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January 21, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Replacement-level Killers

by Jay Jaffe

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When it comes to playoff races, every edge matters. Yet all too often, managers and GMs fail to make the moves that could help their teams for reasons rooted in issues beyond a player's statistics, allowing sub-par production to fester until it kills a club's post-season hopes. Back in 2007, I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy for our pennant race book, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-level Killers. The concept has been revisited on a more or less annual basis here at Baseball Prospectus, both by myself and by my colleagues, with an eye toward what teams can do to solve such potentially fatal problems.

With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, it's worth checking in on the players whose shortcomings greatly contributed to the demise of their teams' playoff hopes in 2010, and what those teams' general managers have done this winter to fix those trouble spots. For It Ain't Over, the run of history allowed me to highlight those players whose subpar performances alone were enough to sink their clubs, such as Butch Hobson on the 1978 Red Sox (-1.9 WARP). In a single season, it's rare to find such tidy explanations, so not every position below has exemplars whose WARPs are right at zero. Most of them are still bad enough to embarrass both their GMs and their mothers.

Catcher: Gerald Laird (.209 TAv, 1.0 WARP) and Alex Avila (.240 TAv, 0.6 WARP), Tigers
I warned about this one back in July. While this Tiger tandem hit somewhat better in the second half, their .223/.294/.330 overall line was still awful, and a team that was 10 games above .500 and just half a game out of first place in the AL Central at the All-Star break finished right at .500, 13 back. Laird was 11 runs above average defensively thanks to a 34 percent caught-stealing rate, while Avila was a run below, but neither catcher gets particularly impressive marks for handling a pitching staff that ranked 10th in the league in SNLVAR and ninth in WXRL.
Remedy (?): The Tigers' biggest expenditure this winter was the $50 million, four-year deal that they signed 33-year-old Victor Martinez to. V-Mart's defense is nothing to write home about; he has been 18 runs below average behind the plate over the past two seasons, and caught just 23 percent of basestealers. He's an elite bat at the position, however, putting up a .294 TAv over the past two years, and .289 mark last year, 33 points better than the average backstop, and second among AL catchers.

First Base: James Loney (.272 TAv, 1.5 WARP), Dodgers
Since his strong rookie season, Loney has been incrementally moving backward relative to the average major-league first baseman in terms of True Average, from 27 points above in 2007 to 11 points below in 2008, 16 points below in 2009, and 19 points below last year. At the same time, his salary has risen from $400,000 to $3.1 million last year, his first year of arbitration eligibility, giving the Dodgers less for their money each year. Loney got off to a hot start in 2010 (.309/.361/.442 before the break) but limped home (.211/.285/.331 after it); the Dodgers went from 10 games above .500 and tied for the NL wild-card lead at the break to two games below .500 and 12 out when all was said and done. They got less value from Loney than they did from the similarly disappointing Russell Martin (3.2 WARP), whom they non-tendered.
Remedy (?): If Loney weren't a favorite son of assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted him in the first round in 2002, he would have been a non-tender candidate as well. Based upon the arbitration numbers exchanged between player and team earlier this week, he'll earn somewhere between $4.7 and $5.25 million in 2011, money that could have been put to better use toward a bigger bat for the flagging Dodger offense. At the very least, the team should have come up with a platoon partner to protect Loney from lefties, against whom he's hit just .261/.321/.381 in his career, but Ned Colletti has studiously been sitting on his hands to the point of numbness, neglecting his offense after fortifying his pitching staff.

Second Base: Clint Barmes (.234 TAv, 1.3 WARP), Jonathan Herrera (.256 TAv, 1.3 WARP), Eric Young Jr. (.233 TAv, 0.4 WARP), Rockies
It takes a special brand of managerial incompetence to squeeze a .246/.306/.327 line out of a single position given the advantages of high altitude, but Jim Tracy did just that with the Rockies' second basemen. Even with Herrera hitting .309/.356/.368 during the month that the already-struggling Barmes shifted over to shortstop to cover for injured Troy Tulowitzki, Tracy couldn't be convinced that he had a better second sacker on hand until late August. Even then he made the wrong choice by going with the speedy but light-hitting Young, who hit just .243/.303/.271 down the stretch after being recalled from Triple-A; Herrera got just nine out of 46 starts at the keystone in that span. The already-underachieving Rockies never mounted a serious threat to claim a playoff spot.
Remedy (?): Barmes was traded to Houston in December, and the Rockies plan to turn the starting job over to the 26-year-old Young, who's generally viewed as being unable to carry second base defensively, and who's coming off a .236 TAv at two minor-league stops in 2010 following a .251 mark in 2009. Don't be surprised if they show up here again.

Shortstop: Brendan Ryan (.223 TAv, 2.0 WARP), Cardinals
Coming off a strong 2009 showing that culminated in his winning the American Mustache Institute's Mustached American of the Year Award, Ryan hit just .223/.279/.294 while starting over three-quarters of the Cardinals' games at shortstop in 2010. While he cleared replacement level thanks to outstanding defense (15 FRAA), his bat was nonetheless a tremendous drag on the offense. Felipe Lopez provided some help during his limited time at short (.229/.337/.457 in 83 PA), but his glove (-7 FRAA) undid his good work, and he was soon forced to take over third base when David Freese went down with an ankle injury, leaving Ryan to fester.
Remedy (?): Ryan was traded to the Mariners in December, paving the way for Ryan Theriot, who was acquired from the Dodgers a couple weeks earlier, to take over the spot. Theriot played above-average shortstop for the Cubs from 2007 through early 2010 (103 Rate2) before being supplanted by Starlin Castro, and while he hit a none-too-robust .250/.322/.319 last year split between the Cubs and Dodgers, his career line (.284/.348/.356) is enough to carry the spot.

Third Base: Alberto Callaspo (.221 TAv, 0.8 WARP), Brandon Wood (.117 TAv, -2.0 WARP), Kevin Frandsen (.229 TAv, -0.3 WARP), Angels
With Chone Figgins having departed as a free agent, 2010 was supposed to be Wood's year, but he flopped so miserably that hyperbole fails; saying that he was a Vortex of Suck wrapped in an enigma and deep fried in a vat of rancid yak snot just doesn't quite capture it. As a third baseman, Wood hit .135/.150/.199 with a 47/3 K/BB ratio. Maicer Izturis would have been the logical choice to take over in late May when manager Mike Scioscia decided a change needed to be made, but he was amid the first of three trips to the DL for shoulder and forearm problems. Frandsen stopped the hemorrhaging, and the team thought they'd found a viable solution in trading for Callaspo in late July, even though he was hitting well below the .302/.358/.433 mark he'd hit in 2008-20009 with Kansas City at the time. Instead, Callaspo's performance continued to erode; he hit just .255/.294/.322 for the Halos while playing third.
Remedy (?): Spurned by Adrian Beltre after they appeared to be the frontrunner for his services, the Angels currently have Izturis atop their depth chart, with Callaspo and Wood still on hand. A career .275/.340/.390 hitter, Izturis is a valuable utilityman, but his bat's fairly light for a cornerman; he has never played more than 114 games in a season and has topped 400 PA only once. Callaspo's bat is even lighter barring a significant rebound from his overall .265/.302/.374 line.

Left Field: Scott Hairston (.253 TAv, 0.5 WARP), Kyle Blanks (.240 TAv, 0.0 WARP), Padres
The Padres fell one win short of qualifying for a Game 163 play-in, and at no position did they receive worse production than in left field, where they got a .219/.305/.337 yield overall. Blanks came into the year as the starter but hit a wretched .157/.283/.324 before being sidelined by an elbow strain in mid-May; he was lost for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late July. Hairston, who had been sharing time with Tony Gwynn Jr. in center field, assumed the bulk of the duties, but hit just .210/.295/.346 overall, and was 50 points of slugging percentage worse than that when he was their left fielder. Chris Denorfia, Will Venable, Aaron Cunningham, Oscar Salazar, and Matt Stairs all got between 39 and 87 plate appearances to make their case as well and hit a combined .248/.322/.385, which if sustained might have been enough to close the gap between bawling and balling in October.
Remedy (?): The Padres traded for Ryan Ludwick at the deadline last year, and used him exclusively in right field, but they plan to shift him to left field in this coming season. By hitting just .211/.301/.330 for the Pad squad after being acquired, Ludwick has the blood of the Padres' 2010 season on his hands as well, but that's well below what the team can expect out of him given a large enough sample size.

Center Field: Darnell McDonald (.271 TAv, -0.1 WARP), Mike Cameron (.257 TAv, 0.6 WARP), Ryan Kalish (.259 TAV, 0.9 WARP), Red Sox
As part of their effort to improve their run prevention, the Sox signed Cameron as a free agent last winter, and shifted Jacoby Ellsbury, who was 10 runs below average in center field according to FRAA, back to left field. By mid-April, both went down due to injuries that turned out to be much more severe than initially thought, requiring multiple trips to the DL and once again raising eyebrows about the Sox medical staff. Ellsbury played in just 18 games due to broken ribs, while Cameron was limited to 48 games due to a sports hernia. Amplified by the slow realization that the injuries threatened the two players' seasons, the injury stack tested Boston's organizational depth. While the 31-year-old journeyman McDonald provided early fireworks by homering in his first two games, his subpar defense in center (-14 FRAA, for an impossibly awful 73 Rate2) more than canceled out the value of his hitting, which wasn't as robust during his time in center as it was when he played elsewhere. Kalish, a well-regarded 22-year-old prospect, didn't help much either, and on the whole, Sox center fielders came home with a combined .234/.301/.381 line and were eight runs below average defensively.
Remedy (?): The Sox plan to move Ellsbury back to center, having signed Carl Crawford to play left. Given that the latter is much more mobile than Jason Bay, the move should result in a better outfield defense than the last time Ellsbury was the man in the middle.

Right Field: Ryan Sweeney (.264 TAv, 1.1 WARP), Gabe Gross (.225 TAv, -0.8 TAv), A's
Having gotten reasonable production out of Sweeney and Jack Cust in right field in 2009 (.284/.357/.434), Billy Beane must have thought that the addition-by-subtraction move of barring the latter from playing the field in 2010 would constitute an upgrade. After all, Cust was 12 runs below average in 51 games there in 2009, for an appalling 76 Rate2. Despite prototypical fourth outfielder Sweeney's lack of power—he hit .294/.342/.383 while getting 49 percent of the team's plate appearances in right—the plan might have worked in a stop-the-bleeding sense, but it fell apart when he was shelved for the year in early July due to surgery to decompress his patellar tendon. Gross, Rajai Davis, Jeremy Hermida, and Matt Carson combined for 48 percent of the A's right fielders' plate appearances and "hit" .216/.250/.321 in that role as the team finished with the majors' worst OPS at the position via a .247/.287/.342 overall line.
Remedy (?): Beane has been aggressive in his attempts to upgrade the A's outfield this winter, trading for both David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. Both have more experience in left field than right, but no matter how the lineup shakes out, either should be a major improvement over Sweeney and friends.

Designated Hitter: Adam Lind (.250 TAv, -0.2 WARP), Blue Jays
As strong as the Blue Jays were—and at 85-77, they were just one point of Hit List Factor shy of tying the 2008 Jays for the distinction of being the best fourth-place team of the wild-card era—they would have been even stronger if they'd gotten something more than a .237/.291/.417 line from their DHs. Lind received 79 percent of the Jays' plate appearances as DH and hit just .245/.302/.433, due to contact woes and a low BABIP, though that was still a step up from the .194/.208/.378 he hit everywhere else. Overall, he was much less successful in using the whole field as a hitter; his performance against lefties cratered (.117/.159/.182 in 145 PA, from .275/.318/.461 in 179 PA the year before), his BABIP fell 46 points (.323 to .277), his K rate shot from 16.8 percent to 23.5 percent, and his K/UIBB ratio nearly doubled, from 2.2 to 4.1. Nobody complained about his personal hygiene, but let's face it, he stunk on ice every which way to the Yukon.
Remedy (?): The Jays currently have Lind penciled in as their starting first baseman, and are still among the teams in pursuit of Manny Ramirez to be their DH, though other teams appear to be more interested. Johnny Damon could be a possibility as well. Barring a bigger-name signing, the hacktastic Edwin Encarnacion (.244/.305/.482 with 21 homers in just 367 PA) is the fallback option.   

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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