The Silent Killers

October 1, 2010

It is a dreadfully gloomy Friday here in New York, which means that whatever creative juices I have are simply not flowing right now. But I did want to start crossing things off my “to write about” list, and given the straightforward nature of this post, it seemed like a great place to start.

I am going to create a team of silent killers. You might think this sounds like the hackneyed premise of a John Woo movie, but you would be mistaken. When I say silent killers, I’m referring to baseball players who have consistently offered mediocre production over the course of the season. This is not a list of the worst players in baseball. The worst players in baseball are so bad that they don’t play much, so while their poor play hurts a team on a rate basis, the aggregate effect isn’t huge because they play so little. Instead, this is a list of players on competitive teams whose poor performances over hundreds of plate appearances have cost their teams those marginal wins that are so important in the standings.

If this concept sounds familiar to you, it’s because I’m blatantly ripping off Baseball Prospectus’ “Replacement-Level Killers” idea. I repeat: It’s a gloomy Friday, and this is all I’ve got.

C: Miguel Olivo, Rockies (427 PAs, .269/.315/.449)

If I were identifying the worst catcher in baseball, I would probably be writing about Jason Kendall here (.297 SLG ? Seriously?). But Kendall’s performance wasn’t the difference between a playoff spot or going home. Olivo’s wasn’t totally either, but his impotence certainly hurt the Rockies in the second half of the season. After hitting a sensational .325/.377/.548 before the All-Star break, Olivo quickly regressed to his very, very mediocre mean, hitting .193/.225/.313 in the second half. Over 427 plate appearances, Olivo has provided below-average offense (92 OPS+) for a contending team with the young, cost-controlled, and talented Chris Iannetta patiently waiting for manager Jim Tracy to come to his senses. It’s not Olivo’s fault that Tracy keeps playing him, but it is Olivo’s fault that he can’t hit.

1B: Todd Helton, Rockies (464 PAs, .259/.364/.372)

I promise that I’m done with the Rockies after this, but Helton’s play really crippled them in 2010. He started off fairly well, getting on base 37% of the time (albeit with zero power) in March, April, and May. June and July saw his OBP and SLG fall off a cliff, although they rebounded in August and September. No matter the distribution, a .259/.364/.372 line at first base is a huge competitive disadvantage, particularly in a pennant race. In May, I wrote that Helton’s OBP would keep him an acceptable starter until his power came back around. That didn’t happen. I was wrong.

2B: Skip Schumaker, Cardinals (520 PAs, .266/.330/.340)

Aaron Hill and David Eckstein are also fine candidates for this spot. But it’s tough to say that Hill’s Blue Jays were ever really contenders, and Eckstein has 42 fewer PAs than Schumaker. Although Schumaker’s offensive performance is horrid even by the meager standards of the position, the icing on the cake is his defense. You may find this hard to believe, but even though he’s a small, white, middle-infielder named “Skip,” his defense is terrible. Single-season defensive statistics can be misleading, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Schumaker has a negative total zone rating for all four positions he’s played in his career.

3B: Pablo Sandoval, Giants (607 PAs, .267/.323/.410)

Sandoval was fantastic in 2009, hitting .330/.387/.556 in 633 PAs. While his OBP drop can be largely explained by going from good luck on balls in play (in 2009) to back luck (in 2010), his sudden lack of power is pretty jarring. It would be foolish to blame only his physique for his poor play, but I do think it’s fair to say that 24-year-olds with his body type don’t have long and successful careers in MLB without a serious commitment to conditioning.

SS: Elvis Andrus, Rangers (660 PAs, .264/.341/.299)

Our first American Leaguer, Andrus second season in MLB has been fairly miserable. He was rushed to the majors last season and played brilliant enough defense that his offensive woes (.267/.329/.373) could be overlooked. Two things have changed this season. Whatever power he had – and it wasn’t much at all – has completely vanished. He has no home runs and just 14 doubles, an astonishing figure for someone with his speed who plays in Seattle and Oakland’s cavernous ballparks nearly 20 times a year. Also, depending on whether or not you believe defensive statistics, his glovework has slipped to slightly below-average this season. He can’t afford to let that continue, because his bat simply won’t play anywhere on the diamond without excellent defense.

OF: Literally everyone in the Twins’ outfield

You think I’m kidding. Take a moment to look at Denard Span’s, Delmon Young’s, Jason Kubel’s, and Michael Cuddyer’s numbers in 2010.

  • In 2008 and 2009, Span was the OBP machine that the Twins desperately needed after years of slaptastic and punchless (but gritty and pesky!) hitters atop their lineup. From a quick glance at the underlying numbers, it looks like he’s suffering from equal parts bad luck and loss of skill, but a .267/.335/.353 line in 693 PAs isn’t very good no matter how you slice it.
  • Young is, admittedly, the least terrible of this quartet. But if you look beyond the .489 SLG and 110 RBI, you’ll find that, aside from a fabulous July, he’s still basically the same hitter as he was when he was being labeled a “bust.” He’s still incredibly impatient and a disaster on defense. I urge you to look at his career UZR in the outfield, because it is truly impressive.
  • Kubel is a former righty-masher who has stopped mashing righties. He has no defensive value, no speed, and it’s looking more and more like his 2009 season was a fluke. That’s 573 PAs down the drain.
  • Cuddyer has transitioned to more of a 1B/OF/DH type, but he still has 68 appearances in the outfield and a dreadful (.272/.337/.418) batting line. Like Kubel and Young, Cuddyer is a statue in the outfield and provides little but the occasional home run.

Honestly, after looking at these numbers, I have no idea how the Twins led the AL Central in runs scored this season.

DH: Adam Lind, Blue Jays (606 PAs, .237/.287/.420)

A designated hitter that doesn’t hit. Fascinating. Just like with Jason Kubel, we must consider the possibility that Lind’s roaring success in 2009 (.305/.370/.562) was the outlier and not a new plateau.

P: A.J. Burnett, Yankees (180.2 IP, 5.33 ERA)

With all the squawking about him here in New York, it’s wrong to call him a “silent” killer. But technicalities aside, he has been brutal this season. His strikeouts are down, his home runs allowed are up, and opposing baserunners run wild on him. I’ve always been a Burnett defender, because it struck me as silly that people were expecting him – are STILL expecting him – to pitch like an ace when he’s only done so twice in his career. I’ve consistently said that if you look at his career numbers and expect that level of performance (you know, like we do with every other player in sports), his inconsistency is much easier to swallow. Well, he’s pitched worse than a fifth starter in 2010, and that is worth plenty of criticism.


George Carlin On Baseball

February 16, 2010

Because pitchers and catchers are about to report (which I knew thanks to this handy website):

A Frequent Problem With Steroid-Related Condemnations

January 15, 2010

I’ve determined that I simply can’t get worked up about steroids in baseball. I just can’t do it. Even though I’ve written about this issue in the past – and in this piece, most significantly – it doesn’t have the same inflaming effect on me that it apparently does on many other people. It is, at its core, a rather simple issue. Major League Baseball didn’t have strict rules against or testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball players, who are fiercely competitive and enjoy the accumulation of money (just like everyone), dabbled in or abused these drugs that were essentially condoned. And in recent years, when the problem because too obvious and big to ignore, Major League Baseball retroactively vilified and persecuted the same players off of whom it had previously profited, and perhaps had done so with knowledge of steroids’ proliferation. Many choose to focus on the immorality and duplicity of the most prominent players involved in this era, but to me, what I just wrote is the story in its purest and most important form.

What I absolutely can get worked up about is the overwhelming sanctimony put forth by the brainless writers, analysts, fans, and former players that this issue seems to attract. In the interest of brevity and maintaining a minimally civil discourse, I’m going leave completely untouched the first three groups in that sequence and focus on the last – former baseball players. Some of these men have been understanding of the so-called “Steroid Era,” recognizing that athletes habitually seek ways to gain an edge, and that many baseball players had way more reasons to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs than they did to eschew them. Sure, they frown up the decisions some of their contemporary peers made, but they understand them. Most importantly, they appear to be genuine in their desire to move on.

Then there are former players like Goose Gossage and Jack Clark. These men not only appear unwilling or unable to forgive users with any modicum of understanding, but they also appear to be relentlessly ignorant of the inconsistency (and occasionally outright hypocrisy) of their condemnations. And, as I hope you will see, it’s infuriating. Read the rest of this entry »

90-Win Season An Absurd Expectation For The Houston Astros

March 26, 2009
Astros Manager Cecil Cooper expects to win 90 games this season.

Astros Manager Cecil Cooper expects to win 90 games this season.

I forget how it happened exactly, but I recently discovered that prominent members of the Houston Astros expect to win 90 games this upcoming season. Manager Cecil Cooper was quite clear about this, saying:

“We should win 90 games . . . I believe we’ll win 90 games, 90-plus.”

Left fielder Carlos Lee:

“If we stay healthy, yeah, we can win 90.”

Star first baseman Lance Berkman:

“I believe that we can win at least 90 games. At least 90. It could be 91 . . . Why wouldn’t we [win 90]? We won 86 last year. I feel like we have a better team this year.”

I’m here to burst Cooper, Lee, and Berkman’s respective bubbles. I’m going to tell you exactly why the Astros won’t sniff 90 wins this season, and why even mentioning that number as a remotely possible goal is ludicrous. “Why wouldn’t we win 90?” Here’s why you won’t, in succinct and ruthless bullet-point format: Read the rest of this entry »

Florida’s Decision Could Hurt Argument’s Credibility

February 17, 2009

florida41While watching Alex Rodriguez’s press conference today, I caught a brief but interesting blurb on ESPNews’ ticker. The blurb essentially reported this story. To summarize, Florida has ended its high school steroid-testing program because the benefit didn’t justify the cost:

Florida’s pilot steroid-testing program has been eliminated, the result of budget concerns from state officials who said they cannot justify spending the $100,000 needed to do the testing.

Only one steroid user was found among 600 teens tested. Tests were randomly administered at 53 schools, at a cost of $166 apiece.

The decision leaves just three states — New Jersey, Illinois and Texas — that test high school athletes for steroids.

This development is interesting in light of the steroid-induced frenzy currently engulfing Major League Baseball. From the very beginning of the steroids issue, everyone from athletes to Congressmen has cited the danger these drugs pose to young people as a primary impetus behind this crusade. Athletes under suspicion are asked “what kind of example are you setting?” and “how could you possibly explain this to young people for whom you serve as a role model?” In testimonies and hearings, press conferences and interviews, we have been told that the use of steroids amongst young people is a very real problem with very real consequences. All of this, we are told, is why this issue matters.

I often stress the importance of sample size when evaluating information, so I must be careful not to over-state my case here. But I find it incredibly interesting that just 0.16% of eligible Florida high school football players, baseball players, and weightlifters tested positive for steroids. It is a small sample in one state, which is not enough information to disprove the idea that steroids are a problem in high school athletics. It is, however, more information than we had before, and thus far it suggests that maybe Major League Baseball and Congress have been getting their knickers in a twist about a relatively small issue.

Steroid Scandal Reveals More About Us Than The Players

February 10, 2009

As most of you know by now, Yankees’ third-baseman and Major League Baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Over the weekend, sources told Sports Illustrated that Rodriguez was one of the 104 players who tested positive during 2003’s survey tests. Yesterday, Rodriguez admitted to ESPN’s Peter Gammons that he knowingly used PEDs for a period of time that roughly spanned the 2001, 2002, and 2003 seasons.

The sports media has been in a frenzy since Sports Illustrated broke the news. Reactions and analyses have varied from the idiotic to the measured, with very occasional forays into the wise. I have long-since accepted that a certain hysteria exists when it comes to baseball players using steroids, but that does not mean that I understand it. Most of the sports-following world is falling all over itself in its effort to condemn, vilify, and shame the transgressors. For my part, I choose to sit here in awe of the relentless incompetence, negligence, and hypocrisy that have characterized this scandal. It’s a lot to digest, and I’m not sure I’ve finished doing so. I am sure, however, that this whole fiasco says much more about us – our values, perceptions, and prejudices – than it does about the players themselves. Read the rest of this entry »