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June 2004 Archives

June 3, 2004

Mora is better... no, make that the best

It's not often that an Oriole wins the American League Player of the Month award, as Melvin Mora has done for his scalding month of May at the plate.

MLB.com: “Mora named AL Player of the Month” (Gary Washburn)

Baltimore Sun: “Mora adds Player of Month to All-Star bid” (Joe Christensen)

Mora's .402 batting average, .480 on-base percentage, and .701 slugging percentage last month all led the league. For the season, he's at .377/.459/.598. He ranks first in the league in batting average and runs scored, and he's second in OBP, fourth in slugging, and ninth in RBI.

Needless to say, those numbers represent a phenomenal level of production, comparable to what he accomplished in the first half of last year. Yet Mora is still not making much of an impact on the national radar. In the first month of All-Star voting, for example, he did not get enough votes to be listed among the top five AL third basemen, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Associated Press. As the reigning MVP, Alex Rodríguez should get the benefit of the doubt in the early voting, but Mora has out-hit all of his peers at the hot corner this year. Even after taking his fielding struggles into account, he is one of the top two or three third basemen in baseball right now. But a lot of people still view him as a flash in the pan, a guy playing above his head who will come back down sooner or later.

Continue reading "Mora is better... no, make that the best" »

June 6, 2004

Inside the Orioles' heads, part 3

Part 1

Part 2

Profiles in reflection

With the amateur draft scheduled to take place Monday and Tuesday, the Orioles no doubt have compiled their list of the top eligible players. As discussed earlier, the psychological ratings of their director of baseball information systems, Dave Ritterpusch, will have a significant influence on the selection process—greater, perhaps, than for any other team. The psychological profiles help winnow the field by eliminating those who are least mentally prepared to play baseball at an elite level. They also provide a tipping factor when deciding among prospects of similar ability.

There is a danger that the Orioles could go overboard with their perceived competitive advantage in psychological profiling. The mental side of the game is important, but prospects who are mentally strong and motivated still need the physical aptitude to succeed against first-rate competition, as Ritterpusch himself acknowledges. From what I've seen, I'm not terribly confident in the Orioles' ability to go beyond typical scouting metrics like the five tools and assess the more subtle assets that show up only on the field in live competition (and in certain statistics). Does the player have the ability to pick up the nuances of the game and to make the proper adjustments when necessary? How good is a hitter's command of the strike zone? How well does a pitcher create movement on his pitches and deception in his delivery? How quickly does an outfielder pick up the ball off the bat? Ritterpusch's confidence in his findings may cause the Orioles to overrate players who have strong psychological and physical profiles but lack the "baseball intelligence" that is necessary for success in the game.

There is also the possibility that the Orioles could miss out on some very good players by discounting psychologically suboptimal prospects from their consideration. Ritterpusch indicated that an "overwhelming majority" of star players score highly in certain key traits. But just how small is that underwhelming minority of stars who are deficient in one or more of the key traits? Ten percent? Twenty? Albert Belle was a seeming exception to the rule, a highly motivated player with All-Star talent who also exhibited antisocial behavior. His frequent outbursts directed at fans and the media (and, sometimes, inanimate objects) suggest that he may have rated low on emotional control. I guess the bottom-line question is: at what point is it appropriate to allow for exceptions to the key traits?

Ritterpusch did not mention by name any players who did poorly on their psychological tests, probably because of legal repercussions—aside from the possibility of a libel suit, there are probably privacy and confidentiality protections involved. But I'd still like to know how certain players profiled. Could the troubles of Steve Blass disease sufferers—among them Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—have been predicted? What were the profiles of oddballs like Mark Fidrych, Jim Walewander, and Randy Myers? And a psychological contrast between Moneyballers Billy Beane and Lenny Dykstra would be interesting for its own sake. Although many players' personality traits become obvious in press reportage, it's still interesting to know what goes on inside the heads of the most unusual athletes.

What about profiles for managers and coaches? For them, leadership and responsibility would intuitively be important. The ASP, however, is not the ideal test to determine a managerial candidate's fitness for the job, since it is customized for athletes. A test designed to measure aptitude for business managers would probably be more appropriate.

And further tests for players may come if the trend continues and clubs are willing to contribute to some up-front costs. In addition to psychological questionnaires, high-profile players may need to take physicals before the draft and make them available to interested teams. Pitchers may be asked to have an MRI scan done on their pitching arm and submit pitch-count and injury histories. Technology advances are making the accumulation and dissemination of such data extremely convenient.

If all this testing sounds like overkill, it's not. It's becoming an increasingly common practice in industry. A recent AP story indicates that businesses such as the Pathmark supermarket chain are incorporating computerized screening tests (which include some personality-related questions) into their hiring processes. As long as the test methods and accuracy are sound, it makes a lot of sense. A résumé and interview can only tell so much about a person. The more relevant information that hiring managers have in hand, the better equipped they are to make decisions on the hiring and placement of personnel.

There will always be uncertainty in any process involving human beings. But as long as it exists, people will always be looking for economical ways to reduce it. And that is true in life as well as in baseball.

June 8, 2004

Draft day 1 recap

The Orioles made seventeen picks in the first eighteen rounds on the first day of the amateur draft. (Their second-round pick went to Oakland as compensation for Miguel Tejada.) Their first day's haul was a relatively even mix of eight pitchers and nine position players. There are no runts in this litter: every one of the picks is over six feet tall, and only one is listed at under 180 pounds.

For the third straight year, the Birds went with a heavy concentration of college players in the initial part of the draft. This year is their most college-loaded yet: so far they have selected fourteen university products and just three high-schoolers. All fourteen of their college draftees are from four-year institutions. The league has been trending towards college players in the last few drafts, but Baltimore has gone farther than most of their peers in that direction.

Baltimore's top pick, eighth overall, was right-hander Wade Townsend, one of the vaunted triumvirate who pitched Rice University to the NCAA championship last year. The other two, Philip Humber and Jeff Niemann, were selected third and fourth overall. Townsend is a stud both physically (6'4", 225 lbs.) and statistically (12-0, 1.80 ERA, 11.1 K/9 IP, 3.29 K/BB in 2004, his junior season). Because of his burdensome workload during the college season, which ended on Sunday, I would expect the Orioles to rest his arm for most of the remainder of this summer. But it's hard not to get excited about a talent like Townsend, and it will be interesting to see which pitcher of the Rice trio ends up with the best major-league career. This longitudinal study suggests that only one of every three first-round picks becomes a significant contributor in the majors, although the draft data used in the study are from fifteen years ago, so its conclusions may not be quite the same in today's draft.

A rundown of Oriole-related draft articles (in order of decreasing informativeness):

The Orioles' second pick, which came in the third round, was Jeff Fiorentino, a power-hitting outfielder from Florida Atlantic University. Baltimore selected him as a catcher, but he only recently started playing the position, so it may be a stretch to expect him to handle it at the professional level.

An updated list of the Orioles' picks, with scouting reports on several of them, is on the 2004 Baltimore draft page on MLB.com.

On the second day of the draft in recent years, the Orioles have veered toward a mix of mature college seniors to fill out the farm system and high-school and junior-college "reach" picks with draft-and-follow potential. Given that the quality of talent decreases rapidly after the first ten rounds or so, it's as good a strategy as any, and I would expect the Orioles to continue that tactic today.

June 9, 2004

Draft day 2 recap

As expected, the O's used most of their second-day draft picks (rounds 19-50) on leftover college seniors, high schoolers, and junior-college prospects. In fact, after round 28 they exclusively took prep and juco players. Some quick, superficial numerical analysis:

  • The Orioles' draft class of 49 picks comprised 26 pitchers and 23 position players.
  • Twenty-one picks (43%) were from four-year colleges, eleven (22%) from junior colleges, and seventeen (35%) from high schools.
  • The Birds' picks in rounds 1-25 were dominated by college players. Nineteen of those picks (79%) were from four-year colleges and just five (21%) were from high school.
  • In the second half of the draft, though, the four-year college picks dwindled to just two (8%), while the juco tally soared to eleven (44%) and preps to sixteen (48%).
  • Eight catchers were picked, suggesting that the Orioles specifically sought more depth at backstop. Totals for other positions: one first baseman, two second basemen, one third baseman, three shortstops, and eight outfielders.
  • The pitchers were almost evenly split in handedness between twelve lefties and fourteen righties.
  • The states most heavily mined by the Orioles were California and Texas with six players each, followed by Florida with five and Illinois, Maryland, and South Carolina with four players apiece. One Puerto Rican high schooler was taken in the 44th round, but all the others came from U.S. institutions.

(Pitcher Derik Drewett, selected in the 36th round, is classified as a juco draftee in the totals above although his school, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, is a four-year college. Drewett apparently is on an associate's degree program at UAFS, making him draft-eligible after his freshman year.)

From MLB.com: “O's draft 49 in marathon” (Gary Washburn)

In addition to the MLB.com draft tracker, Baseball America has the entire 2004 Oriole draft class conveniently listed on a single page.

June 16, 2004

Will the real, slimmer Sidney please stand up?

Head over to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral starter rankings at the Baseball Prospectus site and at the top of the "Flakiest ML Starters" rankings, you will find a name familiar to Orioles fans:

Flakiest 10 ML Starters (ranked by variance of SNVA):
(7 starts minimum)

Pitcher       Team   APW  SNVA   SNVA Var.
Ponson,S       BAL  -2.1  -1.6    0.088
Hampton,M      ATL  -0.8  -0.4    0.081
Valdez,I       SDP  -0.5  -0.6    0.079
Estes,S        COL  -0.5  -0.4    0.079
Willis,D       FLA   0.6   0.8    0.077
Dickey,R       TEX  -1.1  -0.8    0.077
Pineiro,J      SEA  -0.4  -0.4    0.076
Ainsworth,K    BAL  -1.7  -1.2    0.075
Gobble,J       KCR  -0.5  -0.2    0.075
Lackey,J       ANA  -0.8  -0.4    0.074

(as of June 14, 2004)

Less mathematically versed readers may want to know what "variance of SNVA (Support-Neutral Value Added)" is. Essentially, a high SNVA variance means that a pitcher has had wide swings in the quality of his starts. And sure enough, a look at Sidney Ponson's game log indicates that among his fourteen starts this season, he has had four quality starts (at least six innings pitched with at most three earned runs allowed) but also seven starts in which he has allowed six earned runs or more.

Contrast that with last season, in which he had quality starts in 58% of his outings and not once allowed as many as six earned runs in a start. That kind of consistent quality attracted the interest of the San Francisco Giants going into the stretch run and made the Orioles feel confident enough in January to offer him $22.5 million in guaranteed money for 2004-2006.

A royal riddle

Ponson's 2004 failures have largely mystified him. After some of his poor starts this year, he has told the press essentially that he didn't think he pitched all that badly, but that opposing batters got hits on a lot of good pitches. This kind of remark can be interpreted in two ways. It could come across as a charitable act of sportsmanship that gives credit to a worthy opponent. Or it could look like a denial of personal responsibility that blames his lack of success on bad luck or even poor defense. As former Oriole Mike Mussina has learned in New York, fans and journalists will usually take the latter view and label the commenter a whiny complainer.

Either way, Ponson has refused to accept complete responsibility for his frequently gruesome results, and in particular he has never admitted that his weight (initially 265 pounds, now reportedly in the 250's) may have played a role in his struggles. This combination of unsatisfactory performance and a defensive posture with the press has irked everyone in the Orioles community, from the badgering media and demanding fans to Baltimore's coaches and management. The following articles indicate the scope of the unrest:

Ponson thinks that his command of his pitches has gone awry just enough to make him ineffective. As quoted on MLB.com:

“I am throwing the ball one or two inches the wrong way right now,” he said. “Sometimes in this game, that's all you have to be off is by a few inches. I feel good when I am pitching but I am not throwing the ball where I want to throw it.”

More than his command, Ponson's weight has provided a convenient target for his detractors. Jim Palmer, who at 58 years old is still trim enough to credibly pose in Jockey briefs, has been an especially shrill critic of Ponson's lack of fitness. In the Sheinin story, he delivered this scathing rebuke:

“Part of the responsibility of being a professional athlete is you show up in shape,” Palmer said. “The tragic irony of Steve Bechler's death is that the one guy came in overweight. The other guy came in overweight. One guy makes a minor league salary; the other makes $4 million. The one guy dies tragically, and the other guy keeps carrying around extra weight and gets a huge contract. That's irresponsible.”

Ponson's overweight is certainly a concern, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. He carried about 250 pounds last year, too, and it did not appear to hamper his pitching all that much. So there are probably other, less obvious factors that have led to his problems this season. What are these factors (if they exist)? Are they likely to change in the near future?

Continue reading "Will the real, slimmer Sidney please stand up?" »

June 18, 2004

Lefties leave O's out to pasture

Perusing the news reports of the Orioles' third straight loss to the Dodgers, I noticed this paragraph buried deep in Dave Sheinin's story in the Washington Post:

Los Angeles's Kaz Ishii was the second in a string of five straight left-handed starters the Orioles will face during this road trip, including three straight this weekend at Colorado -- a fact which bodes poorly for their chances, given the team's collective .236 average against lefties (last in the league) entering Thursday.

I hadn't really noticed that the Orioles were struggling so much against left-handers this year, and I would not have guessed that such would be the case before the season started. After all, only three regulars, Rafael Palmeiro, Jay Gibbons, and Larry Bigbie, are left-handed hitters, and all three had held their own against lefties prior to this year.

Continue reading "Lefties leave O's out to pasture" »

Newhan is O's new man

I caught this note in the Sun's Orioles notes this morning:

The Orioles signed Texas Rangers infield prospect David Newhan last night to give them another left-handed bat off the bench, and he'll be in uniform tonight when they begin a three-game series in Colorado.

Given the team's struggles against left-handed pitching, it hardly seems urgent to get another left-handed bat. Newhan is not a bad fellow to have on the bench, though. While not good enough of a hitter to be a regular, his minor-league record indicates that he has some on-base ability and enough power to occasionally turn on a pitch. And he can fill in at first, second, or third base. That makes him more attractive than current sub Luis López, who has never really hit well anywhere he's been.

Newhan, incidentally, is the son of esteemed L.A. Times baseball writer Ross Newhan. That family link should immediately put him in good stead with the local press.

June 22, 2004

D-Baut out, Grimsley in: a grisly trade?

Yesterday the Orioles traded Double-A pitcher Denny Bautista for reliever Jason Grimsley from the Kansas City Royals. Bautista, who flopped in a two-game stint with the major-league club last month, was one of two pitching prospects acquired from the Marlins in the Jeff Conine deal last August. (The other, Don Levinski, has been ineffective at Single-A Frederick due mostly to shoulder problems.) As part of the deal, Grimsley signed a one-year contract extension for 2005, apparently for $2 million.

Selected citations:

This swap looks like an attempt by the Orioles to save face and stabilize their pitching staff after last week's seven-game losing streak dropped Baltimore to last place in the division. The Birds need pitching help, having by far the worst ERA in the American League at 5.45 (KC is next at 4.96). The injuries of Rick Bauer, Eric DuBose, and Kurt Ainsworth have left the staff short on arms with no ready replacements at Triple-A Ottawa. (That is not entirely true. Bruce Chen and Aaron Rakers have put up respectable stats for the Lynx and merited a look-see. But neither is a great prospect, and since neither is on the 40-man roster, someone would have to be removed from the Orioles' roster for one of them to be called up.)

Continue reading "D-Baut out, Grimsley in: a grisly trade?" »

About June 2004

This page contains all entries posted to The Orioles Warehouse in June 2004. They are listed from oldest to newest.

May 2004 is the previous archive.

July 2004 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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