February 29, 2012
Painting the Black
Of Abreu and Ichiro
Spring training is about both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters and veterans reaching the end of the road. None of us wants to know how much time remains on the clock, whether it be in baseball or in life, but every spring, a class of veterans finds out that the buzzer is about to sound. Teams ease the lucky ones into reduced roles in camp, with the players having two choices: accept it and move on or fight and lose—Father Time is and will forever be undefeated. The American League West offers an example of both options right now. While one veteran is taking his fate into his own hands, another is embracing the change. This is an examination of those two players, their situations, and what lies ahead.
If Mike Scioscia wants to enjoy filling out lineup cards this season, he had better like outfielders and first basemen, since the Angels have more than enough of each to go around. Albert Pujols and Torii Hunter are cinches to start as often as physically possible. Peter Bourjos and Mike Trumbo should be, too, given their positions. From there, Scioscia’s task could become tedious if Mike Trout and/or Kendrys Morales are on the Opening Day roster. If they aren’t, Scioscia can slot in Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu without hesitation.
At some point, whether by Opening Day or by the end of the season, the Angels will have to make a move to ease the congestion. There is no incentive for themto rush into a decision. They need to see if Morales is healthy, if Trout is ready, if Wells can rebound, if Abreu is still a viable player, and if an injury to another player occurs. Being patient is in the Angels’ best interest. The same is not true of the players, and Abreu knows it.
The 2012 season will mark Abreu’s 17th in the majors and his fourth with the Angels. Abreu has made a career out of dodging headlines with a quiet demeanor and an underappreciated skill set. While his penchant for saying and doing uninteresting things off the field leaves him without the popularity that comes with being a good, but not quite Hall of Fame-worthy corner outfielder* on the field, that same dullness means that people listen when he does use lurid language. Case in point: Abreu’s name popped up in headlines after he issued an edict to the Angels: play me or trade me.
*Abreu enters 2012 with a JAWS score eight below that of the the average Hall of Fame corner outfielder. Larry Walker has yet to receive more than 23 percent of the vote through his first two turns on the ballot with a similar score.
Abreu isn’t used to sitting on the bench. Prior to last year, he had appeared in at least 150 games in 13 straight seasons dating back to 1998. Abreu is used to the grind of a major-league season. You might even say he enjoys it. Year after year, he maintains his status as one of the league’s most patient hitters, offering ever so rarely at the first pitch of an at-bat. But success isn’t as easy as enjoying the grind. Whether Abreu would admit it or not, there are questions about his viability as an everyday player.
The missed games are a concern, but the missing pop is worse. Abreu hit .253/.353/.356 in 2011, giving him a career-low Isolated Power. He’ll turn 38 prior to Opening Day, and while declaring a player finished is more of a guessing game than a science, that power loss is a red flag. There were other signs to mitigate the worry—Abreu’s walk rate remained robust, and he did hit better than .300 on balls in play, which may suggest his overall quality of batted balls has not declined—but his skills are atrophying in one category for certain: his ability to hit lefties.
Is it any wonder that the Angels want to ease Abreu out of the lineup against lefties? He doesn’t make up for that weakness against same-handed pitchers by providing outstanding defense or baserunning, either. His declining athleticism leaves him a subpar corner outfielder known for being fence shy, and his baserunning during that span lacked his usual aggressiveness (though he did steal 21 bases in 26 attempts last season). In essence, Abreu’s value comes down to how well he can hit right-handed pitching, and nothing more. That’s not a problem if Abreu hits like his old self, but that seems unlikely. PECOTA is projecting Abreu to hit for a .270 True Average, or nine points shy of what the league-average designated hitter produced last season.
If the Angels were to trade Abreu, who would bite? The rumors about a potential three-team swap involving the Yankees and Phillies died when the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett and signed Raul Ibanez. That leaves precious few teams that would line up to acquire a below-average designated hitter with platoon issues and a $9 million salary. Besides, why would a team pay Abreu that and give up anything when they could sign Johnny Damon instead?
Life could be worse for Abreu. He could be jobless like Damon.
Ichiro Suzuki is Abreu’s foil. Not only is Seattle’s bellwether dealing with change of his own, but he seems to be embracing it. The move from leadoff down to the number-three spot may not be the most glaring difference for Ichiro, who recently showed off a tweaked stance. Credit Ichiro’s selflessness, Eric Wedge’s willingness to eschew tradition, and Chone Figgins’ burdensome contract for driving the Mariners to these lengths. But don’t laud the decision too much. Ichiro, despite a down year by his gaudy standards, still had an on-base percentage about 70 points higher than Figgins—and that isn’t the only question about how well this switcharoo will work.
Typically, the third spot in the order is reserved for a batter with power. No spot in the order comes up with the bases empty and two outs more often, so the ability to drive oneself in is better leveraged there than the ability to get on base. Even at Ichiro’s best, no one described him as a slugger. That raises another question: Will Ichiro strand too many runners to be an effective third hitter? We track a statistic that measures how often a batter comes up with a runner on base—by base—and how often the batter drives that runner in. Those numbers are available in rate and counting form, although for the sake of this analysis, the rate form will be used.
In order to get a picture of where Ichiro would rank among third hitters in run production, his 2011 numbers were compared to each of the 30 primary third-spot hitters. This includes Dustin Ackley, who received the most third-slot plate appearances for the Mariners last season. Here is how Ichiro ranked across the board:
Sure enough, Ichiro would have finished as one of the worst third-spot hitters in the league based solely on these measures. But don’t take your pitchforks to Safeco yet. For one thing, Wedge is in Arizona. For another, take a look at the total numbers and note some of the names near the bottom of the list:
Two things should stick out: 1) Ichiro’s overall numbers do not differ greatly from Ackley’s, and 2) some talented hitters rank as below-average third-spot hitters. As you may have guessed, these numbers tend to bounce around. For players with 300-plus plate appearances in 2010 and 2011, the r-squared for their total runners driven in rate is 0.04. In other words, the 2010 numbers explain only about 4.6 percent of the variance in 2011 numbers. Of course, you would never know that if you just looked at Ichiro’s recent rates:
There are some independent variables to consider with these numbers, such as the run environment at Safeco hurting Ichiro’s rates, as well as his not benefitting from having a speedster like Figgins on base ahead of him. Plus, Ichiro’s new stance could lead to more power, which renders his previous numbers moot. Still, when people talk about Ichiro not driving in runs as well as the typical third hitter, they aren’t incorrect, even if they ignore that he might post a respectable on-base percentage and help his lineup score runs in other ways. If you judge hitters based only on an outdated definition of run production, then the odds are you won’t find Ichiro the third hitter at all appealing.
And yet, there is something honorable—something laudable, even—about how Ichiro is going along with the plan and refusing to accept decline without a fight. Often, leadership is judged in proxy by subtle signs on the field and how the player gets along with the press. Those are leadership qualities, but not the only ones. For a player once accused of selfishness, Ichiro is showing leadership. It may go for naught, he may stink in the third spot, and the Mariners may struggle to score like they have in the recent past, but Ichiro is no fool. He isn’t going to waste energy fighting a war he can never win.