Friday, December 19, 2003

The Future 

For the past three years we had heard the rumblings about a wiry kid from the Dominican Republic who was going to change the face of the New York Mets. They said he had a cannon for an arm. They said he was lightning on the bases. He taught himself to switch hit just a couple of years earlier. He was the most promising Met prospect since Darryl Strawberry. His name was Jose Reyes, and he was the future.

In Spring Training of 2002, an 18 year old Reyes said he would be taking Rey Ordonez' shortstop job. Rey-Rey heard the footsteps ... we all heard the footsteps. As the Mets struggled mightily through that 2002 season, the footsteps were getting louder. The Mets were terrible, a last place team with a first place payroll. They were old, they were underachieving, they were history. There was a glimmering of hope, they said, because the future was on its way.

On June 10, 2003, the future finally arrived. A day before his 20th birthday, Reyes made his big-league debut, going 2-4 with a double and two runs scored. The success was short-lived, though, as he went one-for-his-next-sixteen. The future had hit a bump in the road. He finished June batting .205 with one walk and an OPS of .553. This wasn't the way it was supposed to play out. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The first chance I had I went to see the kid play at Shea. As the souvenir vendor retrieved my #7 t-shirt from the shelf, he asked, "Why does everybody like this guy? He's hitting .220." My response, all I could think of as it had been etched into my brain, was, "He's the future, as they say."

And so he is. Before an ankle injury ended his season on my birthday (August 31st), Reyes had put together a very solid rookie season. He had a 17-game hitting streak, scored 47 runs in only 69 games, and stole 13 bases in 16 attempts, an 81.3% success rating. His .769 OPS should impress you. It doesn't, you say? How many 20-year old shortstops have put up an OPS that high? Try three.

                  Year    OPS
Alex Rodriguez    1996  1.045
John McGraw       1893   .866
Arky Vaughan      1932   .787
Jose Reyes        2003   .769
Edgar Renteria    1996   .757
Travis Jackson    1924   .754
Tony Kubek        1957   .716
Travis Jackson    1923   .712
Woody English     1927   .690
Garry Templeton   1976   .675

In only 69 games this season, Jose Reyes compiled 12 win shares, which is equal to 4 team wins. Extrapolate those win shares over 162 games and you've got 28. 28! He's 20 years old! 20 win shares is considered an all-star season, while 30 win shares is considered an MVP-caliber season. Here's what the rest of the league's premier shortstops and second-basemen (he's playing second now) did in 2003, pro-rated over 162 games.

Alex Rodriguez       32
Marcus Giles         31
Bret Boone           31
Jose Reyes           28
Alfonso Soriano      28
Edgar Renteria       26
Nomar Garciaparra    26
Derek Jeter          25
Jeff Kent            25
Miguel Tejada        25
Jose Vidro           21

Reyes was actually percentage points ahead of Alfonso Soriano. And he's only going to get better folks ... much better. He may never hit 40 homeruns, but he'll hit 20, steal 40 bases, win gold gloves, wreak delicious havoc. The future is now, his name is Jose Reyes. Learn it.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you missed any of this week's blogs, please check them out.

Monday: Catching The Ball ... And Other Great Mysteries Of Life
Tuesday: Rule V Grab Bag
Wednesday: Closing The Deal
Thursday: Johnny Be Good

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Johnny Be Good 

Sorry MLB Alumni Association, you're going to have to wait another year for John Franco. It's equal parts class and foolishness that led the Mets to bring Franco back for his 14th season in New York and 20th overall. With my rose-colored glasses safely locked away in their case, I can say with all honesty that John didn't look like he had much left in the tank in 2003. Granted, he had just come back after more than a year out of action recovering from Tommy John surgery. That he made it back at his age is a marvel of science and longevity. However, for the first time, he really looked his age out on the mound.

I'm a John Franco fan. He's never been my favorite player, probably not even close. But I have a lot of respect for the man who has really been a soldier for the Mets. He arrived in New York in 1990 in a swap of two of the elite closers at the time. In exchange for Randy Myers, the Reds sent eastward a 30-year old Brooklynite name John Franco. That year, the Mets were still in decent shape from their late-80's run. The fun didn't last long, though, as the Mets fell apart very quickly thereafter.

Franco was here for the lean years (1991-1992), where the Mets went 142-174, a .449 winning percentage. After that, he was here for the really lean years (1993-1996), where the Mets went 254-326, a .438 winning percentage. He was here for the late-nineties mini-renaissance (1997-2000), where the Mets went 367-282, a .565 winning percentage. And, of course, we'll never forget the downward spiral that followed and continues to this day. Franco has been here through it all and, believe it or not, was a very good pitcher for most of it.

Over the course of his 20 years in baseball, Franco has averaged more than seven strikeouts per nine innings. He sports a career ERA of 2.74 and is second on the all-time saves list with 424 (Lee Smith is the leader with 486). He has a career save percentage of 92%, which is astounding. To put it into perspective a bit, here are some of today's top closers along with their career save percentage:

Player                Sv    BS    Sv%
Rod Beck             286    55   83.9
Jason Isringhausen   130    24   84.4
Ugeth Urbina         206    37   84.8
Armando Benitez      197    35   85.0
Jose Mesa            249    43   85.0
Robb Nen             315    54   85.3
Kaz Sasaki           129    22   85.4
Keith Foulke         143    24   85.6
Billy Wagner         225    38   85.6
Troy Percival        283    45   86.3
Mariano Rivera       283    44   86.5
Trevor Hoffman       352    44   88.9
John Franco          424    37   92.0
John Smoltz          110     9   92.4
Eric Gagne           107     4   96.4

Eric Gagne is off the charts, but Smoltz is considered by many (including myself) to be right behind Gagne in terms of the best in the game right now. Both of these pitchers have been closing games for two seasons (2+ for Smoltz, who saved 10 games in 2001 after, believe it or not, Tommy John surgery), while John Franco has been a closer for two decades. As good as Smoltz has been, he would need to maintain the level of success he's achieved thus far for another 18 seasons in order to equal Franco's feat.

While he was on the disabled list in 2000, his interim replacement Armando Benitez flat-out dominated National League batters. So much so that when Franco returned from the DL he was informed that he wouldn't be getting his job back as he had anticipated (and been told). As usual, Franco handled the demotion with professionalism and dignity that too many of today's players seem to be lacking (think: Jose Guillen). That year and the next (2001), Franco, who was already 40, posted two of the best K/9 of his entire career (9.05 and 8.44, respectively), while picking up 37 holds as the primary setup man for Benitez.

In addition to his impressive career strikeout rate, he has limited opposing batters to 0.57 homeruns per nine innings. As if his pitching wasn't enough to hang his hat on, Franco's altruism is seemingly endless. He works tirelessly for a number of charities, including assisting New York City firefighters since 9/11, and was named honorary "Fireman of the Year" in 2003 by Engine Company 10. He's been a great ballplayer and a better person, and if the Mets want to let him leave this old ball game on his own terms, I don't have any problems with that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Closing The Deal 

As reported yesterday (espn.com), the Rockies will make Shawn Chaconthe defacto ace of their 2003 staff, their closer in 2004. The Rockies will follow a growing baseball trend made famous most recently by the dominating success of the Braves' John Smoltz and the Dodgers' Eric Gagne.

Smoltz, as you'll recall, was a terrific starting pitcher before arm injuries and necessity led him to the bullpen. He won the NL Cy Young in 1996, the last of six consecutive Cy Youngs awarded to Braves (Tom Glavine won in 1991, with Greg Maddux taking home the hardware from 1992-1995). As a precursor to his conversion to closer, Smoltz pitched in relief of Kevin Millwood in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS against the Mets. With the Mets trailing by three runs in the top of the 7th, Mike Piazza launched a three-run, opposite-field bomb that tied the game at the time. The Mets went on to blow two leads after that before finally succumbing on a bases loaded walk by Kenny Rogers in the 11th.

While Smoltz made the successful transition from great starting pitcher to great closer, Gagne took a different road. Not that he didn't turn into a great closer, which he did, as his 2003 Cy Young award might attest to. As a starting pitcher, however, he was quite bad. He posted ERAs of 5.15 and 4.75 in 2000-2001 while pitching in one of the best ballparks for pitchers. His two biggest problems as a starter were walks and the longball. He gave up around four walks per nine innings, which will get you into a lot of trouble when you consider his propensity for taters. In 253 innings in 2001-2002, Gagne gave up 44 homeruns, which comes out to more than 1.5 per nine innings.

Gagne the closer and Gagne the starter were almost polar opposites in regard to these two categories. Gagne the closer handed out less than two walks per nine innings, around half of his alternate-universe counterpart. That, however, pales in comparison to his home run differential. As a closer the past two seasons, Gagne has surrendered 8 homeruns in 164.2 innings, or 0.43 ding-dongs per nine innings. Gagne the starter gave up almost four times that amount!

Closers have a huge advantage over starters for two main reasons, both of which are related to the amount of time they spend on the mound. When you're a starting pitcher, a baseball game is much like a marathon for runners (or a love-making session for Sting). They are not afforded the luxury of blowing their proverbial wad right away, as they are expected to pitch 6 innings or more. A pitcher whose fastball may top out in the mid-nineties may be forced to throw most fastballs in the low-nineties to preserve energy and arm strength for his entire start. Breaking balls that might typically have more bite or cut may flatten out more often because of overuse. Closers, on the other hand, are the baseball-equivalent of the two-pump chump. They're in, they go full-throttle for an inning, and then they hit the showers. They are at a significantly lower risk of wearing out because they pitch for such a short period of time each game.

The other natural advantage that closers have is that, since they typically only pitch an inning per game (particularly nowadays), batters have much fewer opportunities to get accustomed to them. In an average game, each batter will see the starting pitcher around three times, which gives them time to study their delivery, their tendencies, and get their timing down. When it comes to facing a team's closer, the batter has no such luck. Particularly with the unbalanced schedule, teams in other divisions or the other league will likely only see a particular closer once or twice per season. Plus, a good closer may only see 3 or 4 batters per appearance, so there's certainly no guarantee that a batter will even get to face that pitcher.

Pitchers with good stuff who struggle as starters stand a good chance of becoming decent relievers or, in some cases, great closers. What does all this mean for Shawn Chacon? Well, much like Gagne, Chacon has been a pretty mediocre starting pitcher. He got a lot of press early in 2003 because he went 11-4 before the All-Star break. Of course, he had a 4.27 ERA in those starts and walked 40 batters in just over 105 innings. He went 0-4 with a 5.68 ERA after the break, and people stopped talking about him. True, he pitched his home games in the third-worst park for pitchers (that's right, Kauffman Stadium and Olympic Stadium were actually worse). Unbelievably, Chacon was a good deal better in Coors Field than he was on the road. His ERA was almost half a run better at home (4.38 to 4.86). One of the main reasons for his mild success this season was that he kept homeruns to a minimum, after giving them out like candy the past two seasons. What makes this turn of events more ridiculous is that he actually had a lower ground ball to fly ball ratio this season than in the previous two. That is to say that he gave up more fly balls but was probably lucky enough that not too many of them cleared the wall.

For his career, Chacon has a lofty 5.10 ERA, a K/BB ratio of 1.43 (not good), and a HR/9 of 1.36. He is only 25 years old, and could show improvement. That being said, I don't think this is a terrible move by the Rockies. If he completely tanks as a closer, he certainly won't be the first. However, if the Rockies end up with a 9th-inning stud on their hands, there will be plenty of nay-sayers eating crow.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Rule 5 Grab Bag 

Every winter, Major League Baseball holds its annual Rule 5 Draft, where teams have an opportunity to select players from other organizations who are left unprotected from their respective 40-man rosters. The rules governing a player drafted in this manner are as follows:

* The drafting team pays the plundered team $50,000 for a player drafted
* Any player drafted must remain on the drafting team's major league club all season
* If the team fails to do this, they must offer the player back to his original team for $25,000

The last two rules only apply to the Major League Phase of the draft. There is also a minor league phase which consists of a draft of Triple-A players and a subsequent draft of Double-A players.

Not every team has to participate in the drafting, but every team is allowed to be drafted from. The biggest success story in the recent history of the draft is Jay Gibbons of the Orioles, who has hit 51 homeruns and driven in 169 runs over the past two seasons.

The Mets were more active than most teams this year, drafting a total of four players while surrendering two players. Here is a quick analysis of the more prominent picks:

Mets Got

Major League Draft: Round 1 - Frank Brooks, LHP, Pittsburgh
In a pre-arranged deal, the Mets traded Brooks to Oakland for a player to be named later. This has to be someone from Oakland's 40-man roster. There's a good chance it might be a former Met, either Marco Scutaro or Matt Watson, who were both claimed by the A's after the season ended.

Brooks was originally a starter in the Phillies organization. He was drafted out of Florida State in the 13th round in 1999. He was moved to the bullpen in 2002, and has done a pretty good job there. In 157.1 innings has a reliever, Brooks has struck out 153 batters while walking 63. His homerun rate was terrific, giving up only 11 over that span, good for a 0.63 HR/9 rate. He's already 25, but he seems like the kind of bargain-basement guy Billy Beane likes coming out of the bullpen. He could provide league-average relief for league-minimum dollars.

Here's hoping the PTBNL is Marco Scutaro.

Triple-A Draft: Round 1 - Eric Valent, OF, Cincinnati
Another guy who was originally drafted by the Phillies, Valent was a 1st round pick in 1998 out of UCLA. He's 26 already, and it'd be a stretch to call him a prospect at this point. He posted a pitiful .308 OBP in 2003 for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the International League (AAA) to go along with a not-so-hot .367 SLG. He showed some pop in the lower-level minor leagues, hitting 20, 22, and 21 homers from 1999-2001. It looks like AAA pitching has done him in, as he's really fallen off a cliff in the last two seasons. He has 47 games of Major League experience, notching a razor-thin .403 OPS. Jim Duquette says that Valent will compete for a bench spot in Spring Training. He can't possibly mean with the big club.

Additional Picks
Lance Caraccioli, LHP, Cleveland
Bryan Edwards, RHP, Milwaukee

Mets Lost

Major League Draft: Round 1 - David Mattox, RHP, Cincinnati
Mattox was drafted by the Mets out of Anderson College. An 11th round pick in 2001, Mattox is 23 and pitched last season for Binghamton of the Eastern League (AA). Baseball America said the following regarding his selection:

A converted infielder in college, Mattox didn't have much mileage on his arm when the Mets originally drafted him out of Anderson (S.C.) College in the 11th round in 2001. He looks like a polished pitcher, though, as he operates with four quality pitches, including a low-90s fastball and a plus changeup, and command. "His arm works good, he has a good delivery and four pitches," Mets scouting director Jack Bowen said. "On the right night, he has four average to above major league pitches and an outstanding change."

He doesn't give up many homeruns (7 in 113.1 innings last year). His K/9 rate is good (6.83), and is K/BB is pretty good (2.15). He was dominant at times in the lower minors and has always done a good job keeping the ball in the park, but it'll be a tough jump for him from AA to the big show. The Reds will certainly give him a shot, but he's in a tough division there, so I don't expect him to fair very well.

Major League Draft: Round 1 - Lenny DiNardo, LHP, Boston
This one stings a bit. DiNardo is a bit of a queer egg. He was actually drafted by the Red Sox out of Stetson University in the 3rd round of the 2001 draft. He allegedly used to hit 90 whilst in college, though his fastball couldn't touch 90 nowadays if it were driving a Porsche. Baseball America had this to say:

DiNardo's impressive AFL campaign certainly didn't hurt his chances of being selected this year. While he allowed 22 hits in 18 innings, he mowed down hitters by keeping them off balance and he struck out 27 and walked just three. He faces a significant challenge in sticking on the Red Sox roster, however, because his fastball is timed at just 83-87 mph with good cutting movement. DiNardo touched 90 mph regularly in college, but scouts believe he became so reliant upon his cutter that it cost him velocity and arm strength.

He has good control and somehow manages to strike guys out. He has a career minor league K/BB rate of 2.72 and a K/9 of 9.34 to go with a ridiculous 0.24 HR/9 ratio. He's the kind of guy a smart organization would pick up, but he is a good bet to be coming back to the Mets sometime this season. With the Red Sox in the thick of a pennant race, it may be difficult to keep DiNardo on the Major League roster all season.

Additional Picks
Ender Chavez, OF, Montreal
John Wilson, C, Montreal

Monday, December 15, 2003

Catching The Ball ... And Other Great Mysteries Of Life 

Back in October, I wrote none too favorably about Mike Cameron. With the Mets having signed Cameron on Saturday to a three-year, $19.5 million deal (backloaded, with an option for a fourth year at $6.5 million), I decided to revisit my analysis of him.

The mistake I made a couple of months ago was that I only considered Cameron's offensive contributions, which are below average for an outfielder. In particular, Cameron's strikeout rate is as high as Grant Roberts. The flaw in my evaluation of Cameron was that I neglected to consider his defensive contributions to a game, which are considerable.

There are a number of metrics that sabermetricians use to evaluate defense: Many are useful, none are perfect. ESPN.com uses Range Factor (RF) and Zone Rating (ZR). RF is the total numbers of outs that a player contributes (putouts plus assists) per nine innings. ZR is the percentage of balls that a player gets to within his defensive zone, as defined by Stats, Inc.

A third stat that I like to use is Win Shares. Win Shares is a system developed by Bill James who, as it turns out, developed many of the statistics that I and other sabermetrically-inclined individuals use on a daily basis. For a great review and synopsis of Win Shares, check out this article by Rob Neyer. The gist of Win Shares is that, by using James' extremely complex methodology, one can divide a team's actual wins into thirds. So the 2003 Mets, who won 66 games, had a total of 198 win shares. The cumulative total of offensive and defensive contributions by all players on the 2003 Mets will add up to these 198 "thirds" of wins.

Last season, Mets outfielders posted the following win shares:

Player          2003 Defensive Win Shares
Roger Cedeno              1.79
Jeff Duncan               1.57
Timo Perez                1.47
Cliff Floyd               1.26
Raul Gonzalez             1.22
Tsuyoshi Shinjo           1.19
Joe McEwing               0.20
Prentice Redman           0.12
Matt Watson               0.05
Tony Clark                0.01
Total                     8.88

Mike Cameron had 7.73 win shares in 2003 ... by himself! That's roughly one fewer win share than the entire Mets revolving door outfield. He had more defensive win shares than any outfielder in baseball. Torii Hunter? 6.14 win shares. Carlos Beltran? 6.50 win shares. Andruw Jones? 6.04. No outfielder contributes as much defensively as Mike Cameron.

Plus, there's reason to believe that he'll be even more valuable to the Mets. Last year, Cameron was flanked by Ichiro and Randy Winn, who both finished in the top ten in the AL in defensive win shares. The Mets ... well, they were the Mets. No offense to Cliff Floyd and whomever will be patrolling right field (Brian Jordan?), but Cameron playing centerfield will be like parking a Ferrari between two Hyundais.

What makes me feel even better about this signing is that Billy Beane wanted him bad. Regarding his unsuccessful pursuit of the gold-glove outfielder, Beane said that Cameron:

"... in terms of value and how much he impacts a defense, is the best player out there. I could show you how many runs Mike saves a year, and what he means to a team. He'd be great for the Mets. That's why I don't want them to get him. With that ballpark, and that [fly-ball] pitching staff, Mike would be perfect."

The Mets put together an offseason plan that focused on making the team more athletic with improved defense up-the-middle. With last week's signing of Kazuo Matsui and this weekend's haul of Mike Cameron, they've done a great job executing that plan while maintaining payroll flexibility and restricting contract lengths to three years or less. Jim Duquette has also done a great job of not mortgaging the future by not sacrificing draft picks for either of his two signings (Cameron was non-tendered and Matsui was a Japanese free agent). The Mets may not be contending for a playoff spot this year, but they will be much improved over last season and will provide plenty of hope for the future of this organization.

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