Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hiding in plain view

You've heard of breakout stars, right? In any walk of life, it's easy to define - a previous unknown who suddenly leaps from obscurity to stardom; or else an undervalued supporting talent suddenly turning in the work of a lifetime. For example, Ewan McGregor was a breakout star thanks to Trainspotting; Windows was even a breakout once upon a time, with version 3.x (leading to the unendurable release hype for '95, '98, etc.).

It would be dumb, however, to call Ewan McGregor a breakout star for The Island, or to say that Windows is a hot new product just because XP doesn't crash every seventeen minutes. So why, then, does's Jon Heyman have a bunch of 30-year old ballplayers on his breakout star lists?

I'd say it's because he started with 25 and worked to fill the number, but I can't, since his preposterous NL list has 28 names. (He pulled the 7 A-D bit, the way Peter King does to stretch his "Ten Things" lists out to thirty or so.) But let's start in the AL, where one of his names is Jermaine Dye.

Dye is 32. He is having a great year for the White Sox, true; it's probably his best ever, but it's not exactly a thunderbolt from the blue. From 1999-2001 he averaged .299, 39 doubles, 29 hr, 114 rbi, and 98 runs a year. This led the Sox to eventually acquire him, and he has repaid them:

2004 - .265, 23 hr, 80 bi
2005 - .274, 31 hr, 86 bi and the World Series MVP.

This is hardly an under-the-radar guy; neither can this be a surprise since Heyman says "It's not like the World Series MVP was obscure going into the season." And while I do note that he's well above his career marks, he's been well above them before, most notably as an All-Star with the Royals in 2000. (Yes, he hit that well in Kansas City.)

On to the NL, where his breakout list includes three guys who, as of this moment, average 33 years old and over 1230 games of Major League service.

The first questionable guy from Heyman's list is Jose Valentin - surprising, yes, but a 36 year old really can't have a breakout, can he? Resurgence is the better word, I think. The first surge is five consecutive years of 25 or more homers for the White Sox - all the way back at the beginning of this century, 2000-2004.* Huh, looks a lot more like 2005 was an aberration.

Second guy is another Met, Carlos Beltran. This is just bananas. Let's see, he's driven in 100+ runs in six of his nine seasons, was a highly-prized free agent two years ago, and in 1999 he was only the American League Rookie of the Year (.293 avg, 22 hr, 108 rbi, 27 sb in KC.**). Sure, really un-noticed fellow there.***

The third guy is a little-heard-of former Yankee who led the whole American League in extra-base hits, stolen bases, and runs scored in 2002; a guy toiling in anonymity in the past five seasons (average numbers: .282 avg, 32 hr, 92 rbi, 100 runs, 33 steals), some left-fielder named Alfonso Soriano.

Soriano and Beltran have combined for 8 All-Star games in 17 years, by the way. "Breakout" is apparently a term lost on the vast numbers of fans who vote for players. (You're supposed to be keeping these guys secret!) And Heyman isn't exactly hitting the non-player stuff hard, either -

In today's stadiums, which run from a half-billion dollars on up, why do they still use chain-link fences in some parks, like Philadelphia and Houston? Since the only apparent reason for the chain-link fences is to allow players in the bullpen to watch the game, they should use plexiglass. Until then, more outfielders are going to get hurt. Aaron Rowand and Carlos Beltran already have.
Follow that. In order to prevent injuries, ballparks ought to replace a relatively-soft surface with a thick, ungiving surface, commonly used to contain the heavy, frequent high-speed collisions of hockey players and wayward, 90+ mph pucks. Does anyone think that Rowand would have been happier to face-plant a plexiglass panel rather than chain-link? He may never have played again.

It seems to be catching, since the usually-reliable Frank Deford spent today's column complaining about hitters taking too many pitches. It's ruining the game, he says. You know, because all those batters waiting for a good pitch and putting it into play makes it slow and boring. Too many foul balls, he says.

Well, if you were constantly facing new pitchers, you'd be wise to take a few to see what kind of stuff he has, right? And there's no real solution, anyway, to patient batting. Throw more first strikes, force them to be aggressive earlier in the counts - in other words, force them to foul off more pitches. Nor is it merely a matter of blaming stronger hitters, since pitchers are stronger too. "Whippier bats," heh.

To leave you with something less negative, here's an article I found that investigates the drop in the complete game and apparent rise in pitches per game per team (difficult to quantify since pitch counts weren't compiled until recently). It's very interesting stuff.

* I'm aware the new century didn't start until 1/1/2001, but his string encompasses that date, so my statement is correct.
** KC had him, Dye, and Mike Sweeney all smacking the ball around at the same time, and still managed to screw it up. Yikes.
*** Odd trivia: Beltran and Valentin were both born in Manati, Puerto Rico. Nifty little confluence there.

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