A Little Boost    (08/17/01)

In honor of the extraordinary and surprising home run display by several players this year, I have decided to make my first prediction for 2002 in this very column.  Because so many older players are hitting home runs with much greater frequency than they ever have, I am predicting that a bulked-up Raphael Belliard, the retired 39-year old defensive specialist who clouted a grand total of 2 home runs in a 17-year career, will come out of retirement, invigorated by his time off, and lead the majors by hitting 96 home runs next year.  Ridiculous?

Perhaps.  But consider this:

Exhibit A

Player A
BATTERS         BA   SLG   OBA   G  AB   R   H  TB 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB CS
2000 (+MLE)   .293  .402  .349 112 321  38  91 125 22  1  4  43  28  22  5  7
2001          .335  .578  .378  85 322  54 108 186 21  0 19  63  21  21  2  1
2001 (proj)   .335  .578  .378 112 424  71 142 235 28  0 25  83  28  28  3  1

The (+MLE) line shows what player A did last year split between AAA, where he spent most of the season, and the majors.  I've converted his minor league numbers to major league equivalent and combined them with his major league line.  The (proj) line shows what he's on pace to do this year, given the same number of game opportunities that he had last year.

Supposing Bill James' theory about minor league production is true - basically, he said that what a minor leaguer does in AA and in AAA is not too far off from what he would have accomplished in the majors; one simply needs to adjust for the difficulty of the league and ballpark - then this player's improvement from last year is way beyond any reasonable expectation.

Big improvements from year to year are not entirely uncommon.  But looking at a jump like this - the 2000 numbers represent a previous career best performance for this player - is pretty unusual.  First, this particular player entered this season 29 years old with little major league experience.  Players generally see dramatic jumps in production as their bodies mature and they become more familiar with the league, usually from about age 22 to about 28 and generally after about 1500 major league at bats.  Then they level off for about 4-8 years of peak production.  This player experienced a huge increase in production after getting fewer than 200 major league at bats over the last 3 years.

This represents a massive jump in production after just one offseason which followed many years (8 to be exact) of posting a very consistent level of production, mostly in the minors.  It's equivalent to you or me becoming a championship weight-lifter after just 6 months of training.  These kind of things just don't happen that often, especially to players this old.

You have to go back to 1920 to find a player with even close to this dramatic an increase at this late age after toiling in obscurity for so long.  That year, Baby Doll Jacobson increased his output by 99 total bases over the previous year, but in 154 more at bats.  Player A is on pace to increase his total bases by 110 in just over a hundred more at bats.  He's doing this despite coming from playing in one of the best hitter's parks in professional baseball last year, to one of the toughest pitcher's parks this year.  So if he keeps this pace, this would qualify as one of, if not the greatest increase in production in history for a player who came to the majors full-time so late in life. 

Exhibit B

Which makes player B's numbers all that more interesting

Player B
BATTERS        BA   SLG   OBA   G  AB   R   H  TB 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB CS
2000         .311  .544  .392 162 618 106 192 336 47  2 31 114  78  85  2  4
2001         .344  .718  .434 120 457 101 157 328 24  6 45 111  62  64  1  1
2001 (proj)  .344  .718  .434 162 617 136 212 442 32  8 61 150  84  86  1  1

Like Player A, this player's 2000 performance represented a career high in production.  Player B is 33 years old.  His jump in production is as improbable as player A's.

By comparison, in 1998, Sammy Sosa, who was 4 years younger than player B is, increased his total base output by 30 homers and 108 bases over the previous year.  However, he had been hovering around 300 total bases for 4 of the previous 5 years.  The one year he wasn't, he had missed about 50 games due to injury.  Player B had topped 260 just twice before this year and had not missed any significant time due to injury.  Sosa's increase also came in a year when the majors expanded by 2 teams, causing the quality of pitching leaguewide to thin slightly.

Roger Maris jumped from 39 homers and 290 total bases in 1960, to 61 homers and 366 total bases in 1961.  Looking at the total bases rather than the home runs, his actual jump in production was not that dramatic.  It came when he was 26 years old, going on 27, not uncommon for a player that age.  It also came in a year when his league expanded by 2 teams, so his jump in production was not only not-unexpected, it should have been predictable.

Player B's jump in production is coming in a year when the strikezone has been changed to favor the pitchers: ERAs are lower, runs scored and home run production is down league-wide over a year ago.  So while Maris and Sosa had a number of things working in their favor, player B has a number of things conspiring against such an improvement.

One possibility

So how is this possible?  Is it some sort of sub-atomic residual effect from a cosmic flare?  Was it foretold in the alignment of the stars?  Or could it be something far more mundane like steroid use?  All players deny they use them, but the reports from inside baseball are that usage is at best uncommon and at worst, rampant.

During and after the 1998 season, Mark McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, which has steroid like properties but is not officially classified as a steroid.  He hit 70 homers that year.  The next year he said that he no longer used the supplement because of the controversy it caused.  He still hit 65 homers.  Let's not forget that this is the same man who broke the rookie record for homers by 12 when he hit 49 in 1987.  McGwire can hit 50 homers in a season even if he's anesthetized.  Guys like McGwire, Sosa and even Bonds have a history of hitting with immense power.  Certainly Bonds is way above any level he's ever been before, but he has hit at least 40 homers 4 times in his career and was on his way twice more before injuries derailed him.  So at least there's some baseline of productivity that is not entirely alien to what he's doing this year.

But player A (Paul LoDuca) and player B (Luis Gonzales) are headed toward combined year territory.  That is, you have to combine their best two years to equal what they're doing this year.  LoDuca is well past that point already.  I'm not saying they are definitely using, but it would sure explain how guys who have never shown much power - Gonzales topped 30 home runs last year for the first time in an 11-year career and has topped 20 only 3 times - are now among the premier sluggers at their positions.

Since baseball has no official policy against steroid use, we may never know for certain who uses and who doesn't, who Mother Nature was extraordinarily good to and who got a little extra help from Father Chemistry.  Until there is, a spectre of doubt will shadow both the game and the extraordinary accomplishments of its players.  And leaves hope that Raphael Belliard might still come out of retirement and lead the majors in homers.

This week in Sandbox

Ben Davis' declining production inspired a search for another catcher.  I submitted a couple of proposals, one for Mike Piazza and one for Ivan Rodriguez, who, if you'll remember, I had hoped to get in the second round of the draft.  The Pundits came back with a counter proposal that was hard to swallow, but acceptable so I made the deal.  ...Jumanji! exchanged Cory Lidle and Bobby Abreu for Ivan Rodriguez and Jim Edmonds.

I hated to part with Abreu because he has been so good lately.  But the fact is that I already have 4 comparable outfielders - Guerrero, Alou, Berkman and Floyd - and there was a good chance that Abreu, even with as hot as he's been, with only 4 outfield slots, wouldn't get any playing time.  So he was a luxury I simply couldn't afford to hoard.  I like Cory Lidle down the stretch largely because he's pitching well and he's on a red-hot team in contention.  Players on contending teams tend to maintain their peak production better than those who aren't, so both Abreu and Lidle have that working in their favor.  

Lidle, however, has been bouncing around for the past few years, from starter to bullpen and back and has never really established that he's a premier starter.  He's always shown good to decent control, but the hit prevention has never been there until this year and at 29, this is as likely a career year as it is any advancement in skill.  The clincher for me though was that he had struggled in his career against Tampa Bay, Texas and Seattle, three teams that the A's will face a combined 18 times in their last 40 or so games, with a good chance that Lidle will pitch in 6 of those games.  I'm not saying that I think Lidle will do poorly against them.  I just know that I probably wouldn't start him in those games for that reason if he were on my team.  So, like Abreu, he really wouldn't be doing ...Jumanji! any good down the stretch.

Rodriguez will upgrade the production at catcher by a point a game, which is considerable because he plays almost every game the Rangers do.  Edmonds provides decent insurance in case something were to happen to one of the other outfielders.  Edmonds isn't nearly as good as any of them over the long haul, but he has demonstrated that for a month or two, he can be as good as anyone.

So the deal in my mind was a good one for both clubs: the Pundits get upgrades in the outfield and possibly in starting pitching and Jumanji! gets an upgrade at catcher and a solid insurance policy in the outfield.

The Standings

                                   Starting P        Relief P        Hitters FP
Rank  Team                       FP    G   FP/G    FP   G  FP/G    FP    G    FP/G  Total
1     SF Mock Woodmen           1739  122  14.3   805  101  8.0   4043  1159   3.5   6587
2     ...Jumanji!               1927  115  16.8   770  101  7.6   3821  1157   3.3   6518
3     BaseballHQ Bombers        1957  120  16.3   841  109  7.7   3465  1161   3.0   6263
4     Sandbox Sports            1819  125  14.6   879  108  8.1   3375  1161   2.9   6073
5     Fantasy Baseball HQ       1860  117  15.9  1017  118  8.6   3113  1158   2.7   5990
6     Dr. Stats Juggernauts     2264  125  18.1   818   98  8.3   2869  1115   2.6   5951
7     Desert Dwelling Scalawags 1843  148  12.5   532  104  5.1   3348  1169   2.9   5723
8     The Write Stuff           1894  113  16.8   686   97  7.1   3064  1117   2.7   5644
9     WSS Hurlers               2033  127  16.0   557  106  5.3   3019  1109   2.7   5609
10    Press Room Pundits        1744  121  14.4   677  112  6.0   3077  1168   2.6   5498

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