Saturday, April 03, 2004

Spring mischief

Box scores like this raise questions about mischief in spring training. Here are two teams that will play each other twenty times during the regular season. The season starts tomorrow. Obviously there's nothing to play for and there's a lot of incentive to dog it and hide your best pitches from the other team.

But that's not all. Earlier in spring training, do you think pitchers attempt to mess with the other team's roster? If you are a Cub, and you see Chris Truby outhitting everyone, would you feed him a meatball just to cause trouble? "Wow, that Truby is awesome. You guys will have to keep him." Obviously you don't do that if you are locked in a battle for a rotation spot. If your job is secure, though, wouldn't you do some little things like that to cause trouble for your division rivals?

Adios Rick Reed

Later date, Jai Lai man.

Managing rookies

Mac and Littlefield have the right idea with the way they are introducing the rookies. As we argued before, you don't guarantee playing time to unproven players. A lot of bad happens when you do that. It's also poor management to bring up rookies without a fallback plan. Here's what Joe Rutter reports for the Trib-Review as out of Mac's mouth on the question of whether or not this is a "youth movement":
"We've got to find out about these kids," McClendon said. "We're not trying to make a total youth movement. We're trying to plug some of them in that we think are ready to compete at this level. The only way we're going to find out about them is to run them out there and let them play. If we don't, we'll have those same question marks next year. We need to find out."

McClendon also is encouraged that the farm system is on the verge of producing more players to help out the big-league roster.

"We're in much better shape than we were a couple of years ago," he said. "We have options. If a guy doesn't perform at the big-league level and isn't ready, we can send him out and call somebody else up to do the job. We haven't had that in the past.

"It also lets guys know they can't relax once they get to the big leagues. You have to continue to perform because there are guys pushing you, knocking on the door to take your job."

Bob Smizik wrote Thursday that "it's hard to imagine a more unproductive minor-league system anywhere in baseball." I don't know enough about the rest of the minor-league systems to contest the argument that a worse one is "hard to imagine," though I can think of plenty of teams that rarely start a rookie.

Littlefield kept the prospects in the minors at the start of last year. This year they are adding a good number of minor-league players to the big team. In two or three months, we'll begin to have the results we need to judge how well the winning in Nashville, Altoona, and Lynchburg served the interests of the team in Pittsburgh.

Ten to twelve pitchers

From last night's AP tale:
McClendon insisted Rick Reed, Ryan Vogelsong and Sean Burnett, all pitching during the final two days of camp, aren't involved in a competition for the final spot in the rotation. . . .

"We're past the evaluation stage," he said.

The left-handed Burnett pitched Friday in a minor league game. He saw relatively little action with the Pirates (1.04 ERA in four games) and seems all but certain to start the season at Triple-A Nashville. He will likely be the first pitcher summoned should the Pirates' rotation hit a bump once the season starts.

"We know we're probably going to need 10-12 starters (by the end of the season)," Littlefield said.

Hey, we agree. Whatever decision is made with the start-of-the-seasoan rotation, it won't change the fact that Burnett is going to start for us at some point this year.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Cowher crisis for the cynically bored

What's a stiller columnist to write about in the dead zone after the initial flurry of free agent signings but before the draft? How about some good old-fashioned pot-stirring? Also be sure to run a photo of Cowher scowling with full-on chin blast to add drama to the "controversy". And don't forget to dress up your speculations with unremarkable yet fully self-serving facts ("Past extensions were negotiated earlier than this."). And take care to refute categorical dismissals of your low probings ( "Art Rooney II, Dan's son and the team's president, cautioned not to 'read anything into the fact we haven't done anything.'") by (in case you missed it the first time) serving up the same self-serving fact yet again ("But contract extension talks between the Steelers and their coach usually start as early as February."). Everything you need to know about the motivations behind this nonarticle is contained in that "But".

In general I respect Bouchette's work a great deal, but seriously, how long has the idea for this piece been lurking in the dankest corners of his mind? Maybe it should have stayed there.

Rotation depth in the NL Central

The Bucs will make a decision about Rick Reed soon. Since he was half decent in his last start, I expect they will try to keep him around, either as a fifth starter, a minor-league starter, or a swing man in the bullpen. I think that's a good idea, too. Here's why. The following table shows how many starters each team in the NL Central has used over the last three years. The first set of rows lists the number of starters with four or more starts; the second with twelve or more; and so forth. The final set of rows shows the number of wins in each season. Take a long look:

4 or more 3yr avg 2003 2002 2001
Cardinals 8.3 7 10 8
Astros 9.3 8 9 11
Cubs 6.7 6 8 6
Reds 11.3 13 11 10
Pirates 9.3 9 9 10
Brewers 8.7 10 8 8
AVG 8.9
12 or more 3yr avg 2003 2002 2001
Cardinals 5.7 6 6 5
Astros 6.0 5 8 5
Cubs 5.3 5 6 5
Reds 4.7 4 5 5
Pirates 6.0 6 4 8
Brewers 5.0 5 5 5
AVG 5.4
20 or more 3yr avg 2003 2002 2001
Cardinals 3.0 4 2 3
Astros 3.7 4 3 4
Cubs 4.3 5 3 5
Reds 2.3 3 1 3
Pirates 3.3 4 4 2
Brewers 3.3 3 3 4
AVG 3.3
30 or more 3yr avg 2003 2002 2001
Cardinals 2.0 2 1 3
Astros 1.7 3 1 1
Cubs 2.7 4 2 2
Reds 1.0 0 2 1
Pirates 1.7 1 2 2
Brewers 2.0 3 2 1
AVG 1.8
Wins 3yr avg 2003 2002 2001
Cardinals 91.7 85 97 93
Astros 88.0 87 84 93
Cubs 81.0 88 67 88
Reds 71.0 69 78 66
Pirates 69.7 75 72 62
Brewers 64.0 68 56 68

All of these numbers are overdetermined. Some teams used a lot of starters because their first choices were awful. Others used a lot of starters because of injury. Furthermore, there's no strong correlation between the number of starters a team uses and the number of games a team wins. In 2002, the Cardinals won 97 games giving ten different pitchers at least four starts. The Brewers had a more stable rotation and won 56.

This is an era that's rough on pitchers. There are many reasons for this. One, more teams emphasize OBP, working the count, and getting to the bullpen as an offensive strategy. The number of pitches per game has gone up considerably over the last few decades. Two, the new ballparks, such as PNC, have less foul territory. This adds a few outs to every game. I could go on, and if anyone doubts the growing burden on pitchers these days, they should get into the work of Will Carroll, whose new book, Saving the Pitcher, will make a fuller case.

As a response to the increased burden on pitchers, many teams - like the Pirates - now carry twelve pitchers on the 25-man roster. Years ago, the norm was ten. (In case you hadn't made the connection, this is why the Pirates focus on stocking the bench with utility players such as Rob Mackowiak and Abraham Nunez.) The increased burden on pitchers is also reflected in the high number of starters used on more than a stopgap basis.

The five-man rotation is a myth. A team may start the season with five starters, and it's possible that those five starters will combine for 140 starts. In that case, there's always a need for a six and maybe a seventh to make up the rest of the starts. But it's also common for a team to give six or seven starters twelve or more starts, and ten starters four or more starts.

The Pirates should plan on using nine or ten starters this year. Let's say ten to be cautious. This way they are prepared for the worst. Should we lose a starter or two to trade, injury, or miserably failing performance, the Pirates have someone ready to go. In all likelihood, four of the ten will only be needed for four to eleven starts. The best thing to do now, at the final preseason roster cuts, is to look ahead and rank the starters in the order you'd like to use them. I think the current ranking must look something like this:

  # of pro starts 3yr AVG 2003 2002 2001
1 Wells 29 33 31 24
2 Benson 14 18 25 0
3 Fogg 25 26 33 16
4 Vogelsong 20 31 12 16
5 Reed 28 21 32 32
6 Perez 29 32 27 28
7 Burnett 26 27 26 26
8 Van Benschoten 21 26 27 9
9 Meadows 25 15 33 28
10 Torres 15 16 29 0
11 Dave Williams 18 28 9 16
12 Cory Stewart 16 24 23 0

Only Wells, Fogg, and Vogelsong look good for a likely 25 starts. Even if Benson is not traded, it wouldn't be wise to plan for him making more than 20 starts. This is not a rotation that looks like the 2003 Cubs.

Meadows and Torres, the swing men, can nail down the nine and ten spots. Oliver Perez and Dave Williams can jump into the rotation when they are throwing consistently well. Since they both look far from ready at the start of April, a safe estimate would be that one of these two will be ready for the rotation by the middle of the summer. They fill the eighth spot for now then. Van Benschoten and Burnett look good and ready, though they are young and have no experience above AA. Give them spots six and seven. Until Perez gets his act together, I'd rather turn to these two when we need new starters.

Even if we don't trade Benson next week, Reed now has to hold the fifth spot or we are planning to use the guys at the back end of the list. Cory Stewart might be ready; he did well enough at AA last year. Maholm shouldn't be in this year's plans. We've seen enough to Meadows and Torres to know they aren't members of the next Pirate rotation to lead the team to the playoffs. With the youth of the pitching staff, the Pirates should want Meadows and Torres in long relief since there will be plenty of games in which the young starters roll up high pitch counts and the longmen are called in to start the fourth or fifth or sixth inning.

Reed stabilizes the rotation at least for now. If he can pitch well enough to be a fifth starter, it makes sense to keep him. Even average starting pitchers are hard to get on the free agent market and command a large price. If the Bucs cut Reed before they give him a few more starts to prove he can still contribute, then they are basically shifting some of the burden to the back end of this long rotation. I don't know that I want it there any more than I want it on Reed. The rotation is young enough; the youth of Williams, Stewart, and Maholm is not reason enough to bring them to the big club, especially if they haven't shown they can dominate at a lower level. It makes sense to keep Reed for now.

... 5:00 update. It doesn't make any sense to keep him, of course, if he's finished, if he can't get the ball past the hitters, if we look under the hood and find a family of squirrels sleeping on the engine block. Line today: 2 IP, 5 hits, 2 walks, no Ks. That's squirrelly.

... April 3 update: The Pirates did the right thing and offered Reed a job in the minor leagues. Not sure he'll accept the assignment. If he can round into shape, he could be useful. In the meantime, refusing Reed the luxury of rounding into shape while a member of the 25-man roster sends the right message to the team and to the fans.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Kendall's contract

Sam Ross Jr. has the latest on the attempts to trade Kendall.

Buy low, sell high I say. Kendall is overpaid by the standards of the current market, and will continue to be overpaid if the market stays the same through 2007. But he's still a star player. He's not the superstar that his contract suggests, but he's well above average, especially for a catcher. Overpaying Kendall is a far different matter than overpaying, say, Derek Bell. In the first case, you're buying a used BMW with a dent for $40,000. In the second case, you're buying a Geo on cinder blocks for $25,000. Would you rather pay $8M for a year of Jason Kendall or $5M for a year of Operation Shutdown? The Kendall contract is not an efficient way to make the team better, but it's also not hurting the team the way the Bell contract hurt the team.

At some point, you have to give up on trading a player. If all the world knows you want to dump him, everyone will low-ball you. Ross Jr. quotes this as the current CW on Kendall:

The paper also quotes an anonymous Seattle scout thusly on Kendall: "He's a singles hitter with an average arm. He's a very good singles hitter, but for what he does and what he's going to make, that's a bad contract."
Kendall's power took a hit with that traumatic ankle injury. This spring, however, he's been knocking the ball around with more power than he's shown in a few years. The Pirates have many players signed to bargain contracts; even with Kendall's contract there's no way ownership can be unhappy about the overall value Littlefield is getting for all their payroll dollars. We're basically married to Jason Kendall at this point. Since he is showing signs of new-found power, why not talk about keeping him all year and see if he doesn't perform at a higher level?

If Littlefield puts down the phone, I think it will ring again. Kendall could really help a team at a trade deadline, for example, and his contract is not the worst in baseball. And we may have more luck getting a fair deal for Kendall if we wait on this power improvement and see if it doesn't raise Kendall's value. After all, you don't win games by having the lowest salary, and you can't expect to grow revenues if you aren't winning games. Let's win some games with Kendall and stop trying to trade him while he's undervalued on the trade market.

P.S. I could make the same argument for Kris Benson. Littlefield did well in the Giles trade. With patience, he can do just as well with Benson and Kendall. And while we are waiting, Benson and Kendall will be a part of the more winning that is the only thing that will sell out the home games at PNC Park.

Agent Shelton's cover blown?

He might be coming back too. Damn, we were so close. I find it hard to believe. Our Shelton-is-a-stud misinformation campaign appeared to going well. Baseball Prospectus touted him as "the best hitter in the low minors the last two seasons" and although they qualified that with the notion that he could develop into a fine "bench player," recent criticism of the club apeared to show that the Pirate-loving baseball community was sold on the notion that Shelton was a surefire superstar-type prospect. It also looks the Tigers value their roster spots a bit more than the generous community of ball analysts thinks appropriate. John Perrotto reports that he's losing his bench job to Greg Norton.

Hopefully Shelton has been able to gather useful intel on the highly-coveted Detroit rebuilding plan. Since the Tigers have lost 96, 106, and 119 games over the last three years, and the Pirates lost 100, 89, and 87 - that's 15% fewer lumps on the head - obviously the Pirates have a lot to learn from the Tigers.

Mac on Oliver Perez

Robert Dvorchak is asking great questions. From his notebook:
Why keep Oliver Perez on the major-league roster if he's not completely developed? ...

"One thing this guy has is electric stuff. We think he should be in the big leagues to continue his development at that level," McClendon said.

"Here's the scenario for me. You take a guy like him that has that type of dominating stuff, he can go out in [Class AAA] and continue to do things that are mechanically not sound and dominate.

"If he's dominating, he should be in the big leagues, and rightfully so. But he's not getting better. We've got him on the right track. There's no reason not to continue to do that."

I guess we're all on the same page with this one (see end of post).

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Aloha Frank Brooks

Welcome back, Agent Brooks. We're eager to learn what intel you gathered working undercover in Oakland and Boston.

Adios Joe Beimel

Last June, when Joe Beimel pitched every damn day and the Pirates were taking it to the Red Sox, the Braves, and the Blue Jays, I was painting a room in the house and had KDKA on the radio for everything Bucco related. For a period there, Beimel was our only reliable reliever. Mac kept bringing him in because you never know when you'll have another lead. We slagged that poor guy's arm but the victories were delicious. His numbers were great until July.

Then he threw with what must have been some kind of dead arm the rest of the season. Joe took one for the team, and it made me a little angry to hear (or read) people giving hell to Littlefield for treating him with respect over the off-season. Some of the ballwriters regard the players like cattle. They recommend roster moves that make sense in the meat-packing business (or in Strat-O-Matic) but are too lacking in a basic love of humanity to be taken seriously. Sure, business is business, but a winning team is one in which every member takes a turn - usually in some random order - at stepping up and taking over. Grind the players under your heels and they'll never step up for you. It's Sports 101 as far I'm concerned.

The AP calls this a surprise move. If this surprised you, all I can say is you haven't been paying attention. Anyone who spins this as a money decision is an ignorant cynic. The Bucs could have cut him loose long ago. I think everyone felt that Joe had earned a full opportunity to recover from second-half struggles that were obviously usage-related. Also, I don't know what to say to anyone who thought the Bucs were going to take their worst pitchers north.

When I saw the story this afternoon, I considered it non-news until a few good people sent emails asking what we had to say about it. I never thought the Pirates had Beimel in the plans so long as he pitched poorly, and since he's been pretty awful this spring (15 hits in 8 IP), I assumed we could leave him out of the 2004 plans here and here. I'm not saying I knew Joe would not make the team - I don't think anyone knew that until the end - but by no means was this decision a surprise.

Adios Joe. You gave it your all, and that's what we'll remember until we see on the mound again.

... April 1 update: Beimel wonders why they signed him in the first place this past offseason. So much for the signing sending a clear message. Or, maybe it's hard to not be a little bitter when you were 24 hours away from making an additional $400K.

Adios Jason Gildon

Take a last look at the final stiller career stats of Jason Gildon. Interesting to note that his sack totals read (and appear graphically, coincidentally enough) like a normal distibution. Don't look for things to suddenly go bimodal for the next team that picks him up.

Weighing runs prevented vs. runs created

Mac also loves Castillo's defense. He says this:
"Our major concern is not what either one [Hill or Castillo] is going to do offensively," McClendon said. "Are you going to catch the ball? Because this is not a perfect world. If it's one thing I know, if we're going to be competitive, we can't be giving teams 28, 29, 30 outs a game. It's not going to work."
We explored this subject a little bit in a previous post. I think Mac might be overestimating the effect a defensive upgrade at second base might have on run prevention. 2 or 3 outs per game? Adding 3 outs per game is the equivalent of giving the team another inning. In the national league, teams score about 750 runs per year batting in roughly 1450 innings (which is a hair under nine innings per game; extra inning games more or less make up for the eight innings of hitting that home teams do in a victory). Adding an inning a game by giving away three outs with bad defense would increase runs allowed by 11% ((1450+162)/1450) or 83 runs for an average NL offense. That seems like a world of hurt to blame on one player's defense. Even if poor defense at second costs a team one out per game, that's a free one-third of an inning which should hurt runs allowed by what, 1/3 of 11 or about 4%, or 28 runs total. Even that sounds too high by double. The folks at Baseball Prospectus study this as much as anyone. Even Aramis Ramirez's butchery at third base only cost the team 12 runs, they estimate. Unless Castillo's health is much more promising, and unless his hitting is pretty close to Hill's, his defense alone is not enough to keep him over Hill. Let's split the difference in Mac's argument - say the defense costs 2 outs per game or 56 runs over the course of a season - and put it another way. The difference between a hitter who generates 110 runs and a hitter who generates 166 runs in the same number of plate appearances - say 600 for the sake of an example - is roughly the difference between someone producing .237 / .299 / .351 and someone producing .289 / .340 / .465. Mac is basically arguing that a 650 OPS middle infielder can help a team to score more runs than they allow just as much as a 805 OPS middle infielder with bad defense.

Hey, when I put that way, I think maybe Mac's right. I could see that being true. [Update: The sober second thought says no way, not unless that 805 OPS MIF fields the way I would.] Maybe Aramis Ramirez's play at third cost the team more than 12 runs after all. For a 750 run, 1450 inning offense, saying Ramirez only added 12 runs to the other side's score is like saying he gave away 23 free innings with his 23 errors and general inability to snag just out-of-reach grounders or turn double plays.

OK, I'm confused. I don't think we'll understand exactly how many runs a slick fielder prevents over a bumbler until we can express those runs in a series of equivalent statements that all sound persuasive.

In other news, speaking of runs prevented, Bob Dvorchak explains the wide range of starter-bullpen arrangements the Pirates have been discussing. Turns out they have discussed putting Vogelsong in the pen, a move I suspected about a week ago. Obviously that's not the best solution right now. For the record, I think using Oliver Perez as a fifth starter and swing man is an excellent decision since it will limit his innings, keep him under the wing of the big-league coaches, and not tempt him to cheat on his mechanics as I'm sure he can do when he faces AAA hitting.

[Ed. note: This post was the second half of the previous post. The first digression nows looks substantial enought to justify re-publishing with a new title.]

AA to MLB: Littlefield vs. Mac

Compare Littlefield on rushing prospects to the big leagues (third blockquote) and Mac on the same subject.
The Pirates jumped Jack Wilson from Class AA to the major leagues at the start of the 2002 season. After a brief detour to Class AAA during his rookie year, Wilson established himself as the starting shortstop and still holds the job.

Past history strengthens McClendon's belief that Castillo can make the same jump.

"It can be done," McClendon said. "A lot of people say you might ruin a guy if he fails initially. If that's the type of guy he is, you probably don't want him on the team to begin with. Jose is a sharp kid."

This gives us a sense of what they talk about in those meetings they hold to discuss roster cuts. Good reporting by John Perrotto for the Beaver County Times & Allegheny Times.

If Mac gets his way, we can also credit this argument that he's making to the press, here as reported by Joe Rutter at the Tribune-Review:

"He has played in the major leagues," McClendon said. "In Venezuela."
Perrotto has what might have been Mac's next sentence:
"That's a good caliber of ball down there," McClendon said. "Even though he hasn't played in the big leagues, he has faced major-league pitchers before."

Stynes vs. Ramirez

I'm often abused for my contempt for Aramis Ramirez, no doubt because I haven't been persuasive when I rant about his (aborted) future as a Pirate. Scoop drafted him in our fantasy league, for example. For those of you did likewise, never fear, the move to Wrigley revitalized the guy in a way that didn't look possible in his last turn as a Pirate.

For the record, here's the case against Ramirez having much value to the Pirates when they traded him. In 2000, at the age of 22, in his second half-season as a Pirate (he also played 72 games in 1998, at the age of 20), Ramirez put up a 695 OPS in 250 at-bats and 73 games. He also made 14 errors for a .917 fielding percentage. Baseball Prospectus measured that performance (in the 2003 book) as one that cost the Pirates 10 runs. That's about a whole win. In 2001, he broke out and put up an 886 OPS in 640 plate appearances. He made 25 errors over the course of a whole season, which translated into a .945 FPCT and only cost the team, per the 2004 BP annual, four runs, which is close to half a win.

Did he hold these gains? The answer is a big no. In 2002 he posted a downright Satanic 666 OPS and 19 errors in less play for another .946 FPCT that wasn't as bad as it looked, costing the Bucs only 2 runs by BP's measure. In 2003, he was slow from the gate with the stick - 679 OPS in April - and he turned that around in May and June. His fielding was more Satanic than ever, however. In mid-May, his batting average stood at .219, he had 12 errors in 40 games, and fans were booing him at PNC.

Ramirez then went on a tear, but me, after watching Ramirez wallow in such depths for such a long period of time (one full season plus the first quarter of the next), I was ready to sell him high before the next funk set in. Everyone close to the game attributed his struggles to pressing. In Pittsburgh, he was a big fish in a small pond; in Chicago, he's a small fish in a big pond. He's surrounded by drunken fans who barely comprehend the game and sober fans who find losing somewhat lovable. Wrigley is a better place for him. Perhaps he'll mature into a consistent star there. Only time will tell.

That said, when we consider what he gave the team last year, we should remember that his 400 plate appearances of 778 OPS also came with 23 errors and a .924 FPCT in 96 games. The 2004 BP annual measures that as play that cost the Pirates 12 runs - more than one full win. The Pirates allowed 801 runs last year. With better fielding at third, that number could have been 789.

After Ramirez left, the rest of the third base time was monopolized by Jose Hernandez, who gave us league-average defense and a 608 OPS. As PG's Stats Geek showed us in yesterday's article, the combination produced a 725 OPS.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that Chris Stynes plays every inning at third base and that he gives the Pirates his career average 747 OPS, he'll easily do better than the third base combo of 2003. He'll hit more and help the Pirates score more runs. He'll also field better and help the Pirates prevent runs: in 2003, Stynes was second in the NL in fielding percentage at third base. BP's measure of his value is neutral, suggesting the low error rate masks a limited range: Ramirez was measured at -12 runs and Stynes was measured at 0 runs. (Florida's Mike Lowell was good enough to be measured at +7 runs.)

Even if we compare Stynes at 3B to a hypothetical full year of Ramirez at 3B, I'm not sure that 600 plate appearances of 330 OBP / 448 SLG generates enough runs over 600 plate appearances of 340 OBP / 407 SLG to make up for the 12 runs that score after Ramirez throws the routine grounder up the right-field foul line. By my crude math, the first line would generate about 155 runs & RBIs and the second line would generate about 145 runs & RBIs assuming both hitters were stuck in the same average lineup position on the same average team. Ramirez might be expected to score 70 and drive in 85, but his poor play in the field would offset any advantage he might appear to have over Stynes scoring 68 and driving in 77.

I'll wrap this up with three other observations. First, Stynes in not going to get 600 PA at third. I expect Rob Mackowiak, who is better hitter than Stynes, to get some of those, and probably Nunez will play at third too, so I'm a little foolish to write like things aren't more complicated than this. Second, had the Pirates kept Aramis Ramirez, I don't doubt that there would be a good chance that he'd return to the 2000 form for them. On the other hand, if you had asked me that question in mid-May 2003, I would have sworn there was no chance we'd see that again. If one of your star players hogs the limelight as your football team loses their first four games, you understandably become more difficult to impress when he begins to play well only after he has done so much to eliminate your team from playoff contention. Ramirez's play improved after he sounded out the writing on the wall and it said the Pirates would do anything to get out of his guaranteed money for 2004. His hot-streak audition for a ticket out of Pittsburgh can't be used as evidence - not in this court at least - that he had a bright future as a Pirate.

Finally, Stynes contributes certain intangible things such as superior bag-packing skills and sunflower-chewing strategies and all the other little intangibles we collect under the name of veteran leadership. We can never forget the value of veteran leadership.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Baseball Prospectus PTP

It's a freebie, so I can link to it. These things are great. Mike "Go Hard or Go Home" Johnston figures in the cast of nobodies.

In that August 11th game, the Pirates had 17 hits and only managed 4 runs as they lost to the Cardinals. Reggie Sanders left 10 (!) men on base. Redman's out at home - the second part of an 8-2 double play - happened in the first inning. In the third, Rolen made a great play at third and had Redman dead, but somehow he got back to third safely. On the next play, a fly ball to right with the bases loaded, Redman didn't tag up and the Cards caught Kendall in a run-down between second and third. They screwed up the run-down - with the ball, Cairo ran past Kendall to throw to third - and it was safe all around. Simon grounded out to end the inning. In the fifth inning, Redman was safe at the plate on a close play after Mike Matheny retrieved an errant relay from Danny Haren. On Redman's fourth hit of the day, Edmonds threw Nunez out at the plate for his second assist of the day. Article, box score, play-by-play here.

The August 13 game was just as interesting. With two outs in the ninth, left-hander Pedro Borbon pitching, the score tied, and St. Louis needing a win to stay in first place, Kendall singled. La Russa had Giles and Sanders intentionally walked to load the bases to face the left-handed Carlos Rivera, who Mac had just put in the game as a defensive replacement for lefty-killer Craig A. Wilson. The only right-handed player on Mac's bench was Abraham Nunez, so Mac sent Randall Simon to pinch hit. Not surprisingly, Borbon got two quick strikes on Simon, but Simon singled home Kendall for the Pirates win. Mac and La Russa can turn the game on its head when they try to outsmart each other.

Winning through the minor leagues

John Perrotto has a nice run-down of the state of the minor league system. There is good and bad. The good is all the winning after six years of losing. The bad is the lack of talent that analysts regard as first-rate. Since this was a regular feature in the preseason baseball writing that damned the Pirates to hell, we need to re-examine this bad and decide if it is as bad as we so often read.

What is the bad? Perrotto quotes Baseball America executive Jim Callis:

About the only downside of the Pirates' farm system is it has no surefire superstar-type talent.

While Baseball America ranks four Pirates among its top 100 prospects, Van Benschoten is the highest at No. 38. Burnett is ranked 64th, Bay is 74th and Bullington is 97th.

Callis believes the Pirates would have players higher on the list if they would have been willing to gamble in the amateur draft the last two years. Some of that was dictated by ownership wanting the Pirates to go the safe route with more established college talent in the first round.

"I think a team that hasn't won anything in a long time needs to take a few more chances and try to get players with higher upside," Callis said. "That's the only drawback with the Pirates' farm system. They have a lot of good young pitching, but nobody stands out as a potential No. 1 starter. They are thinner with position players and none of them project to hit 40 homers or drive in 120 runs.

"Still, the Pirates have come a long way. They may lack the high-end talent of some other organizations but there are few organizations who can match the Pirates for their overall depth of talent."

I think this - Baseball America, that is - is the source for the often-circulated argument that the Pirates have been too risk-averse in the draft and, as a result, have no "A" prospects in their system.

I get suspicious when there's so much agreement in the prediction business. Are the other writers parroting Baseball America? If that's not the case, how is this collection of talent so cut-and-dried that there can be no dissenting interpretation of its value? Are there really no "A" prospects? (Isn't telling a 21-year-old that he is a "surefire superstar-type" player one of the surest ways to derail his development? Maybe it's good for our young arms that everyone agrees they still have a lot to prove.) Anyway, the consensus is suspicious, and inquiring minds want to see the evidence for themselves before they sign up for that hard-to-swallow conclusion.

I approach the minor-league talent with this question: how well does the Pirates' performance in the draft serve their particular needs as a franchise?

Littlefield has learned that it's pretty easy to sign a Reggie Sanders or a Raul Mondesi cheaply in the offseason. These days, star-quality hitting talent at the bumbling end of the defensive spectrum - first basemen, corner outfielders - is pretty easy to get cheap. Three-true-outcome bashers like Jim Thome or Craig A. Wilson can be had in the draft after round one, too. (Thome was a 13th-round draft pick; Wilson was a 2nd-round pick.) Since the Pirates can acquire replacement value or star-quality players on the market or with mid-level draft picks, why should they use their #1 draft picks gambling on first basemen or corner outfielders who might hit 40 and drive in 120? Maybe the difference between that guy and someone who hits 25 and drives in 95 is the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. Still, this seems like a marginal improvement compared to the gains the Pirates might achieve in other areas.

They could target a young middle infielder, but they are easy to gather in trade - as we learned this off-season - and the no-hit, super-glove variety such as Pokey Reese are always out there for a reasonable price. (For those of you who think the Pirates overpaid Reese, keep in mind that he declined a four-year, $21M contract from the Reds in the 2000-2001 offseason. Pittsburgh then got him for $5M for two years, and, the last time he went on the market, Reese was signed by the saberlicious Red Sox for even less. It's safe to say that the market for these guys is a buyer's market. Rey Ordonez is out of work as I write this.)

Again, a superstar up the middle would be great, but regular stars are available at good prices. A team with Reggie Sanders in RF, Pokey Reese at 2B, and Craig A. Wilson at 1B is not necessarily a losing team.

What the Pirates can't sign in the offseason is a front-of-the-rotation starter or, these days, even a middle-of-the-rotation starter. There are some Jeff Suppans and some Rick Reeds available lately. As the essay on the Reds in the 2004 Baseball Prospectus book explains: "The market on retreads isn't quite so cheap, or as loaded with easy pickings, as it used to be." So, why not use the draft to seed the minor leagues with the kind of players they can't sign in the offseason? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Let's step back and consider the draft from the perspective of another team, the Yankees. Since the Yankees can acquire Javier Vazquez or a comparable player off the free-agent market every year, I don't know why they would even bother drafting pitchers. Young pitchers are so susceptible to injury and failure, many analysts argue that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. For this reason and others, we might criticize Littlefield for trying to build a winner on pitching and defense. Rightly or wrongly, then, the Pirates are drafting pitchers, and fishing - like every team who drafts pitchers - for #1 and #2 starters. Baseball America doesn't question the Pirates' decision to rebuild around pitching and defense, they question their preference for "safe" college pitchers over the kind of picks that have a chance of becoming what Callis calls the more "surefire superstar-type" players. This same argument has been repeated in similar essays for Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer. After what the Brewers have gone through with Nick Neugebauer, and what the Mariners have gone through with Ryan Anderson, I'm not sure why a team like the Pirates would be wise to use their top picks on glittery 19-year-old power pitchers. How can Callis criticize the talent in the Pirates' organization for not being "surefire superstar-type" without openly questioning the Pirates' decision to draft pitchers first? That would take the debate into more appropriate territory and, as I outline above, I think there are very good reasons for the Pirates to focus on starting pitching in the draft.

Since the Yankees can acquire an ace like Vazquez - or a mega-hitting slick-glove middle infielder like Alex Rodriguez - whenever they want, it follows that they should heed Callis's advice and use the draft to focus exclusively on the high-risk, high-reward picks that are more likely to emerge as "surefire superstar-type" prospects. Since the Yankees only stock the team with the best that money can buy, they have no hope of growing a player they could use on the big-league club unless they go for broke every time. As trade bait, "surefire superstar-type" prospects are five times more desirable than the less surefire types. Teams don't want to trade for B- and C-level prospects unless you are taking on some of their unwanted salaries.

Last year the Pirates passed up Jeff Allison, a strong-armed high schooler, for Paul Maholm, a college pitcher. John Perrotto wrote up that decision for Baseball America. Again small-minded, small-market mental failures were implied as the cause of the "safe" decision, as you can see in the tone of the first few paragraphs. Perrotto is undoubtedly one of the best sportswriters covering the Pirates right now, but in this essay he regurgitates the CW of the Heathers who repeatedly insist that the Pirates are morons for not focussing exclusively on players they project as "surefire superstar-type" prospects.

From the Pirates' point of view, there are two more strikes against the high-risk, high-reward youngsters so in vogue. First, unlike the Yankees, the Pirates can't afford to miss in the draft. For the Pirates, the all-or-none strategy makes less sense. Given the limitations of their resources, they can't be throwing money at a pitcher with a Nick Neugebauer chance of making the big leagues in the role he was drafted to fill. Second, most of these youngsters - take Barry Bonds, for example - don't put up superstar numbers until their fourth or fifth season in the big leagues. Why should the Pirates draft a corner outfielder like Bonds with their first pick, suffer through his development - when Raul Mondesi and Reggie Sanders are available in the current market - only to lose the mega-superstar to free agency as soon as he becomes eligbile? If there's one thing a small-market team can't do often, it's award the long-term, high-dollar contracts that these players command.

Anyway, this is what Callis's criticism comes down to, in more practical terms: in a few years, will the Pirates regret taking Maholm when they could have had Jeff Allison? Allison slipped in the 2003 draft, and many thought this was because teams like the Pirates feared the signing bonus he would demand (he ended up with considerably less than Maholm earned). No doubt Littlefield will not confirm this as true even if it were true, but because people suspect these motives, there's no way Littlefield can credibly deny them without tipping his hand and explaining to every one at the poker table just what, exactly, is in his hand and how, exactly, he intends to play it. It's a lose-lose situation for Littlefield. He doesn't draft the way the Heathers want him to draft, and in his position, it's not in the team's best interest for him to concern himself with correcting the Heathers. In 2003, Allison pitched nine innings in the Gulf Coast League before he was shut down with shoulder tendinitis, and he reported three weeks late to Class A camp this spring for personal reasons. The Sun-Sentinel reports today that Allison has agreed to two years of random drug testing and has also agreed to defer a chunk of his signing bonus. Things could change in a hurry, but right now I see a few red flags. Meanwhile, Maholm showed up in spring training and looks good to go.

Since different teams face different obstacles in the construction of a championship-caliber franchise, it follows that criticism of the way the Pirates draft players should focus on the way these players fit into what we can gather to be the Pirates' long-term building strategy.

It's also important to remember that not every ace was a top-shelf pitching prospect. If the Pirates can bring Van Benschoten, Burnett, Maholm, Bradley, and Bullington to spring training in 2005, and one emerges as an ace, and two emerge as legitimate #2 or #3 starters, then the draft strategy has been a smashing success. If the Pirates can assemble a cheap, durable, homegrown staff that is three-fifths the quality of Oakland's young staff, then I think we have to credit the drafts as successful and reverse direction in the chatter about Littlefield's managerial abilities.

One more thing about these prospect lists. This is important: they are often used for evil. Not only do the rankings often fail to consider fully how a prospect's talents and risks meet a team's current and long-term needs, they are also used to evaluate the overall health of a team's minor-league system, as in the example that begins this essay.

Case in point: In the 2003 draft, two closers-in-waiting, Ryan Wagner and Chad Cordero, were taken shortly after the Bucs took Maholm.

One of these closers, Ryan Wagner, gets heaps of praise from performance analysts (for his 2003 big-league performance) and from scouts (for his one amazing pitch). For years the Reds have tried to succeed by acquiring failed major-league starters in hopes of correcting their problems and putting them back on the narrow road to success. This retread formula hasn't paid off lately. Why is Ryan Wagner touted here and far as a top prospect for the Reds when he's a closer? He has two pitches: he's a closer. If a team needs pitchers who can throw 220 innings, why do the Top Prospect lists reward them with high numbers after they draft an 80-inning college closer? Baseball America ranks Wagner as the #46 prospect, between Golden Flash and Sean Burnett. Is Wagner really more suited to help the Reds win a championship than Burnett? We all know that any half-decent starter can be converted into a pretty good closer. Does an elite closer add so much to a team that it makes sense to use a #1 draft pick on him? We need to ask these questions, I think, when we evaluate the overall quality of a team's collection of prospects.

The 2004 Baseball Prospectus book takes the Baseball America argument to a more hyperbolic extreme. The essay on the Pirates includes a ranking of the top 25 players by VORP that supposedly damns the Pirates to hell for drafting unwisely. The list includes Estaban Loaiza, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson, Jason Schmidt, Mark Prior, and Kevin Brown. Loaiza was an undrafted free agent from Mexico. Pedro Martinez was an undrafted free agent from the Dominican Republic. Tim Hudson was a sixth-round pick in the 1997 draft. Jason Schmidt was an eighth-round pick in the 1991 draft. Of this list, only Mark Prior and Kevin Brown were first-round picks. Only Kevin Brown was 19 and drafted in the first round. Just because the Twins passed on him, does anyone think the Pirates would have passed on Mark Prior in the 2001 draft had he fallen to them? It's weak to hold him up as the kind of player the Pirates should draft when they never had the opportunity to draft him (In 2001, Bonifay drafted John Van Benschoten, a player everyone projected as a star hitter and, in a typical "risk-averse" move for the Bucs, told the Golden Flash that he'd been drafted as a pitcher.) The moral of the story of 2003's top-VORP pitchers is this: if a team wants to find aces in the minor-league system, the only sure way to do this is to scour the globe and draft a ton of pitchers. Also note that Loaiza and Schmidt passed through the Pirates' hands for different reasons. In both cases, neither player was primed for his VORPtastic season until he had acquired considerable big-league experience.

Does this suggest that it is unwise to draft pitchers in the first round, given the poor track record first-round pitchers have in comparison to first-round position players? Not necessarily, although I admit the case can be made. Whether or not Littlefield should focus again on pitching in the 2004 draft is an open question, and one we can debate in the coming months.

Right now, in this essay, we need to focus on how Top Prospect lists are used to measure the overall quality of a team's minor-league organization. The Pirates, like the Reds, need a lot of cheap pitching. One team uses their draft picks getting their favorite college pitchers, and taking control guys over power guys if circumstances make that appropriate. The other team drafts a closer. Which team gets pilloried in the baseball scholarship as the team without a plan, or the team that drafts poorly?

Why is Wagner more highly rated as a prospect? There is a good reason. The reason is this: the prospect lists are yet another form of predicting the stock market, and the people who put them together care a lot about looking good and smart in the short-term. You can't overlook Wagner when you see he could dominate the late innings starting next week. It doesn't matter that a 70-inning pitcher is one of the last things the Reds need right now; if you are putting together a prospect list, you have to put Wagner on that list. The men at Baseball Prospectus ranked Wagner as the #14 overall prospect after savaging the Reds in their essay for the misery that has been the Reds' rotation. How could they miss the irony of this?

I don't have a problem making and using prospect lists with next year's Rookie of the Year award in mind. If you are interested, any subscriber can read the Baseball Prospectus roundtables which admirably share the thinking behind their selections. I highly recommend them. Participants suggest, for example, that some young guy can be on the list next year so another player, more likely to make the Show this year, can be added. Some participants have a team's best interest in mind, but not all, and certainly a handicap-the-ROY-race attitude prevails in which the main consideration from a club's point of view is whether or not this prospect will have an opportunity to play in 2004.

That's fine, but then don't use those lists to evaluate a farm system. The fact that Bryan Bullington did not make Baseball Prospectus's "top 50 prospect list" is not "a scathing indictment" of him, as their essay on the Pirates childishly insists. If anything, the fact that BP's editors let that outrageous comment slip into the final product is a scathing exposure of that crew's need for some level-headed editors who will save the crew from the perils of that hubris we often use to fuel the completion of an essay at its deadline.

Given that the "top prospect" focus usually neglects or at least discounts a player's ability to fill a high-priority need in a given organization's long-term plan, we should be skeptical when someone evaluates a team's minor league system by adding up the number of prospects they have in the top 100 list. Propsects often make the top 100 list for reasons that have little to do with the way they reflect on their organization's competence in the draft. I don't care what the experts say. The fact that all six of the Pirates' minor-league affiliates made the playoffs is a much more relevant measure of the health of the minor-league system than the fact that few of those prospects put up minor-league performances that somehow suggest they are fast-tracked for the Hall of Fame. Or that few appear poised to win a Rookie of the Year award. Or that few are guaranteed a rotation spot in 2004 or even 2005. I'm not arguing that the Pirates have the greatest minor-league system in the universe, but I do believe that counting the number of top 100 prospects is an ass-backwards way to come up with a conclusion to an analysis of their talent pool, and I offer this essay as a modest call for a more original and honest appraisal of the relationship between the Pirates' particular needs as a franchise and the talent they have assembled in the current minor-league system.

John Perrotto: Hill before Jose

I find John Perrotto's case for Hill persuasive. Any tie should go to Hill. For what it's worth, I made my case for him last week.

To borrow Littlefield's metaphor, why throw Castillo to the wolves, and risk having him "chewed up" and permanently maimed?

Stats Geek snarks again

Brian O'Neill has another snarky Stats Geek essay for the Post-Gazette. He argues that the Pirates won't win another 75 games this year because the offense won't score enough runs. He then handicaps the odds that the 2004 Pirates will have improved hitting at each position. The evidence doesn't fully support his arguments that the Pirates will lose so many games.

Go read the article for yourself. To recap, he concedes that the Bucs will be the same at catcher, until Kendall is traded. Then it's likely we'll be worse. Score: -1. He bitches about the Simon signing but has no strong case that this year's mix of Simon and Wilson will be weaker than last year's mix of Simon, Wilson, and Stairs. Even, keeping the score: -1. Second base will be an upgrade no matter what happens. Plus, making the score: Even. The Stats Geek suggests that Jack Wilson will be the same hitter that he was in 2003. Well, maybe, but even PECOTA considers his breakout chance (25%) greater than his collapse chance (20%). Being 25 has a lot to do with that. We're cautiously optimistic, esp. if Jack wins the second spot in the batting order, though that looks less likely with the strong performance of the second basemen and Wilson's recent fit of suckiness at the plate. Score: Still even. At third, Stynes's career numbers suggest he'll replace Aramis Ramirez's 2003 numbers as a Pirate. Score: Even. Outfield: Even though I think the Bay/Wilson mix will replace Brian Giles, let's be conservative and say there's no way anyone replaces Brian Giles. Score: -1. Tike Redman was an upgrade over Lofton last year, and he'll be even better this year. Score: Even. Raul Mondesi is a Reggie Sanders clone. Score: Even. Last year's bench was Matt Stairs and the 600 OPS Sextet. That should be easy to beat, especially if Randall Simon or Craig Wilson emerges as the King of the Pine. But let's call it even to be safe.

Following Brian O'Neill's analysis - which I think is conservative - we still come out with an offense that is more equal than better or worse. The only huge negative the Pirates might experience is at catcher, and that's assuming that Kendall is dealt for a package that includes the no-hit veteran catcher he'd replace on some other team. But that's not certain. Why bring in and play an old man if Cota could handle that role? And why play that sucker at the expense of Craig A. Wilson? If Kendall's departure leads to a mix of Wilson and Osik Cota, that may be no worse than what we got from the position in 2003. Finally, with all the youth around diamond, the chance of an unexpectedly good breakout season at some random position is greater than the chance of an unexpectedly bad collapse season. We can play it safe and call it even.

Run scoring, of course, is only half the game. Run prevention is the other half. We can't argue that diminished run scoring will result in fewer wins unless we prove that run prevention will remain the same or get worse. So let's look at the staff. The combination of Kip Wells and Josh Fogg should be as good as the same combination last year. Ryan Vogelsong looks like a big improvement over Jeff D'Amico. Oliver Perez can't be worse than he was last year. For as long as he stays with the team, this year's vintage of Kris Benson should do as well as last year's version of Jeff Suppan. Burnett and Vanbenschoten are wildcards, but they should at least equal the performances of Brian Meadows and Salomon Torres if they are called upon to make 12 starts each. Williams, Beimel, and Boehringer do not appear to be in line to suck up so many high-leverage innings in 2004. Mesa and the new guys may not be much better, but it would be diffficult to be much worse. It's hard to argue that this year's pitching staff will be appreciably worse than last year's pitching staff. Even if Wells can't repeat his 2003 performance, there's enough net positive in the likely improvement offered by the other young pitchers to make up for that. Wells isn't going to suck; that's not likely at all.

Maybe Brian O'Neill will take this up in next week's column. Since he failed to convince us that it is likely that the 2004 offense will be significantly worse than the 2003 offense, he has some work to do on the bullpen if he hopes to salvage his claim that the Pirates have little hope of 75 wins.

All that said, it's good to keep expectations low. The lower they are going into the season, the greater the odds the Pirates exceed expectations. In sports as in politics, exceeding expectations is the surest way to generate that enthusiasm which gives a contender momentum.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Vogelsong sharp

Six innings, four hits, one walk, eight strikeouts. Solo home runs allowed to two of PECOTA's favorite players - Wily Mo Pena and Adam Dunn. Dunn will hit 50 bombs this year if he stays healthy. Anyway, Vogelsong is happy:
"I feel good, there's no other way to describe it," Vogelsong said. "I didn't even feel that good before I had the Tommy John surgery (in 2001). Everything is a lot better than it was, my breaking ball and my curveball."
(voiceover) We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better, stronger, faster.

Carlos Rivera makes 25-man roster?

With Merced's release today, Mac needs a left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench (esp. on the days that Randall Simon starts). As Joe Rutter reports in today's notebook for the Tribune-Review, Littlefield said Rivera "shouldn't be counted out of the running for a roster spot" despite the strained intercostal muscle that has kept him out since mid-March. No mo' Merced suggests Rivera won't start the season on the DL or in the minor leagues. Carlos is 26. Nate Silver's PECOTA program suggests Rivera's most comparable player is Henry Rodriguez.

Youth movement

Some moves announced. Guthrie, Merced released. Abad, Acevedo, Corey, and Roberts to Nashville.
"The plan for the future is promoting our own players and hoping they have impact,'' general manager Dave Littlefield said. "Last year, when we signed (a lot of) free agents, it was a function of not having any internal options. Now we have some options, and we're trying to make the decision: Are those options ready?''
The 2004 Pirates could turn out younger than the 1986 Pirates. Here's a table comparing the 1986 Pirates with 100+ at-bats or 40+ innings vs. a wild-ass guess of how the 2004 Pirates might shape up.

C Pena 29 Kendall 30
1B Bream 25 Simon 29
2B Ray 29 Castillo 23
3B Morrison 33 Stynes 31
SS Belliard 24 Wilson 26
OF Orsulak 24 Bay 25
OF Reynolds 27 Redman 27
OF Bonds 21 Mondesi 33
bench Brown 26 Wilson 27
bench Diaz 26 Mackowiak 28
bench Almon 33 Nunez 28
bench Bonilla 23 Hill 26
bench Khalifa 22 Sanchez 26
bench Washington 32 Davis 25
bench Ortiz 26 Cota 25
SP Reuschel 37 Wells 27
SP Rhoden 33 Benson 29
SP Bielecki 26 Fogg 27
SP Kipper 21 Perez 22
SP Walk 29 Vogelsong 26
SP McWilliams 32 Burnett 21
RP Winn 27 Meadows 28
RP Guante 26 Torres 32
RP Clements 24 Johnston 25
CL Robinson 29 Mesa 38
27.36 27.36

Replace Burnett with Reed and the average age jumps to 43 28.04. Replace Johnston with Beimel and it rises further, to 28.16. Any Kendall trade might bring in a 45-year-old catcher, too. It's not likely the 2004 team will be younger, but it will be close at least.

Go hard or go home

Keep your eye on this guy. You know how the Bucs need left-handers for the bullpen. It's a great story, too.

Still no word on those roster moves. Looks like they will wait until after Vogelsong's start tonight to announce whatever decisions they made in the meetings this afternoon.

Cuts today; fifth starter named?

The bosses gather this afternoon to make another round of cuts. If this goes as it went last week, check back around 2:30pm EST. The moderate, think-2005 course of action would be to make Nolan Ryan Vogelsong the fifth starter, move the Jai Lai player to the bullpen, and send Burnett to AAA.

No need to cut Reed. It's not like he'd catch on with another club, and Pittsburgh must represent his best hope for extended PT this year. (Only the Reds might be calling his agent as I write this, and I'll refrain from making the obvious joke about the influence this news might have on their decision to keep or cut him).

I don't know what they'll do with Castillo and Hill. That's a tough call. The choice is keeping Hill, who can hit but fields like Marcus Giles circa 2001, or throwing Jose Castillo to the wolves, to use Littlefield's metaphor, and risking that they chew him up and damage him into some permanently-impaired state. I guess Hill would be the moderate choice, but Mac's preference for slick-fielding middle infielders gives Castillo an edge. Also, Castillo might be chosen as the wiser choice if developing the pitchers (and preventing runs) is deemed a higher priority than scoring runs. I see Hill - Castillo as a 50-50 chance. I'll guess Castillo just for the sake of guessing.