Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Links Roundup

1. Baseball Primer has a very interesting discussion about pitch counts going. Don Malcolm's article - included in the link - is a bit over the top, but much reasoned discussion follows. The consensus there is that while pitch counts are useful, it is not helpful to apply "abuse points" to all pitchers based solely on age and pitch counts. The relationship of pitch counts to injuries is obviously a very complex one, and it's one that sabermetrics doesn't quite understand yet. Many of the posters at Primer are quite right that Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points statistic is nonsense. Different pitchers are affected differently by identical pitch counts, so high pitch counts do not necessarily constitute "abuse." While it is certainly possible to overwork a pitcher, "abuse" cannot be summed up in a single statistic that leaves out as many contextual variables (a pitcher's build, mechanics, or workout schedule; the weather; the number of pitches thrown in individual innings; and so on).

2. The Post-Gazette reports that Kansas City has traded for Jose Bautista, meaning the Pirates aren't getting him back any time soon. This will be Jose's fourth organization in eight months. Also included in that link is a revealing paragraph about J.J. Davis:

"It was nice that he got those at-bats [with Nashville]. It was nice that he started swinging the bat well. That could help him here. J.J. understands that he needs to work hard to get better. J.J.'s still developing at this level. We need to continue to make him better. Up here, playing time is hard to get." But if Davis doesn't play very often the rest of this season, will the Pirates have any idea if he's still a prospect? "I would hope so," McClendon said slowly. "I would hope so."

I'm not exactly filled with hope that McClendon has thought about this issue at all. Obviously, the Pirates aren't going to have any idea if he's an important part of their future if they don't let Davis play, and he and the Pirates will do some more Hellerian jockeying next spring. Or, worse, they'll give him fifty more at bats the rest of the year, he won't get into rhythm, he won't hit, and they'll release him. In the meantime, Randall Simon... well, forget it. "Up here, playing time is hard to get." Just thought you should read that again.

3. Brian O'Neill wonders what the Pirates were doing cutting Ruben Mateo. He also correctly points out the redundance of having both Chris Stynes and Abraham Nunez on the bench.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

More Pirates Moves

Daryle Ward went on the DL, and the Pirates have called up Tony Alvarez to take his roster spot. That's a shame for Ward, but it would be nice to see Alvarez and J.J. Davis get a real shot as a result. Hopefully, the Pirates will be using Craig Wilson at first base, not Randall Simon. This might not be bad:

C Kendall
1B C. Wilson
2B Hill/Castillo
3B Mackowiak
SS J. Wilson
LF Bay
CF Alvarez
RF Davis

Okay, it's not particularly good, and there's no way it's going to happen (Tike Redman and Simon are both in the lineup tonight, which is just fugly), but nearly all the guys above have some upside.

This may be why Littlefield decided to DFA Ruben Mateo - he may have known Ward had a problem and reasoned that the only guys he had to play first were Wilson and Simon, which is quasi-problematic since Wilson is also one of only two catchers on the 25 man right now. I'd rather see Rob Mackowiak at first occasionally, however (in the event of an injury to Wilson or Jason Kendall), than to lose Mateo.

Oh.

I thought the Pirates had gotten this one basically right for once. Nope. In sending Ruben Mateo to the minors, they had to DFA him, which means he has to clear waivers. He won't, and so he won't be a Pirate anymore. Mateo absolutely clobbered the ball at Nashville earlier this year, then put up very good numbers in part-time duty with the Bucs for the last month. He's only 26. He shouldn't have been sent to the minors in any case, even if he didn't have to be waived to do so, but since J.J. Davis was coming back I was willing to ignore that little caveat. Actually, the Pirates are going to get rid of Mateo completely. This is really, really dumb.

Hey Dave! Randall Simon is pointless. Pointless. You should've admitted you made a mistake rather than cutting a useful player.

In better news, the Devil Rays DFA'ed Jose Bautista, so the Pirates may yet get him back. Hey Dave! If you get the chance to take Bautista, do it. Don't mess this up.

Thanks to the Transaction Guy.

Friday, June 25, 2004

J.J. Is Free! (Kind Of)

J.J. Davis will finally be activated from a rehab assignment in which he slugged like Lance Berkman and told the press that he was not, in fact, injured. A position player will be zapped in order to make way for Davis. Hopefully, the departing player will be Randall Simon or Chris Stynes, and hopefully the Pirates will give Davis a real shot. If Jason Bay were to be moved to center so that Davis could play in a corner and Tike Redman could take his sorry act to the bench, well, that'd be fine with me.

Speaking of soon-to-be-ex-minor-leaguers who go by their initials, J.R. House is back at Nashville and he's at it again.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Beltran To Houston

Beltran goes to the Astros. Good trade for Houston, who give up only a very good reliever and John Buck, a decent catching prospect. It seems like Oakland gave up a lot to get Octavio Dotel, but he'll shore up their pen in a hurry.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

New Stats Geek

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neill wonders if the Pirates are playing the right guys. He's right that Randall Simon, Chris Stynes and Tike Redman are contributing less than their share, and the article contains a link to a chart comparing the Pirates' OPSs to the league average. It's positively space-age by daily paper standards. Nice work, Stats Geek.

One thing Mr. O'Neill doesn't mention is that even if the Pirates were to give more opportunities to Ruben Mateo and play Simon, Stynes and Redman less, the Pirates would still have one of the worst benches in the league. Here it is:

Simon
Stynes
Redman
Abraham Nunez
Bobby Hill/Jose Castillo

Yuck. That's three guys (Hill and Castillo count as one guy, since the other would be starting) who are basically middle infielders, and two guys who... well, I'm not really sure what they do. That bench would be so bad that the Pirates would probably still have a below-average offense. Here's one way to solve that problem.

1. Cut Simon.
2. Recall J.J. Davis, who's a quality major league hitter right now. Let him share time with Mateo and Daryle Ward by having Craig Wilson play first while Ward sits and Jason Bay play center field while Mateo sits. Davis is slugging .737 at Nashville; his rehab assignment is bogus, and he already demonstrated last year that he can kill AAA pitching. Don't waste his talent. Find a way to get him 300 big league at-bats by the end of the year.
3. Send Redman to the minors. He's embarrassing. He can't hit, he can't field, and his 2003 with the Bucs was the mother of all flukes.
4. Recall Tony Alvarez, who's putting up a .397 OBP at Nashville. Alvarez doesn't have the upside that Bay or Davis has, but he'd definitely be a competent bench player, and he can play center field.
5. Cut Stynes; install Rob Mackowiak at third.
6. Chris Truby has a .911 OPS at Nashville. Unless there is good reason to believe that .911 is a joke, promote him until Freddy Sanchez is available. Yeah, I just advocated letting Chris Truby play in the big leagues. You got something to say about it?
7. For the love of God, stop letting Nunez pinch hit. The fact that he switch-hits is irrelevant, since he doesn't actually hit from either side of the plate.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Mariners Vs. Pirates, 19 June 2004

Charlie and Ryan here. We just returned from PNC Park, where a Pacific Coast League game broke out tonight.

Plenty of words have already been typed in these pages about what an awful, pointless team the Pirates are, so we won't repeat ourselves here. Instead, let's concentrate on the Mariners. Here's are tonight's Seattle Mariners with their 2004 Values Over Replacement Player (VORPs), courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.

Winn CF 2.1
Cabrera 2B 6.5
Ichiro RF 20.5
Spiezio 3B 2.2
Olderdude 1B 10.5
Aurilia SS -1.4
Bocachica LF 1.6
Borders C -1.2

TOTAL 40.8

Note: Bocachica's VORP is listed for centerfield; if his VORP were calculated for left field, which isn't a premium defensive position, he would likely be below replacement level.

Now let's compare these numbers to the most recent lineups of two other teams (Team B used a DH whose contributions aren't included in the total below).

TEAM A
TOTAL: 115.6

TEAM B
TOTAL: 16.5

Team A is the Oakland A's. The total for Team B is the (league-adjusted) VORP for the lineup of the Sacramento River Cats. What does it say about the Mariners when they're trotting out a lineup that's far more similar to their divisional rivals' AAA ballclub than their divisional rivals themselves? There was simply some horrible decision making that led to this moment, and we can only assume that the reason Derek Zumsteg hasn't voiced his anger about this yet is that he saw the lineup and busted a coronary.

Let's leave aside the fact that Seattle actually won tonight. That fact says more about the Pirates and the variability of small sample sizes than it does about the Mariners. Nearly 25,000 people paid lots of money to watch this game, and they basically got to watch two minor league teams and Ichiro.

Let's take a closer look at the FIVE Mariners starters who were near or below replacement level.

Randy Winn: A useful player when he was acquired for Lou Piniella and a prospect, but he's past his prime now. His offensive numbers this year have been dreadful, and he isn't making up for it with the glove. We would say he takes horrible routes to the ball, but he does, to his credit, look like a brilliant fielder compared to Tike Redman.

Scott Spiezio: His three-year contract looks even more ludicrous now than it did the day it was signed this offseason. A mediocre player in his heyday.

Rich Aurilia: Whoops.

Hiram Bocachica: Lest you think we're being unfair for including Bocachica's VORP in our totals instead of that of the injured Raul Ibanez (10.2), keep in mind that the A's total includes Esteban German (-4.3) instead of Eric Chavez (16.7). And when your team starts a bunch of olderdudes, you have to be prepared for injuries, and you should be ready with replacements who bring more to the table than speed and a cool name.

Pat Borders: This superfluous quadregenarian was offered arbitration by the Mariners this offseason. Why "superfluous," you ask? Because Dan Wilson (3.4) and Ben Davis (-5.8) have performed at almost exactly the same godawful level as Borders.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Bucs 30

PITTSBURGH’S TOP 30 PROSPECTS
According To VORB

1. Jon VanBenschoten, RHP, Nashville, 4/14/80. Finally figuring things out at AAA; should join Bucs rotation soon. ETA: late 2004.
2. Bryan Bullington, RHP, Altoona, 9/30/80. Respectable so far, but must improve K/9 rates. ETA: 2005.
3. J.J. Davis, OF, Nashville, 10/25/78. Concerns about attitude stopping Pirates from playing minor league masher who could help them now if given the chance. Now on Kafkaesque rehab assignment. ETA: NEVER.
4. Ian Snell, RHP, Altoona, 10/30/81. Little guy, big sleeper: best performance record of any Pittsburgh pitching prospect. ETA: late 2005.
5. Freddy Sanchez, IF, Injury Netherworld, 10/21/77. Middle infielder could hit .300 in majors, but lacks much power or plate discipline. Future McClendon fave, then. ETA: soon.
6. Sean Burnett, RHP, Nashville, 9/17/82. Control guru isn’t fooling anyone yet at AAA, but may be called up soon anyway. ETA: 2004.
7. J.R. House, C, Nashville, 11/11/79. Great bat, but serious injury issues. Must silence grumbles about his defense to avoid move to first base or outfield. ETA: 2005.
8. Zach Duke, LHP, Lynchburg, 4/19/83. 1.26 ERA, 78 K, 14 BB in 13 starts. Wow.
9. Ryan Doumit, C, Altoona, 4/3/81. Catcher with reasonable defense and a very good bat. May force House to a corner spot. I’m too lazy to turn that into a pun. ETA: late 2005.
10. Paul Maholm, LHP, Lynchburg, 6/25/82. Polished college product, #1 pick, no problems at Lynchburg, #3 starter upside. Zzzzzzz. ETA: 2006.
11. Cory Stewart, LHP, Nashville, 11/24/79. Strikeout artist acquired in Brian Giles trade. Has hit a snag in AAA. ETA: 2005.
12. Dave Williams, LHP, Nashville, 3/12/79. Seems to have recovered from shoulder surgery. Low upside, but deserves promotion now. ETA: soon.
13. Brad Eldred, 1B, Lynchburg, 7/12/80. Outstanding power so far but old for his league; should be moved up the chain more quickly. ETA: 2006.
14. Tom Gorzelanny, LHP, Hickory, 7/12/82. Second rounder in 2003, 83 Ks in 76 innings at Hickory. ETA: 2007.
15. Nathan McLouth, CF, Altoona, 10/28/81. On-base threat who can run: 40 steals in 44 attempts at Lynchburg in 2003. ETA: 2006.
16. Tony Alvarez, OF, Nashville, 5/10/78. Can play circles around Tike Redman, but is dogged by concerns about his attitude. ETA: soon, if injury occurs.
17. Frank Brooks, LHP, Nashville, 9/6/78. Reliever and rule 5 draft returnee who’s played in the Phillies, Pirates, A’s and Red Sox organizations in last ten months. Great at AA and AAA last year, but this year’s numbers not too exciting. ETA: soon.
18. Jeff Keppinger, 2B, Altoona, 4/21/80. Former University of Georgia masher hitting .411/.450/.469 at AA. Not clear whether Bucs view him as prospect. ETA: late 2005.
19. Neil Walker, C, Bradenton, 9/10/85. Local boy becomes Pirates’ top pick in 2004 draft. I shed a little tear. ETA: 2009.
20. Leo Nunez, RHP, 8/14/83, Hickory. Great stuff and control for his age, but TINSTAPP rules apply. ETA: 2007.
21. Javier Guzman, SS, Hickory, 5/4/84. Young Dominican hitting well for average at Hickory. Needs to work on plate discipline, but he’s young for his level. ETA: 2008.
22. Jonathan Albaladejo, RHP, Lynchburg, 10/30/82. Control guy was excellent at Hickory last year (110 Ks, 19 BBs) but has struggled a bit this year at Lynchburg.
23. Chris Duffy, CF, Altoona, 4/20/80. Similar player to McLouth but eighteen months older. Played well in 2003 Arizona Fall League. ETA: late 2005.
24. Bobby Bradley, RHP, Altoona, 12/15/80. Injury problems one after another for 1999 first round pick. Probably won’t put it together. ETA: late 2005.
25. Craig Stansberry, 2B/3B, Hickory, 3/8/82. Needs to improve plate discipline. Little in Hickory lineup but moss and tumbleweed. Thanks, Dave. ETA: 2007.
26. Ray Sadler, CF, Altoona, 9/19/80. Acquired for Randall Simon, hasn’t figured out AA. Still improves the Bucs as much as Simon ever will. ETA: 2006.
27. Jeff Miller, RHP, Altoona, 2/1/80. Reliever finally performing well at Altoona. Very inexperienced pitcher, so there may be some upside here. ETA: 2006.
28. Jason Quarles, RHP, Williamsport, 4/20/83. Seventh round pick has already signed and could be a steal. Throws very hard, with good breaking stuff. ETA: 2008.
29. Joshua Sharpless, RHP, Hickory, 1/26/81. Reliever striking out 13.6 per 9 at Hickory.
30. Rich Thompson, OF, Nashville, 4/23/79. Runs like the wind. Unfortunately, you’ve got to let him try to hit at some point. ETA: late 2004.

NOTES
The Pirates’ organization is organized as follows:
Pittsburgh: Major
Nashville: AAA
Altoona: AA
Lynchburg: A+
Hickory: A
Williamsport: A-
Bradenton: Rookie

Take the ETAs with a grain of salt. If even ten of these guys make the majors, the Pirates will be thrilled.

Who are we? Well, we’re not experts, but we have the good sense to know that many self-proclaimed “experts” aren’t either. This information was compiled from the following sources: personal observation, Baseball Prospectus 2004, Baseball America, MLB.com, ESPN.com, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Baseball Cube, various minor-league team pages, and the Pirates Scouting Report.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Nice Story

...about Craig Wilson in the Post-Gazette's new Q+A:

COMMENT: Funny story, Paul. I'm a longtime Pirate fan, raised in Pittsburgh, and saw the Pirates play twice last month when they visited San Francisco. Getting to meet Kevin McClatchy after the first game was a great moment for me, but the funniest moment of the series involved Craig Wilson. For the second game, I sat in right field behind Craig Wilson, and he was being heckled mightily, to say the least. His hair was the focus of attention, and a couple of male Giants fans were especially hard on him. "Goldilocks" was the insult of choice, but Wilson didn't show so much of a hint of notice until one of the hecklers called him "Joe Dirt," the mullet-head David Spade played in a movie of the same name a few years back. When Wilson heard the "Joe Dirt" comment, he literally cracked up and turned around to look at the heckler and smile, as if to say "good one." He actually cracked up enough to almost lose track of the ball he caught to end the inning. Funny thing is, when Wilson caught the ball, he threw it into the stands toward the heckler in question, who noticed Wilson had personally signed the ball "Joe Dirt."

Adam Perry of San Francisco, Calif.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Anaheim Vs. Pittsburgh, 15 June 2004

Sometimes I watch games and feel as if either I or the people calling the game must be crazy, our perceptions of what's going on are so different.

Case in point: Jack Wilson. Look, the guy's not a good defender. He made one admittedly cool-looking but not amazing play in the middle of tonight's game, and the Fox Sports broadcasters raved about his glove and how the fans should vote him into the All Star Game, all the while failing to point out that he botched a much more routine play earlier in the game.

...And then there was the ninth inning. Darin Erstad started the inning with a single, and Jose Molina sacrificed him to second. Then Adam Kennedy walked. Jeff DaVanon hit into an inning-ending double play, except that Jack Wilson couldn't get the ball out of his glove to throw to first. Then, with Erstad on third, DaVanon scampered to second on a play that was ruled a steal, but was actually the sort of fielder's indifference play of which every team takes advantage in the late innings. Chone Figgins then doubled to right, scoring Erstad and DaVanon.

In their recap of the inning, Fox Sports flashed the graphic "SMALL BALL" to explain why the Angels had scored. What?! Molina's sacrifice was rendered completely irrelevant by the walk to Kennedy. I'll grant that Molina might have hit into a double play if he were allowed to swing away, but his sacrifice had the same effect as a strikeout. No help there. I suppose that DaVanon did make a "productive out" of some kind by moving Erstad to third, but what he actually did was dare the Pirates to turn an inning-ending double play. The fact that Jack Wilson was unable to do so was certainly not something the Angels counted on. The "steal" of second was just indifference on the part of Jason Kendall, who didn't make a throw. And then Figgins hit a double.

So why did the Angels score those runs? Because Erstad, Kennedy and Figgins got on base, and because of Jack Wilson's poor defense. Neither of these factors were ever acknowledged.

Revising The Pirates, 2001-2004

I’ve been thinking recently about the Pirates’ recent decision to pick Neil Walker in the first round of last week’s draft. It made sense, but only for two reasons.

1) The Pirates are cheap, and they didn’t want to pay for Florida State SS Stephen Drew.
2) The Pirates spent their previous six first round picks on pitchers, and were essentially forced to pick a position player this year, in a draft rich in college pitching.

Prior to the 2002 draft, the Pirates had spent their previous four first round draft choices (Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett and Jon VanBenschoten) on pitchers. Burnett and VanBenschoten were hot prospects in the minors at the time, and the Pirates had also acquired underrated prospect Ian Oquendo/Snell in the 2000 draft. They also had a number of interesting young arms at or close to the big league level. They had very few impact hitters in the minors. And yet they chose to draft pitcher Bryan Bullington, a low-risk, low-reward prospect, instead of high-upside high school shortstop B.J. Upton. Then in 2003, they drafted even lower-risk, lower-upside pitcher Paul Maholm instead of Michael Aubrey, the best college hitter in the country. Upton and Aubrey are now tremendous prospects in the Devil Rays and Indians systems, respectively, and Bullington and Maholm are still mediocre. Since the Pirates had spent all those picks on low-upside pitchers instead of the best hitters in the draft, the Pirates almost had to draft a position player this year, even though the best available college pitcher, Jered Weaver, was still on the board when they drafted.

This unfortunate situation has led me to imagine a new recent history of the Pirates, one not hampered by the risk-averse, ‘win now, occasionally’ strategies of general manager Dave Littlefield and owner Kevin McClatchy. What follows is a depth chart of players who might be in the Pirates system had the Pirates spent the last three years building toward the future like they should have. If the Pirates made a trade that appeared at the time to counter the goal of building a contender in the future, I’m going to pretend that trade didn’t happen. I’m also going to assume that the Pirates aren’t cheap (even if they aren’t rich), and that the Aramis Ramirez trade, which was a pure salary dump, didn’t happen. I will also imagine that the Pirates used their last three first round picks on the highest-upside players available, that they didn’t needlessly get crapped on in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, and that they didn’t lose a number of young players to waivers before that while protecting replacement-level talent.

I’d also like to point out that this isn’t just hindsight; I’m just reimagining things as I, and most informed fans, wanted them to occur at the time. In 2002, Littlefield traded Damaso Marte for Matt Guerrier. Guerrier didn’t work out and Marte has been great for the White Sox, but it looked like a good, long-viewed trade at the time, so I won’t pretend that the Pirates still have Marte. I will imagine, for example, that the Pirates still have 3B Kody Kirkland, since Kirkland was traded in the original Randall Simon deal. Trading young talent for mediocre veterans like Simon has not been a good idea for the Pirates for some time, so that trade was a mistake. Smart fans knew it just as well then as they do now.

Listed below are players the Pirates could very easily have in their system now who could conceivably help them in 2005 and beyond. Players acquired by Littlefield are listed in italics. Players passed over or dumped by Littlefield are listed in bold.

CATCHER
Jason Kendall
J.R. House
Ryan Doumit

House was hitting very well at AAA Nashville before a recent injury. Doumit has been great at AA Altoona. Kendall is still one of the best catchers in the majors, although his gargantuan contract remains a problem.

FIRST BASE
Craig Wilson
Michael Aubrey
Brad Eldred
Walter Young

Wilson is clearly a legitimate 30-HR player whose development was probably stunted by the Pirates’ unwillingness to let him play regularly and find an everyday position. Aubrey has been fantastic at Class A+ Kinston for the Indians. So far, Eldred looks like an inspired pick by Littlefield. Young was waived by the Pirates and claimed by the Orioles.

SECOND BASE
Jose Castillo

Castillo and Bobby Hill currently share the Pirates’ second base job.

SHORTSTOP
Jack Wilson
Freddy Sanchez
B.J. Upton

Sanchez acquired for both Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck and he hasn’t played yet, so that trade hasn’t worked out well so far, but the trade (or something like it) was still the right move. B.J. Upton is one of the best prospects anywhere, and he’s currently in the Devil Rays’ system.

THIRD BASE
Aramis Ramirez
Jose Bautista
Kody Kirkland

Now you see, this… this isn’t good. The Pirates traded Ramirez, a flawed but very talented player, to dump his salary a year and a half after they signed him to a reasonable $9 million contract. Jose Bautista was lost in the Rule 5 draft. Kirkland was one of the players traded for Randall Simon. None of these losses are excuseable.

LEFT FIELD
Jason Bay

Bay was acquired in the Brian Giles trade. Littlefield got a lot of talent for Giles, and he should have, since Giles was and continues to be one of the best players in baseball.

CENTER FIELD
Rob Mackowiak
Tony Alvarez
Nathan McLouth
Chris Duffy

Littlefield didn’t acquire any of these guys, but he hasn’t lost them either. He has, however, decided that Alvarez isn’t ever going to see the light of day. McLouth and Duffy are putting up strikingly similar numbers at Altoona.

RIGHT FIELD
J.J. Davis
Chris Shelton

Again, this isn’t good. Despite going berzerk on AAA pitching last year, Davis is still there, nursing one of those imaginary rehab injuries. Shelton, who has excellent power and on-base potential, was needlessly lost in the Rule 5 draft.

STARTING PITCHERS
Kip Wells
Oliver Perez
Jon Van Benschoten
Sean Burnett
Jered Weaver
Ian Snell
Cory Stewart
Zach Duke
Bronson Arroyo
Dave Williams
Ryan Vogelsong
Tom Gorzelanny
Bobby Bradley
Jonathan Albaladejo
Chris Young

More Littlefield acquisitions here. Perez and Stewart were acquired in the Giles trade. Wells came, along with Josh Fogg, in a great trade for Todd Ritchie. Vogelsong was acquired with Armando Rios for Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal. That trade balances the Wells/Ritchie deal; trading Schmidt for young talent was a good idea, but Vogelsong's performances have been less than inspiring. Tom Gorzelanny was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2003, and he’s pitching well at Class A Hickory. Chris Young probably wouldn’t have helped, but he was pointlessly lost in a trade for veteran Matt Herges, who definitely never helped.

RELIEVERS
John Grabow
Mike Johnston
Mike Gonzalez
Frank Brooks
Duaner Sanchez
Josh Fogg
Jeff Bennett

Littlefield tried but failed to get rid of Frank Brooks in the Rule 5 draft, but he succeeded in pushing Jeff Bennett out of the organization. Bennett’s now pitching well for Milwaukee. Sanchez, a fireballer who was originally acquired for Mike Fetters, was lost on waivers and is now contributing from the 'pen for the Dodgers. Fogg was acquired with Wells in the Ritchie trade; he’s probably never going to cut it as a starter, but he might pitch well if converted to relief.

With all this in mind, let’s look at a hypothetical Pirates team for, say, 2007.

C J.R. House
1B Michael Aubrey
2B Jose Castillo
SS B.J. Upton
3B Aramis Ramirez
LF Chris Shelton
CF Jason Bay
RF Craig Wilson

C Ryan Doumit
IF Freddy Sanchez
IF Jose Bautista
OF J.J. Davis
OF Nathan McLouth

SP Oliver Perez
SP Jered Weaver
SP Jon Van Benschoten
SP Kip Wells
SP Sean Burnett

RP Ian Snell
RP Cory Stewart
RP Mike Gonzalez
RP John Grabow
RP Mike Johnston
RP Jeff Bennett
RP Duaner Sanchez

That’s a really talented team. There are guys with very high upsides at every position, and more guys with high upsides to take the places of the ones that don’t work out (including lots of pitchers, since There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect and all). This lineup doesn’t even take into account anything the hypothetical Pirates might have gotten after the first rounds of the 2002-2004 drafts, or anyone they might draft after 2004. The only guys on the team who’d be terribly expensive by 2007 are Ramirez, Wilson and Wells. This is an affordable team.

There is no reason the Pirates couldn’t have had all these guys if they had a general manager and owner who really cared about transforming the team into a contender, and they’ve wouldn’t have had to break the bank, either.

Precious few of these guys were acquired by Littlefield – most of the really high-upside guys were either passed over in the draft or are holdovers from the Cam Bonifay-Mickey White regime. Of the tactically sound trades (leaving aside the question of whether or not the trades were actually smart and considering only that they were made with the right goal in mind, that of building for the future) that Littlefield did make, only one, the Wells deal, has really worked out well. The jury is still out on the Giles and Suppan deals. The rest (Vogelsong, Guerrier) were okay gambles that turned out poorly. In addition, the Littlefield-McClatchy drafts have added very little to the farm system, and Littlefield has traded, waived, or Rule 5’d much of what was there already. The Pirates have not had a good team at the major league level in a dozen years, so none of these young players were lost in order to help the team in a pennant run.

In most cases, it’s debatable whether the veterans acquired or protected at those young players’ expense have helped the Pirates at all, in the short-term or in the long-term. Here are just a few examples. The presence of Randall Simon, who swings like Ron Jeremy and runs like him too, only made the Pirates worse and has probably stunted the developments of Craig Wilson and J.J. Davis. Matt Herges, acquired for Chris Young, never played in a game for the Pirates. Mike Lincoln, on the 40-man roster last November while Shelton and Bautista were left unprotected, was later cut and has not played for the Pirates since.

The Littlefield-McClatchy administration has not only failed to build a winner at the major league level, they’ve actively hampered the Pirates’ likelihood of building one in the future. If the Pirates had built their team in even a moderately intelligent way over the past three years – by keeping young talent, trading veterans where appropriate and drafting high-upside players – they’d likely have the best farm system of any organization, and they’d have a team that would be very likely to go to the playoffs and compete for a championship in the next few years. Very little inspiration would have been required to make these moves – they were simply what was right for the team at the time, and Littlefield could easily have ridden the team’s high draft choices and some surprisingly good drafts (particularly in 2000 and 2001) by the Bonifay administration straight to the playoffs. Instead, due to a number of moves that looked as shortsighted and self-defeating then as they do now, the Pirates’ mediocrity will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Fun with VORP

Here’s a fun little game. Take every AL team and add up the Value Over Replacement Player of every player who’s gotten the most at-bats at each “infield” position (1B, 2B, SS, 3B, C). Here are the top and bottom three:

Baltimore: 107.3
Detroit: 88.0
Texas: 86.7

Anaheim: 33.0
Kansas City: 26.8
Toronto: 12.6

The top three are anchored by three of the more pleasant surprises in the league. Melvin Mora (40.4), acquired from the Mets (with prospects) for a month of Mike Bordick, was a utility infielder basically until he turned 31 and the Orioles handed him an everyday utility role for lack of decent options at short, third and outfield. Since 2003 he’s done nothing but terrorize pitching and his acquisition was one of the lone bright spots of the Syd Thrift puppet regime. The Birds infield, as I’ve chosen to define it, has also gotten solid work from three of their four major free agent acquisitions, Miguel Tejada (20.6), Javy Lopez (17.6) and Rafael Palmeiro (18.5).

More fun with the list tomorrow.

Bye, Neyer - Part II

With which of Cameron's feelings do you sympathize, Ryan? The fond feelings for the old Neyer, or the not-so-happy feelings that led Cameron to describe one of Neyer's recent columns as a "steaming pile of horse crap"?

Me, I'll sympathize with both. I'd stopped reading his recent columns - they rarely say anything that a casual fan couldn't figure out pretty easily, and are often very lazy. His Rob & Rany On The Royals columns with Rany Jayazerli are still very good (and free!), however, so the downturn of his recent ESPN columns may be his editors' fault. Whatever the case, his writing was a lot of fun up until 2002 or so.

My favorite Neyer column is this hilarious dissection of an interview with a desperate Cam Bonifay (scroll down to 4 April 2001 to read it).

Farewell, Rob

I’d like to echo the recent sentiments of David Cameron at USS Mariner. I’ve been reading Rob Neyer since he was writing a column titled Chin Muzak for some site called ESPNet Sportszone. He changed the way I thought about baseball and helped me realize that 90% of what I’d been reading about the Orioles in the Washington Post was utter drivel. Later, I realized 90% of ESPN.com was also crap.

As of today, Rob will disappear behind the Insider’s iron curtain. Only those who chose to pay the Man $40 a year may pass. It’s a mistake for ESPN. I presume that most of their revenue comes from advertising, which means the more visitors to the site -- Insider subscribers or not -- the more money they get. Well, Neyer was their last writer consistently worth a read and now that he’s gone, they’ve lost my daily click.

As a more upbeat memorial, I’d like to mention my two favorite Neyer columns. The first is not contained in his “complete” archives on the site. It was written in 2000 (I believe) about Lance Berkman, who was absolutely destroying the ball in AAA New Orleans but was unable to get the promotion to the big club he’d earned. (Sound familiar, Twins fans?) Neyer said any team looking for a slugging outfielder could probably pick him up for “a couple sunflower seeds and a bucket of warm spit” (That’s just a paraphrase from memory and if anyone can find the original column, it would be cool). Luckily for Astros fans, it didn’t turn out to be true.

Right after my next favorite column was posted I got an email from Charlie saying “f****** great vitriolic Neyer!!”. It’s about the contract extension the Angels gave Erstad in 2002 and a great read if you’re in an intellectually superior mood.

Bizarro Rob

Rob Neyer has previously taken to task sports writers who seem to reach conclusions before doing any research, then present only the facts which help their cases. A simple litmus test for this type of writing involves arguing the opposite conclusion just as effectively by presenting different facts. Let's see if Rob's latest article, predicting the A's to win the West, can pass muster:

The Angels began exactly as Arte Moreno hoped they would, riding hot offensive starts from holdover stars (Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson), new acquisitions (Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen) and a couple of "Who?" players (Jeff DaVanon, Chone Figgins) to a 22-10 record. They have slumped to 13-15 since then after losing Glaus to season-ending shoulder surgery and Anderson to arthritis in his shoulders and back. Anderson has made a miraculous recovery, thanks to the fabulous world of drug discovery, and just in time as his team now sits two games behind the surging A's (are they ever not surging?). To help us handicap the rest of the season, let’s look at the lineups both teams should hope to field when Eric Chavez gets healthy along with their 2004 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) courtesy of Baseball Prospectus:

Angels:
C Molina (4.3)
1B Kotchman (-2.2)
2B Kennedy (-0.9)
3B Figgins (19.1)*
SS Eckstein (10.9)
OF Guillen (20.4)
OF Guerrero (38.9)
CF DaVanon (18.3)
DH Anderson (7.0)*
*VORP listed for CF

Total: 115.8

Athletics:
C Miller (10.2)
1B Hatteberg (20.3)
2B Scutaro (13.1)
3B Chavez (16.6)
SS Crosby (15.2)
OF Dye (18.0)
OF Byrnes (18.8)
CF Kotsay (9.5)
DH Durazo (20.4)

Total: 142.1

I did not include Erstad in the lineup, since these are the lineups the teams should hope to field, not the lineups they actually will, given the chance. Looks like Neyer’s doing pretty well so far, and offense is supposed to be a strength for the Angels. But look behind the numbers and the race is much closer than it may seem. Is Hatteberg really going to blow away his career best season OPS at age 34? When Chavez comes back in five weeks, will he be the same player? Hand injuries can be devastating to hitters. Will Byrnes continue his Jekkyl/Hyde Pre All-Star/Post All-Star act of the previous two years? Is Kennedy really this bad? The Angels hope to get Tim Salmon back soon and he could push Kotchman back to the minors since it’s apparent he’s not going to hit right away.

The part of the Neyer piece to which I really took exception was his focus on the ways the A’s could get better while completely ignoring what the Angels could do (except “get healthy”. Please. What they really need to is realize that Erstad’s only good uses, when healthy, are centerfielder and pinch-bunter. While they’re at it, they might also see that in Francisco Rodriguez they might not only have Eric Gagne, but Pedro Martinez as well, if you get my drift). Sure, Billy Beane is known for his great deadline deals and the A’s have a number of solid to outstanding prospects but Bill Stoneman, with five of B-Pro's Top 50 prospects, has plenty of chips to cash in for a second baseman and starting pitcher.

I do agree with Neyer's conclusions, but his analysis could’ve been more even-handed. With a couple of breaks for Anaheim, this will be one hell of a race.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Dodgers Vs. Red Sox, 13 June 2004

Pokey Reese just made a breathtaking Spud Webb jump to prevent Dave Roberts from hitting a gapper with two men on. I'm reminded of this game. Kip Wells took a no-hitter into the eighth despite not throwing particularly well, largely because Reese made about four similarly amazing plays to prevent base hits.

I was at that game, and I later told Ryan (the quiet one, over to your right) about Pokey's heroics and argued that if Reese could prevent even a half a hit per game, he'd be an above average second baseman overall. Mainstream saber writers at the time (read: Rob Neyer) often argued that the conventional wisdom crowd overvalued defense, and Ryan looked at Reese's anemic offensive numbers and told me I was out of my mind, and that Reese's defense couldn't possibly be that valuable.

Well, the CW crowd and I were probably right on this one, at least given what we know now. Baseball Prospectus thinks Reese saved nine runs more than the average second baseman over the past three years despite missing most of 2003 to injury, and even that seems conservative. Range Factor (a measure of the number of plays a fielder makes per game) says he's made about one more play per game than the average second baseman over that period. There are a lot of problems with Range Factor, such as the fact that it does not account for the number of balls hit in a fielder's direction. The fact that Jack Wilson has a slightly above-average Range Factor over the same period serves as a warning that Pokey's RFs might be a bit overblown, since most serious defensive metrics rate Wilson a below-average defender and Wilson and Reese played behind the same pitching staffs in 2002 and 2003.

So let's look at Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) stat, which not only factors in the number of balls hit a fielder's way but also park effects, groundball-to-flyball ratios of pitching staffs, and the types of balls (line drives, etc.) hit in the direction of each fielder. Reese's UZRs at second base have been fantastic - he was twenty runs above average in 2003 (or he would have been, if he'd played 162 games), and twenty-six runs above average per 162 games from 1999 to 2001.

The point is that by any serious metric I'm aware of, Pokey Reese is simply an excellent defender, excellent enough to more than offset his poor hitting. In the case of his defense, the stats confirm what the observational evidence tells us. His hitting is still another story, of course (although he did hit an impressive drive off the Green Monster today), but there's at least a small chance that even his offense may eventually be respectable. According to Baseball Reference, the player most similar to Reese through age 30 is Tony Phillips. If Reese can learn to control the strike zone like Phillips did, he'll be nearly as valuable with his bat as he is with his glove. Of course, Phillips was a very unusual player; it's much more likely that Reese's career path will follow those of his second- and third- most-similar players, the weak-hitting Andre Rodgers and Billy Martin. Both of them flamed out by age 33. Enjoy Reese's spectacular defense now: there may not be too many years of it left.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

And...

The Pirates, after blowing their chance to put up a bunch of runs in the sixth, lose by one. That's Bucco Ball, not Billy Beane Ball!

Open Letter To Broadcasters

Dear Broadcasters:

Please, please, please stop turning every Oakland A's game you call into a referendum about sabermetrics. You almost never have any idea what you're talking about, you sound pathetic and old, and it's not your job. You're supposed to be telling us what's going on in the game and why, not giving completely unfounded opinions about subjects that clearly exceed your intellectual grasp.

This has happened in every Athletics game I've watched in the past two years. Since I haven't yet moved to California, nearly all the A's games I've seen have been on ESPN, and the offending broadcaster has usually been Joe Morgan. Joe, you were a great player, but you're not a very good broadcaster. If you have trouble being objective when you call A's games, perhaps you should ask your boss not to schedule you for them anymore.

Today's offenders, however, were on Fox Sports, which was broadcasting the A's against my local Pirates. The broadcasters were, as you might expect, Pirates cheerleaders who call Pittsburgh players "Jason" and "Jack" and "Kip" instead of their last names. In the top of the sixth, with the Pirates ahead 7-6, Chris Stynes hit a single and Jose Castillo sacrificed him to second. After Jason, I mean Kendall, struck out, Jack Wilson singled, scoring Stynes. The Pirates' color man crowed, "It's Bucco Ball, not Billy Beane Ball!"

Well, I think we've all seen how successful "Bucco Ball" has been over the past, oh, twelve years. Every situation is different, of course, but there are very few contexts in which that sort of sacrifice is a good idea. (That is, if the manager's goal is to score runs rather than preserve a quaint and ineffective approach to baseball strategy.)

After the Pirates' homers ended their victory parade, Jason Bay singled, meaning Stynes would have scored anyway and Castillo's plate appearance was a waste. Craig Wilson hit into a fielders' choice, stranding Bay and Jack Wilson, which means that the Pirates may have bunted their way out of a big inning. If Castillo had been given the chance to take his plate appearance seriously, he might have reached base, probably scoring himself on Bay's single and allowing Rob Mackowiak to come to the plate and take a shot at knocking in even more runs. These facts were never mentioned.

While we're at it, here's another example of the sort of sweeping and unfortunate claim you shouldn't make on the air. After Ryan Vogelsong was pulled from the game, the announcers agreed that the Pirates shouldn't "develop talent at the major league level."

What does this mean? Does this mean that the Pirates shouldn't play rookies at all? Because rookies struggle. That's what they do, often even when they were great in the minors. The announcers agreed that all major league teams had a responsibility to put the best possible product on the field at all times.

Has anyone noticed how horrible the Pirates have been over the past five or six years, in which they've signed a new crop of veterans each year? Even when the old players have been good, like they were in 2003, the Pirates have only been mediocre, and they've been unambiguously awful when the veterans have been bad. If the Pirates hope to ever be good, they have to let young guys play. Vogelsong might be terrible, but at least the Pirates know that now. They've also found out that Oliver Perez is going to help them a whole lot (health permitting), and that Bobby Hill, Mike Johnston, John Grabow, Mike Gonzalez, Jason Bay and Jose Castillo can contribute at the major league level. They've decided to waste J.J. Davis' talent, which is a mistake. Building a core of talented young players who have to play for you for pennies is the only way a small-market team like the Pirates will ever be successful. The Pirates simply don't have the money to sign free agents good enough to make them contenders. You guys, especially those who have broadcast games for years, should know that.

In some sense, maybe this is a subjective issue. Maybe the Pirates should play only veterans and not rookies, if you're only interested in the Pirates winning 73 games rather than 72 that year. The degree of improvement over young players that veterans in the Pirates' price range can afford is usually small, if it exists at all. 2003 was a sort of best case scenario, and while Reggie Sanders was very good for the Pirates, he kept Craig Wilson on the bench. And this year so far, the Pirates would have a better record if they'd never played any of their parade of veterans. Jose Mesa and Daryle Ward have helped a little bit, but their contributions have been more than offset by the awful play of Chris Stynes and Randall Simon.

But I'll be generous and say that signing a bunch of bottom-barrel veterans improves the Pirates by a game. If you'd rather win that one extra game rather than giving yourself a chance of winning 95 instead of 73 (again) three years later, then you are a sad, boring individual and I don't want to hear what you have to say anyway.

In the meantime, please concentrate on telling us about the game when you're broadcasting. There is so much that we amateurs do not know about things like positioning, signs and some of the game's more arcane rules. I don't know why, but somehow most of you still haven't learned anything about long-term strategy and statistical trends. Many fans know a lot more about these things than you do. So please stop talking about those things. They're only tangentially related to the game at hand and they make you look like idiots.

Sincerely,
VORB

The MLB Draft

I am by no means an expert, but it seems to me that the MLB Draft is in desperate need of a change. There is a lot to be said on this subject (the draft is ridiculously clandestine, for instance), but I have only one main question for the purposes of this post: Why are teams in the MLB not allowed to trade their draft picks?

It seems like a necessity to me. Why, you ask (If you actually didn't ask, then I will just pretend that you did)? Because of a simple phenomenon that I will call the Eli Manning effect. The name is not that important; we could just as easily call it the Mark Prior, Stephen Drew, Jered Weaver, or Michael Vick effect. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the most coveted player on the draft board does not fit in with the team that has the first overall pick. What happens, for instance, when your farm system desperately needs talent at a position the best player does not play? Or what happens when the best player refuses to sign with your team? What happens when you can't afford to sign the best player in the draft (read: He is a Scott Boras client and your team is not the Yankees)? Well, if you play in the NFL, NBA, or virtually any other sports league that I know has a draft, you trade your pick. This allows you to be compensated for trading down and increase the probability that your team's needs will be met. My bet is that it would also increase the excitement surrounding the draft, creating more fan interest (more revenue). However, in the MLB this is against the rules.

In this year's MLB Draft, the San Diego Padres were forced to take an enormous step down and draft Matt Bush with their first overall pick simply because they could not afford to sign either Jered Weaver or Stephen Drew. In fact, many teams couldn't afford them, that is why Weaver slipped to the 12th overall pick and Drew fell to the 15th overall slot, despite being arguably the best players in the draft class. So, if a draft is supposed to give a slight advantage to those teams that have done poorly in the previous season, why were the Padres not allowed to trade their first overall pick to Anaheim or Arizona for a bit of compensation? This is yet another entry in the long list of things that baseball needs to learn from the NFL.

Friday, June 11, 2004

My Stance On Laynce (That Is Clever Because It Rhymes)

In an effort to appease readers who have no interest in the Pirates, I have decided to take a quick look at one of baseball's more annoying position "battles." The Pirates, you see, are not the only team in the bigs with a bewildering preference for veterans. ("Veterans," it should be pointed out, is a loaded word, so from here on out I will refer to them as "old players.") This preference seems to dominate their decisions even in the face of statistical evidence to the contrary. One such team is the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers have been the feel-good story of the majors so far, cutting ties with or trading a large number of expensive superstars in favor of starting from scratch while vastly improving their record (They were 20 games under .500 in 2003). In doing so, the Rangers have made a number of moves that make baseball geeks like Charlie drool. They have allowed Hank Blalock to develop into a young star, stuck with hard-hitting 1B/3B Mark Teixeira through all of his injuries and struggles, acquired Alfonso Soriano in a cap-clearing trade, and given many opportunities to players like Kevin Mench and Michael Young. The Rangers seem to be doing everything right, and that is because they have...almost.

Even after all of their success with young players, the Rangers have seemed reluctant to start CF Laynce Nix. This is puzzling because the 23-year-old Nix has a .299 BA, .340 OBP, and .594 SLG with 8 HR in only 137 ABs. Nix has had some brief injuries, but as far as I know, the only reason that he has had about 100 fewer ABs than every other regular player in the league at this point is that Buck Showalter seems to want to make sure he has at least some old players on the field. When his youth and lack of experience are taken into account, it is clear that Nix has been impressive at nearly every stage of his career, but his playing time has been stolen by David Dellucci, Gary Matthews Jr., Chad Allen, Brian Jordan, and Eric Young. Yesterday, in a game against (you guessed it) the Pirates, Showalter sent Eric Young to center, Chad Allen to left, Gary Matthews Jr. to right, and Herbert Perry to the DH slot. This makes me sad. Matthews has always been only a decent bench player, Perry is OK but old, and Allen is a journeyman who did most of his best work for the Albuquerque Isotopes. In short, the logic used to create this lineup was composed of several atoms of Crapium.

This is not to say that all of the Texas outfielders are bad; they clearly aren't. Young and Dellucci in particular have had productive seasons thus far, and deserve playing time. However, there is no reason why Nix should receive so few opportunities. Showalter may be under the impression that Nix struggles against lefties, but Nix is 23 years old, and 31 major league at bats against them are not enough to prove that. Furthermore, if Nix has a problem with lefties, he must learn how to overcome it, and the only way to do that is by (gasp) playing.

Baseball, like all sports, is filled with variables that are beyond a manager's control — injuries, slumps, and strength of schedule sometimes can't be helped — so I think that it is the job of every manager to make choices by seeking out the highest probability of success. Benching a young, promising player in favor of a platoon of older, less-productive ones is not strategically sound, especially when your pitching staff appears to be a walking time bomb and the younger player is better anyway. In my opinion, Showalter would do well to figure this out, lest someone catch on to my awesome rhyming rhetoric and dub him Suck Showalter.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Pirates Vs. Rangers, 10 June 2004

Oliver Perez' performance in the first game produced one of the more, um, maximal lines I've seen this season:

IP:6
H: 3
R: 6
ER: 6
BB: 4
K: 12
HR: 3

After five innings, Perez had struck out ten and only allowed two hits, but he had allowed five runs because both the hits were homers and he had walked four and hit two batters. In six innings, the Rangers only put the ball in play six times, and didn't manage to get a hit any of those times. All the hits were homers.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Good Call, Paul

Paul Meyer calls for the release of Randall Simon and, when Freddy Sanchez returns, Chris Stynes. These moves would make me smile.

He also opines that Tampa Bay claimed Pirates Rule 5 prize Jose Bautista not to help this year, but to have in the farm system last year. He's probably right. Bautista isn't going to take many at bats from anyone in Tampa's outfield, and while he might take a few from Geoff Blum and Damian Rolls at third, there aren't many to go around since those players basically back up Aubrey Huff anyway.
I understand the reasons for the Rule 5 draft, but the practice of keeping guys on the major league roster and not playing them seems contrary to the spirit of the draft and highly detrimental to those players' careers. Bautista is now in the middle of his second consecutive busted season - he's got eleven at bats this year, and he missed most of last year when he broke his hand in a fight with a garbage can. Maybe he'll go back to the minors next year and put it together, but now that seems doubtful, and it's likely that the promise he displayed as a 21 year old in Class A Hickory in 2002 will go to waste.

Chris Shelton, another Rule 5 loss, has only 32 at bats for Detroit this year. Now he's on the disabled list, which means that he'll probably get to have a long, long "rehab" vacation in Toledo or Erie where he won't appear to be injured, but will thankfully actually get to play.

The point of the Rule 5 draft, I think, is to keep teams from stockpiling tons of major league-ready talent in the minors. The intentions of the draft are good, and when an organization uses the talent the acquire to legitimately help their major league team (as the Brewers are doing with Jeff Bennett, for example), that's great. But in practice, some of the best prospects selected in the draft just get stockpiled and neglected on major league benches, or on "rehab assignments" that, in practice, are no different from the minor league assignments they'd get from their original teams. The point of the draft is to improve the quality of the game by making sure that major league talent gets to play in the major leagues, but that isn't happening in the cases of Shelton or Bautista.

It's not that I think the Pirates deserve to get Shelton and Bautista back. Leaving them unprotected was moronic, and the Pirates deserved what they got. Shelton and Bautista, however, deserve better. This season will be wasted for them, and if their careers flame out as a result, the Pirates will say, "See? We told you so." But if they do flop, it will very likely be because the rules of baseball didn't allow them to realize their potential.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Correction

Although Jason Bay was present at the game yesterday, he had the flu. I take it back - if he's sick, the Pirates shouldn't play him. They still shouldn't have started Simon, however.

Randall, Randall, Randall...

Here's a funny column by the Stats Geek about Randall Simon's bizarre ability to hit like, y'know, a decent major league hitter with a runner on first. I've argued with Geek columnist Brian O'Neill about this issue at Baseball Primer, and he's convinced me that he might be on to something, at least where Simon's batting average is concerned - it's been so much higher in all situations with a runner on first than in other situations the past few years that I think it's possible that Simon is able to hit a whole lot of balls through the hole between first and second in those situations that would otherwise be groundouts. Of course, it could just be a sample size issue.

While this is all very interesting, though, Simon should not be starting for the Pirates under any circumstances. He started at DH last night against the Rangers. Jason Bay sat on the bench for the entire game as the Pirates lost 6-5 in the tenth. What's going on with Bay? Is he not healthy? If he is, then why wouldn't he be playing? He's had exactly nine plate appearances in the past week. Losing a game by one run while starting Simon and never playing a clearly-rested Bay is borderline negligence.

When Abraham Nunez pinch-hit in the top of the ninth, there was a man on first and the score was tied. Nunez sacrificed, of course, and the man was stranded at second. Note to Lloyd McClendon: in the top of an inning a tie game at Arlington, sacrificing a man to second with no outs is not an optimal strategy - one run isn't even likely to be enough to win, and sacrificing an out for a base isn't even the best way to score that one run, especially when you can send Bay to the plate.

The bullpen usage last night was also strange, even though it may not have hurt the Pirates. Don't the Pirates think that Jose Mesa is their best reliever? If not, then why's he their closer? And if so, why didn't he play last night to prevent the Rangers from scoring with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth or the bottom of the tenth? Salomon Torres and Mike Johnston pitched those innings and generally were fine (Johnston allowed the winning run, but only because Tike Redman misplayed two flares to shallow center). But Mesa hadn't pitched in three days, so he clearly should have been ready.

We shouldn't be surprised by this, of course, but what's going on is that McClendon is allowing an arbitrary statistic - saves - determine who pitches rather than allowing (the guys he thinks are) his best relievers to pitch the highest leverage innings. It's really terrible strategy, and it'll probably cost the Pirates a couple of games over the course of the season. Mike Johnston may or may not be better than Mesa (and he also might be better for certain matchups), but Torres clearly hasn't been this year. If the Pirates trust Mesa leading by one run in the bottom of the ninth, they also ought to trust him while they're tied in the bottom of the ninth. If the opposing team scores, the Pirates lose; there aren't any situations that are more high-leverage than that.

Monday, June 07, 2004

First Round

The Pirates take Neil Walker; the Orioles get Wade Townsend. Stephen Drew falls to Arizona at #15, and Jered Weaver goes to the Angels at #12. Why didn't the Pirates take Drew? That revenue-sharing money the Pirates promised was going to player development? Yeah. Not happening, not that we should be surprised.

More On The Draft

Here's a piece by David Cameron on the Moneyball draft and drafting strategies in general. In a recent reference to the article on U.S.S. Mariner, Cameron writes, "...The famed Moneyball draft was basically a disaster for the A's."

Many of the players the A's chose in that draft were signability picks, in that they were chosen as much because they wouldn't break the Athletics' modest draft budget as they were for their potential. That draft included outfielder Nick Swisher, who's currently hitting very well at AAA; Joe Blanton, who's one of the best pitching prospects in baseball; Mark Teahen, who hit .419/.543 in 200 at bats this year at AA Midland and was recently promoted to Sacramento; Brant Colamarino, who was fantastic at Class A+ Modesto this year and was recently promoted to Midland; and several other guys who have displayed some potential since signing. The A's didn't really break the bank for any of these guys. It's far from clear that their 2002 draft was a "disaster."

But the point that Cameron tries to make in U.S.S. Mariner is generally correct, I think: "Putting yourself in a box and refusing to see the limitations of a hard-and-fast set of evaluation techniques raises your likelihood of making a mistake." It isn't a good idea to refuse to draft high school players on principle (no major league team has done that, although in recent seasons the A's and Blue Jays have come close). Not only might such inflexibility cause teams to miss out on a big talent, it might also put teams at a disadvantage when the dynamics of the draft change.

Let's say, for example, that an average draft produces thirty quality major leaguers. ("Quality Major Leaguers" can be pretty different from one another, of course, and I can't even give you a clear idea of what I mean by that term, but fine distinctions aren't especially important here.) Let's say that, typically, ten of those are high school draftees, while twenty are college draftees (I'm just making these numbers up). We still don't know whether it's a good idea to draft in a manner that favors college players or high school players, since the probability of drafting one of those players is determined in part by how many college and high school players other teams are drafting. If we know from experience that a given draft is likely to produce ten quality major leaguers from high schools and twenty from colleges, but all the other teams are drafting only college players, it might be advantageous to grab all the best high school talent available. The reverse could also be true. It's also obviously wise to see how closely the factors that cause high school and college players to succeed and fail as groups apply to the individual players one wants to draft. A smart scouting director would also pay close attention to changes in the high school and college baseball systems that might affect the classes of players those systems produce.

And perhaps the wisest strategy of all would be to develop an informed perspective on what types of players are likely to contribute in the majors (taking into account their age and experience as well as other factors), then to simply choose the best players available (based on that perspective) rather than reacting to what other organizations are doing.

With the caveat that I still think drafting high school pitchers in the early rounds is usually not a wise idea, my point is that I agree with Cameron: drafting only college players, or only high school players, is dumb. So if Neil Walker really is the best player on the board when the Pirates draft today, I hope they grab him.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

We're Busted

Larry Mahnken points out that the name of our blog bears inadvertent similarity to that of his Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. We like our name and would like to keep it, but we apologize to Larry and recommend that you check out RLYW for passionate Yankees coverage.

Pirates vs. Cubs, 5 June 2004

I realize I'm a bit late to the punch on this one, but here's what happened to the Pirates in yesterday's 6-1 loss to the Cubs.

Kris Benson's pitching well, and thanks to a homer by Jason Bay, Benson enters the bottom of the seventh with a 1-0 lead. He loads the bases with one out and is replaced by Mike Gonzalez. Corey Patterson hits Gonzalez' 1-0 pitch to first, which should start an inning-ending double play. Unfortunately, Randall Simon flubs the throw to home, the Pirates get no outs on the play, and the Cubs score three runs that inning.

Does Lloyd McClendon think:
A) "Why do my teams always seem to lose more games than they ought to?"
B) "Why am I letting Randall Simon try to play defense late in a game we're leading 1-0?"
B1) "Wait a second, why am I letting Simon play at all? When's Dave going to let J.J. get over that fake injury?" or
C) None of the above.

My money's on C.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Monday's Draft

Dayn Perry has a Q+A on this Monday's draft available at Fox Sports (thanks for the link, Primer). Perry's first round predictions are there; he thinks the Pirates will take Neil Walker. He also thinks that many of the most interesting college hitters won't go in the first round, which means the Pirates could have a shot at one of the better ones in the second round. Ryan, Perry predicts the Orioles will select Old Dominion P Justin Verlander, who may already have a dead arm.

...And All About Zach

Baseball America and MLB.com both have recent features on 21 year old Pittsburgh lefty Zach Duke, who's lighting up Class A+ Lynchburg. Duke was acquired in the 20th round of the 2001 draft, a draft that has looked brilliant so far for the Pirates. Pittsburgh got a ton of talent in that draft, including P/1B Jon VanBenschoten (Round 1), CF Chris Duffy (Round 8), P Jonathan Albaladejo (Round 19), 3B Kody Kirkland (Round 30), and C/1B/OF/Hitter Chris Shelton (Round 33). Unfortunately, Kirkland was quietly shipped to Detroit in the Pirates' first pointless Randall Simon acquisition (Kirkland proceeded to torch the Class A New York - Penn League at age 20), and Shelton was also taken by the Tigers, this time in the everything-must-go Pirate prospect clearance sale... er, I mean the 2003 Rule 5 draft.

There are two other relatively famous names in that draft list. The Pirates picked Stanford RHP Jeremy Guthrie in the third round, but weren't able to sign him; he was selected by the Indians with the 22nd overall pick the following year and is now a highly regarded prospect in their system. They also selected man of the hour Stephen Drew in the 11th round. Drew, who's J.D.'s little brother, is very likely to go to the Padres as the top pick in this Monday's draft.

The Pirates have the 11th pick in this year's draft and will probably select a position player. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has suggested that it might be Pine-Richland (Pittsburgh) HS catcher Neil Walker. If Vanderbilt pitcher Jeremy Sowers is still available, the Pirates could take him instead. I'd like to see the Pirates take a college masher, but the consensus seems to be that there aren't many college hitters besides Drew who will go that early in the draft. It's hard to get too excited, since this doesn't seem to be an outstanding draft for position players, and the Pirates' two drafts since scouting director Mickey White's departure have been conservative and weak.

Friday, June 04, 2004

All About Jack

As this blog develops, you're probably going to see a lot of annoyance directed at the Pirates and their fans for their irrational love for Jack Wilson (unless he continues to hit, which he won't, but anyway...). In the Pittsburgh press recently we've heard some muttering about signing Wilson to a long-term deal. My question to Paul Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Jack was published this Wednesday. Here's the text:

Is it just me or is all the rumbling going on about a long-term deal for Jack Wilson a little bit crazy? Yes, he dives a lot and has a goofy smile, kind of like my dog Emma. That's nice. But like Emma, Wilson hasn't helped the Pirates' offense at all in the last three years. A player who hits .250 with no power and no walks shouldn't even be employed as a utility infielder anymore. We know Wilson's supposed to be good with the glove, but the numbers say he's overrated there and that his glovework hasn't come close to offsetting his ineptitude at the plate. The Pirates have several interesting young middle infielders who could step in if Wilson left. Wilson's had six good weeks this year, which is wonderful, and we all hope the improvement sticks. But the Pirates should at least see how the year plays out before they even consider whether he'll be on the team next year, much less whether it would be wise to sign him to a long-term deal. Wilson's improved power this year is an encouraging sign. But he still isn't drawing walks, which means that the rest of the improvement is concentrated in his batting average, which is subject to high levels of fluctuation. Once he cools off -- I hope he won't but think he probably will -- he'll probably be some version of his former self, maybe with a bit more power. That means he probably still won't be a very helpful player. The Pirates have so little money and so many needs (that) it would be a huge shame to commit $10 million or so to a light-hitting infielder.

Charlie Wilmoth of Wheeling, W.Va.


I went a bit too far with the "shouldn't even be a utility infielder" part, but I think the rest is basically right. Here's Meyer's response:

Perhaps Jack Wilson didn't contribute much offensively in his first two seasons, Charlie, but in 2003, while batting .256, he did hit nine home runs and did drive in 62 runs. And he's having a great season offensively thus far in 2004. Plus, he's not overrated defensively. One scout said a couple months ago that Jack Wilson is the best defensive shortstop in the National League. Granted, he doesn't draw many walks, but who on the Pirates does outside of Jason Kendall? With very little power in the Pirate lineup to worry about, pitchers don't need to be careful pitching to this team.

Before this season began, I mentioned that Jack Wilson would need to have a good year if he wanted to come back to the Pirates. So far, he's having a great year. What this has done is force the Pirates -- at this point -- to entertain thoughts of signing him long-term. That doesn't mean they will. It just means they have to think about it. They won't do anything until after the season no matter what Wilson does the rest of the season. And they might just decide to go to arbitration with him again for one more year.

The Pirates have a lot of decisions to make about 2005. But they don't have to make them now, and that includes what to do about Jack Wilson.


About the counting stats first: when a player gets over 500 at bats, nine homers and 62 RBIs is nothing, especially when the player spent a good percentage of those at bats hitting second. Also, when you get past superficial stats like RBIs, Wilson wasn't any better in 2003 than in 2002.

Here he is:
2002: .306 OBP, .332 SLG, 4 HR
2003: .303 OBP, .353 SLG, 9 HR

The small increase in power is mildly encouraging (and it continues this year: Wilson already has 21 extra base hits, as compared to 33 in all of 2003), but this still isn't Alex Rodriguez we're talking about. Wilson was a huge drain on the Pirates' offense both years, mostly because he still hadn't learned to take a walk.

This year, Wilson is batting .341/.357/.495. That power is nice, but .341/.357? Are you kidding me? Wilson isn't Ichiro; he's not going to sustain those numbers. Either he's going to start taking walks (he currently has just five) or the batting average is going to come way down, and given Wilson's past history, I think I know which one of those things is going to happen.

Regarding Meyer's argument about Wilson's walks: besides Kendall, who on the Pirates draws walks? Well, Craig Wilson, Jason Bay and Bobby Hill all have been fairly patient hitters throughout their minor and major league careers, and Rob Mackowiak has always drawn walks in the majors. And if pitchers don't have to be careful when pitching to the Pirates, why does Kendall continue to draw walks while others don't/'don't'? And why didn't Jack Wilson draw walks last year, when the Pirates had several well-known power threats in their lineup? Answer: because he simply doesn't know how to take a walk. It's not a matter of context. Put Wilson in Boston's lineup and he won't draw walks; put him in Tampa's lineup and he won't draw walks; bat him cleanup for the Williamsport Crosscutters and he won't draw walks. And without the walks or a serious power spike, he won't be a productive hitter unless he hits about .320.

Meyer also skirts the issue of what the numbers say about Wilson's defense. A scout's opinion wasn't really relevant to my claim that Wilson's defense is overrated, since scouts, analysts and broadcasters are the ones overrating him. This isn't an issue I know a ton about, but I would think Meyer and Dave Littlefield would at least be curious about Baseball Prospectus' numbers (BP ranks Wilson seven runs above the average shortstop over the last three years combined), or Tangotiger's numbers, which rank Wilson an average of eight runs below average per 162 games over the same period, or this comparison of several different defensive systems. Only in one - the one by the Baseball Prospectus writer - does Wilson rank as even an average defensive shortstop.

I'm not a statistician, so there's a lot I don't know about these systems, and the high variability of the results just in Wilson's case shows us that statistical analysts still have a lot of work to do to figure out defense. But if someone's an elite defender - if the scouts know it, if everyone knows it - that's usually reflected in the numbers. Mark Ellis is ranked above average in all four systems. So is Travis Lee. J.T. Snow. Derrek Lee. Mike Cameron. Andruw Jones. Jose Cruz Jr. Ichiro.

Let's look at David Pinto's Probabilistic Model Of Range for a second. Like most metrics I'm aware of, Pinto's system ranks Wilson a below-average shortstop. As I understand it, Pinto's metric examines the percentages at which fielders turn batted balls into outs, just like Zone Rating does. Pinto also weighs the number of each type of balls (line drives, fly balls, etc.) hit to those zones and the rate at which those balls are usually turned into outs. This seems simple enough. If Jack Wilson is a great defender, why does he fail to turn such a relatively high number of balls hit his way into outs?

Is there something special about the balls hit his way? Are the line drives hit in Wilson's direction different from the line drives hit in, say, Edgar Renteria's direction? Possibly. But probably not. Isn't it much more likely that Wilson simply isn't a very good fielder?

We all know Wilson has a knack for turning spectacular-looking plays, which is at least one reason why scouts (and Sportscenter-lovers) like him so much. So what might be causing the discrepancy between the scouts and the numbers? A poor first step, perhaps, or poor positioning, which may be why Brian Boehringer chewed him out on the field last year. Either way, it's far from clear that Wilson is even a good defender, and it's almost certain that he's not good enough to offset the damage he's done to the Pirates with his bat over the last three years. He's hitting well right now, but unless he can sustain that for another couple of years (and I think that's very unlikely), there's no way the Pirates should give him a long-term contract. And if Wilson tails off this year, the Pirates should cut bait and let one of their young middle infielders take his spot.

Welcome

Welcome to Value Over Replacement Blog. If you got the joke, you know already that this is a baseball site. Right now, three people are running this thing: Ryan, Sam and myself. Sam and I are Pirates fans and Ryan is an Orioles fan, so those two teams will probably get more than their share of attention, but as the site develops you'll also find posts about other teams, prospects and the minor leagues, numbers and ideas, and other baseball-related topics. Oh, and we're going to try to be entertaining, too. Stop by again soon, and please leave us your comments.

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