Sunday, December 12, 2004

Week In Review Part I: Hate to See You In Pinstripes

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be a baseball blog, right?

Actually, there are a couple things in the pipeline -- some work for Baseball Prospectus, an article I'm doing for the blog on this year's Hall of Fame class, as well as the fact that I'm trying to clean things up at the office before I go on vacation next week. Still, this entry's been percolating for a while -- the Jaret Wright rollercoaster really bogged me down over the weekend.

Issue 1 -- Subject: Kill Me Now, Please

That was the subject line of an email I wrote to Brother Joe, after I learned -- all in a single blow bad enough to send me into a horrible case of the blues -- that at the arbitration deadline, the Yankees signed Jaret Wright and Tony Womack for a combined $27 Million.

No, I'm not over it yet. I may not be over until Wright's $21 Million deal expires in November, 2007.

It's as if the team got these guys only to spite me. I've spent a good deal of both men's careers detesting them. Why? With Wright, it's simple. He was a 21 year old kid in his rookie year of 1997, when he got a couple of postseason starts against the Yankees in the division series. He didn't pitch that well, but he won both his starts en route to sending the Yankees home early for their only postseason series loss between 1996 and 2000.

I didn't hate him for the fact that he won, so much as for his nasty, sneering attitude. From the smack young Jaret talked, you'd think he pitched a no-hitter in Game 2 of the ALDS, rather allowing 3 runs in six innings. And he also had a penchant for throwing inside, which was none too charming.

Wright turned out to be a plague we wouldn't have to bear for long. He performed around league average in 1998, and in 1999, his control -- never a strong suit -- went to pieces. He posted an ERA over six in 134 innings, hit the disabled list, and was gone. Bad shoulder. Over the next three years, combined, he pitched 99 innings. He was only 26 years old, but it looked like that was all she wrote.

We'll get back to Wright in a minute.

My antipathy for Womack is a different matter. Sure, the Yanks had a postseason run-in with him -- a little something in Arizona, around 2001, I think -- but even before his first at-bat against the Yanks, I disliked Tony beyond all reason.

You see, Womack also came up to the majors to stay in 1997. He was no 21 year old phenom, though, just a 27 year old marginal middle infielder with some speed. The comment on Womack in Baseball Prospectus '97 read simply, "A speedy, light-hitting shortstop who has somehow picked up three cups of coffee."

Then, in 1997, Womack became a regular lead-off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His OPS that year was .700 -- roughly 18% below league average -- and his defense at second base was also well below average. But he stole 60 bases, so he was installed as a regular.

Now, it's easy to take for granted small advances that happen during one's lifetime -- to forget, for example, that most of America didn't have a cell phone or an Internet connection just ten years ago. In 1997, Prospectus was publishing just its second annual, and Moneyball wasn't even a gleam in Michael Lewis' eye. Although there were a hard core of people who were hip to the importance of on base percentage and park effects (not to mention the high break-even point for base stealing), it was a small, but vocal, minority.

It was at this point that Tony Womack became the centerpiece of an ideological battle. Conventional Wisdom said that if you had a fast guy that could steal a lot of bases on your team, you batted him leadoff, particularly if he had no power, like Womack. Sabermetric wisdom said that if you batted a guy like Womack leadoff, you'd just give him a whole bunch more opportunities to make outs (since the #1 batter comes to the plate more often than a #8 batter does), and the bases he'd steal wouldn't make up for his lack of power or plate discipline.

Back in 1997 and 1998, the Pirates were all too happy to hand Womack nearly 700 plate appearances, and watch him make nearly 500 outs. In 1999, Womack became a Diamondback, and they followed suit -- just they put Womack in right field, one of the big power positions in baseball, where Tony's lack of production would really stand out. And so -- through no fault of his own -- Womack became a whipping boy for people who embraced the new baseball thinking -- one of the Things That Were Wrong With Baseball.

Since I was one of those people, I always disliked Womack. It wasn't anything he'd said or done, just the way he played baseball, and the decisions of managers and GMs to write his name -- in ink -- onto the roster and the lineup card.

In 2001, Womack got a measure of revenge against me by hitting a double off of Mariano Rivera, extending the rally that ended game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But in 2003, it seemed that low performance would finally put Womack out of the league. He went through three teams that year, and finished the season posting a .190 batting average in Colorado.

But both of my hated foes made big comebacks in 2004. Womack, for the first time in his career, batted .300 with the Cardinals. He still didn't post a league-average OPS, but he did play in the World Series for the second time in his career. Womack earned his way in 2004 with a big April, and a very good first half overall -- .319/.364/.427 before the All-Star break. By the Stathead tools, the cracks in Tony's game showed up in the second half. Although Womack maintained a decent .298 batting average after the All-Star break, his plate discipline and particularly his power went missing -- Womack had 27 extra base hits pre-ASB, and only 9 after.

Wright, on the other hand, had a life-altering experience. Picked up by the Braves in late 2003, Jaret "Found Leo".

You all probably know by now how I feel about Leo Mazzone -- he's managed to pick up some pretty sketchy subjects from the garbage heap, and somehow make pitchers out of them. Among Leo's fixer-uppers, Jaret Wright will stand out as a bonafide, fit-for-cannonization miracle.

Wright, a pitcher who'd had an ERA under six just once in the past five years, went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA for Mazzone's Braves this past season. He struck out 159 batters in 186 innings, and had career highs in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and home run ratio.

Great! If Wright's cured of his suckiness, why not back up a truckfull of money to make him a Yankee?

There are a couple of reasons to believe that Wright isn't someone you'd want to invest big money in. First of all, he's a guy with serious health issues -- there's a reason he only pitched 99 innings between 2001-2003. [UPDATE: This consideration became even more worrisome as we learned over the weekend that Wright failed his first Yankee physical. Sadly, it seems that the Yanks accepted the results of a second, presumably better physical examination, and the Wright contract is still a go. How comforting.]

Second of all, it there's the Mazzone effect. The Sabernomics weblog did a study of Leo's charges, before, during, and after being under the Master's tutelage. I found this particularly intriguing:

Also interesting is the fact that the effect [of Mazzone improving his pitchers' ERAs] seems to go away when pitchers leave. This may be because Mazzone imparts useful everyday help, not just new knowledge to fix an old problem, or maybe the Braves know when to dump guys.

Yankee fans might remember some anecdotal evidence of this effect, in the form of lefty reliever Chris Hammond. Hammond, you will recall, was the pitcher who answered the call when the Yanks did their "We've offered the same contract terms to Mike Stanton and two other lefties. Whoever responds first is a Yankee." negotiation ploy in 2002.

Chris'd seen a big career resurgence that year, under Mazzone in Atlanta. Prior to joining the Braves organization, Hammond had been out of the Majors since 1998, his career derailed by arm troubles. Under Mazzone, Hammond posted an ungodly 0.95 ERA, and looked like one of the better relievers in the league.

The Braves passed on giving Chris a big raise after his career resurrection -- that honor went to the Yankees, who got a serviceable, but unimpressive reliever who was eventually eclipsed by both Felix Heredia (in his pre-Run Fairy days) and Gabe White. The Yanks wound up unloading Hammond's contract on the A's after the 2003 season.

You'd think, after Hammond, the Yankees would be smart enough not to give top dollar to a pitcher the Braves passed on. But here we are, three guaranteed years at $7 Million per.

So that's a whole lot of caveat emptor for two players. One was overrrated for much of his career, the other injured for much of his, both are coming off the best years of their careers to be given big money by the Yankees.

It's kind of like learning that your spouse has spent your nest egg on lottery tickets. I hope the Yanks get lucky with these guys. I hope the brain trust -- the brainiest of which (Gene Michael) is said to have signed off on the Womack deal -- knows something I don't about these fellows.

I just don't like our chances.

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