Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Surprises & Disappointments 2006

Before I look at the 10 most surprising (and disappointing) players of the year, let's look at some quick news from around baseball:

  • Apparently I spoke a bit too soon when I declared the Cardinals a sure thing in the NL Central. They certainly looked like a sure thing a while ago, but since then the Cards have lost 6 straight games . . . and the Astros have won 6 straight, leaving them just 2.5 games back in the division. Don't get me wrong -- a 2.5 game lead with six to play is a pretty healthy lead. But it's getting a little too close for comfort in St. Louis, a team that's certainly not anyone's idea of a shoo-in for the playoffs.
  • The Athletics are also taking their sweet time clinching. Their magic number is 2, but they have also delayed getting anything done. They lost the last two games of their series against the Angels. The Angels won their game Monday night, meaning that the A's will have to wait until Tuesday at least to clinch. The A's could still lower their magic number to 1 (thereby clinching a tie for the division title), but they blew a 9-6 lead to the Mariners in the 9th inning and are currently fighting it out in extras. The A's are still comfortable with a 6-game lead, but they too are making things a little too interesting.
  • On the plus side, the rest of the AL playoff field is set. I thought that the AL playoff race would turn out to be the most interesting, but first the Red Sox and then the White Sox collapsed, removing any sense of drama from the last week of the regular season. The Tigers clinched a postseason spot on Sunday, and the Twins clinched one on Monday. The Tigers have a one-game lead in the division, and the only question left is who will win the division and who will win the Wild Card. The division-winner would draw the A's, while the Wild Card would have to play the Yankees (who look like favorites to win the pennant). The Twins have clinched their 4th playoff spot in 5 years . . . I guess owner Carl Pohlad and Commissioner Bud Selig were right -- the Twins can't compete in that ballpark (sarcasm fully intended). The Tigers are the biggest surprise of the year, and if any franchise really needed to make the postseason, it's the Tigers. They're making their first postseason appearance since 1987, a very long 19 years that included a dreadful 119-loss campaign in 2003 . . . just three years ago. And Selig says there's no competitive balance in baseball . . .
  • On the NL side of things, it's not any clearer than it was when last I wrote. The Mets are in, and the Cardinals are, as I said before, struggling. That leaves the Padres, Dodgers, and Phillies to fight over the last two spots. The Padres currently have a 1.5-game lead over L.A. in the NL West, which would make them a pretty good bet to make the playoffs. The Dodgers and Phillies are currently tied for the Wild Card. It's anyone's guess who will win, making this the only truly exciting race left -- that is, the only "win or go home" race that's still really close.
  • In a pretty amazing display of fan solidarity, some 1,000 fans walked out in the middle of an Orioles game to protest the tenure of owner Peter Angelos. More than any other owner in baseball, Angelos has proven to be an impediment to his team's chances of winning. He's kind of like a young George Steinbrenner, except without all of the success. Angelos constantly interferes with the team's operations and undermines his subordinates. Angelos' response to the protest was to declare its organizer, Nestor Aparicio (nephew of Hall-of-Fame shortstop Luis) "a very unimportant person." Angelos went on to say:
    Whoever joins that protest has no comprehension of what it costs to run a baseball team. When you get down to facts, putting together a team that can compete in the AL East means having a payroll between $100 million-$110 million. That money comes from the consumer, and I have chosen to keep ticket prices to a minimum.
    Our payroll is $75 million, and our ticket prices average $22. Some of the teams we compete against charge an average of $45. We're going to have to match the competition. How to do that is a decision I will make in the future.
    Not only did Angelos try to make the unconvincing (and easily debunkable) argument that ticket prices are directly tied to a team's payroll, he made the veiled threat to fans that he might raise ticket prices in the future, presumably out of nothing more than spite. (It should be noted that Mike Flanagan, Baltimore's head of baseball operations, had a much more diplomatic response to the protest -- look at the end of the article). As Maury Brown wisely points out at Baseball Prospectus, Angelos' claims that his prices are "at a minimum" are false -- Orioles ticket prices are slightly above average. His claim that it takes $100 million+ to contend in the AL East has some merit, but is ultimately irrelevant. The Orioles' team payroll is a good deal higher thanthat of current Wild Card leader Minnesota. And the Red Sox, who have the #2 payroll in all of baseball, are currently in third place in their division.
    Angelos has reached the point where he's managed to alienate the fans, the players (due to his contentious negotations, few players seek out Baltimore as free agents), and other owners (Angelos' attitude has made him no friends, especially when he stood out as a labor-friendly owner during the 1994-5 strike). The only reason anyone deals with him is because they have to. You can't fire the owner, no matter how much everyone involved with the game probably wants to.

Now that we've dealt with that, I hereby give the 10 most surprising and disappointing players of 2006. Once the season is over, and we know for sure who stands where, I'll make a similar list of teams.
(Note: I use the terms "surprise" and "disappointment" in a general sense. Francisco Liriano certainly had a great rookie season with Minnesota, but he wouldn't really qualify as a "surprise," because he was expected to be a great pitcher. Ditto for other players such as Justin Morneau, Justin Verlander, and other people named Justin. Albert Pujols' MVP-level season wasn't really a "surprise," nor was it from Derek Jeter or Travis Hafner. Also, while some players might be termed "disappointments," they might miss my list if they were a disappointment that a reasonable analyst could have foreseen. Reggie Sanders was indeed a disappointment for Kansas City, but it wasn't really out of line with what we expected him to do. So he misses the list.)

10 Most Surprising

10. Jonathan Papelbon
Everybody knew Papelbon would be good -- but this good? Not only did Terry Francona use Papelbon in a more effective way (on orders from the front office, no doubt), Papelbon was just plain excellent. He was the best closer in baseball making noise for the Cy Young before injuries ended his season on September 1. As it is, Papelbon finished with a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves with 75 K and just 13 BB in 68.1 IP. Of his 59 appearances, 18 of them were for more than one inning. This means that he was often brought in for more than one inning (which makes sense), coming in early if the situation called for it (ditto). I don't have any precise stats on when he came in and h0w he was used compared other closers, but it seems to me that the Red Sox took a great young closer and made him even better just by using him more effectively.

9. Jermaine Dye
Dye is someone that the White Sox took a flyer on a few years ago; he had been good in the past, but had never really recovered from a broken leg suffered in the AL Division Series. Dye's performance this year is, of course, not the sign of some amazing age-32 renaissance, but likely due more to a spot of good luck.
That said, the White Sox could care less why Dye is hitting so well (316/386/622), and Dye is indeed a fine player who deserves a career year. He's got one now, and it's just too bad the Sox weren't able to capitalize on it (see Disappointments).

8. Jim Thome
Another Chicago hitter who made a comeback from injuries and ended up hitting far better than anyone expected him to. Unlike Dye, Thome had a much better track record as an elite hitter; but he was also two years older. After a dismal 2005 in Philadelphia, it looked doubtful that Jim Thome would ever hit like the old Jim Thome again.
Then he came to Chicago. He's hitting 290/418/605 this year, which is only slightly better than his career batting line of 282/409/565. It's even more amazing, though, considering his age and his injuries. Another surprise for the White Sox. In general, you could call the entire White Sox offense a surprise (with quality contributions from other guys like Paul Konerko and Joe Crede) and most of their pitching staff a disappointment (see below).

7. Freddy Sanchez
Freddy Sanchez was, once upon a time, a pretty good prospect. He was drafted out of college by the Red Sox in the 11th round of the 2000 draft. Sanchez was a shortstop then, and hit quite well for the position, rising through the minor league system until running into the roadblock named Nomar. As he got older and struggled in his brief major league trials (and with Nomar entrenched at short for the time being), the Red Sox included him in a mid-season trade to Pittsburgh for Jeff Suppan in 2003. Suppan struggled with the team, then left as a free agent. It turned out to be a pretty good deal for the Pirates, because they also got relief prospect Mike Gonzalez, who just turned in a fine season as their closer.
But Sanchez didn't turn out nearly as well. He started 2004 at Triple-A Nashville. At age 26, he should have dominated; instead, he hit a terrible 264/326/360. Despite that, the Pirates promoted him to the big leagues for good in 2005. It's not certain why they did this, but the Pirates aren't known for their depth of talent, nor do they consistently do the smart thing anyway. Sanchez actually did better than expected as a sometime-second baseman for the 2005 team, hitting 291/336/400 in 453 ABs. But at age 27, he was no longer any kind of prospect and was looking at a career as a backup (or, for the Pirates, a starter).
Then came 2006.
So far in 2006, Sanchez is hitting 342/376/471. To call this a surprise would be like calling the 1906 San Francisco earthquake a surprise. The only thing that's kept this season from being completely dismissed as a fluke is Sanchez's early history as a good-hitting prospect.
The snag is, however, that most of Sanchez's great performance is tied up in his batting average. More than most other offensive indicators, batting average is subject to luck. This is for the simple reason that batting average is more dependent on balls which are put into play, and so it depends a good deal on the opposition's defense. Therefore, batting average as a skill is less "pure" in the sense that it represents a solid, consistent underlying reality. That isn't to say that batting average is random, of course; but it's easier to "luck into" a good batting average than it is to luck into 40 home runs or 100 walks.
All that aside, the Pirates should be thrilled with Sanchez's performance. He's just the sort of player small-market clubs salivate over: a former prospect who has an improbably good year. The mistake that most teams make (and which the Pirates probably will make as well) is expecting the improbable to happen again next year. When a player like Sanchez has a career year, you let someone else sign him to a big, stupid contract. I doubt, though, that the Pirates are this intelligent, or if they even care that much.
So it's most likely a mistake to think that Sanchez is really a good hitter. The residents of San Francisco didn't bear down and wait for the earthquake to happen again in 1907, did they? Neither should the Pirates expect Sanchez to hit anything like .342 ever again.

6. Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano had some really great seasons in New York. He was actually similar to Derek Jeter; a good athlete who could hit like a king, enough so that his defensive shortcomings were glossed over. Soriano's difference was that he was all power and little else, whereas Jeter has everything but a 40-home run swing. The other difference was that Soriano was even worse at second than Jeter was at shortstop. And with Soriano's arbitration salary likely to break the bank, the Yanks traded him to Texas for Alex Rodriguez.
Texas should have been Eden for Soriano; a far better hitters' park than Yankee Stadium, especially for right-handed hitters. Instead, Soriano somehow managed to hit worse in Texas than he did in New York, even without taking into account the favorable ballpark. Not only did Soriano's power dip, but so did his batting average, which also put a dent in his OBP (Soriano only draws a walk when the pitcher has had a few drinks and can't physically see the plate). Soriano was still a valuable player (his Texas years: 280/324/484 in 2004, 268/309/512 in 2005) but his stolen bases and home runs were counteracted by terrible defense, a lower batting average and the same woeful plate discipline.
When Soriano was traded to Washington in 2005, I hung my head for him. If his offense was suffering that much in Texas, an AL hitter's paradise, what would it look like in Washingt0n, a cavernous NL ballpark? Without his power, what would Soriano be? He'd be a left fielder, that's for sure; a position where his offense would no longer be considered "good for his position" but merely average. I thought he would turn into Jacque Jones with stolen bases, and I had visions of 260/310/450 dancing in my head.
I was wrong.
I was unbelievably, astronomically wrong. Against all odds and all sense of logic, Soriano has had probably his best year ever at the plate. He's currently hitting 283/355/572. He's the first person in baseball history to have 40 homers, 40 doubles, and 40 stolen bases in the same season. Yes, that factoid is mainly trivial, but it does tell you that Soriano is slugging the crap out of the ball in one of the toughest parks in the league.
I don't think Soriano is going to continue down this unlikely career path -- he'll be 31 next year, after all -- but that doesn't diminish his unlikely accomplishments this year. The rest of baseball, who had forever overrated Soriano's ability, now had it right. And it was I who was left to come up with the excuses.

5. Chris Coste
Coste is a surprise in the purest sense of the word -- something that absolutely no one saw coming. A surprise in the "Disney might make a movie out of this" sort of way. Let me set the scene.
Coste played college ball at Concordia College, Moorhead in North Dakota. He went undrafted in the amateur draft (and with 50 rounds, even the mascots get drafted by somebody) and played in the independent leagues for a few years. In 1998, the Pirates took a flier on him, which isn't any sort of promising sign. He didn't make the team and went back to North Dakota. In 1999, the Indians signed him. He bounced around their system before getting released in 2001. Two weeks later they re-signed him (I don't know the details there) and released him a year later. He got a sniff from the Brewers and Red Sox before landing with the Phillies in 2004.
Coming into 2006, Coste was 33 years old. He was not unlike a couple thousand fringe minor league players who bounce around the lowest levels of several franchises before giving up and going into real estate. 99.99% of those players never even make the majors, let alone contribute.
Say hello to the 0.01%.
Coste had taken up residence in Triple-A, and although he'd been invited to Spring Training the past three seasons, he never caught on, not even for one at-bat. It was back to Triple-A for Coste. But the Phillies were having catcher trouble; Mike Lieberthal was injured and despite his clever retro-moustache,

Sal Fasano was hitting like . . . well, Sal Fasano. Desperate, the Phillies had no choice but to call up their veteran minor league Triple-A guy who was probably more of a coach than a player at that point, anyway. At least he'd be able to tell his grandkids that he played in the big leagues.
But then Chris Coste started to hit.
He got off to a slow start, but then he went on a roll during the summer, including a July where he might as well have been a vintage Mike Piazza (372/426/651). With a week left in the season, Coste is hitting 322/368/494.
Everything I said about Freddy Sanchez applies here times ten; the odds that Coste will hit this well again are beyond remote. But for a while at least, 33-year-old Chris Coste got to live a dream. And if the Phillies win the Wild Card, maybe he'll have a couple more left to live.

4. Frank Thomas
From the dream world we move on to harsh reality. And things d0n't get any harsher than Frank Thomas' exit from Chicago, with GM Kenny Williams publicly calling him a crybaby that no one would miss. While his words probably had merit, Frank was still a potential Hall-of-Famer looking to get back some respect after several difficult, injury-plagued seasons in Chicago. The guy who looked like an organizational lifer was a free agent, and he ended up in Oakland.
And thank God for the A's that he did.
Frank Thomas isn't hitting as well as he used to, but considering how great he used to be, he's doing just fine (269/380/545). Not only that, but Thomas has been the only reliable bat for the A's all season. Thomas didn't come cheap, but his contract was loaded with incentives that kicked in only if he stayed healthy and produced. He did both, and I doubt Billy Beane regrets a dollar of that contract now.
More important than that, Thomas has gone a long way toward resurrecting his case for the Hall of Fame. Many observers felt that he had already earned his spot by being one of the best players of the 90's. But voters have short memories, and if you end your career poorly, they're not likely to remember how great you used to be. Thomas may well have turned himself from a fringe candidate into a first-ballot HOFer this year. His 38 home runs are only 5 shy of his career high of 43, set in 2000. It also brings him up to 486 for his career, making 500 home runs a lock. 500 homers may not be a guarantee for Cooperstown anymore, but it's a pretty damn good start. And it would all look even sweeter with a World Series ring.

3. Chien-Ming Wang
All season long, sabermetricians (myself included) have been saying that Chien-Ming Wang isn't really this good. No one (and I do mean no one) can succeed over the long term with such an amazingly low strikeout rate. After a while though, we just have to throw up our hands and accept it for now.
Wang had a promising rookie year in 2005, coming up to a Yankee team that desperately needed starting pitching. He complied by making 17 starts and posting a respectable 4.02 ERA in 116.1 IP. However, his BB:K ratio was 32:47. The walks weren't a problem; but anyone who strikes out that few batters probably isn't as good as a 4.02 ERA. If he were playing in front of a great defense in Dodger Stadium, maybe; but Yankee Stadium ain't Dodger Stadium, and Alex Rodriguez ain't Ron Cey (at least not anymore). So we all predicted that, like hundreds before him, Wang's promising ERA would be brought back to reality by his low strikeout rate.
Well, it hasn't happened yet, and I've stopped waiting. Wang's ERA this year has been even better, at 3.57. He's been very durable, making 32 starts so far and throwing 212 innings. He's probably been the best pitcher on the entire team (except maybe Mussina), and the Yankees were a team that really needed another good starter. It was all the sweeter, by the way, that Wang came out of the Yankee farm system instead of as a high-priced free agent.
But Wang is still striking out less often than Kid Rock at the grand opening of Skanks R Us. He currently has 72 Ks in his 212 innings, which is actually a worse rate than he had last year. He doesn't allow many walks nor many homers, so he has survived. But someday -- I swear -- his low strikeout rate will catch up with him.
Bill James made the claim once that no pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate has had a consistently successful career. He then set out to prove himself wrong and was almost entirely unsuccessful. Sure there are some guys like Walt Terrell who will have some good years, but you just can't find consistency over the long term with a below-average strikeout rate. While I admit that Wang may have an improbable career a la Terrell, I just don't think it's likely, especially with the defense behind him.
(Just to note: many pitchers who were perceived as low-strike0ut guys really weren't. Even guys like Greg Maddux, who didn't have dominating stuff and often used the defense to his advantage, was above-average at striking out hitters. In every season where he threw at least 200 innings, Maddux struck out at least 136 batters; he was usually over 170 -- even topping 200 in 1998. So he doesn't compare to Wang at all. The people that Wang does compare favorably to are one-year wonders like Randy Jones. And if you go back historically, keep in mind that we're comparing them to the league-average. Cy Young didn't strike out a lot of batters, but then nobody did in 1895).

2. Gary Matthews, Jr.
Other than Coste, Matthews is probably the purest fluke I have listed here. Since I've been rather verbose when speaking about the above players, I'll keep Matthews' discussion short. His 2006 season: 317/376/503. His career numbers: 264/337/420. Matthews' age: 32. The odds that this season are a fluke: 1,789,654:1. The joy of seeing a stupid GM give him a big contract this winter: priceless.

1. Dan Uggla
Uggla is sort of like Coste, except that he's a much bigger surprise who actually might be for real. Here is what the Baseball Prospectus staff had to say about Uggla in their pre-season annual: "the results [of his promotion to the majors] should be predictably Uggla." Their PECOTA system predicted a 237/296/371 hitting line for him, right in line with what a career minor leaguer would do as a full-time big-leaguer.
Uggla is hitting 282/339/483. Not only is that a couple light-years beyond his prediction, it's also not obviously a fluke. Uggla has broken the record for home runs by a rookie second baseman, notching 26 so far. As I said before, home run rate is more closely tied to underlying ability and thus not easily lucked into. Uggla isn't someone like Freddy Sanchez who's all batting average and little else; there's substance here that indicates he might be somewhat for real. He's certainly not getting done any favors by hitting in pitcher-friendly Dolphins Stadium.
The analyst in me says, of course, that regardless of the particulars, Uggla is a fluke. It's not like he's some former hitting prospect who's recaptured his former glory. Uggla never could hit that well. Most of his minor league numbers can be explained away because he was significantly older than the rest of the league. And that's not a small point; if Uggla were 23, this renaissance would be easier to swallow. Since he's 26, it's not.
While it's possible that Uggla isn't completely a fluke -- I'd expect him to show some power again next year -- it's doubtful that he's really this good. It would be a real wonder of the world if Uggla went on to be an All-Star regular; his more realistic future is as a low-end second baseman with some power. But since he's a good bet to win the NL Rookie of the Year and since no team but the miserly Marlins would have installed him as their starting second baseman in the first place, I rate Uggla as my #1 Surprise -- the most Unlikeliest of Unlikelies, if you will.

Honorable Mention: Michael Cuddyer, Clay Hensley, Hanley Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Ryan Howard

10 Most Disappointing

10. Matt Clement
Matt Clement was supposed to be a steal for the Red Sox. Even though they signed him to a pretty healthy contract, Clement was a pretty underrated pitcher -- a guy with high strikeout totals and the ability to stay healthy. So when, in 2005, he posted a 4.57 ERA and dropped 50 K despite throwing more innings, it was a disappointment. When he posted a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts in 2006, it was a disaster.
In his three seasons with the Cubs, Clement averaged about one strikeout per inning pitched, the sign of a great pitcher. He was durable, throwing more than 200 innings twice and 181 the other year and was not overly prone to the gopher ball, despite pitching in Wrigley Field (averaging about 20/season, good for the Friendly Confines). But since he pitched for the Cubs, his W-L records those years were 12-11, 14-12, and 9-13. Most teams perceived him as an innings-eater and little else, whereas the Red Sox knew he was really a solid #2. He wouldn't replace Pedro Martinez, but he would come close -- and at a much lower price.
I really don't know what happened to Matt Clement after that. I guess you could blame part of it on Fenway Park, but he's not really giving up a lot of home runs, no more than he did at Wrigley. His strikeout rate took a big hit, but is still above-average. He hasn't been seriously injured, not unless he's been hiding it. He did suffer some problems in 2006 that ended his season early, but it's unclear how much of that was due to injury and how much due to his frickin' 6.61 ERA.
Clement still has a year left on a contract that now looks like a pretty big mistake. It's possible that the Red Sox will just give up on his chance of pitching in the AL and trade him back to some NL team. It's understandable from their point of view, but it may also be a chance for an NL club to get a bargain-bin guy while his stock is down. But if there's anything we've learned about Clement, it's that there's no such thing as a sure thing.

9. Brad Wilkerson
I'll save time and embarassment by saying that everything I wrote about Alfonso Soriano applies inversely to Brad Wilkerson. Wilkerson went from an NL pitcher's park to an AL hitter's park and looked like he was finally going to make everyone notice what many already saw: Brad Wilkerson was a fine hitter. I predicted as much, right here on this very blog. I would link you to the archive, but it's too embarassing. It's too embarassing because Soriano and Wilkerson were traded for each other. Therefore, my mistake doubled in consequence, as the players went off in directions exactly opposite from that which I had predicted.
Against all odds, Soriano flourished and Wilkerson floundered (222/306/422). I can't explain it, except to hope that maybe it's a fluke that will set itself right next year. Otherwise, I'm going to look pretty foolish.

8. Jeff Weaver
Jeff Weaver had already proven a disappointment to the New York Yankees. They traded to get him from the Detroit Tigers, thinking they had a hot young pitching prospect. What they got was a thorough disappointment. So they traded Weaver to the Dodgers as part of a deal for Kevin Brown.
Weaver was able to make the Yankees regret it, though. Part of it may have been that Weaver's laid-back style was better suited for L.A. Part of it may have been that the Yankees traded for the most brittle pitcher in the world after his first healthy season in years, thinking he'd magically healed himself. Brown hadn't healed himself, and Weaver made a solid name for himself in L.A. He still wasn't an elite anything, but Weaver was a reliable pitcher with the Dodgers, soaking up innings and keeping his team in games.
As a free agent this year, Weaver fell through the cracks, not able to agree with a team on a price. As luck would have it, the Angels "suddenly" realized they had a hole in their rotation (which is like "suddenly" finding out on your 5-year wedding anniversary that you had married a goat) and went after Weaver. Weaver got a good 1-year deal from the Angels. He could stay in L.A. and stick with the low expectations; the Angels just wanted him to go out there every 5 days and keep his team in the game.
Somehow, Weaver was able to prove a big disappointment for the second time in his career. The first time, it was a fall from elite pitcher to merely average. This time it was a fall from average to dreadful. Weaver posted a 6.29 ERA with the Angels before getting traded to St. Louis. (In a coincidence noted prominently in the sports pages, Weaver was replaced by his younger brother Jered, who pitched brilliantly). In St. Louis, it was only marginally better: a 5.21 ERA in 14 starts.
Not only is Weaver giving up more home runs (he's almost equalled his 2005 total despite pitching about 100 fewer innings), his strikeout rate is falling. Put those two together, and you've got a bad sign; bad sign for Weaver's future, and bad sign for the Cardinals, who are stuck running him out there every 5 days because they couldn't think of anything better.
Weaver is a free agent again after this season, a situation that should reveal his unfortunate fall: he will be a fringe/5th starter just looking to catch on with a low-end, 1-year deal.

7. Bobby Crosby
Many commentators picked Bobby Crosby as their pre-season AL MVP prediction. I personally think this had more to do with Crosby's attitude and "grittiness" than his actual abilities with bat and glove, but he was still a fine young player. He was no MVP, but he was the Rookie of the Year in 2004, hitting 239/319/426. If that sounds like a pretty lousy hitting line for a ROY, it is. But then it was a slow year for AL rookies, and it's not like they're going to call off the award for that year.
Crosby was also a fine defender, and his offense improved to a more acceptable 276/346/456 in 2005. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 84 games and 333 ABs. The injury bug hit Crosby again this year, but his skills did not survive so well; thus far, he's hitting 229/298/338. Not only did this leave the A's with a gaping hole at shortstop (to go with several similar holes in their weak lineup), it called into question the short- and long-term future of their "Shortstop of the Future." Crosby's past wasn't any reason to call him an MVP, no matter how much he may get his uniform dirty or create his own cheers in the dugout.
Now, unfortunately, his present is also called into question by his injuries. One year of injury trouble is understandable for anyone. But two straight years could be a sign that someone is ::gasp:: injury-prone. It's also never a good sign when a player's skill set mostly evaporates (nor was it a wise decision for the A's to let Crosby bring his so-called "bat" to the plate 358 times).
Crosby says that he could be back in time for the ALCS, if the A's get that far (see? He plays through injuries. He's a "gamer." MVP!). The unfortunate question is if the A's even want him back; it's probably better for everyone if Crosby stays at home and tries to get healthy for next year, especially since his presence 0n the field isn't much more valuable than that of a well-trained mascot.

6. Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder disappointed Cardinal fans in 2005 when he failed to pitch like the "ace" he was supposed to be. But, just like Weaver and Clement, he proved that things can always get worse.
Now Mulder does have the excuse that he has struggled with injuries this year. That would help explain his 7.14 ERA and 19:35 BB:K ratio in nearly 100 innings. But it's small comfort, because Mulder's decline began the last half of 2004 in Oakland and has merely continued, bottoming out this year. You can't blame it all on the injuries.
It's been an awful trade for the Cardinals, one of the few true stinkers on Walt Jocketty's record. It also shows the problems inherent when you try to trade for an "established" pitcher. Mulder was, indeed, "established," but that just means that he used to be a great pitcher; his recent past didn't suggest anything as rosy for the future. "Established" pitchers also tend to be older; their career is declining, and they're more expensive. So it was a poor move when Jocketty traded for the established Mulder, giving up pitching prospect Dan Haren. Not only has Haren gone on to outpitch Mulder in both years since the deal, he is, of course, a much better long-term solution, being just 26 years old. Add in the fact that the Cards gave up (at the time) big-time hitting prospect Daric Barton, and the Mulder trade becomes one of those things you just want to forget ever happened.

5. Brad Lidge
Lidge was supposed to be the next "uber-closer." In 2004, he set a new record for strikeouts by an NL relief pitcher by whiffing 157 batters in just 94.2 IP. His 2005 was a bit more human ("just" 103 K in 70.2 IP), but he was still a true relief ace. Then, in Game 5 of the NLCS, Lidge gave up a decisive home run to Albert Pujols. The Astros lost the game, but went on to win the pennant. In the World Series, Lidge gave up a walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik in Game 2. This was significant, because during the regular season, Podsednik had hit exactly zero home runs. Many speculated that this trauma would cause Lidge to lose confidence. I frown on "intangible" explanations to baseball issues, but I have to say that this one is mighty convincing given what's happened to Lidge.
"Confidence" could explain part of it -- Lidge has given up twice as many home runs as he did last year (10 to 5) despite pitching almost the same number of innings. He's still a strikeout machine -- 99 in 69.2 IP, or almost exactly the same rate as last year. But his walk rate has risen too, which doesn't go well with an increased home run rate.
Personally, I don't think that all of that is enough to explain the train wreck that is Lidge's 5.56 ERA. I think Lidge has likely been unlucky, combined with the dampening effect that a couple bad outings can have on your ERA, especially if you don't throw many innings. The disturbing trend in Lidge's stats must be watched closely, but I would wait before I threw in the towel (the Astros are reportedly thinking of trading Lidge). Confidence may be a part of it, but his strikeout rate suggests that there's still a lot of the old Brad Lidge left, and if this is true, then his confidence problems can be addressed without panicking.

4. Felix Hernandez
"King Felix" he was called last year. He was the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden, at least that's what every baseball commentator told me. If ever there were a consensus "can't-miss" prospect, it was Felix. He had everything it took to dominate, combining a great fastball with nasty breaking stuff to become a strikeout master -- all before reaching the legal drinking age. Barring an injury or overwork, Felix was supposed to pass Johan Santana and become the best pitcher in baseball.
Not so fast.
Felix's 2.67 ERA last year has ballooned to 4.65 so far this year. While his strikeout and walk rates have remained intact, he's been hurt by a big jump in home runs allowed (2005: 5 in 84.1 IP; 2006 22 in 184 IP). What was supposed to be a Dwight Gooden season circa-1985 became a Dwight Gooden season circa 1992, Live from Sing Sing.
It's easy to look back in hindsight and criticize everyone's overeager praise of Hernandez. And I must admit that there was every reason to believe that he was the next big thing. Despite the fact that he's younger than my first set of baseball cards, Felix is in the majors and producing, which is a great sign in and of itself. And although 2006 represents a step back for the wunderkind, it's probably nothing more than a speedbump on the road to a very productive career.
3. B.J. Upton
Speaking of wunderkind players underwhelming in the majors . . . well, that's pretty much the whole story with Upton. He was a top-notch prospect who stuck around in the minors for a while as a result of the Devil Rays' great one-two punch of awfuldom: incompetence and cheapness. As for the latter, the Rays didn't want to rush Upton to the majors, because once he got there, it would start the clock ticking on his arbitration time. The D-Rays' front office wanted to make sure that Upton was ready before they started counting down his 6 years 'til free agency.
The count of incompetence is harder to fathom. Upton came up as a shortstop, but it turned out that he was very bad at the position. He made a ton of errors and just wasn't suited to it. That's not such a big problem, really. Many people start out as shortstops and then move elsewhere (Mickey Mantle, for one); shortstops tend to be such good natural athletes that they can handle most any position on the diamond. It seemed like just a question of where they would shift Upton; to third base (in place of Aubrey Huff) or the outfield (already crowded with prospects)?
The Rays' solution was not to shift him at all. Even the most obtuse observer of the game could tell that Upton just wasn't suited to shortstop, but the Rays kept him at Triple-A for parts of three seasons and even hired Ozzie Smith to work with him, all in an effort to make him a shortstop. Upton positively wore out Triple-A pitching, and despite the fact that he was plenty ready for the majors in 2004 at age 20, the Rays didn't call him up to the majors for good until August of 2006 for criminy's sake. Oddly enough, Upton was struggling through his worst season in Triple-A (269/374/394) that saw him lower his strikeouts (which the coaches were big on) but also lower his power (which they weren't). In the majors, Upton has so far hit a thoroughly underwhelming 237/283/282. With the trade of Aubrey Huff, Upt0n has moved over to third base and isn't doing too poorly on defense.
While the Devil Rays must be criticized for jeopardizing Upton's development due to their mismanagement, it's still most likely that Upton will start to hit again. It's easy to forget that even after all this time, he's only 22 years old, quite young for the majors. He's hit everywhere else, so he will hit soon enough in the majors. Once the D-Rays can settle on a position for him, they should get the young stud they were hoping for.
(It must be noted that Upton's attitude has been called into question as another reason for his extended stay in the minors. He also criticized upper management for leaving him in Triple-A in September of 2005. He was mostly correct, but talking bad about your boss to the press is never a good career move).

2. Coco Crisp
Last on the list of predictions I wish I hadn't made, we have Coco Crisp. I went on record before the season as saying that Crisp was a better long-term solution in center field than Johnny Damon. Sure, Crisp wasn't as good as Damon, but he was younger and cheaper, and he was also an underrated hitter and defender.
All of that was pretty much true at the time, but it's clear that I overrated both Crisp's ability to handle center field defensively and his batting skills. Granted, he was in a tough situation; Boston is never a good place to overcome adversity. He was also stuck in a very difficult outfield. Someone (I think it was Rob Neyer) once complimented Carlos Beltran's defense in center field by saying that there was no greater distance in the world than that between Cliff Floyd (left field) and Shawn Green (right field). The same could be said of Manny Ramirez and Wily Mo Pena, and Crisp wasn't the man to cover for their ineptitude.
But Crisp wasn't all bad, at least not until he got injured. Nagging injuries have limited Crisp to just 105 games this year, although when he has played, he's hit a bare 264/317/385, this after hitting a solid 300/345/465 in Cleveland last year.
Crisp's tale isn't really as bad as some of those above him, I guess; but the disappointment is magnified by the difficult position of having to follow Johnny Damon's act and having to do it in Boston, where -- as Peter Gammons (I think) once said -- fans take a slump personally.

1. Mark Buehrle
The #1 pooh-bah on the list of disappointments is Mark Buehrle. Buehrle captures the full spectrum of a true disappointment for several reasons:
1) He was a very good player
2) He was not just good but reliable, for a number of years
3) His team needed his contributions, moreso than usual
4) His team was in the playoff hunt
5) His struggles played a big part in eliminating them from playoff contention.
Mark Buehrle just seemed like one of those guys who always had a good year. While he wasn't as good as Johan Santana or Roy Halladay, he was as durable a pitcher as anybody since he got started in 2000. He's thrown at least 200 innings for 6 straight seasons (who can say that nowadays?) and despite less-than-stellar peripheral stats, was always one of the 10 best pitchers in the league. He could contend for a Cy Young in a good year, but mostly he was a reliably good pitcher. 200 innings and an above-average ERA were just a walk in the park for Buehrle for six straight years.
Well, I guess everybody has a bad year eventually, and Buehrle's came in 2006. His ERA had wavered from year to year, but his peripheral stats stayed the same: a few homers (not too bad for Comiskey), some walks, and an average number of strikeouts. They'd given him an ERA of no more than 4.14 in every full season of his career, including 4 years below 4.00 and 2 years below 3.50. Buehrle's 2006 ERA is currently 4.99.
This can partly be explained by Buehrle's declining strikeout rate. He was never a big strikeout guy, not even at his peak, but he was above-average most of the time. But this year he's managed just 98 Ks. The result has been a higher ERA, due in part to a career-high 36 home runs allowed. Buehrle's also on pace to throw fewer innings than he has in any other full season. But this isn't a sign of less durability; it's a sign that when your ERA is near 5.00, your manager doesn't want you out there for 8 innings.
I think Buehrle will make a turnaround; his track record is such that he's almost guaranteed to. Although he's a victim of more than bad luck, as his peripherals would indicate, he should bounce back just fine next year. But that's small consolation to the White Sox, who will miss the 2006 postseason precisely because their highly-praised pitching staff collapsed.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Giles, Rondell White, Tim Hudson, Jose Guillen, Ronny Cedeno, Brian Giles, Josh Beckett, Freddy Garcia

No comments: