Tuesday, January 13, 2004

A Brief History of Tony Clark 

Born in Newton, Kansas, Tony Clark was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers with the second pick of the 1990 amateur draft (the Braves used the first overall pick on Chipper Jones; in that same draft, the Yankees selected Carl Everett tenth overall and picked up Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada in the 20th and 24th rounds respectively). Making his major league debut in 1995 at age 23, the six-foot-seven switchhitter failed to impress over his first 101 at-bats posting a dismal .238/.294/.396 line.

Things began to look up in 1996, however, as Clark found his power stroke, knocking out 27 homers in 376 at-bats and posting a .503 slugging percentage. In the process, he swiped the first-base job from incumbent Cecil Fielder, who was traded to the eventual World Champion Yankees at the trading deadline for none other than Clark's new Yankee benchmate Ruben Sierra. As Detroit's starting first baseman in 1997, the man Michiganders would soon be calling "Tony the Tiger" had a break-out season, blasting 32 homers, driving in 117 runs and scoring another 105 while slugging an even .500 and leading the Tigers to a respectable (for the Tigers) 79-83 record.

Yet, the most impressive aspect of Tony Clark's 1997 season was the increase in his walk rate. After walking just 29 times in 411 plate appearances in 1996, Clark drew 93 walks in 681 trips to the plate in 1997. Aided by 13 intentional walks, Clark nearly doubled his walk rate (from once every 14 PA to one every 7.3), and added 77 points to his on base percentage. 1998 saw some correction in his walk rate (basically splitting the difference to once every 10.7 PA), but also saw Clark set his existing career highs in average (.291) and slugging (.522).

Clark repeated his production of the previous two years in 1999 and adjusted well to the Tigers' move to the more spacious Comerica Park in 2000, actually out-slugging his career best by several points. Unfortunately his 2000 season was plagued by injuries that held him to just 232 plate appearances. In mid-May Clark missed a month due to a sprained left rib cage, then in mid-July he sprained his spine. The back injury would keep him on the disabled list for a month and a half, and send him back to the D.L. for good after just eighteen days in September. In 2001, Clark collected hits and drew walks at a tick above his typical rates, earning his only trip the the All-Star game as the representative of another awful Tigers team, but saw a significant decline in his power stroke, lifting just 16 homers in 428 at-bats and slugging below .500 for the first time since his dreadful rookie campaign. Just before the season's end the injury bug bit again, this time with a season-ending wrist injury.

Discouraged by Clark's decline in production, recent rash of injuries and $5 million salary for 2002, Detroit placed Tony the Tiger on waivers in November 2001. Clark was quickly claimed by the Boston Red Sox who hoped that he would be the answer to a first base puzzle that included Brian Daubach and Jose Offerman. Instead, Clark and the Red Sox suffered through what has come to be known as Tony Clark's "lost season." Over 275 at-bats in 85 games (70 starts at first), Clark managed just three home runs despite moving his home games from Comerica to Fenway Park (Clark hit just one dinger at the Fens that year). He actually managed to under perform his awful rookie showing by posting a .207/.265/.291 line. As if to add to the strangeness of his 2001 campaign, Clark, a switch-hitter who generally has better success batting right against lefties, hit an abysmal .159/.188/.256 against lefties in 2002. Topping everything off, his walk rate tumbled to one every 14 plate appearances.

Having nearly played his way out of baseball in Boston, Clark managed to snag a minor league deal with the Mets prior to the 2003 season. Clark actually started the season in the minors but was called up to the big club on April 6. Less than a month later, Mo Vaughn landed on the disabled list with what appears now to be a career-ending knee injury and Tony Clark again found himself in the thick of a team's first-base picture. In 80 games with the Mets (52 starts), Clark collected 254 at-bats, raised his walk rate to one every 11.7 PA, smacked 16 homers (nine of them at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium), and slugged .472. While his rate stats in 2003 fell short of his numbers during his peak seasons in Detroit, they proved that at just 31 years old, Tony Clark could still be an offensive plus to a team in need.

And that team is the New York Yankees, who signed Clark to a one-year, $750,000 contract probably about the same time that I wrote, "Tony Clark has not materialized in the Bronx and the rumors of his doing so have quieted down," yesterday. Heh.

Back before Christmas, I wrote that the Yankees needed to fill their back-up firstbase slot with a righty bat, suggesting Ron Coomer and Andres Galarraga as bargain basement options. Clark is significantly younger than both of those players, is just as cheap, and is a switch-hitter who is much better from the right side. Thus I say, good job.

To recap, the Yankees need a righty because their current bench consists of two no-hit infielders, a no-hit back-up catcher, and Ruben Sierra, a switch hitter who's stronger batting left. What's more, the Yankees projected centerfielder, lefty-hitting Kenny Lofton, is a below-average hitter against lefty pitching.

Here are some numbers:

Ruben Sierra vs. lefty pitching: 2003 - .236/.281/.404 (.227 GPA); 2002 - .266/.312/.357 (.230 GPA)
Kenny Lofton vs. lefty pitching: 2003 - .244/.283/.363 (.218 GPA); '01-'03 - .246/.299/.348 (.222 GPA)


Tony Clark vs. lefty pitching: 2003 - .279/.355/.500 (.285 GPA); 2001 - .321/.376/.557 (.308 GPA)


Kenny Lofton vs. righties: 2003 - .313/.373/.478 (.287 GPA); '01-'03 - .281/.354/.442 (.270 GPA)


And for yucks:

Ruben Sierra vs. righties: 2003 - .284/.346/.427 (.262 GPA); '01-'03 - .279/.328/.481 (.268 GPA)
Tony Clark vs. righties: 2003 - .215/.279/.462 (.241); '01-03 - .243/.326/.409 (.249 GPA)

hmmmmm . . .

Those last two lines, Sierra from his stronger left side and Clark from his weaker left side, suggest that Clark will be a more valuable bat than Sierra in the coming season (and it doesn't hurt that Clark is seven years younger than Sierra either).

More importantly the stats previous to that make it abundantly clear that a Tony Clark/Kenny Lofton platoon (with Bernie shifting to center against lefties) would give the Yankees a tremendous boost. Take a look at those two lines again:

Tony Clark vs. lefty pitching: 2003 - .279/.355/.500 (.285 GPA); 2001 - .321/.376/.557 (.308 GPA)
Kenny Lofton vs. righties: 2003 - .313/.373/.478 (.287 GPA); '01-'03 - .281/.354/.442 (.270 GPA)

By way of comparison here are the GPAs for Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano over the past two seasons. Jeter: .289 & .273; Soriano: .283 & .286.

Basically, a Lofton/Clark platoon would give the Yankees another full-time offensive player on the level of a Jeter or Soriano. I just hope Joe Torre's smart enough to make it happen.

Final thought: if one eliminates his lost 2002 season and his awful 101 at-bats as a rookie in 1995, Clark has been an almost dead-on league average firstbaseman over the remainder of his career. Considering the amount of offense that has come out of the first base position since 1996, that would make Clark well worth $750,000 and Kenny Lofton's at bats against lefty pitching. He's got the first, let's hope he gets the second.

posted by Cliff at 9:31 PM

Monday, January 12, 2004

Ex-Yanks and Random Thoughts 

Lo, in these dark days of January my soul be not stirred by tall tales of Tony Clark. Nor my ire raised by the thorny maneuvers of the banished Rose. Nor my readership amused by laughable attempts at poetic whimsy.

Frankly, there's just not much I feel like writing about right about now. My opportunity to weigh in on the Hall of Fame ballot was eaten up by the holidays and the assembling of my own ballot (details in my next post--really). I still hope to offer some opinion on the matter, but I'm waiting for Jay Jaffe to post the second half of his analysis, as I found his take on the eligible hitters very interesting. Let's just say that while I'm happy for Paul Molitor, I'm less than happy about the continued absence of Goose Gossage and now Ryne Sandberg (if those two aren't Hall of Famers, neither should Eckersley and Molitor be).

Things on the Yankee front have been tremendously quiet as of late. Tony Clark has not materialized in the Bronx and the rumors of his doing so have quieted down. Other than Javier Vazquez's new contract, the only real Yankee-related news since the Lofton signing was made official on December 23 has been about new destinations for members of the 2003 team. First David Wells signed with the Padres. Then the Red Sox claimed triple-A catcher Michel Hernandez off waivers (not long after claiming Yankee farmhand Colter Bean, a right-handed reliever, in the Rule 5 draft). Then recently-fired hitting coach Rick Down was re-hired by the team as the "coordinator of minor league instruction." Next up was the everlasting Don Zimmer, who did indeed make his way over to Sweet Lou's Devil Rays, though not as a bench coach. Instead, he's been named Tampa Bay's "senior baseball advisor." With David Dellucci in Texas, Andy Pettitte in Houston and Lee Mazzilli in Baltimore that leaves just Karim Garcia, Jeff Nelson and Antonio Osuna as the only 2003 Yankees without teams for 2004.

And I mean only, as today a third member of the Yankees 2003 rotation gave George a good look at his favorite finger. Yes, folks, Roger Clemens will join Andy Pettitte in the Houston Astros 2004 rotation. Read it and weep.

It's pretty staggering when you think about how Roger Clemens screwed over the Yankees this offseason. First he leaned heavily on good buddy Andy Pettitte to come home to Houston, going as far as to set up unofficial meetings between Pettitte and members of the Astros front office. Then, as soon as the ink dried on Andy's contract, he started playing coy about his willingness to "unretire" and pitch for the Astros, which he is now going to do.

Is there any doubt that the Yankees would have offered Clemens arbitration and attempted to resign him had he not "retired?" Clemens' retirement schtick not only cost the Yankees his own services, but the draft picks they would have received as compensation for his departure (though to be fair, the Yanks should have offered him arbitration anyway, and I find the fact that they didn't to be either highly suspicious or tremendously foolish).

Meanwhile, as I said in my first post of the new year: "With Kevin 'If He's Healthy' Brown, 'Tommy' Jon Lieber and Jose 'There's Nothing Wrong With My Shoulder' Contreras comprising sixty percent of the rotation (not to mention the bright yellow light hung on Javier Vazquez), there is sufficient need for insurance beyond Jorge DePaula and pray for (other) rookies." Roger Clemens for one year at $5 million sure would have looked good.

Red Sox fans have to be loving this.

I'll give the final word to Steve Bonner, who posted this in the Bronx Banter comments secton: "I think the bitchin' thing about Roger signing with Houston is that now Yankee fans can stop pretending they like the guy."

In other news, I'm happy to report the return of my football jones. The Giants may have gone 4-and-suck, but playoff football cures all ills. Which brings me to the following question: WTF was Brett Favre thinking when he threw that jump ball to two Eagle defenders in overtime yesterday?! That has to be one of the all-time worst clutch plays, in any sport, by a Hall of Fame player known for his big-game performances. Just awful.

posted by Cliff at 1:10 PM

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