a Greek god, if you know what I mean. He's listed as 6'7", and 290 lbs, which probably means he's comfortably over 300 or 310. There's no reason a man that size can't be successful, especially since he won't typically have to run the bases in the AL if the Yankees sign him, but his body will be more prone to breaking down under the strain of its own weight than, say, Johan Santana's.

Derek Lowe:

I've got to hand it to the Dodgers' front office. At a time when Lowe was coming off the worst season of his career, and was on acrimonious terms with his bosses in Boston, Los Angeles gave him a 4-year $36 million contract that seemed ridiculous at the time. It was suggested by some parties that perhaps the Dodgers knew something we didn't, and it turned out that they were more than right. (Alas, they did not start him three times a week, as I had suggested.)

At a time when pitchers who amass 190 innings and win 12 games were getting contracts worth $15 million per year or more on the free agent market, Derek Lowe was making $9 mil, and averaging 13.5 wins, 213 innings, and a 3.59 ERA that was about 20% better than the league adjusted average.

With that said, I'd be very surprised of Lowe could move back from a pitcher's park in an easier league and have any kind of sustained success with the Yankees. His home/road splits are extreme, 2.95 at Dodger Stadium in the last three seasons combined, 4.24 on the road. His interleague record is nothing special either, just 6-9 with a 3.91 ERA, including 0-4, 5.13 in 2008. The Yankees' infield defense does not exactly inspire confidence in the hearts of ground-ball pitchers like Lowe, and he'll be near 40 at the end of whatever contract he signs, and few pitchers are still effective at that age.

He might be a decent bet for another NL team, and/or one with a pitcher's park and a good infield defense, perhaps the Padres or the Brewers, who are going to need another starter when C.C. leaves, or even an AL team like Kansas City or Seattle, where homers are hard to come by. But the Yankees are probably not a good option for him.

A.J. Burnett: Other than the silliness of having two starting pitchers known only by their initials, there are lots of reasons for the Yankees not to sign Burnett.

1) ERA's Heading North as He Goes South: He's 31 years old, and just posted the highest ERA for a season of at least 100 innings in his major league career. (With adjustments, his 2001 season was slightly worse, but that's picking nits.)

2) 200 Twice in a Row?: This is the third time in his career Burnett has pitched at least 200 innings at the MLB level. After the 2002 season, in which he pitched 204 innings and won 12 games, he made only four starts (23 innings) in 2003 and then made 19 starts (120 IP) in 2004.

He then logged 209 innings and won 12 more games in 2005, but injuries limited him to 136 and 166 innings in the following two seasons, respectively. This year he pitched 221 innings, and I would be very afraid that his injury bug will find him out and limit him to about half of the innings you expect to get for a guy making $15 million or so.

3) Burnett came out of the Marlins organization in the early 2000's, a very bad omen for a lot of pitchers. Some of the others who were in those rotations with him include:

  • Ryan Dempster, who struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for five years before this season, which may yet prove to have been a fluke
  • Josh Beckett, who's had one good year in three since leaving Florida for Boston
  • Brad Penny, who's logged 200+ innings once since 2001, and spent half of 2008 on the DL
  • Carl Pavano: Unmitigated disaster. 9-8, 5.00 ERA in 146 total innings during the 4-year, $40 million contract the Yankees gave him.
  • Dontrelle Willis, erstwhile 22 game winner who logged only 24 MLB innings this year, and was sent down to Single-A(!) to straighten himself out.

And those are the success stories! Remember when all of those guys, plus Claudio Vargas, Blaine Neal, Wes Anderson and Geoff Goetz were supposed to become stars? Remember Nate Bump and Hansel Izquierdo? Yeah, neither does anybody else.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying the Yankees shouldn't sign Burnett. All I'm saying is:



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Yankees Departing Free Agents...

The New York Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half this year. The excuses for that failure are many and varied, and mostly irrelevant when it comes to how the Yankees will approach the free agent market this winter.

Certainly the Yankees can look to available free agents to fill perceived performance gaps, and they will. But the 2008 Yankees had more than their share of bad luck, with injuries that devastated the roster and promising prospects who mostly failed to live up to that promise, at least so far. The free agent market is no panacea, and no excuse for not developing your own talent, but the Yankees need a shot in the arm badly, and this winter, they plan to acquire the tools they need to get over the hump.

First, a look at the major players departing:

1B/DH Jason Giambi (38) $23.4M, .247/.373/.502, 32 HR, 145 games

Giambi won an MVP award in Oakland and then, one year later, signed the big free agent deal everyone covets when the Yankees came calling. While he never quite reached the heights he had in Oakland, five of the seven seasons he spent in Yankee pinstripes were quite productive, even if his batting average rarely ventured much above the .250 mark. This past season was one of those, and so despite his age and obviously limited range of usefulness, the man can clearly still hit.

The bizarre summer of 2004, in which he missed time for all manner of exotic illnesses and then felt obligated to apologize for...well...nobody exactly knew, because he never said what, is a distant memory. Unfortunately, the Yankees want someone who can play first base for them over the long haul, and Giambi's not that man. He could land back in Oakland, where they still value walks and power above foot speed, defensive prowess and batting average.

RF Bobby Abreu (35) $16M, .296/.371/.471, 20 HR, 156 games

Abreu's not old, exactly, but he is aging. He'll turn 35 during spring training, and he hasn't hit .300 or better for a full season since 2004. Worse yet, he hasn't had an OBP above .400 since 2006, and over the last four seasons his stolen base numbers have dropped from 40, to 31, to 30, to 25, to 22, with comparably declining success rates. Simultaneously, his walks have dropped from 127 to 84 to 73 in the last three seasons, after nearly a decade of 100+ walk seasons.

Clearly, he's slowing down, and his defense in right field, once simply lackluster, has become atrocious. He could probably still be a solid DH for an AL team, at a reasonable price, but the Yankees haven't made any noises about re-signing him yet.

RHP Mike Mussina (40), $11M, 20-9, 3.37, 200 IP

Moose had a horribly unlucky season in 2007, then more than bounced back in 2008, winning 20 games for the first time in his career at age 39 and even garnering some Cy Young and MVP votes. Better yet, he did it the old-fashioned way: He just pitched better. Sure, he got a little improvement in his batting average on balls in play, but he significantly increased his strikeout rate, too, simply allowing fewer balls in play, and therefore, allowing luck to play less of a role.

With that said, the odds of a 40-year old pitcher repeating a performance like that are nano-scale slim. He might be a decent bet to pitch 180+ innings of league average ball, which, it should be said, is worth about $10 million in today's market, but he's more likely to get paid based on what he did last rather than what he's likely to do, and that should place him off-limits to a team trying to build for the future. The Yankees could afford to re-sign him to another deal like the one he just had, say, two years and $20 million, but any more than that, in either years or dollars, is just plain foolish.

UPDATE: Or, he might retire...

LHP Andy Pettittte (36), $16M, 14-14, 4.54, 204 IP

You'd like to look at Pettitte's 2008 BABIP of .338 and say, "Well, look how far above the league average that number is! he'll bounce back in 2009 and his ERA will drop about 3/4 of a run or so..."

Except you'd be wrong.

While the league norm for batting average on balls in play is usually around .300, Andy Pettitte is generally a different animal. Since 2001, his BABIP numbers have been .336, .322, .322, .278, .270, .331, .325, .338. That .278 mark was posted in only 83 innings in 2004 in Houston, and that .270 mark was 2005, when he won 17 games with a 2.39 ERA.

Otherwise, the league usually hits about .320 or .330 off him when they don't homer or whiff. This presumably is because his stuff just isn't good enough (i.e. fast enough) to overpower hitters if either his cutter or sinker isn't working, so when they hit him, they hit him hard. He still gets enough strikeouts and keeps the walks mostly in check so that he doesn't get in too much trouble, but any bid for him should be made in the belief that his ceiling is as a LAIM for the next couple of years.

Ivan Rodriguez (37), .276/.319/.394, 7 HR, 115 games

I-Rod was only a Yankee for a couple of months, his presence being necessitated by Jorge Posada's injury and Jose Molina's persistence at being, well, Jose Molina. A career back-up catcher, Molina saw career highs in games and at-bats this year, and his weaknesses were truly exposed as he hit just .216/.263/.313, so the Yankees got I-Rod and the last two months of his $13M salary for Kyle Farnsworth, and Pudge promptly hit exactly like Molina had all year: .219/.257/.323, and worse yet, his defense wasn't nearly as good.

So it looks like he's done. He'll get another contract, probably incentive-laden, based on his reputation alone, but not from the Yankees, who plan to have Jorge Posada back next year.

There are some others as well, like Wilson Betemit (already traded to Chicago for Nick Swisher) and Xavier Nady and Brian Bruney, but those guys are due for salary arbitration and will probably be kept for something similar to what they made in 2008. Not a significant effect on the total team salary.

Next up...a look at the guys the Yankees might sign...

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11 November 2008

Rockies-A's Trade Analysis: Matt Holliday for Street and Smith, and Carlos Gonzalez...Maybe

Though the deal is not yet official, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick (author of License to Deal) is reporting that the Rockies are trading outfielder Matt Holliday to the Oakland A's For starting pitcher Greg Smith and two other players, perhaps including closer Huston Street and OF Carlos Gonzalez. Unfortunately, at this point, nobody's exactly sure who will go from Oakland to Colorado, though one AP report speculated that closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez could be Denver-bound as well. So let's go with that.

For the Rockies:
The Rockies, who finished 15th in the 16-team National League in ERA, are obviously in need of pitching help, as they always are. Smith, they hope, can eat up innings for them effectively and somewhat improve the dearth of pitching. Though he finished the year just 7-16, his 4.16 ERA was the best among qualified Oaklanders (all both of them), and 25th best in the American League, and his 190 innings were 22nd best. At least that's how Scott Boras would spin it.

Smith came to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade and he significantly outperformed what anybody expected of him, but he walked 87 batters and struck out only 111, and his minor league numbers do not suggest that he'll ever be much more than a LAIM. In fact, before this year, Baseball Prospectus had his closest comparables as a bunch of lefties with very, very short careers. That he's done as well as he has already defies all logic.

In any case, he's going to Coors, where the thin air and his lack of a reliable out pitch will likely cause his ERA to balloon over 5.00. Baseball-reference.com suggests a modest ERA increase of just half a run, but their algorithm doesn't compensate for how outs get made and runs get scored. A finesse lefty, without blinding speed or a sharp sinker or a big curve, naturally has to rely on his defense, and Smith, a severe fly ball pitcher, is no exception.

How severe? Out of 89 qualified MLB pitchers in 2008, Smith's Ground/Fly ratio was 82nd. And he's leaving sea-level Oakland, where a lot of those pop flies were either caught in the outfield or in the expansive foul territory. Without a true strikeout pitch, he'll be forced to throw pitch after pitch of his breaking stuff, which won't break as much as he's accustomed to. Those offerings can be repeatedly fouled off, until eventually he'll have to throw his middling fastball over the plate, at which point the National League's hitters will tee off. Smith pitched 190 innings this year with an adjusted ERA almost average (an ERA+ of 97), but I'll be surprised if he can even stay in the Colo-rotation next year.

Of course, Smith is not all the Rockies will get in exchange for their vaunted outfielder, who finished second in the NL MVP voting in 2007.

Since the Rockies will likely lose closer Brian Fuentes to free agency, Street would theoretically help to fill that need, though Street's not exactly a top-flight closer. After injuries last year and struggling with effectiveness this year (for which he eventually lost his job to rookie Brad Zeigler) Street's star may have lost a bit of shine. Still, he's reasonably effective and not eligible for free agency for two more seasons.

Gonzalez came to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade as well, just a year ago, and immediately went from being Arizona's #1 prospect to being the A's #1 prospect. He hit a modest .283/.344/.416 in 173 at-bats in Saramento, then posted a meager 634 OPS (.242 with 4 homers in 302 at bats, for you old-timers) in Oakland. Still, the whole team hit .242 this year, and in his defense, he did better against right handed pitching, hitting .263/.298/.406 in 228 plate appearances. But he sucked very much bad against the sinister ones (a 454 OPS, fortunately in only 88 plate appearances).

In any case, the man just turned 23 two weeks ago, and his hacking style of offense (81K's and only 13 walks this year in the majors, typically about 3 or 4-to-1 in the minors) should be helped significantly by playing in Coors. He won't have to walk much because pitches that fool him at sea level will be easier to hit, and fewer of the balls he doesn't hit squarely will get caught for outs.

Additionally, Gonzalez has the speed to cover a lot of ground in CF, something the Rockies need with their ballpark, as John Dewan rated him as +3 plays in CF this year. That means that Gonzalez could allow them to keep Willy Taveras (who was -5 this year, and also can't hit at all) on the bench, where he belongs.

The other possibility for inclusion in the trade was OF Ryan Sweeney, who hit quite a bit better than Gonzalez this year (.286/.350/.383) and also went 9/10 in stolen bases, though he is about eight months older than Gonzalez. He never showed the same power as Gonzalez in the minors, but he walked more and struck out less, and is therefore a safer bet to be a useful MLB player, albeit one with a lot less upside. Gonzalez could seemingly "break out" in Colorado, playing half his games in a much easier park for hitters, and all of them in a slightly easier league, without actually getting any better.

For the Oaklands:
But what does Oakland get for its trouble? The A's finished last in the American League in batting average, slugging, adjusted OPS, hits, doubles, runs scored and strikeouts. Well, technically, they finished first in K's, but it was the bad kind of first. They were tied for last in OBP with Seattle. Nobody on the team with 30 or more games played hit better than .286, and the team hit just .242, the lowest team mark in MLB since the 119-loss Tigers hit .240 in 2003. To their credit, the A's walked the 4th most in the league, so they scored about 50 more runs than those Tigers did. Yippee.

So they need help. Oddly, Matt Holliday is a left fielder, the one position in the Oakland lineup that was actually somewhat productive on offense. Jack Cust played about 90 games there, and his 132 OPS+, 77 Runs, 77 RBI, 33 homers and 111 walks all led the team, and that 111 mark led the whole American League.

Unfortunately, so did his 192 strikeouts, and his .231 batting average was, shall we say, less than stellar. Also, in those 90 or so games, according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible, Cust made about 14 plays less than an average left fielder would have. When you consider how often he was probably removed for a defensive replacement, well, here is a man born to be a DH, right?

Matt Holliday, by contrast, was +11 plays in the field, in more than twice as many innings, so they've probably just improved the outfield defense by a dozen runs or more. The real question is what will happen to Holliday's offensive numbers if he goes to Oakland? Until now, he's always played half his games in Colorado, the best hitter's park in the history of MLB. Now he'll be heading to McCavernous Coliseum in Oakland, which decreases run scoring by almost 10%.

Granted, Coors Field has been toned down a lot in recent years, mostly due to the use of a humidor to keep balls a little mushy, but it's still a park that increases run scoring by about 10%, compared to an average ballpark. Specifically, it's about 30% easier to hit a homer in Coors than it is in a neutral park, which is the biggest effect in the National League. The team hit 54% of its doubles and homers there this year, and 3/4 of its triples, and its OPS was over 100 points higher in Denver than elsewhere.

Hits of all kinds are easier to get there, to the tune of about 8-10% each, because of the thin air and the spacious, overcompensating outfield. Oakland is down about sea level, or, you know, Bay level, but most of the reason for its reputation as a pitchers' park is all the foul territory, up to 30 feet more on each baseline, compared to Coors Field. This makes balls that are routine fouls in the stands at other parks into outs in Oakland.

Holliday's been great in Colorado over the course of his career, hitting .357/.423/.645 in 359 games, with a respectable .280/.348/.455 on the road. That split was not as severe this year as it had been in the past, only about a 100-point OPS gap, instead of about 250 or more. Still, there's no question that he's benefited, and no doubt that he'll see a decline in his numbers, at least on the face of them, in Oakland.

Baseball-reference.com's park adjuster gizmo says instead of the .321/25/88 he hit this year, he would have hit .311/24/77 in Oakland, but this seems too modest a drop to me. ESPN's park adjustments show the effects on individual types of hits and runs overall, and if you apply those ratios to his 2008 home stats, and then re-tally...

            R   H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Home=OAK 95 161 36 1 21 77 76 109 .299 .393 .486 .879
Home=COL 107 173 38 2 25 88 74 104 .321 .409 .538 .947

That looks more like it.

Holliday can be expected to strike out a little more, and hit for extra bases quite a bit less. He loses about a dozen runs and almost as many RBI, and the fact that his new teammates can't hit a lick means he'll probably do even worse than I've suggested in those areas. If Holliday's healthy all year in 2009, he'll play about 20 more games than he did this season, and should add to the counting stats, though those averages look about right.

And that, my friends, is not enough to make the A's a good team again next year, but that may not be in Billy Beane's plans. Holliday is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, and Oakland is not usually the type of team to sign would be free agents approaching 30+ years of age to big, long-term deals.

It's possible, I suppose, that they see something in Holliday that will give them pause, want to make an exception. More likely though, they decided that they could do without Street, since they have Brad Zeigler, and Gonzalez, perhaps because the young, hack-tastic outfielder isn't their type, and that Greg Smith's stock will never be higher. Getting Holliday engenders some good feeling from the fans, and gives the sparse Oakland ...ahem, crowds someone to cheer, and if the team is still out of the running come next June, they can flip him to the Yankees or someone else for more prospects, before he becomes expensive.

And that scenario is pretty likely, as in order for the Oaklands to make a threat next year, they need a lot of young, untested players to all start succeeding at once. There's no lack of potential on the Oakland roster, but they need Dana Eveland and Justin Duchscherer to keep pitching well, and stay healthy, and for some combination of Sean Gallagher, Dan Meyer, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and/or Josh Outman to start pitching well, for more than a quarter of a season.

They also need continued production from Ryan Sweeney, Kurt Suzuki and Jack Cust, if not improvement, and they need at least three decent bats from the likes of Daric Barton, Aaron Cunningham, Eric Patterson, Rajai Davis, Donnie Murphy, Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck and Chris Denorfia. They're already saddled with Mark Ellis, who's at least acceptable, if unlikely to improve, for two more years, and Bobby Crosby (who's neither acceptable nor likely to improve) for one.

They're also stuck with the disabled Eric Chavez and the minimum $26 million they owe him through 2010, if they buy out his 2011 option. So there's not a lot of money to throw around at free agents or other big-name trade bait. They've tried to stack the deck in their favor by compiling lots and lots and lots of prospects and projects, and they've got to hope that the statistics hold up and at least a few of those pan out to be useful major leaguers. And if they get some nice surprises and the team Tampas the American League in 2009, they've got a star to help with a playoff push.

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07 November 2008

Notes on the 2008 Gold Gloves

National League Gold Glove winners were announced Tuesday, and the American League winners came out yesterday. There were several new names, a lot of old ones, a few surprises, and a few really, really bad decisions.

First the names, and the number of Gold gloves they've won (in parentheses):

P: Mike Mussina, NYY (7) and Greg Maddux, LAD/SD (18)
C: Joe Mauer, MIN (1) and Yadier Molina, STL (1)
1B: Carlos Pena, TB (1) and Adrian Gonzalez, SD (1)
2B: Dustin Pedroia, BOS (1) and Brandon Phillips, CIN (1)
3B: Adrian Beltre, SEA (2) and David Wright, NYM, (2)
SS: Michael Young, TEX (1) and Jimmy Rollins, PHI (2)
OF: Grady Sizemore, CLE (2), Torii Hunter, LAA (8), and Ichiro Suzuki, SEA (8)
OF: Shane Victorino, PHI (1), Carlos Beltran, NYM, (3) and Nate McLouth, PIT (1)

The most remarkable thing about the list is also the least remarkable: It includes Greg Maddux for the 18th time, more than any player at any position in history. Jim Kaat and Brooks Robinson both had 16, and nobody else has more than 13, or is likely to challenge Maddux any time soon.

The most among active players is 13 by Pudge Rodriguez, who will be 37 at the end of this month. Most catchers aren't even playing anymore by age 42, much less catching, much less catching well enough to win a Gold Glove. Ditto for the quatragenarian Omar Vizquel, with 11 to his credit, and Ken Griffey Junior, who's becoming increasingly senior, and who now hasn't added to his 10 Gold Gloves in a decade.

The closest thing to a real possibility is Andruw Jones, who has 10 of them, but will be 32 at the beginning of next season, and just had a horrible year, thanks largely to a bum knee. He would not only have to heal completely, but he would need to hit well enough to keep an everyday job and field well enough not just to remain a centerfielder, but to not look over matched out there. Oh, and all of that, every year through 2016. Not gonna happen.

The AL pitcher who won, Mike Mussina, gets his 7th after a hiatus of a few years. He last won the award in 2003, when he made no errors in 215+ innings. He wasn't quite as flawless this year, but since Moose won 20 games and made only one error, they must have figured he deserved it. According to Plus/Minus, Moose wasn't really all that good, while Kenny Rogers was actually about 16 plays above average, but the voters presumably saw that 5.70 ERA and losing record and chose to ignore him. It would be an interesting study to see how many pitchers have won the Gold Glove in an otherwise down year. Not many, I bet.

The Fielding Bible doesn't rate catchers, but according to the Hardball Times, the leading defensive catcher in the AL by Win Shares was Kurt Suzuki, with an amazing 11 WS. Joe Mauer was second with 9.2, so he's certainly a deserving candidate, if not the most deserving. In the NL, Jason Kendall led all fielders, not just all catchers, with 11.9 fielding Win Shares. Kendall may not be able to hit his way out of a paper bag anymore, but it seems he could field baseballs with one if he needed to.

Playing half his games in Miller Park, with lots of foul ground around home plate, no doubt helped to boost his stats, specifically put-outs, but he also nabbed 43% of would-be base stealers, far and away the highest percentage in the majors, so it's not all a park effect. The others atop the fielding Win Shares lists also play in such places, as you will see.

Molina was second in the NL in Win Shares, with 9.2. It should be noted, however, that this Molina was Bengie, of the Giants, not Yadier of the Cardinals. Yadier was only the third best (and therefore, the worst) catching Molina, trailing Jose (9.1) as well. Overall, he was just the 5th best receiver in the Senior Circuit, behind Chris Snyder and Geovany Soto as well, by Win Shares.

Ironically, Yadier Molina didn't even do well in the sorts of things voters usually like. He had the worst fielding percentage among qualified NL receivers, making the second most errors, and starting only seven double plays, about half as many as Kendall. Maybe he made some snappy SportsCenter-type plays or something, but otherwise, I can't make much sense out of this one.

First Base:
Carlos Pena was 4th in the AL in 1B Fielding Win Shares, but first in the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus, if you discount Mark Teixeira, who spent most of the year in the NL, so I've got no complaint there, really. Lyle Overbay and Kevin Youkilis were both over 3.5 Win Shares, and among the league leaders in +/-, so you could have gone either way if you wanted. The voters undoubtedly saw him atop the AL Fielding Percentage list and stopped looking for more evidence.

NL winner Adrian Gonzalez doesn't even show up in the +/- ranks, and is, coincidentally enough, also 4th in fielding Win Shares in his league, but he was also first in fielding percentage, tied with Pujols and Lance Berkman, who was second in the NL in both WS and +/-. Albert Pujols was tied with Gonzalez in WS, with 2.1, though he led the NL with +20 plays, according to the Fielding Bible.

This means that Albert Pujols got jobbed again, as he no-doubt will with the MVP vote, as all the knuckleheads who look no further than Homers and RBI will end up voting for Ryan Howard instead of the perennial best player in the NL. But I digress.

Second Base:
Brandon Phillips led all NL secondbasemen in Win Shares with 7.1, and was a respectable +17 in the Fielding Bible's list. Chase Utley, who was second with 6.1 WS, led all of MLB at any position with +47 plays, which is so much bigger than any other number on those lists that you have to wonder if it's a typo. Indeed, before this year, Orlando Hudson, generally considered one of the best defensive secondbasemen in MLB, with three Gold Gloves himself, was +53 plays total, from 2005-07.

In the AL, Dustin Pedroia led all secondbasemen with 7.6 Win Shares, a comfortable lead over Akinori Iwamura, at 5.9. Plus/Minus has Oakland's Mark Ellis being about 11 plays better than Pedroia, though Ellis is only 8th in WS. Oddly, Robinson Cano comes up a close 3rd in AL fielding WS, with 5.8, but dead last in MLB in +/-, at -16 plays. The reverse is true for Adam Kennedy, who shows up 3rd in MLB in +/-, at +19, but 35th in Win Shares. Something is very wrong here.

I find disagreements like these very interesting. Though I've read both Win Shares and the Fielding Bible in their entirety, I don't understand their algorithms well enough to even speculate why the two metrics would differ so much. How could Win Shares suggest that Phillips is marginally (about 1/3 of a Win) better than Utley, while +/- says that Utley was about 2.5 times better than Phillips? Worse yet, how could metrics that generally agree on Pedroia and Phillips so significantly disagree on Cano and Kennedy?

I suspect that eventually the smart folks behind each of these, John Dewan and Bill James, already so closely associated with each other, will put their heads together and figure out which of them, if either, is right, or at least more right. But for now, there's not much reason to complain about either Gold Glove selection, only to scratch our heads about some of these other curiosities.

Third base:
Adrian Beltre (this is probably thei first time ever that two Adrians were named, by the way) led the majors with +32 plays, according to Dewan's Fielding Bible, but was only 6th in the AL in Win Shares. He was also third in Range Factor and first in Zone Rating, so no complaint there, really. The difference between 1st and 6th in Win Shares is about 1.5 WS, so there's no reason to get too bent out of shape here.

David Wright was not among the top third in MLB third basemen in +/-and was only 5th in WS in the NL, but he won it last year, he's young, he's still hitting, and it's going to be tough to take it from hm for a while, now that he's got a reputation. Troy Glaus (1st in WS) might have been a better choice, or perhaps Blake DeWitt, who's the only NL hot cornerman to show up on both lists (2nd in WS, 1st in the NL in +/-).

Jimmy Rollins led all MLB shortstops with +32 plays, according to Dewan, and was 3rd in fielding WS. J.J. Hardy (2nd in +/-, 1st in WS) was also very good.

Michael Young, however, is a bizarre case. He was second in the AL in Win Shares this year, with 7.1, trailing only Orlando Cabrera's 8.0. Seems like a good pick, right? Except that Young was not among the top 10 among MLB shortstops in +/-, and until this year, he was perennially in the bottom six. From 2005-07 he was a total of 64 plays worse than an average MLB shortstop, trailing only Manny Ramirez (-109) and Derek Jeter (-90) as the worst defensive player in the majors at any position.

Like second base, shortstop seems to have a notable difference in how Win Shares and +/- evaluate worth, as Young usually is among the best shortstops with 5-7 WS per year, despite the thrashing he usually gets from Dewan. Derek Jeter gets similarly divergent treatment from the two metrics.

Outfield (AL):
As a blanket statement, before I get into specifics, let me just reiterate that the voters should be required to select players from three different positions, right, left and center, not just pick three center fielders as they usually do. Carlos Crawford and Franklin Guittierez were both very good in left and right field, respectively, and Alex Rios was just as good splitting time between center and right, so it's not as though there are no other options for the voters. Now on to specifics...

Torii Hunter was tied for first (with BJ Upton) among AL outfielders with 6.7 WS, though he doesn't show up in the top 10 on the +/- lists. He was 6th in both Range factor and ZOne Rating among AL centerfielders, but his perfect 1.000 fielding percentage must have made the voters swoon, so he's got a little more hardware.

Hunter won his first Gold Glove in 2001, when he was +25 FRAA (Fielding Runs above Average) according to Baseball Prospectus, but he had a negative number every year since then until 2008, when he was +15, a perfect example of a player skating on his reputation, rather than perfomence, when it comes to this award. (David Wright's going to have to hit Mayor Bloomberg in the forehead with an errant throw before the voters stop giving him the award, I think.)

Ichiro is another one. A right fielder with some speed and a good arm, he comes up +12 plays according to Dewan, which is nice, but only about 6th best in the AL. Win Shares ranks him about 27th, and Baseball Prospectus gave him a -4, the first time in his career he's been below average for them.

Grady Sizemore...well, you've got me. He shows up badly in two of the advanced metrics: -13 FRAA according to Baseball Prospectus, and not among the top ten center fielders in +/-. Plus he's 8th in WS among the 14 AL teams, which is of course in the bottom half of the league. He's 6th from the bottom in the majors in Range Factor, but 4th best in Zone Rating. But he made only two errors and had a .997 fielding percentage, so I guess he gets the vote. Never mind the fact that he doesn't make errors because he hardly ever makes, you know, plays.

The real injustice here is Carlos Gomez, who led all MLB center fielders in RF, ZR, and +/-, and came up a respectable 6th with 4.5 Win Shares. He's only 22 right now, so he's got time to win some awards.

Outfield (NL):
Carlos Beltran picked up his third consecutive award this year, and deserved it, as he was second among MLB centerfielders with a +23 mark, according to Dewan. He was also 3rd in RF and ZR and 4th in fielding percentage.

The other two picks are oddballs. Shane Victorino was 2nd among NL center fielders in ZR and 3rd in fielding percentage, but dead last in Range Factor, presumably because he pitched behind a staff with a lot of groundball pitchers (Myers, Moyer, Blanton, and to some degree, Hamels). Dewan has him as +10 plays, and Baseball Prospectus is consistent with that, giving him a +5 FRAA mark, i.e. decent but far from the best in the league.

When it comes to defense, though, being a tough llittle fireplug of a guy (Shane is 5'9", 160) and/or making flashy-looking plays goes a lot farther than, say, effortlessly getting to every single ball hit anywhere near you. Add a great nickname (and "the Flyin' Hawaiian" is one of the best I've heard in a long time) and you've got yourself a recipe for success.

The third NL outfielder selected, Nate McLouth, is positively baffling. If the players could run campaigns for and against each other, the smear ads against McLouth might read something like this:

Nate McLouth...

He says he made only one error all year, and that this was an unjust call because he never even touched the ball, but let's look at the evidence:

He was only 11th in Range Factor and 17th in Zone Rating (among 19 qualified MLB centerfielders). He ranked 29th among all MLB outfielders in Win Shares, and there are only 30 teams!

Independendent watchdog group Baseball Prospectus rated him as 17 runs below average, and freelance auditor John Dewan labels him 40 plays below average, the worst defensive player at any position in all of MLB in 2008.

Nate McLouth: Wrong on Range Factor, wrong on Zone Rating, wrong on FRAA
and Win Shares and Plus/Minus.

Plus he'll raise your taxes and probably would have let Willie Horton out of jail, given the chance.

We can't afford to vote for Nate McLouth.

[I'm Chris Young and I approved this message.]

Young, Brian Giles and Willie Harris all had good years according to Dewan, and Chris Young also led NL outfielders in defensive Win Shares, so he's the obvious alternative candidate.

Next week we should start seeing the major awards given out, so I'll try to have some more commentary.

Have a good weekend!

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