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Just The Sports: Slow Down, De Luca

Just The Sports

Friday, June 02, 2006

Slow Down, De Luca

One of the only rules to being a sports columnist for a major metro newspaper is to do everything within your power to avoid sounding like a moron. As easy as this advice may sound, it was still too difficult for Chicago Sun-Times columnist Chris De Luca, who probably would have been better off not penning this article or at least he should have tried to pass it off as Jay Mariotti's work.

In the article, De Luca outlines two transations that occurred on a "wild Wednesday afternoon," namely the Cubs trading away Jerry Hairston, Jr. for the services of Texas Ranger Phil Nevin and the biggest transaction of the MLB season to date, Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros coming to terms on a contract. Although he makes the claim that these two transactions will change the landscape of the NL Central, De Luca may be overstating how big of an impact each transaction will have.

First, let's look at some choice quotes from De Luca's opinion on the Cubs trade.

It was a wild Wednesday afternoon in the National League Central, where two teams that were expected to be much closer to first place on June 1 announced their intentions to keep on playing deep into October.

Unfortunately for those with a vested interest in the Cubs' and Astros' seasons, merely stating one's intentions to play deep into the posteason carries little weight. The games still have to be played.

But for a Cubs team that had gone into complete paralysis -- from the front office to the back end of the bullpen -- since losing first baseman Derrek Lee on April 19, this was proof that general manager Jim Hendry still has been clocking in for work.

If trading for Phil Nevin is the reason why Jim Hendry has been clocking in for work, then the Cubs should change all the locks on their doors and inform Hendry his services will no longer be needed.

By acquiring Nevin, Hendry was acquiring a player, who at the age of 35, is a high risk for decline and is already providing evidence that said decline is already taking place. As it stands now, Nevin's 2005 year where he batted .237 BA/.287 OBP/.379 SLG with an OPS+ of 79 (100 is average) while splitting time between the Padres and the Rangers seems to be about what one can expect from Nevin now, especially when added to how he started this season (.216 BA/.301 OBP/.415 SLG), as a DH. Numbers like that are never palatable to a baseball club, and taste even worse when being served up by a 1B/DH.

However, maybe moving back to the National League and playing in the field is just what Nevin needs to help him find his eye at the plate. If only he was a good enough fielder to warrant him being put at first base day in and day out. Too bad he isn't.

Nobody wants manager Dusty Baker to earn a contract extension more than Hendry does

I don't know about that one. I could think of lots of people who want Baker to earn a contract extension more than Hendry, starting with the rest of the NL Central.

so he increased the odds in Baker's favor with a legitimate power threat at first base.

Legitimate may be a strong word here. Barely adequate would have been my phrase of choice. Nevin's .415 SLG ranks him 20th out the 26 eligible first basemen. If Nevin somehow manages to match his career slugging average of .475, that would push him up to only 14th out of 26. Again, legitimate power threat is a reach.

Nevin, 35, had a career year in 2001 with the Padres, hitting .306 with 41 home runs and 126 RBI.

If the basis of an argument for why Nevin might be a good addition for the team is what he did five years ago, then there is a problem. On the other hand, if you think of this is infallible reasoning, then the Cubs should re-sign Sammy Sosa. In 2001, he hit .328 with 64 home runs and 160 RBI.

Now let's look at some of the gems De Luca leaves us with when discussing Roger Clemens' acquisition.

Rookies Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve helped the Astros' rotation get off to a solid start, sparking talk in April that maybe they didn't need Clemens. By Wednesday, it was clear the Astros desperately need Clemens.

While there is little doubt that adding Clemens to the Astros starting rotation will improve it tremendously, it is easy to simply anoint him as the savior of the Astros and wash your hands of the issue. This would be taking a simplistic view of the whole matter, especially in light of last season.

Clemens' 2005 season was the poster child for why a pitcher's win-loss record is one of the more overrated stats in baseball. Despite having the second-best WHIP and ERA+ of his career and leading the league in ERA, his record still stood at only 13-8. Of the thirty-two games Clemens started, the Astros won fifteen and lost the other seventeen, mostly because the Astros gave him lousy run support; they were shutout seven times while Clemens was on the mound.

The real key to whether or not the Astros can turn around their season, provided Clemens pitches at his 2005 level, is whether Andy Pettitte can somehow recreate the magic he had in 2005. So far this season, Pettitte has pitched much worse than he did last season and in most parts of his career. His pitches thrown per plate appearance (4.10) and pitches thrown per inning (16.9) are the highest they have ever been and his K/BB ratio (2.35) has regressed back to the mean after his stellar 2005 K/BB ratio (4.17). Not to mention his OPS-against (.965) is off-the-charts bad.

Last year, the Astros had three of the five best pitchers in baseball. This year, they have one of the fifteen best pitchers. That one's name is Roy Oswalt.

Astros starting pitchers had yielded a .278 batting average -- only the Phillies' .287 mark was higher in the NL entering Wednesday.

Batting average-against is one of the poorest indicators for how well a pitcher is performing. This is because a pitcher has absolutely no control over what happens to a ball after it is put in play. All the pitcher can do is hope the ball goes directly to one of his teammates who can then get a putout. He cannot command the ball to do so.

Also, there is no correlation between BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and how good a pitcher is. A good pitcher is as likely to have a high BABIP as a poor pitcher is to have a low one. In addition, having a low BABIP is not a repeatable skill for a pitcher. What a pitcher's BABIP is in one season has no bearing on what it will be in the next season. The three statistics a pitcher has the most control over are his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate (home runs are not technically in play).

If the Astros do make the playoffs for the third year in a row, it will not be solely because of Roger Clemens.


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