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First choice

In the Millar-Mientkiewicz debate, someone has to be pulled off the bag

Using the 2005 Baseball Register, it's rather easy to compare Doug Mientkiewicz and Kevin Millar. Their entries fall on facing pages (312 and 313), separated in the alphabetical listings only by Colorado second baseman Aaron Miles.

But a true evaluation of the Red Sox' first basemen -- one of whom is likely to be traded before spring training -- should go beyond the season-by-season statistics that appear on those pages. It should include subjective analysis and anecdotal evidence. But when contacted for such information, almost every opposing general manager and front office employee we called refused comment, citing tampering regulations.

That leaves the stats.

For the moment, ignore what Millar is in the clubhouse: a vivacious spirit, a mental masseur for Manny Ramirez, and a human barometer capable of not only reading but also decreasing atmospheric pressure. Also set aside the fact that Mientkiewicz is outgoing yet controversial, and prone to taking a stance, one that has nothing to do with batting.

For purposes of this comparision, four categories will be evaluated: Past Offensive Performance, Future Offensive Performance, Defense, and Health.

The goal: Produce a thorough analysis to determine who fits best as the first baseman for the 2005 Boston Red Sox.

Past Offensive Performance:
While Millar was willing to address almost any topic last season -- the revelation of pregame Jack Daniel's shots was one of his more notable musings -- his bat spoke for itself. Millar hit .297 with 18 home runs and 74 RBIs and did most of his damage (13 HRs, 53 RBIs) after July 1. Mientkiewicz hit .246 with the Twins amid trade rumors, then .215 in 107 at-bats with Boston, mainly as a late-inning replacement.

"One thing you have to take into consideration is when he came to Boston vs. Minnesota, he's not used to sitting," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "That's difficult for anybody. He's got a change of responsibility. You don't know, until he plays every day, how a guy's going to react."

Millar, based upon past performance, is far better-suited to the Red Sox. He's a .318 hitter (22 HRs, 104 RBIs in 534 at-bats) at Fenway Park in his two seasons in the American League. Mientkiewicz in the past three years hit just .159 (11 for 69) at Fenway. Only at Seattle's Safeco Field did Mientkiewicz post a lower average.

Furthermore, as a Twin, Mientkiewicz played roughly half of his games in the Metrodome, where he became quite cozy. He hit .289 indoors the last three seasons and just .243 outdoors. In two of those three seasons, the Twins played on a fast, hard AstroTurf surface that turned some ground balls that would have been outs in other parks into hits. In an interview late last season, Mientkiewicz mentioned that his former Minnesota teammates were losing some hits on the new, slower Metrodome surface.

Ryan, however, chalked up Mientkiewicz's indoor average "more to comfort than the Metrodome." In other words, he just hit well at his home park, for any number of reasons.

The Sox will play only 24 games in domed stadiums in 2005. That bodes well for Millar, who has hit .297 outdoors the last three years and just .260 under a roof.

What's more, Millar is a more appealing option against the Yankees, whom the Sox have faced 52 times since the beginning of the 2003 season. Millar boasts a .278 career average against New York's current pitching staff. He's a .348 hitter in 23 at-bats against Mike Mussina and a .364 hitter with one home run in 11 at-bats against Mariano Rivera. Mientkiewicz is a .173 hitter against the Yankees and has never faced Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, or Kevin Brown.

Future Offensive Performance:
Bill James, the senior baseball operations adviser for the Sox, includes player projections for the 2005 season in "The Bill James Handbook." John Dewan of Stats Inc. actually calculates most of the projections. The Handbook projects the following for Mientkiewicz: 110 games, 321 at-bats, 87 hits, 22 doubles, 1 triple, 6 HRs, 41 runs, 39 RBIs, 45 walks, and 45 strikeouts. That computes to a .271 batting average, .361 on-base percentage, and .402 slugging percentage.

For Millar: 137 GP, 498 ABs, 141 hits, 35 doubles, 1 triple, 19 HRs, 69 runs, 78 RBIs, 55 walks, and 94 strikeouts. That would produce a .283 average, .354 OBP, and .472 slugging percentage.

These projections raise two obvious questions. How do James and Dewan predict how many games someone will play? And how do these projections allow for the fact that Millar and Mientkiewicz, at the time of the book's publication, figure to split time this season at first base?

"As a general explanation," James wrote in an email, "a player's future playing time is based on a) his past playing time and b) his productivity. If a player had 300 at-bats last year but hit well, we'll project him to have more than 300 at-bats next year. If he had 300 at-bats last year but didn't hit so well, we'd project him to have fewer than 300 next year."

And the second question?

"John Dewan doesn't like to project playing time that doesn't exist," James said. "In other words, if a team has two second baseman, he is reluctant to project 600 at-bats for each. Which I always argue makes no sense, because we don't know when we publish the book who is going to be on what team the next year."

James considers "runs created" to be the ultimate offensive measure of a player, since it is runs -- not batting average or total bases, for example -- that determine the outcome of a game. James predicts that in 2005 Millar will create 83 runs, while Mientkiewicz will create 46. Last season, according to James's Handbook, Millar created 90 runs in 565 plate appearances, and Mientkiewicz created 46 runs in 439 plate appearances.

Defense:
The Red Sox, in the "Moneyball" mode, have an internal objective measure of defense. The club maintains a computer record of every ball hit in the major leagues last season. The team then determines how many of those balls the average fielder should get to.

Lastly, the team computes how many balls above or below the average each of its fielders got to at those fielders' respective positions. For multiple reasons (privacy, trade value of his players), general manager Theo Epstein was unwilling to share that data for Mientkiewicz and Millar. But it's safe to say that Millar is considered a below-average first baseman while Mientkiewicz is exemplary. He won a Gold Glove in 2001.

"He has not slipped defensively," said Ryan.

Asked why Mientkiewicz is not winning Gold Gloves anymore, Ryan said, "A lot of times you get votes because of what you do with the bat."

That could be true. Mientkiewicz hit a career-high .306 in 2001 with 15 HRs and 74 RBIs.

Errors, a traditional measure of defensive ability, show Mientkiewicz (one error every 32.1 career games) to be about twice as effective as Millar (one error every 18.5 games).

The average American League first baseman posted a .994 fielding percentage last season. Millar was at .989, Mientkiewicz at .995.

Health:James's Handbook also includes an assessment of future injury risk. A NASA mathematician named Sig Mejdal created the formula used to assess risk and persuaded James to include such ratings in his book. Mientkiewicz was assessed at a low risk, Millar a high risk.

Mientkiewicz has been on the disabled list once, July 7-23 of last summer, with a sore left wrist, the result of being struck by a line drive. Millar has made two trips to the DL. In April 1998, he broke a bone in his left hand in his first major league start and missed the remainder of the season. Millar also missed a month in 2002 with a strained abdominal muscle.

Another reason for Millar's higher risk: He was hit by pitches 17 times last season, tied for the most in the AL.

Millar, who is scheduled to make $3.5 million this season, is 33, while Mientkiewicz, who is due $3.75 million, is 30.

"They both deserve to be everyday players," Epstein said. "Both can help the team win a championship. Both bring different things to the table. I'd like to have both of them."

But given each player's stated desire to play every day, Epstein has a choice to make: Mientkiewicz or Millar?

In the coming weeks, there will be answers to the following questions: Who is headed out of town, to where, for whom, and why? For now, the last question is the easiest to answer. 

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