07 March 2011

Sifting Through Some of the Yankee Prospect Hype

I saw an interview of the Yankees player development director, Mark Newman, by noted baseball prospect expert John Sickels, and was more than a little surprised at some of the spin Newman puts on various players in the organization. Maybe surprised isn't the right word.  This is Spring, after all, when everyone is in the best shape of his life and Jeff Francoeur looks like he's turned a corner and the goat-footed balloon man goes whistling far and wee and all of that, so I guess a little unbridled optimism isn't so inappropriate.  It's not like I expect the head of the Yankees whole minor league operation to bad mouth his charges either, but I guess I expected a little more realism. 

While I agree with Rob Neyer that this is an "absolute-must-read-for-Yankee-fans", I also think that Newman lays it on a little thick at times, and that someone has to sift through some of what he says with the use of a healthy dose of cynicism and maybe - just maybe - a few facts.

I won't cover the whole interview transcript, which is comfortably over 2,000 words long, but I'll hit some of the high points and clue you in on a few things newman didn't tell you. None of this means that I think Sickels did a poor job with the interview. On the contrary, he got a lot of good information out of a very highly-placed source, all on the record, but he couldn't possibly have parried with Newman every time he thrust Melky Mesa or Eduardo Nunez out there, so I will. 

SICKELS: [...] What do you see as the strengths of the system. And what are your weaknesses, areas you want to improve?

NEWMAN: [...] I also like our group of center fielders. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Melky Mesa all have the tools to play center and we think they all have a good chance to hit. Angelo Gums may end up there too. So, I would say pitching, catching, and center field are our strengths.

BoS: Newman starts by talking about all the potential high end rotation arms in the system, which Rob Neyer has already debunked, so I won't rehash that.  He then mentions the catching, and there's little argument there, and what arguments there are (about Jesus Montero's defense, for example) get addressed later on.  But he throws three names out there for this so-called bumper crop of CF candidates, and I'm not buying it.  

Slade Heathcott: A 2009 first round pick, he was supposed to be a power hitter but slugged only two homers in 350+ plate appearances last year at Charleston in the Single-A South Atlantic League. He also struck out in about a third of his at bats, got caught stealing in 40% of his attempts, made 7 errors in 75 games in CF and hit only .258.  He was, to be fair, one of the half dozen or so youngest regular position players in the Sally League, and maybe just not crashing and burning at that age is an accomplishment in itself, but really, if that performance doesn't constitute a crash and burn, what does?  Newman addresses the strikeouts and the lack of power later in the interview, blaming the jump from high school to A-ball.  Maybe this year was more about honing tools than putting up gaudy stats, but in either case, Heathcott has yet to prove himself as a pro, in my mind. 

Mason Williams: Also drafted out of high school, also very young, also unimpressive, albeit in only a handful of opportunities (4-for-18 with no extra base hits, steals, runs or RBIs).  The jury is clearly still out on him, and I can't see how an 18 year old with 5 career games on his resume allows you to call his position a "strength" for your organization.  

Newman says later in the interview that Williams is fast and has a strong arm,that he threw hard as a pitcher in high school, and so he projects as a CF.  That's probably as much because he's not going to hit like a corner outfielder as it is because of his speed and his arm.  Also, after Googling him for research for this article, I've got "Classical Gas" stuck in my head.  Thanks. 

Melky Mesa: This is the worst offense in the list.  Mesa was signed out of the Dominican Republic, debuted with the Yankees' GCL team in 2006 at the age of 19...but is now 23 and hasn't yet gotten past A-ball.  He was among the Florida State League leaders in homers, steals, runs scored and triples, but he hit only .260 with modest patience and whiffed 129 times in 122 games. For his 4-year minor league career, he's hit .236/.307/.431 - think "last year's Jose Guillen, but with speed...and only in Single A". Maybe his improvement to .260/.338/.475 in 2010 means he's making strides, but even so, it seems to me that the strides he's making are more in the direction of "Speedy 5th outfielder" than "Future Star".  

SICKELS: What about your weaknesses?

NEWMAN: Corner players with power. We have (Brandon) Laird who is a solid prospect, but we are thin for corner bats otherwise in the system. [...]

BoS: Well, at least he admits that much.  But even Laird has more than a few chinks in his armor.  He won the Eastern league MVP award last year, hitting .291/23/90 for AA Trenton, but his presence in that semi-illustrious club doesn't guarantee much.  For every Jeff Bagwell, Ryan Howard or Vladimir Guerrero, it seems there are two or three Adam Hyzdus  or Calvin Pickerings.  Heck, the last Yankee farmhand to win Eastern League MVP was Russ Davis in 1992, also a defense-challenged thirdbaseman, whose ceiling turned out to be "useful for a couple of years."   

More common on the list are good, but not great players who have a decent career in the majors but never achieve stardom - Kevin Millar, Matt Stairs, Cliff Floyd, Marlon Byrd, etc.  Laird was horribly overmatched during his month in AAA last year, with a .246 average, 27 strikeouts and only four walks in 31 games, and I think the organization is going to make him a left fielder, because he seems unable to handle third base.  He's sometimes hit better when not playing third base, so maybe that will be what he needs. But if not, we may be looking at a ceiling of Wes Helms or Russ Davis.  Ick. 


BoS: After that, there's a back-and-forth about Jesus Montero, whether he can really catch, etc.  Everyone agrees that he can hit, but he's big, with clunky mechanics behind the plate and little success in preventing steals.  His 23% rate catching base thieves, on the face of it, doesn't seem much worse than the 2010 International League average of 27%, but only one catcher with at least 60 games had a lower CS% and nobody came close to his league leading 15 passed balls.  It's possible that he'll figure something out, but guys who are already 6'4", 225 at the age of 20 tend only to get bigger, and there's hardly ever been a regular catcher that big who's remained a regular catcher for long.  

Anyway, back to the dialogue:

SICKELS: Austin Romine, your other strong catching prospect behind Montero. Good arm, good defensive reports, but he threw out just 23% of runners last year.

NEWMAN: I don't worry about his glove, Romine can really catch. He turns bullets into marshmallows. His arm is strong and accurate. By the internal defensive metrics we use, Romine rates as a very strong defender, and Montero isn't far behind him.

BoS: We're obviously not privy to those internal metrics, and CS% isn't everything, despite what I wrote about Montero, so I'll buy this one, for now.  Romine's OPS has dropped each of the last two years as he's jumped levels, but not precipitously so.  Mostly I included this part because I loved that line about turning bullets into marshmallows.  

SICKELS: The other top catching prospect is Gary Sanchez. Where does he start the year? How does his glove compare to Montero's at the same stage?

NEWMAN: He should go to Charleston and will probably be there all year. The hardest thing for him will be adjusting to the workload and length of the season. He is way ahead of Montero at the same stage defensively. He's very bright, works hard, needs experience but already calls the game well. He's a very sharp kid. The bat is terrific and he is much more mature and professional about hitting than most players his age. He is way ahead of the curve mentally, outthinking the pitchers.

BoS: Sanchez is another young Dominican free agent, having only turned 18 in December last year, who somehow managed to hit .353 in half a season in the Gulf Coast League.  Not wanting to get too excited about half a season's worth of at-bats, ('member when we did that with Jeremy Reed?) you have to admit at least that the bat looks promising.  When promoted to Low-A Staten Island, he wasn't nearly as good but at least he didn't flop.  

But his defense?  Well, if you thought Montero's 15 passed balls in 105 games were bad, wait til you see Sanchez: 16 Passed Balls.  In 30 games.  Thirty.  And he threw out only 19% of base stealers in the GCL.  Yeesh.  Maybe's he's out-thinking the pitchers a little too much, eh?  Maybe he should just try catching what they call for a while?  

For the record, we don't have SB/CS data for Montero's 2007 season in the GCL, when he was 17, but he allowed only four passed balls in 23 games.  Not great, but better than every other game by a long stretch.  We'll see if Sanchez can figure things out well enough to stick there.  

SICKELS: David Adams, where does he stand? Is he healthy?

NEWMAN: He's dealing with a bout of plantar faciitis right now but should be fine. He's a solid hitter when he's healthy. I think his glove is underrated. His range is OK, but he is just amazing at turning the double play. If I had to give him a 20/80 number on turning the double play, I'd give him an 80.

BoS: Adams hits for decent average (admittedly bolstered by a .367 BABiP at Trenton last year) and is patient, but shows only doubles power at best and has no speed.  That makes him project as a slap-hitting second baseman with soft hands but limited range, the upside of which is Placido Polanco or Miguel Cairo but the more likely result of which is Jody Reed or Mark Lemke, i.e. decent, but not enough of an offensive threat in the majors to keep pitchers honest, especially given that his ball in play aren't going to find holes so easily in the majors. That thing about "If they had a metric for this, I bet he'd be awesome" is exactly the kind of things that team executives say when a prospect doesn't have a lot of obvious, measurable skills, like "moxy" or "mound presence".  Baseball Prospectus rates him as just an average defensive second baseman. 

NEWMAN: One infielder that people need to watch closely is Eduardo Nunez.

SICKELS: What do you think about him?

NEWMAN: He's always had the tools. He can run and throw, very legit defender at shortstop, has some surprising pop in his bat, efficient at stealing bases. He is still working on his plate discipline, work in progress. He could start at shortstop for a lot of clubs. He was really great back in rookie ball five years ago, then kind of stalled out when he lost confidence. But he's had his confidence back the last two seasons and has played much better. We really like him.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus' metrics call Nunez' defense below average but their commentary on him indicates that he's actually pretty good.  He has hit for decent averages the last two years, but as Newman admits, he doesn't like to walk.  And I have no idea what Newman means by "surprising pop in his bat".  The dude hit four homers in over 500 trips to the plate in 2010, has never had more than nine in a season, and has a career slugging percentage of .369.  

Therefore, any offensive value he provides is going to have to come from the batting average, which is a fickle mistress.  He does have good speed and base stealing instincts, with 113 steals and only 39 times caught in his minor league career, including 42 out of 54 the last two seasons, so that will help him eek out a few infield hits that someone like, say, David Adams will never get.  And he doesn't strike out too much, so I guess that helps a little, but he seems like he'd be maxed out as a major league regular.  BP projects him for .268 with 7 homers and 15 steals in 2011, if he played every day, which he won't.  For reference, that's about what Orlando Cabrera did last year.  

SICKELS: Is Cito Culver sticking at shortstop?

NEWMAN: Absolutely. Range, hands, arm strength, all above average for shortstop. His feet work well. He has a great sense of timing.

SICKELS: The bat?

NEWMAN: I think he'll be fine. He might not hit for a ton of power, but he should hit for average, hit a few homers. He'll be a legitimate hitter.

BoS: Culver was the Yankees' first round draft pick this past year.  He played about half a season for GCL Yankees, but also got a handful of games at Low-A Staten Island.  He was only 17 last year, and not impressive statistically (.251/.325/.330), but the jury's still out.  He's young enough to develop into something but so far away at this point that it's not really worth debating what that might be.  But let's do it anyway, shall we?  

For the record, the Yankees have taken five different shortstops with their first round picks - all from high school - since the amateur draft began in 1969.  Culver was actually drafted as a pitcher, but we'll include him for comparison.  The others were:   

  • Carl "C.J." Henry in 2005, who was turned into an outfielder, went to the Phillies in the Bobby Abreu trade in 2006, hit .222 in parts of four seasons and washed out of pro ball by 2008.  
  • Bronson Sardinha in 2001, who's played short, third and outfield in the minors and is still playing at age 27, albeit not with the Yankees.  He got only a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2007 but hasn't been back because he's hit only .270 with occasional power and not much else in the bushes.  
  • Dennis Sherrill in 1974, who remained a shortstop but turned out not to be a very good one.  He hit .292 with 14 homers at AA as a 22 year old, but never hit better than .237 in a season at any level otherwise, got only five total at-bats in the majors, and was out of baseball by age 25.  
  • Rex Hudler in 1978, a career backup infielder who found a niche as a useful bench guy for about a decade and a half in the majors. 
  • Oh...and a someday-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer named "Derek".  You might have seen him around.   
The difference between Jeter and those other guys is mostly how high they were drafted.  Sherrill was 12th, Henry 17th, Hudler was 18th, Sardinha was 34th and our man Culver was 32nd.  Jeter was 6th, and if any of the five teams in front of the Yankees in 1992 thought even for a second that Jeter would eschew the quarterback's job at the University of Michigan to come and play for them, they would have picked him instead.  

So the Yankees pretty much lucked out that year in that they had a high draft pick and there was a player who wanted nothing more in life that to be a Yankee from practically the day he was born, and was talented enough to pull it off.  Obviously the exception and not the rule.  I'll be very surprised if, 20 years form now, we look back on Cito Culver's career and find that it compares favorably to Rex Hudler's.  

Now on to the pitchers...

NEWMAN: [Dellin Betances is] Definitely a starter. Three-pitch guy, plus curveball, plus changeup, hit 96-97 in first game. There are some concerns about his durability until he proves otherwise, but we think he'll be fine. He has a great work ethic, I love the physique, his mechanics are consistent. His walk rates have gotten better. With the injury behind him we think he'll be durable now. He will start off in Double-A.

BoS: Betances is listed as 6'8", 245 lbs, which explains why he has struggled with mechanics.  That's a lot of body to get coordinated all at once.  He's 22 years old and has only three games above Single A ball in his career, so it's a little too early to get excited about him, but the fact that he managed to shave about three walks per nine innings off his previous rates without losing his strikeouts or giving up considerably more hits speaks volumes about his potential.  If he continues to pitch like he did last year, he won't be in Trenton for long. 


SICKELS: Manny Banuelos opened lots of eyes in the Arizona Fall League. I saw him down there and he's just incredibly smooth.

NEWMAN: Yeah, he is a smaller guy but wow, great stuff. It is hard to fathom how a guy his size, throwing that easy with the ball coming out of his hand the way it does, can throw so hard. He was at 93-95 yesterday. I have no worries about his arm. His delivery and athleticism scream durability. He's going to Double-A with Betances.

BoS: Banuelos has averaged a shade over nine strikeouts and a shade under three walks per nine innings in his three-year minor league career, which, like Betances, includes exactly three games above single-A.  But Banuelos won't even turn 20 for about another week, so while it's not like he's expected to help the big league club this year, he could be there as soon as 2012. 

SICKELS: Hector Noesi. His key seems to be control. Possible fourth starter?

NEWMAN: Yeah, some of our people see him as a number three, some think he is more of a four/five guy. His key is the fastball/changeup combination, and he has amazing control. He's shown he can spin a breaking ball but needs to tighten it. Nardi Contreras is our pitching coordinator, and he's terrific at helping guys with their breaking balls. He's working with Hector.

BoS: Amazing control is right.  He's walked only 1.6 per nine and allowed 0.7 homers per nine in 353 minor league innings, spanning four seasons. His strikeout rates aren't quite as high as those other two, but they're plenty high.  He had his first exposure to AAA ball last season - three games, just like the other two, must be a Yankee developmental thing - so clearly he still needs to prove himself, but Baseball prospectus' PECOTA system thinks he could be a league average starter right now - projecting him for a 4.75 ERA in 68 innings.  He's 24 already, so his time is now, but with just an average velocity fastball, he can't slip much without kissing his chances at a major league career goodbye. 

SICKELS: Andrew Brackman, starter or reliever?

NEWMAN: Starter. His changeup has come miles and miles in the last year. He emphasized working on the changeup this winter and it looks so much better this spring. I know some people were frustrated with him until last year, but he is a unique guy. He was a college basketball player. He is 6-11. And he had the elbow injury. We told people to be patient because any one of those factors by themselves were enough to slow his progress, but he had all three. He had the trifecta of extenuating circumstances.

But once he got healthy, look at the progress. He went from 6.5 walks-per-nine to 1.9 walks-per-nine in A-ball last year. I've never seen a starting pitcher make that kind of leap in such a short amount of time. The stuff has always been there. He's an extraordinary athlete, fields his position, runs springs [sic...I think he meant sprints] in the outfield like he's 6-2. He's going to start the year in Triple-A.

BoS: Brackman is a weird case, as Newman details, but his ability to cut his walk rate by more than half without losing but a sliver off his K-rate is really impressive.  He had half a season at AA Trenton - and was actually pretty good there - so it makes sense to send him to Scranton, but expect some (wait for it...) growing pains at AAA.  Most of his competition in the International League will have seen it all, having spent at least some time in the majors, so he'll need to develop as a pitcher to succeed there.  Look for some ugly numbers for a while as he works out the kinks again. 

SICKELS: Ivan Nova: favorite for rotation?

NEWMAN: I don't know if he's the favorite. We would like him to be. He's young and has the stuff, pitched at 94-96 the other day. He's another guy working on his secondary stuff to go with the heater. The other issue is command. He has control, he throws strikes, but his command within the zone still needs work.

SICKELS: Like the difference between throwing strikes and throwing quality strikes?

NEWMAN: Yeah. That's what he's working on.

BoS: If this were a courtroom, Sickels would have gotten in trouble for leading the witness. In any case, Nova is only a favorite because the Yankees don't have anyone else with as much upside who also has so much experience at AAA and in the majors.  He's basically a straight power pitcher with just a show-me change up, but if your stuff is good enough, that can work.  He struggled in his first exposure to AAA in 2009 but then thrived there last year.  Expect some difficulties early on in the majors if he breaks camp with the big club, and if he doesn't work them out, expect him to get sent back to work on them while the Yankees try Brackman or Phelps or (God help us...) Sergio Mitre in the #5 spot in the rotation for a couple of weeks. 

SICKELS: There are other interesting arms beyond the main group. Adam Warren for example. In other systems he would get more attention.

NEWMAN: True. Adam, compact arm stroke, throws his fastball and changeup at any spot in the zone. He's still refining his spin pitches, which will determine if he's a number three starter or a number five starter. He's heading to Triple-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus thinks his ceiling is as a #4 starter, a LAIM, which of course is nothing to sneeze at, but if that's the best he'll ever be, then it's a lot more likely that he'll have a career as a swingman or mop-up reliever.  His stuff isn't that great, but h is fastball improved last year and he has enough different offerings to keep batters guessing, which is why he's been able to do pretty well in the minors.  In the majors, that's not likely to get him too far.  

SICKELS: We talked about David Phelps as a sleeper last year, and he really panned out.

NEWMAN: Yeah, David's secondary pitches have really improved. He's always had a decent changeup and slider, I would rate the slider as almost-plus. But his curveball is much better than it used to be, and he has a solid 90-93 MPH heater. Gives him four pitches. Just a solid blue-collar strike thrower. He'll begin in Triple-A.

BoS: That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration about his fastball.  BP calls his stuff just average but says that his command and control are both good, and they give him an outside shot at one of the back end rotation jobs.  Guys like this take a while to get going in the majors, and most of them never really do. 

SICKELS: Another one who looks really interesting is Graham Stoneburner.

NEWMAN: He's really come around. He threw hard in college at Clemson, and he still works at 94-96 with sink. But his secondary pitches have taken a step forward, he keeps the ball down, throws strikes. He was raw in college but much better now. Heading to Double-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus says he's got a good sinker slider combo, but they project him as a reliever unless he can come up with a third pitch.  If he really threw "94-96 with sink" and had a plus slider, he wouldn't need a third pitch.  Sounds like another tall tale to me.  

SICKELS: Some observers really like Brett Marshall as a sleeper.

NEWMAN: He has the arm, and we gave him $800,000, so we've liked him too (laugh). He threw 97-98 before he got hurt. He still throws 93-95 with big-time sink. His fastball looks like a left-hander's slider. He has a good changeup, but is still working on the slider and curve. Great athlete, aggressive personality. Have to watch him this year, yeah.

BoS: Another case of the Newman Boost: An independent scouting website says his fastball is more like 88-91 most of the time - on the low end of that for the 2-seamer, on the high end for the 4-seam - though it can get up to 93 mph at times.  Seems like it's generally best to subtract 3-5 mph from whatever Newman says.  With that said, Marshall still looks like he could be a useful major leaguer someday. He's got just so-so control (a little over three walks per nine, but low homer rates) and good strikeout rates, but he's still not yet in AA, so it will be a while before we see him on the mound at New Yankee Stadium.  

SICKELS: One guy I liked as a sleeper from the 2010 draft is Chase Whitley, 15th round guy out of Troy University. He was a shortstop/pitcher and the two-way guys catch my eye.

NEWMAN: He fits in that category. Low-90s fastball, really good changeup. Breaking stuff needs work but his changeup is just terrific, unusually good for a reliever. Good athlete, too.

SICKELS: Potential middle relief type?


BoS: Whitley blew everyone away in the NY-Penn League, striking out 44 in 34.1 innings without allowing a homer.  That's maybe not so surprising since he had pitched for a Division I NCAA college, albeit a small one.  His polish from that experience must have helped a lot when facing a bunch of 19 and 20-year olds who were in their first extended look since being signed out of high school or from some academy in the Dominican Republic. It will be interesting to see if his fastball will be good enough at the higher levels, given that even Mark "Ninety Six" Newman describes it as "low 90's".

SICKELS: Finally, any other guys you want to mention as sleepers?

NEWMAN: We mentioned Melky Mesa and Brandon Laird earlier. Laird is just a solid hitter all-around. Melky has the tools, we just need to see what he does in Double-A.

BoS: Someone needs to help Newman out with the definition of "sleeper".  Laird's generally listed among the Yankees' top 15 prospects or so and he won the Eastern League MVP last year, so everyone's heard of him by now.  That's not a sleeper.  Neither is Mesa really, especially since he's 24 now and has yet to get out of A-Ball. 

NEWMAN: A sleeper for you is Anderson Feliz. He's an infielder out of the Dominican, played in the Gulf Coast League last year. He'll probably end up at second base, but he can really hit. Strong guy with power, broad back, plus runner, great swing. He needs to walk more but that's normal at this point. I rate him as similar to Robinson Cano at the same stage of his career.

BoS: There we go.  An 18 year old who held his own in the GCL, plays a premium position and projects for power as his body matures and his frame fills out?  That sounds like a sleeper.  Also for the record, since Newman keeps bringing others up for comparison, Cano wasn't this good at this age, but then most of Cano's minor league lines (.278/.331/.425 over 2100+ plate appearances at six different levels) gave little hint of how good he'd be in the majors, which is to say, probably one of the three best second basemen in the world right now. 

So there you have it: A few agreements, a lot of disagreements, but hopefully just a lot of details you might have missed if you only read the interview and took it at face value.  Hopefully it was helpful.  

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02 March 2011

Book Review: Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch

"Mays would have made a splash no matter when he entered the major leagues, but 1951 served him unusually well. His skills shined brightly on a sluggish team in a plodding league in a big-stage city that was about to lead a communications revolution. He was a game-changing catalyst in a storied rivalry about to embark on a historic pennant race, a radiant contributor to an era forever consecrated as the golden age of baseball."
- James S. Hirsch, from Willie Mays - The Life, the Legend, p. 100
The eponymous subject of James Hirsch's new book is quite possibly the greatest player in baseball history. You can argue for Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner or even Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, if you can look past the steroid thing, but there's no question that The Say Hey Kid is right in the thick of that conversation.

It stands to reason, then, that a book about such a player as Mays, especially a landmark work given the unprecedented access the author had to Mays the person, should be pretty darn interesting at the least. And the potential is there for this to be a truly great work, wouldn't you say?

Well, don't hold your breath.

I don't mean to disparage either Mays the man or Hirsch the writer, as this book makes it clear that both men are excellent at their respective professions. But somehow the combination of the two leaves me wanting.

It's not the writing, per se. As you can see from the above quote, Hirsch is a wonderfully eloquent writer when the situation falls for eloquence, and he's no slouch at simply getting his facts across when brevity is the order of the day. He tells the story beautifully, thoroughly and very well.

From Mays' humble beginnings in Alabama, through his school days, his travails in the waning Negro Leagues, to the minor leagues and eventually the majors, then to the Army, then back to the majors and an incredible career and a life of superstardom, Hirsch doesn't miss a beat. Because of the "authorized" nature of the book, we also get an unprecedented look into Mays' personal life, his relationships with family, mentors, teammates, friends and of course women, including both of his wives.

But Mays himself is hardly the only source of material for the book, as is clear by the 25 pages of end notes and five pages of bibliographical references. There were two previous biographies of Mays, as I understand it, but neither could boast the opportunity to have compared notes with the man himself, who has always been reticent to talk to anyone he doesn't know, especially reporters and writers.

But there's the rub, perhaps.  Because it's an authorized biography, Hirsch had to get the approval of Mays for whatever he wrote.  He boasts, in the epilogue, that Mays asked him to change only one thing in the entire tome, all 628 pages of it.  (He wanted Hirsch to include the fact that, after a fight with a teammate - Orlando Cepeda, i think - that they made up.  Well isn't that special?)  But then after reading those 628 pages, I can kind of see why Mays didn't feel the need to squelch anything: According to Hirsch, the man almost never did anything wrong.

Not that Hirsch says he's perfect, exactly, just that even his "faults" were sort of strengths in disguise, like saying that you "work too hard" or "care too much" at a job interview.

His bouts of exhaustion that sometimes required hospitalization, for example, were because he tried too hard, not because he didn't have the discipline and self-awareness needed to pace himself when the situation called for moderation.  His inability to hold down a regular job as a teenager to help support his poor family gets spun as his father's sacrificing to help him concentrate on baseball, rather than his own selfishness.

His dismissal of the advice of friends who warned him not to marry the older, twice-divorced, more worldly woman who would surely take him for all he was worth - which she did, by the way - well, he doesn't even bother to explain that one.  His refusal to support - or even try to understand - Curt Flood's case against the MLB owners and the Reserve Clause is billed as "not wanting to get involved" rather than an acknowledgment that Willie Mays clearly didn't care about anyone who wasn't, well, Willie Mays. 

To his credit, Hirsch does explain that Mays' famous "Say hey" catch phrase had more to do with his inability to remember his teammates' names than with some kind of giddy schoolboy enthusiasm.  But really, when you compose 600+ pages on a man who's been in the public eye for more than six decades, who was famously curt and often sulky with the news media, got himself into an ill-advised marriage, couldn't manage his own finances, rarely gave any real credit to his contemporaries like Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, well, somehow you shouldn't close the back cover of the book feeling like this guy was just a victim of his circumstances, you know?

I wish I could explain it better than that, but I can't.  Somehow the book just left me feeling used, or like there was more to the story, but I couldn't scratch below the surface of the facade that Mays allowed Hirsch to create. 

None of this is to disparage Mays' incredible talents, which were many, nor his accomplishments, which were great and are given their due in this work.  But Mays the man comes off as something less than admirable, if you can sift through Hirsch's prose a little.

In any case, it is an interesting book, and I recommend reading it, but I also recommend trying to read between the lines a little, because I think you can learn almost as much from what Hirsch doesn't tell you as from what he does.

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01 March 2011

Jeter Not So Young, Young Not So Old

Let me introduce you to two players:

Name       AB   R  2B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG
Player A  627  74  41  14   63  41 104   7   3  .272  .316  .413
Player B  633  90  26  11   64  60  95  19   3  .291  .355  .391

Fairly similar, wouldn't you say?  Player A has a little more power, but less speed and patience, and therefore scores fewer runs, though they both drive in about the same number. Players A and B both play for pretty good offensive teams, and hit near the tops of their respective lineups.  Both players have hit over .300 for their careers though both just had a fairly down offensive year for them.

Both play the left side of the infield, and both have won Gold Gloves as shortstops, though by most modern analysis, neither is very good on defense.  Both players hold their franchise's all-time career records for at-bats and hits, and are on the top-10 lists for a bunch of other counting stats.

The Gold Glove remark probably gave me away, though the stats never would, in themselves.  Player A is Mike Young and Player B is Derek Jeter, but the stats shown are compilations of their road splits for the last three seasons, prorated to look like one year.  Though there are some differences, you could hardly find two more seemingly similarly players overall, especially given their defensive positions, abilities, and their iconic statuses to their respective franchises. 

I recently read an article in which Mike Young's road stats were used as evidence that he can't really hit anymore, and that his home ballpark is really the only reason he finishes each season with respectable looking traditional stats. This seemed like a curious way of going about things - i.e. completely ignoring half of a man's games for three whole seasons - and it made me wonder whether Jeter might show a similar effect, especially given the reputation that New Yankee Stadium received for boosting offense early last year. 

As you can see from the first line of stats above, those numbers are really nothing special, about what Howie Kendrick or Cody Ross hit last season overall, an eminently forgettable performance.  Add to this the fact that he's already in his mid-30's, he's a terrible fielder (whether you prefer fielding percentage and Range Factor or more modern stats like FanGraphs UZR/150, Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs, and Bill James and John Dewan's +/-), and you can see why the Rangers felt the need to sign a free agent third baseman.

And Young's trade request, for all the team's official posturing about wanting to move forward with their plan of having Young DH most of the time, was probably welcome news to Nolan Ryan and the Texas front office.  Why wouldn't they want to unload an aging, sub-par defender whose offence had slipped to the point of being barely passable, but who still looks respectable only because of his home park?  Why would they want to pay another $48 million over the next three seasons for him?

Jeter's line, as I mentioned, is better, but not a lot better.  He gets a few more hits, takes a few more walks, steals more bases, but that's about it.  He has less power, is two and a half years older than Young, and plays an even tougher defensive position.  He's not much good on defense either, according to most modern metrics, though he does well in fielding percentage presumably because his poor range limits his opportunities to Knoblauch a ball into the stands. 

So why, given their similarities, would the Rangers be looking to limit the exposure of Michael Young as much as possible while the Yankees were willing to give a guaranteed $51 million new contract to Jeter?  What are we missing?

Well, for one thing, it's generally not good practice to simply ignore half of a man's stats for three years.  While his road stats might not look like much, Young has also hit .318/.376/.490 over the last three years in Arlington.  Those numbers happened, and are worth considering.  (For the record, Jeter's .311/.384/.436 line at home is nothing to sneeze at either, though less disparate from his road splits than Young's.)

For another, home/road splits can be misleading.  Colorado hitters tend to show huge home/road splits while playing for the Rockies, and yet, generally do not completely wilt in the sea level air of other ballparks when they go off to play for someone else.  Some do, certainly, but the good players don't generally perform as poorly as their road splits would suggest when they depart Denver.*

*Though not always.  While crunching numbers for this, I discovered that Larry Walker had hit .280/.383/.514 in his time in Colorado, spanning nine and a half years, and that after leaving, he proceeded to hit .286/.387/.520 as a Cardinal over the next year and a half.  Not that this constitutes a "poor" performance by any stretch, only one that was amazingly consistent with his road splits.  Usually it's not this easy.  

Most players end up somewhere between their road and home numbers, though generally closer to the road ones.  Rob Neyer once referred to this as a "polar bear effect", wherein Rockies hitters essentially wind up adapting to Coors Field so well - like a polar bear, uniquely adept at thriving in one particular environment - that they're no longer all that good at hitting at lower altitudes.  The difference is that hitters seem to re-adapt to sea level when they get back there, eventually.  Arlington is not so severe a hitter's environment as Coors Field, but maybe there's a similar effect.  Maybe opposing pitchers wilt in the Texas Summer heat but find their groove when they get back home? 

Additionally, if the discussion in the new book Scorecasting is to be believed, everyone hits better at home.  The umpires, whether they know it or not, are on Mike Young's side when he's in Texas, giving him fewer called strikes, more called balls, more benefits of the doubt on safe/out calls, and etc.  Virtually every year, the major leagues as a whole hit about 30-40 OPS points better at home than on the road, almost entirely for this reason, so why should Michael Young be any different?

None of this is to say that the Jeter contract was a good idea, or that performance statistics should be the only deciding factor in whether or not a player gets re-signed (and for how much), only that it can sometimes be interesting and/or instructive to compare players who have similar - if slightly hidden - resumes.

Generally speaking I think the Yankees will end up regretting this contract by the time it's half over.  Shortstops simply don't tend to remain shortstops when they get to be nearly 40 years old, even great ones like Cal Ripken, and certainly not mediocre (at best) defensive shortstops like Jeter.  Except that the Yankees don't have any place else to put him.

They're not going to make Jeter a third baseman, as Texas did with young when Elvis Andrus was promoted.  Alex Rodriguez is over there and is signed through 2017.  They're not going to move Jeter to first, where Mark Teixeira is signed through 2016.  And unlike Texas, New York has a serviceable DH, their former catcher, Jorge Posada, who's signed through 2011 and making a shade over $13 million.

They may be thinking that they'll have to cut Jorge loose after 2011, especially if his offense dips any further.  His OPS has already fallen in each of his last two full seasons from a high of 970 in 2007 down to 811 last year.  He'll be 39 this season and won't be adding much to the team if he hits any worse than he did in 2010.  American League designated hitters averaged .252/.332/.425 last year, while Jorge hit .248/.357/.454, only marginally above average.

Jorge's retirement or departure as a free agent would enable them to slot Jeter in as a DH for the remaining two years (three if he exercises the 2014 player option) of his contract. Of course, that too would require some improvement.  As a shortstop, Jeter's 710 OPS in 2010 was still a tick or two above the AL average (669) but it would be well below the 758 OPS that Junior Circuit Designated Hitters average.

If he can perform at something closer to his career level of 837, it could work, and that's not necessarily impossible.  He hit only .307 when he put the ball in play last year, well below his  career average of about .356, so if that was just a fluke and not an  indication of declining skill, we should see a significant bounce in his  batting average and therefore in all his other numbers. 

Baseball Prospectus has him pegged to hit .282/.348/.386 while Bill James is a little more optimistic, projecting .295/.365/.410.  Tom Tango's Marcel system splits the difference: .283/.350/.397, shading to the cautious side.  Those are all somehow based on the averages of players' performances who were similar to Jeter at a similar stage in their careers, but then Jeter is nothing if not unique, or at least, atypical.

Two years ago he nailed his PECOTA projection almost exactly, hitting .300/.363/.408 when his projection said .297/.365/.407, but then in 2009 he blew his projection (.288/.353/.383, six homers) out of the water with a sterling season, hitting .334 with 18 homers and 30 steals.  Would any of us really be all that surprised if Jeter hit .315 this year with 15 homers? Not really.  His Clutchness has spent the better part of the last two decades surprising us.  

Of course if the Yankees to slot Jeter into the DH spot, they'll then need a shortstop, but that's a problem for next winter. 


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16 February 2011

Cardinals Don't Need to Sign Pujols Now

There's never been a player quite like Albert Pujols, and so it stands to reason that there probably has never been a contract negotiation like the one going on now in the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida.  Pujols' contract option for 2011 was exercised by the Cardinals last October, so they're set for this year, but after that Pujols can become a free agent.

He's already stated that he won't negotiate a contract during the 2011 season and he's already extended the deadline to come to some agreement once, with the second deadline to be Wednesday at noon.  The Cardinals, of course, would like nothing more than to keep the best player in baseball, but given the literally historic nature of his talent, the Cards are likely to end up paying historic dollars - maybe $300 million or more - for the second half of his career.

But paying a player for the second half of his career and expecting the kind of production you saw in his youth is often a losing proposition.  To wit, we need look no further than the list of similar players (based on Bill James' Similarity Scores) on Baseball-reference.com:

  1. Albert Belle (848)
  2. Hank Greenberg (847) *
  3. Johnny Mize (826) *
  4. Juan Gonzalez (817)
  5. Larry Walker (805)
  6. Lance Berkman (803)
  7. Jim Edmonds (802)
  8. Chuck Klein (801) *
  9. Todd Helton (800)
  10. Jason Giambi (798) 
 Those stars mean that the player is in the Hall of Fame, and it's worth noting that several others on that list might still become Hall of Famers someday.  It's also worth noting, however, that Belle was out of baseball after his age 33 season, a victim of a degenerative hip condition that prevented him from playing without alleviating the Orioles from having to pay for the remaining three years and $35 million on his 5-year contract.

It's also worth noting that few of these guys would have provided anything close to fair value if they had received a contract consummate with their talents at age 30, as Pujols expects to get.  Greenberg retired after his age 36 season.  Mize was no longer a regular after age 35.  Gonzalez had his last productive, healthy season at 31.  Walker was a shell of his former self at age 36, a part time player by age 37 and retired at age 39.  Klein was washed up at 33, but played several more years as a part timer.

Berkman is 34 and looks like he's nearing the end.  Helton is playing regularly still, but is averaging about half as many homers and RBIs per season since he turned 31.  Giambi had some good years in New York, but only one anywhere near as good as his last few in Oakland, and that was at age 32, when he first arrived.  He missed halves of two different seasons to injuries and has struggled to remain employed as a bench player for the last two years.

The list of most similar players by age is not much more encouraging:
  1. Jimmie Foxx (863) *
  2. Frank Robinson (845) *
  3. Ken Griffey (840)
  4. Lou Gehrig (839) *
  5. Hank Aaron (839) *
  6. Mickey Mantle (821) *
  7. Mel Ott (800) *
  8. Juan Gonzalez (763)
  9. Eddie Mathews (751) *
  10. Manny Ramirez (744)
 Now we've got seven Hall of Famers, and presumably Griffey will someday make eight.  the other two would likely be in the Hall as well someday if not for the taint of PEDs, but in any case, the numbers are there.  But again, the picture looks kind of bleak when you start trying to justify something like a ten-year contract starting at age 32.

Foxx was washed up at 34.  Mantle? As famous for his injuries as for his prodigious skills, his career started unraveling after age 32.  Griffey had exactly one season in which he amassed at least 600 plate appearances after age 30.  Gehrig was forced to retire due to failing health at age 36 and was dead a year later.  Ott and Mathews were both done around age 36.  

Only Robinson, Aaron and Manny Ramirez offer glints of hope, and even they need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Manny Being Manny has been being pretty productive when he's played, but he hasn't played more than 104 games in a season since age 36.  Hank was still hammerin' at age 42, and was wonderfully productive in his 30's, but even he saw a drop off in his fourth decade.  He went from a 162 OPS+ in his 30's to a 107 OPS+ in his 40's, and averaged 35 fewer games per season.

Robinson was also very good through his mid 30's - better than the raw numbers would have you believe - but his playing time dropped off precipitously at age 38.  If Albert's contract goes into his 40's, as Alex Rodriguez' contract does and as has been speculated will be the case, the Cards are bound to get burned.

With all that said, it's worth noting also that Albert is unlike most of the men we've mentioned.  He's not seeing significantly inflated numbers because of the era or the parks in which he plays, as was the case with Klein, Walker, Foxx, Ott, and Helton.  He's not already injury prone like Mantle or Juan Gone, and he isn't likely to come down with some bizarre, career-ending ailment like Belle or Gehrig. Of course, neither were they until it actually happened. 

Well, on the other hand he has had some issues with a bad throwing elbow, which he opted to treat with a nerve transportation rather than Tommy John surgery two winters ago, so theoretically that could show up at any time.  But even that should - I repeat: should - only keep Pujols out for about one season if it proves necessary.  The Cards can still get their money's worth even if they get only nine of the ten seasons for which they're paying (or seven of eight, or whatever).

The real issue, as was the case with the Jayson Werth signing, is whether the Cards will get fair value for their dollars.  If they sign him to, say, a 10-year, $300 million contract, can they expect to get burned?   If you start with the value of a WAR (a Win Above Replacement) at about $4 million (according to FanGraphs.com), and then use 5% inflation for each of 10 years starting in 2012, you end up with a rate of about $6.9 million per win by 2021.

That sounds ridiculous and almost certainly won't be the case, but then 10 years ago the value of a Win was something like half of what it is now, and I wouldn't have believed then that it could rise so much as it has, so I suppose anything's possible.  This gives us an "average" cost per win of about $5.5 million over the life of the supposed 10 year contract.  So, if the Cardinals pay him $300 million over that span, he'll need to somehow accrue about 54 Wins Above Replacement over that time. 

There have been only four players in the history of professional baseball who managed to amass 54 or more WAR between the ages of 32 and 41, and you know each of them by one name: Barry, Willie, Babe and Honus, and one of those probably owes a lot of that success to "better living through chemistry", if you get my drift.

Three others, Hank Aaron, Cap Anson and Tris Speaker, earned a little over 50 WAR in that span, and three others more had at least 45.  Those include Ty Cobb, Edgar Martinez and Ted Williams, who almost certainly would have been in the 54 WAR+ group if he hadn't spent most of his age 32 and 33 seasons flying bombers over North Korea.

So that gives us four guys, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Honus Wagner.  Four guys in the history of baseball, in which about 17,500 players have spent at least one day in the majors, and about 4,500 have spent at least one day there between the ages of 32 and 41.  Pujols has a better chance of being hit by lighting at some point in his life than he does of living up to such a contract.

But of course Albert Pujols has already defied the odds.  He won the Rookie of the Year award at age 21, in his debut season, something only a handful of others had done.  He's one of only 10 players in history with 3 or more MVP Awards.  He's one of only about a dozen guys in history who have finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting at least ten times, and he's the only one to ever do it 10 years in a row.

How good is Albert Pujols?  His wors season was 2002, his second in the majors.  Pujols' "Sophomore Slump"gave him an average line of .314/.394/.561, along with 34 homers, 118 runs and 127 RBIs. That was the first and only time he didn't get on base at least 40% of the time in any season, and his work was good for 5.8 WAR, according to Baseball-reference.com.

That was his worst season. 

There are, by my count, 23 Hall of Fame position players who never had a season that good.  Granted, that list includes a lot of questionable Veterans committee selections and/or guys who were known predominantly for their defense, like Bill Mazeroski, Rabbit Maranville and George Kell, but it also includes prolific hitters like Sam Rice, Jim Bottomley, Lou Brock and Pie Traynor.  ANother 19 Hall of Famers have only one season as good as Pujols' worst, including Monte Irvin, Enos Slaughter, Mickey Cochrane and Dave Winfield.

Jim Rice, Zach Wheat, Sam Thompson, Roy Campanella and a dozen others had only two such seasons.  First-ballot guys Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray and Willie Stargell fall in with a group of 17 who had only three such seasons.  You see where this is going.  In fact, of the 134 Hall of Famers elected as position players, 118 of them don't have 10 seasons as good as Pujols' worst year. 

So it's possible, though I dare not say likely, that Pujols will continue to defy the odds and actually live up to such an incredible contract.  Projections that far out are all but impossible to make.  Baseball Prospectus, who's about as good at this on a year to year basis as anybody out there, shows Pujols in 2019 hitting .306/.409/.554 - but in only 301 plate appearances.  Don't you think that if you had a 39-year old who could hit like that, you'd find a way to get him into the lineup more than every other game?  Yeah, me too. 

But even if he does produce enough over the life of the contract, the likelihood of him still being even a productive player, much less a superstar, at age 41 is pretty low.  Barry Bonds, for example, racked up enough WAR in his 30's that even with a lost season at age 40 and reduced playing time at age 41, he still would have made the contract a bargain.  Ditto for Babe Ruth, who played only a handful of games at age 40 and none at all at 41, but was so good from 32-39 that the team would easily have made its money back on a contract like this one.

But those are the exceptions, not the rule, and anyway, getting enough value overall is not the only concern.  Having an albatross of a contract around a franchise's collective neck is going to be a real problem if Pujols gets hurt or even if he becomes gradually less productive, like everyone else who's ever played major league baseball.  Few things tend to jade a fan base like knowing that the team is throwing money away on an unproductive player.  Even if he wins the MVP five more times in the next eight years, getting stuck with two years on the end of the contract during which Pujols will earn $50 or $60 million and not do much will sour a lot of folks on both him and the team, and more important, may hamper the team's ability to field a competitive roster. 

Therefore, the Cards would do well to limit the length to, say, seven or eight years instead of 10, if at all possible.  That might require them to go up a little in average salary, but it could be worth it to avoid having to pay the man $25 or $30 million to ride the bench in 2020.

Better yet, though, they should wait.  Pujols is under contract for 2011, and what's the worst that could happen?  he wins another MVP award, and now they have to re-sign a 4-time MVP award winner rather than a 3-time winner.  Maybe now it's $32 million per instead of $30.  Big deal.  But if he gets hurt or something, and they're on the hook for $300 million?  Well, that would be disastrous.  Or if he plays, but shows some signs of decline, at least they have a leg to stand on in the negotiations, a way to justify not paying him quite so many millions for quite so many years. 

Additionally, other teams will suddenly have a reason to be wary of signing him away from St. Louis. They're already at the top of the market for this player.  He's as valuable as he's ever going to be, so why buy now?  He'll have just as much reason to stay in St. Louis next winter as he does now, maybe more if they make a run or win another World Series or something. 

So, my advice is: Wait. 

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13 December 2010

Book Review: Strike IX - by Paul Lonardo

Everybody loves an underdog.  Paul Lonardo has brought you the compelling story of 25 of them in his new book, Strike IX: The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team That Refused to Lose.

The background on the book is that Providence college, despite having fielded a baseball team since 1923, found itself in the midst of an era in which a myriad of colleges were scrambling to comply with Title IX regulations - the US laws against gender discrimination by colleges receiving federal funds - or risk being sued.  Providence, like most colleges,decided that it was simply easier to eliminate some existing mens' sports, especially those with large rosters, than it was to support additional womens' sports teams, and a 25-man baseball team seemed the perfect candidate. 

The twist comes when the 1999 Providence College Friars decide to fight back, not by actually saving the team - that only happens in Disney movies, folks - but by playing so well that everyone would know exactly what they're missing when the Friars depart.  It's not exactly The Bad News Bears or Major League, but you definitely get the impression that the athletes kind of think of themselves that way. 

Lonardo covers the story predominantly from the perspective of the student athletes, though he does a good job of creating context for the reader, including the history of Providence College, the culture of baseball programs in the northeast, and the pros and cons of the Title IX law and its results in more general terms, particularly with statistics demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.  

But he mostly gives you the story of the players' feelings and experiences, including some of their game feats, which were many for a team that went 47-14 and came within one game of playing for a national championship.  Still, he manages not to bore you with gory details from game stories (unlike some other books I've reviewed), striking a nice balance, at least in terms of sports vs. human interest.

The book is not, however, terribly balanced when it comes to telling the school's side of the story vs. that of the players and coaches.  That's acceptable, I suppose, as most people don't want to hear about the trials and tribulations of a large corporation, or even a modestly sized college.  Guys in dirty baseball uniforms make for more sympathetic figures than a bunch of middle aged white men in business suits. 

Providence, being in Rhode Island instead of Georgia, Arizona, California or Florida, is hardly a breeding ground for major league talent.  In fact, journeyman infielder John McDonald is the second best player ever to come out of Providence, and he wasn't on this team.  So you likely won't recognize any of the players' names, and that somehow helps them to feel even more like underdogs.  And the fact that they did things like hitting .342 as a team and winning  almost 75% of their games can only add to your admiration of them. 

The writing itself is not bad, but nothing special either, and Lonardo's use of profanity in his own prose comes off as unprofessional and distracting, at least to me.  Because the book is self published, and this is the first edition, there are some errata in it that can also be distracting if you're as nitpicky as I am, but hopefully you're not. 

Still, the book's real appeal is its compelling, underdog story, and in that it truly delivers.  The 1999 Providence Friars may not have won it all like the Cleveland Indians in Major League, but they made such an impressive run and turned so many heads in the process that they assured their legacy along side some of the great Cinderella stories in history. 

Carl Spackler would be proud.


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08 December 2010

Werth's Worth: Have We Seen the Best of Jayson Yet?

The Washington Nationals made the biggest splash of the 2010 offseason to date on Monday, announcing a seven-year, $126 million contract for journeyman outfielder Jayson Werth. A Scott Boras client, Werth appears to be yet another exhibit in the case for Boras as the best agent in the business and the argument that one really good season can make almost anyone an extremely rich man.

Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was quoted as saying,

"We got the inside scoop on who the man is and who the person is.  [field manager] Jim [Riggleman] is a great judge of character and clubhouse presence. He was very flowery in his praise in Jayson on and off the field. He feels, like I feel, Jayson's best days haven't been had yet."
He refers to Riggleman's experience with Werth when he was a coach for the Dodgers, though it should be noted that

A) That was almost  five years ago now, and
2) His enthusiasm over Werth's "character and clubhouse presence" didn't help much when Werth was trying to get recalled from a AAA rehab assignment and/or struggling for playing time over the likes of Dave Roberts, Ricky Ledee, Steve Finley and Jason Grabowski.  

Werth was drafted by the Orioles in the first round of the 1997 draft and spent four seasons languishing in their inept farm system before getting traded to Toronto in December of 2000.  In the majors he has been with the Phillies, Dodgers and Blue Jays, though he didn't become an everyday player until about the middle of 2007, when he was already 28 years old.

In roughly three and a half seasons with Philadelphia, Werth hit 95 homers, drove in 300 runs, hit .282/.380/.506 and stole 60 bases at a high rate of success.  In 2010 he was one of the dozen or so best players in the National League, with 5.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-reference.com, which was used for all of the calculations in this post).

But the real question, naturally is, "Is Rizzo right?"  Do we have yet to see the best of Jayson Werth?  And, even if we do, can Werth possibly do enough over the next seven years to justify this contract? 

Noting that 2010 constituted what is generally called a Career Year for Werth, I looked at all players who have qualified for the batting title and put up at least a 140 OPS+ in their age 31 season. (OPS+ = On-base-Plus-Slugging, adjusted for league and park factors and set to a scale on which average equals 100.  The age 31 season is so defined based on the players' age on June 30th of that year.)

There were 103 of them, including Werth and Adrian Beltre, who also turned 31 this year, and therefore cannot be used to estimate what might happen down the road.  For each of those 103 players, I checked to see what their previous career highs were in OPS+ (in a qualifying season) and at what age they occurred.  Was this a career year for them?  If not, when did they peak? 

I also checked for the highest OPS+ in a qualified season* between the ages of 32 and 38, which is the span over which Werth's new contract will stretch.  Is Rizzo right about Werth's best days still being ahead of him in spite of the fact that he's now potentially "over the hill" in baseball terms? 

*Some of them never again qualified for a batting title after their age 31 season, so instead I took their total OPS+ from ages 32-38 and used that as their "high" setting the age at 32. It seemed the best way to keep from completely skewing the averages.  There were only three of these anyway: Larry Hisle, Elmer Flick and Juan Gonzalez.  

Finally I tallied and averaged the total WAR between the ages of 32 and 38 for each player, to see whether any of them might have lived up to the Jayson Werth deal.  Some of them actually did, as we'll see.   

So, as I mentioned, there are 103 such player-seasons, and recall that these are only the players who were 31 years old AND got enough at bats to qualify for the batting title when they accomplished this, and only since 1901.  Therefore, the first thing we can notice is that this was hardly an historic season.

If we lower the plate appearance requirement to 400, we get 116 names.  If we go back to 1876 instead of 1901, we get 118, even with the qualification requirement.  If we change the criteria to a minimum of 5 WAR at age 31, we have 140 names, and so much data to sift through that my wife will never speak to me again, so let's stick with the OPS+ requirement.  Since Werth is a right fielder, most of his value is in his bat anyway, and that seems mostly fair. 

In any case, we've generally been told that players tend to peak in their late twenties, plateau for a while into their early thirties and then decline in their mid thirties.  But Werth peaked at 31, it seems, and the question must be asked whether this is a mountaintop or a plateau, or - dare we say it? - merely the upward slope to still greater heights.

Stop laughing, I'm serious.

Well, anyway, of the aforementioned 103 players, about half (49) really did experience a career year at age 31, including Jayson, but not Beltre.  That is, their OPS+ at that age was the highest they had yet posted in a qualified season.  Of the remaining 48 for whom we have data for after their age 31 seasons, only 10 went on to still greater OPS+ heights in a qualified season.

Two others from that group, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, are still playing and have not yet turned 38, so it's possible that they will top the peaks they reached at age 31, but it's not very likely.  That suggests that for players who hit a new peak of at least 140 OPS+ at age 31, there is only about a 20% chance of improving on that at any point in the next seven seasons. 

The remaining 54 players who had peaked before they turned 31 were still very good at that age.  Though two of those (Beltre and Todd Helton) have not yet completed their age 38 season, Helton is 36 now and has five seasons of production worse than his age 31 year, so I think it's fair to assume that he's not suddenly going to rebound at age 37 or 38.  That leaves us 53 players for whom we can make some claim about their production over these ages. 

Of those 53, 21 of them (40%) hit better than they did at age 31 some time in their mid-thirties, though not necessarily better than they had in their twenties.  Werth is not in this group, as his previous OPS+ high was just 127, but it could be argued that if he had not suffered from a misdiagnosed wrist injury and/or the incompetence of Dodger management, he might have, so these data are still somewhat instructive.

Overall, 31 of the 101 players who have at least one season in the age 32-38 range managed to improve upon that age 31 season.  And two-thirds of those had given some indication of being even better when they were younger, which Werth has not.  Even being charitable toward Werth's lost time, then, it seems that he has only about a 30% chance of making good on Mike Rizzo's assertion that his best days lie some time in the future. 

And keep in mind that many of the players, in their age 31 season or before, were vastly better than Werth has ever been, so there was more reason to expect great things form them going forward.  While Werth just barely cleared the 140 OPS+ threshold we set, at 145, more than a third of the other 102 players posted an OPS+ of at least 175 either at age 31 or some time before that.  For reference, 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto's OPS+ was 174, so that gives you an idea of how good these guys were at some point in their careers.

Looking at it another way, if a Win Above Replacement is worth about $4.5 million, and that value increases by 3% annually due to inflation (even though baseball inflation is much different from traditional economic inflation, but we'll be conservative here) then in order to "break even", Jayson Werth must amass about 26 WAR over the next seven seasons to justify his $126 million in total salary. That's assuming an average salary of $18 million, since exact terms are not yet available.  The average production of the aforementioned 101 players was a shade under 18 WAR, so you can see we've got our justification work cut out for us. 

Of course, we can debate all day about the value of a Win, but that $4.5 million seems reasonable in that a lot of outlets are using something like it, and it's unlikely that Wins will become less expensive over the next decade. 

There have only been 46 players in the history of major league baseball who have amassed at least 26 WAR between their age 32 and age 38 seasons. Twenty nine of those 46 are already in the Hall of Fame, and seven more of them have Hall of Fame numbers but either aren't yet eligible (Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent), have been shut out due to the steroids scandal (McGwire) or have been banned for life (Pete Rose).

Four others are borderline Hall of Famers themselves (Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds, Lou Whitaker and Edgar Martinez).  The remaining six (Dolph Camilli, Gavvy Cravvath, Bob Johnson, Ken Williams, Tony Phillips and Jose Cruz) were all exceptional old players who either got a late start in the majors (Johnson, Camilli, Cravath, Williams) or were not that good in their twenties but hit their strides later on (Phillips and Cruz).  And Phillips may constitute an exception given the fact that his 30's coincided with the so-called Steroid Era, and that he may very well have been a part of it.   

Of course, there is some debate about the value of a Win.  Some say it's really lower than $4.5 million, that one year contracts and the overvaluing of free agent relief pitchers skews the number higher, but I think it's probably about right when you consider certain recent signings.  

If you call the inflation rate 5% instead of 3%, Jayson would "only" need to amass about 24 WAR in the next seven years for the Nationals to break even, assuming they keep him for the length of the contract.  That benchmark brings four other Hall of Famers into the mix (George Brett, Johnny Mize, Earl Averill and Luke Appling) plus five non Hall of Famers (Ichiro, Lefty O'Doul, Bill Dahlen, Dixie Walker, and Dwight Evans).

It's worth noting that Evans and Dahlen have (arguably) Cooperstown-worthy numbers when examined by modern metrics like WAR, but were under appreciated in their own times.  Ichiro and Lefty both played the first halves of their careers away from the major leagues, but clearly were major league talents* even in their 20's.

*O'Doul was a great young pitcher who went 25-9, 2.39 ERA in 312 innings in the Pacific Coast League as a 25 year old, but he had arm trouble.  So he turned himself into a power hitting outfielder, hit .369 over four seasons in the Pacific Coast League, and then went back to the majors and hit .365 over the next five seasons, winning two batting titles and narrowly missing two MVP awards in that span.  Eat your heart out, Rick Ankiel. 

So essentially, we've got a batch of 55 players, and about 90% them either are already in Cooperstown, will be someday, or played like Hall of Famers between the ages of 32 and 38.   Among our 101 players who had at least a 140 OPS+ at age 31, only 25 amassed 24 WAR between the ages of 32 and 38, and 20 of them are Hall of Famers. 

Anybody think Jayson Werth is about to become a Hall of Famer?

Me neither.

So there we have it.  Werth is only about 20-30% likely to improve upon his numbers this year, at best, which is actually a better chance than I'd have given him before I began this exercise.

And even if he does improve, in all likelihood he'll only improve at age 32 or 33, and will decline thereafter.  In the block of 101 players who played after their age 31 season, the average age at which they hit their next high in OPS+ was 33, and the most common age was 32.  So Rizzo's probably wrong about that.   

There have been about 4,260 players in history who have played at least one MLB game between the ages of 32 and 38, but only 55 who have played well enough to live up to this contract.  That works out to about 76-to-one odds, which for comparison is roughly the preseason betting line on the Baltimore Orioles winning the 2011 World Series.  Actually, it's a little worse than that. 

The only ways for Werth to somehow be (forgive me...) worth his $126 million is either

1) to beat ridiculous odds and earn a huge pile of WAR over the next seven seasons, something that there is little evidence to suggest he can do, or

2) for the cost of a win to get really, really expensive.  Like, six or eight million dollars.

That latter option may not be as ludicrous as it sounds, given that seven years ago it was only $2.8 million, or about 60% of what it is now.  Still, even at that rate, by the time this contract ends in 2017, Werth will still need to be worth about three wins, which is hard to envision for a 38 year old outfielder.  That's not impossible, but it's pretty unlikely, unless we can somehow convince ourselves that Werth is really as good as Bonds, Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Cobb, Speaker or another half dozen or so of the best players in history, and we just haven't gotten to see that side of him yet.

I for one, can't.

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