Exhibition games are near, thus ending the never-ending off- and on-season cycles. Remembering every transaction with the potential to make a difference this year is impossible. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of fun facts for five moves within the American League that may have slipped your mind. Why five? Because arbitrary numbers are fun. As is alliteration.
SP Kevin Millwood, Orioles
Millwood is in the final year of his five-year, $60M contract signed way back near the end of December 2005. Incredibly, he could still be receiving money, a $15M signing bonus, from this contract through 2015. The irritating thing about Millwood is not his 6’4” frame, the all-business goatee, or even the two l’s in his last name. No, it’s that seasons of poor ERA overshadow his quality of pitching. According to ERA, his five best seasons are 1999, 2005, 2002, 2009, and 2003. His five worst are 2007, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 2006. Here are the FIP of those seasons:
Average FIP: ~3.83
Average ERA: 3.29
Average FIP: ~4.02
Average ERA: 4.82
Millwood did pitch better in those five seasons with solid ERA, but not a run and a half per nine. Odds are, Millwood is underrated by the masses, perhaps looked upon as an underachiever, since his career is a mixture of ERA successes and ERA failures. The great irony in this paragraph is that Millwood’s 2009 looks pretty solid by ERA, but is actually the second worst of his career when ranked by FIP. All of this to say this: The Orioles acquired Millwood for a marginal reliever with an injury history and a Rule 5 pick. Even with the salary, the Orioles appear to win out.
DH Nick Johnson, Yankees
Johnson makes for great writing fodder. Besides the fact the he’s reunited with the guy who the Yankees traded him for in 2003, there’s also the fact that he’s never been an All-Star. That’s not important for our line of player evaluation, but here are the Yankees’ primary designated hitters by season since 1990 and the number of All-Star appearances made throughout their careers.
2008-9: Hideki Matsui (2)
2005-7, 2002-3: Jason Giambi (5)
2004, 1995-6: Ruben Sierra (4)
2001: David Justice (3)
2000: Shane Spencer
1999: Chili Davis (3)
1998: Darryl Strawberry (8)
1997: Cecil Fielder (3)
1993-4: Danny Tartabull (1)
1991-2: Kevin Maas
1990: Mel Hall/Steve Balboni
That’s right. Since 1990, the Yankees have had a combined four seasons from designated hitters who never qualified for an All-Star game. Johnson figures to be the fifth, barring injury that leads to Randy Winn (to steal a phrase from Rob Neyer) hitting designatedly for most of the season.
SS J.J. Hardy, Twins
So, here’s the thing about Hardy: He went to his first All-Star game in 2007 as a 24-year-old, and after an even better 2008, he fell off the planet with a .659 OPS last season. Milwaukee even sent him to the minors late in the season, which wound up pushing back his free agency eligibility by a full season. This lead to the off-season swap of Hardy for the really, really, really fast Carlos Gomez. Minnesota might have looked beyond Hardy’s 2009 when making this deal, or they may be satisfied with a .659 OPS. Why? Because that would fit in, and actually surpass, some of the seasons they’ve seen from their bat-wielding shortstops over the last few years:
Hardy’s 2009 OPS was .659. The Twins’ average shortstop OPS since 2000 is .683. That’s the average, not the low or second lowest. If Hardy can just replicate his career OPS of .751, he’ll give the Twins their best offensive season from a shortstop in a very, very long time. Of course, there’s also the defensive nature of the position to consider, but Jason Bartlett or Nick Punto he’s not. I fully expect Ron Gardenhire to bench Hardy because of it.
DH Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers
In any other sport, being a stay-at-home defender is a compliment. In hockey, it means not chasing the puck. In basketball, it could mean not biting on pump fakes or play actions in football. In baseball, though, it’s not a good thing. Guerrero is pretty close to a stay-at-home defender — not in the sense that he’s not fooled by the baseball’s rotation off the bat, but in the sense that he should really just stay home if the alternative is playing the field.
Guerrero is still as tolerant of junk as any hitter in the majors despite his advanced age and decaying power. Last year, he swung at 44% of the pitches he saw out of the strike zone, and he made contact with 72% of them. That just so happens to be his highest rate of out-of-zone contact in our records. Back in 2002 he was making contact slightly better than 50%. That percentage climbed to 60% in 2003 and 2004, then 65% in 2005, and roughly 70% since 2006. Naturally, Guerrero has swung at even more pitches out of the zone along the way.
I wouldn’t take those numbers as gospel since the averages have fluctuated enough over the years that it seems some definition of “out of the zone” (or maybe “contact”) have altered. How much that affects the data is beyond me. Whether he’s hitting weak grounders to third or blaring projectiles towards the bleachers, Guerrero is less picky and more able to make contact with junk than at any other time in his career since at least 2002. That’s insane.
2B Mark Grudzielanek, Indians
There’s a good chance Grudzielanek fails to make the Indians’ roster and winds up sailing into the sunset for the second consecutive season. But he owns one of the best last names in baseball history and that’s reason enough to include him.