Under the Radar

Everybody’s trying to find the “next breakout player,” the guy who
ends up being a stud after being picked in the 10th round of your
fantasy draft. There are a bunch of people doing player projections,
many of them employing systems that are based on dizzying combinations
of statistics. It’s a big and complicated business. David Gassko, in
the 2007 Hardball Times Annual, unveils a very interesting way to
identify likely breakout players for 2007.

I want to take a slightly different tack, a simpler approach. I just
want to examine players who were very good in 2006, but who, for one
reason or another, failed to meet the minumim requirement for plate
appearances to qualify for the batting title. Maybe some of these
under-the-radar players are primed for a breakout, indeed perhaps
their breakout has already begun.

Miniumum 502 Plate Appearances—Not

Who had the highest batting average in the National League this past
season? If you answered “Freddy Sanchez,” I gotcha. While
Sanchez batted .344, Ryan Klesko went 3-for-4 on the season, for a
batting average of .750. (Actually, several pitchers batted 1.000 on
the year.) No, I’m not saying that anybody should be looking at
Klesko’s numbers and see a possible hidden gem. But, it’s true that
some players will put some pretty fair numbers without qualifying for the
batting title.

Let’s say you want to look up the best hitters in baseball in
2006. When you go to the href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/stats/"> stats section of
The Hardball Times (or any other baseball site), you can generally
decide to look at only qualified batters (i.e. with at least 502 plate
appearances) or all batters, regardless of the number of plate appearances. The
problem with the former is that you may miss some pretty good
performances by batters who didn’t qualify. The problem with looking
at all batters is that you’ll have to sift through a bunch of guys who
went 3-4 or 1-1 on the year. It’s not so easy to get a nice list of
the best performances from players who had significant playing time,
but failed to get 502 plate appearances.

Flying Under the Radar

In 2006, there were 29 batters who had between 200 and 500 plate
appearances and achieved an OPS greater than .850, a very respectable
number. Here’s the full list:

+------------------+-----+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+
| Name             | pos | pa   | ba    | obp   | slg   | ops   |
+------------------+-----+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+
| Scott, Luke      | LF  |  249 | 0.336 | 0.426 | 0.621 | 1.047 |
| Jones, Chipper   | 3B  |  477 | 0.324 | 0.409 | 0.596 | 1.005 |
| Bonds, Barry     | LF  |  493 | 0.270 | 0.454 | 0.545 | 0.999 |
| Helms, Wes       | 1B  |  272 | 0.329 | 0.390 | 0.575 | 0.965 |
| McCann, Brian    | C   |  492 | 0.333 | 0.388 | 0.572 | 0.961 |
| Duncan, Chris    | LF  |  314 | 0.293 | 0.363 | 0.589 | 0.952 |
| Ross, Dave       | C   |  292 | 0.255 | 0.353 | 0.579 | 0.932 |
| Saenz, Olmedo    | 1B  |  204 | 0.296 | 0.363 | 0.564 | 0.927 |
| Bard, Josh       | C   |  282 | 0.333 | 0.404 | 0.522 | 0.926 |
| Alou, Moises     | RF  |  378 | 0.301 | 0.352 | 0.571 | 0.923 |
| Dellucci, David  | LF  |  301 | 0.292 | 0.369 | 0.530 | 0.899 |
| Norton, Greg     | DH  |  334 | 0.296 | 0.374 | 0.520 | 0.895 |
| Church, Ryan     | CF  |  227 | 0.276 | 0.366 | 0.526 | 0.891 |
| Matsui, Hideki   | LF  |  201 | 0.302 | 0.393 | 0.494 | 0.887 |
| Rivera, Juan     | LF  |  494 | 0.310 | 0.362 | 0.525 | 0.887 |
| Barrett, Michael | C   |  416 | 0.307 | 0.368 | 0.517 | 0.885 |
| Thames, Marcus   | LF  |  390 | 0.256 | 0.333 | 0.549 | 0.882 |
| Coste, Chris     | C   |  213 | 0.328 | 0.376 | 0.505 | 0.881 |
| German, Esteban  | 2B  |  325 | 0.326 | 0.422 | 0.459 | 0.880 |
| Teahen, Mark     | 3B  |  437 | 0.290 | 0.357 | 0.517 | 0.874 |
| Drew, Stephen    | SS  |  224 | 0.316 | 0.357 | 0.517 | 0.874 |
| Baldelli, Rocco  | CF  |  387 | 0.302 | 0.339 | 0.533 | 0.871 |
| Aurilia, Rich    | 3B  |  479 | 0.300 | 0.349 | 0.518 | 0.867 |
| Anderson, Marlon | 2B  |  308 | 0.297 | 0.354 | 0.513 | 0.866 |
| Rios, Alexis     | RF  |  498 | 0.302 | 0.349 | 0.516 | 0.865 |
| Spiezio, Scott   | 3B  |  320 | 0.272 | 0.366 | 0.496 | 0.862 |
| Kent, Jeff       | 2B  |  473 | 0.292 | 0.385 | 0.477 | 0.861 |
| Ensberg, Morgan  | 3B  |  495 | 0.235 | 0.396 | 0.463 | 0.858 |
| Gross, Gabe      | CF  |  249 | 0.274 | 0.382 | 0.476 | 0.857 |
+------------------+-----+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+

Not all of these players are interesting for our purposes, so let’s prune
the list down a bit. A number of these guys are established players
who missed significant time due to injury: Chipper, Bonds, Alou,
Matsui and Kent. I suppose I’ll include Ensberg in this group, too. He
missed some time due to injury, but he also lost some playing time
when the Astros picked up Aubrey Huff at the trading deadline. A few
others on this list are established nothing-special players, who
happened to put together good (flukey!) seasons as part-timers. I’d put Aurilia, Anderson, Spezio and Helms in this
group. You know all about these guys, so we won’t discuss them
further.

A second group consists of catchers: the rigors of catching prevent
catchers from playing as many games as other position
players. This means that both regular catchers and backups will often
end up in the 200-500 plate appearance range. Of the catchers, it looks to me like
only the numbers from McCann and Barrett look to be reliable: McCann,
while he might not be truly a .960 OPS hitter, has a very good
pedigree and minor league track record. Barrett has also established
himself as a 800+ OPS guy over the last few seasons. The other three
look very flukey to me. Bard, the 28-year-old Padre backstop, had a
career line of .238/.289/.370 coming into 2006. Dave Ross is a similar
case: 29 years old with a pre-2006 line of .217/.288/.406. Chris Coste
was a 33-year-old rookie in 2006, and not many of those end up having
any kind of career.

The third category of these players are the established platoon/pinch hitter
guys. I put Saenz, Dellucci and Norton in this group. Saenz is
something of a lefty-masher who pinch-hits often, but can also play
first base and third base. Dellucci has been used as a platoon player
throughout his career. His career OPS against right-handed pitching is
827, but only 587 against lefties. His 2006 OPS of 899 was not really
that atypical. Greg Norton is a 33-year-old designated hitter (for Tampa Bay, this year),
who put up his first above-average OPS numbers since 1999. Looks like
his spike this year is mostly batting-average-driven, so I don’t
expect him to be an 850 OPS guy going forward.

Ok, let’s trim our list down a bit, then, getting rid of these known
and not terribly exciting (except for McCann, of course)
players. We’re down to 10 possibly interesting guys, who I now
list in order of age:

+------------------+-----+------+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+
| Name             | pos | age  | pa   | ba    | obp   | slg   | ops   |
+------------------+-----+------+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+
| Drew, Stephen    | SS  |   23 |  224 | 0.316 | 0.357 | 0.517 | 0.874 |
| Baldelli, Rocco  | CF  |   24 |  387 | 0.302 | 0.339 | 0.533 | 0.871 |
| Teahen, Mark     | 3B  |   24 |  437 | 0.290 | 0.357 | 0.517 | 0.874 |
| Duncan, Chris    | LF  |   25 |  314 | 0.293 | 0.363 | 0.589 | 0.952 |
| Rios, Alexis     | RF  |   25 |  498 | 0.302 | 0.349 | 0.516 | 0.865 |
| Gross, Gabe      | CF  |   26 |  249 | 0.274 | 0.382 | 0.476 | 0.857 |
| Church, Ryan     | CF  |   27 |  227 | 0.276 | 0.366 | 0.526 | 0.891 |
| Rivera, Juan     | LF  |   28 |  494 | 0.310 | 0.362 | 0.525 | 0.887 |
| Scott, Luke      | LF  |   28 |  249 | 0.336 | 0.426 | 0.621 | 1.047 |
| German, Esteban  | 2B  |   28 |  325 | 0.326 | 0.422 | 0.459 | 0.880 |
| Thames, Marcus   | LF  |   29 |  390 | 0.256 | 0.333 | 0.549 | 0.882 |
+------------------+-----+------+------+-------+-------+-------+-------+

Let’s tackle this list starting at the top.

The Youngsters

Stephen Drew is 23 years old and was fabulous for the Diamondbacks in
2006. He’s no secret, of course; he was one of the most highly-touted
prospects in baseball coming into the 2006 season. Perhaps Baldelli
should have been included in the “established, injured guys” group,
but I just wanted to remind you that he was great when he played and
he’s still only 24. Mark Teahen is also only 24 and we have to take
his big step forward in 2006 fairly seriously. His walk rate held
steady from 2005, but both his batting average and isolated power
took big jumps. Definitely worth keeping an eye on, although
he has Alex Gordon nipping at his heels for the the Royals’ third
baseman gig.

Of the two 25-year-old corner outfielders on this list, Alex Rios
seems to have the most upside. He had something
of a roller-coaster season in 2006: on June 1 his OPS stood north of
1.000 and he looked like a budding superstar. The middle of his
season, though, was marred by injury and ineffectiveness: from June
through August he put up an anemic OPS of 661. He bounced back in
September, though, with an OPS of 977. After that hot start, he’s no
secret of course, but he’s worth monitoring in any case.
Chris Duncan, a 25-year-old rookie, was called up to St. Louis in May
and, playing mostly against right-handed pitching, put up surprisingly
good numbers, ending up with a line of .293/.363/.589. His monthly
splits were solid, his worst month being September with a 773 OPS.
His skill set is not broad—he’s basically a guy who mashes
right-handers and doesn’t do much else — I think he’ll continue
to be solid, but not much more than that.

Best Years of Their Lives?

As you move up in age, it must be said, the numbers tend to look more
suspicious or, at least, less meaningful. Players tend to reach their
peaks around 27 years of age, but guys who make big leaps forward
right at 27-28, well, they tend to make big leaps backward in
subsequent years.

That said, Juan Rivera’s 2006 was impressive:
he set career highs in plate appearances, batting average and
slugging and missed his previous high in OBP by .002. There’s a hint
of fluke here, but maybe not. His .310 average this season was nearly
matched by his .307 in 185 PAs in 2004. His isolated power (another career high)
was just a tad better than his 2003 mark, and not too out-of-line with
the rest of his career. His OPS+ for the last four years reads: 104,
118, 106 and 131. It’s hard to say, of course, but Rivera looks
pretty good to me. Whether Ryan Church is any good or not, it’s hard
to tell, since nobody is giving him much playing time. Church put up a
very nice OPS+ of 120 as a part-time player in 2005. The Nats rewarded
that performance by giving nine other players playing time in
center field in 2006. Church hit even better this year, so I’m
thinking the Nats will roll out a dozen or more center fielders in
2007.

Gabe Gross was used by Milwaukee as primarily and
pinch-hitter, fourth outfielder—he was strictly platooned,
with only one-tenth of his PAs coming against left-handed
pitching. He’s still young, and could grow up to be David Dellucci
some day. Esteban German, you remember him, no? A’s prospect circa
2001-2002? Well, he finally got more than 100 plate appearances in a season in 2006,
and he made the most of them, to the tune of .326/.422/.459. German
played every position except catcher and right field in 2006 (and
shortstop, if you don’t count the two innings he played there). Of
course, he wasn’t the regular anywhere, which is why he only managed
331 plate appearances. It’s not clear the Royals have room for him, with Teahen and
Grudzielanek fairly settled at third and second base.

Fluke Fishing

Luke Scott had a fabulous 2006 campaign. He finally got some decent
playing time and he didn’t blow it. After batting .188/.287/.557 in 89
plate appearances in 2005, Scott was Bondsian, or at least Ortizian, in his 249 plate appearances this
season: .336/.426/.621. Scott’s minor league credentials would not
have predicted this showing—his 2006 performance veritably
screams: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. He’ll regress and you can quote me on
that.

I’m also pretty skeptical of Marcus Thames, who’s near-.300 isolated
power in 2006 looks pretty flukey to me. He did, though, put up
similar rate stats in 2004 in 184 plate appearances, so that’s something to
consider. Still, at age 29, I’m betting that we’ve seen the best of
Marcus Thames.

Caveat Emptor

Of course, we have to be very careful in interpreting a batting record
with so few plate appearances. The experts say that to really zero in on a batter’s
true talent level, about three full seasons of plate appearances are
needed. Still, 200 PAs are better than none, and 450 are better than
200. You just have to realize that there’s a lot of uncertainty
involved in interpreting the statistics of these players.

Perhaps we should think of this little exercise as a way of
eliminating guys who probably aren’t breaking out. The guys
like Dave Ross and Greg Norton, Marcus Thames and Scott Spezio. Yes,
they had fine seasons in 2006, but their established track record
and/or age make a true breakout hard to believe in. Actually, one way
of zooming in on the most interesting guys is to just take the
youngest ones. They have the most upside for two reasons 1) great
players tend to get started at a younger age and 2) the younger
players have less of a track record, a track record that more often
than not, tends to cast doubt on the recent excellent performance.

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