The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

 

Angels in the Out-on-a-Limb-Field

I had lunch on Thursday with an old college pal who works down in the Wall Street area -- we'll call him B. Ever since reconnecting at our 10-year reunion in 2002, we've been playing fantasy baseball together, more as an excuse to talk smack than anything else. This is the friend who's called his team "Jaffe's Big Stinky" in each of the last two years, and let's just say that I exacted some revenge by using his surname as part of my even-less-printable team name. Since I took the league crown last year, he's in for more of the same.

He's a Red Sox fan, and most of our spirited conversation centered around the offseason maneuvers of the Sox and Yankees. But at some point, after mutually second-guessing the team's dumping of Andy Marte and the slim chances of a healthy Curt Schilling, the conversation drifted to the Angels, whose essay I came out of the bullpen to write for Baseball Prospectus 2006.

Now, I've never been an Angels fan, but I've gotten an eyeful of the franchise as it's eliminated the Yankees in 2002 (on their way to a long-elusive World Championship) and 2005. While the team isn't exactly what you'd call sabermetrically inclined, they've done a pretty good job of handling those paragons of the Moneyball way, the Oakland A's, over the last four years, reaching the playoffs three times while the A's have missed in each of the past two years. In doing so, they've topped three million in attendance in each of the past three years, including a franchise-record 3.4 million last year. With an owner, Arte Moreno, who's willing to spend money, a nice combination of depth and versatility, and an impressive crop of prospects in the pipeline, they have much reason for optimism. The essay I quickly pulled together reflected that.

Moreno, who bought the team from Disney fresh off of their 2002 title, made a bold move last winter by recomissioning them the Los Angeles Angels, targeting L.A. county's diverse population (10 million) over Orange County's much less colorful three million. In doing so, he also put an embattled Dodger franchise's assumption that they owned the town directly in his crosshairs, even going so far as to put up billboards near Dodger Stadium.

Per a 1996 lease agreement with their host city, a court ordered "of Anaheim" appended to the Angels' name, creating an unprecedentedly unwieldy moniker. One would have expected a backlash, and certainly many writers, both professional and amateur, seized on the ridiculousness of the name. But the controversy certainly didn't hurt the Angels at the gate or on the field, and even as the court case between the team and the jilted city of Anaheim loomed, I maintained my note of optimism in my essay.

In the three weeks since I've handed it in, I've been sweating both the trial and the negative PR it generated, and as B. and I discussed the Angels, I proffered the opinion that if they'd lost the suit, Moreno would either begin threatening to move the team -- an ugly, no-win battle that we've seen the Marlins, Twins, and Expos/Nationals fighting for the better part of the past decade -- or else unload them once his five-year depreciation window shut. Given the bold vision Moreno has shown, either of those outcomes would have been a shame. After ridiculing him myself, I've come to admire the owner's chutzpah; if the true lesson of Moneyball is about capitalizing on inefficiencies in the market, what's more Moneyball than leveraging a $294-million franchise to take advantage of the demographics of his locale and the weakness of his competition?

Just a few hours after finishing lunch, the verdict came down. Team 1, City 0:
Ending a yearlong dispute that sparked regional one-upmanship and talk-show ridicule, an Orange County jury Thursday decided that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim could keep their geographically awkward name.

After deliberating just over four hours in a trial that pitted the city of Anaheim against its hometown team, jurors voted 9 to 3 that the Angels did not violate five words in the stadium lease that required that the team "include the name Anaheim therein."

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who led the city's multimillion-dollar fight to restore the name, said: "There was a really a broader issue, and that was to make sure our identity of Orange County and Anaheim be preserved. We're very disappointed."

The city had asked for damages up to $373 million it said it would lose in media exposure and tourism revenue. The jury awarded it nothing. The city also may be on the hook for as much as $10 million in legal fees — their own and the Angels' — if the team seeks reimbursement.

City officials will discuss whether to appeal the decision at a meeting Tuesday, but council members said it was not likely.

Angel owner Arte Moreno — popular among fans for investing millions in superstar players, lowering beer prices and schmoozing in the stands — clapped as the verdict was read and gave a thumbs-up sign.

"Believe it or not, what we've been trying to do is enhance the Angels brand," said Moreno, a self-made billionaire from Arizona. "I know local fans were very emotional about it. We understand that. But in the long run … we believe this gives us a better chance of being a perennial upper-echelon franchise, and a chance to compete for a championship every year."
So that note of optimism I sounded in my essay doesn't look so unwarranted. But as for the team's on-field performance, let's just say PECOTA isn't so impressed. When Nate Silver released the 2006 projections to the BP staff, he had the team coming in at 78-84 thanks to an offense worse than any AL team save the Royals. One reason for that is the anticipated presence of Darin Erstad, who comes in at a craptastic .264/.314/.364 weighted mean projection in 545 plate appearances, mainly as a first baseman. Since the Angels have announced that Erstad is moving back to centerfield -- thereby not only lessening the load his bat should be expected to carry but also increasing his chances for injury -- I don't think things are nearly that dire. As I told B., I see Erstad limping his way out of the lineup in 60-70 games. But PECOTA isn't exactly bullish on his first-base replacement either. Casey Kotchman's weighted mean comes in at an Erstadian .270/.328/.398 in 461 PA. The system simply doesn't think the 23-year-old's power is going to develop, but the fact that he clubbed seven dingers in 142 PA over the season's last two months leads me to believe he's turned a corner. Kotchman's been addled by various wrist injuries during his development, but if he's put them behind him, I think he's more likely to find himself on the upper reaches of his projection, somewhere between the 75th percentile (.284/.344/.428) and 90th (.299/.361/.463). That's not world-beating, but it is a difference of a couple of wins if it happens. (For more on Kotchman's projections, see Beyond the Box Score.)

Regardless, PECTOA thinks the Angels have plenty of other troubles, more than I care to delve into at this point. I may well end up with egg on my face for my predicting they'd take this year's AL West in my BP chat last month. But with prospects like Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood (both among the top 10 in BP's forthcoming Top 50 Prospect list) and one of the game's best owners behind them, I remain bullish on their future.

• • •

Speaking of the Angels, former LAAoA outfielder and FI favorite Jeff DaVanon inked a one-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks this week, capping several weeks of intense pursuit by, oh, about half the teams in baseball, with the Rockies, Mets, Red Sox and Indians reportedly among them. Back around the time of the Yanks signing Johnny Damon, I had touted DaVanon as a low-cost alternative who, as a swicth-hitter capable of playing all three positions, made for an ideal fourth outfielder or pre-deadline centerfield stopgap. That meme caught on, most notably with Steve Goldman, who mentioned DaVanon in several Pinstriped Bible/Blog entries.

Alas, the Yanks seem wedded to the idea that the dessicated remains of Bernie Williams and the Make-A-Wish kid, Bubba Crosby, can fulfill those responsibilities. Here are PECOTA's weighted mean forecasts for the trio:
          Age   AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr
Williams 37 .261 .336 .384 -.049
Crosby 29 .249 .302 .382 -.116
DaVanon 32 .266 .360 .389 .002
MLVr is Marginal Lineup Value rate, the per-game comparison of how many runs a player would add to an offense of league-average hitters. None of these guys have a lot of power at this stage, but DaVanon's plate discipline is superior at this stage to Bernie's. Even with enough questions about his health (shoulder) to downgrade his contract from a once-rumored $3.5 million to $525K plus incentives and conditional options, he'd have been a better use of roster space than #51, if only to dissuade Joe Torre from pencilling in Williams as the DH to the point of 300-400 PA. The guess here is that nobody would have batted an eye if the Yanks had just tossed DaVanon $2 million back in December and been done with it. As it is, the Yanks are woefully thin on the bench and at DH, while DaVanon is likely the D-Backs' starting CF, at least until rookie Chris Young heals his broken hand (thanks to Rob Mc at 6-4-2 for calling attention to that news). Grrrrr.

• • •

Have you got Olympic fever? My wife did, literally, so we stayed home on Friday night to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Games at Torino as she nursed a triple-digit temperature. Brought back a lot of fond memories of the 2002 Salt Lake City games, which my pals and I attended. Sunday's slate includes an event which supercedes even the Super Bowl in my personal pantheon of great sporting events: the Men's Downhill. You know I'll be watching that one, not to mention a good deal of the rest of the coverage, which should help the time between now and Pitchers and Catchers fly.

• • •

Following up on my entry on Ben Sakoguchi's Orange Crate Label Series, Don Malcolm has a lavishly illustrated, in-depth look at the exhibit over at Baseball Think Factory. Malcolm brings a lot more background to the subject than I do, and -- befitting his own checkered past -- is well-attuned to the confrontational aspects of the artist's work. Here's some of what he had to say:
Sakoguchi likes to draw startling, jagged, and even surreal parallels in these paintings. In fact, 33 of the paintings in the new group (28%) feature “two-shots” of players or individuals shown either as contrasts or “hidden selves.” The one most pertinent to the question of race is the painting entitled “Cubanos,” where Ben explores the taboos of skin pigmentation (light-skinned Cuban Dolf Luque is “eligible” to play in the 1920s milieu of baseball, while dark-skinned Cuban Martin Dihigo is “ineligible”).

It isn’t surprising that Sakoguchi would be interested in “otherness” as it is manifested in baseball. After all, we are talking about a Japanese-American who, as a very young boy, was interned at Manzanar, one of America’s “detention centers” during World War II. From an artistic standpoint, Ben’s interest in color probably stems from the early realization of how much importance it seemed to have in the minds and actions of those in power in America. As a painter, Sakoguchi wields a palette of colors that covers the artistic waterfront—from Impressionism to “plein air” to pulp art and back again.

Some of his most arresting images, however, are reserved for another casualty of American history—the Indian. During the deadball era, there were several Native Americans who fashioned notable careers in spite of their “otherness.” It could be claimed that the lone reason for their assimilation into the American culture of that time was located in their abilities on the baseball diamond. All of these themes are captured masterfully in “Chiefs,” Sakoguchi’s tribute to Chief Meyers and Chief Bender.

Sakoguchi has also mined the imagery of baseball that links the game with war, patriotism and other knee-jerk topics that people in present-day America use as tools of divisiveness and demonization. Eleven of the paintings (just under 10%) touch upon these themes, and they cover the full spectrum of baseball’s presence in American history. In “National Past Time,” Sakoguchi conjures up a baseball setting for the Civil War, making a comic contrast between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (the height difference between the celebrated debate opponents has been exaggerated, with Douglas looking like a nineteenth-century version of Eddie Gaedel) that is nevertheless only half the story on the canvas. In “All-American Boy,” Ben’s colors are at their most impressive as he examines the two sides of heroism attached to the deadball era’s most celebrated role model, Christy Mathewson. Moving up to the present day, Sakoguchi has some fun with our current “red-blue” stereotypes with two paintings depicting Democratic and Republican presidents in that wearying-but-time-honored-act of throwing out the first pitch.
A must-see, especially if you can't actually get to the exhibit.

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