03 August 2005

Roberto Petagine | 1B | Pawtucket Red Sox

There is a running subplot burgeoning with the Boston Red Sox that is absolutely 100% completely befuddling and confusing to me. So, I decided I wanted to just sort of take a look at the situation, wrap my head around a couple things, and see where we come out.

Roberto Petagine was signed by the Red Sox this past offseason as, one would assume, an insurance policy for Kevin Millar at 1B and a solid LHH option off the bench. Petagine had been spending his previous six seasons splitting time between the Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Professional League.

Petagine has long been someone the SABR community kept a mental note on- someone they rooted for. After consistently posting monster years in the Houston Astros farm system from 92-94, Petagine finally got his first shot in 1994, playing in 8 games with 7 ABs and doing relatively nothing.

In that offseason, Petagine was part of the gargantuan Astros/ Padres deal that sent Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Andujar Cedeno to Houston for Derek Bell, Ricky Gutierrez, and Pedro Martinez (not that one).

With the Padres in 1995, Roberto was reportedly hurt, but still posted a solid .367 OBP in 124 ML ABs. His numbers when in AAA Las Vegas were not much of an improvement either, and his injury sapped much of his power. The injury carried over, and Roberto was traded in the offseason to the New York Mets for, among others, Pete Walker. Petagine appeared in only 96 games at the ML level that season, spending the balance of the year at AAA Norfolk and posting a sparkling .318/ .418/ .529 season.

1997 and 1998 were both split between the AAA and big league clubs of the Mets and Reds, and in both seasons Roberto posted great mL numbers, but poor ML ones. Undoubtedly this is where he earned his reputation as a AAAA player, someone who could not produce on enormous promise shown a step down on the latter. At 26/ 27, he was past "prospect" status, and there seemed to be a growing lack of expectation showing for a breakout season.

This, of course, was probably rather unfair. In 1997, in Norfolk, Petagine hit .317/ .430/ .605 with 31 HR, 100 RBI, and 85 BBs in 441 ABs. In the same season, Roberto posted a line of .067/ .222/ .607 at the big league level... in 12 ABs. In 1998, at AAA Indianapolis for the Reds, Roberto this time hit .331/ .441/ .617 with 24 HR, 109 RBI, and 79 BBs in 363 ABs! His time at the big league level amounted to 62 ABs and a solid 873 OPS- but his BA was only .258, and that following offseason, Roberto agreed to head to Japan to play for the Swallows.

From 1999- 2004, Roberto Petagine was an absolute monster in the Japanese league, posting an OPS below 1.000 only once- in 2004, with an injured knee- hitting between 34-44 HRs every season (but, again, 2004 when he hit 29), walking over 75 times a season and hitting under .315 only once.

In an article on MLEs (major league equivalencies), Rob Neyer spotlighted Petagine to make a point about AAA and Japanese league stats.

Here's what Roberto Petagine has done the last two seasons, playing first base for the Yakult Swallows in Japan's Central League.


Lest you think that Petagine somehow "found his stroke" upon arriving on those distant shores, look at these numbers:


Those are his Major League Equivalencies (MLE's), an approximation of what he might have done in the majors those years.

Ah, but he wasn't in the majors, was he? He spent most of those seasons in Triple-A. And now he's in Japan, and who trusts the stats there? Well, the Seattle Mariners do, otherwise they wouldn't have spent so much time and money on Ichiro Suzuki. And the Milwaukee Brewers must place some faith in stats from Japan, because they brought Tony Fernandez back to play third base this spring. Here's how Petagine, Fernandez and Suzuki fared last season in Japan:


No, I'm not going to suggest that Roberto Petagine is better than Ichiro Suzuki. The latter is better in the field, better on the basepaths, nearly as good at the plate, and he's younger. My point isn't that Petagine's just as good as Suzuki; rather, my point is that if Suzuki's worth the many millions of dollars the Mariners are paying him, isn't it quite possible that Petagine could help a major-league team?

By the way, in case you're wondering, Petagine did receive a few chances in the majors. Five seasons and a total of 307 at-bats. Granted, he struggled over the course of those 307 at-bats, hitting just .225 and posting a 719 OPS. The sample size, of course, while something more than meaningless, is somewhat less than meaningful. In Paul Konerko's first 304 at-bats in the majors, he batted .214 with a 593 OPS.

What that article doesn't state in addition (because it was written in 2001 before he'd joined the Yankees) is that Petagine's numbers also match up rather favorably with Hideki Matsui's when both were in Japan.

So of course, in the offseason prior to 2005, as a result, the Red Sox decided to take flyer on the guy- not an exceptional amount of money, but an opportunity to see what he had left. At 34, Petagine had knee trouble the season before, and was coming off his weakest season in Japan (at a 970 OPS). At worst he was someone that we stashed in AAA and, depending on his willingness, could go back to Japan or demand to be traded were he not on the 25 man by a certain point in the season (per his contract).

Unfortunately, after only a couple at bats in Spring Training, Petagine hurt his knee, requiring surgery and seemingly derailing his shot with the Sox.

But, in early June, Petagine done rehabbing his knee surgery, he returned and was placed on the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. His 2005 season thus far since returning:

266 AB | 18 2B | 2 3B | 20 HR | 63 BB | 46 SO | .327/ .452/ .635

20 HR in 266 ABs is one per 13.3 ABs.

In Petagine's absense, the Red Sox signed veteran 1B John Olerud to assume the role they'd hoped Petagine could play. Now splitting time at the major league level are Kevin Millar and John Olerud, while Roberto Petagine and Kevin Youkilis stay in AAA. Here are their numbers as of today:


I don't mean to suggest- and I doubt anyone is- that Roberto Petagine is a 950 OPS major leaguer. He may be- but that wouldn't even be the point. For a team that has a roster with three RF- one being kept only to comply with Rule 5 guidelines so that we can keep him in the long run (he's obviously not ML ready), a fourth that's injured, 12 pitchers, a LHH 1B defense specialist that just tweaked his hamstring, and a 34 year old 1B who's power numbers have literally fallen off a cliff... it seems strange for someone who is so throroughly dominating to not get a opportunity.

My guess is this- Theo seems enamored of Adam Stern and can't seem to let go of his Rule 5 draft choices. It's possible he sees Stern as his Dave Roberts-type for late in the season pinch running duties, but the problem with this comparison is that Roberts could handle the bat- Stern really can't. Olerud is the defensive specialist, and as such seems to survive because (I'm guessing) Francona has expressed interest in having one for late in games. Millar, of course, has been a starter for the team long enough that it doesn't matter what he does- Terry will play him.

So that leaves Petagine, mysteriously, out. It's hard to deny that he'd be an improvement over what we have, and my assumption is that he'll be up when the rosters expand in September, barring injury. There is some debate as to the quality of his glove- he has won Gold Glove awards in Japan for 1B, but that was pre-knee problems, and... in Japan. Of course, Gold Gloves- home or abroad- aren't much of a way to judge these things anyway. I've read some accounts from this season at Pawtucket that treats his defense unfavorably- this could be contributing to his being held down.

Ultimately though, with the waste of roster spots given Stern, the insistence on sticking by Millar, and percect option sitting in Pawtucket, waiting- it is incredibly frustrating that a team lauded for it's intelligence is actually preferring to stay with the clubhouse leader on the field, even though he's something of a liability both offensively and defensively.

So, you know- free Petagine.

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