Monday, May 5, 2008

Things that make me crazy

Jonah Keri, writer for (and before that, Baseball Prospectus), recently penned a column on what he termed "failure dynasties": Teams that have created and sustained a persistent culture of losing. One of the five teams he spotlighted in the article was, unsurprisingly, the Pirates. I took a look at the piece, and I spotted this gem:
Failing to rebuild the farm system, the Pirates tried to compensate by dishing out big contracts to mediocre players (Mike Benjamin! Pat Meares!! Kevin Young!!!) and gigantic contracts to players a step above mediocrity. The six-year, $60 million contract he gave Jason Kendall remains one of the worst deals of an entire generation.

The lack of perspective there is breathtaking. Allow me to provide some context.

Jason Kendall signed his extension in November of 2000. He had just turned 26 in June, and for his career he had put up a batting line of .314/.402/.456, good for a 121 career OPS+. Just entering his prime, the three-time All-Star had successfully completed his return from a gruesome compound dislocation of his ankle in 1999 with no ill effects.

This is the player Keri is describing as "a step above mediocrity"? The third-best catcher in baseball? Let's look at a little more context:

Mickey Cochrane is one of the all-time greats. A Hall of Fame catcher for the Philadelphia A's and Detroit Tigers, he won two MVP awards and led his teams to five World Series, winning three rings, before his career was ended in untimely fashion by a beanball. Through the age of 26, Cochrane put up the following batting line: .314/.398/.460 (117 OPS+).

Huh. How about that? Let's look at another one.

Bill Dickey is also considered one of the all-time greats. The catcher for the powerhouse Yankee teams of the '30s and '40s, the eleven-time All-Star won seven World Series in eight tries, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. Through the age of 26, Dickey hit .322/.368/.476 (122 OPS+).

Hmm. That's interesting, but those guys are from the olden days, when batters were hitting a dinosaur skull with a mastodon tusk. How about someone more recent?

Joe Mauer was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Playing for his hometown Twins, the native Minnesotan won a batting title in his All-Star 2006 campaign, and is generally regarded as one of the game's brightest young stars. Mauer hasn't reached the age of 26 yet, having just turned 25 in April. Nevertheless, his current career batting line of .314/.394/.457 (125 OPS+) may be somewhat illustrative...

It's indisputable that the Kendall deal did not turn out as well as the Pirates might have hoped, but to try and retroactively confine Kendall to the same transaction ghetto as dreck like Mike Benjamin and Pat Meares is misguided, at best. When evaluating past decisons, and seeking to learn from them, it's important to separate considerations of outcome from considerations of strategy of process. I have a buddy who's a professional poker player, and one of the iron laws of his profession is that you can get beat even if you make exactly the right decision at the time, based on the knowledge that is available to you at that point. It will happen to you every day. In fact, it happened to him on Saturday: Playing a tourney, he was all in with the nuts, and he got beat when the other guy sucked out a flush draw. It happens, and when it does, you don't have any choice but to pick up your coat, push in your chair, and start thinking about tomorrow's game.

On the Kendall deal, the Pirates had the nuts: A long-term contract with a young catcher, who at 26 was just as productive as Yogi Berra (125 OPS+) or Gabby Hartnett (118 OPS+) or Gary Carter (117 OPS+). Then, the wrong card flopped on the river, and they got a bad beat, courtesy of the Baseball Gods. It happens. Kendall tore a ligament in his thumb during the home opener, secretly played through the pain all season at the behest of management (who didn't want to lose their top drawing card), and in all likelihood did permanent damage to the hand. He ultimately needed at least three operations, including a transplant of a wrist tendon to replace the damaged ligament, and he never hit for power again.

I shouldn't get so upset about this kind of stuff, but I still do, years after the fact. Whenever a national writer doesn't care enough about the Pirates to get the story right, it's a microcosm for every time the team has been ignored or slighted by the national media. Every undeserving outfielder who went to an All-Star game while Brian Giles watched it at home. Every time ESPN didn't bother to show highlights of the Pirates game during SportsCenter, so we could get another five minutes of Yankees-Red Sox fluffery. Every sub-literate message board trade proposal where we get three utility infielders and a broken bat for Ian Snell. The worst part about it is that Keri was, of all things, an Expos fan. If anyone should understand how irritating it is to be marginalized and ignored, it should be him.

I guess we can take solace in the fact that we saw the young Kendall playing when he was in all his plate-blocking, base-stealing, line-drive-to-the-gap glory. If some writer wants to retroactively try and cut that memory down to convince himself that he was right not to pay attention, then screw him. He'll never know what he missed.

Do the bullpen shuffle

Some reliever-related changes over the weekend, which are probably worth analyzing in depth. Evan Meek is out on the big club, and Sean Burnett is in to take his place.

According to Dejan, Meek was designated for assignment, but I'm not sure how that's possible from the standpoint of transaction mechanics. It's always been my impression that a team couldn't designate a player for assignment unless their 40-man roster was full, and at the time I write this, ours is at 37 players. Teams have been known to skirt the rule by adding non-prospects to the roster to fill it to capacity before DFAing a player; the Rangers pulled that trick last year with non-prospect Adam Fox when they wanted to buy some extra time to find a trade for Rick Bauer, for example. I'm going to ask Dejan about the situation, to see whether he can clarify things.

The team's decision to cut bait on Meek is easy to understand in some ways. He had the highest remaining ERA (6.92) on a staff that had been struggling, and the general weakness of the pitchers around Meek made it harder for the team to hide him in low-leverage relief. He showed serious issues with both command and control, throwing 48% of his pitches for balls, and walking 12 batters in 13 innings, along with three wild pitches and a hit batsman. Still, the timing on the decision to move him seems a bit strange, as he was working on a streak of six straight scoreless innings when the axe fell. If they viewed him as a work in progress (and they should have - he walked 34 batters in 67 AA innings last year), then his struggles shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. The front office must have believed that he was more of a finished product than he turned out to be, although I'm not sure why they'd draw that conclusion.

Huntington is apparently talking with the Devil Rays about a potential trade for Meek, to let him stay in our system. This could potentially be a good idea or a bad one, depending on what they'd look for in return. If, as Dejan suggests, they're amenable to a fairly nominal cash payment, then that'd probably be OK. If, on the other hand, they want an actual prospect in return, I'd probably walk away. Meek has decent stuff, but even if he's able to harness it (not a given), he probably won't be more than a setup guy, and players with comparable celings are available as waiver claims and minor league free agents every offseason. With our lack of depth in both position players and starting pitchers, we really can't afford to trade prospects in those areas for a commodity that could be replaced freely elsewhere.

It's worth noting that Tyler Yates's command/control issues this year have mirrored Meek's in many respects. Like Meek, only 52% of Yates's pitches have gone for strikes, and like Meek, Yates has approximately twice as many walks as strikeouts. Yates has succeeded where Meek has failed because he's done better at keeping the ball down (one HR allowed to Meek's three), he's gotten more hitters to chase his stuff (swings on 41% of his pitches, compared to 35% of Meek's), and his wildness has remained at least somewhat in control (no WP or HBP, compared to Meek's four). Yates has traditionally had some trouble throwing strikes, but not quite to this level, and he needs to return to at least his prior level in this area or he'll likely start running into the same kinds of trouble that put Meek on the transaction wire.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the decision to promote Burnett to the pen. Over the offseason, I basically wrote Burnett off as a potential future contributor, and while I'm happy for him, I don't think his chances are very good. The move to the pen this spring has goosed his K numbers at AAA, which is a good thing, but he's still having problems with both walks and right-handed batters.

The more serious of these, from the standpoint of his overall development, is the trouble with walks. Back when Burnett was a shiny young prospect, he had a very low walk rate: 1.80 BB/9 from 2001-2003. He was successful despite a low K rate because he never put anybody on base and he never let the ball leave the yard. Finesse pitchers typically experience some erosion in those two rates as they ascend the ladder, but even so, the pre-surgery Burnett had performed at a high enough level that he looked like he could withstand some damage to his BB and HR rates and still remain an effective pitcher. The current version of Burnett is a different animal. He had 4.99 BB/9 at AAA last year, and has 4.15 BB/9 so far at the same level this year. If his performance this year isn't just a sample-size fluke, then he's pitching around hitters to compensate for diminished "stuff", or his command is too poor to let him work consistently within the zone. Neither approach is likely to translate well to the majors.

The usage question is less serious for Burnett as a pitcher, but is a significant factor in his expected performances with the Pirates this season. Meek was being used in long relief as a mopup man, and if Burnett is used in a similar fashion, he could encounter serious trouble against right-handed batters. Last season, for example, AAA RHBs hit .318/.416/.446 against him (compared to .276/.337/.368 for LHBs). Much of that disparity came from a gap in the relevant walk rates: he had 5.68 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9 against lefties, but only 3.64 K/9 and 6.32 BB/9 against righties. His overall ERA this season is better, but the drastic control split between lefties and righties has persisted. The sample sizes are small, so take these numbers with a grain of salt, but he's posted 12.27 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 against LHB, and 4.50 K/9 and 5.4 BB/9 against RHB. For Burnett to succeed, he probably needs to be used as a situational lefty along the lines of Grabow, rather than a long reliever. With four lefties in the rotation, though, and two superior lefty relievers already in the pen, you have to wonder how many opportunies of that nature will be available to Burnett. With the role that's available, a righty like Salas, Chavez, or Beam might have made more sense.

The other interesting corollary to the situation is that we've apparently purchased Matt Miller's contract from the Red Sox, to take Burnett's spot at AAA. This is the Miller who spent parts of the last five seasons with the Indians (i.e. Matthew J. Miller), and while he's getting up there in years and has had persistent health issues for several years now, he's also been a very good reliever when he was healthy. Over parts of five ML seasons, he has a 2.72 ERA over 106 innings, with good component ratios (8.07 K/9, 3.74 BB/9, 0.34 HR/9). Indy's bullpen is a pretty competitive peer group right now, but you can never have too much quality depth, and if Miller is able to show that he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a few innnings with the big club down the stretch.