Disappearing Numbers

Run Carlos, Run!

Carlos Beltran entered this season as one of the best base stealers in baseball history. After going 42-for-45 on the bases last year, including a perfect 28-for-28 following a midseason trade to the Astros, Beltran brought his career totals to 192 steals in 215 attempts. Just to put that success rate into some context, here are the leaders in stolen base percentage among players with at least 150 career steals over the last 50 years (1955-2004):

PLAYER               SB      CS      SB%
Carlos Beltran      192      23     89.3
Tim Raines          808     146     84.7
Eric Davis          349      66     84.1
Willie Wilson       668     134     83.3
Tony Womack         335      68     83.1
Barry Larkin        379      77     83.1
Davey Lopes         557     114     83.0
Stan Javier         246      51     82.8
Doug Glanville      168      36     82.4
Julio Cruz          343      78     81.5

Tim Raines certainly has the overall edge thanks to a massive 616-steal gap at a similar rate, but no one has been more efficient at swiping bases than Beltran. For him to do that sort of work on the bases in this era, while being a middle-of-the-order hitter, is remarkable. Or at least it was remarkable, because Beltran’s running game has been nonexistent this season.

After stealing 31, 35, 41, and 42 bases in his previous four seasons (at an incredible 90.9% success rate), Beltran has just one steal in 44 games with the Mets. And he’s been thrown out twice! Beltran has struggled through a quadriceps strain of late, which is why he hasn’t been doing any running (or playing, period) for a couple of weeks, but it’s not like he was doing much before the injury. Beltran stole his first and only base of the season in the Mets’ sixth game on April 10, and he’s attempted just one steal since then.

The perception among many is that “statheads” completely devalue the stolen base, but that’s not entirely true. A player like Beltran, who has been so incredibly efficient at swiping bases, can bring quite a bit of added value to the table through his running game. And while Beltran is doing just fine at the plate (.300/.349/.465) in his first season in New York, the Mets paid for the multi-dimensional threat who averaged 31 homers and 39 steals a year from 2002-2004.

Walk Ivan, Walk!

Similar to Beltran’s disappearing running game in New York, Ivan Rodriguez‘s plate discipline seems to have vanished in Detroit. Rodriguez has never been much for walks, with a career-high of just 55, but he made some real progress in that regard after leaving the Rangers following the 2002 season. Take a look at how his non-intentional walk rate dramatically improved once he signed with the Marlins in 2003:

TIME FRAME      BB        PA     BB/PA     SO/BB
1991-2002      262     6,062      .043      2.91
2003-2004       84     1,153      .073      2.18

Rodriguez walked nearly 70% more often in 2003 and 2004 than he had in his 12-year career with the Rangers, and he also improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio by 25% despite a significant rise in strikeouts. Interestingly enough though, this year, at the age of 33, Rodriguez is not only back to hacking, he is drawing walks at a career-worst rate.

Rodriguez has drawn a total of four walks in 185 plate appearances this season, but even that low total is misleading thanks to his two intentional passes. Take those out of the equation and he has drawn one walk for every 92.5 plate appearances so far this year. To see just how astoundingly low that total is, compare his current non-intentional walk rate to his previous worst rates:

YEAR     BB      PA     BB/PA
2005      2     185      .011
1991      5     288      .017
1995     14     517      .027
1999     22     630      .035
2000     14     389      .036

The only season that even comes close is 1991, when Rodriguez was a 19-year-old rookie catcher who got the call to the big leagues with just 175 at-bats above Single-A under his belt. Interestingly, while Rodriguez’s other numbers are down from recent years, they aren’t off by much. He’s hitting a solid .288 and his .153 Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is within shouting distance of his .183 career mark. Apparently “Pudge” didn’t lose much of his bat when he dropped all that weight during the offseason, but his eye seems to have vanished along with the pounds.

Strike Someone Out Joe, Strike Someone Out!

Of all the things that have gone wrong for the A’s this year—and there are a ton, as I wrote on Monday—one of the most disappointing has been Joe Blanton‘s struggles. The 24th overall pick in the famous “Moneyball” draft of 2002, Blanton first caught my attention when he posted a 2.29 ERA and outstanding 174-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Single-A and Double-A in 2003. Blanton’s stock dropped a bit after that, as his ERA ballooned to 4.19 at Triple-A last season and his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell to a still-great 143-to-34 in 176.1 innings.

I ranked Blanton as the 15th-best prospect in baseball heading into 2004 and the 31st-best prospect in baseball heading into this season, so his struggles this year surprise me. Not because he is having a hard time getting outs—it shouldn’t be surprising when any rookie pitcher has trouble with that—but because he is having a hard time missing bats. In addition to an ugly 0-5 record and matching 6.66 ERA, Blanton has just 16 strikeouts in 48.2 innings.

He never profiled as a big strikeout pitcher, but that is an amazingly low rate for a guy who struck out 338 batters in 365.1 minor-league innings and six more in an eight-inning stint with the A’s at the end of last season. Just how rare is it for a pitcher’s strikeout rate to be so low? Well, if you prorate Blanton’s current numbers for the rest of this season, here is where his strikeout rate would rank among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched in a season over the last 20 years:

                    YEAR     SO        IP     SO/9
Nate Cornejo        2003     46     194.2     2.13
Jeff Ballard        1988     41     153.1     2.41
Bill Swift          1988     47     174.2     2.42
Mike Flanagan       1989     47     171.2     2.46
Jeff Ballard        1989     62     215.1     2.59
Bill Gullickson     1992     64     221.2     2.60
Dave Schmidt        1989     46     146.2     2.64
Kirk Rueter         2004     56     190.1     2.65
Ricky Bones         1993     63     203.2     2.78
Ron Romanick        1985     64     195.0     2.95
JOE BLANTON         2005     52     158.0     2.96

There are some good names on that list, but that’s not exactly the sort of company you want a 24-year-old starting pitcher keeping. Most of the good pitchers, like Mike Flanagan and Bill Gullickson, were in their late 30s and at the end of the line when they had the low-strikeout season that got them on the list. And most of the young pitchers on the list, like the only guy who shows up twice, Jeff Ballard, never amounted to a whole lot in the big leagues.

Blanton’s current strikeout rate of 2.96 batters per nine innings would be the third-lowest rate of the last 10 years, behind only Nate Cornejo (2.13/9) in 2003 and Kirk Rueter (2.65/9) last season. Rueter is a southpaw and was 33 years old last year, so he doesn’t make a good comp for Blanton, but Cornejo certainly does. Like Blanton, Cornejo was a former first-round pick (34th overall in 1998) who pitched well in the minors (3.59 ERA in 652.2 innings) and then simply couldn’t miss any bats when he got to the big leagues.

After combining to go 16-3 with a 2.57 ERA and 127-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 154 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2001, Cornejo moved up to the majors in 2002 and had a horrible year. In fact, Cornejo’s 2002 numbers are eerily similar to what Blanton has done so far this season:

                    GS       IP      ERA     SO     BB     HR
Blanton '05         10     48.2     6.66     16     23      9
Cornejo '02         10     42.2     7.38     22     28     10

The big difference is that Cornejo was just 21 years old in 2002, while Blanton is already 24. Cornejo split time between Triple-A (4.42 ERA in 132.1 innings) and the majors (5.04 ERA in 50 innings) in 2003, struggling in both places, and then spent all of 2003 with the Tigers, resulting in his holding the top spot on the above list. He went 6-17 in 2003, giving up 236 hits and 58 walks in 194.2 innings while striking out 46 batters. And, for the most part, he hasn’t been heard from since.

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