Sunday, February 24, 2008

Zum Geburtstag viel Gluck

Happy birthday to The Flying Dutchman, Pittsburgh's own Honus Wagner, likely the best player who will ever suit up for the Pirates. He would've been 134 years old today.
Honus Wagner circa 1909, from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
You can make a reasonable case for Wagner's 1908 season as the most all-around dominant performance in baseball history. It's worth revisiting for a moment. There were more impressive raw offensive seasons that revolve around dominance in one or two areas (like Babe Ruth's 1920), but only rarely does a player make the entire league look like a gaggle of 12-year-old boys in every aspect of the game. Wagner hit .354/.415/.542, while leading the NL in almost every significant category (spoiled only by second-place finishes in runs scored, by one, and home runs, by two). He did this in a league environment where the average batter hit .239/.299/.306. That may be kind of hard to contextualize in the modern game, where almost everybody can hit at least a little bit, so here's a quick-and-dirty example. Inexplicable midseason acquisition Cesar Izturis has a career batting line of .259/.295/.334.

In a league where the average team on a typical day trotted out half of a starting lineup that was significantly weaker with the bat than Cesar Izturis, ol' Hans put up a season that wouldn't stand out if you dropped it right into the middle of A-Rod's career. Oh, and he also stole 53 bases, played in 151 of 154 possible games, and was the league's top defender at the game's most difficult defensive position. At the age of 34.

That deserves a moment of respectful silence.

If you feel like reading a bit about Wagner (and really, why wouldn't you want to?), there's a nice SABR biography of him here, and a pretty good chronology of events in his career here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mr. Kim, come on down

Byung-Hyun Kim is apparently your newest Pirate. Details are sketchy, but the world's most famous Korean submariner (beating out ROKS Chang Bogo) apparently got a major league deal, and will work out of the pen.

On an analytical level, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from him in 2008. He sucked on toast last year, but he hasn't spent the majority of a season in relief in five years, and he's got very unusual stuff and mechanics (as well as significant variations in the quality thereof). With a guy like him, you have to trust the reports from your scouts, because the past performance record may not mean much. This is a particular issue because of the environmental factors in play on his stat line. Kim spent '05 and '06 pitching in Colorado, where the thin air is hard on a guy with a big breaking ball, and then put in most of his '07 with the Marlins, home to the worst defense in the history of the universe. I exaggerate for effect, but not much. Florida had the second-worst DER in baseball last year, ahead of only their neighbors in Tampa. They earned it on merit: By my subjective judgment, a full 5/8 of the guys in their everyday lineup were stretched to the limit defensively at their 2007 position (Jacobs, Uggla, Ramirez, Cabrera, and Willingham, for those of you keeping score at home). As a result, all of the Marlins' pitchers look like crap when you eyeball their stat lines, even with the advantage of a favorable home park. Anyway, the Hardball Times shows a FIP and xFIP that are much better than his actual performance for both 2006 and 2007. The caveats there, of course, are that Kim's unusual characteristics might make him resistant to statistical modeling (since all projections are based around a set of shared assumptions about how pitchers "work", and those assumptions may not be accurate for a guy with his background, training methods, and skill set), and also that the adjusted numbers still aren't very good. Still, he misses a lot of bats, which gives us something that the staff didn't have last year, and a guy who's so hard to predict does have a significant amount of upside in the best-case scenario. We might find out that there's still some juice in his orange when we get him down to Florida.

On a fannish level, I like the move, because Kim's an interesting guy. First and foremost, sidewinders are fun to watch even when they don't pitch well, just because the delivery is so novel in the modern era. Kim's release point is extremely low even among the members of his exclusive club, making him one of the only guys capable of actually throwing a true rising fastball. He's also a genuinely unique personality: The black-belt son of a Tae Kwon Do instructor, who sleeps up to eighteen hours a day, and can drift off at the drop of a hat. There are all kinds of quirky human-interest stories about Kim all over the internet (with this magazine piece from ESPN being a good place to start). He may or may not succeed with the Pirates, but with his "different" nature and his Three True Outcomes style of pitching, at least he won't be boring.

The one cloud in the sky from my fan's perspective is the potential for clubhouse friction if Kuwata also manages to make the team. Historically, there isn't any great love lost between Japan and Korea, and that antipathy definitely extends onto the diamond. For example, Robert Whiting's great book "You Gotta Have Wa" has a story about former ML outfielder Richie Scheinblum, who spent two years in Japan. Scheinblum was having some trouble getting calls from Japanese umpires, but as an English-speaker in a foreign land he lacked any real means of communicating his displeasure. One of his teammates came to his rescue by promising to teach him a taunt that never failed, and soon, Scheinblum was mumbling "You lousy Korean" to the men in blue (and picking up substantial fines every time he did so). That was more than 30 years ago, but the two nations' feelings really haven't changed, as anyone who watched the WBC can tell you. Cross your fingers that both guys can look past the issue and act like professionals.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A few college notes

I've still got school on the brain after a big win from my alma mater on Wednesday, so here are a few college-related items that I found of interest:

*A lot of people enjoy rooting against Duke. I can certainly understand the impulse, but I'm always kind of saddened when people from Pittsburgh do so, because there are actually several fairly significant connections between the school and the city. One, obviously, is Dick Groat: a Duke hoops star turned Pirate shortstop MVP turned Pitt broadcaster. Another one who might not be as well known, though, is Tom Butters.

Signed by the Pirates out of Ohio Wesleyan in 1957, Butters put up a 3.10 ERA over 95 2/3 innings for the Bucs in parts of four seasons during the 1960s (stats), mostly in relief. After his playing career was ended by an offseason car accident, he won a job as the Blue Devils' baseball coach - largely as result of a recommendation from Groat, the school's initial target. He transferred into an administrative role in the athletic department after three seasons, and worked his way up through the ranks until he became Duke's athletic director in 1977. Butters was the man who selected and hired Mike Krzyzewski, then bore the brunt of alumni wrath during Coach K's difficult first few years. It's safe to say that without the two ex-Pirates, Groat and Butters, the Duke dynasty likely never would have happened.

Butters retired in 1998, and last week he was one of eight men selected to the North Carolina Hall of Fame.

*Xavier Nady's cousin scored a football scholarship with Nevada. Jeff Nady, a 6'7", 250 pound TE/DL, chose Nevada despite interest from Colorado State, UNLV, Idaho and San Jose State. The report is kind of a neat little news blurb in and of itself, and we certainly wish Jay well, but one section of it is also useful as an indicator of the type of athletic bloodline from which a lot of pro ballplayers spring. For example, the X-Man's uncle Joe (little Jay's father) played baseball at Nevada, and his uncle Jay earned a spot in Nevada's Hall of Fame for both football and boxing, then became a fairly notable boxing referee. Talent breeds talent, though the exact ratio of nature to nurture will probably always be up for debate.

*Another week, another report from a small-town paper about a kid the Pirates are apparently scouting. The internet is awesome. Last time, it was Xavier Avery. This time, the player in question is Division III North Carolina Wesleyan outfielder Chris Pecora. Pecora is apparently a switch-hitting senior, listed at 6'2" and 200 lbs., with speed and defense being his best attributes at this point. The Mariners drafted him in the 33rd round last year, but pulled their offer after they learned that he had some damage to the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Pecora says that the shoulder is about 85% healthy now after rehab (he elected not to have surgery).

As I said before with Avery, the odds of us ending up with Pecora are actually pretty slim (Atlanta and Tampa Bay are both reported as scouting him, too, in the same article, and there's plenty of time yet for other teams to get involved as well), but it's worth filing the name away, just in case.

Go read this site, right now.

I haven't been able to post any of the things that I've been meaning to post for the last few days. I came down with what can only be pneumonic plague about six hours before the Super Bowl, and I still haven't stopped coughing. Seriously: right now, I look and sound like one of those 90-year-old smokers who checks for little black shreds of lung in his handkerchief every five minutes.

If you need something to keep you occupied in the meantime, though, I found a great Pirates blog. I want to steal everything on it. Decent writing, solid logic, nice range of topics. 16 good-length posts in three weeks... with a grand total of three comments. That's just not right.

Hyzdu HQ. Go to it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sean! Sean! Come back, Sean!

I'll say one thing for Huntington: He hasn't been shy about allowing our failed prospects to ride off into the sunset (or about picking through other people's garbage, for that matter). The Bucs just made the sixth waiver claim of Huntington's brief tenure, grabbing shortstop Ray Olmedo on waivers. To create a spot on the 40-man roster, they designated long-suffering lefty starter Sean Burnett for assignment. If he slips through waivers, the team can either give him an outright assignment to Indy or cut him loose entirely. If he's claimed, they have ten days to work out a trade with the claiming team(s), and if they haven't made a deal at the end of that time, he's assigned to the team with the highest waiver priority.

There's probably going to be a lot of hand-wringing about the transaction among the sports talk radio set, since Burnett was a big part of the Littlefield regime's spin about the hopeful future, but at this point he's just a 25-year-old lefty with subpar stuff and multiple arm surgeries, who hasn't had a good season at any level since 2003. I wish him well (I wish nearly all ex-Bucs well), but I don't think his (probable) loss is particularly likely to come back and bite us on the butt. Before the injuries, he was always a guy whose bread and butter were his impeccable command and freakish ability to keep the ball in the park, and he hasn't shown either one in quite some time now. He walked seven batters in eleven spring training innings, pitched a fit about not making the team over Gorzelanny, and then walked 39 batters in 70 minor league innings (against only 31 strikeouts). He had put up a 2.45 ERA in 25 innings in the Venezuelan winter League this offseason, but his K/BB was still an uninspiring 11/8, and the level of competition wasn't all that impressive (check the names on their roster). The fairly reliable ZiPS projection system predicted a 6.14 ML ERA for him for 2008. He was also out of options, and as such would've needed to go on waivers if he didn't make the 25-man roster out of spring training. At this point, it's probably best for both sides to go their separate ways.

Olmedo, meanwhile, is a former Reds prospect who has spent parts of the last four seasons in the majors. He's reported to be a very good fielder, and he has spent a fair bit of time at both shortstop and second base. Offensively, he's significantly weaker. He has a career .228/.276/.293 batting line in 403 ML ABs, and a career .284/.340/.371 line in 1088 career AB at AAA. He's got pretty good speed, and his hit chart suggests that he's taking the optimal approach for a player of his skill set: using the whole field to put balls on the ground and run like hell. Like most players with that approach, he doesn't have much power at all, minimizing the chances of an age-related breakout. He's a switch hitter, but isn't notably stronger from one side than the other, and ZiPS projected him as likely being good for a .244/.296/.311 line in 2008.

Olmedo isn't hugely exciting, but I can understand why Huntington wanted to add him. We have fairly little middle infield depth, and Olmedo will provide competition for Brian Bixler and Josh Wilson as utility infield candidates in spring training, with the losers likely ticketed for regular duty at AAA. Bixler is at a double disadvantage there, in that he has an option remaining while the others do not, and that he has some mechanical flaws to his swing that might benefit from additional instruction and regular play in the minors.

To properly leverage a guy like Olmedo, who has basically the same skill set as Abe Nunez, you need to try to maximize his defensive innings and baserunning opportunities, while minimizing his trips to the plate. Ideally, that means pairing him with a good-hitting utility infielder with a weaker glove (probably portrayed here by Chris Gomez). It'll be a good early test for Russell to see how well he implements that plan; Lloyd McClendon failed his test with Noonie, serving notice that game management would be a serious issue on his watch.

Oh, snap! Double word score.

Getting slapped by Johnny Estrada seems to have opened the floodgates.

*John Donovan, CNNSI:
No self-respecting general manager wants to hang around from October to April reading about everybody else doing something. Sitting still? Standing pat? That's for losers. That's for the Pirates.

"Every single team is different," says Frank Wren, a longtime front-office deal broker and the new GM of the Braves who earlier this winter wrangled a notable trade for Oakland centerfielder Mark Kotsay. "But my view, in general, is if you're standing pat, you're probably going backwards."

Extra bonus pwnage for quoting Frank Wren, who was offered the job as Pirates GM in 2001, and turned McClatchy down flat.

*Jesse Spector, NY Daily News:
In a fantasy baseball preview on March 10, the Associated Press noted that Duffy “came into spring training saying he was in the best shape of his life, after working with the Pirates’ training staff for much of the winter.” Duffy played in a career-high 84 games, but hit just .255 with a .317 on-base percentage after showing promise with a .341 average and .385 on-base precentage in 126 at-bats the year before.

Extra bonus pwnage for writing this helpful historical primer a few weeks after Duffy said, "I feel like I’m in the best shape since I came into pro ball seven years ago."