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A Few Head-scratchers and Random Thoughts
By Tom Tippett
The early part of the 1999 season has left me scratching my head and wondering "what on earth were they thinking?" more than a few times. Here are a few of those puzzlers along with some random observations about the season to date.
"In left field for Seattle, Brian Hunter"
The Mariners entered the season with more outfielders than they had room for, and all of them -- Griffey, Buhner, Huskey, and Mabry -- got off to a good-to-very-good starts. So what's the problem? Well, it seems they've been having trouble finding a "real" leadoff hitter. They tried David Segui, and although he went 7-for-14 in his first series as a leadoff hitter, his career on-base percentage (OBP) is only a little above the league average, and you'd hope that your leadoff hitter would get on base more than that. So I'm not surprised that the team felt that their offense might be more efficient if they went out and acquired a legitimate top-of-the-order guy.
But why Brian Hunter? There's no question that he has the speed for the role -- since 1996, he's averaged 50 steals a year with an excellent 84% success rate. And he's a terrific defensive center fielder. But his career OBP is a rather uninspiring .316 (thirty-three points below Segui's), and there's no way that his steals can make up for the fact that he reaches base at least 50 fewer times per season than you'd expect from a good leadoff hitter. Furthermore, you're taking playing time away from Mabry and Huskey, who have already combined for 8 homers in 1999. That's half as many as Hunter has hit in his entire career.
The best argument in support of this move is defense. Seattle now has two legitimate CFs in the outfield, and that should help a pitching staff that could really use some extra outs. In my opinion, they'd be even better off playing Hunter in CF and moving Junior to left, since Hunter has shown more range the past couple of years. But regardless of where they play, two-thirds of the outfield is now in good hands.
I've been surprised by how many of the game's promising young hitters are struggling. Some are in the minors (David Ortiz, Jeff Abbott, Jose Guillen), some are playing a limited role (Dmitri Young, Paul Konerko), and others are simply not hitting (Travis Lee, Ben Grieve, and AJ Hinch).
Mo Vaughn vs Jose Offerman
Back in December, Dan Duquette took a lot of heat for failing to re-sign Mo Vaughn and then coming up short on his bid for Bernie Williams. He took even more heat when he signed Jose Offerman for $26 million over four years. The temperature rose even further when he pointed out that Offerman would replace the on-base percentage lost by Vaughn's departure.
While it's true that Offerman is making only half as much as Vaughn, Duquette definitely deserved some criticism for the OBP comment. After all, when you've got one guy who can give you both a .400 OBP and 35-40 homers, you can't replace him with two players, each making half as much, because you're now spending two batting order spots to get what was once concentrated in one.
But Offerman has been setting the table with a .354 batting average and a .440 on-base percentage. He's among the league leaders in extra-base hits with 15 doubles, four triples and a homer, good for a .584 slugging percentage, which is about 100 points above Vaughn's. He's a more versatile defensive player than Mo. Even though Offerman is bound to cool off some, and Vaughn's numbers are bound to improve as he continues his slow recovery from a badly-sprained ankle, it's looking like a very good signing for the Red Sox.
Ruben Rivera and Hideki Irabu
Two years ago, the big news was that Irabu was a great talent and it would take a boatload of prospects to pry his rights loose from the Padres. The Yankees won the auction when they put together a package featuring Ruben Rivera, who was regarded as a future star and the top player in the New York system.
Irabu has had a few flashes of brilliance but has been a disappointment overall. And Rivera has yet to prove that he can hit major-league pitching. In fact, when we did our projections for the 1999 season, Rivera popped out of our system with a .213 batting average. In truth, our first pass had him under .200, but we chose to reduce the weight placed on a dismal AAA performance (.144 in 104 atbats last year at Las Vegas) and focus more on his big-league numbers. Well, he's currently hitting .171, and it's been almost four years since his last good season, and that was at AA. I'm beginning to wonder if he'll ever be able to hold a regular job in the big leagues.
That trade doesn't seem like such a big deal after all.
A quick scan of the stats in the May 5th issue of Baseball Weekly produced an impressive list of closers who have posted some very unimpressive ERAs so far this year -- Percival 5.59, Timlin 4.15, Montgomery 6.30, Wetteland 4.76, Olson 4.35, Beck 7.84, BWagner 4.50, JAcevedo 6.17, and Loiselle 5.59. As many of you know, my company sells a computer baseball game, and I can assure you that if these numbers popped out of our game after five weeks of the season, we'd get more than a few letters from customers who would be absolutely convinced there must be a bug in the game.
Truth is, relief pitcher ERAs are highly volatile because relievers don't get a lot of innings. Most closers have accumulated only 10-15 innings of work so far this year. In that span, a single three-run homer can bump a guy's ERA up by more than a run and a half. You might think that these things even out over the course of a season, and they often do.
But today's relievers rarely get more than 60-70 innings. That's about a month-and-a-half of work for a front-line starting pitcher, and it's not unusual for a starter's ERA to fluctuate quite a bit during the season. Roger Clemens is at 5.47 right now, and Randy Johnson was over 5.00 during April last year. So it stands to reason that a reliever's ERA will fluctuate quite a bit from month to month and from year to year, even if there isn't a substantial difference in his health or ability over that span. In light of this, it's all the more remarkable that some closers -- John Franco and John Wetteland come to mind -- have put up good numbers season after season.
I was astonished to see that Wade Boggs has only four bases on balls this year. Here's a guy who had nine straight seasons with 87 or more walks and whose main claim to fame has been mastery of the strike zone. Could it be that Boggs is so focused on getting to 3000 hits that he's no longer interested in taking a base on balls, even if it would help the team?
Boggs is currently on the DL, Herbery Perry's hitting up a storm in his place, and Tampa Bay is only a game away from being the wild-card team if the season ended today. Can the Devil Rays afford to put Boggs back in the lineup when he's healthy again?
Hmmm. The vaunted Atlanta rotation includes ERAs of 4.34 (Maddux), 4.61 (Glavine), and 4.14 (Millwood), while the always-weak bullpen features numbers like 0.69 (McGlinchy), 1.80 (Remlinger), and 2.03 (Seanez) despite the loss of their two closer candidates (Ligtenberg and Wohlers). Who would have predicted this? Certainly not me.
Could someone please remind me why the Angels front office thought they had solved their pitching problem by signing Tim Belcher? On the plus side, he's a workhorse with good control, but he's allowed more hits than innings (sometimes a lot more) five years running and has also been coughing up a lot of gopher balls (37 last year). The lack of pitching is one of the reasons that our preseason projections didn't make the Angels the favorite to win the division despite the Mo Vaughn signing. I don't expect Belcher to continue getting pounded (his ERA is around 10.00 right now), but I don't expect him to be a savior, either.
Can someone please explain to me why the Pirates signed Pat Meares to a 4-year, $15 million contract extension when (a) he was near the bottom in offensive production among shortstops last year, (b) last year was not an aberration, as he was close to his career averages, (c) he'll turn 31 this year, (d) he was a free agent all winter and nobody other than the Pirates showed any interest in him, (e) they were able to sign him for $1.5 million for the 1999 season, and (f) Meares now stands in the way of a young shortstop (Abraham Nunez) that the Pirates front office projects as a major-league regular?
1999 Projections Update
Here's a quick update on how teams are tracking against the projections we published back in March (you can find these articles at www.diamond-mind.com), showing the difference between actual wins and projected wins for this part of the season (through May 9):
+4 - Indians +3 - White Sox, Phillies +2 - Devil Rays, Braves, Pirates, Giants +1 - Yankees, Red Sox, Royals, Athletics, Mets, Astros, Brewers, Diamondbacks 0 - Blue Jays, Rangers, Cardinals, Cubs -1 - Tigers, Twins, Dodgers, Padres -2 - Reds, Rockies -3 - Orioles, Mariners, Expos -4 - Angels -5 - Marlins
Among the teams lagging their projections, some can point to injuries. Seattle has lost four key players (Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Butch Henry and Mark Leiter, the last three for the season) and made do without Jay Buhner for a few games. They should have A-Rod back within a few days, but it'll be difficult for them to challenge for the division without the others. Anaheim's offense has struggled without Mo Vaughn (who missed two weeks and isn't yet 100%) and Jim Edmonds (out for at least a few months).
The other stragglers are just not playing up to par. The Marlins position players are being outhit by their own pitching staff. Montreal's rotation, with the exception of Dustin Hermanson, has been hit hard. Baltimore got off to an awful start but is clawing their way back to respectability. The Reds came into the season with an enviable starting rotation, but Brett Tomko has been pounded, Denny Neagle has been hurt, Jason Bere has been wild. And Greg Vaughn, Barry Larkin, and Dmitri Young haven't provided the type of offense expected of them. The Rockies have played an awful lot of games on the road, so they might pick up a little when the schedule turns in their favor.
Everyone figured the Indians would run away with things, and their schedule has been a little on the softer side so far, so I'm not surprised to see them get off to a good start. The big surprises so far have been the White Sox and the Phillies. The pale hose currently lead the league in pitching. We projected them to finish last in staff ERA, so I must say that we're a little off the mark so far. John Snyder and Mike Sirotka have led the rotation, and the bullpen has been terrific. The Phillies are four games over .500 thanks to a strong, balanced attack and a league-average pitching staff.
Back in the spring, I was quite critical of the Pirates for signing a bunch of average-to-below-average veterans and playing them in front of their young prospects. Those moves have paid off so far, however, as Ed Sprague, Pat Meares, and Mike Benajamin have produced at a higher level than they had in recent seasons. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain this pace when their schedule gets a little tougher the next three weeks.
And as the Giants continue to exceed expectations, even with the injury to Barry Bonds, my admiration for Dusty Baker continues to grow. He seems to get more out of this team than you'd expect given the talent available to him, and he does it year after year.
Copyright © 1999. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.