Speculation

In Aaron’s latest “News, Notes, and Quotes” column, he revealed one of his favorite hobbies: perusing the ESPN.com stat pages. I understand this obsession, but mine is with a different tool: Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.

I spend way too much time taking current major leaguers, and establishing comparables based on their general stats. Yes, I recognize that PECOTA and ZiPS are amazing, but it’s the searching that intrigues me. So, I decided today was the day to have everyone join in on my pastime, as I examine the future of a few major leaguers. The easiest group are players under 25, so upon a visit to ESPN, I discovered there were seven hitters with 100+ at-bats at or below 25 years of age:

Vernon Wells
Hank Blalock
Sean Burroughs
Josh Phelps
Aramis Ramirez
Albert Pujols
Carl Crawford

I dealt with Crawford in my Devil Rays preview, so there is no use rehashing those statements. But everyone else deserves my time and attention, so that’s how we’ll spend today.

First of all, let’s take Vernon Wells. After an amazing breakout last year as a 24-year-old centerfielder, Wells had excited fantasy owners everywhere before this season. But all those who spent a top-5 pick on Wells are cursing at themselves now, thanks to the .210 GPA he’s currently sporting. Should we expect this trend to continue, or should Wells have a buy sign near his name?

First of all, let me say that Wells’ 2003 was prolific for centerfielders. Only five players, including Wells, have had an 80 extra-base hit season between the ages of 23-25, although Willie Mays did it twice. In my opinion, the most recent example, Richard Hidalgo, is Wells’ best comparable.

Like Vernon, Richard’s first 100-game season was at the age of 23, and neither had an OPS eclipse .800. But it was the next season, his second full year, that Hidalgo burst onto the map, hitting 89 extra-base hits for 355 total bases. Wells ‘only’ hit 87 XBH, but was at 373 TB, both very similar numbers. But it’s what comes next that is a little disturbing.

Hidalgo regressed as a 25-year-old, hitting .275/.356/.455 with 51 XBH, and fantasy owners complained all season long. While his 19 home runs and 80 RBI weren’t terrible, it was hardly worth the pick that fantasy owners spent on him. Look for Wells to have a similar slump, putting up moderate numbers both of the next two years, and then re-exploding at the age of 27. If you don’t like Hidalgo, check out Fred Lynn’s career, he parallels well also.

Let’s move on to Hank Blalock, the Texas Rangers’ newest cornerstone who has been a huge piece of their division-leading team. Once hailed as the top prospect in the Majors by Baseball Prospectus, Blalock’s 2002 went badly, as the third basemen hit only .211 in 147 AB. But last year Blalock proved to skeptics why he was a highly-rated prospect, hitting .300/.350/.522 in his sophomore season.

And this is where things get weird. After a 13-game stint in 1973, the Kansas City Royals decided to spend the 1974 season taking their aches and pains with a top third base prospect. This sweet-swinging lefty struggled his first full year, hitting .282/.312/.363 in 257 AB. But it was in 1975 that George Brett renewed hopes, during which Brett would hit 59 extra-base hits and house a Blalock-ish .353 OBP.

George of course doesn’t profile exactly with Hank. Brett was a threat on the basepaths early in his career, good for 10-20 SB a year, but never hit more than 25 HR. But, it was a different era. Consider that in his sophomore season I mentioned above, he hit only 11 HR. Surely I can’t compare him to Blalock (29 home runs), can I? But, Brett had a 125 OPS+ that year, while Blalock and his 29 homers were good for only a 118 OPS+. So yes, they are comparable.

OK, so what did Brett do next? Well, from ages 23-29, Brett’s OPS+ was in the 140 range for all but two years, a 123 dip at age 25 and a 202 breakout in his .390 1980 season. Blalock will have to mash to sit in the 140s for the next seven years, but he is doing that this year, as his OPS is currently at .933.

Next on the list? Sean Burroughs. Sometimes when I plug numbers into my SBE, I get two players who profile almost perfectly. So is the case with Burroughs, as I found a perfect comparable waiting on the other end when I plugged in Sean’s low power, high average numbers. That player? Dan Driessen.

Let’s compare Driessen’s 1974 season with the Cincinnati Reds to Burroughs’ 2003 with the Padres. Both mirrored each other in home runs and triples, and Driessen trailed Sean by only four doubles. Driessen hit .281 to Burroughs’ .286, and his OPS was only .007 lower than Burroughs’. Driessen walked a little more (48 to 44), and struck out a little less (62 to 75). But overall, these two are perfect matches.

Driessen struggled to stay healthy his next two seasons, but in both years managed to keep his OBP above .360 and his SLG above .400. His best season was as a 25-year-old, when Dan hit .300/.375/.468 with more than 50 extra-base hits. Driessen never hit 20 homers in a season, often falling between 15 and 20. His average slipped a bit, but he had enough patience to keep his lifetime OBP at .356.

Assuming Burroughs can stay healthy, predicting him to hit .280/.360/.440 isn’t out of the question, with a solid 15 homers and 30 doubles. Sean has gone even more extreme in the first month of this year, hitting .327/.375/.394, showcasing virtually no power. Scouts promise the power will come, but retiring with a 15-year career and a line of .267/.356/.411 isn’t too bad either, is it?

Josh Phelps graced the Baseball Prospectus cover after finishing his 2002 season in a big way. In only 265 AB, Phelps hit 36 extra-base hits and his OPS was over .900. While position-less, Phelps was supposed to complement Carlos Delgado better than Vernon Wells was last year, but it didn’t happen. In just about 400 AB, Phelps hit only 37 more total bases than 2002, and only three more extra-base hits. People predicted a bounce back year in 2004, but that just hasn’t happened, as he was hitting .253/.321/.333 through May 3. Will Phelps reach his 2002 promise, or will he slowly disappear into oblivion as Toronto’s designated hitter?

Take all post-WWII hiters who had seasons with 200-300 AB before the age of 25. Josh Phelps in 2002 had the fifth most extra-base hits of anyone in that group, and the fifth best OPS. Some names around him are Manny Ramirez, Willie McCovey and Matt Williams, some very good players who have one fundamental difference: they exploded the next season. Those who didn’t explode are not too sexy: Dan Pasqua, Ron Fairly, Sandy Amoros and Leon Wagner.

Of the four I mentioned above, you can make two groups. Both Pasqua and Amoros were basically out of baseball before turning 32, and I’m going to assume that won’t happen to Phelps. Instead, I am going to do him a favor and focus on Ron Fairly and Leon Wagner. Fairly was a two-time All-Star who managed to hang around until he was 39, garnering All-Star appearances past the age of 32. Wagner’s two midsummer berths were at the ages of 28 and 29, well down the road from where Phelps is right now.

Fairly’s career line was .266/.360/.408, while Wagner’s was .272/.340/.455. I look for Phelps to fall somewhere in there, probably at about .270/.350/.450, showing enough promise to hang around the big leagues until he turns 35. This year? Sell, sell, sell.

Aramis Ramirez has been the most difficult of this group to find comparable players for, mostly because few third basemen match the type of 2001 that Aramis had. Ramirez hit 74 extra-base hits that year, not to mention keeping his average right at .300. But he suffered a drastic slip the next year, hitting only 44 extra-base hits. The power started to come back last year, and Aramis looks reborn with the Cubs this year.

I searched long and hard for a good comparable, and the best I got is Gary Sheffield. Gary had never really proven himself as a Brewer 3B between 1988-1991, but in 1992, he made them very sorry for dealing him to the San Diego Padres. Sheffield hit 80 extra-base hits in 1992, including 33 homers. His 323 total bases just happened to mirror Aramis in 2001. After looking like a different player in the first 68 games of 1993, the Padres dealt Sheffield in a package that yielded them Trevor Hoffman. Sheff failed to be healthy the next two years, but showed full recovery in 1996 with his .314/.465/.624 line.

Aramis Ramirez will never have the patience to get a .465 OBP, but his career line should follow Sheffield’s path. The Cubs should take note of this and lock him up rather than Moises Alou, fixing the 3B problem that has plagued them since Ron Santo. Ramirez should be hitting between 30 and 40 home runs into his 30s, making Jim Hendry look like a genius.

And lastly, there is Albert Pujols. I did a similar experiment on my own site when Pujols signed his long-term extension this past January. I noted the extreme similarities between Joe DiMaggio and Pujols through their age-23 seasons, including identical isolated power numbers, and ridiculously close batting averages. DiMaggio’s peak seasons were from ages 24-26, with averages above .350 and slugging percentages topping .600.

Well, that’s it. Welcome to my world. What have we established today? Well, Vernon Wells looks like the next Richard Hidalgo, while Hank Blalock mirrors George Brett. Sean Burroughs and Dan Driessen were extremely similar, and Josh Phelps should be following the Leon Wagner/Ron Fairly career path. Aramis might hit like Sheff, and Pujols could be this generation’s version of Joe DiMaggio, minus the Marilyn Monroe sidekick (well, unless Jessica Simpson drops that new husband…). Who knows if these players will pan out like I predict, but it’s sure fun to speculate.

References & Resources
Obviously, most of my thanks goes to the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, without which I could not write about baseball. ESPN and Baseball-Reference also house invaluable statistics that I used throughout this article.

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