News, Notes and Quotes (August 29, 2005)

Almost Deja Vu

It’s a shame the Minnesota Twins can’t score any runs this season, because Johan Santana is making a second-half run that looks an awful lot like the amazing stretch he put together on his way to winning the American League Cy Young last season. After shutting down the Rangers yesterday afternoon, in Texas—where they average a league-leading 6.0 runs per game at home—Santana now has a 1.54 ERA and 52-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine second-half starts. Dating back to 2003, Santana has the following extraordinary numbers after the All-Star break:

GS        IP      ERA      W      L      SO      BB
38     255.0     1.94     27      2     269      57

That includes second-half records of 8-1 in 2003 and 13-0 last season, plus this year’s 6-1 mark since the break. He may not be Mr. October, but Santana is definitely Mr. July, August, and September. Unfortunately, while he was holding the Rangers to one run over seven innings, the Twins’ lineup was held scoreless. They finally scratched out a run in the eighth—single, sacrifice bunt, ground out, single—to tie the game at 1-1, which at least gave Santana a no-decision instead of a loss when the Rangers eventually won the game 2-1 with a run off reliever Jesse Crain in the bottom of the ninth.

Had Santana been given a few runs to work with, he would have improved to 7-1 since the All-Star break and 14-6 on the season. Instead, he’s stuck on 13 wins while guys like Bartolo Colon make a charge toward the magic 20-win mark. Regardless of whether or not Santana ends up as the most valuable pitcher in the AL this season, he’s going to have a very difficult time getting the votes necessary from the win-obsessed Baseball Writers Association of America to repeat as the league’s Cy Young winner.

Santana has started 14 games this season in which he’s either gotten a loss or a no-decision, and he is 0-6 with a 4.67 ERA in those 14 starts. To put that in some context, Rodrigo Lopez of the Orioles has a 4.61 ERA on the season … and he’s 13-7. In fact, a total of 14 big-league pitchers—Lopez, Jeremy Bonderman, Tim Wakefield, Jeff Weaver, Jeff Francis, Chan Ho Park, Jason Schmidt, Matt Clement, C.C. Sabathia, David Wells, Jamie Moyer, Gil Meche, Bronson Arroyo, Horacio Ramirez—have at least 10 wins and a winning record with an ERA of 4.25 or higher.

Now, Santana has certainly had a few clunkers this season—either three or four in 27 starts, depending on your definition of “clunker”—but the point is that he has had to be nearly flawless just to squeeze out a win. Twice he’s lost despite giving up just two runs (once in eight innings, once in seven innings) because the Twins’ lineup was held to one run each time. In his eight no-decisions, Santana has averaged seven innings a start with a 3.60 ERA and he has nothing to show for it.

A Bad Trade: Revisited

Remember last year, when the Mets traded their best prospect, Scott Kazmir, to the Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano? I called it “an awful, awful trade for the New York Mets” and said, “This trade has John Smoltz-for-Doyle Alexander potential, except Zambrano is no Doyle Alexander and the Mets aren’t going to make the playoffs.” Well, it’s a little over a year later and, believe it or not, the deal looks even worse now than it did then.

Sure enough, Zambrano has not pitched particularly well for the Mets. And sure enough, the Mets didn’t make the playoffs last year (and may not make it this year). So for the priviledge of adding a mediocre starting pitcher who turned 30 years old earlier this month, has done nothing of importance in parts of two seasons, and is now in danger of losing his spot in the starting rotation, the Mets gave up a 21-year-old pitcher who was almost universally ranked as one of the top dozen prospects in all of baseball.

Take a look at the following numbers:

                  IP      ERA      SO      BB     HR     OAVG
Pitcher X      182.0     4.40     178     101     15     .256
Pitcher Z      160.0     4.05     102      72     11     .252

Despite the fact that Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson said Kazmir wasn’t close to being major-league ready at the time of the deal, “Pitcher X” is what Kazmir has done in the majors and “Pitcher Z” is what Zambrano has done since coming to the Mets. Kazmir has essentially been exactly as effective as Zambrano (when adjusting for leagues and ballparks), except he’s actually thrown nearly 15% more innings while costing about 10% as much.

In other words, if neither pitcher ever starts another game this will have been a horrible swap for the Mets. The deal has the potential to become a complete disaster when you throw in the fact that Kazmir doesn’t turn 22 years old until January, has a 4-2 record and 3.09 ERA since the All-Star break, and is on pace for the fourth-best strikeout rate in baseball history for a 21-year-old lefty (behind Frank Tanana, Sam McDowell, and Vida Blue).

Quote of the Week

Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent made headlines last week when his teammate, center fielder Milton Bradley, said Kent “doesn’t know how to deal with African-American people.” The story led to all sorts of soundbites and columns across the country, but I thought the single best line came from Houston slugger Lance Berkman, who played with Kent on the Astros in 2003 and 2004:

I think for [Bradley] to make it a race issue is ridiculous. J.K. doesn’t discriminate against anybody. He ignores Latinos, blacks, and whites equally.

The kicker is that Jorge DeJesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle described Berkman as “quick to defend the All-Star second baseman.”

The King is human … sort of

Felix Hernandez, the 19-year-old phenom who has given Mariners fans something to get excited about in an otherwise forgettable season, turned in yet another dominant performance over the weekend. Making just the fifth start of his career Friday against the White Sox, Hernandez tossed seven innings of three-run ball, striking out eight Chicago hitters while walking just one. Hernandez got a no-decision, making him 2-1 with a 1.75 ERA, 38-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .178 opponent’s batting average in 36 career innings.

The most interesting thing about Hernandez’s outing Friday was that he gave up the first extra-base hit of his major-league career, a second-inning double to Jermaine Dye, who was the 113th batter Hernandez had faced since being called up from Triple-A. After watching Hernandez pitch twice against the Twins earlier month and seeing how difficult it was to hit anything hard in the air against him, I remarked to someone that I’d love to see a list of the three guys who hit homers off Hernandez at Triple-A.

The funny thing is, it took a Triple-A player—or at least a player recently called up from Triple-A—to notch the first homer against Hernandez in the majors. Chicago outfield prospect Brian Anderson, who was called up from Triple-A earlier this month when Scott Podsednik went on the disabled list, took Hernandez deep not once, but twice Friday. And not only were they the first homers Hernandez has given up, they were the first homers Anderson has hit.

Learning to Appreciate Isaías Látigo Chávez
A rival pitcher's great game holds a profound lesson for a young boy.
Checking the Radar

I was looking over some National League stats for another article I’m working on and came across two players having extremely good seasons completely under my radar. One is Tony Clark, who began the season as a veteran bat off Arizona’s bench and has since taken over as their regular first baseman. In the process, Clark has hit .313/.363/.645 with 22 homers, 20 doubles, and 68 RBIs in just 292 plate appearances, earning a two-year contract extension from the Diamondbacks a few weeks back.

Among major-league hitters with at least 250 trips to the plate this season, only Derrek Lee (1.120), Albert Pujols (1.047), and Alex Rodriguez (1.020) have a higher OPS than Clark’s 1.008. He’s been extremely good and extremely consistent, with monthly OPS totals of 1.077, .956, .983, 1.254, and .875. With an average of 30 homers per 550 at-bats during his career Clark has always had tons of power, so the most amazing thing is that he’s somehow managed to keep his batting average above .300 after hitting just .207, .232, and .221 during the previous three years.

On the pitching side, Todd Jones began the year as the Marlins’ setup man before taking over for an injured Guillermo Mota as the team’s closer in late April. He hasn’t looked back, going 31-for-33 in save opportunities with a 1.07 ERA and 50-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59 innings. Like Clark, Jones putting together a season like this wouldn’t have been completely out of the question in the late 90s, but he’s 37 years old, hasn’t saved as many as even 20 games in a season since 2000, and posted ERAs of 4.70, 7.08, and 4.15 from 2002-2004.

Yeah, but what about Terry Hatcher?

Baseball America recently ranked the top 30 prospects in the Cape Cod League, which features many of the best players in college baseball playing with wood bats during the summer. I was scanning the list of names when I did a double-take at the third-ranked prospect: Evan Longoria, an infielder from Long Beach State University. While he’ll never look quite as good as Eva Longoria in a pink bikini, that extra “N” has enabled Evan to become a much better hitter. According to BA, he led the Cape Cod League in homers, RBIs, and slugging percentage after hitting .320/.368/.421 at LBSU last year.

(And yes, this was all more or less just an excuse to link to pictures of Eva Longoria in a pink bikini.)

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