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For the Sake of Comparison

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 17, 2008

Nothing is more common to spring training than the game of "Who does he remind you of?" Games are sleepy. Results don't count. Yet the future is on display right before us if we could only see it. So our minds wander to comparisons.

In Nationals camp, everyone asks similar questions. Is Ryan Zimmerman just a good player, or can he become a great one, a cornerstone of a contender? Will Lastings Milledge or Elijah Dukes become a star? Is it too late for Nick Johnson or Austin Kearns to fulfill their potential? Is Wily Mo Pe¿a a classic late-blooming slugger? And is anyone in the humble, injured Nats rotation capable of anchoring the staff of a winning team?

For generations, everyone from general managers to scouts depended on their eyes to divine the answers. Talk about "more art than science." Recently, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa stood by the St. Louis batting cage, raving about the long arc of Chris Duncan's swing. "He's got as much power as anybody in the game. If you think that was beautiful, watch Rick Ankiel's action," La Russa said. "His hands are a blur through the hitting zone."

So they are.

In baseball, the eyes still have it. "We count on our scouts' opinion more than anything else," Nats General Manager Jim Bowden said yesterday. But important new statistical methods for making educated guesses about the future have arrived, too.

Now, it's possible to crunch the numbers of every player in history to see who most closely resembles whom at each point in their careers. For example, even without the customized special-project stat studies that teams such as the Nats commission, any fan can click on Baseball-Reference.com and, in a blink, see a list of the 10 players from the past who most resemble Ryan Zimmerman in offensive production at the same age. Or whose stats were almost eerily parallel to Chad Cordero at 25.

In the case of the Nats, some of the answers are shocking. It's no surprise that Zimmerman's offensive numbers after two seasons are virtually identical to hitters such as Cal Ripken, Ron Santo, Eric Chavez and Greg Luzinski. However, who would think Pe¿a's career, through age 25, compared plausibly with Albert Belle, Willie Stargell, George Bell and Jermaine Dye?

Or that Kearns, in a few years, might be similar to 30-homer 100-RBI Torii Hunter. That Felipe L¿pez strongly mirrors former Orioles standout Bobby Grich. Cristian Guzman's stats at 29 track those of Athletics shortstop Bert Campaneris, who excelled at 30, 31 and 32 in the World Series. Could Johnson still mature into an RBI machine like Tino Martinez? Surely, Dmitri Young can't have his best years past 34 like his stat-clone Paul O'Neill? And Johnny Estrada, after age 31, can't possibly turn into Elston Howard!

To be sure, many of these comparisons won't pan out. Plenty of Nats have career stats, to date, that duplicate players who later flopped. At 29, Nick Johnson and Travis Lee look like the same guy. Lee went straight downhill. Still, when you find two players whose batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are very close at the same age, there's definitely a tendency for their careers -- assuming good health -- to be closely parallel in future seasons.

What's fascinating is that two or three of this year's Nats may actually develop into a Santo, Hunter or O'Neill.

"We do a lot of career comparison studies," Bowden said after hearing these examples. "It's definitely valuable. And it's cool."

When the Nats considered trading for Milledge, they not only studied his rookie stats for the Mets but "tried to estimate what he'd do in his first 500 big league at-bats based on his progress in the minors from A to AAA ball," Bowden said.

Last winter, Manager Manny Acta consulted with a stat-fanatic friend who suggested that inconsistent starter Joel Hanrahan should be switched to the bullpen because other power pitchers with similar minor league statistical progressions had made the switch. Last week, Hanrahan struck out eight Braves in three innings. "He was throwing 95 to 98 [mph] and made some good hitters look real stupid," Bowden said. "It's too early to tell with Joel. But when you find career parallels, pay attention."

Such comparative analysis is a blunt reality check -- sometimes harsh, sometimes hopeful -- when applied to the Nats.

Put the entire Washington pitching staff to the historical test and only Cordero looks like he has much chance to leave a mark. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter and Bobby Thigpen, who once saved 57 games in a season, are among the 10 most similar to Cordero through age 25. That doesn't guarantee success. The pitcher Cordero resembles most is Gregg Olson, who was rookie of the year for the Orioles in '89, but hurt his arm young. However, the Chief could be the real thing for a long time.

It's hard to flatter any other Nats pitcher, at least based on actual performance rather than Viera verbiage that "he might be good if he could stay healthy." Tim Redding, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and John Patterson, all possible starters, generate lists of 10 "most-similar" pitchers who are virtually unknown. Patterson's career does virtually duplicate Bennie Daniels, who won a presidential opener for the Senators in '62 and was quite friendly, years later, when I visited him in prison.

It's the development of Nats hitters that's probably the key to the long-term value created this season. "Offensively, Zimmerman is in that group of hitters," Bowden said of the comparisons to nine-time all-star Santo and Ripken. "But that just measures his offense. He's got some Brooks Robinson in him, too.

"You can't compare Pe¿a to Stargell because any scout would tell you there are no similarities. But could Wily Mo be like George Bell [who once hit 47 homers]? Oh, that could happen. Could Kearns improve like Torii Hunter? Makes sense. Torii came on late."

One of the more intriguing Nats is Estrada. Of all the catchers in history, the one he resembles most is the man he plays behind -- Paul Lo Duca, 35. The odds? One reason the Nats signed Estrada even after they got Lo Duca was -- you guessed it -- career comparison. After age 31, Lo Duca reeled off three straight all-star seasons. Could Estrada do something similar?

The hardest Nats to project are two of the most important, Milledge and Dukes, who have limited big league at-bats. The Nats have parsed their minor league numbers. But in both cases, it's the scouts, more than the stats, that say, "Star material."

March is the month for daydreaming. Soon enough we'll find out if Pe¿a, when he gets back from his oblique muscle injury, resembles a Belle, a Bell or another of his comparables -- wash-out Phil Plantier. Each Zimmerman has one haunting "career comparables" among all those future stars -- some forgotten guy from long ago. For two more weeks, push such thoughts aside. When you see Kearns, just think Gil Hodges. Pretend Guzman really is Tony Kubek and remember, through age 27, Felipe L¿pez has been just as good a hitter as the great Thurman Munson.

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