Baseball BeatJuly 15, 2006
Confessions of a Baseball Analyst
By Rich Lederer

News item: The Baltimore Orioles optioned struggling right-hander Daniel Cabrera to Triple-A Ottawa on Friday.

Comment: I thought Cabrera was poised to build on his improvement last season and take it up another notch this year. Boy, was I wrong. Rather than get better, the big right-hander has actually regressed. The lesson here is simple: no matter how hard one throws, it's virtually impossible to succeed if you don't throw strikes.

Cabrera has basically been a mess all year long. Oh, he faked me out and pitched well during the World Baseball Classic. But I had already fallen for the guy long before that. You see, I saw what was then a 24-year-old flamethrower who was striking out about one batter per inning while getting almost twice as many groundballs as flyballs. He flat out dominated RHB and looked as if he was a changeup away from working his magic against LHB, too.

On top of all that, the arrival of Leo Mazzone as the Baltimore Orioles pitching coach gave me added confidence that Cabrera was likely to take the next step in his burgeoning career. Instead, the Dominican walked seven batters in 1 1/3 IP in his opening start, then came back five days later and gave up nine free passes in 5 IP. He allowed no more than two runs in six of his next eight starts but was still having trouble commanding the strike zone, walking 25 batters over a stretch of 20 innings.

For the year, Cabrera has given up an unacceptably high 7.9 BB/9 (vs. 4.9/9 in 2005). He leads the majors with 75 walks and 13 wild pitches. Although Daniel's K/9 rate was up by seven-tenths of a point this year, his K/100P was essentially flat with last season.

Did I mention that I drafted Cabrera in my fantasy pool four rounds before Francisco Liriano was taken by my cousin's team? Darn. I was actually hoping to nab Liriano but thought I could float him a bit more. Double darn!

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News item: Nomar Garciaparra wins All-Star "Final Vote" fan balloting.

Comment: I wasn't crazy about the Dodgers signing Garciaparra in the off-season. As a first baseman, I figured Nomar was no better than Shea Hillenbrand at this stage in his career. You know, a .290-.310 hitter with 18-20 HR. And that was assuming that he would stay healthy.

Garciaparra started the season on the DL and missed the first 16 games of the campaign. It looked like 2004-05 all over again (when he played in a combined total of 143 games). Little (so to speak) did I know that Nomar would come back and put up numbers reminiscent of 1999-2000. Second in the NL in AVG (.354), 5th in OBP (.421), 6th in SLG (.580), and 3rd in OPS (1.001).

I know we don't like to talk about such things, but Garciaparra has been nothing if not clutch for the Dodgers this year. The two-time batting champ is hitting .385/.468/.564 with runners in scoring position and .394/.475/.697 close and late. He is leading the team in RBI with 55. Nomar has walked (26) more often than he has struck out (17) and has stolen three bases without being caught. Garciaparra has also played a superb first base, making only one error while ranking in the top five at his position in the majors in range factor and zone rating.

I'm not going to doubt the soon-to-be 33-year-old Nomar. Well, at least not until the next organization signs him to what could easily be a 3 x $10+M contract this winter.

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News Item: The Detroit Tigers had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break.

Comment: Hey, I picked the Tigers to finish fourth in the AL Central. Moreover, I was skeptical that the division could average 83 wins per team and said "No way the Tigers and Royals combine for 18 more victories."

Well, the five teams in the AL Central are on pace to average more than 86 wins, Kansas City is on track to match its 56 victories in 2005, and Detroit currently projects to win a whopping 110 games, or 39 (yes, THIRTY-NINE) more than last year. Yikes! I figured the Royals would wind up with about the same record but couldn't foresee the Tigers winning close to 90 games before the season began.

Detroit's pitching staff leads the majors with an ERA of 3.47. The Tigers rank first among all teams in defensive efficiency, fewest stolen bases allowed, and highest percentage of caught stealing.

The bottom line is that Jim Leyland's Tigers have been absolutely Grand(erson) this year.

While on the subject of teams, I must also confess to picking the Cincinnati Reds to finish last in the NL Central. Yes, you read that correctly. I thought the Reds would end up with an even worse record than the (cough) Pittsburgh Pirates. Here is what I said in early March in response to a comment about the Reds being "a few years away":

Oh, the Reds can be turned around. But it won't happen overnight, and it won't be easy. It's gonna take time and patience. Unfortunately, most of the talent at the big-league level is at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, the pitching staff could be the worst in baseball, and the minor-league system is bereft of talent.

The good news is that I have Aaron Harang on my fantasy team. Reds fans can have second place if they want it. I'll take Harang.

Whew, it sure feels good to come clean. I mean, that was a heavy load to get off my chest. Now I can rest peacefully again. Sweet dreams!


i fell for cabrera too. he MUST be salvageable somehow. he's got such good stuff. how does one teach control, though?

how does one teach control, though?

Primarily via pitching mechanics, including finding a consistent delivery and release point from the windup and stretch positions for all pitches. Cabrera started the year trying to strike out everyone, which caused him to overthrow the more he got behind in the count. Owing to poor results, I believe he gradually lost confidence in himself and his problems now have to do with his head as much as his mechanics.

I totally got hosed on Cabrera also. I drafted him thinking he'd probably run an ERA around 4, but if I got lucky he'd break out and be my number two starter. Instead he's in the minors, David Wells is on the DL, and my rotation consists of Johan Santana, Joel Piniero and four starts by relievers every week.

And hey, the Reds are only 15.5 games up on the Pirates. A few more trades like the one they made last week, and your prediction might yet come true. I believe it is the Reds' goal to field a team made up entirely of Ryan Freel and 24 middle relievers.

I liked this column a lot primarily because I think it is essential that the sabermetric community (so much of which deals with prediction) closely scrutinize the accuracy of its forecasts.

Here's a couple more views the sabermetric community held before the season that have turned out to be wrong:

1) Alfonso Soriano. Everyone was looking at his road splits and his move to DC and thinking: disaster time. Well, he's slowed down as of late but will still probably crack 40 dingers. How did we miss this?

2) Rickie Weeks. Felix Hernandez. 'nuff said. Where did we go wrong here?

Anyone know?

Thanks, Nolan.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I missed on Soriano as well as those mentioned in my article. I wrongly figured his move from the AL to the NL and from a hitter friendly to a pitcher friendly ballpark would negatively affect his numbers. Instead, he is having a career year, walking and hitting HR at a greater pace than ever before. Kudos to Alfonso.

With respect to Weeks, I can't say I missed on him. I didn't forecast Rickie to take a big step forward this season. Others may have but I didn't. That doesn't mean I don't like Weeks because I do and, in fact, would not give up on him at all. We need to remember that he is only 23. Sure, Rickie's IsoP and BB/PA are both down from last year but his AVG and OBP aren't all that bad. He is a tremendous athlete and should improve over time.

Now, Felix has had an interesting season. Not nearly as good as his supporters (which you could call me one) anticipated but neither as bad as his detractors believe. His K/9 (and K/100P) and G/F ratios have remained outstanding and among the best in the majors. The SO and GB combo gives me confidence that Hernandez is still on course to become a great pitcher. His H/9 and HR/9 are much higher than last year, influenced by a decidedly worse BABIP (.335 vs. 258) and HR/FB (19.0% vs. 11.9%). I'm not saying the difference between last year and this year is simply a matter of bad breaks or luck--heck, I think he is making some mistakes and paying the price for them--but I am also not about to jump off the bandwagon either. I would be a lot more concerned about him if he didn't have such high strikeout and groundball rates. With time, I think the 20-year-old kid will be just fine.

I really bagged on Jacque Jones and Alfonso Soriano, they've both come back to bite me. My worst prediction the last few years was after the 2004 season, calling Odalis Perez "one of the wiser buys on the free agent starting pitching market." Yikes.

Similar to Cabrera, I knew a lot of people who boasted this would be the comeback year of Oliver Perez, the lefty who either led or was 2nd in the majors in K/9 in 2004. Ouch.

The Pittsburgh Pirates thing was botched by a lot of people. PECOTA had the Pirates down for finishing 3rd in the NL Central. Ha. Ha. Ha. I don't think it's happening.

Rich -

Any idea what the defensive efficiency numbers are on Seattle? Felix had another good-compenent/bad-result outing today and I'm starting to think that Seattle's defense must just be terrible.

Where can I find a zone rating on Betancourt and Lopez? Betancourt is reputed as being a good fielder, but Felix seems to be suffering from some systematic ball-in-play disadvantages...

Seattle's defensive effciency ratio (DER) was seventh best in the AL at .697 through 7/15/06 (vs. a league average of .693). The Mariners have allowed the fifth fewest number of errors and unearned runs in the AL. The team is fourth in the league in fielding runs (second best on groundballs and third worst on flyballs).

Betancourt is ninth out of 12 qualified SS in zone rating. He ranks sixth among AL SS in fielding Win Shares while Lopez is fifth in ZR and WS. FWIW, Beltre ranks third in ZR and sixth in fielding WS.

Put it all together and it seems as if it would be difficult to say that Hernandez has been a victim of poor defense.

Interestingly, I noticed that Felix is getting killed by left-handed batters this year. LHB are hitting .307/.362/.531 vs. Hernandez this year, whereas they hit just .182/.255/.243 against him last year. Thirteen of the 15 HR he has allowed have been to LHB (vs. one out of five last year). Teams are even stacking their lineups with lefties (54.5% of the AB in 2006 vs. 49.3% in 2005).

Given these splits, I'm beginning to wonder if his changeup--generally the out pitch of choice vs. LHB for RHP who have it in their arsenal--has been less effective this year. King Felix was purported to have one of the best changes in the game last year. This matter may be worth investigating further.

Interesting, interesting...Thanks for that - I didn't know that HBT kept Win Share stats. Cool.