Post-Pickle Update (Claussen & Co.)

In the hectic week and a half since my latest Baseball Prospectus piece, a look at the prospects the Yankees have traded over the past decade, several of them have popped up in the news. Having already mentally dog-eared their profiles and accomplishments, I figured I’d share what I’ve found.

The first up is none other than the pitcher who gave the piece its name, Brandon Claussen, who was recalled in late July by the Cincinnati Reds. His promotion from AAA Louisville marked the first time he’d been back to the big leagues since the start which put him in the national spotlight last summer. In his Reds debut on July 20, Claussen pitched seven strong innings against the Milwaukee Brewers and got his second major-league win.

But his three starts since then have been a mixed bag. He was bombed by the red-hot Pittsburgh Pirates on July 25, failing to make it out of the fourth inning after being staked to a 5-1 lead. Worst of all, he gave up a three-run, game-tying homer to Tike Redman, who’s currently carrying a .662 OPS for the year. Claussen pitched better on July 31 against the Houston Astros, allowing only one earned run and three hits and five walks (!) in 5.1 innings. But the Reds offense was completely shut out at the hands of Darren Oliver — who replaced the scratched Andy Pettitte — and three other pitchers. The game remained close until the ninth inning, when former Yankee reliever Gabe White did an especially brutal job of self-immolation, turning a 2-0 lead into an 8-0 rout. Friday saw Claussen’s high-altitude baptism at Coors Field, where he gave up five earned runs in six innings against the Colorado Rockies and squandered the 4-0 lead the Reds had given him before even throwing a pitch. That’ll happen in Denver.

In his four starts, Claussen now stands at 1-2 with a 4.98 ERA. He’s struck out only 11 batters (4.57 per 9) while walking 10. He’s also allowed three unearned runs. Has his defense screwed him? Not especially: he’s allowed a .268 batting average on balls in play, which is well below average. Furthermore, using a stat called Fielding Independent Pitching [a quick-and-dirty DIPS approximation that goes (13*HR + 3*BB – 2*K)/IP + 3.20 (a league factor)] he’s at 5.37.

All in all, Claussen is a young pitcher struggling with the ability to locate his fastball in his first real taste of the big leagues, and he’s doing so against decidedly less-than-stellar competition — the four teams he’s faced came into his starts with a combined winning percentage of .478. While he likely would have fared better than many of the replacement starters the Yanks have used over the course of the season — Donovan Osborne (14.21 ERA as a starter), Tanyon Sturtze (5.00), Alex Graman (30.00). Brad Halsey (7.23), Jorge DePaula (7.50) — it’s anything but a given that at this juncture he’d be able to hold down a spot in a Yankee rotation that wasn’t so decimated by injuries.

Speaking of decimated by injuries, Claussen’s Cincy teammate and fellow former Yankee prospect Wily Mo Pena’s been coming up big in the face of extended absences of Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns. Last year, the 21-year-old outfielder struggled mightily in his first extended taste of the bigs, hitting only .218/.283/.358 with 5 homers in 181 plate appearances. Pena also struck out 53 times (29.3 percent) against only 12 walks, a scary 4.4 K/W ratio.

This year, Pena’s improved to .260/.319/.512 with 17 homers in 258 PA. He’s still striking out a ton (79 times, 29.8 percent) and walking very litte (17 times), but that kind of power makes his bat an overall plus. Most impressively, Pena shredded NL pitching during July to the tune of .269/.346/.591 with 9 homers while striking out only 22 percent of the time and posting a 2.9 K/W ratio.

This past week, Baseball Prospectus’ Nate Silver, the inventor of the PECOTA player prediction system, took a detailed look at Pena’s improvement and the way his system had foreseen it (it’s a premium article). Coming into the season, Pena’s weighted mean projection was .271/.340/.509 for a .284 EQA; Wily Mo is at .283. Writes Silver:

Prior to this season, the name “Wily Mo Pena” conjured up an image of a young, chubby ballplayer with terrible plate discipline and a goofy name, someone had been a “prospect” for seemingly forever (a friend of mine drafted him in a Scoresheet Baseball league way back in 1999), and who was only in the big leagues as the result of an ill-advised contract that had been conceived years ago. It’s easy to be dismissive of this sort of player; it seems like there are hundreds of them who have come and gone over the years. At one time or another, we’ve all been fooled by a big performance in a hitters’ park by a player repeating the Southern League, or a hot run by an old rookie during a September cup of coffee.

But PECOTA saw some things that it liked in Wily Mo Pena, some strengths lurking amidst all the negatives. Let me talk a little bit about those strengths; why did PECOTA like Pena so much better than any rational observer might have?

The first factor Silver points out is Pena’s isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average (SLG – AVG). As fellow BP author Dayn Perry has pointed out, isolated power, or ISO, is an important indicator of a prospect’s hitting potential. Silver reminds that isolated power is a much more reliable metric than slugging average is in representing power proudction. The reason for that is the old bugaboo that clouds evaluation of pitchers, namely balls in play. Batting average on balls in play fluctuates for hitters as well as pitchers, though not as widely.

Silver looks at Pena’s Equivalent Isolated Power, meaning it’s been normalized to the major-league level in a manner similar to Equivalent Average, taking into account park and league factors as well as the level of competition. League-average EqISO is .170, a level Pena topped as a 19-year-old in A-ball in 2001. He fell off a bit in 2002, with only a .147 EqISO, but last year was at .173 in his combined minor- and major-league at-bats. Concludes Silver, “A player who demonstrates an ability to hit for a major-league average level of power at the age of 21 has a very good chance to have a solid major-league career, unless he has absolutely nothing else going for him… power ability continues to develop rapidly throughout a player’s early twenties in a way that the other statistical categories do not.”

In addition to his athleticism (which in PECOTA is quantified by speed indicators as well as body size) and the positive effects of his home ballpark, the other major factor Silver points to is Pena’s strikeouts. Surprisingly enough, a positive relationship exists between strikeout rate and power production — the higher the strikeout rate, the more power is expected to develop, up to a point. As Silver puts it,

…the best way to think about it is not as a negative — how often does this guy fail to make contact? — but rather as a positive: what does this guy do when he does make contact? Pena, in an otherwise very poor season with the Reds last year, hit .321 and slugged .527 when he didn’t strike out. Compare that to Nomar Garciaparra, who hit .332 and slugged .578 when not striking out, or Brian Giles (.339/.583). Pena’s numbers aren’t quite as good, but the differences aren’t nearly as profound as the pre-strikeout figures are.

You know whose numbers Pena’s line calls to mind? Those of another ex-Yankee with tons of power and a bad K/W ratio, Alfonso Soriano (.282/.327/.476 this season). Sori’s career K/W ratio is 3.8, better than Pena’s 4.9 but still nothing to brag about. If you look at Pena’s career line (.243/.303/.450 with 23 HR in 457 PA), it’s not too difficult to project backwards and imagine a young Sori in the bigs instead of in the low minors.

But really, that’s not even close. Taking into account the fact that Sori turned out to be two years older than his listed age — a fact publicized only when he was trded to Texas for Alex Rodriguez — we find that at 22 Sori was in limbo between a year spent struggling in the Japanese minor leagues (hitting .214 with no homers in 131 at-bats; no strikeout, walk or XBH data available) and his first taste of organized ball in North America. At AA Norwich as a 23-year-old, Sori hit .252/.292/.421; he also struggled in 82 AAA at-bats and hit his first major-league homer during a brief cup of coffee in the Bronx. Sori’s major-league rookie season, 2001, was actually at age 25, when he hit .268/.304/.432 with 18 homers and a sub-par .255 EqA. Pena at 21 is miles ahead of that curve, and while he lack’s Soriano’s speed and defensive ability (two not insignificant details), his ceiling should be even higher.

Last up is Yhency Brazoban, a 24-year-old Dominican outfielder-turned-pitcher traded to the Dodgers in the Kevin Brown deal. Brazoban didn’t start pitching until 2002 and had put up a 5.34 ERA in 64 minor-league innings up to that point, showing a high-90s fastball and striking out 8.5 men per nine innings last year. He started this season at AA Jacksonville and put up impressive numbers, posting a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings, striking out 10.8 men per nine innings with a very good 2.8 K/W ratio and saving 13 games. The Dodgers brought him up to AAA Las Vegas, a hitter’s haven, and Brazoban was nothing short of sensational. In 10 games, he pitched 12.1 innings and allowed only 3 runs (2.19 ERA) while striking out 17 and walking only 1.

Along with the controverisal trade of Dodger setup man Guillermo Mota (himself a converted shortstop, ironically), those eye-popping numbers earned him a promotion to the Show last week. The man responsible for promoting him GM Paul DePodesta admitted, “It was hard to ignore that he got better at Triple-A,” and told Peter Gammons, “We have wanted to get him to the major leagues for a while… He could be an important part of our bullpen down the stretch.”

Thus far, Brazoban has appeared in three games for the Dodgers, pitched three innings, and allowed one run while hitting 97 MPH on the radar gun. Manager Jim Tracy was impressed with his debut, in which he retired the side in order: “I was very encouraged by a young man who pitched his first inning in the major leagues and did nothing but pound the strike zone… Even when he missed, he didn’t miss by much. We will look for more opportunities for this guy.”

As I look at the numbers and read the gushing praise, the guy Brazoban calls to mind in terms of being a late-season, lights-out sleeper out of the bullpen is Francisco Rodriguez, the surprise star of the Anaheim Angels 2002 World Championship run. “K-Rod” had only 5.2 major-league innings under his belt when he entered the postseason, but by the end of October he’d made an indelible mark. Brazoban may be more exposed than that come October, but the notion of a K-Rod-esque October surprise should send chills down your spine if you’re a Dodger fan — and, in a different way, if you’re a Yankee fan as well. At the very least, the Dodger fan in me takes some comfort in the fact that DePodesta and Co. obviously have enough confidence in young Yhency to have dealt Mota, and any inning he pitches is one that Darren Dreifort, Mota’s nominal replacement as righty setup man, won’t.

One final note on the Claussen piece. Several people pointed out in various places that while the overall data on traded Yankee prospects was interesting, it lacked a context for comparison, namely how other teams fared during that time span or similar ones. I couldn’t agree more, but the limitations of gathering the data manually made such a task impractical — I spent 20-25 hours just to gather the Yankee info. But my methodology is right there on the table for anyone to pick up upon, so I invite any aspiring researchers to pick their favorite teams, crank up their spreadsheets and browsers, and go for it.

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