Monday, February 16, 2004

The First Annual Shea Hot Corner NL East Table Setter Showdown 

The NY Mets have had some great duos in their day: Seaver and Koosman, Doc and Straw, Lenny and Wally, John Franco and his tomato patch. With the release of the first images of the Mets new international double play combo in action coming out of Port St. Lucie recently, the Shea faithful stole a glimpse into the future. Kazuo Matsui and Jose Reyes are two slick fielding middle infielders, both are speedy switch hitters with pop in their bats, and will also be manning the one and two spot in the batting order this year. Fans are hoping that a new Mets dynamic duo has been born.

However, along with the huge expectations swirling around the two there is also a myriad of questions, both offensively and defensively. On the defensive side, will Matsui adjust to playing on natural grass after years of playing on artificial turf in Japanese domed stadiums? How will Reyes' transition to second base go? Will Shea Stadium serve Met-sushi? Mets fans are hoping that the old saying "defense doesn't slump," holds true. In the batters box there is no such encouraging cliche to cling to. Offense does slump. Half a season of rookie success can translate into a full sophomore season slump. The competitive hurdle from the Pacific League in Japan to the Major Leagues can be enough to quiet even the most thunderous bat. Just ask the Japanese home run king Hideki Matsui who grounded into more double plays than he hit home runs his first year in MLB. Today the Hot Corner takes a stab at answering some of the questions Reyes and Matsui will face in the batter's box. The fun part, however, will be to see how the orange and blue table setters stack up against the one and two batters from the rest of the National League East in the First Annual Shea Hot Corner Table Setter Showdown.

Disclaimer: The Hot Corner is far from being a bona fide sabermagician. However, I did my best playing one here today and I hope the numbers and analysis, while not Jamesean, are fun to think about and critique.

Having two effective hitters occupying the first and second spots in the batting order can create a trickle down effect whereby the rest of the hitters benefit. Getting your lead off and second place hitters on base, especially if they are stolen base threats, puts the entire defense on their heels. The pitcher goes into the stretch where they feel less comfortable. A pitch-out or two might be called. The catcher gets antsy. The pitcher might balk. More fastballs are thrown. More fastballs leads to more contact. The middle infielders start communicating about who is going to cover second in the event of a steal. This causes confusion. The middle infielders start cheating toward second to cover a steal. The first basemen stays glued to the bag to cover a pick-off attempt. A gaping hole is created in the infield. The outfielders start moving in a bit to better their chances at throwing the runner out at third or home. Can the Mets table setters be the catalysts that set this chain reaction in motion?

Turning first to Reyes. Not since Generation K, which fizzled into Generation DL, has Shea Stadium felt such a buzz about a prospect. Last year when a dark cloud hovered above Shea as the Mets fell out of contention, Mets fans were treated to a silver lining. Jose Reyes was brought up and lived up to the hype. In 69 games and 274 at bats Reyes had a .307 batting average ("AVG"), a .334 on base percentage ("OBP") and a slugging percentage ("SLG") of .434. Along the way Reyes exhibited a quick bat, slapping 5 HRs and at 20 years old, became the youngest player in Major League history to hit a home run from both sides of the plate in a single game. Reyes kept opposing defenses on their heels as well, stealing 13 bases and using that blazing speed to sprint for four triples. Reyes also excelled at home, unfazed by Shea Stadium's reputation as a severe pitchers' park Reyes hit .336/.355/.450 at home. Looking at the numbers Reyes put up last season, along with the fact that he has apparently bulked up 15 pounds this off season, it is not unreasonable to expect the following out of Reyes: .305/.340/.450.

Matsui is a tougher nut to crack. What can we expect from Matsui as he makes the transition from the Pacific League to the Major Leagues? Let's first take a look at what he's done before we try to figure out what he might do. It's been said that Kazuo Matsui, 28 years old, was the best Japanese player not playing in MLB, has been compared to Ricky Henderson, is said to have more talent than Hideki Matsui, and some say he's a half a step faster than Ichiro. In case you missed that, he's faster than Ichiro! Matsui is a seven time All Star, former MVP and he has won four Gold Glove awards. Now to the numbers. Exhibiting obscene power for a player his size (he's only listed as 5'9 at a whopping buck eighty-three), Matsui jacked 33 and 36 home runs the last two seasons. While this power is impressive, the domed stadiums and shallow outfield walls in Japan are not. No one is expecting Matsui to match those home run totals. Additionally, with the industrial strength Hoover vacuum that is the Shea warning track, Matsui's place in the batting order, and his speed (did I mention he's faster than Ichiro?), the Mets better have Matsui in a barbed wire reeducation camp teaching him the finer points of groundball to flyball ratio.

Aside from the home runs, in nine seasons Matsui has a lifetime .309 AVG with a .368 OBP and a SLG of .486. Taking away Matsui's rookie and second season where he did not manage to accumulate at least 500 at bats, we're looking at .317/.374/.511. Finally and perhaps most encouraging is that Matsui has shown no signs of slowing down, as his most recent three year statistical averages are higher than his lifetime averages: .315/.373/.554. Matsui can get it done on the base paths as well, swiping 306 bases in his nine seasons in Japan. Did I mention he's faster than Ichiro?

Some say Major League pitchers will mow this little guy down. Not so fast. Players like the Angel's 5'6 David Eckstein and 160 pound Ichiro have proven sometimes big things come in small packages. In Matsui's first crack at major league pitching against the Major League All Stars in 2002, Matsui put on a show. Doing his best Jose Reyes impersonation, Matsui homered from both sides of the plate in one game and overall he hit the cover off the ball the entire series. In fact, "Little" Matsui overshadowed the national hero Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui during this exhibition series. With limited at bats however, this is hardly an accurate measure of how Matsui will fare in his first season in the Major Leagues. Nevertheless, it is still encouraging to see Matsui turn on a Bartolo Colon fastball and fly around the bases faster than Ichiro. I mentioned Matsui is faster than Ichiro, right?

In an attempt to get a more accurate picture of how Matsui may do in MLB, baseball author Richard Lally, appearing in Rob Neyer's column on ESPN.com, weighed in on the issue. Lally noted that in his first year in MLB, Hideki Matsui suffered a 6% loss off his lifetime AVG, 15% off his lifetime OBP and 26% off his lifetime SLG. Similarly, in Ichiro's MLB rookie season he lost 10%, 15% and 16% off his lifetime AVG, OBP and SLG respectively. Lally averaged those percentages and skimmed about 8% off Kazuo Matsui's lifetime AVG, 15% off his lifetime OBP and about 20% off his lifetime SLG and gave the doom and gloom prediction that Matsui will only post .275/.326/.390. Lally concluded that "I think teams should be leery of overpaying for this guy." Neyer agreed, stating that all MLB teams "should be leery" of Matsui and that the Mets were "taking a big chance" on him.

Lally's analysis has more holes in it than the Mets 2003 defense. First, concluding that Kazuo Matsui is destined to suffer the same diminished numbers as his two countrymen is, quite frankly, unnecessarily pessimistic. Two players do not tell the entire story. Some have said that Japanese baseball is on a competitive level as American AAA ball. If that is accurate, then it would be just as reasonable to take two players who happened to hit better in the majors than they did in the minors and conclude that Matsui will hit better in MLB than he did in Japan. Using statistical formulas that make my brain throb, it's also noteworthy that some analysts have concluded that "the present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the 'major league' label."

Regardless of where you think Japanese baseball ranks on the competitive scale, it is admittedly useful to look at the Japanese players that have made the trek to play in MLB. However, we should use the largest possible sample size. This leads to a separate yet related problem. Lally asserts, and Neyer assents by silence, that Hideki Matsui and Ichiro are "the only two Japanese League hitters we have to compare him [Kazuo Matsui] to." Attention Mets fans - think orange hair with matching huge orange wrist bands? Anyone come to mind. Tsuyoshi Shinjyo come on down, you're the next contestant on Lally is wrong! Shinjyo played 10 seasons in Japan before coming to play in MLB where he accumulated 400 at bats his first year with the Mets. There is simply no reason not to include Shinjyo into the analysis and I'm surprised Neyer, a top disciple in the Bill James Church of Latter Day Stat Geeks, didn't point this out. Shinjyo came to MLB and hit at a .268 clip, had a .320 OBP and a .405 SLG. Not exactly Ruthian numbers, but in comparison to his lifetime statistics from Japan Shinjyo hit 8% above his career AVG, 4% above his career OBP, and lost only 4% off of his SLG. I'm tempted to give him extra points for flare, but I'll keep it simple for now. Adding these percentages to Hideki Matsui's and Ichiro's numbers, we see that for the three Japanese position players that have left Japan to play in MLB, there has only been a 3% loss in AVG, a 9% loss in OBP, and a 13% loss in SLG. Applying these numbers to Kazuo Matsui's latest three year statistical average (.315/.373/.554), we can expect the following: .306/.340/.482.

Now that we have what I think are fairly reasonable 2004 predictions for Reyes (.305/.340/.450) and Matsui (.306/.340/.482), if we are to group them together into one table setting offensive unit, they combine for .306/.340/.466. For reference, in 1986 two of the most prolific table setters in Mets history, Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman, together put up .308/.377/.415. However, this is a new era and the Mets are more concerned with competing with their rivals in the NL East than with the ghosts of the past.

Let's take a look at the NL East's one and two spot hitters' three year statistical averages combined into one offensive unit:

Pierre and Castillo: .301/.361/.372

Furcal and Giles: 286/.348/.441

*Note: while the Phillies played around with the batting order last year, Loco Larry Bowa has recently said that Bryd will be his lead off man and told WFAN that Rollins will be batting second.
Byrd and Rollins: .280/.338/.406

*Note: reports out of Montreal have been less than concrete, but I'm assuming that with the loss of Guerrero, Frank Robinson will keep Vidro batting third where the majority of his at bats were last year, and keep Endy Chavez in the lead off spot while Orlando Cabrera will hit second where he had the majority of his at bats last year.
Chavez and Cabrera: .267/.312/.393

Comparing these five offensive units, The Mets table setters (.306/.340/.466) have the first ranked AVG, the third ranked OBP and the first ranked SLG. Adding these totals together yields an NL East low five points, which propels the Mets' Reyes and Matsui to first place in the First Annual Shea Hot Corner Table Setter Showdown. The Braves finish second with seven points with a third ranked AVG and the second ranked OBP and SLG. The Marlins duo comes in third with eight points comprised of the second ranked AVG, first ranked OBP and fifth ranked SLG. With 11 points, the Phillies end up in fourth place with the fourth ranked AVG and OBP and the third ranked SLG. The Expos round out the bottom of the list with a league high 14 points, made up of a fifth place AVG and OBP and a fourth place SLG. The standing do not change when instead of using Matsui's most recent three year statistical average, we use his lifetime average minus his first two years where he accumulated less than 500 at bats.

We have seen in the past that a team's table setters can electrify their team and lead them to wins in the regular season, launch their team into the playoffs and give their team a better chance to take a short series once there. The most recent and obvious example occurred last year when the Marlins' Pierre and Castillo frustrated opposing teams all year long, including the Yankees in the World Series who had no answer for their aggressive play. There is no reason to think that the Mets table setters can't do the same. Mets fans will be treated to quite a show this year as Kazuo Matsui and Jose Reyes establish themselves as the most exciting and prolific 1 - 2 punch the Mets have ever seen. But more importantly, Matsui and Reyes will show that they are the best 2004 table setters in the NL East.
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