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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

 

The Retiring Sort

Absent from my Sammy Sosa piece the other day was the question of whether the once-great slugger actually had anything left in the tank, playing-wise. Coming off of his Age 36 season, in which he missed sixty games, Sosa put up a .221/.295/.376 line that looks as though it were borrowed from Neifi Perez. As such, there is plenty of cause for pessimism.

About a month ago, ESPN's Alan Schwarz compared two projections for Sosa's 2006, those of Bill James (as published in Baseball Info Solutions' The Bill James Handbook 2006) and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. Here's what those two systems say, along with a couple more, Tangotiger's deliberately facile Marcel the Monkey forecasting system, and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection:
             AB   AVG  HR  RBI  OBP  SLG
Bill James 388 .265 27 70 .355 .521
PECOTA 311* .242 12 44 .312 .418 (* PA, not AB)
Marcel 417 .245 22 61 .318 .451
ZiPS 440 .227 21 67 .313 .409
Suffice it to say there's some difference of opinion between James (who admittedly ignores the possiblity of injury in his projections) and the rest of the field, but none of the other three are very rosy. Focusing on PECOTA because it factors in the most data and offers a range of outcomes instead of a single one (the above line is the weighted mean projection), the system shows Sosa's 90th Percentile forecast at .267/.336/.475 with 20 homers in 358 PA, good for a 16.5 VORP an a 0.072 Marginal Lineup Value rate, the number of runs per game that Sosa would add to an otherwise league-average lineup. Dropping down to his 75th Percentile forecast of .247/.317/.430 with 15 home runs in 377 PA, Sosa's VORP comes in at a paltry 4.8, and his MLVr slips into the red, at -0.032 runs per game. In other words, the system sees a better than 75 percent chance that Sosa's production will be below average. That ain't good.

At his weighted mean forecast, Sosa's VORP is just 1.8, and his MLVr is -0.059. Other veterans within 0.002 MLVr include Mark Bellhorn (last seen gathering splinters on Joe Torre's bench), Josh Phelps, Orlando Palmeiro, and Eli Marrero -- reserves who once might have had some value but are now looking at longer odds of contributing positively.

As bad as those numbers are, they come with some caveats. PECOTA sees Sosa's missed playing time, but it doesn't see the causes for it (a staph infection in his foot, and later a lesion under his big toe). As nauseating as those injuries are to contemplate -- how much could a new pair of sanitary socks, shower sandals and a washcloth cost, really? -- they're not hamstring, knee or back troubles. Given that Sosa hit just .248 on balls in play, fifty points below the league average, it's a reasonable assumption that he could pump a bit of life into that batting average if he wasn't in pain during every single step.

Suppose that Sosa can hit that 75th percentile projection, which equates to 1.6 WARP. Using Nate Silver's Marginal Value Over Replacement Player formula (MORP), that's worth about $1.65 million in salary. Even his weighted mean of 1.2 WARP is worth $1.2 million. If I'm a GM with a roster spot that might be up for grabs, or a corner or DH slot that's been filled in less than impressive fashion (the Yanks' hopelessly misguided Bernie Williams plan, the Cardinals' Larry Bigbie/John Rodriguez combo, Toronto's Reed Johnson/Alex Rios duo, and the Indians' Casey Blake solo), I think I could find the extra half-mil and the guaranteed contract that the Nationals couldn't come up with for what's essentially a better than 50 percent chance that he'll be worth that meager amount. Sosa's detractors might point to the potential distraction the slugger-in-twilight might cause, but there isn't a team that couldn't punt a $1 million problem if it had to. And the upside, that Sosa might hit 20 homers and put a few fannies in the seats with a mild resurgence, isn't the worst gamble in the world.

In any event, if Sosa is indeed done, he's virtually a lock for the Hall of Fame. Not only has he crossed the Kingman Line of 442 homers, above which every eligible player has been inducted (Jose Canseco at 462 will raise the bar next year when he reaps what he's sown, Fred McGriff's 493 will probably set the new standard before too long, and Rafael Palmeiro at 569 might be in for a good stretch in the waiting room), he's fifth all-time in homers. Only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Willie Mays are ahead of him, and that's worth a lot.

The Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) isn't quite so convinced. Sosa accumulated 93.6 WARP3 for his career, with a seven-year peak of 59.5. That comes out to a 76.6 JAWS score. The average Hall of Fame rightfielder scores at 112.4/61.5/86.9, more than 10 points better than Sosa. Rightfield is an especially strong position among HOFers; only the second basemen, at 90.6, have a higher average JAWS score.

Part of the problem for Sosa, JAWS-wise, is that he's hanging up his spikes earlier than most superstars; another three years and 10.0 WARP would do wonders for his score. Looking a bit more closely at his peak score, Sosa's got a big gap between his best season (13.6 WARP3) and his second-best (9.6), though anyone looking for fuel to add to a steroid-fluke fire ought to consider that more than 300 players throughout baseball history have a gap of 4.0 wins or more between best and second-best seasons. Moving along, there's a pretty serious dropoff between Sosa's fifth-best season (7.6 WARP) and his sixth (6.0) and seventh (5.8, a total he hit three times). An extra win in each of those years would almost cut the difference between him and the Hall average in half. Among rightfielders, Sosa's score falls between those of Enos Slaughter (96.2/57.7/77.0) and Harry Heilman (92.8/57.7/75.3) and would rank 12th of all time. That's not inner circle, but it's nothing to sneeze at, and while my system doesn't advocate a vote, it's prone to penalizing those who fail to collect those final table scraps. If I had a BBWAA ballot, he'd be on it.

• • •

Retirements have been in the news lately. The reviled Kevin Brown -- a pain in the ass during his Dodger and Yankee years due to a variety of injuries, has decided that his back can't withstand the rigors of playing any longer. Personally, I think he's just bitter he'll no longer have that Fox jet at his disposal now that his seven-year, $105 million deal is history, but then I've got few kind words to say about the man. Watching him struggle to a 4-7, 6.50 ERA season was a pleasure even as it set the Yankees back (it's called schadenfreude; I've got all their albums), given his stubborn insistence on taking the ball for Game Seven of the 2004 ALCS when he was physically unfit for the task and digging the Yanks a hole out of which they couldn't climb.

Baseball Prospectus' Christina Kahrl was more charitable in her Transaction Analysis obit:
As much as Brown's decision to call it quits might elicit all sorts of raspberries from now-frequently disappointed Yankee fans, let's consider their receipt of [Scott] Erickson as a punishment for any ill will they may still bear, as well as a caution as to what the alternatives can be.

I guess I think of Brown the way some people think of David Cone or Curt Schilling, or the way I think all sentient life on this planet felt about Mike Scott in 1986, which is that he was not somebody you wanted to face in October. I know, some will point to his losing three of four World Series starts, and Yankees fans probably can't see past his getting torched twice by the Red Sox in 2004, but that's hardly fair. Brown was damaged goods at the point that the desperate Bombers threw him out there against Boston, and if he doesn't pitch as well as he did for the Marlins and Padres in the Divisional and Championship Series of 1997 and 1998, those clubs almost certainly don't make it to the World Series in the first place.

But my warm feelings for Brown's performances aside, I know a lot of people will be looking at his as a career that ended on a note as characteristically sour as the rest of it. A good amount of that seems to be the product of Brown's personality, or more properly, the way media interlocutors have portrayed him to the public. I don't know if Brown eats kittens or feeds them cream-fattened mice in his moments of kindness, and I don't especially care, because it was the quality of his work on the mound that matters, and the quality of that work that made several teams winners. I'll look forward to what Jay Jaffe's JAWS system has to say about Brown, but I don't think any of us expects him to be a Hall of Famer.
Since Chris asked, and since we were already on the topic, Brown finishes at 104.6/61.6/83.1, which is actually above the HOF average for pitchers of 99.3/61.9/80.6. That's better than (among others) Tommy John, Red Ruffing, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, Bob Lemon, Jim Kaat, Curt Schilling, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, John Smoltz, Jim Bunning, Wes Ferrell, Whitey Ford and the aforementioned Cone and Schilling . Which isn't to say he'll make it to Cooperstown, not with "only" a 211-144 lifetime record, a shelf that's lacking a Cy Young (though he finished among the top six five times), and a postseason record of 5-5 with a 4.30 ERA. But in five years, maybe I can come up with something nice to say about the bastard if my system still pegs him as worthy.

• • •

Also hanging up his spikes, though with nowhere near the fanfare or a shot at the Hall, is Brooks Kieschnick, a favorite around these parts for his double-duty efforts as a pinch-hitter and mop-up pitcher.

The #10 pick of the 1993 draft by the Chicago Cubs, Kieschnick's career stalled before he could ever draw 100 at-bats in a season at the major-league level. A pitcher in college at the University of Texas (for whom he was the two-time National Palyer of the Year), he decided to revive his shot at the bigs by returning to the mound in 2002. In 2003, he earned a spot with the Milwaukee Brewers, for whom he tossed 53 innings of 5.26 ERA ball in 42 relief appearances (posting a 1-1 record) and hit a neat .300/.355/.614 with 7 homers in just 70 at-bats.

Kieschnick pitched better in 2004 (3.77 ERA in 43 innings), but his hitting declined (.270/.324/.365), and he spent 2005 in the Astros chain, getting roughed up in the PCL (5.72 ERA in 56.2 innings). He'd signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles, but rather than face that ignominious fate, packed it in at age 33. He won't reach Cooperstown, but he's earned a spot on my Wall of Fame when I get a chance to write him up.

• • •

When I touted Albert Belle for the Hall of Fame back in December, my reasons were based on his statistics, not the charming personality and gentlemanly conduct which endeared him to so many of our nation's finest and most forgiving scribes. Alas, Mr. Belle has seen fit to show that he's still crazy after all these years. This past week he was arrested and charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend by -- get this -- planting a Global Positioning System tracking device on her car. The ex discovered the GPS unit fell off and put two and two together with the fact that Mr. Romance "had been showing up everywhere she went [the store, on dates, the gym, etc.]" according to the article. No, that's not creepy, threatening, or desperately obvious at all.

Not that Belle had any legitimate shot at the Hall based on his surly reputation and foreshortened playing career, or that I was endorsing him based on his humanitarian credentials. But getting pissed off at sportswriters or fans is one thing, crossing into Kirby Puckett territory by threatening a woman quite another entirely. This is likely the final nail in his Cooperstown coffin, and it's pretty clear who's holding the hammer.

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