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Boz = Happy (WARNING: REALLY LONG)

After getting all high-minded last time out---analyzing Die Hard and such---I figured I'd change pace and do one of those by-the-numbers analyses for my next act.

A funny thing happened on the way to Baseball Reference, though: Professor Bacon pointed me to the latest from Thomas Boswell, and there's nothing more entertaining than breaking down the Boz.

Remember what I said earlier? That the Nats were in the market for good press? Well, here it is.

Superficially, this column is in praise of Jim Bowden---and that's fine. Whether one likes Jim Bowden is not an intelligence litmus test, I think. But, basically, this column is a paean to "doing something" and "bringing in a star." I'm going to use the quote-a-line, reply-with-sarcasm blogging tactic; not that Boz will ever read this, but he shouldn't take personal offense nonetheless.

This offseason, the best thing the Nationals have going for them is GM Jim Bowden. The commissioner won't give them an owner. The D.C. Council won't give them a new stadium.

This last sentence is a bit pejorative, of course. The D.C. City Council did give a new stadium last December; an entire Baseball Stadium Agreement and an entire funding bill exist to memorialize this. What we're missing is a lease agreement. I know Boz is frustrated---we all are---but the team is getting a new stadium, no matter what. That's settled.

Rivals stole two of their best pitchers. Agents tell their clients not to sign with a team in such flux.

I can buy that.

Yet Bowden gambled this week and traded for a genuine 35-homer, 30-steal star for the Nats.

Star power, baby. That's the thesis.

I suppose that if there's a "genuine 35-homer, 30-steal guy," it's probably Soriano. He's hit those standards in the same season three times out of the last five years. Being awed by "30-30 guys" is either "so fantasy league" or "so 1988," or both---but, yeah, that's kind of neat.

In what was dissolving into an atrocious winter for the Nats, somebody had to do something. At least Bowden had the brass to try. You can be sure he'll take heat for dealing popular Brad Wilkerson (and two others) for Alfonso Soriano. But Bowden has always been a flack magnet. When he wheels and deals, the wail of critics follows him. They're usually wrong.

We'll see about that.

But I think Boz is right about something here: Bodes does get a lot of flak. Of course, much of that is self-inflicted. The guy is arrogant and makes grandiose claims; he's basically a pimp for himself. He also has a history of saying stupid and/or insensitive things. If baseball players can develop "reputations," I see no reason why baseball executives can't.

Still, Boz has a point.

His mistakes, like Cristian Guzman, are seldom forgotten.

Forgotten? He's been in DC one year.

People sometimes forget amputated limbs and pernicious vomitting, too, but it usually takes awhile.

Give it time, Boz; by 2176, I guarantee you, the Guzman contract will be entirely forgotten.

Or, like Vinny Castilla, are often exaggerated.

Exaggerated? People didn't really start dumping on the guy until he began turning the corner again. Almost everyone turned a blind eye to Castilla's three-month-long stretch of pathetic play from May-July while he was mired in said pathetic stretch.

His successes, like getting Jose Guillen, Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco last winter for peanuts, seem to get overlooked.

Not me, buster. Loaiza and Carrasco are Bowden's two best moves as GM of the Nats---great examples of effective "bounce-back guy" strategy: bring in cheaply and with no commitment, give away when the price is higher and commitment is attached.

The comment with respect to Guillen, though, must give pause to all of us who remember when Boz pronounced that Juan Rivera was "promising"---after Rivera had already been traded for Guillen. So, the "peanuts" are:

  • a guy Boswell praised (when he mistakenly thought Rivera was still a Nat, go figure); and,
  • a guy who played better than Cristian Guzman last season.
Anyway . . .
When he nails the No. 4 pick in the draft, cynics say, "Everybody knew Ryan Zimmerman would be good."

Well, Dutch was a consensus pick. Just about everyone predicted he'd go No. 4 to the Nats. You'd have to Jedi mindwipe all of the baseball media, all of the minor league geeks, and all of the industry insiders to make this one look innovative.

Now, the complaint has already arrived that the Nats have too many second basemen. Soriano despises the idea of moving to left field, though his 20 errors a year at second should clue him that it's a fine idea. Three-time all-star Jose Vidro, now rehabbing his knee and quad, was the soul of the Expos. Junior Spivey was an all-star in Arizona and started in Milwaukee. All have talent and ego. Where will they all play?

I can tell you where Spivey won't be playing: Washington.

What is it about Spivey that makes people say stupid things about him; is it his stunningly good looks? People, the Nats will non-tender the guy come December 20. No one's going to trade for him. He certainly won't be on the roster.

Spivey was basically a rental. That's not a criticism per se; it's just the truth.

Move on.

Somehow, the obvious answer gets overlooked. Between now and Opening Day, it will become obvious who plays second base, who gets traded or who shifts positions. There's time for that. If Vidro, 31, gets healthy, teams will line up at dawn to trade for him. If he doesn't, you'll be twice as glad to see Soriano. Lots of things take care of themselves.

I have a friend---an older guy, a professional---who reads those Dale Carnegie books and makes value judgments about people based on their dispositions. There's nothing he hates more than a person who mopes all the time, head down, talking about how much life stinks.

This guy is a mentor of mine; I respect him. There's a lot to be said for optimism. I'm not sure if it's entirely appropriate, but I suppose we'll take it, as long as it's backed by some reason.

But "main chances" are rare.

I have no idea what a "main chance" is.

For the Nats, Soriano could be one of them.

That's a relief. I thought for a moment we missed out on a "main chance."

"If you're ever going to be really good, then you need three starting pitchers who are either 1's or 2's and you need three hitters to bat 3-4-5 who can all drive in 100 runs. The rest you can get," Bowden said yesterday. "Soriano is a real 3-4-5 guy. When you get a shot at a piece of the puzzle like that, you have to do it."

Okay.

I'm not going to lecture Jim Bowden on roster construction or how things work. He's a long-time major league executive (Thom Loverro should love him; Bodes was hired by a front office at 26 and was a GM at 31!), and I know nothing.

But I've seen several comments today that rejoice in the Nats acquiring another middle-of-the-order threat. Let's accept that as true; Soriano will probably (hopefully?) bat fifth, and he might be able to slug commensurate with that batting order position. According to STATS, Inc., the average National League fifth hitter slugged .454. Soriano can reach that, I'd expect, even taking RFK into account.

But the big sticks in the middle don't knock in air. If you've read the blogs and message boards today, you're probably sick of hearing "on-base percentage" by now. Too bad. Most analyses of Soriano, even the positive ones (though not Boz's, go figure), cite his meager OBP. Indeed, the figure (both in '05 and for his career) is poor.

However, one must not lose sight of the OBP the Nats gave away. Both Wilkerson and Soriano had "bad OBP years"; Wilkerson still held a 44 point advantage. That's essentially the difference in their career figures, as well.

How much is that lost OBP worth to the Nats in 2006? I'm not a sabermetrician, so I can't begin to say. I do suspect it is a substantial loss. In the last five years, the "average baseball fan" ("average" in all senses, not intellect) has been introduced to the abbreviation "OPS"---which stands for, as you probably know, "On Base Plus Slugging." OPS is a fine quick-and-dirty measure of a player's offensive contribution; if one were to plot "scope of consideration" and "speed of access," it would probably came out as the best value per second spent, primarily because it is so easy to calculate.

To those of us who have known of OPS for longer and investigated it more deeply (as Mr. Boswell has, though seemingly in a different baseball lifetime), it's far from perfect and in fact can lead to some incorrect conclusions of relative player value. This is because although OPS factors in the two paramount offensive skills (becoming a baserunner and advancing baserunners), these two skills are not of equivalent value. Rather, the on-base component is more important than the slugging component. (Bill James long ago noted that OPS overrated low-OBP sluggers.)

How much more valuable is a single point of OBP? As noted at this site, studies vary from between 1.5 and, as was noted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, from two to three times as valuable. (Click on the link above, and you'll see two different models explained and graphed. The differences between the first and second models, as well as between them and "traditional" OPS, are dramatic.)

This is all to say that we cannot lose sight of the on-base skills that the Nationals have just jetisoned. In a very poor season, Wilkerson was still an able lead-off man. As long as Ryan Church (if he's still a Nat come April) keeps his average up, he might match Wilkerson's '05 production. If not, and if Jose Vidro isn't healthy and effective, these 3-4-5 guys might find RBI opportunities less frequently occurring than expected. (Of course, Soriano may benefit from batting two slots behind Johnson, a very effective OBP threat.)

Is Soriano's advantage in slugging enough to overcome the deficit in on-base? If Wilkerson's power decline last season was genuine, and if Soriano's power is not too affected by RFK Stadium, then maybe. But if either condition is not satisfied, then a positive outcome is more doubtful.

Alright, back to Boz:

Bowden is retooling a team that finished last in the sport in home runs and second to last in stolen bases. In Soriano, he gets a bunch of both. Some players have a 30-30 season once in a career. The last four seasons, Soriano has averaged 35 homers, 31 steals, 41 doubles, 105 runs and 97 RBI. He can bat anywhere in the order.

All of the figures cited by Boz are accurate, but I don't like that last sentence. It might be a vague reference to a possibility Soriano would hit lead-off. He's no lead-off hitter.

It would be an odd arrangement, though, wouldn't it? Last season, people complained that Wilkerson wasn't a true lead-off hitter, that the Nats needed someone better there, and that Wilkerson might be more effective if he were moved down in the order. Keeping all that in mind, it would be curious indeed to see people content with Soriano leading off.

Let's hope Boz isn't hinting at that possibility.

That means you have lineup flexibility in arranging the team's other quality hitters -- Guillen, Vidro, Nick Johnson and Zimmerman. Why, some combination might actually work!

Heaven forfend!

Of course, the Nats had to give quality for quality.

A fine epitaph for Brad Wilkerson.

But Wilkerson (.248, 11 homers) was completely flummoxed by RFK's deep fences. In Texas, he may thrive again. But would he ever have solved RFK? Soriano, on the other hand, can probably translate his power to RFK. In '02 and '03, he hit 39 and 38 homers playing in Yankee Stadium's Death Valley.

Boswell's line of thought is seductive in a sense (and we'll get to that in a second), but it is a bit facile:

  • Wilkerson: can't hit in pitcher's park, might thrive in hitter's park.
  • Soriano: can probably hit in pitcher's park, even though he's hit homers in hitter's park, because he's also hit homers in pitcher's park.
As you can tell, something's missing here; Boswell has included Soriano's "previous context" but has omitted it for Wilkerson. Maybe there's a reason why, or maybe it didn't occur to Boswell. No matter; Wilkerson hit 32 homers in 2004 in conditions for a hitter that were quite similar to Yankee Stadium's in 2002 and 2003.

Does that prove Wilkerson would have "solved" RFK? No, a one-season park factor doesn't prove that, and it barely gives us a speculative basis to believe so. But it is evidence, and that stuff is, like, important. And stuff.

Stat bugs will note that Soriano slugged .656 at home last year and an atrocious .374 on the road. Yikes! That better be a one-year fluke, otherwise the double-play combination of Guzman and Soriano could be Bowden's ticket back to "Cold Pizza."

That's a good line; oft-used, but I like it.

This paragraph is pretty endearing, actually---probbly the most honest, least posturing section of the column. And Boz should take heart here, because his '05 road stats were uncommonly miserable. And if I think we should take into account that Wilkerson's '05 season was uncommonly bad, then we should also keep in mind that Soriano was the victim of an outlier here, too:

Soriano's career road stats, expressed in AVG/OBP/SLG:
.275/.316/.487

That's not great, mind you, but it's miles better than '05. Think Preston Wilson's stint with the Nats, only with 40 more points of slugging percentage. In other words, a legitimate slugger.

Not a legitimate star, of course, and let's not lose sight of that for a second---at least when we're talking about "real" baseball, as opposed to the star search that is mainly the reaction to this trade. But, to be fair, Soriano is probably a legitimate slugger---Texas ballpark be damned.

Such risks are part of Bowden's charm. The Nats need a colorful GM who'll run his mouth, relish some controversy and get the town talking baseball. If you're a GM whose nascent fan base is groaning every day as Loaiza and Carrasco (both Bowden gems) are lost to free agency or an A.J. Burnett is too expensive to sign, you can't pretend that it's not happening. (That's "the Oriole Way.")

Again with the star power, the "doing something," the "making a statement." This team was hungry for good press, the Boz will happily jump at the chance to herald the trade with just that.

There's another element here: Boz, it's no secret, followed the Orioles for quite a long time. In a sense, that's how he was a relevant national baseball writer for a Washington paper, despite having no team in Washington. (That, and he was a truly great baseball writer.) But he's been down on the O's in the latter half of these Angelos years, and---not to play psychoanalyst here---I think he's latched onto a team he hopes and prays will conduct itself differently than the one owned by Angelos. (I understand the sentiment!) So, although I could be off on the lingo here, I think Boz displaces his displeasure with the O's into positive thoughts for the Nats. Hey, I could be wrong . . .

But, especially if Zimmerman fulfills half his promise, the Nats now have a heart of the order that's worth watching.

He's right about that; assuming Dutch works out, it could be a good middle of the order.

The case for Bowden is so strong it's fascinating he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, Guzman hit .219. But he hit .281 after Aug. 1 and .325 in September with 12 RBI. Can't we give the guy a second chance?

Not unless Guzman throws an .850-.900 OPS season in there one of these four years, because that's "outstanding season" he'd need to balance out this "utterly horrid season."

While we're at it, wouldn't it have been nice if Guzman had thrown in that "outstanding season" in '05? The difference between Guzman and the best shortstop in the NL in '05, Felipe Lopez was about six or seven wins; throw those in, and we hang around in the wild card race until the final weekend, making that series against the Phillies pretty fun. Oh, what could have been.

In other words, Guzman's already stunk once---and, when the "haters" say "stunk," you better believe it: Guzman stunk. From my perspective, unless he has an equivalent season of excellence and two of expected quality, the signing's already a failure.

The rap against Castilla is simply wrong. He set a franchise record for fielding percentage and all his pertinent stats last year (OPS, RBI per at-bat) were identical to his numbers at sea level in Atlanta in '02-'03. He produced what Bowden expected.

First, I don't really believe this. (See below.)

Second, if this is true, then this is not a ringing endorsement of Jim Bowden.

I've already hashed out my feelings on Bodes, and I think I've come to peace them. Consequently, I'll believe the former.

The final act of the Castilla story was Bowden at his finest. He managed to trade Castilla, opening a spot for Zimmerman, while also making a payroll-neutral deal for Brian Lawrence of San Diego. The last four years Lawrence has a 4.10 ERA and a 44-56 record -- or 11-14 per season. He's what Tony Armas Jr. wasn't: a battler who eats innings (205 a year) and never misses a start. Someday, if the Nats become a top contender, a Lawrence would be an anchor. Right now, welcome aboard.

Boz can't have it both ways, you know.

Castilla wasn't brought in to be a one-year placekeeper. How do we know that? Because the draft was still six months away when Vinny was signed. He was brought in to produce; Bodes (via Boz) can shift the goalposts all he wants, but he talked big over the winter about how Castilla had made late-career adjustments, that the lack of the Coors advantage wouldn't hurt him, blah blah blah.

Castilla was dumped---ahead of schedule.

Don't get me wrong; I liked the trade, and although Boz is presenting Lawrence in a very favorable light, I'm fond of the pitcher. But make no mistake: Castilla wasn't brought in to step aside gracefully when the third baseman of the future developed rapidly, and the fact that Boz is able to spin it so is entirely fortuitous.

And, while I remain optimistic about Zimmerman's ability, the fact remains that his big league experience is limited and the potential exists for him to be exposed.

Anyway, we're getting far afield from the Soriano trade, and I see no reason to tag along, so to speak. I could say snarky stuff about the stuff that Boz says about Bodes (sounds like a Rocket Bill sentence, only with actual names!), but I'm not going to play him like that, dog.

The trade instigated this column, and I think the point is sufficiently made: Bodes impressed Boz by making a big plunge and hauling in a well-known guy. Soriano is not a star player (though Boz regards him that way); instead, he's a stat line. The back of his baseball card is impressive, but reality of his contributions is more muddled.

There's no star here, but there are starry eyes.

There's little mention of what the Nats are giving up, littler still on the difference in salary, and no mention on the prospect surrendered. (Not even the obligatory and condescending "minor league pitcher" reference.)  

For every person tired of hearing about OBP, there's another tired of reading superficial stuff like this. Fortunately for us, there are more considerable analyses out there, both pro and con.