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Young v. Palmeiro: a matter of bat

Baseball Musings blogger David Pinto, who writes one of the most popular and stimulating baseball-related blogs in existence, has posted a controversial argument in his entry “The $300,000 Solution.” In it, he advances the notion that instead of signing Rafael Palmeiro to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in January 2004, the Orioles should have given his job to prospect Walter Young, who hit .274/.343/.539 (BA/OBP/SLG) at Double-A Bowie last year. Pinto applied an early version of Bill James's major league equivalencies to Young's 2004 stats, compared them to Palmeiro's actual 2004 stats, and came to the following conclusion:

Young's OBA wouldn't be as good, but he makes up for it with his slugging percentage. If nothing else, it's pretty clear that Palmeiro wasn't worth 13 times the money. The cheap solution eluded the Orioles. And with Palmeiro back for another year, the mistake is repeated.

It's possible that Young could come close to matching Palmeiro's production in 2005 for markedly less expense, but is it really likely? Here is a counterpoint to Pinto's reasoning, based on information that Pinto may not have known or considered.

If at first you don't succeed...

Palmeiro's power dropped off dramatically last season, in which he posted an isolated power of .178, his lowest since 1992. Prior to 2004 he had accumulated eleven straight seasons of IsoP's above .230. Given his age (40), such a precipitous drop in the power department ordinarily would be an ominous sign of impending collapse. Looking deeper, though, I think there's a strong possibility that he'll rebound in 2005.

Last season, Palmeiro revealed that he had altered his hitting approach early on to counter the defensive shifts he was facing (which were similar to the ones Lou Boudreau used against Ted Williams) by attempting to hit to the opposite field more often. While that appeared to work initially, he eventually realized that he was playing into his opponents' hands by cutting down on his power for the sake of a few more singles. So later in the year, he switched back to his old, pull-whenever-possible approach.

Here's an excerpt from the Baltimore Sun article “2005 option is out for Palmeiro” dated September 21, 2004:

Palmeiro struggled earlier this year against exaggerated shifts, hitting the ball more to the opposite field and settling for the occasional single. But he no longer lets other teams dictate each at-bat.

“This is the way I felt that I was going to do all year,” he said. “I did some things early on that kind of worked against me and it took me a little time to get back to myself. Hitting is so precise. The slightest little detail can make the biggest difference, especially for me.

“I finally got to the point where I don't even look at the defense anymore. I just go up there and it's me and the pitcher, and I'm aggressive and I'm going to hit the ball hard.”

Palmeiro ended the year on a high note after a decent August (.278/.414/.400) and an outstanding September (.318/.396/.706). (His October stats weren't as good, but they comprised a mere 16 plate appearances.) Palmeiro's fast finish didn't make up for his underachievement during the rest of the season, but it did suggest that he's not through yet as a hitter.

Palmeiro's OPS by month in 2004
April .311 .411 .486 .897
May .253 .384 .418 .802
June .185 .287 .315 .602
July .243 .301 .369 .670
August .278 .414 .400 .814
September .318 .396 .706 1.102
October .133 .188 .200 .388

Take a load off, Raffy

Also, more judicious deployment of Palmeiro this year may make it easier for his bat to bounce back. Palmeiro was used almost exclusively as a first baseman for the first five months of the 2004 season. He received few days off, and his hitting numbers sunk as the summer progressed. To avert an option year that would have vested had he played 140 games in the field, the Orioles moved him to designated hitter for most of the final month, and out of nowhere he responded with his best numbers.

After seeing this, team officials brought back Palmeiro for 2005 with the intent to use him as their primary DH this year. In 2004, the fifteen different Orioles who served at DH combined for a .649 OPS in that role, so Palmeiro should provide an upgrade there in 2005. It also makes intuitive sense that not having to play in the field could give Palmeiro an offensive boost over the long season, although I don't know of any studies that measure the effects of resting or DH-ing on a hitter's performance. (Anyone?)

One key question for Palmeiro going into this season is whether he can get his groove back against lefties.

Palmeiro's 2004 L-R splits
vs. Left .189 .254 .302 .556
vs. Right .286 .399 .491 .890

Most of Palmeiro's power slump in 2004 can be traced to his lack of production against left-handers. His production against right-handers, on the other hand, was more or less up to expectations. From a management standpoint, a simple remedy for 2005 would be to bench him against left-handed starters. But a smart manager would notice that Palmeiro's career splits prior to 2004 showed a much smaller bias with respect to the handedness of the opposing pitcher.

Palmeiro's career L-R splits through 2003
vs. Left .284 .351 .502 .853
vs. Right .294 .381 .530 .912

Because single-season splits are prone to flukiness due to small sample sizes, perhaps it's not time yet to pigeonhole Palmeiro as a platoon hitter.

Ancillary benefits

Other facts in Palmeiro's favor:

  1. Despite his age, he possesses no serious health problems (unless you count impotence, and Viagra takes care of that). Indeed, he has been extraordinarily durable over his career. And according to the Sun, he arranged to work with a personal trainer last winter for the first time in his career. His would-be replacement, Young, has also been free of serious injury, but has a mammoth body (6-5, 290) and reportedly needs to improve his conditioning.
  2. Palmeiro is a fan favorite and is 78 hits from 3,000, so he conceivably could pay back some of the hypothetical salary difference through increased gate attendance and broadcast ratings, not to mention special appearances, promotions, and memorabilia sales. Young, even if he hits, would not come close to developing a following comparable to Palmeiro's in one season.

So Young and carefree

Pinto seems to agree that Young is too old to be a really good prospect. Having recently turned 25, Young has yet to play above Double-A and remains a relatively raw hitter who strikes out often and walks too rarely (his career K/BB ratio is over 3:1). The 2004 MLE arrived at by Pinto (.266/.324/.515) looks too high to me; Clay Davenport's Future DTs predict Young's major-league peak at .232/.296/.416, which looks like a lowball but is probably closer to reality than Pinto's numbers. Although Young is trying to improve his strike-zone judgment, he showed only a slight increase in his walk rate last year (about one extra walk per 80 plate appearances) while posting the highest strikeout rate of his career. That lack of progress makes him more of a suspect than a prospect, even after taking into account his tremendous power.

All things considered, the Orioles are doing a smart thing by planning on having Young play most of 2005 at Triple-A Ottawa before considering him for a significant major-league role. With his sledgehammer of a bat and adequate defense at first base, he's not the worst guy to have waiting in the wings.

Whether Palmeiro will reward the team's faith in him is a different matter, but re-signing him was not as bad a gamble as Pinto suggests. Although Palmeiro isn't likely to hit for average—he hasn't cracked .290 since 1999—his ability to draw walks should make him at least marginally useful in '05, and an improvement in his power numbers could even make him a bargain.

Comments (7)

This is a very good post. However, it does not change my mind. Any number of teams will have a problem at first base, and instead of looking around the minors for a Pickering or Young, they'll sign an aging veteran for a lot more money. The probability of the old veteran going into a steep decline is high; they probability of the young minor leaguer getting better is high. It just seems to be the money is better spent on a middle infielder with great range, since that is a rare commodity.


I see your point, David, but I'm not ready to jump all the way over to your side. For the price, signing Palmeiro seems an affordable gamble. (He'll make $3 million in 2005.) Replacing him with Young would give the O's more bang for the buck, but in terms of absolute production it would likely be a downgrade. As you probably know, hitters with weak strike-zone judgment such as Young often have a hard time adjusting to major-league pitching. That's why I'd rather see Young continue his development in the minors. If Young improves his walk rate and crushes Triple-A pitching this year, then I wouldn't mind seeing him take the place of Palmeiro or Jay Gibbons next year or even later this year if one of them slumps or gets hurt. I just disagree with you that Young could step in and replace Palmeiro right now.

I agree with your larger assertion, which is that by doing some research the Orioles could have come up with a younger, cheaper alternative to Palmeiro from outside the organization. Roberto Petagine is a good example of such a player. As for Pickering, I've been a fan of his since his days as an Oriole prospect, and if he were to become available I hope the O's would pursue him. But that doesn't seem likely (either him becoming available or the Orioles pursuing him).

The Orioles had a Pickering-like player in their system last year—his name was Jack Cust. Last year I advocated that Baltimore give him a chance to fill their hole at DH. (For more of my thoughts on Cust, search this site for "Cust" and "tbw.") But after demoting him in April the Orioles never gave him another chance, and he didn't give them much reason to because he had a subpar year at the plate down in Triple-A (.235/.358/.433— that's a great OBP for a .235 hitter, though). When the Baltimore outfield was depleted in midseason, the team turned to retreads like Chad Mottola and Karim García and good-field, no-hit guys like Darnell McDonald and Tim Raines Jr. I would have taken Cust before any of them, but the Orioles passed him over, even after he put up an .878 OPS for them in 84 plate appearances in 2003.

The Orioles completely mishandled Cust, in my opinion, by trying to make him swing at more pitches earlier in the count. His old hitting style was working just fine before that. I don't think it's a coincidence that Cust had the two worst years of his career in the Oriole organization the last two years; the organization's coaches didn't seem to know what to do with him. He's in a much better situation now with the Athletics.

I'm not going to touch your last point about getting a middle infielder with great range -- that topic would open up a whole 'nother can of worms, and this comment is far too long already.


David's point would be more compelling if he gathered the evidence before reaching the conclusion. Starting from the conclusion that "every team has a better option in the minors" leads him to overlook the fact that his translations for Young's 2004 are really suspicious looking. Look at his raw stats next to the MLEs to see for yourself.

Clay Davenport, who I believe has updated his projection system more than once in the past two decades, calculated Palmeiro's 2004 EqA at .282, and Young's MjEQA at .233. I'd say .50 of EqA is worth $3.7 million.


I don't want to pile on Pinto too much, but here's another indication that his 2004 MLE for Young is too rosy: Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster, 2005, equates Young's 2004 performance to a major-league line of .240/.299/.475 for a .774 OPS. That is far below Pinto's quick 'n' dirty calculation of .266/.324/.515 (.839 OPS). Shandler's MLEs are built on James's method, but like Davenport he makes adjustments for level, league, park, and age, so his numbers are more statistically grounded than James's 1985 MLE formula.

In Pinto's defense, I should point out that Shandler's numbers for Young are much stronger than Davenport's, bringing Young within a stone's throw of Palmeiro's actual 2004 performance (.258/.359/.436 for a .795 OPS). But that 20-point gap in OPS is deceptively close because OBP is generally accepted as the more important component of OPS—I've seen its impact on run scoring valued as high as three times as much as SLG—and Palmeiro has a commanding edge in the OBP column. Put another way, if Young had been at first base for the O's in 2004, it would have been like bringing back Tony Batista and moving him to first. Not good. Yes, Palmeiro was a disappointment last year, but given the choice between him and Young, I think it's obvious that Raffy was better.

FYI, Shandler projects that in 2005 Palmeiro will hit .265/.366/.447 for an .812 OPS. He doesn't do projections for minor-leaguers, so nothing for Young.


While I generally agree with tbw, it is deceptive to use Palmeiro's career splits. In 2 of the last 3 years he shows a dramatic split, so that over his last 500+ plate appearances as a lefty he looks like this:
.232/.317/.455/.772 versus .277/.391/.526/.917

And that includes two years unadjusted from Texas.

The Orioles problem is that they have an excess of left-handed hitters, including Young. They need to dump Surhoff and pick up a right-handed 1B/OF who can platoon with Palmeiro, Gibbons, Bigbie and Newhan. Craig Wilson is probably the closest type of player to the need.


It's true that Palmeiro has shown a downward trend in his ability to hit left-handers recently. But that doesn't mean we should totally ignore his 1500-odd plate appearances against LHP before that. My point was that it would be a knee-jerk reaction to bench Palmeiro against all lefties solely because of last year's horrendous performance—and that remains true.

I certainly think Mazzilli should sit Palmeiro against tough left-handed starters whom he has struggled to hit. (One example: Raffy has a .095 career OPS in 21 at-bats against the Big Unit.) But other times it should be a case-by-case decision. Over the last three years the Orioles have faced 45-50 LHS per season. If I were managing, Palmeiro would start against 10-20 of those lefties, leaving him with a chance at 120 starts in 2005 if he stays healthy.

And yes, the O's need more batters who can hit left-handed pitching. This has been true for several years. Don't overlook individual variation in platoon splits, though. Luis Matos, for example, has hit left-handers (.551 OPS) far worse than he has hit righties (.746) in his career, despite being a right-handed batter. Surhoff's platoon differential, on the other hand, is almost zero (.750 to .749). Bigbie, Gibbons, and Newhan have more typical splits, albeit in limited playing time, so they would probably make good platoon candidates.

Craig Wilson would be a fantastic addition, but he doesn't seem to be available, and even if he were he wouldn't come cheaply. Lesser players such as Howie Clark probably can be had, though. I haven't done the grunt work to unearth other candidates, but it's likely that in two weeks several 4-A type hitters like Clark will come on the market as teams finalize their Opening Day rosters. With Majewski and Stynes out for the year, the Orioles are in need of outfielders for backup and Triple-A depth, so they should be actively looking for two or three of them—preferably right-handed ones.


Hmmm... I forgot that Clark bats left-handed. Bump him down the list of possibilities.

Incidentally, Matt Díaz would have been a decent backup outfielder, except that he didn't want to be an Oriole. (He refused Baltimore's waiver claim last month and later signed with the Royals.)

Other top (non-prospect) right-handed hitting outfielders in Triple-A last year:

If all else fails, there's always Rickey Henderson.


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