…. Blinded by the light

The Giants aren’t the only team paying through the nose for a chance at a repeat of a career year. I have a little pet theory that says players can earn about 5 years of major league salary on the strength of a single big year.

Many years ago, the Yankees has a player named Kevin Maas who came up from the minors and hit 10 home runs faster than any player in major league history. Maas finished his career with 65 home runs in five years, going from rags to riches to rags again about as fast as humanly possible.

Greg Jeffries came up with the Mets in 1988 and had a two month run of .321/.364/.596 with 16 extra base hits in 109 at-bats. He never approached those numbers again, but that didn’t stop him from playing in the majors for 13 seasons with five different teams.

Everyone can name a player on the roster of their favorite team who is in the league simply because managers are waiting for him to just figure out what it was he was doing right during that one big year. I call them the Blinded by the Light players, (BBTL).

The Giants’ most recent BBTL was (of course) Neifi Perez, who was just picked up by the Cubs, because managers and general managers, blinded by the seemingly good production of his years in Colorado, continue to bet that he just is in a slump.

It’s now been a solid three and a half seasons since Perez enjoyed playing a mile above sea-level, where he averaged 30 doubles, 10 triples and 10 home runs per season. Since he left Colorado (except for a brief return in 2001, when his numbers once again spiked), Neifi has put together three seasons of some of the worst offense in baseball history.

’01-03 1463 AB 377 H 60 BB .258/.285/.350 .635 OPS
2004 319 AB 74 H 21 BB .232/.276/.295 .571 OPS

For a player like that to be valuable to a team, he’d need to be able to play two positions at the same time. And his defensive production doesn’t warrant his being a starter, now matter how you look at it. In any of the full seasons that he’s played shortstop, his numbers are pretty damn good:

1998 162 G 1385 INN 517 A 20 E 127 DP
1999 157 G 1369 INN 480 A 14 E 124 DP
2000 162 G 1402 INN 524 A 18 E 120 DP

Rich Aurilia, who was known as a hitters shortstop (at least until his eye problems) has defensive numbers that aren’t a million miles away from uber-fielder Perez:

1999 150 G 1281 INN 410 A 28 E 97 DP
2000 140 G 1193 INN 403 A 21 E 110 DP
2001 149 G 1313 INN 423 A 17 E 108 DP

And we could use another shortstop, the man whom many consider the best player in the game, Alex Rodriguez. In fact, let’s put the three of them together, three year totals, side by side:

Perez 1998-00 481 G 4159 INN 1521 A 52 E 371 DP
Aurilia 1999-01 439 G 3787 INN 1236 A 66 E 315 DP
A-Rod 2000-02 471 G 4070 INN 1365 A 38 E 347 DP

Is 200 extra plays over three seasons worth a .600 OPS? No, it isn’t. As Bill James has pointed out, the 27 outs a teams’ defense needs to get have to be earned by somebody. If one player isn’t making the out, another one has to. The fact that Perez makes an extra 200 defensive plays over a three year span isn’t meaningless, but it’s close. Those outs have to be made. If he doesn’t make them, somebody will.

The outs he makes at the plate, however, do not have to be made. You don’t have to keep playing a player who makes more than 7 outs every 10 times up (Perez doesn’t reach base at a 30% clip, away from Colorado, he’s closer to 27%). There are players available who will make only 6 outs every 10 times up. In a season of 700 plate appearances, you’re talking about 80 or 90 or even 100 extra outs. Another way to look at it is to consider that a team will make about 4000 outs in a season, if Perez is making 500 or more, instead of, say 400, well that’s a big difference. It’s more than a half an out per game. Over three seasons, the extra 300 outs (for a total of 1500 outs made by Perez in three seasons!), (over just about anybody you could put in there), are destroying your offense, and that’s making no adjustment for the fact that all he can do is hit singles and double play balls.

Anyway, back to my theory. Perez has been playing in the majors for the last four seasons on the strength of his seemingly transparent production at Colorado, even though he has demonstrated in close to 2000 at-bats that he simply does not hit well enough to be a major leaguer. Another BBTL player is the newest Yankee, Esteban Loaiza.

He’s been very bad for the Yankees since they traded Jose Contreras for him, something that most sabermeticians would have been able to tell Brian Cashman had he asked, but Cashman was blinded by the light. A quick glance at his career numbers would have been enough to let you know that his 2003 campaign (21-9, 2.90 ERA) was not only completely out of line with his career, but was also predictably impossible for him to duplicate. Here’s a quick and dirty comp:

2003 226 IP 196 H 73 ER 56 BB 207 SO 2.90 ERA
2001 190 IP 239 H 106 ER 40 BB 110 SO 5.02 ERA
2000 199 IP 228 H 101 ER 57 BB 137 SO 4.56 ERA

His OPS against in 2003 was .634. That’s the only season in which it’s been less than .731, his career OPS against is .782. His K/BB in ’03 was 3.70, his previous high was 2.75, career mark of 2.27. His K/9IP in ’03 was 8.23, his career mark is 5.84. 2003 is the only year in his 10 years in the bigs that he allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. But, you ask, maybe he has learned a new pitch? Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

He didn’t learn a new pitch, he didn’t suddenly figure out the league, he didn’t mature, he didn’t get stronger, or better or whatever. HE GOT LUCKY! It happens all the time.

Sometimes a player gets lucky in a first half, and then slumps through the second half. That player will usually get one more chance to make it at the major league level, maybe two. Sometimes it happens in the second half, or sometimes it happens in a pennant race. That player will get many more chances to succeed. Sometimes it happens in the span of one season, like with Loaiza, and teams will end up paying him a lot of money in an effort to capture that same production again, even though the statistical record completely contradicts that one season.

Anyway, that’s my theory. I predict that Loaiza will now bounce from team to team as one GM after another will be blinded by the light. The Shawon Dunston’s of the world rejoice.

Update: Josh has some backtalk that deserves being torn apart ;-)

While I agree whole-heartedly that these BBTL players to whom you refer exist in abudance around the league, I think you may be placing a little too much blame on the GMs who sign them. This is because there ARE many players who DO just suddenly “find it” out of the blue one year, and then continue to build on that success, moving their career into the next level.

Now I’m not saying for every Loaiza, there’s a Schmidt, but they are out there. Doesn’t Schmidt also fit in to your formula? Couldn’t the end of 2001, when he greatly improved with the Giants have been simply his career half-year, the one which spurs a GM to give him a fat free agent contract, then watch as he reverts back to his previous standards? But after the fat contract, he continued to improve.

The same could be said about Jeff Kent. In 1997, everybody was saying that he was having a career year, but as it turns out that was arguably his WORST year as a Giant (despite his terrific power, RBIs, and clutch-hitting, he did hit .250 — about 50 points lower then he would ever hit with them again).

Or how about Jose Guillen? He stumbled around the majors for years and years, then suddenly “found it” last year. As a free agent this past off-season, I thought the Giants should look into signing him, but realized the risk inherent with with signing any player who’s had only one good year (as opposed to many NOT good years). But it looks like he has indeed raised his game (or at least the hitting part — he’s brutal in the field) to that elusive “next level”.

Now, I’m sure you can name at least 50 more guys who have fizzled after their first, and only, big year. (In fact, I can give you one of the all-time BBTL’s: Miguel Dilone, a pinch-runner, defensive replacement in the late 70′s who had trouble hitting .200 until 1980 when he inexplicably hit .341 for the Indians in his first, and only, full season in the majors). But my point is that these exceptions to the rule — Schmidt, Kent, Guillen, and alike — ARE out there. They’re the White Whale that every GM is out there looking for, a blossoming stud who’s just come into his own and can be signed below top market value. You can’t really blame GMs too much for trying to find a bargain. (And it sure helped the Giants, wouldn’t you say?)

I think Josh is missing my main point here, and perhaps I didn’t make it well enough to be understood. BBTL players are players who have accumulated enough opportunities to fill out the statistical record, thereby ensuring that everyone has the evidence needed to make a decision about the value they can expect. Jeff Kent was a hot prospect to the general manager in Toronto, and in NY, and in San Francisco. He was thought to have the potential to be a regular, at least. He didn’t get traded to the Giants because Sabean had seen him have one good season and gave away the farm for him.

Schmidt’s case is similar, he was a pitcher who had not reached his potential, in many people’s eyes. But both players were thought to have upsides, which were evident in their statistics, they have nothing to do with players who come completely out of nowhere and become great; of which there are far fewer than you would think.

Jeff Kent, in 1992, as a 21-year old, put up this line:

65 G 192 AB 36 R 46 H 13 2B 8 HR .240/.324/.443 .767 OPS

I’d bet that the number of 21-year old second basemen who have put up lines like that and then not gone on to being at least a regular is pretty damn small. That is outstanding production from a 21 year old player; and the statistical record throughout the history of the game tells us that a player that good that young is essentially destined to be a good player.

Jason Schmidt was striking out batters at a better than league rate the minute he reached the majors, as a twenty two-year old! His K/BB numbers have been terrific from day one, as have most of his peripherals. Don’t discount the fact that part of the reason he has moved into the highest echelon of starters is essentially the same thing that helped Sandy Koufax; he’s now pitching half of his games in one of the toughest parks for hitters there is. But that doesn’t mean crap; he obviously had talent and the ability to do so from the get go. His statistics made it possible to predict his future success or failure; just as Neifi Perez’s do. Just as Kevin Maas’ did, or Greg Jeffries.

Mike Piazza is commonly known as a miracule of a star player, he was something like the last player chosen in the draft. That is, he was a player who came from nowhere to be a big time star. But that’s not really true. Once he was in the minors, he quickly distinguished himself as a real prospect.

There are countless major leaguers, however, who have given GM’s one season of pretty production, but production that a seasoned sabermetician would recognize as being a poor predictor of future success. Those are the BBTL’s. In an effort to continue the debate, I will find another ten BBTL’s and I’ll try to find 10 of Josh’s type, who we’ll call Bargain Bashers.

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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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