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.
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.
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.
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.
Other facts in Palmeiro's favor:
- 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.
- 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.