01 June 2010

Omar Vizquel and the Hall of Fame, Revisited

I originally opined on the subject of Omar Vizquel and the Hall of Fame about two years ago, and I notice that I have gotten a lot of traffic and comments on that post lately, so I thought I would update it a bit. But feel free to go and read the original post and especially the comments, as some people made some good points with which I was forced to grapple.

Two years ago, Henry Shulman of the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that some writers might be thinking of voting Omar Vizquel into the Hall of Fame, once he's eligible. Shulman said that he conducted "a small straw poll of hall voters" which probably means he asked two guys while they were sitting in the press box together, covering a game. More recently, due to the fact that Vizquel has surpassed 2,700 career hits and continues to add to his record for career games as a shortstop, the subject of whether Omar = Hall of Famer has come up again. Let's examine the case, sort of a sports interaction review, one merit at a time:

1) Lots of Hits

Of course, 2,700 career hits on its own is not such a big deal. Harold Baines has about 150 more hits than Vizquel and the BBWAA writers have shown no particular inclination to enshrine him. Derek Jeter currently has 99 more hits than Omar, and continues to widen that gap, but obviously has a lot more going for him than a lot of singles (and a lot more outs). Roberto Alomar has more, too, and will probably be elected to the hall of Fame this or next year, as will Barry Larkin. The presence of two contemporary middle infielders who combined defensive acumen with offensive prowess will only make it harder for the light-hitting Vizquel to get in.

Andre Dawson just recently got into Cooperstown, but he's got over 400 homers and an MVP award to his credit as well, plus a cool nickname. Vada Pinson and Al Oliver and Bill Buckner and a bunch of other guys all have 2,700 or more hits and have no hope of ever being elected. They all had their merits, but none was considered a sufficiently great player to get real consideration for the Hall.

2) Lots of Games

Being the career leader in games played as a shortstop is a meritorious achievement too, but again, not enough. The other defensive positional leaders (Pudge Rodriguez, Eddie Murray, Eddie Collins, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente) were all great players in other ways than simply their ability to repeatedly answer the bell.

To look at this another way, if the #2 or #3 player at each of these positions had in fact made it to #1, would that make him a Hall of Famer? Carlton Fisk, Joe Morgan, Jake Beckley, Luis Aparicio, Rickey Henderson, Hank Aaron and Tony Gwynn are already in, and Fred McGriff and Roberto Alomar are on the edge, likely to get in eventually.

But the #2 center fielder - another position that requires some defensive prowess - is Steve Finley, and #3 is Willie Davis. The #3 catcher, just one behind Fisk, is Bob Boone, a man known primarily for his defense. Greg Nettles (whom Bill James calls the "Incredible Leaping Octopus") and Gary Gaietti are the next two third basemen, and Luis Gonzales is the next left fielder. Do you really think that any of these guys would be a solid candidate for Cooperstown if they'd played a few more games or if the leader had played fewer?

Neither do I.

3) Lots of Gold Gloves

Another argument in his favor is his cache of 11 Gold Gloves. the number of course is not enough. Keith Hernandez also has 11. Andruw Jones has 10. Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Don Mattingly, Frank White and George Scott all have at least eight, and none has ever gotten serious consideration for Cooperstown. A great defensive reputation simply is not enough. Rob Neyer argued that the fact that the man was never considered a great player, not just defender, should mean that the writers wouldn't even consider voting for him.

Look, Gold Gloves are more of a popularity contest than anything else. Derek Jeter, who truly is a great player, has four of them, even though he only recently turned himself into an adequate defensive shortstop. Steve Garvey's got four of them, despite the fact that the man never threw the ball to second base. Jason Varitek has one, for crying out loud. At best, perhaps they reflect a player's ability to repeatedly look impressive or acrobatic while making the same plays that look routine when accomplished by better prepared defenders. Adam Everett, let's say.

There's little question that Vizquel has been a very good defender over the course of his career, but much of his defensive reputation rests on his appearance rather than on his results. In 2006, for example, he won a Gold Glove largely on the merits of his league-leading .993 fielding percentage, but the more advanced metrics - Total Zone Runs, Fielding Bible +/-, UZR, FRAA,- all seem to suggest that he was somewhere between the 5th and 10th best defensive shortstop in MLB that year. Granted, there have been years (2007, for one) where he actually was the best, and didn't get the Gold Glove, but the former occurrence is much more common.

The Case Against: Career Value

The truth is that, despite his longevity, Vizquel has never been a great player, and the baseball writers, the ones who vote for the Hall of Fame, know it. He only received any votes for the MVP once, finishing a distant 16th in 1999. He was worth about six Wins Above Replacement that year, a true all star caliber performance, and the only time in his 22-season career that he crested the 4.0 WAR plateau. MVPs are typically about 8 WAR or more in that year and Hall of Famer shortstops, though there is a significant range, average about 64 WAR for their careers, as you will see.

This lack of MVP appreciation has occurred despite the fact that Vizquel frequently anchored the infield defenses of playoff teams with the Tribe in the late nineties and early aughts. For getting into the playoffs, especially playing in a world series, odds should increase of getting MVP votes, but alas, not so much. Also, he's not much of a singer.

Comparison to the Elite:

There are the 23 players whom the Hall considers shortstops, and the following list shows their Baseball Prospectus career WARP3 totals, which is Wins Above Replacement Position, encompassing offense, defense and even pitching, adjusted for all time. Additionally, I have included his WAR, Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Sean Smith of baseballprojection.com.

This means, by definition, that these numbers allow us to compare players across different eras.

Shortstop          WARP3     WAR
Luis Aparicio 47.4 49.8
Luke Appling 70.7 68.9
Dave Bancroft 38.2 46.3
Ernie Banks 62.9 64.3
Lou Boudreau 73.6 55.9
Joe Cronin 69.0 62.6
George Davis 76.5 90.8
Travis Jackson 43.7 43.4
Hughie Jennings 56.8 47.9
Pop Lloyd ??? ????
Rabbit Maranville 39.9 38.0
Pee Wee Reese 63.1 66.4
Cal Ripken 102.4 89.8
Phil Rizzuto 47.5 41.6
Joe Sewell 51.5 48.1
Ozzie Smith 92.0 64.7
Joe Tinker 51.4 49.0
Aarky Vaughan 85.2 75.6
Honus Wagner 140.6 134.7
Bobby Wallace 60.5 60.4
Monte Ward* 58.9 64.5
Willie Wells ??? ????
Robin Yount 66.8 76.8
Average 66.6 63.8

Omar Vizquel currently sports a total of 41.0 WARP and his WAR is 42.8.

Since the first time I looked at these numbers, Baseball Prospectus has significantly changed its WARP3 formula. The average last time was about 111, almost double what we have now, though the scale is roughly the same.

Also, since I've added WAR to the evaluation, we can see that the two do not always agree. On average, WARP3 and WAR agree to within less than 3, but there are a few significant differences. These generally seem to be in the upper echelon of players though - Ripken, Wagner,
Smith, Vaughan, Boudreau and Davis - so it's really only a question of how MUCH better than everyone else those guys really are.

It should be noted that some of these guys spent significant amounts of their careers at other positions, and it's therefore perhaps not fair to compare Vizquel to them directly. Ernie Banks actually played more games at first base than he did at short. Yount played almost half his career as an outfielder. Vizquel deserves credit for staying at shortstop, something few 40-year olds ever do, much less do well.

Boudreau and Cronin were, in addition to being very good players, managers for a long time, with some degree of success, and their selections to the Hall may have benefited from this legacy. In truth, though, both had top-10 MVP finishes half a dozen times or so, and probably didn't need any help from their managerial credentials.

Wells and Lloyd were both presumably very good players in the Negro Leagues, but we don't really have any credible numbers for them. Monte Ward was also a pitcher, amassing about 1/3 of his WAR value as such, and was a pioneer in the early days of major league baseball, so he gets some extra credit too. Joe Tinker was elected by a suddenly generous Veterans Committee in 1946, right after a World War, when they were feeling especially nostalgic, apparently. But even if you throw all of those guys out, the average for the remaining players stays almost exactly the same, 67.7 WARP3, hardly any difference at all. So don't worry about that.

With the current formula for either of these statistics, Vizquel is near the bottom of the list, in the neighborhood of a couple of questionable Hall of Fame choices in Travis Jackson and Dave Bancroft, as well as Rabbit Maranville, who only squeaked into the Hall in his 15th year of eligibility - right after his death - after a big nostalgia vote jump.

In any case, Maranville's kind of a special case, something of a baseball whip, a defensive whiz at the toughest defensive position at a time when runs were scarce, so his value, or at least his perceived value, doesn't show up directly in the numbers as much as it does the MVP voting of the time.

But Omar is well below Rizutto, Pee Wee Reese, Aarky Vaughan, Lou Boudreau or Luke Appling, all five of whom lost time to the War and yet still come out ahead of Vizquel in WAR and WARP.

You can argue that he's no worse or less valuable than some of the gentlemen already in the Hall. It seems obvious that Omar has done more in his career than some of those guys, given his longevity, despite never being great in a single season. But it's also debatable whether guys like Travis Jackson belong in the Hall in the first place, so that's not a terribly convincing argument.

If you want to use the benchmark of where the average is, it would seem that Vizquel would significantly drag down the median level of MLB HoF shortstops. By contrast, Bill Dahlen (77.9 WARP3, 75.9 WAR) would considerably raise that bar, and I don't see anyone clamoring for his candidacy.

This type of argument is something of a slippery slope. It's not a bad starting point to only enshrine players would maintain or even raise the standard of the existing crop at a given position, but that's not enough, in my mind. We ought to want to make the Hall more exclusive, and therefore more impressive, not less.

Did He Do Enough?

Omar Vizquel was never a great hitter, and rarely even a good one. In 22 seasons in the major leagues, he has only twice had an adjusted OPS above the league average. One of those, 1999, when he had an OPS of 110, was essentially a fluke. He hit .354(!) when he put the ball in play that year, even though his career mark is .294 and the league average BAbip that year was .302, about what it usually is.

The other time was 2003. His OPS that year was just 104, but that's the only other time it's ever been above 100, and this one looks legit, as his .284 BAbip is actually a little lower than the league. So congrats, Omar, you earned your career-high 14 homers and 72 RBIs that year, even though the rest of your career marks are pretty pedestrian.

Speaking of walking (see what I did there?), Omar Never took free passes all that often, something that might have helped to bolster his general mediocrity with the bat. He did walk 87 times in Y2K, but only walked more than 60 times twice in his career besides that, and rarely posted an OBP much more than .350 or .360. And that was perhaps the best part of his offensive game.

He had only one season in which he hit double digit homers. At his peak, he cracked the 30-double mark four times in seven seasons, but never hit more than 36 in a season. he hit a few triples, as he was reasonably fleet of foot in his prime, but for all their excitement, they're of limited value. His supporters may point to the fact that he has stolen almost 400 bases in his career, and that at his best, he twice nabbed more than 40 in a season.

I would point out that he's also been caught 158 times, which ranks as the 21st most in history. For comparison, Juan Pierre has been caught stealing 159 times, but has about 90 more successes. Kenny Lofton was gunned down 160 times, but succeeded 622 times. In an era in which power is increasingly common place, the value of individual bases is severely diminished, while that of baserunners is increased, so Vizquel may have harmed his teams more with those 158 failed attempts than he helped them with the 389 successful ones.

Sure, we can put Omar Vizquel in. He's better than Dave Bancroft, and almost as good as Travis Jackson, right, even though he doesn't have as cool a first name? But then we've got to let Ron Santo in too, since he's better than George Kell, right? And what about Harold Baines, since he has the most games and hits and what-not as a Designated Hitter? Shouldn't he be considered Hall-worthy, given that he was apparently so good at what he did?

If you think instead about where the bar should be, instead of where it is, I think you have to leave Vizquel out of the Hall. Not everyone in the Hall has to be Honus Wagner or Cal Ripken, but "appreciably better than Gary Gaetti (38.4 WARP3)" doesn't seem like such an outlandish requirement to me.

We've had more than 125 years to see what great players look like, and to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I think we should know them when we see them.

Omar Vizquel is not one of them.

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18 May 2010

Another Long, Boring Yankees/Red Sox Game Finally Ends

Joe West would have been bored out of his mind last night.

Six weeks ago, after the Yankees began their title defense with a three-game opening series against the Boston Red Sox, major league umpire Joe West complained about the length of time the Yankees and Red Sox take to play each other. Among his criticisms, he said,

“They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace. They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest? It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play.’’
Well, last night's contest, at three hours and forty seven minutes, was no exception. West was not working this game - or any MLB game, for that matter - so perhaps he was watching it on ESPN in his hotel room or at home. Probably while telling his kids to hurry up and finish their math homework without worrying so much about whether they got any of the answers correct.

If so, he would have been none too pleased at how long Monday night's game took. The 20 runs scored, seven pitching changes, 26 hits (including seven home runs, with those excruciatingly slow home-run trots), the six walks (Walks?!? For Christ's sake, run!!!), and the 348 total pitches. Heck, 29 of those pitches were thrown by knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, whose pitches take almost 40% longer to reach the plate than an average major league fastball. The nerve!

I kid, of course. Unless you either hate or completely misunderstand baseball, you could hardly have asked for a more exciting game. Besides the general excitement created by any Yanks/Sawx contest, you had the added appeal of:

  • The Monday Night game on ESPN, with one-time Yankee and Red Sox heroes Aaron Boone and Nomar Garciaparra among the commentators
  • A new ballpark with 48,000 screaming fans, most of whom stayed for all four hours
  • The pitting of the Yankees' budding ace, Phil Hughes (5-0, AL-best 1.39 ERA entering the game) against the Red Sox expensive, imported reclamation project (Dice-K, coming off one of the best starts of his American league career).
  • The Yankees' efforts to catch red-hot Tampa for first place in the AL East
  • The Red Sox' effort to stay above .500
  • The Yankees depleted bench and bullpen, without Curtis Granderson or Nick Johnson, with Jorge Posada questionable, and either Joba or Mariano unavailable out of the bullpen, and Chan Ho Park having just come back from an injury.
So there was plenty of intrigue to go around. Early on, Matsuzaka was as terrible as ever, allowing five runs in the first inning, before he settled down. It also looked as though Hughes would continue to be the American League's best pitcher, as he took a 6-2 lead into the 5th inning, but a couple of long at-bats by Marco Scutaro and Dustin "Laser Show" Pedroia and a three run jack by JD Drew brought the game to within one run.

The Yankees got a so-called insurance run on a double by Marcus Thames, but an inning later, the struggling Victor Martinez homered to make it 7-6 Yankees. That lead only lasted until the top of the eighth, though, as Chan Ho Park, clearly not fully recovered from his ailment, allowed a single to Drew and then back-to-back homers by Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez, this time from the other side of the plate.

That made it 9-7 Boston, their first lead of the evening. Flame throwing Daniel Bard made quick work of the Yankees in the bottom of the eighth, but then Boston got two men on base with two out in the top of the ninth, whereupon Javier Vazquez was called upon to relieve. Vazquez, you may recall, last relieved for the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, whereupon he surrendered a grand slam to Johnny Damon that basically put the game 0 and the pennant - out of reach for New York.

But despite his early struggles, and unlike his track record late in 2004, Vazquez had been pitching better recently, including a seven-inning, two run performance against the Tigers last week. He struck out Youkilis on four pitches, setting the stage for the heart of the Yankees' order against the Red Sox closer, Jonathan Papelbon.

papelbon allowed a double to Brett Gardner, who apparently can occasionally acquire an extra base with his bat after all, and then got a fly out from Mark Teixeira, whereupon Gardner went to third. This move proved to be an unnecessary risk, as Alex Rodriguez hit the very next pitch 420 feet, over the center field wall, to tie the game at 9-9.

This event may have rattled Papelbon, who's no stranger to choking against the Yankees, as his second pitch to light-hitting catcher (with the new Gazoo helmet!) Francisco Cervelli hit him on the arm. And then Marcus Thames deposited the very next pitch 381 feet away, just over the left field wall, to end this tedious, boring game, 11-9, 227 minutes after it started.

What a drag.

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14 May 2010

Texas Rangers Showing Promise against the Oakland A's

I had the distinct privilege to see a Texas Rangers' game in person Wednesday night.

The AmeriQuest Rangers Field BallPark at Arlington, or whatever it's called these days, is really a heckuva nice place to watch a game. It opened in 1994, which means that this is its 17th year, and frankly, it still looks brand-spanking new. The Rangers and their fans have done a great job of keeping the place in pristine shape, and there's no reason to think that this Texas baseball cathedral should ever be as decrepit ans outdated as, say, Yankee Stadium used to be. On the other hand, I'd be willing to wager a BetUS bonus code that another 60 years might put a few cracks in the facade, both literally and figuratively.

I understand that there are all sorts of cool things to do in the ballpark, such as a huge baseball museum, a walk of fame, a picnic area and other stuff, but I missed all of that, since I got there right as the game was starting. I sat in the box seats between first base and the right field foul pole, and found that I had a pretty good view of just about everything, a comfortable seat, and a cool breeze for most of the game.

In the last three innings or so, the cool breeze gave way to some fairly impressive swirling winds, presumably caused in some part by the steady, straight winds coming directly into the ballpark from the outfield, keeping the pennants as straight and stiff as writing tablets for a solid hour. How tiny little Eric Patterson managed to hot a home run into that is beyond my understanding of the laws of physics.

Unfortunately for the Oaklands, that was their only run. The Rangers, though they took a few innings to find their stroke, managed 10 of them, including five homers of their own, mostly before the winds started. Josh Hamilton and Vlad Guerrero hit back to back homers off starting pitcher Gio Gonzales and (not much) relief pitcher Chad Gaudin.

Yes, that Chad Gaudin. Fortunately for Yankee fans, the Yankee brass were not fooled by Gaudin's two months of smoke-and-mirrors pitching in Pinstripes toward the end of last season, perhaps thanks to the info they found at Pinnacle Sportsbook Review, and they let him go as a free agent. For his part, though he had not been good this year, Gaudin was at least striking out about a batter per inning in 2010.

Entering a game with an ERA of 6.23 and making it worse is no easy feat, but don’t tell Chad that. No siree. After giving up that homer to Vlad, Gaudin allowed two more homers, also back to back, in the next inning, making this the first time in his major league career he’d ever surrendered three homers in a so-called “relief” appearance. One of those was to catcher Max Ramirez, only the second of his brief major league career, and the other was to Michael Young. No, the Yankees don’t miss this guy.

The Rangers, cheered on by 26,682 of their fans, managed to take over first place in their division by a game, this after a tough, extra-innings loss to the Oaklands the night before. The loudest and most obnoxious of these fans happened to be sitting about 15 feet in front of me, the realization of which initially annoyed me – how do I always manage to find these people? – but later gave me an appreciation for the fact that baseball games are meant to be enjoyed, and that this man was doing little more than enjoying himself. A lot.

Having seen more games in New York and Philadelphia than anywhere else, I’m no stranger to obnoxious fans. But this guy was not like those. Primarily, he was sober. He may have had a beer or two, but clearly was not drunk, as evidenced by the fact that every time, and seriously, I mean EVERY time the organist played something on the loudspeaker, this guy got up and danced to it, or ran in place, or mimicked playing the organ himself, or whatever.

I briefly even considered sitting next to him myself, if only to save me from the dead-fish middle aged woman on my right and the two hipsters on my left who were too cool or jaded or apathetic to bother talking to me.

After the third inning I went to get something to eat and decided to take full advantage of Wednesday Dollar Dog Night, buying three of the generic pink tubes of nondescript ground up what-not. And a beer. Some dark, local brew that was pretty solid.

The dogs, I’m convinced, must be brought in especially for dollar dog night, as I can’t imagine that a major league baseball team that once spent $55 million on Chan Ho Park would be able to sleep at night charging $3.50 for hot dogs that clearly where not worth the effort to remove small pieces of bone, or gristle, or, for all I know, polycarbonate from them before turning them into franks. Seriously, all three of them had something in them that I was forced to remove from my teeth and examine further, a texture consummate not with food but with perhaps sand or a rough polishing compound.

Upon my return I took a different seat and ended up near some friendlier fans, and closer to the loud one, who by then had recruited at least two other young men and a boy of about eight to remove their shirts and sing and chant and dance around the aisles with him. At least until the Fun Police showed up in the form of a Rangers security guard. At one point, during the 7th inning stretch, as two of them were square dancing in the aisle, he ordered them back to their seats, which was lamentably understandable, as concrete stairs are not exactly the safest environment to go running around in circles.

But later, when they were doing nothing more than cheering and chanting and yelling and pumping their fists, the same curmudgeonly member of the F.P. came back and ordered them to sit down and (I assume) stop having so much fun. This is a baseball game, dammit, not an Irish wake. Now sit down and think about what you’ve done, mister.

And then, to make sure they complied with the official F.P. Decree Against Having Fun at Baseball Games, he sat down right behind them. This was possible because, of course, there was nobody behind them. For, like, five or six rows. Which means that they were blocking the view of exactly nobody, were not drunk, were not throwing anything or hitting anybody or picking fights. At worst, they could be accused of yelling too loud. At a ballgame. Fanatics, indeed.

They did, at one point, encourage the crowd to boo a fan wearing an Oakland jersey, which isn't unusual. What was unusual was that the guy wore a garish yellow replica jersey that said "RUDI 26" on the back, which means that this particular fan was old-school and knew his stuff, and didn't particularly care that few people would remember or appreciate his favorite player. I imagine that someone showing up where the Red Sox are the visiting wearing a George Scott jersey might be similarly regarded, and similarly underappreciated.

But besides the cheap-ass hot dogs – which I can hardly complain about because, as everyone knows, you get what you pay for – and the F.P., there wasn’t much wrong with the Rangers or their ballpark on this night. Well, they for some reason forgot to set off the fireworks when Ramirez hit his homer, even though they did so for all of the other Rangers’ bombs, the fifth and last of which came smoking off the bat of rookie firstbaseman Justin Smoak.

A Wave got started late in the blowout game, and though I’ve been at dozens of games where this was attempted with some success, none of which ever made it around the ballpark more than three times, the origins of the movement had never previously occurred to me. There’s probably some Official Story as to when and where the Wave first started, and who thought of it, but whomever is responsible could thank one and one thing only: boredom.

There are few things less exciting than a game that’s way out of reach, even if yours is the team that’s winning. And of course there’s little to do, if you don’t want to leave early, other than start some kind of chant, except that only maybe a hundred people can hear even the loudest voice in the midst of a large ballpark, even a relatively quiet one. Even if you got a chant started, who would know? And how long would it last? Only til the next batter struck out or got on base or whatever. But the Wave? Sheer, simple genius.

All it takes is standing up and sitting down, throwing your arms up in the air in sequence with 27,000 others, and maybe a loud “Oh!” or “Hey!” when you do so. It could go on like that for an entire inning or more. And everybody can do it. Everybody knows exactly what to do and when, and there’s no worry that your initial chant of “Julio Borbon, Julio! [clap, clap-clap] will sound on TV like “Here we go, Morons, here we go!” [clap, clap-clap]. Or vice-versa.

Anyway, the Rangers.

Additionally, they managed to get prized pitching prospect Derek Holland a Win in his first major league appearance of his sophomore season. Holland had been pretty terrible in his rookie year, amassing an 8-13 record and a Gaudin-esque ERA of 6.12. But on this night, after having torn up the PCL for a month, Holland was very good, striking out seven and walking only one in six scoreless innings.

He was followed up by Darren O’Day, for whom both the obnoxious fans and, when he got out of the inning, the public address system, sang a chant of “O-DAY o-dayo-dayo-DAY, o-DAY, OH-oh DAY!!!” Doug Mathis pitched the last two innings for Texas, allowing the homer by Patterson, but little else, despite the fact that he only threw strikes about half the time.

Not that it should be so difficult to dominate a team like the Oakland A’s. Their cleanup hitter had a slugging percentage of about .350 coming into the game, and two thirds of the lineup was hitting about .250 or worse, generally without any power either. Heck, even their designated “hitter”, Josh Donaldson, was hitting .071 coming into the game, and his 0-for-4 dropped him down even further into the abyss.

I saw Donaldson a few years ago, when he was a hot hitting catching prospect in the Cubs' class A short season team in Boise. He was sent to the A's in the Rich Harden trade almost exactly a year after I saw him play. Back then I'd have put a few bucks down on him to pan out as a solid major leaguer, especially if I had a bookmaker bonus code. He's cooled down quite a bit since that hot season in the high Idaho desert, but still shows glimpses of the keen batting eye and doubles power he displayed last season in AA, such as last night, when he singled in the tying run in the 4th inning. Maybe he's better when he catches.

Catcher Landon Powell looked promising as he laced a ball into the left-centerfield gap and then dragged his lumbering, 6’1”, 260 lb frame around the infield, stretching a double into a double, as they say. He singled again later, less dramatically, but other than he and Daric Barton, nobody else on the team got on base more than once.

I expect the A's to more or less disappear from contention as the year wears on, that's my second half betting advice. Unless something truly special happens, like the King of Bradenia hurling another dozen or so perfectos, they just don’t have the bats to keep in the race. The Rangers may have both the bats and the pitching, if Holland is the real thing. But the Texas heat has caused many a Rangers team to fade over the course of the year, and this one is not above that fate.

At least the ballpark is still nice.

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27 April 2010

What's Wrong With Javy Vazquez?

There are probably fewer things more frustrating to a sports fan than watching an expensive, recently imported veteran player repeatedly fail in his efforts to help the team. The more prior success he's had, the more money he's making, the more you had to give up to get him...well, that all just makes it worse.

And then there's Javy Vazquez.

Vazquez had all of those things against him:

  • He was probably one of the five best pitchers in the Senior Circuit last year,
  • He's guaranteed $23 million combined this year and next, and
  • The Yankees traded their young centerfielder, inexplicable fan favorite Melky Cabrera, plus two pitching prospects and half a million dollars to get him.

In addition, Vazquez had the ghost of his former, unsuccessful stint in the Big Apple looming over his head. Despite high hopes for him last time he came to New York, and an impressive first half, Javy Vazquez left New York in ignominy having walked five batters and surrendered two home runs to some bearded, homeless hippie, making the Yankees the first team in over a hundred years of professional baseball playoffs to ever lose a series they had led three games to none.

Granted, Kevin Brown gave up five runs all by his lonesome, and the Yankees only scored three all day, so it's not like Vazquez really made things much worse, but his efforts out there put the game ostensibly out of reach, and that's what everyone remembers.

Still, in the intervening time, he's been nothing if not consistent. Heck, "consistency" is Vazquez' calling card. He's the only pitcher in baseball who's provided his teams with at least 32 starts, 190 innings and double digit wins every season since Y2K, the very definition of LAIM. Granted, his ERA has fluctuated by more than two whole runs from year to year, but the innings are there and he's occasionally been something close to brilliant.

This is, perhaps, what many Yankees fans thought they were getting when the Vazquez trade was completed this winter, but the Yankees had no right to expect that. They've now bought high twice on Javier Vazquez - he set personal career bests in ERA, adjusted ERA, and virtually every rate stat last year - but at least this time they didn't give up the kinds of prospects you usually have to surrender for an ace.

They only really need him to be a good #4 (or perhaps #3) starter, since the heavy lifting is supposed to be done by CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and perhaps Andy Pettitte or Phil Hughes, if he comes into his own. The trouble is that Vazquez has been, in three of his four starts, anyway, God-awful. In the other one he was just bad.

There is some hope in that Vazquez seemingly has hit into some poor luck so far this year. He is still striking batters out at just about his career rate, a little over eight batters per nine innings. Also, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, something over which pitchers have little if any control) is .345 this year, compared to a career average of .302 and a major league average that is perennially about the same as that. Both of these facts are encouraging, but that's about all the encouragement you can get out of his performance so far this year.

Still though, he's only had 58 at-bats where the ball has been put in play this year, so the difference between .345 and .302 is generously speaking, three hits. That, my friends, is not the difference between Vazquez's current 9.00 ERA and the expert projections, which generally put him in the range of about 3.50 to 3.75 or so.

What's more worrying is that much of the stuff he can control is also way off his career rates. He's allowed five homers in only 20 innings of work, after taking more than twice as long to allow his 5th homer last season. He's also walked a good number of batters - 11 of them in only 20 innings - so that both his homer and walk rates are more than double their 2009 levels.

He has faced pretty stiff competition - two games against the defending NL West champion LAnahfornia Angels, one against the first place Tampa Bay Rays and one against the upstart Oakland A's, also in first place right now. Still, though, part of a pitcher's job, especially on the Yankees, is to be able to beat teams they might face in the playoffs, and so far Javy has shown little ability to do that.

The change to the generally higher quality batters of the American League probably isn't helping either. KFFL.com reports that Vazquez' record against the NL since 2008 is 16-10 with a 3.28 ERA, but that against the Junior Circuit he's just 12-19, 4.71. Even that, however, is a far cry from how terrible he's been to this point in 2010.

The most troubling part is that there seems to be a real, tangible reason for the lack of success so far this year. According to FanGraphs, Vazquez' fastball is almost two and a half miles per hour slower this year than last, an average of 88.8 mph, compared to 91.1 last year, and 91.3 mph in his career.

He's only pitched 20 inning so far this year, but he's thrown just about 400 pitches, and about half of them have been fastballs, so we have a decent idea of what he can do. The percentages of each pitch thrown (slider, curve and changeup) are about the same as usual, so it doesn't seem like he's favoring one of his offspeed pitches to compensate for what he's lost on his fastball, just that his fastball isn't what it used to be.

I don't think it's simply that he's still building arm strength, as he had about 19 innings of official work in spring training, about the same as Sabathia, and Burnett both of whom are generally pitching well. And their fastballs are within 0.9 mph of last year's averages.

Joe Girardi says that Javy's issues are mechanical, that he "gets under the ball", whatever that means. You would imagine that a guy who has thrown nearly 35,000 pitches in major league games in the last decade, more than anybody this side of Livan Hernandez, would have a pretty good idea of his mechanics by now. But still, maybe there's something to that. Maybe there's a way to tell if Vazquez is messing up his delivery somehow.

If he were "getting under the ball" you would imagine it would show up somewhere. Or if "getting under the ball" were so terrible for a pitcher, you would imagine it would be tough to pitch a complete game against a major league team and allow them only one run on three hits, while striking out seven and walking one right? Yes, even the Nationals.

For what it's worth, the game charts for this past Sunday's lousy start against the Angels do not show any appreciable difference in release point when compared with a start from late last year, a one-run complete game against the Washington Nationals.

20 April 2010, Javy Vazquez vs. Angels

25 September 2009, Javy Vazquez vs. Nationals

One potential explanation to consider is that Vazquez is having trouble with his two-seam fastball. The main page of FanGraphs lumps his fastballs all together, but when you go to the Pitch f/x pages, they separate his regular four-seam from a supposed two-seam fastball, which he only started throwing last year (4.6% of the time). This year he's throwing it 10.8% of the time, more than twice as often as he did in 2009.

Here's where it gets really sketchy and speculative, because we don't know much about this alleged two-seam fastball, including whether it even exists (more on this later).

It's possible that...
  • ...having lost his feel for the pitch, he's trying to throw it more to regain that feel.
  • ...having lost confidence in his "stuff", he feels a need to throw the 2-seamer more often to keep batters honest.
  • ...he's experimenting with a new grip on the two-seamer and hasn't quite got it yet.
But it's just as possible that what Pitch f/x thinks is a two-seam fastball is just his normal fastball, with a couple of mph lost. The Pitch f/x technology can't always tell what the type of pitch is. It just makes an assessment of the pitch based on velocity and movement, but isn't always correct, as we found while trying to sort out Chien-Ming Wang's problems last year.

In any case, while I think four starts is a little too soon to start giving up on Vazquez - he has, after all, had similarly poor streaks in the past, but has always bounced back - the drop in velocity is somewhat troubling. Part of Joe Girardi's job is to keep the peace and to protect his players, so naturally, he's not going to lay into his pitcher whenever the beat writers are looking for an explanation. Naturally, he's going to say it's a mechanical glitch and that they're working on it and that he'll be fine.

But if there's something wrong, like really, physically wrong with Vazquez already, of if the mechanical glitch that's causing the drop in velocity is also causing stress on his arm that could lead to an injury, well, then we've got a real problem. My best guess is that within the next two or three starts, if we don't see some real improvement, Vazquez may end up on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

UPDATE: Curt Schilling (of course) has an opinion on the matter too. Silly me, it's not his fastball slowing down or a possible injury. It's Vazquez not being "equipped" to get outs in the American League. My bad.

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23 April 2010

An Open Letter to Oakland A's Pitcher Dallas Braden

Dear Mr. Braden,

Congratulations on beating the Yankees Thursday afternoon and ending their winning streak at six games.

Now shut up.

You sound like a fool.

When you yelled at Alex Rodriguez for taking a shortcut (not a "detour") across the diamond, back to first base after a long foul ball by Robinson Cano in the top of the 6th inning yesterday, well, you intimidated exactly nobody. Alex Rodriguez was already the best player in the major leagues when you were still growing hair in awkward places of your anatomy. He doesn't care what you think.

The Yankees don't care what you think. The fans don't really care what you think. Frankly, I doubt that your teammates are buying this crap about how you own the mound, but they're contractually obligated to back you up even if you start pontificating about how aliens from the planet Snorg are responsible for everything from the Kennedy assassination to the fact that the cost of postage stamps seems to rise every 20 minutes. (Whoops, there they go again! Damn Snorgians!)

Nobody has ever heard of this rule before except you. Well, not nobody, exactly, but nobody seems to take it quite as seriously as you do. I have seen lots of quotes from you about how A-Rod should go out to the bullpen if he wants to run across a pitcher's mound. You do understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? Rodriguez was trying to save time, as he doesn't want to piss off another umpiring crew. Well, maybe not.

You also argued that you, "don’t go over there and run laps at third base." You are an American League pitcher. You almost never have any reason to be at third base, so the point is moot. You also said,

"I don’t care if I’m Cy Young or the 25th man on the roster, if I’ve got the ball in my hand and I’m on that mound, that’s my mound."

Fair enough. The rules should be the same for everybody, but of course this rule is largely new to many of us. ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew, including Rick Sutcliffe, who spent 18 seasons in the major leagues and won a Cy Young award before you were potty trained, and has spent much of the last 15 years as either a major league coach or a TV commentator, had never heard of it. You'd think a guy like that would know, right?

Or maybe there's something about this issue in writing somewhere. I have a book, given to me for Christmas, called The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and its Ignore-At-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. It's not a very good book, honestly. Most of what I've read so far has been a lot of anecdotes about how hitters shouldn't show up pitchers and pitchers shouldn't show up hitters and you have to pitch inside but don't hit a batter in the head and expect to get hit if one of their guys got hit and blah, blah, blah. Seriously, it goes on and on like that for almost 300 pages.

But nowhere in those pages does it say a single word about how nobody is allowed on the pitcher's mound during an inning or during a game. Other than, you know, the dozens of people from both teams who come out there during mound conferences and pitching changes, plus the umpires and the grounds crew and what not. But definitely NOT Alex Rodriguez, under any circumstances.

When asked where you picked up this particular tidbit of baseball etiquette, you mentioned American Legion Ball, and that your coach told you that, as the pitcher, you are (I am not making this up) "the center of the universe" when you're out there on the mound. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? Everybody knows that Rickey Henderson is the center of the universe. Duh.

Seriously, though, we all know you need to be a little arrogant to make it in your business. Nice Guys Finish Last and all that. But even if you actually think you're the center of the universe, you don't say so out loud. You sound like an idiot.

My two year old son is just now learning that he's not the center of the universe, and it's a painful lesson at times. You should have figured it out a long time ago, and that silly tantrum you threw on the way back to the dugout just reinforced the fact that you need to grow up. If your mommy was watching, she would have given you a timeout, mister.

The only argument I've heard that actually makes much sense of this bizarre incident was Rob Neyer's as he rightly pointed out that when you were cursing at Rodriguez on national television, the mound was, in fact, NOT yours. Not any longer. The inning was over, and the mound therefore belonged to CC Sabathia. Apparently, CC Sabathia is the center of the universe, and given the gravitational pull a guy that size must have, that's not so hard to believe.

But you, with your 17 career wins, are most certainly not it.

Mostly, I get that you think your team deserves a little more respect. You guys did, in fact, finish last (nice guys or not) in 2009, so if saying stuff like this helps get your teammates fired up, then so be it:
“Maybe it doesn’t come across his mind to do that to the Oakland A’s, but maybe it does enter his mind to not do it against the Boston Red Sox, or to not do it against another team. So what I did was, I aided him with that. I don’t throw 95, so the point might not get across from me, but any kind of disrespect like that…it’s got to be handled."

But you know what really works? You know what will really inspire your teammates?


Build on that 3-0 record you've compiled so far this year. Help the Oaklands to a division title and, oh, I dunno, maybe a playoff series victory for once. That, and only that, will get you and your teammates the respect that your fragile little ego apparently needs.

In the mean time: Shut up and pitch.

Yours truly,

Travis M. Nelson,
The Boy of Summer

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19 April 2010

Yankees Winning a Team Effort

Well, it's fun being a Yankee fan these days.

The Yankees are currently 9-3, sitting atop the American League East division (albeit tied with the Tampa Bay Rays), with a nice five-game lead over the despised Red Sox and their small fiefdom. Their 69 runs scored and +25 run differential are both best in the AL, though not the best in baseball. Over in the Senior Circuit, the Phillies have scored a whopping 78 runs and both they and the Giants (??!?!) have a slightly better differential than the Yanks, though both are "only" 8-4.

The Yankees have not had a start this good since 2003, when they went 18-3 in the first three weeks of the season and finished the year with 103 wins and an American League pennant. Given that six of the team's next nine games come against the last-place Baltimore Orioles (2-11) and the other three are at home against the last place White Sox (4-9), achieving that 18-3 mark doesn't seem so far out of reach. Not that your April record wins you anything, unless your MLB betting regimen goes month-to-month.

The Yanks aren't exactly hitting on all cylinders, but those who are hitting are doing so well enough to more than make up for those who are struggling. Mark Teixeira, for example, is a notoriously slow starter, and is hitting only .114 at the moment. Indeed, his career .239 batting average in April is about 40 points lower than in any other month. however, he did hit his first homer of the season yesterday, so perhaps that's a harbinger of better days.

Nick Johnson has struggled, too the tune of a .158 batting average, though his league-leading 14 walks give him a more than respectable .404 OBP. But Jeter and Posada are both hitting about .380 and have three homers to their credit. Robinson Cano leads the team with four bombs and his hitting .340 in his own right. He had a hit in every game before Saturday's contest against the Rangers. New CF Curtis Granderson is hitting .311 with a couple of homers and four steals in four tries, and Alex Rodriguez had a .938 OPS, thanks largely to his team leading five doubles.

Nick Swisher's hitting only .200 at the moment, though he generally...well, Swisher doesn't generally do anything, except hit 20+ homers. In the five more or less full years he's been in the majors, he's only had one season in which his final OPS differed by less than 90 points from the previous seasons. Sure, he'll probably end up around .250 with 25 homers and an OPS around .825 or so, but he could just as easily hit .220 as .260, for all we know.

The real oddity is Brett Gardner. I had my doubts about him last year, and frankly the odds were and still are against him becoming a good everyday player, but he's certainly done his job so far this year. He's played in 10 of the team's 12 games, hitting .333, scoring nine runs and stealing seven bases.

His current "pace" would have him scoring 144 runs and stealing 112 bases despite never hitting the ball hard enough to get an extra base under his own power. Since the record for runs scored without an extra base hit is just 29 - and that was only accomplished by a former sprinter who was recruited as a designated base stealer by wacko A's owner Charlie Finley in the 1970's - well, I wouldn't bet on anything like that happening. More likely, Gardner will finish with something like a .280 batting average and 80 runs scored, with 40 or 50 steals at a high success rate. If he continues to slap singles, take walks and steal bases, he'll certainly earn his pay.

One of the biggest surprises so far this year has been the resurgence of Andy Pettitte. At 38 years old, you could hardly have expected him to improve on the level he's set for himself the last three years. That's about 15 Wins and an ERA slightly over 4.00, which is solid, if not Hall of fame material. But he's got a 1.35 ERA in a team leading 20 innings, having just quieted the Rangers' formidable bats for eight innings on Sunday. He's due to regress, of course, but if he can somehow win another 15 games this year, he would move into the top 50 in career wins. While the chance to tie Amos Rusie and Iron Man Joe McGinnity may not sell a lot of baseball tickets, it sure would like nice on his resume, don't you think?

Not that CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have been slouching, mind you. Both are 2-0, like Pettitte, and both have an ERA comfortably under 3.00, though not as low as Andy's. Phil Hughes was far from sharp in his only start, walking five batters in as many innings, but at least he managed a Win.

Javy Vazquez has been awful in his two starts, surrendering 12 earned runs (14 total) in eleven innings. Granted, it a little early to start booing him, but at some point the guy who finished 4th in the 2009 NL Cy Young voting had better start pitching like the 15-game winner the Yankees thought they were getting when they dumped off traded Melky Cabrera to the Braves.

The bullpen has had its ups and downs, but the like the starting lineup, the good parts (Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Damaso Marte) have more than compensated for the bad (David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves). Sergio Mitre has defied all the odds simply by getting through about two innings of work without allowing a run. Don't bet on that to continue.

Chan Ho Park has had his ups and downs, including a well-documented case of the runs, which he had and then allowed to the Red Sox on Opening Day. He deserves credit for taking the blame himself and not putting Joe Girardi in an awkward position (why would he use a pitcher who was weak and dehydrated from the flu? On opening day? Against the Red Sox?) but of course good character doesn't get that home run ball back.

In any case, though there a few guys over-performing, there are also several who have yet to hit their stride, and there's little reason to think that the Yankees can't continue to wreak havoc on the American League.

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30 March 2010

Press Release: Meet the SWB Yankees!!


The Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees just released about 50 tickets for the Meet the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees Dinner on April 7 at PNC Field in Scranton.

There will be a private batting practice session at 3:45 followed by cocktails and light fare in the stadium restaurant. This will be followed by an autograph session with the 2010 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. They have added a silent auction this year with some game worn jerseys, fan experiences and NYY signed baseballs.

Tickets are $75 with proceeds benefiting the Kids Night Out Program that provides game tickets to needy children and groups. For tickets, call the SWB Yankees office at 570-969-2255 and ask for Kelly Byron.

Last year’s dinner was attended by Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson and Austin Jackson. It’s a great opportunity to meet the future stars of the Yankees and MLB.

Official Link here.


With that said, it's worth noting that there really are not a lot of "future stars of the Yankees and MLB" on this team, not that we can see at this point. Juan Miranda is probably the best bet, of all the baseball betting you could do, and he projects as a platoon DH, which isn't much. I mean, sure, he could turn into the next Travis Hafner, but that's a wager than no online sportsbook would give you.

The only SWB players on Baseball America's Top 10 prospects list fort the Yankees is RHP Zach McAllister, who hasn't yet thrown a pitch above AA, but could eventually turn into a solid back of the rotation starter. Mark Melancon makes the top-11 list for Baseball Prospectus, and projects as a set up man, at best. In short: No stars. All the Yankees' best prospects are in the low minors right now, or in a couple of cases, Double-A.

Still, you could potentially meet coaches (and former MLB journeymen Butch Wynegar, Scott Aldred or Aaron Ledesma, as well as manager Dave Miley, who never made it to the Show as a player, but managed the Cincinnati Reds for almost 300 games. You could meet Kei Igawa, who actually WAS a star in Japan, even though he's ind of lousy on this side of the Pacific.

And if nothing else, you can have a fun day/evening at the ballpark, and contribute to a good cause. Which is worth something.

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11 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #16 - #20

#16. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2011

It's tempting to compare Castro to Alcides Escobar, given that they're both Latin American, NL Central shortstop prospects, tall with wiry frames (6'1", 160 lbs) and known for their defense. Escobar is already 23, though, and has a starting job on a major league contender, whereas Castro won't be 20 years old for two more weeks, and will be given more time to develop as his major league team rebuilds.

The difference, however, is that while Escobar is expected to be a speedy, punch-and-judy hitter who wins Gold Gloves, Castro for some reason is expected to turn into Alfonso Soriano. As he has hit about .300 everywhere he's played professionally, and they're listed as the same size, I guess I can see that, but Soriano hit for power in the minors.

Castro seemingly has no power at all, having never hit more than three homers in any season in the minors, and none at all in over 110 AA at-bats last season. He hit one in the AFL, to go with his .376 batting average, but as you're probably tired of hearing by now, everyone hits in the AFL, so take that with a grain of salt.

I suppose it's possible, since he's so young, that he'll eventually develop some power, but more likely he'll become a hack and slash, or at best a line drive hitter who swings at everything and makes up for some of that with his speed and his glove. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but when you're expecting Soriano and you end up with Royce Clayton, people are bound to be disappointed.

He does have some speed (47 stolen bases in his 3-year career) but perhaps not great instincts, given that he's gotten caught as often as once in two or three tries as some stops in the minors. If the speed is there, it will at least help him with his defense, even if it's not an asset on the major league basepaths.

Personally, I think it's a little early to dub this guy on of the best prospects in the game, as so far he's only shown glimpses of the player the scouts expect him to become. So much can happen between age 19 and reaching the majors, and so much that's expected can fail to happen, that anyone without shock the world talent at this age should be grasped loosely.

#17 Martin Perez, LHP, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 19

ETA: Mid-2011

Perez has a low-90's fastball an above average change-up and perhaps a major league quality curveball despite the fact that he won't be 19 years old for almost another month. After embarrassing players in the high-A Sally League for most of the year (105 strikeouts in 93 innings, 2.31 ERA), Perez got roughed up a little in AA. But don't let that "1-3, 5.57" next to his name on the stats sites fool you.

First of all, it was only 21 innings. Secondly, it was more due to bad luck (a .374 BABIP) than bad pitching. According to FanGraphs, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that takes luck and defense out of the equation and scales it to look like an ERA) at Double-A was only 3.82. That's still well above the 2.46 he'd posted in Single-A, but also perfectly acceptable for an 18-year old at the second highest rung of the minors.

The Rangers will perhaps let him spend all of 2010 at that level to allow him to learn how to pitch a little more, but he could be in the majors by the middle of next year if everything goes well. At which time he'll still be just barely 20 years old.

Other than his youth, there's not much going against Perez. He's got good control (fewer than 3.5 walks per nine innings in the minors), good mechanics and two quality breaking pitches to go with a solid fastball. Baseball Prospectus called him "the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball", and no, they did not forget about Madison Bumgarner and Brian Matusz.

The Rangers are the only team with three players in the top 20 this year. Though they haven't sniffed the playoffs in over a decade, that could change soon.

#18 Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: Mid-2010

Hellickson's got unbelievable command and control, walking barely two hitters per nine innings in the minors while striking out almost ten. His fastball is only 90-92 at best, but he's got such command of it, and its movement, that it may not matter. He's also got a very good curve and a major league quality changeup that produce a lot of swings and misses.

There are two things he does not have, however:

1) Anything left to prove in the minors, or

B) Anywhere to pitch in the majors.

Which is a problem.

Given that the Rays already have a young, talented starting rotation, they have little choice but to start Hellickson out in AAA again, which is not completely awful given that he is just 22 and that he's pitched only nine games at that level. Command guys who don't have overpowering stuff tend to take a while to develop as major leaguers anyway.

#19 Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2011

This first round draft pick out of high school impressed everyone by hitting .318/.409/.491 as an 18-year old in the 2008 rookie league, and he acquitted himself well in single-A in 2009, even though he only hit .251 there. Like Perez, he was victimized more by bad luck (only a .307 BABIP) more than poor performance, and his numbers should bounce back this year. He's a switch hitter with patience, speed and a cannon arm that threw mid-90's gas as a prep school pitcher, but with some work to do before he can get to the majors.

He's projected as a five tool player, though after getting caught eight times in 18 tries last season at Single-A, it appears that he needs to learn how to better utilize his natural speed if he's going to be a base stealing threat. Watching his swing, he reminds me of another switch hitting centerfielder, Carlos Beltran, though to be fair, it's pretty much a textbook swing.

#20 Logan Morrison, 1B, Marlins
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2010

Though not the blue chip prospect he was after hitting .332 in 2008 in a pitcher's league, Morrison is still hanging on to his spot in the top 20. And this despite suffering through a wrist injury that limited him to only 82 games and eight homers in 2009. His pedestrian .277 batting average belies his skills at getting on base, which are more clearly evidenced by his .411 OBP. He hit 24 homers at A-ball in 2007, but hasn't shown that kind of power since, even though his body and his swing suggest that he should be a slugger.

Perhaps the wrist injury forced him to be more patient or perhaps he's just maturing as a hitter, but 21-year olds who walk more than they strike out are few and far between. Still, Morrison has shown the ability to hit for average, power or on-base percentage at different stops throughout his minor league career, but never more than one of those skills at a time. If he's healthy this year - and that's a big "if" since he's only 1-for-14 in spring training as I write this - he'll need to put together at least two of those three to stay at the top of prospect lists.

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10 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #11 - #15

#11. Dustin Ackley, OF/1B/2B, Mariners
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2011

After hitting over .400 in each of his three years at UNC, Ackley got a six million dollar signing bonus as the #2 pick in last year's draft. And don't think the batting average is the only thing he's got going for him. He also got on base almost 50% of the time, slugged almost .650, walked almost twice as often as he struck out and stole 43 bases at a 75% success rate.

Due to arm problems, including a Tommy John surgery, he only played first base in college. Normally, a bat like his could play anywhere he wanted, but the Mariners are apparently moving him to second base, and it seems to be going well. At 6'1", 185 lbs, Ackley's not the lumbering physical specimen that you would expect from a slugging firstbaseman with numbers like his, and the Mariners seem to think he had the physical agility to play the keystone in the majors. Or more likely, they don't think he'll develop the kind of power expected of a first baseman or left fielder.

He played second base in the Arizona Fall League and apparently did well enough, in addition to hitting .315/.414/.425 in 20 games. Everyone hits in the AFL, so take that with a grain of salt, but at least the switch to wooden bats didn't cripple him. Note that his power output was considerably less, though that was what I said about Buster Posey after last year's AFL and he turned out OK.

Ackley projects more of a Derek Jeter type, perhaps with less propensity to strike out, with only modest power but with speed, average and patience to more than compensate. I'm always leery of dubbing someone one of the best prospects in baseball before he's faced any real competition, but if Ackley starts out at High-A ball and progresses as they expect, he could be in the majors by the middle or end of next year.

#12. Alcides Escobar, SS, Brewers
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

One of several players to repeat on this year's top 20 (along with Heyward, Posey, Bumgarner, Feliz, Alvarez and Stanton), Alcides is again the only one of the score predominantly here for his glove and not his bat. Escobar's defense is very, very good, with incredible range and instincts and a great arm, but he's also got speed to burn and a decent line-drive type of swing. He doesn't have much patience or any power and at 6'1", 155 lbs isn't likely to develop the latter - but then neither did Ozzie Smith, and he had an OK career.

The future is now for Escobar, who will be the Brewers' everyday shortstop after they traded JJ hardy away in the off season. Because both his range and his speed on the bases depend so much on his speed, he'll be more susceptible than most to any sort of leg injury, but if he develops as expected, he's a perennial Gold Glove middle infielder who can hit for a respectable average and steal 30+ bases.

#13. Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

This is the body you expect to see with Dustin Ackley's numbers, except that Smoak has the numbers too, or at least he did in AA. After mashing the ball for three years in the SEC, Texas made him the #11 overall pick in the 2008 draft, and he's moved up quickly through the ranks. Though he hasn't shown much of the power he had in college, he has shown some, and his body (6'4", 220) and approach suggest that the homers will come.

He stalled a bit in the second half of last season, after his promotion to AAA, though how much of that was difficulty adjusting to the highest level of the minors (well, short of the National League, anyway) and how much had to do with an oblique strain is anybody's guess. Given that he hit nine homers in nine World Cup games in the fall, he's probably not favoring that oblique anymore, I would say.

#14. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2010

After posting a 15-3 record with a 1.46 ERA in Single A as an 18 year old, there was really nowhere for Bumgarner to go but down, statistically speaking. he did, but not very far. He posted a combined record of 12-2 at High-A and AA with an ERA comfortably under 2.00, but his strikeout rate dropped dramatically, from about 10.4 per nine innings last year to about six per nine this year in AA, before fanning ten batters in ten frames at the major league level.

Most sources seem to agree that the drop in strikeout rate coincided with a drop in velocity, continual over the year, which could be a harbinger of problems. Indeed, I said in my prospects article last year that his mechanics, particularly the long, sweeping arm action, concerned me, and perhaps this is a sign of a shoulder injury beginning to rear its ugly head. Or, it might just be because he threw too often and too vigorously between starts, as he and the Giants seem to think. That, of course, begs the questions of

1) Why it wasn't an issue in 2008, if he had the same training regimen, or

B) Why he bothered to change his regimen in 2009, if everything was going so well in 2008.

So far this spring, his velocity is still down a bit, so we have to wait and see. With his control and his long, left handed delivery, he can still be a good starter in the majors, but to be great he's going to need those extra few mph on the heater.

#15. Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2011

Phillies fans, this is the reason that Cliff Lee is no longer on your team.

Well, that's not precisely true, but essentially GM Ruben Amaro figured that Brown was not enough of a prospect to tide the farm system over without getting a little help. So after practically emptying the cupboards to get Roy Halladay, he sent Lee to Seattle for more prospects, including another toolsy outfielder, Tyson Gillies.

Brown's big frame had some projecting him for eventual 30-homer major league power, but he's shown little evidence of that in the minors so far. He did hit 11 homers in 238 at bats at High-A last year, but then smacked only three in almost 150 at bats at AA. He's got great speed, but it comes from his long stride rather than quick movement, so he gets caught stealing a little more than you would like. Overall he's been caught about 28% of the time, though in some stints it's been as much as 35%, which hurts the team. Not as much as thinking, but still.

His body type and statistical profile remind me a lot of Bernie Williams for some reason, though I think he's probably got less patience and a better arm. Bernie took a while to develop, and wasn't really an impact player until age 26 or so, and I see a similar path for Brown. He's still working on the patience and power, but all the tools are there for success. Given the Phillies' crowded major league outfield, he should have time to master both AA and AAA before he gets much exposure in the Show. Best case scenarios have him in the majors in the middle of next year, though I would guess a September 2011 call up is more likely.

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04 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #6 - #10

#6. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

This is why the Rays are in no hurry to shell out tens of millions of dollars to Carl Crawford. After hitting well enough (.316/.395/.486) in AA to win Southern League MVP, Jennings went to AAA for a month or so and hit even better (.325/.419/.491). He's got tremendous speed (52 for 59 in steals and 10 triples in 2010) and that helps make him a potentially elite defensive center fielder as well. He also has the plate discipline, at 23, that Crawford is just starting to develop at age 27.

He hasn't shown a lot of power yet, but his 6'2" frame could probably carry more muscle than the 180 lbs he currently sports. Even if he never bulks up much, a lead off hitter who can smack a dozen homers and steal 40 or 50 bases while getting on base 40% of the time and playing excellent defense in center is a huge asset for any team.

Not that he's going to produce like that right out of the gate, but it shouldn't be but a year or two before Jennings is one of the best young players in the game. Technically, Jennings is "blocked" by Matt Joyce at the moment, but on a scale of one to ten, Joyce is not that good. Jennings should be in the majors by mid summer.

#7. Buster Posey, C, Giants
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

In my column on last year's top prospects, I had two, tentative criticisms of Posey, both of which he answered with aplomb in 2010. One was that his having recently been converted to catcher made him something less than a stellar backstop, but then he went out and caught 45% of would-be base stealers at two levels in 2010, so I can't say that anymore.

The other was that his power, displayed only in his last year at Florida State, had not yet emerged as a pro. Well, after hitting 18 homers and 31 doubles between High-A and AAA, with a slugging percentage well over .500, I can't say that anymore either.

While Posey's seemingly got little to prove in the Minors, the Giants are not known for their bravado in promoting prospects, especially when they've got a comfortable - if not especially good - major league option. Having re-signed Bengie Molina for the year, Posey will likely get some more seasoning in AAA, but assuming that he continues to hit the cover off the ball, he should be up in the majors for good by the end of May.

Long term, he's likely to soon become the best catcher in the game, but in the short time he'll just be jockeying for playing time. If the Giants fall out of contention, he'll probably get more playing time in the majors, so they can help him develop, bu tif they can somehow stay within earshot of a playoff berth, look for them to give Molina the bulk of the playing time while Posey wiles away on the bench or in AAA.

Ironic, isn't it? The more they need him, the less playing time their best catching option will get.

#8. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

You've got to give Alvarez (and agent Scott Boras) credit: They may have made a big stink about his signing last year, but it was with good reason. When he finally got to play, Alvarez struggled a bit in High-A ball, hitting only .247 although still with impressive power, making some wonder if the Pirates had made a mistake.

Nevertheless, upon his promotion to AA, Alvarez raked at a .333/.419/.590 clip, having one of the best second halves in all of professional baseball. He's expected to start the year in AAA, and given that Andy LaRoche is the only thing between him and a major league job, we should see him in the majors by June or July. He's too big and too slow to be a third baseman for long, but then the Pirates aren't exactly stocked with great hitting first basemen either, so he should get his chances to play once he's there.

#9. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2010

Another questionable inclusion on a prospect list, after having spent two months on the Rangers' roster and pitching 31 stellar innings, but at least he's not within 5 innings of the "rookie" limit. Feliz has a 100 mph fastball that moves and a solid slurve, plus a change up that is still developing. His trouble as a reliever has always been walks (with a rate of almost 4 per nine innings in the minors) but in the majors last year he pitched only in relief, where he could rely mostly on the fastball, and it worked.

The Rangers, understandably, want him to start, but right now their projected starting five has an average age of about 25, with Rich Harden as the most seasoned veteran, at 28, so there's no hurry. In any case, he'll have a hard time succeeding if he can't get the walks down. One saving grace - and it's something he'll need, pitching half his games in Arlington - is that his stuff is so filthy it's almost impossible to hit it solid, which is why he's allowed only seven homers in 276 minor league innings.

Make no mistake: Despite all the hype about the three-digit fastball, Feliz is still a work in progress. But that work can be done at the major league level.

#10. Carlos Santana, C, Indians
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

Santana spent all of 2009 at AA Akron, where he hit for decent average (.290) in addition to remarkable power (55 extra base bits) and patience (90 walks). He's not a great defensive catcher, having caught only 30% of base stealers at AA, but unlike Montero, he is serviceable. He hits with power to all fields, swings at few bad pitches (as evidenced by his having struck out only 83 times in 535 at-bats) and generally makes life difficult for pitcher wherever he goes.

He's behind Lou Marson and grizzled veteran Mike Redmond on the Tribe's depth chart, but if Pronk or Russel Branyan get hurt, they could conceivably call Santana up to DH or play first base. With the Tribe trying to rebuild, there's really no hurry, and Santana hasn't even been to AAA yet.

His bat is good enough that he could be an adequate MLB first baseman right now, or at least that's what Bill James' projection says. CHONE is a lot more conservative, while PECOTA's more modest, but closer to James. the one real issue is playing time. Unless something really bizarre happens, Santana isn't likely to see much MLB action before he gets a chance to master AAA, which means late 2010 at the earliest.

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Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #1 - #5

A year ago I looked at the top 20 prospects from Baseball America's annual Top-100 list, so I figured that now would be a good time, with Spring Training beginning, to do a similar thing.

I'll break it up into four posts this time. here are prospects #1 through #5:

#1. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2010

Nobody doesn't like Jason Heyward. He's the #1 position player prospect on everybody's list, and with good reason, as there seem to be no weaknesses to his game. Scouts like his tools and his athleticism. Stats geeks like his ability to take walks, hit for power without striking out a ton, and steal bases without getting caught. braves fans like him because, frankly, their outfield has been kind of a drag since Andruw Jones was in his heyday. Everybody else's fans may not like him, but have to concede his talents.

He's hit for average and for power, with patience, at every professional level where he's been tried, with a composite .318/.391/.508 line across five levels (mostly single and double A). He doesn't steal a ton of bases, but when he attempts one, he's usually successful (26 for 31).

He's played mostly right field in the minors, where his cannon arm has racked up 22 assists in only 190 games, but he's reportedly got the speed to play center if needed, too. If there's a chink in his armor - and really, it's just a scratch, at worst - it's simply his youth and inexperience, as he has only 3 official games above AA, though he also hit .300/.364/.475 in 24 spring training games last year, for what they're worth.

Expectations are that the Braves will give him every shot to win a job as their everyday right fielder right out of spring training, but even if they send him back to AAA for a while, he'll probably be back up to stay by the end of May. This guys gonna be a lot of fun to watch. I'm glad he's not in the Yankees' division.

#2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: Mid-2010

Speaking of fun-to-watch-prospects-not-in-the-AL East...

Strasburg is quite possibly the most hyped prospect in a very, very long time, perhaps ever. In baseball circles, he's already a household name in spite of the fact that he has yet to throw an inning of pro ball. Well, he tossed 19 innings in the AFL, amassing 23 strikeouts and a 4-1 record despite a 4.26 ERA, inflated by one bad outing (of five). That's not exactly top notch competition, but the AFL is known for the high level of offense, and Strasburg generally acquitted himself well there.

The man has a perfect pitcher's build (6'4", 220 lbs), good mechanics, a 100-mph fastball that he throws regularly with pinpoint control at 95-98 mph, a knee buckling curve and an above average change-up, despite being only 21. He has no chinks in his armor. The only things than can stop him now are some form of Steve Blass Disease, or an injury. And those are no small things, as there have been countless "can't miss" prospects who somehow did, simply because they couldn't stay healthy or forgot how to pitch.

#3. Mike Stanton, OF, Marlins
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2010

I remain unconvinced on Mike Stanton as an uber-prospect. After mashing up the Sally League as an 18 year old in 2008, he was promoted to High A Jupiter in the Florida State League, and maintained most of his rate stats in 50 games there. In fact he was named an FSL All-Star and was leasing the League in homers when he got promoted to AA Jacksonville.

Here is where he kind of fell apart.

Sure, the power is still there - his .224 Isolated Power was exactly the same number David Ortiz had last year in the majors - but he hit only .231 and struck out in a third of his at-bats. he did hit well in the Arizona Fall League, but in only six games before being shut down with a sore back.

He's still only 20, but he'll have to learn to hit the kind of breaking stuff they throw in AA and AAA before he can even get to the majors, much less be an effective major leaguer. I expect that the Marlins will start him in AA again and advance him quickly if he seems to have made the necessary adjustments.

I still think his closest comparison is Russel Branyan, and you could certainly do worse, but when everyone expects Reggie Jackson or Dave Winfield and they get stuck with Branyan, well, folks will be disappointed.

I think Baseball America's ETA of mid-2010 is a bit ambitious, given that he needs to master not one but two minor league levels before he would get called up, and that the Marlins have a perfectly acceptable (and relatively young) outfield trio of Cody Ross, Chris Coughlin and Cameron Maybin. September is more likely, if that.

#4. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2011

Montero, like Stanton, was born in November of 1989, though a few weeks later than Stanton. And like Stanton he was tearing up the FSL last year, though he got promoted to AA too soon to take his rightful place on the All-Star team. Unlike Stanton, however, he did not falter at the higher level, hitting a robust .317/.370/.539 in 44 games in the Eastern League, a total decreased by the broken finger he sustained in . Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus reports that Montero hit an astounding .400/.457/.718 away from Trenton, which is evidently a severe pitcher's park. So, you know, that's pretty good.

Unfortunately, Montero's too big and clumsy to be a catcher in the majors. The Yankees are doing what they can to help him improve, but the word is out that he can't catch base stealers, who attempted 108 steals against him in only 59 games in 2009, and were rewarded with an 80% success rate.

He's a first baseman or DH waiting to happen, and as good as he is, the Yankees have no place to put him either now or in the forseeable future. That means he's trade bait if the Yankees decide they need a starting pitcher or if the Gardner/Winn platoon in left field falters. Whoever gets him, and wherever he plays, he's going to mash.

#5. Brian Matusz, LHP, Orioles
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

This is a little sketchy, including Matusz on the list of prospects for 2010, given that he pitched 44.2 innings and won five games for the Orioles in 2009, but whatever. Matusz skipped AAA entirely, and won't likely go back down to the minors unless he shows some problems in the majors this year. His repertoire is a low-90's fastball, slider, curve and change, which sounds kind of pedestrian until you consider that all four of them are above average pitches, and that he's only 23 and has fewer than 50 innings of seasoning above AA.

His minor league numbers, limited though they are, portend a mid-rotation starter with impressive control (he struck out 121 and walked only 32 in 113 innings in A and AA ball). His build (6'5", 200 lbs) suggests that he can handle the workload, and his mechanics are solid. He's left handed too, so he'll get lots of chances even if he falters a little.

Prospects #6 through #10 will follow tomorrow...

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