Fringe Benefits (Basic Questions Remix)

In the 1991 edition of his Baseball Book, Sabermetric Baby Daddy Bill James includes a long section called Basic Questions. Here’s how he introduces it:

What I’ve tried to do… is talk about, write about, as many of the things which are on the minds of the average baseball fan as I can. For each player, I tried to find the basic questions about each major league player. The basic questions about Daryl Strawberry: How’s he going to do in Los Angeles? How will he hit in Dodger Stadium? How much will his loss hurt the Mets? How much will he help LA? What are his career totals going to be? Is he going to hit 500 home runs in his career? 600? How many?

He then proceeds, for 180 giant, three-columned pages, to do just that. The product is excellent, vintage James, whether he’s warning us to appreciate Eric Davis, almost pinky-swearing us that Lance Dickson will be a star (he pitched 14 innings in the majors), or referring to Luis Encarnacion of Kansas City as “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Royals’ organization.”

There are also kinda mean entries, such as this, in re Jerry Kutzler of the White Sox:

Who is he?

Right-handed starting pitcher, pitched well for Tampa in 1988. I don’t expect him to be a major league starting pitcher, ever.

Ever. Ouch.

And then there’s this in re Baltimore’s Jose Mesa, which is just awesome:

Can he pitch in the major leagues?

Can a bear perform heart surgery? I guess you never know unless you give him a scalpel and stand back.

In what follows, I’ve stolen James’s Basic Questions format to look at some players on the periphery of baseballing relevance. Most of the players here would likely make decent fantasy plays given the opportunity, but that hasn’t been my only concern in composing this list. For example, I don’t look at some of the standard metrics. And I don’t even pretend to guess at something like pitcher wins. This might be a case of wanting my cake and eating it, too. But to that I say: why else would a person want cake besides for eating it? Cake is good for little else.

A couple notes before I begin. First, where James writes that he is attempting to address questions that the “average baseball fan” might have, I have attempted, in what follows, to anticipate and answer questions that a FanGraphs reader might have. Basically, what that means is I use some metrics (wOBA, wRC+, xFIP) that are used pretty commonly on FanGraphs. Also, it means that I take for granted that names like Garrett Jones and Matt Thornton – that is, players without much public exposure – are at least somewhat familiar.

Second point: While I’d guess that most fans share an intuitive understanding of “fringe,” let’s say, for the sake of clarity, that “fringe” players are those who:

(a) had something like a starting job but underperformed their probable skill levels pretty badly, or

(b) had something more like a part-time role but would probably play well in an expanded role, or

(c) are minor leaguers but, for one reason or another – age, draft pedigree, injury, failures at the Major League level – aren’t exactly what you’d call prospects.

For whatever reason, pitchers seem to skew younger among this category of player. I don’t know why that is, exactly, but were I forced, at gun-point, to hazard a guess, I’d say (a) why is this such an important question that you feel the need to threaten me with violence, and (b) maybe it’s because starters who fail are generally regulated to reliever status.

Finally, in a bow to the roto-minded, I’ve organized the players according to the standard fantasy roster: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, OF, OF, SP, SP, RP, RP, P, P, P. Here’s the result:

C: Brayan PENA, Kansas City

What sort of name is Brayan?

I’m sure I’m not qualified to answer that sort of question.

Okay, then, how about this one: Who the flip is Brayan Pena?

Last year, he was back-up to the back-up catcher in Kansas City.

That doesn’t really sound like much of a distinction.

No, but you have to remember that, in Kansas City, every day is Opposite Day. Pena has a career line-drive rate of 20.5%. He doesn’t strike out too much. He’d probably hit 10-12 homers with something like a regular job. He’d probably post a league-average wOBA. Around .335 or so, at least.

I don’t care what you say. What’s the word from CHONE and ZiPS?

Pretty good, actually. CHONE says .282/.326/.415. ZiPS says .281/.328/.413. Confucius say… nothing. Not about baseball, at least.

1B: Garrett JONES, Pittsburgh

The career minor leaguer who raked for Pittsburgh last year?


He played well, but how do I know that wasn’t luck?

He posted a wRC+ of 147 (.396 wOBA) in 358 plate appearances, and only his home-run rate (21.2% HR/FB) was really out of place relative to his minor league numbers. Cut that down to 15% and you still have an above-average hitter, with maybe a .350 wOBA. CHONE and ZiPS agree.

You put him at first base, but he played more games in right field last year.

You’re right. He played 39 games in right versus only 30 at first last year. But I had three outfielders I wanted to pick and no first basemen. The Pirates have the same flexibility with both Jeff Clement and Brandon Moss hanging round.

2B: Ryan ROBERTS, Arizona

Remind me again who he is.

The guy who took over at second in Arizona after Felipe Lopez was sent to Milwaukee.

How’d he play?

Actually, a little bit better than Lopez. All told, Roberts finished with a .348 wOBA, while Lopez posted a .341 during his time in Phoenix. Consider, too, that Lopez posted a significantly higher BABIP (.350 versus Roberts’ .321), and there’s reason to believe that Arizona played its cards right.

Will he start this year?

Entering the offseason, it seemed like maybe not. But then it seemed like, yes, maybe he would. But then Arizona signed Kelly Johnson. So, probably not, no. Not right away at least.

3B: Edwin ENCARNACION, Toronto

Are you serious? He hit like caca for Cincinnati and Toronto last year.

Or did he? The only thing that really changed was his BABIP, which checked in at .249. Relative to his career mark of .290, that’s pretty low. Relative to his line-drive rate of 17.5%, it’s also pretty low.

So say he comes back with a .290 or so BABIP. What then?

Probably a wOBA of .355 or .360. Probably 20-25 homers.

Okay, that’s fine. But isn’t he a kinda sucky infielder?

Almost assuredly, yes. He’s got an UZR/150 of -12.3 for his career at third base. If you’re the club that’s paying him, that’s not so great. From a fantasy perspective, though, it’s not really a problem. The closest thing to competition at third base is from new acquisition Brett Wallace. By all accounts, Wallace is an even worse third baseman.

SS: Khalil GREENE, Texas

Khalil Greene? Is this a preview for 2010 or for 2004 I’m reading?

So far as I know, 2010. If not, something has gone horribly awry.

But Greene was terrible last year.

Actually, not really. His strikeout rate (20.6%) was lower than it’s been for a while, his walk rate (8.1%) was as high as it’s been for a while, and his infield fly-ball rate (2.9%) was almost non-existent. The problem was that he had .217 BABIP. That’s real low. Normalize his numbers for something like a league-average BABIP, and he becomes a league-average hitter.

Why did he have so few plate appearances last year?

Well, the perception of him playing poorly, for one. And for two, he had problems with social anxiety disorder. Still, he came back from the latter and hit .345/.368/.618 in 57 rehab plate appearances at Triple-A – with only a .319 BABIP, which suggests that he was making excellent contact, as opposed to getting super lucky.

OF: Seth SMITH, Colorado

What’d he do last year, again?

Hit, field, and do everything else like a starting Major League outfielder: .383 wOBA, 16.2 UZR/150 in about 80 games in left field.

Sure that’s a high wOBA, but wOBA’s not park-adjusted, and Smith plays at Coors.

You’re right, it isn’t, but wRC+ is, and he posted a 129 wRC+, which compares very favorably to starting right-fielder Brad Hawpe’s 130 wRC+. When you consider that Hawpe is a legitimately awful fielder (-21.6 UZR/150 since 2004), then there’s barely a contest in terms of overall value.

Then why isn’t he a starter?

A couple reasons. For one, the Rockies have legitimate outfield depth. Besides Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and Ryan Spilborghs all makes legitimate claims to playing time. For two, well… I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a fact: if he’s anything like a starter in 2010, he’ll put up great numbers.

OF: Andruw JONES, Chicago (A.L.)

Surely he doesn’t play baseball anymore.

Actually, he does, although you’re excused for thinking as much. Three years ago, he was bad. Two years ago, he was really bad. Last year, though, he was actually kinda good as a DH for Texas, posting a 104 wRC+ despite a horrifically low .224 BABIP.

Alright, but look: he faced lefties almost exclusively. Wouldn’t he be exposed in a larger role?

Well, for one, he actually faced more righties than lefties (181 PAs, versus only 150 against LHPs). For two, Jones’s career platoon split (.256/.331/.485 versus righties, .261/.361/.499 v lefties) is almost exactly what you’d expect from any sort of right-handed batter.

Can he really still play the field?

He’s declined, for sure, but on account of his peak being so high, he’s probably still league-average in a corner. He does seem injury-prone, though, so maybe he’s best as a part-time fielder.

OF: Jody GERUT, Milwaukee

Describe him in three words.

Here they are: the disappearing man. Now here are some other ones: Gerut played well in 2003-04, declined afterwards, and left baseball… until 2008, when he hit .296/.351/.494 while playing half his games at Petco. Then, last year, he appeared to decline again, batting .230/.279/.376 in limited plate appearances between San Diego and Milwaukee.

Why’s he on this list then?

Like many of the guys here, he was the victim of bad luck. In this case, a .243 BABIP. Other than that, he has the profile of a league-average hitter.

Why’d Milwaukee acquire him just to bench him?

[Insert sound of crickets chirping.]

What are his chances of playing this year?

Cameron’s gone from Milwaukee, but Carlos Gomez has arrived. Signs point to Gomez starting. He’s worth 1.5 wins afield, which is probably the reason why, but Gerut is a better offensive player.

SP: Felipe PAULINO, Houston

I’m not one for old-timey metrics, but come on: dude was 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA.

Dude had 93 strikeouts versus only 37 walks in 97.2 innings last year. Dude had a 4.10 xFIP. Dude also finished second among starters (50+ IP) in his rate of swings and misses outside of the zone – something that correlates highly with strikeouts.

Oh. What happened, then?

Take your pick: .368 BABIP. 16.9% HR/FB. 67.6% LOB (versus a league average of 71.9%).

What’s his role for 2010?

He was slated as the fifth starter until the signing of Brett Myers. It’s hard to believe that Houston likes Brian Moehler more than Paulino.

P: Sean GALLAGHER, San Diego

What’s the difference between him and Chad Gaudin?

Gallagher has never had absurd facial hair. Not recently, at least.

Why am I getting them mixed up, then?

Because each of them, despite being pretty young, has played for Chicago (N.L.), Oakland, and San Diego. Gallagher was also sent to Oakland in the deal that sent Gaudin and Rich Harden to the Cubs.

What’s Gallagher gonna do in 2010?

Benefit immensely from Petco, for one. Gallagher’s posted a 35.8% groundball rate in 150 Major League innings. In Petco, that equals fewer home runs and lot of outs. CHONE and ZiPS agree, projecting ERAs of 3.97 and 3.98, respectively.

RP: Luke GREGERSON, San Diego

Remind me.

He pitched 75 nutso relief innings for San Diego last year, finishing with 93 strikeouts, only 31 walks, and only three home runs-allowed. That was good for a 3.11 xFIP.

You say “three home runs” like it’s a big deal, but he pitched in Petco.

Petco obviously helps – nor should a fantasy owner ever lose sight of that fact. But Gregerson has a good sinker, too. He had a 45.7% ground-ball rate in 2009. His minor league ground-ball rate was almost 60% even.

How does he get all the strikeouts?

A nasty slider. Among the 214 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings last year, only Mike Wuertz and Carlos Marmol threw the slider more often. And Gregerson finished second among relievers in terms of runs-saved-above-average on the slider.

RP: Brandon LEAGUE, Seattle

He’s been around for a while without really impressing. Why do you like him for 2010?

The best three things a pitcher can do are (a) strike hitters out, (b) not walk them, and (c) force hitters, in the event that they do make contact, to hit the ball on the ground. League does all those things well – better than most people in the Major Leagues, as his 2009 line testifies: 74.2 IP, 76 K, 21 BB, 55.7% GB.

Those are the best things a pitcher can do?

Well, I guess not. The best things are probably, like, give blood or live an authentic life or something like that.

That’s deep, yo.

Duly noted.

P: Billy BUCKNER, Arizona

Billy Buckner, huh? Do the editors of FanGraphs know that you drink heavily while writing these articles?

First of all, “heavily” is a subjective term. Second of all, Buckner posted a 3.95 xFIP. CHONE has him with a 4.58 ERA in 2010 through 167 innings.

What’s the deal with last year’s 6.40 ERA then?

Same thing as Felipe Paulino, except almost even worse: .347 BABIP, 16.7% HR/FB, and a spectacularly unlucky 63.2% LOB.

Oh, and why do you only cite CHONE above? Is it because ZiPS says he bites?

No, it’s because his ZiPS projection wasn’t released before printing. I swear.

P: Garrett MOCK, Washington

I’m suspicious. Guess why.

Probably because, over the last two years, Mock has gone back and forth – between levels and roles. Also, his traditional numbers (like his 3-10, 5.62 in 2009) have been kinda meh. Also, because you’ve barely ever heard of Garrett Mock.

That’s pretty good. So why’s he here?

Because, regardless of where he’s been or in what role, his peripherals have always been promising. In 2008, he had an xFIP of 3.90, mostly in relief. In 2009, it was 4.49, mostly as a starter. He gets strikeouts and ground balls. Ta-da!

What’ll he do in 2010?

He’s slated to begin the season in the rotation, probably as the fourth starter. As a fantasy player, he may not produce wins (see: Nationals, Washington), but he can do some things.

P: Matt THORNTON, Chicago (A.L.)

What’s his deal?


OMG, stop shouting.

Okay, but he’s really good. In 2008? BAM!: a 2.75 xFIP. In 2009? BAM!: 2.46 xFIP. In 2010?

Don’t say “BAM.” Please.

Fine, but you get the idea. Basically, he profiles like a left-handed and more svelte version of Heath Bell. He’d be a great closer.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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