WTNYSeptember 17, 2003
Checkin' on Jonah
By Bryan Smith

You may or may not have checked out Jonah Keri's chat on Baseball Prospectus last night. If not, you missed the following:

Bryan Smith (Chicago): Jonah...please give me five names that will take big leaps next season. Thanks!

Jonah Keri: Mark Teixeira will have a similar leap to Hank Blalock v03 vs. v02. Brandon Phillips can't help but get better because he was Neifi-riffic this year...actually Neifi put him to shame. Adam Dunn will stay healthy next season, and cut down on his strikeouts just enough to trigger a healthy spike in production. Shawn Green will have a bounceback year after fixing his shoulder. Pat Burrell's 2003 season will look like a weird fluke five years from now.

The Bryan Smith from the question? Yes, that's me. Luckily, Jonah's answer gave me the subject of today's column. I decided to look into the five players PECOTA cards (a necessary tool and worthy of the Premium subscription), and see if I agreed with Jonah's prediction. I mostly looked for similar players, and decided to see how the rest of their career turned out.

So, without further adieu...

1) Mark Teixeira (1B/3B/OF)- What's interesting is that Jonah chose this, after I had started to prepare writing an article on him. I agree that Teixeira has some good years ahead of him, anything from winning the HR crown to leading the league in average.

What I don't agree with, however, are the PECOTA comparisons. While Nate Silver's computer throws names out like Dwight Evans and Jack Clark, my own research led me to Frank Howard, Billy Williams, and Ron Kittle. Let's look at these three players in their rookie seasons:

Howard (1960)- 268/320/464 23HR 77RBI 32BB/108K in 448AB
Williams (1961)- 278/338/484 25HR 86RBI 45BB/70K in 529AB
Kittle (1983)- 254/314/504 35HR 100RBI 39BB/150K in 520AB

Teixeira (2003)- 259/332/477 23HR 77RBI 41BB/112K in 486AB

I think the best of these three comps is Howard, although I wouldn't rule out the incredible career of Howard. He didn't do well the next year, a season shortened by injury. But Howard was a four-time All-Star, including three seasons above forty homers. He never topped a .300BA though, and I do think Teixeira has the capability to do that.

If I was to use Billy Williams as an example, Billy kept his homers around 25-30 his whole career, but increased his batting average. Williams finished his career a .290 hitter, but topped the .300 mark multiple times.

Mark Teixeira could go either way, although next season we should begin to see his true potential. In 2004, Teixeira will likely start hitting in the fifth hole, settling behind Alex Rodriguez and Hank Blalock. They'll be ducks on the pond...can Teixeira deliver?

2) Brandon Phillips (2B)- I'm not so sure on Phillips. Jonah's reasoning for improvement is basically, 'He really can't do any worse.' Yes, Phillips is hitting 208/242/311 this season, which is even below PECOTA's 10th percentile guess of 217/278/337. He barely hit the Mendoza line in AAA, and is looking more like Wilson Betemit than Nomar Garciaparra.

PECOTA threw some interesting comparisons this way, including Jose Valdivielso, a 50s SS with a short history, Bobby Valentine, and Paul Blair. For a Phillips' fan, one can hope for Paul Blair, whom was a tiny OF with Baltimore in the 1970s. Here's a look at Blair's rookie season, then that of Phillips:

Blair ('65)- 234/302/338 5HR 19 2B 8SB in 364AB
Phillips- 205/239/308 6HR 16 2B 4SB in 347AB

Very similar. Their body types are very similar (Blair was 6' and 171lb. to Phillips 5'11'' and 180), and both were good at defense. Phillips showed power promise in the minors, and Blair converted that in the Majors. His high was 26, although he also posted numbers of 18 and 17.

Paul Blair was sensational in 1969, becoming a 20/20 player, gold-glove outfielder, and made his career high in batting average. Don't be surprised if Phillips has a breakout season like that at one point before his career is over. But next year? No, look for numbers along the 250/320/400 line next season.

3. Adam Dunn (OF/1B)- Yes, this may just be Prospectus' way of hoping a former cover boy doesn't go bad. They've had bad luck with Dunn, and Josh Phelps hasn't exactly been sensational this year. Dunn had a bad 2003, in which contact posed to be a huge problem. He showed the unique ability to near 30 homers and the Mendoza line. But at the same time, he can still manage an OBP around .350.

This is an extremely hard player to compare, as not many people (ever) have had the batting eye he does. PECOTA threw out some interesting names, but perhaps none better than Tom Brunansky. The former Twins all-star outfielder is a good comparison, although he wasn't capable of 100 walks in a season (he maxed at 86). Here's a look at the first three seasons each had:

Brunansky '82: 272/377/471 20HR 46RBI in 463AB
Brunansky '83: 227/308/445 28HR 82RBI in 542AB
Brunansky '84: 254/320/460 32HR 85RBI in 567AB

Dunn 2001: 262/371/578 19HR 43RBI in 244AB
Dunn 2002: 249/400/454 26HR 71RBI in 535AB
Dunn 2003: 215/354/465 27HR 57RBI in 381AB

One glaring difference is the fact that Brunansky steadily improved his first three seasons, and Dunn has made serious declines. Bob Boone did a lot of stupid things this season, like putting him at leadup, but this was still a lost year. He has a very long swing, and pitchers exploit it often. I think there's a good chance Dunn will hang around the .250 mark for his career, but that means OBP of .375, and he should knock about 40HR.

Brunansky? No, he never hit the 40HR mark. He maxed out at 32, the same year he was selected to the Midsummer classic. What's noteworthy is that it was his fourth year.

4. Shawn Green (OF)- Shawn Green is a superstar, and this season shouldn't take that away from him. In the past, Shawn has put up some insane numbers at one of the game's hardest stadiums, Chavez Ravine. But Green has to use the rest of his career to prove that hitting 91HR in two seasons wasn't a fluke.

That being said, I wasn't all that surprised when PECOTA spit out Roger Maris, responsible for the largest fluke season ever. But I looked past Maris, and Don Baylor, another PECOTA comp. Instead, I focused on Rocky Colavito, the six-time All-Star. Colavito played from 1955-1968, hitting 374 HR, and appearing on MVP ballots three times. Here's a look at Colavito from 1061-1063, when he took his huge plunge:

RC 1961: 290/402/580 45HR in 583AB
RC 1962: 273/371/514 37HR in 601AB
RC 1962: 271/358/437 22HR in 597AB

And here's a recap of what Green is on the verge of:

SG 2001: 297/372/598 49HR in 619AB
SG 2002: 285/385/558 42HR in 582AB
SG 2003: 276/349/453 17HR in 561AB

Insanely similar numbers! Both had MVP-type seasons in the first season I listed, a small dropoff the next year, and a tailspan in the latter year. What was especially noteworthy was how the average remained in tact, but the SLG% fell out from underneath the player.

Colavito hit 34HR the next season, boosting his OPS back to where it belonged. After that a residual decline led to the end of his career, and a quiet retirement. Shawn Green could have a very similar couple of seasons, returning to 2002 form next year, before slowly walking away.

5) Pat Burrell (OF)- Probably the largest mystery of 2003, and the reason the Phillies haven't locked a Wild Card berth. Burrell was signed to an extension prior to this season, and now has underperformed the PECOTA 10th percentile projection. Jonah suggests that this is just an aberration, yet a similar comparison yields different results.

In 1974, the American League posted low offensive numbers, allowing 23-year-old outfielder Jeff Burroughs to win the MVP. Burroughs followed it up with a pathetic 1975, and was gone as quickly as he had come. A look into Burroughs '74 and '75:

Burroughs '74: 301/397/504 25HR 118RBI in 554AB
Burroughs '75: 226/315/409 29HR 94RBI in 585AB

And now let's compare that to Pat the Bat:

Burrell 2002: 282/376/544 37HR 116RBI in 586AB
Burrell 2003: 212/316/419 21HR 63RBI in 485AB

Another very similar comparison. After his horrible 1975, Burroughs saw his SLG drop even more to .369 in 1976, before re-emerging. He caught on again in 1977, hitting 41HR, and was a 1978 All-Star. While Burroughs sat in a two-year slump, I find it more plausible that Burrell will rebound next year. Will he hit 40HR? Probably not, but at this point the Phillies are praying for baby steps.

Here's my 2004 predictions for all these hitters:

Mark Teixeira- 275/350/500
Brandon Phillips- 250/320/400
Adam Dunn- 240/360/480
Shawn Green- 290/380/500
Pat Burrell- 250/340/450

Back tomarrow...