March 3, 2003
The Stories of Spring
Spring training is unique, in that it has all the components of baseball newsmaking - players, teams, games, journalists - but without the actual news.
I mean, does it really matter if the Twins lose to Pittsburgh or if they Yankees drop a split-squad game to the the Phillies? The players participated, the game was played and the same newspaper reporters that normally see games all saw it, but it isn't really news because no one will even remember what happened or care what happened this time next week.
It is because of this lack of real news that I enjoy the various "stories" that come from spring training so much. Newspapers still have space to fill and readers to entertain and baseball writers still have stories to write but, as I said, there just isn't much actual newsworthy stuff going on.
Every year there are some basic topics that are covered in newspapers and websites throughout the country. Basically, you could take the stories from last year (or any year) at this time and change some names and you wouldn't know the difference.
My favorites examples of the typical stories of spring?
1) Changes in the batting order.
2) Injured players looking good.
3) Players adjusting to new roles.
Lucky for me, I found examples of all 3 of those types of stories yesterday!
1) Changes in the batting order.
Last month, Ron Gardenhire expressed a desire to shift Jacque Jones out of the leadoff spot and into an "RBI spot," most likely 5th or 6th in the lineup.
At the time, I agreed with such a move because I think Jacque Jones' offensive abilities are more suited for hitting in the middle of a lineup. So, of course, what happens? Well, Gardenhire announced the other day that he has changed his mind and that Jones will most likely continue to be the leadoff man this season.
In the grand scheme of things, batting order doesn't matter all that much. The key to an offense isn't so much how the lineup is arranged, as much as it is who is actually in the lineup. In other words, as long as you have Barry Bonds or Jim Thome in the lineup, it doesn't make a huge difference whether they bat 1st or 3rd or 4th or 6th. That said, I do think there is a difference between hitting leadoff and 5th or 6th and that the difference can mean a few extra runs to a team, which is important.
Jacque Jones' offensive skills are simply not particularly fit for batting leadoff.
His main strengths as a hitter are his batting average and power, things that are best used in the middle of a lineup. His main weaknesses are his low on-base % and inability to hit left handed pitching, which are 2 things you don't particularly want in a leadoff hitter.
Against right-handed pitching last year Jones hit .333/.372/.580, which is excellent. However, do you really want someone with a slugging percentage of .580 to leadoff a ballgame? That means at least once a game he has absolutely no chance of batting with anyone on base. Obviously, a team wants as many guys on base in front of a .580 SLG% as humanly possible.
Against left-handed pitching last year Jones hit .213/.259/.331, which is horrible. First of all, Jones should never be in the lineup when a lefty starts the game, but that is a completely different issue and something Gardenhire seems unwilling to deal with. So, assuming he has to be in the lineup, you definitely don't want him and his .590 OPS batting first, because he'll make an out about 74% of the time and that is not something you want batting in front of the big boppers.
Given the choice between Gardenhire choosing to move Jones to #6 in the lineup and Gardenhire platooning Jones against lefties, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. But that doesn't appear to be an option, in which case the Twins would be better off with Jacque and his .580 SLG against righties batting in a place where he can drive in some serious runs.
In addition to announcing that Jones would continue to leadoff, Gardenhire also indicated that this would likely be his lineup:
1) Jacque Jones - L
2) Cristian Guzman - S
3) Torii Hunter - R
4) Corey Koskie - L
5) Matthew LeCroy - R
6) Doug Mientkiewicz - L
7) Michael Cuddyer - R
8) A.J. Pierzynski - L
9) Luis Rivas - R
That group of 9 players is problematic for creating a somewhat ideal lineup because the few players that actually have high OBPs (Koskie, Mientkiewicz and possibly Cuddyer) are pretty slow on the bases, making them bad candidates for leading off.
There is, of course, one very simple solution to both Jacque Jones-related problems. The Twins could solve the problem of who bats leadoff and at the same time solve the problem of Jones stinking against lefties. Wanna know how? Bobby Kielty.
Here's my proposal:
Against left-handed pitching, put Jones and his .590 OPS on the bench and play Bobby Kielty in left field and lead him off. You get Jones out of the lineup and you not only improve the overall offense with Kielty, you provide a great option for a leadoff hitter because Kielty is phenomenal at getting on base and he has good speed.
Against right-handed pitching, keep Jones in LF, but stick Matthew LeCroy on the bench and stick Kielty at DH. LeCroy is a good hitter, but his main strength appears to be crushing lefties. So, you put him on the bench against righties and let Kielty play DH and leadoff, where, once again, he provides a perfect option for a leadoff hitter.
Basically I am suggesting a 3 person platoon for 2 spots: LF and DH. Jones and Kielty play against righties and LeCroy and Kielty play against lefties. If you are worried about not getting LeCroy enough playing time, you can give him a few starts in place of Mientkiewicz or Cuddyer.
At the very least, Kielty should always be playing against lefties and Jones should never be playing against them. That change would be far more important to the quality of the Minnesota offense than anything Gardenhire could ever do with the batting order.
2) Injured players looking good.
You know the story: Every year, there is a guy who missed significant time with a serious injury and now he's in camp, looking healthy and playing well.
According to ESPN.com, Dodger pitchers Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort are looking good after both being injured last year:
Brown and Dreifort made their first appearances of the spring in a 10-5 loss to the Houston Astros and both were very impressive.
More important, both pitchers said they felt no pain afterward.
"Brown had a very good inning, Dreifort had two very good innings,'' Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said. "For one day, was it a little better than I anticipated it being? Yes.''
Darren Dreifort didn't throw a single pitch for the Dodgers last year. In fact, he hasn't thrown a pitch for them in about a year and a half. In the middle of the 2001 season he injured his right elbow and needed surgery on it and missed the rest of the season. Then he missed the entire 2002 season with another injury (and surgery) to the same elbow.
Kevin Brown is a slightly different story, in that he didn't suffer injuries as severe as Dreifort's. However, he still missed quite a bit of time last year and in 2001, with a variety of injuries.
What can be realistically expected from Brown and Dreifort in 2003?
With Dreifort, I wouldn't be extremely optimistic, simply because of how difficult it is coming back from an entire season off and a major surgery, let alone a year and a half off and 2 surgeries.
Plus, he was never a great pitcher even before he was injuried.
From 1998-2000 he pitched 180, 179 and 193 innings and had ERAs of 4.00, 4.79 and 4.16, which are not very good, particularly for someone pitching in Dodger Stadium.
In Baseball Prospectus 2003 (which I have been reading non-stop since I got it last week) it is suggested that Dreifort's days as a starter are probably through, but that he would make a good reliever:
"With Eric Gagne around, Dreifort won't get the closer's job once rumored to be his. But he could fare well as a two-pitch setup man if his elbow holds up."
I agree completely. Dreifort was never that great as a starter to begin with and his "numbers" never really matched his "stuff." A move to the bullpen may have been the best situation even before the injuries. After the injuries, it is almost a must. I wouldn't bet on him being able to handle a starter's workload in 2003, so the Dodgers would be best served to see if they can turn him into a dominant setup man, which would give them a great 1-2 punch with Gagne.
Dreifort has always had good stuff and has a career K rate of 7.94/9 IP. His main problems (besides staying healthy) have been with control and giving up too many homers, both things that a move to the bullpen and a focus on 1-inning appearances could help.
As for Brown...
I am hesitant to say this about a 37 year old pitcher that only pitched 63 innings last year, but I think Kevin Brown can still be a dominant starting pitcher. His 4.81 ERA last season is pretty ugly, but his K rate remained very good (8.20/9).
Looking at his numbers from last year, there seems to be 2 major differences from prior seasons:
1) He gave up a lot of homers.
2) He stopped being an extreme groundball pitcher.
One of the main reasons for Brown's tremendous success from 1996-2000 was his ability to give up very few homers:
1996 = 8 HRs in 233 IP
1997 = 10 HRs in 237 IP
1998 = 8 HRs in 257 IP
1999 = 19 HRs in 252 IP
2000 = 21 HRs in 230 IP
As you can see, his HR rate just about doubled in 1999 and 2000, but even those rates were pretty good. His 26 HRs allowed in 700+ innings from 1996-1998 is absolutely amazing.
In 2001 Brown was once again very good in the HR allowed department, giving up only 8 in 116 innings. Then last year he served up 9 long balls in only 63 innings pitched, which is horrible. Giving up a homer every 7 innings is the #1 reason why his ERA jumped way up in 2002.
Another possible factor for his jump in ERA was the fact that he stopped being an extreme groundballer. His groundball/flyball ratio of 1.53 last season was the "lowest" of his entire career and the first time it had gone below 2 since 1988, his rookie year.
It stands to reason that a guy who has relied on getting batters to beat the ball into the ground for years will struggle a little bit when he starts becoming more of a flyball pitcher and that also probably has a lot to do with him giving up all those homers (the more balls in the air, the more homers?).
Kevin Brown has truly been a great pitcher for the past 7-8 years or so and 2002 was his first season with an ERA over 3.00 since 1995. In looking at his numbers from last season, I honestly think that he can still be a very good starting pitcher in 2003 and perhaps beyond. His stuff is still good and the K rate and walk rate are still solid. He just needs to go back to getting more balls on the ground and limit those homers, both things I think he will do in 2003.
If you are in a fantasy league and you haven't drafted yet, take a flier on Kevin Brown. He's at his lowest point right now and can probably be had pretty cheaply. It could pay off huge for you, just like it might be for the Dodgers in 2003.
3) Players adjusting to new roles.
I think it is an excellent idea.
The basic idea with a pitching staff is (or at least should be) to have your best pitchers pitch the most innings.
That's why it is a good idea to have Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling start 35 games a year and it's also why it is a bad idea to force a great pitcher like Kim or various other closers into a role that only allows them to pitch 60-80 innings a year, most of them coming 1 at a time and in the 9th inning of games when the team has a lead.
Byung-Hyun Kim was actually was one of the best used closers in baseball last year, although that is faint praise. He pitched 84 innings and Bob Brenly was actually willing to let him pitch 2 and even 3 innings at a time in some games. Still, he only pitched 84 innings and he was used an awful lot to get the final 3 outs of 5-2 wins.
Anytime you think you can potentially get 180-200 innings out of a pitcher like Kim, instead of 85, you try it. Byung-Hyun Kim has been a dominant reliever for the past couple of seasons and if he can continue to pitch at anywhere close to the same level as a starter it would give Arizona the best 1-2-3 punch in the league, by far (although that isn't saying a whole lot, since Johnson, Schilling and Aaron "The Human Home Run Allowing Machine" Gleeman would be one of the best 1-2-3 punches too).
Here are Kim's combined numbers from the last 2 years:
Those are simply awesome numbers. He averages about 10 strikeouts per 9 innings and although his walk rate is bad, it isn't completely awful. After struggling a little bit giving up home runs in 2001 (in the regular season and post-season, obviously) he cut way down on that in 2002 and gave up only 5 homers in 84 innings.
The one major concern being talked about in regard to moving Byung-Hyun Kim to the rotation is that he tends to use an awful lot of pitches.
Here's a quote from Ken Rosenthal's article about Kim in The Sporting News:
The question now is whether Kim can adjust to starting. He doesn't like when hitters make contact, and he averaged 16.1 pitches per inning last season, which translates to a 145-pitch pace as a starter. His high pitch counts are not necessarily a physical concern -- Kim is slight at 5-11, 177 pounds, but he is blessed with a rubber arm. But if he repeatedly threw 120 pitches over five innings, he would irk his defense and tax his bullpen.
Despite its relative shortness, there are a lot of things wrong with that quote.
First of all, to say that Kim's pitches per inning numbers translate "to a 145-pitch pace a starter" may make the reader say, "Wow, that's a lot of pitches," but it just isn't very logical. Rosenthal comes to that 145 pitch figure by multiplying the 16 pitches per inning by 9 innings. In other words, the 145-pitch pace is correct, but the "pace" is for a complete game. That is still a lot of pitches for a complete game, but a) starters don't pitch 9 innings in a game very often anyway and b) if a starter was going for a complete game, his pitch count would likely be lower simply because of how well he was pitching (less hits allowed, less batters faced, less pitches thrown).
Rosenthal also says that, "if he repeatedly threw 120 pitches over five innings, he would irk his defense and tax his bullpen." Well, duh!
120 pitches over 5 innings comes out to 24 pitches an inning! Any pitcher that routinely throws 24 pitches an inning is going to have some serious problems. But why would that be an issue with Kim? Rosenthal just pointed out that he averaged 16 pitches per inning in the very same paragraph.
This just strikes me as sloppy writing and manipulating stats to help support your opinion. I get the feeling that Ken Rosenthal feels as though putting Kim in the rotation is a mistake and he wanted to write something to help support that.
So what does he do?
Well, first he points out that Kim throws about 16 pitches an inning, which is fine. But then he starts talking about how bad it would be if Kim started throwing 24 pitches an inning. I just don't see the logic in that jump.
The bigger issue here (despite how fun it is to pick apart what a writer says) is whether or not the number of pitches Kim throws would really be a problem for him as a starter. Over the last 2 seasons he has averaged about 16.2 pitches per inning.
To put that into some context:
16.2 pitches per inning would have tied him for 20th among the 85 pitchers that qualified for the ERA title last year.
It is not uncommon for a power pitcher that racks up huge strikeout numbers, like Kim does, to throw a lot of pitches. Among the top 20 pitchers in strikeouts per 9 innings pitched last year, 6 of them threw at least 16 pitches an inning and only 2 of them (Schilling and Oswalt) threw fewer than 15 per inning.
Some pitchers that threw about the same amount of pitchers per inning (16.2) as Kim last year:
In other words, Kim's pitch totals are fairly high, but they are certainly not the highest or at a level that isn't the same as tons of other starting pitchers.
If the Kim-to-the-rotation plan works out for Arizona, they will likely have a rotation of Johnson, Schilling, Kim, Elmer Dessens and John Patterson, which is excellent. The 3 non-Johnson/Schilling spots in the rotation have been a problem for the Diamondbacks over the last couple years, but with Kim, Dessens and Patterson they have 3 very capable starters, all of whom are #3 quality, with Kim having the potential to be very special.
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