|Tuesday, March 25
Updated: March 27, 4:02 PM ET
Awaiting that big, breakout year
By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com
Here at Baseball Prospectus, we're constantly coming up with new ways to evaluate players. This year, we introduced our new projection system, PECOTA, which works by identifying comparable players throughout history to come up with a range of estimates for what a player's numbers are likely to look like. Right now, I'd like to take the chance to introduce our newest invention still: the Hump-o-Meter.
Modeled after the Love Meter (PLACE THUMB HERE!) that makes periodic appearances at carnivals and truck stops throughout the country, the Hump-o-Meter is designed to a provide a simple estimate of a player's likelihood to get, um, over the hump. You know the type of player that we're talking about: the classic humpee is a good player who has been in the big leagues a while, but flashes skills or attributes that tease us into thinking that he might get a whole lot better. The humpee is a breaker of hearts, and a menace to fantasy leaguers everywhere.
So let's begin, keeping in mind that the Hump-o-Meter produces an output ranging from 0 to 100.
Superstardom has been widely expected of Andruw Jones from his earliest moments in professional ball. Rated the best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 1996 season, Andruw jumped all the way from Class A to the Braves' postseason roster. At the tender age of 19, he became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the postseason, and posted a 1.228 OPS in the World Series. Although the Braves lost to the Yankees in six games, Jones' ceiling seemed to be every bit as high as Stone Mountain.
It isn't like Andruw has been the baseball version of Macaulay Culkin. He's won five Gold Gloves, appeared in two All-Star Games, and has hit more home runs before the age of 26 than Henry Aaron. And yet, somehow, Jones has always managed to disappoint. Each year, the whispers of names like Ruben Sierra and Cesar Cedeno become louder.
What does the future hold? The anticlimactic answer is more of the same. There are plenty of players throughout history who reached the big leagues early and had long, productive careers, but never quite reached the heights expected of them; Harold Baines works here, or even Al Kaline. But there are other, more recent examples who are a bit more favorable.
Barry Bonds was a very good player early in his career with a skills set somewhat comparable to Jones', but didn't become a superstar until his fifth big-league season, when he won the MVP award in 1990. Sammy Sosa had always hit for power, but it wasn't until age 29 when his plate discipline clicked, and he began his annual battles with Mark McGwire for home run supremacy.
Jones has gotten as far as he can on talent alone, and his ability to continue to learn the game and improve his approach at the plate will determine whether he hits the next level.
Travis Lee, Devil Rays
So what exactly has been his problem? The usual suspects don't seem to apply here. Inability to hit left-handed pitching? Not really; Lee's platoon splits have been just about even over the past three years. Poor plate discipline? No, that part of his game has been just fine; it's been his inability to leverage plate discipline into production that has been the problem. Defensive distractions? Hardly -- Lee plays the easiest position on the diamond, and plays it well.
His career path, quite simply, has been unusual; it's true that most hitters improve from age 23 to 27, but no player is entitled to get better, and looking only at the average progression ignores all the detours along the way. It would be similarly unusual for Lee to become a dramatically better hitter at this point in his career. Get a beer or two in you, and you might be able to point to Paul O'Neill as a favorable comparison. When you sober up, you'll realize that Lee is far more likely to be the new Ed Kranepool.
Kerry Wood, Cubs
As unpredictable as position player development can be, pitchers are a much trickier group to figure out. Randy Johnson didn't put it all together until the age of 29, nor Kevin Brown until he was 31. Pitchers do improve suddenly and dramatically, but it's not often that we see it coming. Still, our projection system likes him a lot, and Wood's got about as many positive indicators as you're likely to see:
1. He has already faced a few thousand major-league hitters.
This could be the year that Wood transforms from a thrower into one of the best pitchers in the league.
Jose Cruz Jr., Giants
And then there's Jose Cruz Jr. Here are Cruz's walk rate and isolated power numbers each season since his rookie year of 1997:
Year Walk Rate Isolated Power 1997 9.3% (5) .251 (2) 1998 13.8% (2) .150 (6) 1999 15.5% (1) .192 (5) 2000 10.4% (3) .224 (3) 2001 7.2% (6) .256 (1) 2002 9.8% (4) .193 (4)
There's an almost perfect inverse correlation at work; Cruz has displayed good power and good plate discipline, but never in the same season. That's a highly unusual pattern. One thing it might mean is that Cruz would benefit from better coaching. Cruz has worked with a variety of hitting coaches in his career, who have tried to sell him on a variety of different techniques; emphasizing a consistent approach at the plate could help to carry him through his slumps. The Giants have something of a track record of getting the most out of their hitters, but whether the magic will be there without Dusty Baker and much of his staff is unknown.
Rafael Furcal, Braves
Furcal will be just 25 this year -- we think -- but his game is oriented around speed, and that skill decays earlier than any other, especially when a player has had injury problems. He's too small and too reliant on hitting the ball on the ground to be a candidate to develop more power than he's shown. Pitchers have figured out that he isn't that dangerous a hitter, throwing him a higher percentage of strikes early in the count, which has resulted in a declining walk rate, a pattern that isn't likely to reverse itself unless he picks up his production.
A good player, with the chance at a long career? Yes. A breakout candidate? No.
Glendon Rusch, Brewers
Rusch has trouble because he's consistently been a worse pitcher with runners on base. Here are how his numbers look for the past three seasons:
Opponents' OPS Year Bases Empty Runners in Scoring Position 2000 .657 .884 2001 .799 .830 2002 .760 .789
Those sorts of things can be fluky, but I don't think that's the case here. Rather, Rusch simply doesn't have the stuff to challenge hitters when he needs to; throwing strikes is the key to his success, but a few too many with runners in scoring position, and the result is a lot of doubles off the wall and three-run homers. His durability is an asset, but Rusch projects to continue to disappoint people expecting more of him, as Shane Reynolds did for years and years.
Step right up, step right up, it's time for the lightning round.
Paul Konerko, White Sox
Ryan Dempster, Reds
Eric Milton, Twins
Derek Jeter, Yankees
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.