A weblog covering the San Diego Padres.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Free Morgan Ensberg

I've been saving a big rant in my head for a while now, but I think I'm ready now to at least present the issue. It goes like this: Free Morgan Ensberg.

If you're not sure who he is, he's a good field, good hit third baseman for the Astros. He's also out of USC, for full disclosure here.

Aaron Gleeman has Johan Santana...

I have Morgan Ensberg.

Mind you I don't think Morgan is as good as Johan, but he deserves to have someone watching his back. Teammate Jason Lane, another Trojan, should get a quick nod as well. Both are better hitters and fielders than the playing time they receive, and at worst are very cheap better than replacement level players.

I first heard about Morgan reading some story on ESPN.com about Astros minor league prospects, and it mentioned how he had been doing really well at AA Round Rock while Lane was also getting hot at the same time with the AA club Round Rock. Ever since, I've been following both, and have generally liked what I've seen.

Jason is more of a versatile, outfielder type, with ok speed and decent power. Up until now, he has been a pinch hitter, and has put together a Brian Buchanan like career. He has a shot as an everyday starter, but at the worst should be taking every non-starting outfield at bat Houston can provide.

He hasn't. Instead, he's had to share with Orlando Palmeiro. Lane has just 32 AB this year, compared to Palmeiro's 44. Those are basically all of Houston's outfield at bats from the bench, so at least he's not having to watch some other scrub steal at bats as well. We'll continue to track him, but I'm getting distracted from the real star here, Mr. Ensberg.

Ensberg's career has been a steady one through the minors after being drafted out of USC in the 9th round of the 1998 draft.

1998 and 1999 were spent in high and low A ball, where he struggled with his average, but demonstrated excellent power, combining for 35 doubles and 20 homeruns over 623 at bats at the age of 23 and 24. He also showed the ability to take a walk, drawing 114 of them in that time span.

In 2000, at the age of 25, he was promoted to AA Round Rock where he really got the big club's attention, hitting .300 for the season, with 34 doubles, 28 homeruns and 92 walks in 483 at bats. That kind of hitting also got him a cup of coffee at the major league level, netting him seven at bats before returning to the minors.

In 2001, he was bumped to AAA New Orleans for a full season, and found similar results, this time inching up in age as he was now 26. In 316 at bats, he hit .310, hit 20 doubles, 23 homeruns, and walked 45 times. Amazingly, he wasn't called up to the Big Club.

That season, Houston went 93-69 to win the N.L. Central Division, but there was room for Morgan. Their starting third baseman was Vinny Castilla, who hit .270/.320/.492 in 445 at bats. Behind him, the Astros found room to play such bench greats as Jose Vizcaino, Orlando Merced, Chris freaking Truby and the rotting corpse of Charlie Hayes.

Underappreciated, Morgan Ensberg spent 2002 shuttling between AAA and the majors. He would hit .288/.401/.421 in 292 AB for the small club and .242/.346/.394 in 132 AB for the Big Club. Not bad numbers by any means. Ensberg had clearly established a very solid record in the minors and was at least passing in the majors, especially in terms of finding ways to get on base as he adjusted to better pitching. Houston would start Geoff Blum at third base, and he had a decent season, but out of character for himself, hitting .283/.367/.440 in 368 AB.

Last year, at the ripe age of 28, Morgan finally played a full season in the majors.

Sort of.

Houston and manager Jimy Williams would platoon the poor guy with Geoff Blum, a career platoon guy. This makes sense when you have two guys who are platoon types. Ensberg might be a platoon guy, but Houston had no way of knowing after just 132 AB with Ensberg, especially given his power. This was mistake number one and I think it's hurt him since.

At that point in his career, Ensberg deserved a real chance, and it just didn't happen. Blum's career year had gone by, and it was the perfect opportunity to let Morgan take over the everyday role.

Instead, Jimy Williams stuck with Blum for unknown and probably insane reasons. I liked him in Boston, but he's really annoyed me for this special situation. As expected, Blum played like his real self, going .262/.295/.379 in 420 AB. He was basically a wasted out every time up, and indirectly stole over 200 ABs from Mr. Ensberg right at the peak development age for a baseball player.

For the record, Ensberg went .291/.377/.530 in his 385 AB last year, hitting 25 homeruns and knocking out 15 doubles. His power and patience had merged and he had demonstrated his ability to play a corner infield position despite a quasi-platoon.

So what does Houston do this year to reward the guy after parting ways with Blum, Mr. .262/.326/.408 ???

It signs Mike Lamb, another career platoon guy and what Ensberg may become with all these wasted at bats. Lamb was a serviceable hitter and fielder for Texas a few years back as a hotshot rookie, but never developed much power or compensated with great fielding. Texas responded by having him block a better young hitter in Hank Blalock for a year before getting smart and parting ways. Sound familiar?

Well, Mr. Lamb is now one of Houston's hottest hitters, and has made third base effectively a platoon again for Ensberg and the Astros.

I'm having some trouble with the table html, so just scan down a bit to continue reading this post.

Player At Bats BA OBP SLG
Morgan Ensberg 132 .273 .329 .356
Mike Lamb 70 .343 .373 .571

Credit is due, of course, to Mr. Lamb for having one of the better hit streaks of his career, and I understand Houston for riding the hot hand. He hasn't taken all of Ensberg's at bats, but he has basically taken away his chance at playing everyday consistently. I bet Morgan and Mike get along, as both are LA-Area guys, Morgan being from Huntington Beach and Mike from West Covina. But that doesn't excuse his really poor timing and Houston's general stupidity.

Of course, for now, it looks like I'm talking out of my tail since Morgan is slumping, but that's just bad timing on his part.

The thing about the two is that Mike is just hitting well right now, but his career indicates his normal play is a lot farther from this current reality.

Check out these discipline numbers of the two, and see who is maybe just a bit lucky and who is making an effort to get on consistently:

Player & K/BB
Lamb 16/4
Ensberg 15/12

Yikes. Lamb's also K'd that much in many fewer ABs.

Here's one final comparison for the two (going INTO this season), both at the same position, and the same age (just 19 days apart):

At Bats
Lamb 1129
Ensberg 524

Lamb .282/.336/.385
Ensberg .279/.368/.492

Why is baseball so inefficient that it gives a player like Mike Lamb so many chances in his mid twenties to establish himself and he can't do it, yet a player who shows an ability to cut it as a regular gets platooned and loses so many at bats at the same age? I think this is one of the inefficiencies that many in the SABR/Baseball Blog Blog/Moneyball crowd go crazy about.

The fact that guys like Phil Nevin, Morgan Ensberg, Scott Hatteberg, and many more fall between the cracks is astounding. There's a lot more like them out there, someone like Pittsburgh's Craig Wilson, for example. If that team weren't so bad their management wouldn't even want him on the roster because they have no clue just how good he is.

I just hope Ensberg can shake off all the lost at bats and find a way to make it real big for himself starting in his late twenties. Surprisingly, there's a similar player in recent memory, also a third baseman, also shuttled around by the Astros and undervalued nearly into his 30's.

If you guessed Phil Nevin you understand where I'm going at now. Free Morgan Ensberg!

One last thing I want to throw out real quick: BaseballReference has a cool feature called "Similar Batters" for individual players, and it does it by age and general rank. Here are some comparisons for Blum, Lamb, and Ensberg, just to further point out his potential and what chumps have been in his way.

Geoff Blum:
Melvin Mora, Rex Hudler, Scott Cooper, Tim Naehring
Mike Lamb:
Timo Perez, Doug Glanville, Alex Ochoa
Morgan Ensberg:
Hank Blalock, Austin Kearns, Craig Wilson


Free Morgan Ensberg!

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