July 12, 2011
Painting the Black
Mid-season Heroes and Goats, Part 1
In the numerical sense, the halfway point of the season arrived about a week ago. However, the All-Star break marks the arbitrary end point of the first half, bringing a few days of festivities and vacations to the forefront. That period of inactivity in games that matter offers a window into the frozen stats for each team, allowing us to see who is leading the charge and who is failing the team so far.
In order to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, I’ll enlist the aid of the Wins Above Replacement metric. Next time, we’ll cover the pitchers, but for today, it’s all about the position players.
Arizona: Justin Upton (2.7)/Melvin Mora (-0.7)
It feels like Upton has been around forever, as this is his fifth season in the majors and should be the fourth time he tops 400 plate appearances. However, he’s only 23 years old; as Bill Barnwell recently tweeted, that makes him two years younger than Zack Cozart, who just made his big-league debut within the past week.
The arrival of Mike Trout was accompanied by a lot of discussion about his age, but that context—the irregularity of extreme youth—is often lost quickly. Top outfield prospects like Domonic Brown and Desmond Jennings are either the same age as Upton or slightly older, with limited major-league success, while Upton should hit his 100th home run sometime over the next season and a half.
Mora, meanwhile, has been released.
Atlanta: Brian McCann (3.5)/Joe Mather, Brandon Hicks, and Dan Uggla (-0.5)
Since the 2010 season started, no catcher with at least 400 plate appearances has a higher OPS than McCann. That narrative falls apart when you extend the arbitrary timeline back to 2009 or 2008—McCann is then second to Joe Mauer—but it’s not unfair to proclaim McCann the National League’s best-hitting catcher, and possibly the best-hitting catcher in baseball since Mauer signed his extension.
Speaking of extensions, who had Uggla sinking below replacement level in year one of his five-year pact with Atlanta? As Raphael Saadiq sings, Falling in love can be easy/staying in love is too tricky. Right now, Atlanta is looking for any sign of progress from Uggla, and a .243/.333/.568 start to July might fit the bill, even if it came in only in 42 plate appearances. Still, that Uggla’s OPS at the break is lower than it was after a disastrous April has the Braves running to find a loophole.
Baltimore: J.J. Hardy (2.0)/Derrek Lee (-1.2)
After a hot start led by pitching, the Orioles enter the break having lost nine of their 10 July games and 21 of their last 30. (Only Houston has lost more than 20 of their last 30 games). The O’s reliance on adding aging stars in order to hasten their rise to legitimacy has failed them, as Vladimir Guerrero has a 700 OPS and Lee is toiling around 666.
The one off-season bright spot is Hardy, who was acquired for a few relievers and could be the Orioles’ short-term solution at the shortstop position while Manny Machado receives his minor-league education. Extension talks between Hardy and the team are ongoing, and the former Brewer and Twin stated his desire to have something done before the regular season resumes play.
Boston: Adrian Gonzalez (4.3)/Mike Cameron (-0.5)
In a year in which offense is down again, Gonzalez’s first half is impressive, even by his own already high standards. By hitting .354/.414/.591 with 17 home runs, Gonzalez set a personal best for first-half batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. An introduction to the comfortable hitting environment offered by Fenway Park is partially responsible, but Gonzalez has risen to the fiercer competition levels of the AL East—and in many ways, risen above them.
Gonzalez has not been the league’s most productive player per WARP, as Jose Bautista is nearly three wins ahead of him, but because of his market, batting average, quality of teammates, and the likelihood of a Red Sox playoff appearance, expect the big man to be in the thick of the MVP chatter.
Chicago (AL): Paul Konerko (2.5)/Adam Dunn (-1.6)
The fall of the bat of Dunn has been as surprising as it has been boring. Dunn has always had old-player skills and a high frequency of three true outcomes, but going from 38 home runs to a pace for fewer than 20 is a steep and sudden atrophy of skills. With nine home runs in the first half, Dunn has set a career low, coming in under his previous low (17, back in 2002) by a wide margin.
Since 2003, Dunn has hit at least 22 home runs in the first half of every season. It’s no wonder, then, that Dunn has the third-most home runs sine the 2002 season started, behind only Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Home runs are fun, and as Joe Posnanski observed, without the home runs, Dunn is all kinds of unexciting—and all kinds of valueless.
Chicago (NL): Starlin Castro (1.7)/Tyler Colvin (-0.9)
From one of the least exciting players, we move on to one of the most exciting. Castro still needs to improve his plate discipline and defense, but for now, his youthful exuberance is still more adorable than off-putting. The opposite is true of Colvin, who has underwhelmed in his attempt to build on a surprising 2010 season. Even his Triple-A numbers this season— .271/.284/.510—highlight his flaws, as he has four walks and 40 strikeouts in 163 plate appearances.
Cincinnati: Joey Votto (3.2)/Jeremy Hermida (-0.2)
Hermida received only 18 plate appearances but reached base just twice, thus finishing the first half below replacement level. A .323/.409/.502 line for Triple-A Louisville has rekindled some hope for Hermida, now 27, as he tries to put his recent struggles behind him. It doesn’t seem like much, but Hermida didn’t hit this well for Pawtucket or Sacramento last season, so who knows, maybe he’s figured something out.
Cleveland: Asdrubal Cabrera (2.4)/Luis Valbuena, Orlando Cabrera, Adam Everett (-0.1)
Meet the Indians middle infield. Asdrubal Cabrera has been a revelation at short, but second base remains a revolving position. The Indians talk up Orlando Cabrera’s intangibles and leadership qualities at every pass, but between Cord Phelps and Luis Valbuena, it appears that they would like nothing more than to find a legitimate upgrade. That makes it all the more perplexing that Jason Kipnis, who introduced himself to a 95-mile-per-hour Julio Teheran fastball in the Futures Game, is still toiling in Triple-A. Kipnis figures to take over at the keystone sooner rather than later.
Colorado: Troy Tulowitzki (2.6)/Ian Stewart (-0.8)
Stewart is in Colorado for the third time this season and has shown more signs of life than he did in his previous attempts. That seems like it would be encouraging news, until you realize that those signs of life include a 581 OPS. Stewart’s time in Triple-A has been the inverse of his major-league struggles, as he hit .269/.356/.581 in 191 plate appearances for Colorado Springs. As murmurs about a swing change and a needed attitude adjustment abound, you wonder if the Rockies will be forced to cut their losses and see what the trade market offers.
Detroit: Alex Avila (3.3)/Magglio Ordonez (-1.0)
The Tigers re-signed Ordonez to a one-year deal worth $10 million, thinking he could offer some offensive support similar to what he provided over the previous three seasons, during which he hit for an aggregate line of .311/.376/.466. Not quite, as Ordonez has hit .217/.290/.301 in nearly 200 plate appearances.
Ordonez has been better of late, hitting .268/.362/.390 in June and .308/.400/.423 in July. Even an otherwise empty line besides a high on-base percentage would be a welcome sight in Detroit. Meanwhile, Aviles has to be in the running for most surprising best player, along with…
Florida: Gaby Sanchez (3.0)/Scott Cousins and Donnie Murphy (-0.4)
On a team with Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Logan Morrison, who would’ve thought that Sanchez would be the Marlins’ best player through the first half? Give Sanchez credit: for a while, he was nothing but an afterthought to Morrison’s pending arrival in Miami, but his strong 2010 has been topped by an even better 2011 thus far. Sanchez doesn’t hit for a ton of power, nor a high average, but he is reaching base at a high clip, and some of his doubles have turned into home runs. At age 27, it’s hard to think Sanchez’s peak is much higher than his 132 OPS+.
While Sanchez mans first base, the Marlins have to find a solution at third base. Greg Dobbs had an OPS over 850 through May before looking in the mirror, and Murphy, Emilio Bonifacio, Jose Lopez, and Wes Helms aren’t good alternatives. Matt Dominguez is Florida’s top third-base prospect, and Jason Parks recently gave us the lowdown on him:
With the glove, Dominguez is a borderline 80-grade defender, with the pure actions and instincts only possessed by a chosen few. His glove is so good, in fact, that he is going to be a very valuable major leaguer even if he hits .250 with some doubles power. I think those offensive benchmarks are possible.
Houston: Hunter Pence (2.9)/Bill Hall (-0.8)
You have to think the Astros will look to trade Pence between now and Opening Day 2012. Pence will turn 29 in April, has a salary that should top $7 million this offseason, and becomes a free agent after the 2013 season. He is a good player, and a safe one, but the Astros have few big-league assets, and Pence figures to bring the largest bounty.
The alternative is to give Pence a long-term deal, which just doesn’t feel like a smart idea given the context, or to continue paying him through his arbitration days, then allow him to walk for some draft picks. It’s almost too bad that the Astros are mired in an ownership transition stage, as you wonder what a contender would give up for Pence’s right-handed bat right now.
Kansas City: Alex Gordon (3.8)/Kila Ka’aihue (-0.1)
The Royals caught plenty of flack for moving Gordon to the outfield, but who knows, maybe lifting the defensive weight helped his offensive game after all. Gordon had solid Fielding Runs Above Average numbers at third, but he’s on pace to obliterate those in the outfield (as you would expect a third baseman to), and his .314 TAv is roughly 40 points higher than his previous career-high of .276 in 2008.
You can’t help but root for Gordon to keep this breakout going, but there are some caution flags on his first-half performance. About 29 percent of Gordon’s balls in play entering this season had gone for hits, but in 2011, that rate has risen over 35 percent. It is possible that Gordon is hitting the ball with more force or swinging at better pitches, but it is difficult to reconcile those narrative points with the other peripheral stats, as a lower percentage of his hits are going for extra bases than in prior seasons and he isn’t hitting home runs at a higher rate, either. That doesn’t mean Gordon will collapse, as improvement is certainly a possibility, just that it’s doubtful he’ll continue to be this good going forward.
Los Angeles of Anaheim: Erick Aybar (2.6)/Alexi Amarista (-0.7)
It’s funny that the ever-inconsistent Aybar holds the WARP lead over Bobby Abreu, a guy whose on-base percentage you can set your watch to. Aybar is in the midst of his fifth season with 200-plus plate appearances, and his TAvs have been, in order: .194, .247, .273, .241, and .280. The outburst this season isn’t entirely batting-average driven, as Aybar’s ISO is up, and about one-third of his hits have been for extra bases, as opposed to just 22 percent in the past. Whether that constitutes a legitimate upgrade in skills or just a sustained hot streak is open to interpretation.
Los Angeles: Matt Kemp (4.8)/Juan Uribe (-0.5)
If Kemp weren’t playing for a bad team going through a nasty ownership scuttle, he’d have a much stronger shot at an MVP award. Using WARP, you can make the case that he has been the second-best player in the majors this season, and it seemingly holds water. FRAA isn’t too fond of Kemp’s defense this season, but a .313/.398/.584 line from a center fielder, along with a 90-percent success rate on 30 steal attempts, is difficult to ignore. Speaking of those money troubles, giving Uribe three years and $21 million might not have been the finest of ideas.
Milwaukee: Ryan Braun (3.7)/Casey McGehee (-0.8)
PECOTA has Braun on pace for a six-win year, the first such season of his career. Milwaukee’s decision to tack on years when they already had Braun in their pocket through 2015 still carries a high degree of risk, but a season like this can go a long way toward reminding people that the Brew Crew chose to lock up a pretty special hitter. Plus, with Braun making only $4 million in 2011, the Brewers are getting copious amounts of surplus value in the early stages of the extension they agreed to back in 2008. That may not lessen the risk involved, but it does add to the likelihood that the Brewers could look okay when everything is said and done.
Minnesota: Denard Span (2.4)/Justin Morneau (-1.2)
Span is the default choice, as Michael Cuddyer and Alexi Casilla were the only legitimate challengers to the throne. Sadly, Morneau had a more comfortable lead on the bottom of the list, as Drew Butera finished half a win away. Morneau suffered a concussion last year, as he was on his way to the second-best season of his career, and now, not even a year later, his future is in doubt after neck surgery. As he’s under contract through 2013, you hope Morneau can get right, lest some sense of resentment begin to build toward the big Canuck for suffering a few injuries.
New York (A): Curtis Granderson (3.7)/Andruw Jones and Jorge Posada (-0.1)
The 30-year-old Granderson is having the season of his life. His career-high in home runs over a single season is 30, and here he is with 25 at the break—he hit 24 in roughly 150 more plate appearances last season. His .306 ISO is the best of Granderson’s career, and the same can be said of his .575 slugging percentage, but keep in mind that he was a doubles machine during his time in Detroit, hitting an average of 30 two-baggers over his four full seasons in the Motor City.
If you take Granderson’s hit totals with the Tigers during those four seasons and the Yankees over the last season and a half and then examine the rate at which he hit doubles, triples, and home runs, you’ll find some interesting trends. The move to Yankee Stadium has come with an increase in home run rate (from 14.4 percent to 24.1 percent of total hits) and a deduction in triples (from 8.1 percent to 6.9 percent) and doubles (from 18.1 percent to 13.8 percent).
All and all, a higher clip of Granderson’s hits have been for extra bases (44.8 percent, up from 40.6 percent), but the allocation has changed its complexion. Those doubles and triples—Comerica Park specials if you will—have turned into home runs. Cheap or not, they all count the same.
New York (N): Jose Reyes (4.0)/Chin-Lung Hu and Brad Emaus (-0.2)
Reyes has the most WARP of any shortstop in baseball, and he should retain that distinction despite his hamstring injury, as his closest competitors, Jhonny Peralta and Yunel Escobar, trail by 1.3 wins. You can’t write about Reyes without throwing a “when healthy” in there somewhere, so here it goes: when healthy, Reyes is on another level. If he can get back within a reasonable timeframe, he’ll notch a five-win season, which would be the third of his career—a close call in 2007 (4.9) prevented him from reaching five wins in three consecutive seasons.
With Lung-Hu and Emaus, the Mets saw two of their pre-season second base options flame out. Their best performer at the position this season has been Ruben Tejada, who is 21 but holding his own in limited time—albeit with a fungo-bat display of power. With Reyes out, Tejada has moved to shortstop, and former waiver claim Justin Turner is manning the keystone with decent, if unspectacular results.
Oakland: Coco Crisp (2.0)/Landon Powell (-0.5)
To give you an idea of how mediocre Oakland has been this season, consider that 15 players have made 50 or more plate appearances for them. Of those 15, 10 are within half a win of replacement level. Crisp is the only Oakland player with more than 1.5 WARP, and Josh Willingham and Scott Sizemore are the only other A’s with more than one WARP.
Powell just so happens to be the low man on the totem pole, and as the backup catcher, he wouldn’t be expected to pack much punch to begin with. Still, recording 13 hits in 71 at-bats is a good way to finish in the red. Powell also has more strikeouts (20) than total bases (19).
Philadelphia: Shane Victorino (3.1)/Brian Schneider (-0.4)
Victorino ends the first half with a .320 TAv. His career best for a full season is .277. It’s going to take some kind of fall from grace down the stretch for Victorino to avoid obliterating that mark in 2011. PECOTA has Victorino pegged for 3.8 WARP, also a career-high. On the flip side, Schneider is the team’s backup catcher. Generally speaking, if the backup catcher is the worst player on the team, then you don’t have too much to worry about, which certainly applies in the Phillies’ case.
Pittsburgh: Andrew McCutchen (4.3)/Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay (-0.5)
It’s easy to understand why the Pirates added Diaz and Overbay over the offseason, as the pair seemed like a safe bet to live up to their prior values—a win or two, at most, above replacement level. Overbay had finished only one season in which he received more than 300 plate appearances below replacement level, with seven of his other eight full seasons seeing WARP values between 1.0 and 3.4, yet here he is with the chance to have a career-worst season.
Diaz, on the other hand, had never finished below replacement level when he received more than 200 plate appearances in a season, but with 166 at the break, he is comfortably below. If they weren’t a game out of first place, this would be a good time for a joke about the same ol’ Pirates.
San Diego: Cameron Maybin (2.1)/Jorge Cantu (-0.9)
PECOTA projects Maybin to finish with 3.1 WARP on the season, which would give him 5.6 through his age-24 season. Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf’s query wizardry, I can report that of the 17 outfielders selected to this year’s All-Star game, only five—Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Carlos Beltran, and Ryan Braun—had more than five WARP before the end of their age-24 seasons. Heck, two of the All-Star outfielders had negative WARP scores through age-24—Shane Victorino and Jose Bautista, both on this list as the best players on their team in the first half—and six others had fewer than two WARP.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that Maybin can still morph into the star many expected him to be during his prospect days. Being rushed to the majors and then jerked around once he got there didn’t help, but being spun off to San Diego for two relievers might be the best thing to happen to Maybin, since the expectations were lower and the Padres didn’t have any obvious alternatives in sight. What looked like a good buy-low move on Jed Hoyer’s part during the offseason looks even better half a season later.
Seattle: Brendan Ryan (1.7)/Chone Figgins (-0.8)
On a WARP basis, Ryan is the worst of the team’s best players in the league, tied with Starlin Castro. It’s difficult to portray Ryan is the more interesting of the two shortstops based on play, but Ryan’s fantastic lip sweater does give him some added swagger. The Mariners gave up a lottery ticket in Maikel Cleto to acquire Ryan, whose offense has been poor (his OPS+ is 79), but his defense matches up with anyone’s.
There is nothing kind to write about Figgins’ time in Seattle, so instead of trying to squeeze sweet tea out of a rock, how about we all bask in the glory of Dustin Ackley’s first few weeks of major-league action. He’s made only 77 plate appearances, but Ackley could—and should, perhaps—finish the season with the highest WARP among Mariners position players.
San Francisco: Pablo Sandoval (1.9)/Emmanuel Burriss (-0.5)
Sandoval is one of two Giants with one-plus WARP, joining Nate Schierholtz. Andres Torres, Cody Ross, and possibly Aaron Rowand will join them with time, but the Giants gave considerable playing time to meager options in the first half. Aubrey Huff leads the team in plate appearances (369) and has a WARP of 0.2; Miguel Tejada has the second-most plate appearances and a 0.4 WARP; Freddy Sanchez has the fourth-most trips to the plate and a 0.1 WARP; and the combination of Burriss, Mark DeRosa, and Bill Hall has been worth a whopping 1.2 wins below replacement level.
St. Louis: Lance Berkman (3.2)/Gerald Laird, Mark Hamilton, and Andrew Brown (-0.2)
Probably the most shocking best player on the list, for the following reasons: 1) Albert Pujols isn’t leading the Cardinals and 2) this is the same Berkman who looked horrendous with New York last season. How crazy has Berkman’s first half been? He had more WARP in this first half than he did in five of his full seasons. If PECOTA is correct and Berkman can manage 4.8 wins on the season, it would tie his 2003 season for the sixth-best of his career. Not bad for a 35-year-old who was seemingly on his last legs.
Tampa Bay: Ben Zobrist (3.1)/Dan Johnson (-0.9)
Steven Goldman once waxed poetic about Joe Maddon’s clever usage of Zobrist in ways designed to cover the flaws of the Rays roster. At the halfway point, Zobrist has as many WARP as Rickie Weeks and Robinson Cano—you may know those guys as the starting second basemen for the National League and American League All-Star teams, respectively, neither of which Zobrist is a part of. That’s too bad, as Zobrist has a legitimate claim for entry into the best-at-the-keystone conversation, but his time in right field might be hurting his perception at second.
Johnson is something of a Rays cult hero, but while big home runs might buy you infamy, they never buy you eternity. After 84 poor plate appearances, the Rays gave the registered Yankee and Red Sox offender a ticket to Triple-A Durham. With a million dollars on the line, Johnson had no choice but to accept the outright assignment. Johnson has gotten back to walking in Triple-A (with 30 walks and 27 strikeouts), but what power he had—and remember, he hit 30 home runs in the minors last season—seems zapped, as he has three homers in nearly half the playing time.
Texas: Ian Kinsler (3.5)/David Murphy (-0.3)
Another contender for the best-second-baseman title, Kinsler has accumulated at least three WARP in each of his six seasons and has an outside shot at topping his previous career-high (5.1 wins in 2009). It’s hard to say why Kinsler gets overlooked, but maybe it has to do with his breakout season in 2009. He hit 31 home runs in 640 plate appearances then, yet has 22 in the 861 since. The funny part is that Kinsler’s TAv has been better in the last two seasons than it was in 2009, but the decrease in home-run trots seems to overshadow those improvements.
Toronto: Jose Bautista (7.2)/Aaron Hill (-0.6)
This is as good a time as any to throw out an image displaying each team’s best and worst entries on a scatter plot:
If you take the absolute value of the worst players and add them to the best players, Toronto comes out with the widest spread. Here are the other members of the top five, as well as the five teams with the smallest spread:
1. TOR 7.8
2. LAN 5.3
3. BOS 4.8
4. PIT 4.8
5. MIL 4.5
26. CHN 2.6
27. CLE 2.5
28. OAK 2.5
29. SEA 2.5
30. SFN 2.4
To be fair to the Jays, they do have the best player in baseball and would lead even if their worst player was above replacement level. Bautista is that good.
Washington: Danny Espinosa (2.8)/Matt Stairs (-0.5)
One winter, an offer addressed to Stairs seeking his consent to play major-league baseball will never come in the mail or via fax. That will be a cold winter, and sadly it might come sooner rather than later. Stairs already defied the odds by lasting until he neared his mid-40s, but nine hits in 63 at-bats, only one of them going for extra bases, just isn’t going to get it done.
Stairs has hovered just above the replacement-level line over the last half-decade, so it’s possible that he’ll pull a good 50 at-bats out of his hat—probably a top hat, since it is Matt Stairs—but cherish these moments, folks. Every day that Stairs is in the major leagues is a good day.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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