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Thome smokes a Farnsworth heater
Jim Thome is a left-handed hitter with 541 career home runs.
Over the past three seasons, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field has been the most homer-prone ballpark in the American League, both generally and for left-handed hitters specifically.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and two White Sox on base, the Royals held a 2-1 lead. Thome was coming up. If there's a single pitcher in the majors who shouldn't be facing Thome in that situation, it just might be Farnsworth.
Yet, face him he did. Threw Thome a fastball down the middle, he did. Gave up a long, three-run, (eventually) game-losing home run, he also did.
And Royals manager Trey Hillman? He sat on his hands and watched it happen. That's what he did.
Do the Mets really believe in Church?
The more I think about it, the less I understand the motivation for tweaking Church the way the Mets have. When they acquired him from Washington, the Mets thought they got lucky, finding a talented defender with perhaps the best arm of a right fielder this side of Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur. They thought he would thrive playing his home games in a smaller ballpark, and that his 2007 struggles against left-handed pitching (.229) were an aberration. A career .256 hitter against lefties, Church batted .264 with four homers off them in 2008.
Church had two hits and stole a base Monday while also making an outstanding defensive play that, I suspect, the Mets realize that Sheffield almost certainly wouldn't have made. Manuel acknowledged Church's defense after the game, but in the very next sentence mentioned that Church could play center field, too, as if he was planning on using him more like a utility outfielder.
Manuel said the spacious outfield, quirky angles and limited foul territory at Citi Field would make him align his outfielders differently, bunching them toward the gaps. But he also said that he is afraid of Beltran's "weighing 145 pounds" by the end of the season from all the running he'll have to do. Surrounding him with Murphy and Sheffield could make for some, umm, interesting moments out there.
On Friday Manuel explained why he expected Sheffield to be an asset. And to me, it makes sense: adding someone with swagger and right-handed power for the relatively paltry cost of $400,000 creates the perfect low-risk, high-reward situation. Manuel's reasoning here makes sense, too:
"What this does for us is really create some depth in the team," Manuel said. "I believe that in the course of 162 regular-season games, depth is the one thing that is normally overlooked. So if you have on your bench quality players and you have players that are versatile, you can get enough at-bats to sustain them in their performance. In other words, you can rest guys and be comfortable that you can still have a chance that particular day in winning a ballgame because you have other people to replace them."
The challenge for Manuel going forward will be deciding who to rest and when to rest him. Where Church fits into that plan remains to be seen.
It's easy to get worked up on this stuff in March and April, in fact it's my stock-in-trade during those months. But talent usually wins. Ryan Church, if he's recovered from his concussion of last year, is the Mets' second-best outfielder (even if he can't match Sheffield's swagger). Eventually -- and probably sooner rather than later -- Jerry Manuel and everyone else will figure that out (if they haven't already).
After one game, don't get too crazy about Schafer
This will not be a lengthy or detailed post discussing what sample sizes are or why they carry importance, but rather a personal plea for fans and readers, especially of this site, to avoid overestimating talent based on a few good games in April. While we can deny ever falling prey to this issue, it is human nature to try and glean information from any and all angles, for whatever reason, be it an edge in a fantasy league or an article claiming why Player A should get more playing time/get a contract extension/get a date with Alyssa Milano.
Last night, Jordan Schafer kickstarted his major league career with a home run in his first at-bat. He followed it up with a single to centerfield. On the night, the 22-yr-old rookie went 2-3 with an intentional walk. Seeing as the Braves/Phillies matchup was the first of the season, on national television, I would not be surprised in the least if fantasy players flocked to free agent pools to put in a claim for Schafer's services. Now, Schafer may very well be a fine major league player but situations like this arise all too often, and they are particularly annoying. A player starts his season off on the right foot, fantasy players get all gooey-eyed, and then call the player a fluke upon dropping him in June on the heels of a .230/.310/.360 slash line.
Schafer could defy his projections and post excellent numbers this season but that is not the point. The point is that decisions should not be based on small sample sizes and we need to admit this is a problem before ever moving past it. It is one thing to discuss how a player has performed in a certain 10-game span, like during Lance Berkman's ridiculous stretch last season but it is a completely different animal to use such discussions or small samples as the basis for definitive performance claims. On a teamwide level, going crazy over Schafer right now would be equivalent to trying to decipher what is wrong with the Phillies. One measly game has been played. Let's not go crazy over players until we at least know a little bit about them.
Last year, Jordan Schafer batted .269/.378/.471 in the Double-A Southern League. Those were fine numbers for a 21-year-old center fielder with good wheels and a strong arm. Those numbers do not suggest that Schafer is ready, right now, to do anything more than hold his own against major league pitching. His projection according to Baseball Prospectus: .238/.308/.391.
We shouldn't be surprised if Schafer betters those numbers, because (1) projections are like shotgun blasts: We're just trying to get close; and (2) young players don't always develop the way you think they're going to. We also shouldn't be surprised if Schafer spends a good chunk of this summer in the International League, fighting for his next shot with the big club.
Fewer and fewer writers on the baseball beat
But throughout the last century, baseball writers have stood above their sportswriting colleagues. When the National League needed a president in 1934, it hired former Yankees beat writer Ford Frick. When San Diego named a ballpark in 1980, it honored Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. In some press boxes, black-and-white portraits of writers line the walls in tribute.
Their exalted status gave rank-and-file BBWAA members unusual powers, from being assured entry to clubhouses and press box seats at the World Series to electing players to baseball's Hall of Fame. After 10 years, BBWAA members are given certain perks that continue even after retirement.
The changing world was on vivid display recently at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Opened in 1923 during the golden age of sportswriting, it held its first-ever night game last March -- 20 years after the lights first went on over Chicago's Wrigley Field. At a March 22 game between the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds two writers from Pittsburgh papers were in attendance, along with two reporters from Major League Baseball's Web site. The Pittsburgh chapter of the BBWAA is down to nine members, an all time low, from 20 in 1988.
I have to admit my first reaction upon reading that last paragraph was "Really? It takes nine guys to cover the Pirates? And it used to take 20?"
Well, no. I'm sure a fair number of those 20 were not actually covering the Pirates, but were columnists who dabbled or editors who just happened to have BBWAA cards. One of the odd things about the Baseball Writers Association is that many members were not (and still today, are not) actually baseball writers.
But that's a whole 'nother issue. The real question is "How many do we need?" And I would argue that once you get past the first few reporters and columnists covering a team, you reach a point of diminishing returns rather quickly. Considering that everything that all of them do is available with the click of your mouse. I don't know what the number is, for the Pirates or the Yankees or anyone else. But it's definitely less than 20.
You might think I take some perverse pleasure in all this. After all, (1) I've never worked for a newspaper,( 2) I've been in the middle of new media almost since the beginning and (3) I'm not a BBWAA member (yes, they told me I was going to be one, but that was months ago and I still haven't seen any evidence, so at this point I'm guessing the whole thing was a brilliant practical joke).
I don't take any pleasure in all of this, at all. Oh, there are certainly some writers we can do without because they weren't all that good at their jobs. Just as there are doctors and waiters and meter-readers who are better-suited for other lines of work. But I'm a baseball writer. It's all I know. And I can't see anything positive about baseball writers by the dozens getting thrown out of work.
Computer simulations sometimes offer surprises
Take the age-old question of how much difference a team's lineup order makes. This issue so vexed the former manager Billy Martin that he once literally picked his Detroit Tigers batting order out of a hat.
Luke Kraemer of Imagine Sports, which owns Diamond Mind, programmed the simulator to force the 2008 Yankees to bat their best hitter and cleanup man, Alex Rodriguez, ninth -- to see how scoring was affected. Mr. Kraemer got the run total not for just one season, which can fluctuate as much as 80 runs in each direction from simple randomness, but for 100 seasons -- more than 16,000 Yankees games in all.
The result? The Yankees scored 747 runs per season, 40 fewer than their real-life 787. (Diamond Mind was so accurate that 100 seasons with A-Rod batting fourth averaged 789, almost dead-on.) Most research suggests that those 40 runs would mean only about four fewer victories, for a strategy no manager would ever consider; so the difference with Rodriguez batting third or fifth would be insignificant, and nowhere near worth the forests of trees that would give their lives to the ensuing sports-page debate.
The stolen base. Advancing from first to second puts the runner in scoring position, but he -- and the rest of your hitters -- will have a hard time scoring if he gets thrown out. Mr. Kraemer looked at a recent team that ran wild (the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays) and one that barely stole at all (the 2005 Oakland A's) and switched their mind-sets to see what happened. The A's scored 20 runs fewer, which probably says more about their players' inability to run in the first place. But when the speedy Rays stole sparingly, they increased their scoring by 47 runs per season -- suggesting that perhaps the Rays were running too often in real life.
The first of those is no real surprise; we know there's a real difference between lineups, but there's no real difference between reasonable lineups. You would score many fewer runs with A-Rod batting ninth (rather than fourth) because batting him ninth costs him roughly 90 plate appearances and a fair number of RBI opportunities. But the difference between batting him fourth and third or fourth and fifth is negligible, and worth worrying about only after you've figured out everything else.
On the other hand, the note about the Rays' steals is truly surprising. The generally accepted break-even point for steals is something between 70 and 75 percent (depending on the scoring environment). Well, last season the Rays stole 142 bases and were caught 50 times for a 74 percent success rate, comfortably within that break-even range. I don't know how to square 74 percent with those theoretical 47 runs but if I were running the Rays, I sure would want to know.
Minor league performance usually speaks volumes
Commenters suggested Matt Holliday, Larry Walker, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Utley, Geovany Soto, Ron Gant and Magglio Ordonez. Lone Star Ball's Adam Morris suggests Rusty Greer and Michael Young, while FanGraphs' Dave Cameron writes:
I always remember this one because of a lecture I got from a scout a few years ago about not trusting minor league numbers, but Travis Fryman is the best candidate for your didn't-hit-at-all-in-minors guy.
1,487 minor league AB, .254/.303/.371
The Tigers kept promoting him, even though he never hit, and he started hitting well from pretty much day one in the majors.
He did, but it's worth noting that Fryman never really was an outstanding hitter; he retired with a 103 career OPS+ (100 is considered league-average) and never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. It's also worth noting that Fryman was pretty impressive in the minors, considering his age. The Tigers promoted him out of Class A for no obvious reason, but at age 20, he held his own in Double-A, and he held his own the next season in Triple-A, too. Without checking, I'd be willing to bet that Fryman was one of the youngest everyday players in the International League; at 21, that's impressive.
Greer? Same sort of thing. Greer reached Double-A (and thrived) in his second pro season when he was 22. That's pretty good. His career stalled for a short while, but he batted .295 in the minors and was playing every day for the big club in his fifth pro season.
Young? He was impressive in the minors. He fell off just a bit for half a season in Double-A, but a shortstop with an .817 OPS in the minors? Most teams would be thrilled with a guy like that.
Before zipping through the other guys mentioned above, I'll just mention that I'm not all that surprised by Young, Greer and Fryman. We tend to remember the struggles, but when it comes to stars (or near stars), the struggles are the exception rather than the rule. But maybe we'll find someone who fits the bill.
Not Ordonez, though; not really. He struggled as a teenager, but of course, many teenagers struggle. He established himself as a prospect at 20, and played well in Double-A and Triple-A at 22 and 23.
Gant, as a teenager, struggled at exactly the same levels as Ordonez. At 21, he established himself as a prospect by hitting 27 homers with the Durham Bulls in the Class A Carolina League.
Soto does fit the bill. He was always young for his level, and for a catcher, the bar wasn't set real high. But aside from a pretty solid Double-A season at 21 -- and yes, that's impressive for a catcher -- he never did anything, statistically speaking, that would lead one to think he would become a star. Well, not until 2007. In 2006, the 23-year-old Soto posted a .739 OPS with Triple-A Iowa. Not all that good, but good enough to rate (according to Baseball America) as the Cubs' No. 17 prospect.
And in 2007? Soto exploded with a 1.076 OPS, then duplicated that performance after a September call-up. And you know what happened in 2008.
Utley doesn't qualify at all. Yes, it took him a few years to reach the majors, but that's not uncommon for players drafted out of college. Utley was real good in his first pro season, and two years later, he skipped Double-A completely.
I'm not buying Ramirez, either. He was considered a top prospect in the Red Sox chain, and the only blot on his record is a weak 2005, when he was 21 in Double-A. (The year before, he had played brilliantly in high A and Double-A.)
Walker? At 19, Walker slugged .602 in Class A. At 20, he slugged .534 in Double-A.
And finally, Holliday I'm in for half on Holliday. He struggled in his first high-A season and his first Double-A season, then struggled more in his second Double-A season and yet, oddly enough, the Rockies promoted him to the majors early in his next season, even though he'd posted a career .750 OPS in Double-A and had played only a few Triple-A games. And you know what he has done since then.
So, can it happen? Sure. Does it happen? Occasionally.
But just very occasionally. I solicited candidates, and you responded with a list of solid hitters. Really, though, only two of them came close to qualifying under the original parameters. Only Soto's and Holliday's major league numbers seem truly incongruous with their minor league performance. An overwhelming majority of the time, we can trust minor league numbers.
Didn't take long for pitch-count questions
It didn't take long for someone to make a ridiculous pitch-count move in the baseball season. Derek Lowe wasn't just retiring the Phillies last night, he was owning them. Cruising along with a two-hit shutout, he needed just six pitches in the seventh inning and eight in the eighth. Pitch count: a very manageable 97, especially for Lowe, who had barely broken a sweat. As if to say, "Wait a minute -- let's make this game interesting," manager Bobby Cox brought in his closer, lefty Mike Gonzalez, in the ninth inning, and the Phillies immediately came to life. They couldn't believe their good fortune. Give Gonzalez credit for striking out Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with two runners on after the Phils had cut the lead to 4-1, but for heaven's sake, Bobby, are you kidding? Put down the calculator and watch the game
Lots of brain food here &133;
One, I suspect that Cox might have let Lowe try to finish the game in May but managers almost never let their starters throw more than 100 pitches in early April. [Are you sure about that? -- ed. No. But I doubt if anyone will check.] I wonder how many pitches Lowe threw in his last spring-training start, or the one before that. Not 100, I'll bet. Plus, writers love to focus on how many pitches a guy threw, but that's not the relevant number; the relevant number is how many pitches he would have thrown, if he'd stayed in the game. And that number would almost certainly have topped 100, and well over 100 to complete the game.
Two, I'm not sure if the problem is that Cox summoned his closer from the bullpen, or that his closer is southpaw Mike Gonzalez. Watching him pitch Sunday night, I didn't get the impression that he had anything at all against right-handed batters. But you know, facts are pesky critters. Looking up Gonzalez's career splits, one finds that he's been almost exactly as brilliant against righties as lefties. Even last year, the worst season of his career, Gonzalez was fantastic against the righties; his 4.28 ERA was almost completely due to his struggles -- four homers in 27 at-bats -- against the left-handed batters. So if he's healthy, I wouldn't be worried about him. Against the lefties or the righties.
And three, the Phillies' lineup might look a little better if all those lefty hitters -- Chase Utley followed by Howard and Ibanez -- weren't lined up together. This was much commented about when Ibanez was signed, but is there any good reason for not tossing a right-handed batter in there somewhere?
Looking for a little help
With all the talk about Matt Wieters and today's note on Daniel Murphy, I was wondering who some of the biggest upside surprises were in the majors after not terribly impressive minor league action. I would guess the best performers were those who saw very little minor league action or were very young for their minor league levels. Do you know of any standouts who had a "reasonable" sample size from which to project and then "just clicked" in the majors and greatly outperformed any projection that we would apply to them today?
I always remember stories about how Jeff Bagwell came out of nowhere to put up great power numbers, but I looked at his minor league numbers and he did hit quite a few doubles (34 in 481 ABs) in his second professional season as a 22-year-old, and his power output (ignoring the otherworldly 1994 MVP season) seems to increase with his age peaking as it should (maybe starting a little early) for season ages 25-32 before starting the slow fade followed by steep decline with increasing age and arthritic shoulder problems.
I rambled long enough to ask two questions: 1) Who is the best (among the best) who outperformed their minor league stats? And 2) Can Bagwell's base-running and defense (pre-shoulder I can't throw days) along with his OPS+ machine (149 career) get him out of the steroid era cloud and into the Hall?
Thanks for the note, Tom. (I left out all your kind words about my work because I'm just so darned modest, but I do appreciate them.) Anyway, this is a fantastic question, and I wish I had a good answer for you. For some reason, the first name that popped into my mind was "Jim Edmonds," but he's not a good answer, at all. After a slow start as a teenager, Edmonds reached Double-A when he was 21 and was holding his own in Triple-A shortly after turning 22.
I don't know that Jeff Bagwell outperformed his minor league stats, either. Especially when you consider his age, too. He posted some real fine stats at 22 while playing half his games in a tough ballpark in (as I recall) a pitchers' league. The interesting question, I think, isn't which players outperformed their stats; it's which players outperformed their performance. Which ones surprised us after we considered their ages and their home ballparks and any other mitigating factors.
As I said, I don't have a good answer. So I'm going to throw this question to the crowd, because I'm sure you all can come up with some solid candidates. In the meantime, I'll just say that Bagwell will wind up in Cooperstown, but I don't know whether it'll be in five years or 25.
Predicting the '09 season
2. Diamondbacks (WC)
I had the Diamondbacks in first place until Manny re-upped with the Dodgers, but it's still going to be close and I like Arizona for the wild card. The Padres won't be as bad as everybody thinks, and could almost as easily finish third as fifth.
I've got the Brewers and Cardinals both winning 83 games, but I'll give the Cardinals the edge because Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte might be twin sensations (though probably not). The Pirates probably are the one team in the majors most likely to lose 100 games.
The Marlins are drawing some positive reviews because of their unproven-but-obviously-talented starting pitchers, and I have to admit they could surprise me. But the numbers I've seen argue that the Marlins are the worst team in the division, a few games behind the Nationals. As for the Phillies, they'll be pretty good but I believe the gimpiness of Cole Hamels and the oldness of Jamie Moyer will drop the champs to third place (also, Brad Lidge won't be perfect again this year).
2. Red Sox (WC)
4. Blue Jays
It has quickly become a meme: The three best teams in the majors all are in the American League East. This happens to be true. Doesn't mean they'll finish with the three best records, or that they'll be the three best teams three months from now. But at this moment on paper, they're the best. What's more, they're close enough that the order could easily be reversed. But I think the Rays' best won't come until 2010 and '11, and that this year they'll miss the playoffs by a couple of games.
5. White Sox
There won't be any terrible teams in this division -- in fact, I can't find any terrible teams in the American League -- but I'll be shocked if anyone here wins 90 games. The Indians are seriously deficient after their top two starters, and that's without even considering the possibility that Cliff Lee was a fluke last season and Fausto Carmona was a fluke the season before that. I just think the Indians' deficiencies are less damaging than those of the other contenders.
I know, I know It's probably a little bit crazy to pick the A's, considering that their current pitching rotation includes five pitchers who have combined for the grandly splendiferous total of 18 major league wins. Actually, that might make me certifiable. But if two or three of them pitch well and Justin Duchscherer comes back strong and the Angels continue to miss three of their starters Hey, it could happen!