Triple Threat

In today’s edition of Prospectus Hit and Run, I provide an updated taste of a chapter I wrote for the recently-released It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book:

In a pennant race, every edge matters. The late-season heroics of one individual may turn a close race into a tale of success writ large, but it’s the failures writ small, the weak links on a team, that commonly create that close race in the first place. All too often, for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player’s statistics, managers and GMs fail to make the moves that could help their teams, allowing subpar production to fester until it kills a club’s postseason hopes. Nowhere is the value of the replacement level laid more bare than when the difference between playing into October and going home is simply a willingness to try something else.

Sometimes a manager sticks with a veteran who’s passed his sell-by date because the guy has helped the skipper win in the past, and the club is convinced it lacks better alternatives. Sometimes a regular simply isn’t performing up to his established level due to injury, but misguidedly tries “toughing it out.” And sometimes a rookie hasn’t yet adjusted to the big leagues, yet the club doesn’t want to risk destroy the youngster’s confidence with a benching. In the just-released It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, I examined numerous instances of teams’ pennant hopes dragged down by such “Replacement Level Killers.”

For the book, I compiled an all-star team of ignominy that went back further than a half-century, but even in a single season, it’s not too difficult to assemble such a squad, and at the suggestion of one reader from my most recent chat, I’ve done just that. The difference is that with some six weeks of baseball still to go, teams may still take steps to avert disaster even if they’ve placed a player on this 2007 edition of the Replacement Level Killers; indeed, some already have.

The Yankees were an easy choice at one position:

1B: Doug Mientkiewicz, NYY (-2.2 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Miguel Cairo, NYY (-1.8, 0.3 WARP), Josh Phelps, NYY (0.1 VORP, 0.0 WARP), Andy Phillips, NYY (1.5 VORP, 0.2 WARP), and Wilson Betemit, NYY (1.2 VORP, 0.2 WARP)

For all of the craft that Brian Cashman and company put into their $200 million juggernaut, the Yanks turned a blind eye to first base, sacrificing any shot at offensive production in favor of some notion of defensive competence via which they could justify limiting the increasingly immobile (and for a two-month period, injured) Jason Giambi to the DH role. They left the gate with a plan to platoon Minky with Rule 5 pick Phelps, but the former broke his wrist, and the latter couldn’t buy the time of day from Joe Torre, getting discarded only to bob back to the surface in Pittsburgh.

Torre then installed futilityman Cairo–one of “his guys”–at the first base slot for a few weeks until the fateful day when the supposed defensive whiz made three errors, including a pair on a play where the Angels scored the winning run. That loss turned out to be a win, as it forced Torre to turn to organizational soldier Phillips, who hit a thin but nonetheless useful .320/.355/.420 in July as the Yanks began turning their season around. He’s cooled off considerably since (.327 SLG in August), but continues to share time with deadline acquisition Betemit, who’s provided some pop off the bench along with the ability to play all four infield positions. The Yanks may muddle through, but the standing reservation they’ve held for the postseason since 1995 has been jeopardized by poor planning here.

I was at Yankee Stadium on a gorgeous Saturday to reap the benefits of a team replacing its Replacement Level Killer. In a surprise move, on Friday the Tigers DFA’ed leftfielder Craig Monroe and promoted blue-chipper Cameron Maybin, who had just a couple weeks of Double-A experience. Though he appeared to struggle with the transition to leftfield — he’s a natural centerfielder — Maybin collected a single and an impressive 417-foot homer off Roger Clemens in just his second big-league game. BP prospect maven Kevin Goldsten ranked him seventh on our Top 100 Prospect lists over the winter and compared Maybin’s upside to “a healthy Eric Davis.” Now that’s buzz.

Fellow 2007 RLKillers Stephen Drew and Andruw Jones came up as topics in last Friday’s chat, where JAWS talk predominated — A-Rod, Ichiro, Chipper (and Andruw), Gary Sheffield, Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel all got cursory evaluations, which should make up for the lack of JAWS in this week’s Hit and Run. Here’s a thread of Ichiro questions:

Alex (SF, CA): How many more years of top-notch CF play does Ichiro need to be a shoe-in or is he already?

JJ: At least three, since it takes 10 seasons in the majors to be eligible.

He won’t have the career numbers to make him a slam dunk, but assuming he keeps up his level of play long enough to get at least 2000 hits , I think he’s a good bet to get in.

For what it’s worth, if he finishes the season with the WARP3 he’s on pace for, his JAWS peak score will be three wins above the average HOF centerfielder (66.6-63.7).

birkem3 (Dayton): For HOF purposes, should Ichiro even be considered a CF? This year is his first full-time exposure to CF.

JJ: Good point, though rightfield is actually a steeper hill to climb (119.8 WARP3/65.5 peak/92.7 JAWS) than centerfield (109.1/63.7/86.4).

Hal Incandenza (in here): On the other hand, if we are admitting _any_ “extra- (i.e. non-) statistical” criteria for the Hall, Ichiro — assuming continued production — is a slam dunk, no?

JJ: Indeed. I doubt he’ll have a World Series ring (sorry, Mariner fans) let alone two, but I do see Ichiro as having a Kirby Puckett-esque case for the Hall – short career, high peak.

Hopefully without the belated allegations of violence towards women and the early grave bit, of course.

Finally, there’s last Friday’s Hit List. In keeping with the It Ain’t Over plugs and the chat-related synergy, we’ll chose the Angels’ entry:

In Steven Goldman’s most recent chat, one reader of the just-released It Ain’t Over‘s chapter on Carl Yastrzemski (written by yours truly) asked if the Angels fit the bill as a team whose pennant chances might be hurt by the lack of a second superstar behind Vladimir Guerrero. To the contrary, the Halos appear to be in great shape on that front, since the correlation between winning percentage and WARP3 increases markedly the deeper one drills into the roster. Vlad (8.2 WARP3) is joined by Orlando Cabrera (9.4), Kelvim Escobar (8.5), and John Lackey (8.1) in terms of front-line talent, with Gary Matthews Jr. (6.9), Reggie Willits (6.6), and Francisco Rodriguez (6.4) in strong supporting roles… For results of last week’s Rat-tastic contest see here.

More on the Angels — once again proving themselves to be the thorn in the Yankees’ side — when I get a chance.

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