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February 29, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Inspecting the Spectrum, Part III: Out of Left Field, Again

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week, I explored the majors’ surprising downturn in offense from left fielders, a result counterintuitive to our understanding of Bill James’ defensive spectrum, which runs DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C. The positions to the left of the spectrum, which require far less defensive skill, are the ones where offensive production is supposed to be the highest, yet left field has been engaged in a decades-long battle for offensive supremacy with right field—which requires a stronger arm for throwing to third base—and this past year slipped behind center field for the first time since 1966. I placed the major reason for the downturn at the feet of teams attempting to copy the 2005 White Sox, who used Scott Podsednik—a center fielder to that point in his career—in left field, and attempted to show how the defensive gain supplied by the speedsters did not outweigh the loss of offense. I even got to talk about the phenomenon on television.


To refresh your memory, here’s a graph of what I’m talking about, using five-year rolling True Average by position:



Unfortunately, I made an overreach in the article that demands correction. The last of the (approximately) 327 tables in the piece showed an annual breakdown of cumulative Fielding Runs Above Average values for the various outfield positions. Because those values were nonzero, I assumed they were being compared to a longer-term average, rather than a single year. They were, as it turns out, but that wasn’t what was supposed to be happening; the park factors weren't averaging out to 1.00 annually, a problem that wasn’t discovered until after publication. For that, I apologize; please forget all of the silly numbers in that table. Since then, Colin Wyers has rerun the data to ensure that the cumulative value for a given position at a given year zeroes out, a vast improvement that nonetheless leaves me in search of a new way to illustrate my point.

So let’s try something different. I can’t easily compare left-fielder defense to right-fielder defense, but I can compare the defense of the good-hitting left fielders against that of the bad ones. Since the major leagues expanded to 30 teams in 1998, left fielders have cumulatively hit for a .275 True Average, with a high of .280 in 2001, and a low of .263 last year. A total of 234 players have accumulated at least 400 plate appearances in a season while playing left field (not for whom left field is the primary position, as in our sortable stats, and as I used last time)—that's more or less regular playing time, with some leeway for injuries, DHing, and filling in at other positions, with the odd alien abduction to boot.

The 153 qualifying left fielders with TAvs above .275 averaged -1.7 FRAA per year. The 81 qualifiers with TAvs of .275 or lower averaged 0.3 FRAA, a whopping difference of—wait for it—2.0 runs per year. Two runs per year is approximately the difference between a .275 TAv and a .272 TAv over 650 plate appearances, or between a .275 mark and a .270 one over 400 plate appearances. Needless to say, the two groups of hitters were much further apart in their offensive contributions than two runs per year.

Looking at it in a slightly different way, the median TAv of the 234 qualifying left fielders was .286. Those above the median averaged -1.4 FRAA, while those below it averaged -0.5, a difference of less than a run per year. Breaking them into quartiles:

Quartile

TAv Range

FRAA

1

.305-.436

-2.1

2

.286-.305

-0.8

3

.270-.286

-1.2

4

.215-.270

0.2

Only the bottom quartile, which featured batters not only below average but in a couple cases below replacement level (Al Martin, .232 in 1998, and Brian L. Hunter, .215 in 1999) included fielders who were on the balance above average, and then just by the laces of their gloves. As I wrote before, the bottom line is that this is a major inefficiency at work. Teams should be able to find better hitters who can fulfill the minimal offensive demands of the position, and those who don't are losing ground, because the spread between the good and bad defenders is far less than that between the good and bad hitters at the position.

Using the strict splits of batting by position, last year nine left fielders accumulated at least 400 PA with TAvs of .263 (average for the position) or lower. Only three of them were above average defensively, according to FRAA:

Player

Team

PA

TAv

FRAA

Juan Pierre

CHA

698

.239

-10.2

Ryan Ludwick

SD/PIT

484

.251

-7.2

Carl Crawford

BOS

529

.253

2.5

Raul Ibanez

PHI

561

.254

-4.3

Martin Prado

ATL

427

.256

-2.6

Brett Gardner

NYA

544

.256

12.9

Alfonso Soriano

CHN

489

.257

-7.9

Vernon Wells

ANA

433

.259

8.1

Jason Bay

NYN

509

.263

-1.5

Well, now, that’s a happy list, isn’t it? In all, this nonet of offensive nonentities hit for a .253 TAv and averaged -1.1 FRAA, with just three players—Gardner, Wells, and Crawford—above average defensively; for the most part, it’s not like they were making up for their subpar offense with stellar defense. Take Gardner, widely acknowledged as one of the game’s best defenders by everyone except the Gold Glove voters (who awarded Crawford instead) out of the equation, and the average FRAA drops to -2.9. In Crawford ($142 million), Soriano ($136 million), and Wells ($126 million), the list features three of the 20 biggest contracts of all time, and if you throw Bay ($61 million) into the picture, four of the top 15 in terms of average annual value for outfielders are represented.

What follows is a rundown of the current left field situations for the teams represented above. Will they get more offense from the spot in 2012 than they did in 2011?

White Sox: Pierre departed as a free agent, as did the manager who allowed him to fester in left field for the past two years, posting two of the eight lowest TAvs of the era, namely Ozzie Guillen. Under new manager Robin Ventura, the Sox are attempting to sort out their outfield alignment. Where they once considered moving center fielder/offensive flatliner (.216 TAv) Alex Rios to left, now they're leaning toward shifting Rios to right, his old position in Toronto, using Alejandro de Aza, who hit a searing .329/.400/.520 in 171 PA last year, in center, and putting converted third baseman Dayan Viciedo in left. Viciedo, who hit .308/.321/.519 in a 106 PA trial with the Sox in 2010, spent most of the year in Triple-A learning the outfield ropes; he hit just .255/.327/.314 for a .236 TAv in 113 PA upon being recalled in late August. Viciedo's PECOTA forecast calls for a .265/.306/.419 line for a .258 TAv which, while hardly amazing, would represent a 19-point improvement over Pierre.

Pirates: After stinking up the joint with the Padres—whose Petco Park screwed up his swing by making him a dead pull hitter—Ludwick finished the year with the Bucs, but left as a free agent and signed with the Reds. The Pirates plan to turn to 26-year-old Alex Presley as their regular left fielder after he hit .298/.339/.465 for a .279 TAv in 231 PA spread over two stints with the big club. PECOTA isn’t overly optimistic he can maintain that, forecasting a .276/.313/.403 line and a .255 TAv. Nate McLouth, a 30-year-old whose two-and-a-half-year walkabout with the Braves yielded a .229/.335/.364 line, is back in the fold as a fallback option; he is forecast for a .269 TAv, which would be a most welcome reunion under the circumstances.

Padres: The Pad People were hurt more than the Pittsburghers when it came to Ludwick's production, since he spent the bulk of his season there and hit far worse than he did as a Pirate. They've taken a decisive step to improve at the spot, trading for Carlos Quentin, who hit .254/.340/.499 with 24 homers, for a .301 TAv. Quentin is certainly no great shakes defensively (-4.5 FRAA last year, -13.7 over the past two years), and Petco has a spacious outfield, but if he mashes to his potential, he'll more than outhit his mistakes.  

Red Sox: The $142 million man had a rough season, hitting .255/.289/.405, with the first two of those numbers career worsts; he also missed a month due to a hamstring strain. His offseason has been nothing to write home about, either. Shortly after the team’s season-ending meltdown, owner John Henry threw Crawford under the bus by declaring that he "personally opposed" the signing. While Henry has since apologized, Crawford will miss the start of the season due to mid-January arthroscopic surgery on his left wrist. That doesn’t bode particularly well for a rebound unless his wrist was actually a contributing factor to his struggles.

Phillies: Ibanez departed as a free agent; last week he signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the Yankees, a far cry from his three-year, $39 million deal with the Phillies. John Mayberry Jr., who hit .273/.341/.513 with 15 homers in 296 PA (for a .293 TAv) is the leading candidate to replace him, but far from the only one; Ty Wigginton and Domonic Brown (who is now blocked in right field by Hunter Pence) are other options, as is—wait for it—Pierre, who signed a minor-league deal with a March 31 opt-out. PECOTA isn’t overly enamored of Mayberry, forecasting a .250/.308/.432 line, but even that, for a .270 TAv, would represent a 16-point improvement on Ibanez’s showing. Brown’s forecast is for a .272 TAv on .253/.326/.414 hitting.

Braves: Prado hit a combined .309/.358/.461 for a .284 TAv from 2008-2010, hardly deviating from those numbers in any of those three years. Whether it was the move from second base to accommodate the arrival of Dan Uggla or the staph infection in his right calf that required surgery and cost him five weeks, he wasn’t the same hitter last year. He hit .282/.308/.433 before the infection, and just .236/.296/.333 afterward. The Braves sat on their hands instead of upgrading an offense that ranked 10th in scoring and missed the postseason by one game, and plan to return Prado to left field this year. PECOTA forecasts a modest rebound to a .274 TAv, an 18-point gain over last year.

Yankees: Upon hitting .277/.383/.379 in 2010 (for a .280 TAv), Gardner made a strong case for himself as the Yankees’ leadoff man, but he fell off to .259/.345/.369 last year—.223/.320/.313 from August 1 onward—and was particularly weak against lefties (.233/.344/.272 in 124 PA). Thanks to his stellar defense, he was still a 3.5 WARP player, but even given the spacious left field of their home ballpark (it’s 399 feet to left center, 385 to right center), it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees have the proper defensive alignment with Gardner in left and Curtis Granderson (-13.2 FRAA) in center. A switch would certainly beef up the majors’ left-field production if Granderson can come close to last year’s .312 mark; he’s forecast for .285, Gardner for just .260.

Cubs: Soriano hit just .244/.289/.469 last year, and delivered a sub-.260 TAv for the second year out of three. The 36-year-old (!) is signed through 2014 at $18 million per year with a full no-trade clause, so moving him to aid the rebuilding effort is a difficult proposition. It’s possible the Cubs could move new first baseman Bryan LaHair to left field once prospect Anthony Rizzo is ready, but that will take Theo Epstein and company writing off a pretty large sunk cost by dislodging Soriano. As it is, the incumbent is forecast for just a .266 TAv on .254/.304/.459 hitting, which doesn’t sound like anything for which somebody will want to pay $18 million a year.

Angels: We’ve been over Wells’ dismal performance; he wound up a Replacement-Level Killer thanks to his astounding .218/.248/.412 line, though he did homer 25 times, roughly once for every $920,000 he was paid. With top prospect Mike Trout ready, the Halos have an obvious replacement on hand, whether he takes over the spot or bumps Peter Bourjos out of center field. Whether they have the stomach to swallow any of the money remaining on Wells’ contract is the $63 Million Question. For what it’s worth, Trout and Wells are both forecast for a .262 TAv, Bourjos for a .260—any of which would represent a solid improvement from the spot over last year, though that would also represent significant regression from the latter, who broke out for a .282 mark last year.

Mets: Even before he missed the last two-plus months of 2010 with a concussion, Bay was already struggling to live up to his $61 million deal. A career .280/.376/.519 hitter when he signed, he has hit just .251/.337/.386 as a Met. It’s not just a ballpark thing either; Bay has hit .279/.367/.445 at a spacious Citi Field, .228/.310/.336 on the road. Citi’s new dimensions should help somewhat, but Bay won't come close to his forecast .281 TAv without improving his road line.

Indians: The Indians didn’t strictly qualify for this list, but they do belong in the discussion, as Michael Brantley totaled a .254 TAv overall, and .235 in 276 PA as a left fielder. That .254 mark, on .266/.318/.384 hitting, represented a 25-point gain over the previous year for the 24-year-old outfielder, but PECOTA sees stagnation ahead, forecasting a .249 mark. With fragile Grady Sizemore already slated to start the year on the disabled list due to a lower back strain, Brantley will likely see time in center; the Tribe should use the time to audition other options. Shelley Duncan, who hit .260/.324/.484 for a .287 TAv, is forecast for a .275 mark, and other options such as Aaron Cunningham, Fred Lewis, and Ryan Spilborghs could probably improve upon Brantley’s performance as well. Hell, a healthy Sizemore (.282 TAv forecast) might hold up better in left field, but we have no idea what a healthy Sizemore looks like anymore, since we haven’t seen one since 2008.

The bottom line is that many of these teams are forecast to improve their left-field production, even if they're simply standing still. Then again, regression works both ways, and with many of the players above posting unusually awful seasons relative to their career norms, they've got nowhere to go but up. 

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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