Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 12, 2003
BASEBALL: The Poor 44, Part One
Now, I'm not the biggest fan of OPS - On Base Plus Slugging - as the be-all & end-all of batting stats, but as long as you recognize its limitations, it's one of the quickest and easiest ways to sum up a player's offensive contributions.
According to ESPN.com, 151 players qualified for the batting title in 2002 (an average of a little more than 5 per team, so we're really looking at the core regulars here, not everyone with something like a full time job) and 107 of them posted an OPS of 750 or better (equivalent to a .350 OBP and .400 slugging, or .330 OBP and .420 slugging, or whatever). In today's game, that's just the cover charge - below a line like that, chances are, you're not contributing with the bat. That leaves 44 players who rarely came out of the lineup but who just didn't cut it with the bat. If you are looking for lineup problems in need of solving, you'd expect that these guys should be it. Let's look at the list and see where the holes were last year, and how many of them have actually been fixed; I'll start with numbers 108-112:
Stats listed as Avg/OBP/Slg (OPS) (Plate Appearances); 2003 stats through 5/11/03; age as of July 1, 2003
108-124: The Weak Spots
2002 with Orioles: .233/.338/.404 (742 OPS) (627 PA)
Like a number of players on this list, Mora is a utility man -- and a good one -- miscast as an everyday player, especially if he's used (as he was more often than not last season) as an outfielder. By drawing 70 walks and absorbing 20 hit by pitches, Mora showed himself able to get on base a bit even while batting .233.
Mora's playing time has been cut back a bit this season: he's played a good deal of left field and some shortstop, but nothing resembling regular time at any position. Perhaps in part as a result, Mora has started fast for the second straight year.
VERDICT: Keeping him from becoming a fixture in the lineup would be a good sign, but the Orioles' other options are slim pickings.
2002 with Blue Jays/Yankees: .232/.308/.432 (740 OPS) (628 PA)
Before the season, I figured that the odds were against Hideki Matsui being disappointing enough to justify keeping Mondesi and his mega-million contract around, and I would have gone twice for that if you'd told me that Nick Johnson would be slugging .531 with a .469 OBP in the middle of May. But the Hated Yankees dealt away Rondell White, sent Juan Rivera back to Columbus, and handed the everyday right fielder's job to Mondesi. And while Matsui has struggled, it's Mondesi who has responded with by far his best season (so far) since 1997.
VERDICT: Stranger guys have had huge comeback seasons in their 30s, and Mondesi has always been seen by insiders as a guy who didn't live up to his physical tools. The Yanks decided not to give Mondesi away (with his contract, he can't be traded for fair value), and they've been richly rewarded.
2002 with Cubs: .248/.312/.425 (737 OPS) (559 PA)
This is the Alex Gonzalez who used to be with the Blue Jays, if you're not keeping score at home. People seem to have finally given up on him as a promising hitter after years and years of hype and only one, injury-shortened payoff in early 1999. As a shortstop, Gonzalez' 737 OPS wasn't really that awful, so with few other options in the pipeline, the Cubs' willingness to stick with Gonzalez is defensible.
Like the first two guys on the list, though, Gonzalez has started with a bang in 2003, albeit to a less dramatic extent. His power numbers are mostly unchanged and his walk rate is up only slightly; instead, Gonzalez has lifted his batting average 35 points while cutting his strikeout rate very sharply, from 159 per 600 at bats to 104 per 600 at bats.
VERDICT: Probably another tease; cutting your strikeouts by almost a third in one year is not a feat often accomplished, especially for a veteran whose batting line has been mostly unchanged for nearly a decade. Early surges in batting average, unaccompanied by a change in any other skill, is the least likely trend to hold. Still, if Gonzalez hits .265 instead of .248, the Cubs will be happy.
2002 with Royals: .248/.330/.406 (737 OPS) (531 PA)
Want a reason to doubt the Royals? Start with Michael Tucker, another decent if past-his-prime bench player who found everyday time for a dead-end franchise. That's not a misprint above: the Royals really are on a pace to give Tucker almost 700 plate appearances. Tucker's career 771 OPS is about midway between his numbers of last season and this one.
VERDICT: This team will go nowhere over the long season unless they get more playing time for Dee Brown at Tucker's expense.
2002 with Astros .253/.330/.404 (734 OPS) (627 PA)
How far the mighty have fallen. The Astros responded to Biggio's decline with a radical move: pushing him further leftward on the defensive spectrum, from second base to center field. Ordinarily, this would just makes his weak bat a bigger problem, unless (1) Biggio is a major defensive upgrade in center (this seems unlikely, although at least he got Berkman out of center field) or (2) he hits a lot better, which as of yet he hasn't. Of course, the Astros chose option (3), bringing in a serious slugger (Jeff Kent) to play second, but that still means Biggio is clogging an outfield slot that could go to a young masher.
VERDICT: I'm not sure if Biggio's really finished as a hitter; David Pinto notes that he's been on fire lately. But his overall numbers are consistent with what we've seen the last two years, and that's not much, especially when you factor in Minute Maid Field (in fact, the move from the low-scoring Astrodome to high-scoring Enron/Minute Maid has masked exactly how far Biggio has fallen from his prime). I'd say this is one problem that still needs fixing.
5 players, all 5 still in their jobs. Next time, we'll see how long the trend holds.