Dipping into the mailbag

From Hideki Matsui to the Braves to Theo Epstein, Rob answers e-mail questions from his readers.

Originally Published: December 20, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I used to answer e-mail all the time in this space, mostly because it was easy. And then I pretty much stopped, mostly because it was easy. But today I thought it would be fun to answer a few messages, with a little bit of a twist.

I didn't cherry-pick this time. Beginning at noon yesterday, I simply grabbed the first five messages that I received, no matter what the subject, and then last night I answered them.

The first one needs a quick set-up. A bit before noon, a guy named Chris asked me what I thought of Hideki Matsui. Chris, a Yankees fan, said he'd be surprised if Matsui managed an OPS much better than 750. I asked him why, and at 12:13 he responded ...

    12:13
    The combination of a smaller, harder baseball, smaller parks, and pitchers that throw 3-5 miles per hour faster seems like it will only have a negative impact on his stats. Everyone uses Ichiro as an example of a Japanese hitter being successful in the major leagues, however, I don't feel this is a valid comparison to Matsui for a couple of reasons.

    Ichiro has been well known for his contact ability, speed, fielding and throwing arm. In my opinion (and I could be wrong, it would not be the first time), speed is speed. If you are fast in Japan, you will be fast in the majors. The bases are the same distance apart in each place, so a fast time to first in Japan will be fast in the states. I think that fielding ability and throwing arm fall into the same arena. They are skills that translate well to the major leagues. Although, his throwing arm could have been affected by the bigger, heavier baseballs in the states.

    Matsui is, by all accounts, an average fielder, with average speed and an average arm. I tend to think he will remain average in all three areas with the Yankees.

    As for the offensive side of the game, I can't really back up my beliefs with facts. I'm sure you hate that. Ichiro is a contact hitter. He has a short, level swing. I would think it is easier to adjust to pitches of higher velocities when you have that type of swing, opposed to a longer, uppercut-style swing like Matsui. Also, the park size has less of an effect on Ichiro since he is a slap hitter. If anything, smaller parks would hurt him, because the outfielders would play a few steps closer to the infield. Which would allow them to snare some of his line drives that may drop in. I doubt it makes an overall impact of any significance. I also think the heavier ball would be balanced by the fact that certain line drives that would be caught will drop in and some line drives that would be hits, may not make it through the infield.

    All of this is difficult to back up with stats, given the few number of Japanese hitters to play in the U.S.

    I thought I would get your opinion because you seem to have a better perspective than most fans and writers I know of.

    Chris

    P.S. I've said for years that Jeter was an awful defensive shortstop, only to have my fellow Yankees fans berate me. Thanks for giving me some evidence to back up my claims.

Well, starting with your postscript first, I just want to say that I've never said that Jeter is an awful defensive shortstop. While it's true that most of the analytical methods used to evaluate defense do, indeed, suggest that Jeter's an awful defensive shortstop, it's also true that the vagaries of defensive statistics still don't allow us anything like absolute confidence in our conclusions. So when I see Jeter ranking at the bottom of whichever list I'm looking at, I'll only conclude that it's unlikely he ranks among the best defensive shortstops (as some observers continue to suggest).

Phils gettin' it done
Until today, the Phillies' biggest weakness was a rotation that contained some big question marks. Now they've got a rotation that includes Kevin Millwood, one of the National League's top starters, and so suddenly their rotation ranks among the best in the league.

Until today, the Braves' biggest weakness was a lineup that contained big holes at catcher, first base, and especially third base. Now they've got a lineup that contains big holes at catcher, first base, and especially third base. Oh, and the Braves also blew a hole in their rotation that won't be filled unless John Smoltz becomes a starter again. And is healthy enough to pitch 200 innings.

The odds seem to change every day. But on this day, the Phillies are the beasts of the East.

As for Johnny Estrada, today Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said, "I think Estrada's got a chance to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues."

Perhaps. But Estrada was 26 last season, most of which he spent in the Triple-A International League, and his minor-league stats suggest a player who would post a sub-.300 on-base percentage in the majors.
Rob Neyer

And in fact, in a recent eight-part series at BaseballPrimer, Mike Emeigh concluded that Jeter really is better than most of the numbers suggest ... but that he's not outstanding, or anything close.

Now, getting to the meaty part of your message ... Shortly after Matsui's signing was announced, I wrote a short note for a sidebar in the story. A bit later, though, a few readers pointed me to Jim Albright's article at BaseballGuru.com, wherein Albright makes a pretty good case for his own method for deriving "major league equivalent" statistics from Japanese baseball stats. His case, basically, is made by the fact that Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo have performed in MLB approximately as Albright's method would have suggested.

And Mr. Matsui? Here's what his translated numbers look like, prorated to 162 games, for the last three seasons:

 
       HR   OBP  Slug 
2000   30  .402  .531 
2001   25  .412  .514 
2002   35  .418  .551 

Remember, those aren't the numbers Matsui compiled in Japan; these are approximately (and, of course, theoretically) what his numbers would have looked like if he'd been playing on this side of the Pacific in those seasons. Considering the consistency of Matsui's performance, there's good reason to think that he'll be the second- or third-best hitter on the team, behind Jason Giambi and perhaps Bernie Williams. It makes you wonder how the Yankees got Matsui for three years at just $7 million per season (average annual value). And it also serves to remind us that for all their money, the Yankees often spend it wisely.

Of course, we don't really know that Albright's method works generally, or that it will work specifically with Matsui. He's only the fourth Japanese hitter to come over here, and while it's true that it worked for the first three -- Ichiro, Shinjo, and St. Louis' So Taguchi (who spent the season in Triple-A, and fared poorly) -- that's not much of a sample size. But based on what we've got, there's every reason to think that Matsui is going to be outstanding.

I'm not worried about his ability to hit the fastball, because great hitters generally don't have a problem with the fastball, as long as it's straight. And the ballparks in Japan aren't as small as most of us think. If Matsui has a problem, I think it will be inside his head. But you know, baseball's a pretty big deal over in Japan, so it's not like the guy's never faced any pressure before. And if he's lucky, he doesn't speak a lot of English.

Oh, and for you Mets fans wondering how Norihiro Nakamura may fare, here are his MLE's for the last three seasons:

 
       HR   OBP  Slug 
2000   28  .347  .460 
2001   32  .395  .505 
2002   29  .360  .480 

Again, generally consistent performances. Nakamura turns 30 next July, so he's still close to the prime of his career. When you figure Shea Stadium into the equation, Nakamura might not be quite as good as Edgardo Alfonzo was last season. But he should be close.

    12:30
    I read your article on how badly the Braves need Maddux. It might be the only really intelligent thing you said throughout your article.

    Lets see: John Schuerholz's track record, vs. yours.

    I guess that's as bad as the Russ Ortiz for Damian Moss trade.

    I will put my money and my faith in John, thank you very much.

    I do agree the Bravos need Maddux back. But to belittle the acquisitions of Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd, is just another writer trying to convince us all of the Braves demise; which they have been predicting for 4-5 years now.

    What really hurt the Braves, is what know one is really talking about; They lost Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond from the pen, and traded a young arm in Tim Spooneybarger.

    So, the Braves go out and take a guy in the Rule 5 draft from the Pirates, and they go after work horse Ray King from the Brewers. He is exactly what was needed after losing Remy and Hammond.

    As for the starters; Moss had one good year. And Tom Glavine isn't around to tutor him anymore. Ortiz is a proven innings eater, granted without super stuff, but good enough to be the Giants' No. 1 starter in the year they won the pennant. As for Hampton; the Braves scouts feel good enough about his arm and mechanics can be straightened out by rockin' Leo Mazzone. Glavine for Hampton -- if Hampton bounces back, like Darryl Kile and a couple of other Rockies castoffs have proven -- is close to a push. Plus, Hampton costs less, and has three less years wear and tear on his arm. As for Byrd; anyone who can win 17 games for the Kansas City Royals, can't be all bad. Plus the Braves know him from being in the organization for a while.

    So they add Hampton, Ortiz and Byrd to the rotation. From the rotation, they lose Glavine. If they re-sign Greg Maddux, they will probably trade Kevin Millwood (I would not like to see him go; but he offers the most in return) or Jason Marquis; who I would prefer to go, but doesn't bring in nearly what Millwood does in return, unless you package him with maybe a Marcus Giles, or Mark DeRosa. (They have Wilson Betemit waiting in the wings.)

    OK, so I got carried away. I apologize.

    But my point is: I never bad-mouth John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, until the smoke dies down. (I mean who thought they could pull off what they did inside of a few days.)

    So my $$$ is on the Braves to make the right choices and right moves. And get ready for a war with the Mets, before hoisting up flag No. 12.

    Mike Hartzell
    (Obviously, a Braves Fan!)

Obviously.

Look, I'm a believer. Now that Maddux is officially back in the fold, I might be inclined to favor the Braves if the season started tomorrow. But friends, let me tell you something ... In 2003, the Philadelphia Phillies are going to score a lot of runs, but their pitching looks questionable. In 2003, the Atlanta Braves are probably going to prevent a lot of runs, but their hitting looks questionable. You probably have to give the Braves the edge because they've been winning for so many years. But I believe first place will go to whichever franchise better addresses its remaining deficiencies between now and April.

    12:30
    Hey Rob,

    Do you know of a good place to get baseball statistics in Excel files (individual and team stats by season) for the past few years?

    Also, I'm encouraged about Theo Epstein's first couple of deals acquiring Todd Walker (nice offensive upgrade from Rey Sanchez) and Jeremy Giambi. He also seems keen on moving low-OBP man Shea Hillenbrand.

    Thanks,
    Alex

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know if they're Excel-friendly, but there's a wonderful source for all official baseball statistics. If you go to The Baseball Archive, you'll find the amazing Lahman baseball database, which can be downloaded via the Internet or ordered on a CD-ROM.

Basically, if you're interested in using an electronic baseball encyclopedia, you should order Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia (too late for Christmas, but Valentine's Day is just around the corner!). And if you're interested in creating a baseball encyclopedia, you should get the Lahman database.

As for Theo's first couple of deals, you're correct on all counts. Or at least I think you are; all I know about Hillenbrand is what I read in the papers, and the Sox might have trouble finding somebody better for the right price.

Hey, did you see what Dan Shaughnessy wrote about the trade for Giambi?

"Some of us find it a tad frightening that the Sox made a big deal of Giambi's on-base percentage when announcing the deal. It's easy to see Bill James' fingerprints on this trade."

I don't have any idea if Bill James recommended Giambi, but it's not like Theo Epstein's not capable of noticing that Giambi can hit. To me, what should be frightening to readers of The Boston Globe is that 1) Shaughnessy apparently thinks that the Red Sox should not care about on-base percentage, and 2) he seems to be truly afraid of James' very presence on the franchise payroll. When I appeared on a television show with Shaughnessy last month, he said he found the hiring of James "troubling."

So he's frightened and he's troubled. I guess the obvious question is, why? What is it about Bill James that gives Shaughnessy the heebie-jeebies?

I don't know. But if he doesn't get over that particular fear, he's going to get left in the dust. That's not to say that one can't make a fine living without listening to all those crazy kids and their kooky newfangled ideas. But you know, if you've got any self-awareness at all, being a dinosaur ain't much fun.

    12:31
    Whatever the facts, Joe Jackson is no longer alive, thus he served his lifetime banishment. As a player, he has the third-highest career batting average, and thus merits enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, period, exclamation point! Anything else makes MLB and the Hall of Fame a joke.

Welcome to my world. Every day for the last week, I've received at least two messages per day informing me that Shoeless Joe Jackson's ban was only supposed to last for his lifetime, so of course he now belongs in the Hall of Fame.

I'm not going to address the root issue here, which is whether or not Jackson really belongs in the Hall. Instead, I'd just like to tell everybody that no, the ban wasn't for Jackson's lifetime. His suspension, like Rose's, is technically defined as "permanent."

Which does, by my definition at least, extend past one's lifetime.

    12:51
    Hi Rob,

    I just read your column about the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee (12/16), and you listed Joe Torre as someone on the ballot with a viable chance. While I agree that his numbers as a player make him a possible candidate -- coupled with the fact that, as you point out, the bulk of the Committee is comprised of players from his era -- my question is: what, if any, impact does Torre's success as a manager have on his induction to the Hall at this point?

    Are voters required to keep both aspects of his career separate? Does his success as a manager not become valid until he's retired from managing? I am envisioning two scenerios: (1) where Torre needs to be voted in as a player separate from as a manager (with both being possibilities, the latter more likely) and his plaque being in two different places in Cooperstown, and (2) where Torre is voted in once for his "body of work" both as player and manager. Could you please clarify?

    B.J. Barry
    Chapel Hill, N.C.

Well, that's an interesting question, about Torre's success as a manager affecting his Hall of Fame chances as a player. There actually used to be a clause in the voting guidelines saying that a voter could consider a player's post-career contributions as a manager, coach, or whatever. But I can't find that clause in the rules currently posted on the Hall's Web site, so I'm not sure if it's still there. Regardless, as near as I can tell there's been only one man -- Hughie Jennings -- elected as a player who probably got in because of his "extra" qualifications.

That doesn't mean it won't help, though, if only because his name's in the news every day for six or eight months every year.

As for your other questions, 1) there won't be two plaques, and 2) you can't go into the Hall as a player and manager, at least not officially. There are now separate elections by the Veterans Committee for players and the members of the "Composite Ballot" (managers, umpires, executives). If Torre isn't elected as a player, then he'll eventually make the Composite Ballot as a manager. And if he's elected from that ballot, he'll be enshrined as a manager and a manager only.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I'll be answering more Hall of Fame questions, in anticipation of the 2003 BBWAA results that will be announced on January 7.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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