Geek Love

Mark Shapiro has embraced his inner nerd -- and the Indians are better for it.

Har Mar Superstar, with Trans Am, the Six Parts Seven, and Aloha Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Friday, December 27, $10, 216-241-5555.
Mark Shapiro, in his oblivion period, acquired Matt - Lawton. - Walter  Novak
Mark Shapiro, in his oblivion period, acquired Matt Lawton.

This time last year was not Mark Shapiro's finest hour. Stuck with a Geritol roster at Sotheby's prices, the Indians' rookie general manager got cute and tinkered. He traded Robbie Alomar for Matt Lawton and prospects. Ricky Gutierrez was recruited to play second base. Shapiro also gave closer Bob Wickman a new contract and brought in free agent Brady Anderson.

Each was a lousy move.

Lawton's and Gutierrez's years were ruined by injury. Wickman's elbow snapped, and Anderson was every bit as bad as the .202 batting average he brought to town. Shapiro looked like Carson Daly anchoring World News Tonight.

It's easy to pile on a guy a year after the fact, but a band of baseball nerds doubted Shapiro well before Gutierrez displayed his Tin Man routine. The 2002 edition of Baseball Prospectus ($21.95; Brassey's Inc.), published last February, thought Shapiro had sunk his head in the stupid vat.

Wickman: "A waste of money," said Baseball Prospectus.

Anderson: "A move that marks an ugly starting point in the education of Mark Shapiro . . . Rather than sign Brady Anderson, the Indians should have given [Karim] Garcia a clean shot."

Gutierrez: "The Indians could have saved themselves a lot of money by plugging [John] McDonald in at second base rather than signing Gutierrez. Over the next two seasons, the difference between the two could be negligible. Well, except for the eight million bucks."

Lawton: "Thought of as young, but he's already 30."

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. About the only thing Baseball Prospectus missed was its branding Omar Vizquel an "expensive, unproductive player." Little O had a nice year.

Still, it wasn't bad for a bunch of amateurs. Baseball Prospectus was started in 1995 by an MBA student at the University of California-Davis. On Usenet, Gary Huckabay found other baseball fans who could write as well as handle statistics. Today, the contributors include an engineer, a math professor, and a dermatologist. Their first annual sold 190 copies. Huckabay says 40,000 will be printed this spring.

Prospectus is part of a larger movement that might be called the Numbers Don't Lie School: a belief that statistics, if properly massaged, tell much about a player. Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane has built a low-rent dynasty out of "secondary average," a combination of walks and power. New Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who turned 29 last month, hired Baseball Abstract author Bill James as an advisor. Huckabay says Baseball Prospectus has "pretty strong relationships" with a number of major league clubs. "If we're likely to make a recommendation to someone who is a client, it's not as if it's rocket science," he says. "We're recommending buy low and sell high -- that's not exactly revolutionary."

Elements of Baseball Prospectus are daunting. A pitcher's stuff is measured by the equation (6xK/9) - [1.333x(ERA+PERA)] - (5xHR/9) - (3xBB/9). Even dedicated baseball fans may leaf through the pages and think, These guys need girlfriends. Still, the conclusions drawn from the hieroglyphs are at times savagely funny. Outfielder Raul Mondesi is compared to "the velvet nude hanging on the living room wall; ridding yourself of it requires admitting that nobody else thinks it's remotely worth what you paid for it."

Clubs awarding mediocre talent fat contracts is a major Prospectus peeve, which left Shapiro to take a beating in the 2002 edition. "It's a terrible strategy, perhaps the fastest way for a team to go from division champ to oblivion," the guide said.

Say this for Shapiro: He learns from his mistakes.

When the 2002 season fell into a coma, Shapiro started dealing pricey older players for cheap young ones. The strategy is hardly unique. What's interesting is how Shapiro picked up farmhands Baseball Prospectus had praised in the same edition that warned Cleveland of oblivion. Hotshot Brandon Phillips, the key to the Bartolo Colon trade, wasn't hiding under a bush, but the resemblance between Prospectus's assessments and Shapiro's acquisitions is exquisite. New slugger Travis Hafner, for instance, "can flat out mangle a baseball," Prospectus said. Of Ben Broussard, Prospectus wrote, "He has pole-to-pole power, hits to all fields, and could step into a big-league lineup right now without missing a beat." (Baseball America had left Hafner and Broussard off its list of top 100 prospects.) Pitchers Ricardo Rodriguez, Cliff Lee, and Aaron Myette got good notices, too.

So, have the Indians been cribbing? "No, that's pretty much a coincidence," Assistant GM Neal Huntington says. "It's easy for periodicals to tout the virtues of young players, because they haven't been exposed at the major-league level as either legitimate major-league players or prospects who don't ever come to fruition."

That said, the Indians do employ Eddie Epstein, an analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who runs the numbers on possible trades and free-agent hires for a number of clubs. Huntington says the Indians use statistical analysis more today than they did a year or so ago, but he does not see a time when the club will replace tobacco-spitting scouts with a bunch of Epsteins. "As strong a role as statistics can play, we're still talking about human beings," he says.

Still, unfeeling numbers are the reason Jim Thome has a new summer home. Huckabay says Thome is "everything we like in an offensive player," but he wouldn't have made the Phillies' offer. "Do you really want him on your club for $15 million a year when he's 36 and 37 years old? I don't think so. At some point, you just gotta say, 'Thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.'"

As for Shapiro, Huckabay says, "He's very promising. We do think pretty highly of him. I think he's going to be better than John Hart, personally. I like the fact that he's honest and says, 'Look, we're in a rebuilding phase.' It's very rare that a general manager will basically punch the marketing department in the face and start managing expectations the way he should."

Huckabay doesn't expect the Era of Lowered Expectations to last long. The Indians could return to prominence as early as September 2004, he says. "We love [catcher] Victor Martinez. He might be a franchise-type player, and in the AL Central, that might be enough."

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