31 March 2009

Fisking Fitzpatrick: Comparing the Phillies OF to the 1930 Athletics

Well, I tried to go "old school" with my Canterbury Tales style Phillies Preview, but Philadelphia Inquirer writer Frank Fitzpatrick went old school in a different way in his Sunday column. Fitzpatrick compares the current Phillies outfield of Jason Werth, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino to the outfield of the 1930 Athletics, consisting of Mule Haas, Bing Miller and Al Simmons.

He concluded that the Phillies can't match the A's for nicknames, though he admits that neither "Mule" nor "Bing" is as interesting as "The Flyin' Hawiian".

No, seriously, in terms of their abilities, he gives the "...1930 trio a big edge over the Phillies' outfield".

But before we reduce his arguments to rubble, let's ask the obvious question:


Why are we comparing a team that played 79 years ago, a different franchise, in a different league, in a different park in a different era, with the defending World Champs? Why not compare them to the 1967 Kansas City Athletics, or the 1955 Pirates or the 1884 St. Paul Apostles, for that matter?

Sure, that Ibanez can drive in 90 runs, but he's no Scrappy Carroll!

It's because those A's were the last repeat World Series champions from Philadelphia, and of course the entire stock of Philly beat writers hopes that these Phillies can repeat as well.

Granted, it's a silly exercise. For one thing, why just compare the outfield? Why not the infield? Why not the starting pitchers or the bullpen or the benches? Besides differences in the leagues and the style of ball, the types of these clubs are completely different as well.

The 2009 Phillies are stocked with several good, but not great players, some of whom had career years in 2008. At best, 20 years from now, we might be able to look back and call, say, Chase Utley or Cole Hamels a Hall of Famer, but that's a long stretch at this point. In reality, there probably isn't a single eventual Cooperstowner on either the 2008 or 2009 Phillies rosters.

By contrast, those 1930 A's had four of them: Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx, not to mention a brief appearance by Eddie Collins. The first three were in their prime, in their mid to late 20's.

Jimmie Foxx was only 21 in 1929, but had been in the majors since age 17, and had an MVP-caliber campaign in his first full season of work. (The AL curiously did not dole out an MVP award in 1929, and neither league awarded any in 1930, though Simmons and Foxx would have certainly been in the running.)

Fitzpatrick starts out reasonably well:

As a result, anyone interested in comparing Simmons, Haas and Miller with their counterparts on the 2009 Phillies can do so only through the harsh prism of statistics.

But numbers don't reveal everything. They don't consider 1930's lively ball or 2009's menacing bullpens. They don't account for the rigors of train travel, the daunting glare of the 24/7 spotlight or the spitball and slider.
He then proceeds to base most of the rest of the article on anecdotal evidence and hearsay, all but ignoring any intelligent statistical analysis.

Quoting Dave Jordan, the head of the Philadelphia Historical Society:

"...the old A's outfield looks far, far better. Simmons does that all by himself, and Miller and Haas were very solid performers. Victorino may, in coming years, approach Miller. I don't think Werth can even be placed in a fair comparison with any of them."
Fitzpatrick and his sources are correct in saying that Raul Ibanez, the most accomplished of the three Phillies' outfielders, is no match for the best of the A's outfield, Hall of Famer Al Simmons. The Inquirer article cites Simmons' career batting average of .334, his hits and homer totals, but forgets to mention how significantly these were inflated by the era and the ballpark in which he played.

If you "neutralize" his stats, his career batting average drops to .312, still very good, but not quite so impressive on the face of it. Similarly, he loses about 15 homers and almost 200 RBI over the course of his career. If you neutralize both of their career stats lines, they actually come out quite a bit closer than you would think:

Simmons: .312/.356/.498, with 22 HR, 113 RBI & 93 Runs per 162 Games
Ibanez: .280/.340/.463, with 21 HR, 90 RBI & 78 Runs per 162 Games

That's still a big disparity, but not as big as you might think.

For comparing the other two, he then quotes someone named Bill Kashatus, who wrote a book about the 1929 Athletics:

"What I see in those numbers is that while the power stats are comparable for center and rightfielders, Haas and Miller had higher batting averages and were much more disciplined at the plate than Victorino and Werth, as evidenced by the difference in strikeouts."
Wait, so he's saying that these players from Shibe Park in the 1930's hit for higher batting averages and struck out less often? Well, then they must be better players, right?

Except that they're not.

For one thing, comparing strikeouts is just ridiculous. In 1929, the American League averaged 2.92 strikeouts per game, and then in 1930, it jumped up to an average of 3.32/game.

Last year, the National League averaged almost seven strikeouts per game. Baseball is played differently now. Everybody swings harder, pitchers throw harder, and the strike zone is half the size of what it was three quarters of a century ago.

For example, Jimmie Foxx led the American League in whiffs every year from 1929-31, and his total for three years (220) was only 10 percent more than Ryan Howard did all by himself last year (199), which didn't even lead the league. There is no good way to say that Werth or Victorino has less impressive bat control than two players from 1930.

Another big difference, of course, is the relative number of runs scored. In 1929, in a league that averaged 5.01 Runs/Game, Bing Miller created 103 runs, or as many as would normally be scored in 20.6 games. Mule Haas created 99 Runs, enough for 19.8 games.

In 1930, the American League averaged 5.41 Runs/Game. Miller, despite hitting .303 with 100 RBI, created only 88 Runs, enough for 16.2 games. Haas created only 74 runs, good for 13.7 games' worth. Simmons created 148 and 166 runs in those two seasons, good for 29.5 and 30.6 games in 1929 and 1930, respectively.

For comparison's sake, last year's outfield played in a league that averaged just 4.54 runs/game, and Ibanez played in the American League, which averaged 4.78 Runs per game. The 2008 Phillies outfield was not better than the 1930 Athletics' outfield but it's closer than you'd think:

       Simmons   Miller  Haas          Total 
1929 29.5 20.6 19.8 69.9
1930 30.6 16.2 13.7 60.5

Burrell Shane Werth (Ibanez) Total (Tot w/ Ibanez)
2008 23.3 20.3 18.5 (22.6) 62.1 (61.4)

So, even though Simmons has a big edge on Burrell (or Ibanez), the edges for the other two outfielders are very slim, comparing 1929 to 2008, the first Championship year for each team.

Bing Miller, not quite as fast as he would have liked to be...

And then both Miller (age 35 in 1930) and Haas (age 26) drop off notably the next year. Werth and Victorino are both in their late 20's, and should not see any significant drop off due to age, though Werth may have peaked last year, and in any case, his track record suggests that he's never more than a checked swing away from his next DL stint.

Ibanez, on the other hand, will be 37 this year, and will probably start to decline at any moment, but if the other two pick up his slack, there's no reason that these three can't provide about 60 games worth of runs for the 2009 Phillies, just as Haas, Simmons and Miller did for the 1930 Athletics.

Another comparison made in the article pertained to speed, with Kashatus saying,
"What always amazed me was that Haas in 12 full seasons in the majors totaled 12 stolen bases. With his speed, he could have stolen much more. Then again, the . . . A's weren't built to run. They were a power-hitting team."
This last part is true, though I find it amusing that a guy whose nickname was "Mule" was actually considered fast.

Technically, it's not clear whether he actually was very fast or whether he just had incredible instincts when it came to chasing fly balls in the outfield. Most of the literature talks about him being a great fly chaser, but little of it actually talks specifically about his speed. Similarly, Joe DiMaggio was widely regarded as one of the best in centerfield, but never stole more than six bases in a season.

The 1930 A's were second in the American League in homers, slugging and runs scored (all to the Yankees, of course), but only 7th in steals among eight teams. If you can score 951 runs without risking skinned knees and broken fingers, why bother, right?

These Phillies are different, though. In addition to all the homers (they led the Senior circuit with 214 of them last year) they also had the 3rd most steals (136) in the NL, and were 4th from last in getting caught.

Victorino stole 36 bases himself last year, 6th in the NL, and should probably be compared to Miller, not Haas, as Bing stole 24 bags in 1929, 3rd in the AL, and is the only one of the three with any propensity for swiping bases. He dropped off significantly in 1930, stealing only 13, but also getting caught 13 times.

Another quote from Kashatus:
"Both Werth and Miller are disciplined hitters, though. They both work counts well and can hit in the clutch. But Miller was more of a contact hitter who considered it a disgrace to take a called third strike."
Werth is, indeed, a very patient hitter, seeing 4.51 pitches per plate appearance last season, which would have ranked second in the majors (behind Nick Swisher) if he'd had 19 more plate appearances. Even though he struck out twice as often as he walked, and about 40% more than the average NL player, he waited for his pitch to strike out. Dammit.

Miller was, though not abnormally averse to the strikeout, at least relatively adept at avoiding them. The average American Leaguer in 1930 struck out 56 times in 585 at-bats, while Bing would swing and miss only 25 times that year.

So Kashatus was right about this one, though I would have liked to see some evidence, rather than just taking his word for it. I guess newspapers aren't the place for tables of numbers and complex statistics, unless they refer to the stock market.

Now if we can just get Charlie Manuel to wear a high, false collar and a bowler.

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30 March 2009

Brett Gardner: Put me in Coach! I'm Ready to Make Outs!

The Yankees are reportedly planning on letting Brett Gardner be the regular center fielder this year, at least until he demonstrates that he can't handle the load. In my mind, his four seasons of fairly lackluster performances in the minor leagues have already demonstrated that.

Nevertheless, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has tabbed Gardner, not Johnny Damon or Nick Swisher, to be the everyday centerfielder. And if Girardi decides to stick with Gardy despite all evidence that he knows how to do little other than run fast and make outs, I am hereby patenting the term for this tendency as a "Gard-On", as in:

"I just don't get why Girardi has such a Gard-on for this guy. You'd think they were having an affair or something."

Gardner has evidently won the job on the strength of his strong performance this spring, in which he's hit .367 with three homers, six RBI, nine Runs and five steals in six attempts in 21 games. In case you were wondering about the level of competition, these homers were hit against:

  • Brett Cecil, a 21-year old who had a 4.11 ERA in 30 IP in AAA last year,
  • Aaron Harang, who went 6-17, 4.78 for the Reds in 2008, and whose 4.56 spring ERA suggests that he hasn't appreciably improved over the winter, and
  • Brad Mills, a 23-year old Blue Jays prospect who has not yet pitched above AA
In addition to the unimpressive competition and the fact that he has not hit one out since March 9th, those three homers equal the total he hit in 341 at-bats in AAA last season, or one third of his entire professional career home run total, in 381 games. So, while it's possible that Brett suddenly somehow acquired the power he has always lacked, it's more likely that this is a fluke, and Gardner won't hit more than one or two homers all year, if he plays daily.

In somewhat related news, the Yankees announced last week that Derek Jeter will be moving back into the leadoff spot, a role in which he has performed admirably at various times in his career. Indeed, Jeter's career line in the #1 hole (.315/.389/.471) is almost exactly the same as his overall career line (316/.387/.458). Despite his weaknesses, one of Jeter's greatest strengths as a player is his ability to adapt, and to do what needs to be done, regardless of changes in circumstance. If there's anyone who can be shuffled around the lineup to help the team function better as a whole, it's Jeter.

So, they don't need their centerfielder to also serve as the leadoff man, as Damon did for the last few years. That should help Gardner a bit, dropping him back down to the bottom of the order, where the lower pressure may allow him to thrive. Or, more likely, where the lack of protection in the order will enable opposing pitchers to challenge him, and his weak bat will be exposed all the more.

Jason Rosenberg from IIATMS commented over at ShysterBall:

... Here’s what Gardner isn’t: a power hitter. Here’s what the Yanks don’t need: A power hitter. What DO the Yanks need: A CF with speed and a hitter who can get on and help manufacture a run.


Tell me I am crazy, but if Gardner’s on first, they are going to hit and run like mad as Jeter is so adept at slapping the ball towards rightfield. As the 2B goes to cover the base (Jeter being righty and all), that creates a massive hole for Jeter to try to shoot the ball thru. Gardy’s going first to third alot this year.

Melky ain’t.

With all due respect, Jason, power hitter, schmower hitter. And that "if" Gardner's on first should by no means be taken lightly.

Gardner's just barely a "hitter" at all. His career minor league line is .291/.389/.385, with nine homers in almost 1700 plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus' 75th percentile projection for him is only .266/.353/.375, which last year would have given him an OPS that ranked 125th out of 147 major league batters.

In other words: He'll have to defy three-to-one odds just to be awful.

Gardner's 90th percentile projection from Baseball Prospectus (meaning that roughly 1 out of ten players with a similar profile do this well) is .288/.376/.412. That's statistical speak for "moderately useful" or about as well as BJ Upton did last year.

But Upton is younger, more experienced, and still has potential, as everyone expects him to hit with more power, in addition to the speed and the newly found patience he exhibited in 2008. Gardner would be maxed out at that level, with nowhere to go but down. Unless Gardner is saving dozens of runs with his glove and those speedy legs, there's no way he should be a viable option for a team trying to win a championship, not for more than a couple of weeks as a stopgap.
More likely he'll compile numbers closer to BP's weighted average, which is .252/.339/.350 (689 OPS), and which would make Gardner one of the dozen or so worst regular hitters in the major leagues this year.

For comparison, Chone Figgins of the LAnahfornia Angeles had a 685 OPS, which ranked 11th from the bottom. That's IF Gardner meets his weighted projection. In all probability though, given his statistical profile, he'll end up performing more like Michael Bourn of the Astros, who was dead last out of 147 qualified MLB hitters last year in OPS. (He only played as much as he did, both in Philly and Houston, because GM Ed Wade has a gard-on for the guy. See how that works?)

Take a look:

Bourn .285 .379 .393 772 1552 280 48 36 16 142 163 28 227 339
Gardy .290 .389 .385 774 1448 297 55 28 9 124 151 31 233 287

Those are the minor league stats for the two players (complements of the Baseball Cube) and they are eerily similar.

Other similarities include that they're both an inch or two under six feet tall, with listed weights of 180 lbs. Both bat lefty and play center, and Gardner, like Bourn before him, will get his first shot at extended playing time in the majors at age 25.

If there is any difference to speak of, it's that Gardner struck out 10% less often in the minors than Bourn did, which may suggest slightly better bat control, but not much else. It should also be noted that more than half of Bourn's numbers were compiled at AA, while Gardner's were spaced pretty evenly between Single A (both high and low), Double-A and AAA.

If you look at their college numbers, at first glance it appears than Gardner (.382/.456/.508) was a vastly better player than Bourn (.320/.431/.371) but this is largely a result of context. Gardner went to the College of Charleston, in the Southern Conference, with such luminous institutions as Wofford, the Citadel, Appalacian State, and Elon College (long live the Fighting Christians!!!).

During the three years that Gardner attended college, there were 33 different players drafted from that conference, and four of these have made it to the majors, at least briefly. Among these, the best (so far) is probably Tom Mastny, a nondescript relief pitcher in the Cleveland organization.

By contrast, Bourn attended the University of Houston, in Conference USA, with much larger schools like Tulane, UNC-Charlotte, and Texas Christian. In his three years, there were 66 different players drafted, and 12 of these have been in the majors for some span of time. The best of these are Chad Tracy, Jesse Crain, Dan Uggla and Kevin Youkilis. Clearly, Bourn was up against much stiffer competition. So it looks like the differences in those college numbers are a wash, too.

This, of course, is largely irrelevant now, since we have close to 400 minor league games to examine for each player, a much better indicator of future major league performance than college numbers are. And those numbers suggest that Gardner will be one of the fastest and most prolific outmakers in the major leagues this year.

On another team, he'd be a great bet to rack up 50 steals and 500 outs, but I think the Yankees will grow tired of his act by the end of May, and either Damon or Swisher will be out patrolling center field. The Yankees can afford to take a hit on defense if it means they'll get reasonable production from their hitters.

Either that, or they'll end up trading for someone they think can play regularly, eating a lot of salary in the process. Someone like Aaron Rowand or (God help us...) Juan Pierre.


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26 March 2009

2009 Phillies Preview...in Iambic Pentameter (sort of)

The Phillies won themselves a World Series,
Beat the Tampa Bay Rays with rel'tive ease!
A championship! And long-awaited!
City of Brotherly Love, elated!
But now they face a new season: Oh-Nine,
Their foes take aim, they'll have no easy time
Repeating as Darlings of October...
Will their season end before it's over?

Starting Pitching:

The team's hopes start with Hamels, their big ace
The Series MVP, the Phranchise Phace,
Two hundred innings plus, this year he'll give
And each time out, he'll keep the hope alive.
A nasty change-up from his arm, sinister
Will make opponents hear, "Sit down, Mister!"
At only twenty-five and not abused,
His arm for 20 wins could well be used.

Brett Myers gets the nod as starter, second,
For thirty starts again, he should be beckoned.
He's better than his middling ERAs
But needs to prove it, get back to the days
In '05, '06, under four he stayed
And he still can, he's only twenty eight.
A breakout season they need, not a LAIM
Fifteen-plus wins, he's no one left to blame.
If he can't do it now, he never will
A few more years, and he's over the hill.

Blanton's number three, an innings-eater
His slider, curve and low 90's heater
Provide six innings, quite reliable.
Mechanics make him inviolable.
Perhaps not much to watch, not exciting
Won't miss bats, without a slider, biting,
But more than earns his modest salary
(Though he should maybe watch the calories!)

Fourth is Jamie Moyer, ancient of days
Who helped the Phils to beat the Tampa Rays.
Sixteen games he won through the long season
Though some thought him done, and with good reason.
For two years more the Phillies, they signed him
And though his best seasons are behind him
He might give just enough to be useful
Though I doubt it, if I must be truthful.

The Number five spot, quite likely revolving:
(Kendrick's not much good, and not evolving.)
Chan Ho Park could start sometimes, but it seems
His ERA, helped by Chavez Ravine
Will likely blow up this year in The Vault.
The minors seem bare, though not Ruben's fault,
Won't help much, unless someone surprises.
The same poor pitching, in many guises.


Closers can't remain perfect, as Brad Lidge
Was in '08. He'll drop off, just a smidge,
But should remain a thoroughbred stopper
Helping the Phillies remain on top, or
Barring that, at least he'll fan his share of
Batters, for Phillies Phans to cheer thereof.
But if Philly's season hopes, they Phalter
It won't be his fault, he's like Gibraltar.

After Brad Lidge, rounding out the bullpen:
Madson, Condrey, Chan Ho, Eyre and Durbin,
Some quality arms, some who are re-treads.
"Condrey and Durbin," say some cooler heads,
"Should regress some from last year's performance.
Low ERAs, with little conformance
To anything they had done before this!"
By not pointing this out, I'd be remiss.

But Madson is a solid reliever,
With two good seasons, he's made believers
In Philly and beyond. Hitters hate him
And his slow change-up, "Bland ultimatum!"
They'd rather be challenged with smoking heat
But it's off-speed stuff he uses to beat
Them, and more of the same you'll see this year
He's both young and quite good, so have no fear!

Scott Eyre is the Phillies' only southpaw
Due to Romero's run-in with the law
From tainted powder, 6-Oxo Extreme
(Of pitching 'fore June, he can only dream),
But once he returns the Phils are stronger,
Though in contention, perhaps no longer
They'll be if the starters cannot maintain
Their '08 levels and be more than LAIM.

And those who don't start should pitch some innings,
Out of the bullpen, vulture some winnings,
Though Park and Kendrick and Happ aren't much,
To coax outs from them will take a soft touch.

If there's more relief help, it's hard to see.
Majewski, Zagurski, Dave Borowski?
All washed-up and lousy they were last year
Such dreck in the majors? No! Please not here!

Offensive Starters:

As for the offense, begins the order:
Number 11, a man much shorter
Than many of his peers, though they can't boast
Of an MVP, to him, they must toast.

But from that height, he seems to have fallen,
Though still a great shortstop, Jimmy Rollins.
His glove is no slouch, he's earned two Gold ones,
And backs up his words (he utters bold ones!)

His bat, more than adequate, it should yield
A hundred-plus runs, if he stays on-field,
Hit a few homers, could walk more often
But don't expect vintage Kenny Lofton.

The two-hole, also manned by a shorty,
With O-B-P's well over .340:
Shane Victorino, "Flyin' Hawaiian"
His small stature, his talent belyin'.

Decent BA, a handful of homers,
Good defense (among center field roamers),
Excellent speed (he'll steal 30 bases),
Still in his prime, just 28, he is.

Second baseman, Utley, the third batter,
Should this year 40-plus doubles, scatter,
And hit 30 taters. Runs he'll drive in,
And score some himself, plus make some divin'

Stops up the middle. Perhaps a Gold Glove?
Alas, last year's voters showed him no love
Though vastly better he was than Brandon,
(The voting gets increasingly random.)

Regardless, Chase is the best keystoner
In MLB. At that, he's a loner,
An MVP threat, without any peer,
But Philly will need more than him this year.

Cleanup man? First baseman, Ryan Howard
Last year with much undue praise was showered
For driving in runs and hitting some jacks.
Such people ignored the cost of those hacks:

Almost 200 whiffs, low O-B-P...
His VORP, on his own team, ranked #3!
Still he had value, not a bad player,
But much like Casey, per Ernest Thayer.

Likely to improve on .251,
But not the best fielder under the sun,
Defense atrocious and legs immobile,
But more power than erstwhile Chernobyl!

Raul Ibanez bats fifth, plays left field,
(Philly to Burrell's demands would not yield.)
Out goes The Bat they thought not a keeper,
And in comes Raul: Older, not cheaper.

Still can't play defense, walks much less often,
Hits more singles, (the blow, this should soften)
But little difference in their net effects
Should there be this year, unless one gets wrecked

With injuries, or else early, ages.
Smart cash is on Raul, say the sages,
To start his decline phase, slow attrition.
By June, for Pat, Phils' Phans could be wishin'!

Next we have Werth, him, finally healthy,
Had a career year, made himself wealthy,
But can he build on last year's good numbers?
Or will his bat instead choose to slumber?

The more common problem for him has been
That his wrist ailment, to heal wasn't keen,
But with a full year in '08, he proved
That he's OK now, beyond this he's moved.

A great hitter, like Manny, 'gainst lefties
But batting left, his numbers aren't hefty,
Now he must try to hit righty pitching
Or maybe just when he hits, not switching.

The next, um... "hitter" is Pedro Feliz
Who seems to make outs with relative ease.
Suppos'd to stabilize the Corner, Hot,
But hitting .250 is all he's got.

Despite his weak bat, swings for the fences,
No need to walk, he makes no pretenses,
Still plays good defense, but won't steal a base,
OPS so low, how's he show his face?

Better thirdbasemen? Twenty, easily,
Or more, but Philly's minors got measly
Production from theirs, so help's not coming.
City of Brotherly Love? Soon bumming.

Last in the lineup is the day's catcher,
Often Ruiz, whose bat is no match for
Chris Coste, not that his lumber's so awesome,
But at least his bat isn't still playing possum.
Ruiz, now 30, has slim potential
To help the Phillies' run differential.
Nor does Lou Marson, or Ron Paulino.
Eight's a black hole for the Phils, as we know.

The Bench:

The Phillies back-ups, they should do just fine,
Long as they're usually riding the pine.
Not a bad bunch here, some players, decent
But none whose star was bright very recent.

Jenkins, fifth outfielder and pinch hitter,
May be tempted to feel rather bitter,
Signed with the Phillies to be a starter
But found hitting righties last year harder
His one skill gone and injuries nagging
Geoff found his at-bat count sort of lagging.
A different approach he seems to have found,
And hopes for a 2009 rebound.

Stairs has experience, hitting, eating
Now 41, his career's depleting.
A timely bomb made him Philly's hero,
But this year he'll post too many zeroes.
Still hits a homer or walks on occasion
But where can he fit in their equation?
Just a DH in the League, National
They'd cut him loose if they were rational.

The mid-infield back-ups, Bruntlett and Giles
Like pre-owned cars, with no shortage of miles.
Both about 30, with little upside,
Bruntlett, all over, can field the horsehide,
And run just a bit, in case they have need.
Giles once had some pop, and a bit of speed,
And could bounce back, getting out of this rut...
(Monkeys could also fly out of my butt!)

More likely someone like Cairo, Miguel
Or Pablo Ozuna will get to tell
His wife he won the job in Spring Training.
Giles seems to have no more miles remaining.

Main corner back-up, Greg Dobbs they will ring
To spell Feliz from all his out-making.
Not much for defense, Dobbs won't be used long,
But his bat makes up for all his glove's wrongs.

Finally, putting these things together
You will all likely want to know whether
The Phillies will win. What are their chances
Of returning to October Dances?

The Phillies will have trouble reprising.
New York Mets, no slouch, and the Fish, rising,
Make stiff competition, as do the Braves
Though none of these teams will draw critics' raves.

Injuries could, the Phillies, sabotage.
Last year they had few, they're due a barrage,
And with some key players, like Cole and Chase
High injury risks, the Phils could, the race
Concede by August, dig too great a hole
To climb out from, as these hurts take their toll.

Too many key players with sudden peaks
Last year aren't likely to keep up those streaks,
Or stave off aging, they're due to endure
Declines in their 40's, they will, for sure,
Show signs of slipping, and with that, the team
Will need much luck to stay up in the stream.
The odds will catch up with the Phils this year
Eighty five wins is the safe bet, I fear.

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25 March 2009

Curt Schilling Not Cooperstown-Bound

Curt Schilling announced his retirement yesterday, which immediately begs the question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.


There, now that the suspense is gone, let me explain.

There are really only two arguments for Curt Schilling going to the Hall of Fame. These are, in the order of their importance:

  • He helped end an 86-year World Series drought in Boston, and helped win two other championships as well, amassing an overall postseason record of 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133 innings. Without this, we wouldn't even need to address this question.
  • When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in the game, winning 20+ games three times and fanning 290+ batters four times.

Taking the second part first, Schilling has been quite good in the postseason. His 133 innings, 11 wins, 120 strikeouts, and .846 winning percentage are all among the top 10 all time for career postseason performance. Ten of the 12 postseason series in which he was involved were won by his team, including three of four World Series.

In my mind, however, this should only be a tie breaker, not an argument unto itself. Dave Stewart and Orlando Hernandez were also great in the playoffs, but the rest of their careers don't measure up. Greg Maddux was so great in the regular season that nobody will care about his 11-14 record in the playoffs when it comes time to vote for him. Schilling will get a few extra votes for helping his teams to win three World Series, but I'm not sure that will do it for him.

And that's it, really, because nothing else holds up for very long. The more closely you look at his career accomplishments, the less impressive they seem.

His 216 career wins rank just 80th all-time, far fewer than most of the pitchers in the Hall already. In terms of his competition, that total is also way lower than not just future locks for Cooperstown like Randy Johnson (295), Greg Maddux (355), and Tom Glavine (305), but also borderline cases like Mike Mussina (270) and definitive 'no's like Jamie Moyer (246) and David Wells (239). And these are his contemporaries. Older guys like Jim Kaat (283), Tommy John (288) and Bert Blyleven (287) have been shut-out with much more significant career totals, and in some ways, better cases for the Hall.

Or, if you'd prefer to compare him to current Hall of Famers, it's no great chore to find some to whom Schilling compares favorably. Herb Pennock, for example, went 240-162 with only a 106 adjusted ERA and two 20-win seasons. Hal Newhouser won only 207 games and averaged 100+ walks a year for a decade, whereas Schilling, eventually, had impeccable control. Rube Marquard won only 201 games and rarely led his league in anything. Jesse Haines has a very similar record (210-158) but only a 108 adjusted ERA. There are others, but you see where this argument could go: "Because Player X is in the Hall of Fame, Schilling should be, too."

The trouble with this is twofold:

1) Some of those pitchers are so-called special cases, who lost time due to WWII, or pitched in an extreme era, or otherwise were somehow worth more than the apparent sum of their ERA and Win totals.

B) This approach waters down the talent level, turning the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Pretty Darn Good.

Just because Haines and Pennock (and Jim Bunning, and Ted Lyons and Eppa Rixey and...) are in Cooperstown doesn't mean that they belong there. Writers make mistakes, and it doesn't help things to compound those mistakes by adding more players of this caliber to what was supposed to be a shrine to the best of the best.

So if we can't justify his enshrinement based on him being better than several existing Cooperstown residents, we're left looking at Schilling's own accomplishments, and how they compare to his competition in his own career. Was he one of the best pitchers in his own era?

Yes, sometimes.

For example, his career winning percentage of .597 is quite good, but not even as good as contemporaries like Andy Pettitte, Mark Mulder and Roy Oswalt. Or even Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, for that matter. Granted, Schilling pitched for a lot of bad teams early in his career, which skews that number a bit, but he hasn't pitched for a losing team since the Phillies in Y2K, so that certainly helps.

Not a fan of Wins and Losses? Think they're archaic and a poor measure of a pitcher's worth? Well, generally I agree with you, so let's see what else we can come up with...

Earned run average is much better, as it doesn't rely on the hitters, like Wins. Schilling's career ERA is 3.46, which is pretty good, especially in this day and age. That ranks 11th among current major leaguers, behind Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Johnson and Maddux, but also behind (believe it or not...) Roberto Hernandez and nearly tied with Tim Hudson and Carlos Zambrano.

His adjusted ERA of 127 (i.e. 27% better than the leagues in which he pitched) also ranks 11th among current major leaguers, though just 46th all-time. If you remove the players who were predominantly relievers (Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Doug Jones?!?) and the pitchers who thrived in the Dead Ball Era (Smoky Joe Wood, Addie Joss, Rube Waddell, etc.) Schilling ranks around 20th to 22nd all-time, depending on whether you want to include the likes of Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, players whose careers straddled the lines of the Dead Ball Era.

That's still pretty good, but only about as good as Kevin Brown and Sal Maglie (both 127), and not nearly as good as Harry Brecheen (133) or Spud Chandler (132), who admittedly had shorter careers. Contemporaries like Randy Johnson (137), Pedro Martinez (154) and Greg Maddux (132) blow Schilling away in this regard. Younger pitchers like Oswalt, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay are all better than Schilling at relative run prevention, though these have a while to pitch yet and will inevitably drop off over time.

Schilling's career strikeout total, 3,116, is also a point in his favor, as only 16 men in history have struck out more than 3,000 batters, and he is 15th among them. John Smoltz is likely to pass him in 2009 if he can pitch even half the season, but then nobody is likely to bump him down for several years, at best.

Of the 14 men ahead of him, 12 are either in Cooperstown already or are likely to be. The other two are Bert Blyleven, who could still pick up another 12% of the voters in the next three years, and Roger Clemens, who was considered a lock for the Hall before his name got rightfully tied to the steroid scandal. Personally, I'd vote for him anyway, but the BBWAA probably won't.

Though that's just one thing, it's a big one. Even if you believe that strikeouts are boring and fascist, you have to admit that they're effective. When the baseball writers see him on their ballots, they'll certainly see that Schilling took care of his own business more often than all but about 15 guys in history. That is pretty impressive.

But is it enough? Sure, Schilling eventually developed impeccable control as well, leading his league in WHIP and in Walks per nine innings twice each. He also led in K/W ratio five times, and his career rate is the best of anyone since the 1800's (Tommy Bond), at which time it took between six and nine balls to walk a batter, depending on the year. That is, Schilling has the best ratio of strikeouts to walks of any pitcher who's tossed at least 1000 innings since they invented the 6-pitches-or-fewer walk.

On the other hand, Schilling never led his league in ERA (real or adjusted) or shutouts, or strikeout rate, some of the signs of dominance you see frequently from Hall of Fame pitchers. He was often a workhorse, during the infrequent healthy stretches, leading the league in starts three times, in Wins and Innings pitched twice each, and in complete games four times. But herein lies the trouble. Schilling amassed 3,261 innings in his major league career, good for 95th place all time, but fewer than Kenny Rogers, or John Smoltz.

It's also way fewer than Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Glavine or Clemens, his primary competition for enshrinement in Cooperstown. As it happens, it's also far fewer innings than those pitched by Dennis Martinez, Charlie Hough, Jack Morris, and Frank Tanana, none of whom is likely to ever be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown unless they buy a family pass.

Despite pitching for 21 years, he averaged just 155 innings per season, if you include 2008, when he had an $8 million contract from the Boston Red Sox but did not throw a pitch. For comparison's sake, Smoltz averaged 162 innings per year, and that includes the missed Y2K season and four years where he intentionally pitched only in relief (and was excellent at it). David Wells averaged 164 innings per year. Jamie Moyer? 170 IP/year. The Big Unit? 192. Mike Mussina averaged almost 198 innings. Maddux and Glavine and Clemens are all over 200.

You get the point, I think: Schilling was great on certain occasions when he was healthy enough to pitch every 5th day, but such times were infrequent. He had five or six seasons (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004, probably 1992) when he was among the five to ten best pitchers in baseball, though you'd be hard pressed to say he was ever the best, even in those years. He had five other years in which he pitched fairly regularly, and with decent success.

And then he had ten years lost all or partly to his either lack of focus (as was the case early in his career) or, more often, to injuries. Edgar Martinez will suffer from the same problem: great peak value, but not enough time when he was fully healthy.

Not that the injuries are necessarily his fault, but neither should we simply ignore them and give him credit for what he might have done if healthy. Don Mattingly and Orel Hershiser and Albert Belle don't get credit for lost time, and neither should Schilling. If I had to give odds, I'd say 8-5 he probably will eventually get in. I just don't think he should.

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24 March 2009

Curt Schilling Retirement Retrospective

Curt Schilling has unofficially announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, following a 20-year career in which he went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA that was about 27% better than the average of the leagues in which he pitched. He was named to six All-Star teams, and pitched in three of them, starting the 1999 and 2002 contests. He was the MVP of the 1993 NLCS and the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series.

He won several of the minor awards that MLB started handing out recently, like the Babe Ruth Award and the Hutch Award, but never won a Cy Young award or a regular season MVP. He finished 2nd in the CYA voting three times and 4th once, which gives him the highest award shares total of anyone who's never actually won it, for whatever that's worth.

Schilling was probably at least as famous for his outspoken nature as he was for his pitching prowess, making himself a regular fixture of talk radio call-in shows wherever he pitched and eventually blogging as well. Whether you liked him, whether you agreed with him or not, you had to give him credit for having a personality in a game that seems largely devoid of interesting characters these days.

He started out as a 2nd round draft pick of the Red Sox in 1986, when he was 19, but Boston would give up on him before he was 21. They saw his strikeouts dropping and his walks rising, took a look at the personality associated with those disturbing trends, and figured they could spare him. During the stretch drive in 1988 they traded him to Baltimore with Brady Anderson for Mike Boddicker, who helped the Sawx win two division titles in three years.

Though Schilling did well, winning 13 games for Baltimore's then-affiliate AAA Rochester as a 22 year old, Schilling was not yet ready for prime time, having pitched only a handful of mostly forgettable games in the majors when Baltimore sent him to Houston with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis. He was 24, and already with his third different franchise.

It was allegedly in Houston that Schilling's career got the kick in the pants it needed, from none other than Roger Clemens. While Schilling was goofing off in the weight room at the Astrodome, the Rocket lectured the arrogant kid with the earrings and blue hair about how to approach the game better, and to his credit, Schilling took it to heart.

Though there was no obvious or immediate improvement while bouncing back and forth from AAA to the majors in 1991, Schilling re-focused himself. When the Phillies traded Jason Grimsley for him the following April, he finally put it all together, winning 14 games and pitching 226 innings with a 2.35 ERA that trailed only three others in the Senior Circuit.

The following year he won 16 more games and pitched 235 innings for the worst-to-first Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. Not that you can blame him for that, as he threw 147 pitches in a complete game shutout in Game 5, which may be why...

...he developed a bone spur in his elbow and a knee injury that limited him to just 82 MLB innings (plus 14 in the minors, during rehab) in 1994. The following year he had his season truncated in August when he needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which also cost him the first several weeks of the 1996 season.

Like many pitchers who undergo such procedures, Schilling returned throwing harder than he had when he was young, as he had to be more disciplined to perform the rigorous work of rehabilitation. Though he went only 9-10, he struck out 183 batters, 10th in the NL, with a strikeout rate that was 5th among qualified pitchers.

In 1997 he led the NL with 319 strikeouts and was among the league leaders in several other categories, including ERA (8th), Wins (5th), WHIP (4th), Complete Games and Innings Pitched (3rd), K/W, shutouts and strikeout rate (2nd). On a personal note, I saw him fan 16 Yankees at Veterans Stadium on Labor Day that year, including the second, and so-far, last, Golden Sombrero of young Derek Jeter's career. When they asked him after the game what he thought of Schilling's fastball, he responded, "You're asking the wrong guy. I didn't even see it."

Schilling was just as good, if not better in 1998, but the Phillies stunk even more than usual, so he went 15-14 in a season that might have won more acclaim for him if it had been with a team that didn't lose 87 games. He went 15-6 for the 1999 Phillies, but again had a season (ahem...) cut short when he needed arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in August, and was not his usual dominant self upon his return in September.

Frustrated and unconvinced of the Phillies' long-term plans, Schilling sought a trade and got one to Arizona in the middle of Y2K. The following year the Diamondbacks became the fastest franchise in history to win a World Series, in just the 4th year of their existence, as they beat the Yankees in an emotional, exciting seven-game series.

The next year the Diamondbacks again won their division but were swept out of the playoffs by the Cardinals, despite Schilling's seven strong innings in his lone postseason start. He pitched fairly well again in 2003, but not often enough as an assortment of injuries limited him to just 168 innings, this after racking up over 250 in each of the previous two seasons.

That winter, Arizona, wanting to rebuild, actively shopped Schilling. Though he had expressed a desire to pitch either for the Yankees or the Phillies, it was Boston who eventually nabbed him, playing to his ego and talking him into joining the team, to take a run at history. They even somehow managed to work a million dollar bonus into the contract if he helped to deliver a World Series championship and end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, despite the fact that such bonuses are not allowed per the MLB collective bargaining agreement.

Theo Epstein flew to Arizona and stayed the Thanksgiving holiday with the Schillings, playing to Schilling's well-known penchant for using the tools of the Information Age to inform his pitching approach, his desire to be a aprt of history, and even going so far as to describe what his and his wife's charity work might look like in Boston.

Meanwhile, Epstein had already worked out a deal with Arizona's owners, who , after asking the moon and stars of the Yankees, inexplicably let Schilling go for the frankly ridiculous sum total of pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa, and minor league outfielder Michael Goss.

  • Fossum has been with three different teams since, and is 26-41 with a 5.90 ERA in 552 innings in the intervening years.
  • Lyon missed all of 2004 and half of 2005 with injuries, and is 11-15 with 42 Saves in 58 chances and a 4.04 ERA, since returning. He's expected to be the Tigers' closer this year, despite the 4.70 ERA he posted in 2008, which lost him the closer's job in Arizona.
  • De La Rosa never pitched for the Diamondbacks, and didn't do much for Milwaukee, Kansas City or Colorado either, amassing a 25-31 record and a 5.55 ERA in 404 innings over five seasons.
  • Michael Goss never got but a handful of at-bats above Single-A, and has been trying to stay afloat in the independent leagues since 2005.
It was, in short, a horrendous trade for the Diamondbacks, though a great one for Schilling and Boston. Schilling won 21 games and finished 2nd in the Cy Young Voting to Johan Santana, and helped lead Boston to their first World Series title in 86 years. Perhaps best of all, they came back from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS to win the series, with Schilling famously pitching through an ankle injury that required him to change his bloody sock every few innings.

The following year, injuries again limited his contribution to the team, as he pitched only 93 innings and won eight games. His lack of availability in the playoffs helped lead to the Red Sox first round exit at the hands of the eventual World Champion White Sox, who had not won it all since 1917. So, in a way, Schilling helped to end two such streaks. Maybe the Pale Hose owe him a million bucks, too?

Healthy again in 2006, Schilling won 15 games and led the team with a 3.97 ERA, but Josh Beckett had trouble adjusting to the American League, and their teammates faltered, dropping to 6th in the AL in Runs and 11th in ERA. The Red Sox did not even finish 2nd in their division for the first time since 1997.

But the 2007 team came back with a vengeance, leading the AL in wins and ERA, finishing 3rd in runs scored, winning their first division title since 1995, and winning a second World Series in four years. Schilling missed more time due to injuries, pitching only 151 innings in the regular season and winning nine games, but he was healthy enough to go 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four postseason starts en route to his third World Series ring.

He re-signed with Boston for 2008, but his shoulder flared up again in spring training that year, and he would not throw another major league pitch. Now 42, he has decided to hang up his spikes, though probably not his laptop or cell phone.

Schilling likes the limelight too much to simply fade into obscurity.

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04 March 2009

Commentary on Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects

Baseball America has its annual list of the top 100 prospects out, and though you have to pony up a few bucks to read the in-depth analysis of each player, you can get a taste for free. Just like with drug dealers and the folks who make baby formula. BA has the relevant basic info and some "key number" for all 100 of them on the list, and some of these are somewhat amusing.

For example, one of the few prospects the Yankees have on the list is 23-year old pitcher Andrew Brackman, ranked #92. His key number?
0: Number of official professional innings he has pitched since signing with the Yankees in 2007.

The 6'11" righty underwent Tommy John surgery last year and missed all of the normal 2008 seasons, though BA doesn't mention that he played Hawaiian Winter ball. Not that he was any good there, posting a 5.56 ERA in 34 innings, but still, it's "pro" ball, right? His work in high school was impressive enough for the Yankees to give him a $4.5 million cash advance, but we'll see what he can do as he comes back.

In any case, I don't want to go through the entire 100, but I thought a few comments about the top 20 might be in order, since some of these guys will be in the majors pretty soon.

#1 Matt Wieters Catcher, Baltimore Orioles
His on-base plus slugging percentage in 2008 between two minor league levels.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2009

Wieters looks every bit like the real deal, a player with so much talent that even the inept Baltimore organization cannot screw him up. He hit .355 with power and patience at two levels last year, with more walks than strikeouts. He'll start the year in AAA, which is a big jump from high A and AA, where he spent 2008, but there's every reason to believe he'll be in the majors by June or July. His big frame (6'4", 225) makes it an open question whether his knees will allow him to remain a catcher over the long term, but for now, he's as good as they come.

The Orioles' likely catching corps includes some combination of Greg Zaun and Chad Moeller, aged 37 and 34, respectively, who both hit in the .230's last season, and aren't likely to improve on that much. They've also got a bunch of younger guys - some only slightly younger - who can't hit either, so it's just a matter of time before Wieters gets a shot.

#2 David Price LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
: Strikeouts, in 110 minor league innings, between three levels last season.
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2009

Price has also struck out 20 batters in 19.2 innings at the major league level, including eight whiffs in 5.2 innings in the playoffs. He's a 6'6" lefty who throws a sharp slider, a cutter and a fastball that hovers between 92 and 96 mph. He's expected to replace Edwin Jackson in the rotation, and though there will be some growing pains as he learns to pitch to major league hitters, he should be very, very good.

#3 Colby Rasmus OF, St. Louis Cardinals
: Year he led Russell County High to Alabama and national championships, when he also was a first-round pick.

Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

Wow, a high school national champion three years ago? That sure told us a lot, huh? Rasmus is a toolsy outfield prospect who has shown tremendous power potential (29 homers as a 20-year old in AA in 2007, for example) but who struggled a bit last year upon a promotion to AAA. He still walked at the same rate, which is encouraging, but his homers and doubles dropped to about half their previous rate, despite the fact that power comes cheap in the Pacific Coast League. Keith Law says he was injured, and Law usually knows what he's talking about, so I can't be too tough on Rasmus' sub-par season.

In any case, as one of the youngest players in a league of seasoned veterans trying to get back to the Show, he didn't embarrass himself. The Cards will want him to prove himself in AAA before giving him a call-up to the majors, I presume, but with Tony LaRussa's penchant for utility players and his leeriness of youngsters, Colby's best bet will be to either learn to play multiple positions or to invest in a fake mustache.

#4 Tommy Hanson RHP, Atlanta Braves
: Strikeouts in just 29 innings in the Arizona Fall League, when he became the first pitcher to win the league MVP award.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

The AFL is a pretty small sample size and the level of competition is only around that of Double A, but hits are very cheap in the thin, desert air. Forty-one players hit .290 or better for the season, in a league of just six teams. Four of them hit over .400, so Hanson's 49 K's and 0.63 ERA are very impressive.

He hasn't pitched above AA yet, so the Braves should give him a little seasoning at Richmond before calling him up. Only 22, and in the system of a team that's not expected to compete this year, he's got some time to make sure he's ready.

#5 Jason Heyward OF, Atlanta Braves
14: Overall pick in the 2007 draft where the Braves nabbed Heyward, who wasn't expected to fall that far.
Opening Day Age: 19
ETA: 2010

14: Another meaningless number for a Braves farmhand. Who cares where he was drafted?

Heyward was very impressive in his first extended chance in pro ball, hitting .323/.388/.483 in 120 games at low-A Rome last year before a brief and forgettable call-up to High-A Myrtle Beach. He won't turn 20 until August, so he's got time, and the Braves will likely start him at High-A and then bump him up to Mississippi if he stays the course.

His plate discipline is already pretty good, with 49 walks in 120 games last year, but he'll have to guard against the temptation to try to hit everything out
of the park, as high school standouts who jump right to the minors often do. My one concern with him is that the scouting videos on MLB.com show a kind of long swing, one that can be exploited by pitchers with a good slider, especially lefties, and there are lots of those in the majors and high minors.

#6 Travis Snider OF, Toronto Blue Jays
: Minor league homers in 305 career games.
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2009

A short, stocky guy with a quick, power stroke, Snider is expected to play right field for Toronto this year after he held his own in a September call-up (.301/.338/.466 in 24 games). He probably won't hit for much average, as guys who strike out more than once a game in the minors rarely do in the majors, but he should hit some homers.

Baseball Prospectus compared him to Brian Giles in their comments last year, but Giles struck out about 1/3 less often than Snider by this point in his career, and walked more. he had the bat control thing down first, and developed the power later on (when, coincidentally, everyone was developing power, if you know what I mean). Snider to me looks more like Pete Incaviglia, who had power but struck out a ton and never walked all that much.

Anybody want to guess how many guys in history who were under six feet tall but over 240 lbs have hit 20 homers in a major l
eague season? None. For that matter, nobody listed as 5'11" and over 215 has ever done that. Snider could be the first, but don't expect him to have a long career.

#7 Brett Anderson LHP, Oakland Athletics
: Strikeouts per nine innings he compiled in 2008 between two levels.
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2009

The big southpaw (6'4", 215) isn't a classic power lefty, but he has impressive control for such a young kid, keeping walks and homers in check while fanning more than a batter an inning throughout his two year minor league career. Unfortunately, the only video of him on MLB.com is of a pick off, so I don't know what his delivery looks like, but his stats suggest real talent. His lack of a Grade A fastball will probably limit his ceiling to the role of a #3 or #4 starter, but that's still a pretty valuable commodity.

#8 Cameron Maybin OF, Florida Marlins
8/18/07: Date when he hit his first big league homer—off Roger Clemens.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

I remember watching that game, the second of Maybin's career, and it scared the crap out of me, a kid that good. In the mean time, he's mostly been in the minors, where's he's hit for average (.298 in his career), modest power (36 homers in 300 games) and stolen bases successfully and often (73 for 93 in his career). He takes a few walks, with 161 of them in 300 games, but also strikes out a lot, the result of his lanky frame and his youth, I suppose.

He projects as a superstar, 5-tool centerfielder, but I'm not sure that will start this year. He's got the tools, but not the skills to keep from flailing away at big league sliders and curveballs. The Marlins plan to start him in centerfield this year, and there's an argument to be made for that. He's had some success in Double A, and other Marlins have successfully made the jump from AA to the majors (Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, Jeremy Hermida).

Plus, it's not like there's a lot of pressure to succeed in Florida. Though they had a winning record in 2008, the team's perennially rebuilding, it seems, and they have the lowest average attendance in the majors by a large margin. Nobody will mind if he strikes out 175 times, because nobody will see him.

#9 Madison Bumgarner LHP, San Francisco Giants
1.46: His minor league-best ERA last season at low Class A Augusta.
Opening Day Age: 19

ETA: 2010

Against their better judgment, the Giants seem to have acquired themselves a prospect!

Other than having a girl's first name, Bumgarner has a lot going for him. He went 15-3 in the Sally League as an 18 year old, and it was no smoke-and-mirrors job. He fanned 164 batters in 142 innings while allowing only 21 walks and three homers. Granted, Augusta is a pitcher's park in a pitcher-friendly league, but it's not that friendly.

The book on Bumgarner is that he only started throwing offspeed stuff recently, so he's mostly been surviving (thriving, really) on his excellent fastball, which touches the mid to low 90's, with late movement, and has the potential to get into the high 90's as his frame fills out. Even if it never does, improving the quality of his slurve and changeup should be plenty to keep hitters off balance.

My one concern with him, other than his extreme youth - and it's more of a longevity concern than one of pitching quality - is that his mechanics look a little, well, untidy. His pitching arm lags way behind him, pointing straight out to left field (see below), with a big, looping motion as he swings it up into position to deliver the ball.

Besides the possibility that this might lead to him tipping his pitches, it also places a lot of pressure on the shoulder, especially the rotator cuff, to have to whip the whole arm forward like that. He also has a rather short stride for such a tall pitcher, and probably strains his elbow and shoulder more than is really necessary because his legs don't generate as much power as they should.

Bumgarner is still very young, and a long way from the majors (I would give him at least another year on Baseball America's ETA, given that he's never pitched above low-A ball) but I would hate to see all that talent wasted by a carelessness about his mechanics. Pitchers with that kind of poise and control, coming out of high school, no less, are a very rare commodity, and the Giants need to make sure they're careful with this one.

#10 Neftali Feliz RHP, Texas Rangers
: Home runs allowed last season in 127 innings.
Opening Day Age: 20

ETA: 2009

There is an appalling lack of players with good, obscure, Biblical names in the major leagues. Sure, you get lots of Marks and Peters and Johns, an occasional Jonah, or Jacob or Benjamin, but how often do you get a good Zebulun or Neftali (Naphtali)?

Feliz is still only 20, but he dominated both the Midwest League (Single A) and the Texas League (AA) last year, with a 2.69 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 127 innings. The Baseball Cube and MLB.com both list him as 6'3", 180 lbs, so he's a little on the skinny side, but then so are lots of pitchers, especially ones that are not yet allowed to drink legally.

His Achilles heel is the number of walks he gives up, which tends to be rather a lot. He's averaged four walks per nine innings throughout his minor league career, the kind of number that keeps some prospects from ever getting an extended look in the majors. He seemed to be getting that under control at Clinton this year, where he allowed only 28 walks in 82 innings, but then he reverted to his old form when he skipped High A ball and went to Double A, walking 23 in only 45 innings.

This isn't an insurmountable problem by any stretch. Young pitchers with blazing fastballs often are more prone to allowing walks, knowing that they can probably strike the next guy out. With a full season at AAA expected, or maybe even some more time at AA first, he should have plenty of opportunities to work on his control.

#11 Trevor Cahill RHP, Oakland Athletics
2.25: ERA for Team USA in two Olympic starts last season en route to a bronze medal
Opening Day Age: 21

ETA: 2009

I'm not sure why his performance against a bunch of green amateurs and washed up pros, in two lousy starts, should matter. If you want to quote an impressive number, point to Cahill's 2.19 ERA in 37 innings in Double A this year, or his 22-9 career record in the minors overall, or the 264 K's in 239 career innings. Granted, his strikeouts dropped and his walks rose when he went from High A to AA in 2008, but the kid was only 20, and Midland is a hitter's park in a hitter's league, so that's forgivable.

John Sickels commented on him last year:
However, the lack of a big-time massive plus velocity heater causes some to project him as more of a Jeff Suppan control, inning-eating type than a true future ace. Others point out that not every great pitcher has great velocity, and Cahill's intelligence and guile are huge assets. The sabermetric case points to the combination of strikeouts and ground balls as a big positive.

Hey, you could do a lot worse than to grow up to be Jeff Suppan, you know? He's made over $32 million in his lackluster career, which also happens to include a World Series ring, thankyouverymuch. I know he's the prototypical LAIM, about as boring a pitcher as you can imagine, but the fact of the matter is that the man has been in the majors for 14 years, has flawless mechanics, and the lack of injuries to prove it. He's averaged 33 starts, 12 wins and a 4.49 ERA for the past decade. Most prospects don't grow up to be as good as Jeff Suppan, so don't knock him.

The analogy with Suppan isn't perfect. For one thing, Cahill is a little behind Suppan's pace - by this age, Suppan was already getting his feet wet in AAA - and he walks a few more batters, but he also allows fewer hits, fewer homers, and gets more strikeouts, which are all indicators of long-term success.

The fact that his nasty (if not super-fast) sinking fastball generates so many groundballs also bodes well for him, but he needs to work on his control and his secondary and tertiary pitches to keep major league hitters honest. He'll probably be 23 or 24 before he has a regular job in the majors.

#12 Pedro Alvarez 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
9/24: Date he signed with the Pirates—more than a month after the Aug. 15 deadline—after the union's grievance on his behalf.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2009

Alvarez, you may recall, was embroiled in a controversy over his signing with the Pirates last summer and fall, but there's no controversy over his talent. He hit .349/.455/.658 in two and a half seasons at Vanderbilt, helping to lead them to an SEC championship. A broken hamate bone delayed the start of his third season in 2008, but he healed well enough to post great numbers again and the Bucs took him with the #2 overall pick last year.

He'll probably start 2009 around A or high-A ball, as he missed any chance at a pro debut with the holdout squabble last year, but he could move up through the ranks quickly with his complete hitter's package of patience, power and hitting for average. Baseball America's ETA of 2009 seems a little overly optimistic to me, given that he's never played pro ball at any level just yet. Heck, Mark Teixeira had even better numbers coming out of Georgia Tech in 2001, and he didn't make his MLB debut until 2003.

#13 Mike Moustakas 3B, Kansas City Royals
1992: The last time a teenager led the Midwest League in homers, before he did it with 22 in 2008.
Opening Day Age: 20

ETA: 2010

Wow, 1992, eh? Anyone want to hazard a guess who that was? What future superstar led the 1992 Midwest league in home runs? What wunderkind posted such numbers, a harbinger of eventual major league greatness? Was it Jim Thome? Manny Ramirez? Chipper Jones? Nope, not even close! It was the one, the only, the Immortal...

Steve Gibralter.

Yes, that's right, the same Steve Gibralter who got exactly five at-bats at the major leagues, and almost got a hit in more than one of them. Almost. Gibralter did lead the Midwest League with 19 homers at age 19, but then hit .237 at AA. He improved at AA the next year and hit well enough at AAA in 1995 that he was eventually ranked as the Reds' #2 prospect (behind Pokey Reese, if you can believe that) in 1996.

But over the long haul, his inability to hit for anything other than power - and modest power, at that - kept him mired in the minors and led him inextricably to a life as a real estate agent. He was out of baseball by age 28.

Since 1992, Midwest League Home Run title has gone to such non-legendary players as:

Joe Biasucci, Matt Raleigh, Jesse Ibarra, Larry Barnes, Joe Frietas, Bucky Jacobsen, Aaron McNeal, Austin Kearns, Samone Peters, Jason Stokes, Jason Drobiak, Brian Dopirak, Ryan Harvey, Jordan Renz, Juan Francisco, and Moustakas.

Among them, only Kearns has had a MLB career of any length, and even that career is generally seen as a disappointment compared to his potential. To find a Midwest League HR champ who had a good MLB career, you have to go back more than 20 years, to 1987: Greg Vaughn at age 20. But Vaughn hit .305/.425/.593 with 33 homers and 102 walks, not .272 with 22 bombs and 43 walks.

Talk to me when Moustakas posts a .500 slugging percentage. Or .470, even. His reputation rests mostly on his impressive work in high school, where he set a California prep school record with 24 homers, while hitting .577 his senior year. The operative phrase in that sentence was "high school". His pro performance doesn't come close to that. That doesn't make him a non-prospect, just not one I would rate the 13th best in the country.

#14 Buster Posey C, San Francisco Giants
.879: Division I-best slugging percentage for Florida State last spring, when he won BA's College Player of the Year award.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2010

Posey always hit for average in college (Florida State), but suddenly last season he started hitting for power, too, with a .463/.566/.879 line that looks more like stats compiled in a video game than in the competitive ACC. He's only been a catcher for two years, so you can forgive him if he's not the most polished receiver, but even if he proves unable to make it to the majors as a backstop, a bat like that should carry him at almost any position.

He has only a handful of pro at-bats, hitting for average and with patience in Rookie Ball, Class A Short Season and then in the Hawaiian Winter League. His power has so far not been seen, as he has only one homer, nine doubles and a triple in 111 at-bats among those three, low levels, but that may come back. He did lead his HWB team with a .338 batting average, but the power deficit may be due to adjusting to wooden bats, an issue with many college players. Whether the power ever comes back or not, he's still a great prospect, though not one you should expect to see with a regular MLB job for another couple of years.

#15 Dexter Fowler OF, Colorado Rockies
14: Round in which he was drafted; he signed for $925,000, turning down a Miami scholarship.

Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2009

Fowler's lanky frame (6'5", 189 lbs) doesn't generate much power yet, but he hit .335 in the Texas league last year, and his career OBP in the minors is almost 100 points higher than his .299 batting average, a sign of good patience. He's got some speed, as he's stolen 100 bases in 334 minor league games, but his instincts may not be that great, as he's also been caught 48 times.

He'll likely start the season at AAA Colorado Springs, where his numbers will get some help from the thin mountain air (even more than they got from the Texas League) and he may even hit some homers. If Carlos Gonzalez continues to disappoint and Scott Podsednik continues to be, well, Scott Podsednik, Fowler could be playing regularly in Denver by June. Whether he deserves it or not.

#16 Mike Stanton OF, Florida Marlins
.988: OPS away from Greensboro's cozy NewBridge Bank Park; it was .996 at home.
Opening Day Age: 19
ETA: 2010

Unlike his long-lived but largely un-exciting namesake pitcher, the hitter Mike Stanton is extreme in almost every respect. He's extremely young, having just turned 19 in November. He's extremely tall, 6'5" to be precise, with 210 lbs of muscle on his frame. He swings extremely hard, it seems, as evidenced by his 153 whiffs in 125 games, and also his having led the Sally League in homers (39), slugging (.611) and total bases (286). He also got hit by 11 pitches, not far off the league lead of 17, which suggests that he positions himself extremely close to the plate.

But lest you think he's just a hacker, he also walked 58 times in 468 at-bats for a respectable .389 OBP, very impressive for an 18-year old in his first long look in pro ball. His defense seems a little sketchy at first glance (five errors and only six assists in 107 games last season at Greensboro), but he'll probably be fine in left or right field.

The Marlins may skip High A ball and move him all the way up to AA to start the 2009 season, though it may be worth it to send him to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (High A ball) first, to see how he does. The main thing will be trying to keep the strikeouts in check. Right now his stats look an awful lot like those of Russell Branyan at this age, so if he can't tone down the extreme nature of his game just a bit, he'll never last in the big leagues.

#17 Lars Anderson 1B, Boston Red Sox
.404: Career OBP in 252 career minor league games. Opening Day Age: 22 ETA: 2009

Does anybody else think of Metallica every time they hear the name "Lars"? Maybe that's just me...

As though the Red Sox needed another one of these, Anderson is a DH waiting to happen. He's already a firstbaseman, at the bottom of the defensive spectrum, and he isn't much to look at there, but with a bat like his, that might not matter.

An extremely patient hitter, Lars has walked more than once every six at-bats throughout his two years and three different teams. He doesn't show any real power yet, as most of the handful of homers he has hit are due to the hitter's parks he frequented in Lancaster (CA) and Portland (Maine). Kevin Youkilis got the same criticisms at this stage in his career, and he turned out OK.

The Sawx could bump Anderson up to AAA - he's certainly ready - but they had a lot of 1B/DH types there last year, and the majors are obviously blocked by Big Papi and Youk, so they may give him a little more time in AA just to keep him playing every day. In any case, whether it's with Boston or not, you should see him in the majors by the end of the year, with a regular job perhaps by 2011.

#18 Logan Morrison 1B, Florida Marlins 29: RBIs in 25 games he played in the AFL while hitting .404. Opening Day Age: 21 ETA: 2010

Amazingly, that .404 mark was only 3rd best in the AFL, behind Eric Young Jr (.430) and Jason Donald (.407). Hits are cheap in the AFL, as I mentioned in the Tommy Hanson comments, but he also hit .332 in the Florida State League, which tends to favor pitchers. Morrison never hit for much average before 2008, so I'll be interested to see whether he can keep it up (literally) with a promotion to Double-A. his decent walk rate and declining strikeout rate suggest that he can.

In the Southern League, Morrison will be a boy among men, most of whom are 24 or 25, many older than that. Many organizations' top prospects are at this level, as are a lot of major league pitchers on rehab assignments. This is a big jump for a 21 year old to make, and will be a good test of his status as a top prospect.

#19 Alcides Escobar SS, Milwaukee Brewers
5.44: His range factor last season—best among shortstops in BA's Prospect Handbook, and another way to say he's an elite defender.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

The only prospect in the top 20 based predominantly on his defense, Escobar's place on this list may not last long. He led the Southern League in At-Bats and Hits, and missed the batting title by 0.001 to Huntsville teammate 3B Mat Gamel.

He's shown improvement upon a second tour at a level twice in the last two years now, hitting .257 in High A ball in 2006, then .325 in part of 2007. His promotion to AA Huntsville in 2007 saw him hit only a modest .283, but his 2008 encore brought a .328 average. That may mean it will take two seasons for him to master AAA, and then two more for the majors, or it may mean nothing. He hit only .224 in the Venezeulan Winter Leagues, so his ability to keep hitting for a decent average is hardly a foregone conclusion.

Escobar has some speed, having stolen 20-30 bases several times, with decent-but-not-spectacular success rates. He swiped 34-of-42 this year at AA, which is quite good. On the other hand, you can't steal first base, and Escobar only walks about once every five games, so unless he hits well over .300, he's basically an out machine. He has absolutely no power either, with only 15 homers in over 2,100 minor league at-bats, and his rail thin frame (6'1", 155 lbs) isn't likely to develop it any time soon.

In short, Escobar could grow up to be a Gold Glove caliber shortstop who hits .300ish and steals bases with aplomb - Omar Vizquel without the walks, if you will. More likely he'll hit just enough to keep himself in the #7 or #8 hole in the lineup, or end up as a late inning pinch-runner/defensive sub. In any case, I have a hard time believing that there are only 18 prospects in the game better than him.

#20 Gordon Beckham SS, Chicago White Sox
28: Home runs he hit for Georgia last season, tied for the NCAA Division I lead.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

A young shortstop prospect with three years of college experience in which he showed improvements each year, Beckham was the 8th overall pick in last year's draft. The ChiSox put him at Single A Kannapolis, and he adjusted well enough to wooden bats, hitting .310/.365/.500 in about three weeks' worth of games. If the power spike and the patience (54 walks, 30 strikeouts) he showed in his last year at the University of Georgia are real, he could be a very good player, especially if he can stay at short.

The Sox don't have another shortstop prospect around that level, so they could either put him back in A ball or bump him to High A to start the 2009 season, but how the gurus at Baseball America imagine he'll make it to the Show by the end of 2009 is beyond me. For one thing, Alexei Ramirez is eminently capable of holding the short-fort in Chicago for the time being.

For another, Beckham has exactly 14 games of professional experience, all in single A, so there are three levels between him and the majors. Mastering High-A, AA and AAA in a single season is all but unheard of, so you South Side fans shouldn't get you hopes up until at least June of next year.

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