Friday, January 23, 2004

I Can't See, For Maels: When
Managers Can't Process Two Things At Once  

About half this text appeared in posts I made at Baseball Primer. If you read
those already, I wanted to prepare you so you could scan though that quickly.

Back in in late October, a couple of high-level Cuban ballplayers defected, 24-year old Sancti Spíritus starter Maels Rodriguez and 31-year old second baseman Yobal Dueñas, with the intent of playing in the majors. Because the system has some built-in edges for teams that sign Cuban defectors, front offices have been eyeing the merchandise.

But in a wierd way that's an lesson in limited thinking that's illustrative for decisionmakers beyond baseball.

According to the fairly studious Baseball America:

Rodriguez, a 24-year-old righthander, would be the best big league prospect to defect from Cuba were it not for recent rumors of back and arm injuries. Rodriguez, whose fastball regularly reached 100 mph in the past, set the single-season strikeout record in Cuba, fanning 263 batters in 178 innings three years ago. In the 2001-02 season, he struck out 219 in 148-1/3 innings, going 14-3, 2.13 ERA. [snip]

Rodriguez, listed at 5-foot-11, 176 pounds during the 2000 Olympics, has had a strong international career as well, striking out 22 in 13 scoreless innings during the Olympics. One pro scout in Sydney rated Rodriguez' fastball an 8 on the scouting 2-to-8 scale, "because you can't go higher". [snip]

Dueñas, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound second baseman from Pinar del Rio, is a five-tool player and former Cuban stolen base champ who, at 31, is on the down side of a career that saw him debut in the Cuban national league at 17.


So there are two all-stars who played in the same league. Two possibilities, a young starting pitcher with an excellent record against inconsistent opposition, and a slightly-past-his peak slugging second baseman with baserunning speed. In an "efficient market" a group of teams would be pursuing each, with a few more probably pursuing Rodriguez because his upside is higher, meaning he should command more money, but a fair number pursuing Dueñas, because this type is fairly rare. But it appears according to this more recent USA Today article that, essentially, Rodriguez is lighting up a ton of interest, Dueñas is chopped liver. Let's do a quick overview of values and risks for each. I have more data on Dueñas' career, so that'll be a little more detailed.

Rodriguez: Young, at 24, so lots of career left if he can pitch at major league level. Extraordinary numbers (strikeouts per 9 innings rate at remarkable levels, earned over many innings, "measured" at 100 m.p.h., pro scout rates his most important pitch at or beyond the top of the scale). But two injuries, to back and to pitching arm, after which he lost 15 m.p.h. off his fastball (close to fatal if he can't get it back). Cuban league pitchers of his peak accomplishment have succeeded in the majors, been ordinary, and been useless. High potential reward, high risk, and because of high interest, high cost.

Dueñas: At 31, a year or three past his prime. Players of his skill-set (Roberto Alomar, Toby Harrah) tend to shear off around age 33, sometimes later, so one to three years of high-level use if he can play at a major league level.

In the most recent championship season in Cuban baseball, Dueñas played for Pinar Del Rio, the team that finished with the best record in the league (64-26, .711). Dueñas led his team in BA (.348, missed BA champion's .408 by a wide mark, and was 16th in the league this stat), though on the positive side, his team led the league in BA, so being the leading BA person on a team that overall leads is a little accomplishment. League BA was .293.

His 90 game regular season line was:
256 AB 49R 89H 18 D 2 T 10 HR 48 RBI 16 BB 18 K.

League SLG was .426, Dueñas' was .551
League ISO was .133, Dueñas' was .203
League OBA was .356, Dueñas' was .386
League AB/(2b+3b) was 18, Dueñas' was 13
League AB/HR was 44, Dueñas' was 26

ISO is isolated power, a generalized stat for measuring extra-base hit ability that by putting together doubles, triples and homers, measures an overall "power" type hitter.

Far more doubles, homers, batting average than league average batters. Doesn't walk or strike out a lot. His defense is questionable.

Cuban teams are regional and are not allowed to make trades to balance an excess at one position against a void in another, so some people, to avoid being stuck forever behind someone, end up moving to a position they're not so good at. I saw Dueñas play a single game in which he looked average, but his reputation among the Pinar fans we heard from is that he's not better-than-average with the leather.

Here's the most interesting thing about him to a decisionmaker, though. While many high level Cuban pitchers have tried to make the majors, Dueñas is the most accomplished Cuban hitter to have a chance to play in the majors since the anti-Cuba embargo started. His offensive abilities are diverse, severely lacking only in walks, but better than average in contact, BA, extra base hits, and dingers. Presuming he's not emotionally wasted by his recent life experiences, Dueñas should be an interesting data point to judge the potential quality of the better Cuban hitters to compete as individuals in the majors.

The upside is a few years of that valuable-because-too-rare commodity, a power-speed hitting middle infielder. The downside is probably he can be very competitive in AAA but not in the majors.

According to the USA Today article, he's a lightly regarded utility player.

Strange he's so lightly-regarded. Clearly past his prime years, but to this age the second baseman has had the equivalent of Toby Harrah's bat and glove in a somewhat competitive league. This last season he played for the championship team, and was their leading hitter in several rate categories.

Since his value lies in a combo of isolated power plus batting average, not the attributes that tend to vaporize first, and because sometimes players find an uptick in power after age 30, I think some team that needs offensive pop at 2nd base and can afford a sub-par fielder should take a look at him. Todd Walker has a job at the same age with an apparently weaker bat and the same kind of leather.

Rodriguez could be another Mark Prior. Dueñas could be the good-not-great Roberto Alomar for a couple of years or maybe more.


Why total interest in Rodriguez, none of note in Dueñas?

The answer is a management decisionmaking lesson, and I'll explain in my next entry.

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