March 17, 2003

Back to Baseball (sort of)

As you know, yesterday I made my picks for the NCAA tournament and picked T.J. Ford and the Texas Longhorns to cut the nets down come April 7th. The popular choice among most people (including seemingly everyone who is or ever has been employed by ESPN) seems to be the University of Kentucky - whom I predicted would lose to Texas in the national championship game.

However, yesterday, after I made my picks for the tournament public knowledge, I came across the following very convincing arguments for changing my pick for national champs to the Kentucky Wildcats...

Now, quite obviously, those are extremely convincing arguments for picking Kentucky. That said, I am sticking with my pick of the Longhorns.

(And, yes, this was just a very cheap excuse for putting two pictures of Ashley Judd in sports jerseys on my website)

Okay, back to that other sport...

This is a relatively old story, but I haven't talked about it yet. Rocco Baldelli has impressed new Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella so much this spring that Sweet Lou has decided that Baldelli will make the team. This is a fairly big bit of news, because Baldelli is not only one of the top prospects in baseball, he is also only 21 years old.

This is of particular interest to me because Rocco Baldelli, despite being a very good prospect, has absolutely zero plate discipline.

Here's what I said about him in my "Top 50 Prospects" article on a couple months ago:

When someone with as many "tools" as Rocco Baldelli puts everything together and has a season like he did in 2002, a lot of people get excited, and rightfully so. Toolsy high school outfielders tend to have problems actually performing well, so it is big news when a guy jumps through 3 levels of a minor league system, wins Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year and hits .330 with 19 homers and 28 doubles - all at the age of 20.

Before you get too excited, keep in mind that Baldelli only drew 23 walks combined between those 3 levels and 2 of them were intentional. Plus, he didn't draw a single walk in almost 100 plate appearances at Triple-A.

Baldelli is a line drive machine with plus speed and solid base stealing instincts that should get even better with more experience. On defense, he is a natural centerfielder with good speed, great athleticism and the ability to glide to balls in the gaps.

There is an awful lot here to get really excited about and the Devil Rays have shown a willingness to promote players very aggressively. However, the fact is that most players not named "Soriano" have a pretty difficult time being superstars while walking twice a month.

Baldelli is a step ahead of most toolsy high schoolers at this point, but the coaching he receives in the near future will play a gigantic part in whether or not he becomes a star. I'd feel better if that coaching was coming from an organization other than Tampa Bay, but he'll have to make the most of what they have to offer him.

Rocco Baldelli's "ceiling" is as high as anyone's and he looks like a potential MVP candidate, but he's going to make it very difficult on himself if he doesn't start taking some walks. Short term, I wouldn't expect him to hit .330 in the Majors anytime soon, which is what he’ll have to do to make himself valuable with such an atrocious walk rate.

Well, I guess I was right about Tampa Bay promoting him aggressively! As for the effect this jump will have on his future, I am torn. On one hand, I think the coaching he will get in the Majors will be better than what he would get in AAA or AA. But, I would much rather let a prospect get a little more experience at the high levels of the minors before throwing him into the fire in the big leagues.

Regarding his plate discipline, I think he would have a much better chance of improving it in the minors. Now that he's in the Majors, he is going to have trouble just being a good hitter at all, let alone having the energy to focus on improving his walk rate.

It wouldn't surprise me if he drew less than 25 walks in a full season with Tampa Bay. Yet, he might not even have the worst plate discipline on his own team.

Last year, Tampa Bay drew 456 walks, which ranked 12th in the AL. In the off-season, two of their big walkers, Steve Cox (60 walks) and Randy Winn (55) departed.

The Detroit Tigers drew 363 walks last season and I remembered hearing that 363 walks was the lowest total by a team in "X years," but I couldn't quite remember how many years or where I had heard it.

So, I enlisted the help of Craig Burley of Baseball Primer and the Batter's Box and he did the grunt work for me and found that Detroit's total of 363 walks as a team was the lowest total in a non-strike season since the 1967 Mets drew 362 walks.

That's pretty freaking amazing. But you wanna know something? I think the Tampa Bay Devil Rays just might draw fewer than 363 walks this season.

Let's take a look at the main players...

Their starting catcher will be Toby Hall. Hall is a pretty good hitter. He has a career AAA batting line of .328/.365/.533 in 163 games. And he's even done reasonably well so far in the Majors, hitting .270/.302/.402 in 2001 and 2002 combined.

Actually, he has a total of 138 games played in the Majors Leagues, which is a nice number for our purposes because I want to figure out how many he's likely to draw in a full-season's worth of playing time.

In 138 games, Hall has drawn 22 walks. So, let's say he's a little more mature now and a little more ready to be a Major League hitter and give him the benefit of the doubt of 25 walks in full-time (catcher) playing time, which is like 120 games or so.

The backup catcher is likely going to be Jorge Fabregas (seriously, don't laugh). Jorge drew 8 walks in 169 plate appearances last year and 3 walks in 157 PAs in 2001, so I'd say he's a good bet to walk about 5 times in approximately 150 PAs this year.

Okay, so we've got the catcher spot covered and we're giving them a total of 30 walks.

Now let's move to the infield...

Travis Lee is going to be their everyday first baseman. He walked 54 times in 153 games last year and 71 times in 157 games in 2001. I'd say Lee is a good bet to walk 65 times in 2003.

The second base job is between Brent Abernathy and Marlon Anderson right now. Abernathy walked 25 times in 117 games last year, while Anderson walked 42 times in 145 games. I am not sure who will get the everyday job, but either way we are looking at about 40 walks from second base.

Their shortstop is none other than Rey Ordonez. At first glance, Rey's walk totals simply look horrible. Upon further inspection, we find out that, because he was batting in front of the pitcher in the NL, he was walked intentionally 17 times in 2001 and 11 times last year, making his walk totals ridiculously awful.

I can assure you that if Rey Ordonez stays in AL he will not see 11 intentional walks for the rest of his career, even if he plays till he's like 167 years old. When you take the IBBs away, Ordonez had 13 walks in 144 games last year and 17 walks in 149 games in 2001. Let's say he's good for 20 walks in 2003.

The third base battle in Tampa Bay isn't quite won yet, but I have heard that Aubrey Huff will likely play there quite a bit. Huff was Tampa's best hitter last season, hitting .313/.364/.520 with 37 walks in 113 games. Huff walked only 23 times in 111 games the year before. Let's assume he continues to be their best hitter and pitchers become somewhat scared to pitch to him and he is able to draw 45 walks this year.

The loser of the 2B battle will be one of the backup infielders and the other will likely be Jared Sandberg. Sandberg drew 39 walks in 102 games last year. He actually walks quite a bit (and Ks even more), so I would say he could walk 30 times if he's given about 250 plate appearances between 1B, 3B and DH.

Speaking of DH, Greg Vaughn is still there for the D-Rays. Vaughn actually walks quite a bit too. He walked 41 times in only 297 plate appearances last year. Let's say he gets another 300 PAs in 2003 and walks 40 times.

In right field the D-Rays have Ben Grieve, who is quite the walker. In fact, if the D-Rays don't break the Tigers' record, he'll be to blame. Grieve walked 69 times in 136 games last year and 87 times in 2001. I think he's a good bet to walk about 75 times in 2003.

Now, at this point you might be wondering why this team is even being mentioned as a possibility for walking even less than the Tigers did in 2003. After all, they have Grieve and Vaughn and some other guys that walk a little bit.

Oh, but we haven't gotten to the good parts yet.

Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, two 21 year olds, will be manning center and left field in 2003. Crawford got significant time with Tampa Bay last year and walked 9 times in 278 plate appearances, which is really tough to do. Before coming to Tampa, Crawford played 85 games in AAA and walked 20 times. So, combined between AAA and the Majors he walked 29 times in 149 games.

As I mentioned in my prospects article from earlier this year, Rocco Baldelli spent time at three different levels on Tampa's organization last year and walked a total of 23 times in 117 games.

I don't think it is crazy to suggest that, if given every day playing time in 2003, Crawford and Baldelli could combine for 1,200 plate appearances and 40-50 walks. Let's be kind and give them 50.

The D-Rays' backup outfielders will probably be Damian Rolls (13 walks in 347 career Major League PAs) and Jason Conti (26 walks in 349 career PAs). Let's say these two guys combine for 300 PAs and mark them down for 20 walks.

Okay, so let's see what we've got here...

Toby Hall - 25

Jorge Fabregas - 5

Travis Lee - 65

Brent Abernathy - 25

Marlon Anderson - 15

Aubrey Huff - 45

Jared Sandberg - 30

Greg Vaughn - 40

Ben Grieve - 75

Rocco Baldelli - 25

Carl Crawford - 25

Damian Rolls - 5

Jason Conti - 15

That comes out to a total of 395 walks and that was with me giving most everyone the benefit of the doubt and going with the high end of estimates. Obviously this was a very "quick and dirty" calculation, but I really think the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a good chance of doing something that no team has done in over 35 years, which is draw fewer than 350 walks in a full, non-strike season. Hey, every team needs a goal, right?

The 1966 St. Louis Cardinals drew 345 walks, making the last team to have less than 350 in a year. Wanna know the most interesting thing about that? The Cardinals won the World Series the next year!

But wait, this gets even more interesting. That 1967 Mets team that is the last to draw fewer walks than the Tigers did last season? Well, they won the World Series two seasons later!

So, for those Tigers fans out there (and I assume there are still a few of you left), that is some good news for you to ponder while watching your team hack its way to another 90+ loss season. The last two teams to walk less than you did last year each won the World Series within the next two seasons!

All the more reason for the D-Rays to shoot for less than 363 walks this year. If they can do it, they'll get that World Series trophy by 2005!

Moving in silent desperation

Keeping an eye on the Holy Land

A hypothetical destination

Say, who is this walking man?

Well, the leaves have come to turning

And the goose has gone to fly

And bridges are for burning

So don't you let that yearning

Pass you by

Walking man, walking man walks

Well, any other man stops and talks

But the walking man walks

And the walking man walks

Doesn't know nothing at all

Any other man stops and talks

But the walking man walks on by

Walk on by

Walking man walk on by my door

Well, any other man stops and talks

But not the walking man

He's the walking man

Born to walk

Walk on walking man

Well now, would he have wings to fly

Would he be free

Golden wings against the sky

Walking man, walk on by

So long, walking man, so long

--- James Taylor, "Walking Man"

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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