September 24, 2007
Eric Byrnes has been one of the bigger surprises of 2007, leading the Diamondbacks' offense as an important cog on their potentially playoff-bound club. After playing for three teams in 2005 and then having a solid debut campaign for the D'backs in 2006, Byrnes has played himself into a three-year extension worth $30 million. With the glut of outfield prospects in the Arizona organization, is Byrnes going to contribute enough to be worth the money or-perhaps even more cutting-the roster space?
Eric James Byrnes was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994, out of St. Francis High School in Mountain View, CA. The 38th-round selection chose to attend UCLA rather than sign, and in 1995 he would be awarded honors as a Freshman First-Team All-America Outfielder, as well as Pac-10 Conference All-Southern Outfielder. He'd earn the latter honors again in 1997, and the Houston Astros would try their hands at drafting him, this time in the fourth round. He once again declined to sign, and instead the Athletics would draft him in the eighth round of the 1998 draft, signing him soon afterward.
The 22-year old Byrnes tore through two years of A-ball, which isn't a shock given his age:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1998 S. Oregon(A-) 169 .314/.378/.521 36% .207 12 8.5% 8.5% 1998 Visalia(A+) 108 .426/.504/.657 33% .231 11 14.0% 11.6% 1999 Modesto(A+) 365 .337/.433/.468 29% .131 29 13.2% 8.4%
Byrnes' BABIP was out of whack during his time at Visalia and Modesto, coming in at .472 and .363, respectively. Visalia was the product of a small sample size, and Modesto probably had a lot to do with a 23-year-old college player destroying pitchers a few years his junior. His Isolated Power of just .131 was a source of worry after the two more impressive figures from 1998, though his walk rate and strikeout rate showed a player who had excellent control of the strike zone. The A's would promote him to Double-A before '99 finished, and he would struggle during his brief time there:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1999 Midland(AA) 164 .238/.316/.341 39% .103 14 9.0% 16.9%
A pretty weak .290 BABIP had a lot to do with his problems, but Byrnes also saw his strikeout rate double while his walk rate dropped four percent. The power was another issue, as the outfielder just managed to get his ISO into triple digits. On the bright side, in two seasons, Byrnes was 51 for 64 on stolen base attempts, an 80 percent success rate. He would need to hit better at the higher levels for that to mean anything, but it's a good secondary value when you don't hit for as much power as you should.
Baseball Prospectus 2000 liked Byrnes, but wanted to see him perform at a higher level given his age:
Byrnes is a speedy hustler drafted out of UCLA in 1998, and an interesting variant on the A's OBP obsession. Instead of being a slugger with patience, Byrnes hits for a good average, takes his share of walks (75 last year) and can run. Sort of like Roberto Vaz, but better. As you can see, he's already old for A ball, so he's going to have jump up to Sacramento to really earn a shot.
The 24-year-old Byrnes would get his chance in the second half of 2000, following another stint at Double-A Midland:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Midland(AA) 259 .301/.395/.474 41% .170 27 13.8% 12.2% 2000 Sacramento(AAA) 243 .333/.410/.547 41% .214 24 11.1% 10.8%
You have to love the low strikeout rate combined with the high rate of hits on balls in play. Byrnes may not have hit for a significant amount of power, but he drew walks, controlled the strike zone, swiped bases, and hit for a consistently high average. There's nothing wrong with a .214 ISO if you are capable of doing all of those things. Of course, hitting well over .300 in the minor leagues does not immediately portend the same success in the majors, or even the next season at Triple-A, as we see with Byrnes in 2001.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 wasn't convinced Byrnes was a starting outfielder in the major leagues, and given his abilities listed above at the time, that seems accurate:
Eric Byrnes is your basic hustle player. After smacking 48 doubles in 2000, he showed improved power during his Arizona Fall League stint. Add that to 74 walks and you start thinking that our projection for him may be a bit conservative. He has a good arm and runs well, but he's still picking up the finer points of outfield defense. Byrnes is a good fourth outfielder in the making who keeps improving.
Baseball America ranked Byrnes as the No. 9 prospect in the A's organization:
Despite winning the California League batting title with a .337 average in 1999, Byrnes was regarded as more of a blue-collar player than a prospect. He changed that in 2000 by adding power on his way to a September callup. Byrnes has hit at every stop in the system, and he has solid power potential. He runs well and continues to impress with his makeup. His work ethic has led to continual improvement, and he plays with all-out hustle. Despite his speed, Byrnes still needs to work to become a good defensive outfielder, and he'll have to hit more home runs to become more than a fourth outfielder at the big league level.
Byrnes would spend all but 38 at-bats of his 2001 season at Sacramento, and then would split his 2002 season between the majors and Triple-A:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Sacramento(AAA) 415 .289/.343/.499 38% .210 25 7.1% 14.3% 2002 Sacramento(AAA) 119 .261/.302/.420 36% .159 7 5.6% 11.9% 2002 Oakland(MLB) 94 .245/.291/.426 39% .181 6 4.1% 18.1%
His patience disappeared during the 2002 season, and his numbers suffered for it, though he did regain some of his power during his time at Oakland. The samples are too small to judge anything from in 2002, and Byrnes would get his first full look in the majors in 2003. Baseball Prospectus 2003 still thought of Byrnes as a fourth outfielder, wwhile Baseball America had moved Byrnes up to the second spot in their organizational rankings before 2002 (the 27-year-old wasn't covered in the 2003 edition):
If you were confused by his appearance in Oakland, it's because he has above-average speed. Byrnes is a prototypical fourth outfielder. He can play center field if he has to, or he can cover a corner spot fairly well. Some power, but not enough to play a corner outfield spot on a regular basis. Often used as the legs for an old or recuperating outfielder, he'll probably have a similar role in 2003, depending on whether or not the A's Brain Trust can dig up a center fielder off the waiver wire or in the Rule 5 draft.
Byrnes ended up playing two-thirds of a season playing in center and in left for the A's. His PECOTA forecast put him at .249/.308/.407, but he managed a .263/.333/.459 season in 414 at-bats. Byrnes also went 10 for 12 in stolen base attempts, but played a below-average center field. The most interesting aspect of Byrnes' campaign-which Baseball Prospectus 2004 covered-was his drop-off in production as the season went on. Byrnes hit .335/.399/.576 from April through June, and just .146/.221/.268 from that point forward. Whether he was hiding an injury or just hit a wall-a figurative wall, although he hits his share of the literary variety-no one outside of Oakland knew at the time. This was the start of a trend for Byrnes, though-he'd pile up big first half numbers, and plummet in the second half.
The next two years, Byrnes would improve, and then suffer through his worst year as a pro:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Oakland(MLB) 569 .283/.347/.467 39% .185 42 7.5% 19.5% 2005 Oakland(MLB) 192 .266/.336/.474 47% .208 17 6.5% 12.6% 2005 Baltimore(MLB) 167 .192/.246/.299 34% .107 8 6.1% 18.2%
In 2004, Byrnes managed to keep his numbers up in the second half, although his power disappeared from August onward with just a .132 ISO. The A's dealt Byrnes to Colorado in mid-July of 2005 before he might get expensive via arbitration, and also before his second-half slide could tank their offense. His time in Oakland was pretty solid, as his ISO jumped over .208 and his batting average was held down by a low BABIP, but he hit just .191/.255/.282 from that point forward. On the plus side, Byrnes was +6 runs above average defensively according to John Dewan's numbers in The Fielding Bible.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 detailed Byrnes' issues as he tried to start fresh with the D'backs:
There's nothing wrong with being a rah-rah, full-tilt type, except that it can lead to slamming into walls-something Byrnes did about two weeks before he was traded to Colorado, an incident that suspiciously coincided with the point when his offense disappeared. Byrnes has a large platoon split (right-handers eat him up), so he's a marginal choice as a starting left fielder. With the Snakes, he's a placeholder in center until Chris Young is ready.
Sure enough, Byrnes would play most of his games in center for the Snakes, and besides a poor walk rate, fared well. PECOTA pegged him for .265/.337/.450, and he ended up with the exact projected OPS, just with a little different OBP/SLG distribution:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 Arizona(MLB) 562 .267/.313/.482 44% .215 40 5.7% 15.7%
The .313 OBP isn't a good thing, but he did show plenty of power-not all of it just in his power-pumping home park-went 25/28 on steals, and ranked seventh among qualifiers in Revised Zone Rating, another John Dewan defensive stat. Overall, he had a very solid campaign as a placeholder for Chris Young. Perhaps also as expected, Byrnes tanked in the second half of the season, hitting .250/.284/.441 from July 1 onward.
Baseball Prospectus 2007 described Byrnes' problems, none of them surprising by now:
Fans love his one-man-demolition-derby style of play, but Byrnes' overall line is less impressive than it appears. He hit .292/.352/.522 before the All-Star break but just .243/.274/.444 after; he also struggled against right-handed pitching, hitting .244/.287/.441 against righties. Neither of these issues is new to Byrnes-he's long been a streaky player who's had trouble with righties. He's a fourth outfielder/platoon player overtasked with starting.
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2007 Arizona(MLB) 605 .289/.358/.468 33% .179 37 8.6% 15.5%
The Triple Crown rate stats aren't that impressive for a corner outfielder, but Byrnes has also managed to steal 47 bases while only getting nailed seven times, an 87 percent success rate. Combine that boost to his offense with his ranking first in Revised Zone Rating in left by a significant margin, and you have yourself a fine campaign. Byrnes also leads the team with 37.1 VORP, and he even managed to hit .267/.353/.432 in the second half, breaking that particular pattern. He's also hit right-handers to the tune of .300/.363/.469; we probably won't know until next season whether or not that's a lasting improvement or a single-season aberration. If not for his work on the basepaths and on defense, that slippery line between acceptable production and below-average play would be highlighted further.
Which brings us to his contract extension. Byrnes is in Arizona through 2010 as long as he isn't dealt, at a cost of $8 million next year and $11 million per season the last two years on the deal. His instincts have finally caught up to his speed with experience in the outfield, making him a defensive asset. Given his athleticism and hustle, Byrnes shouldn't fall off a cliff defensively by the time the deal is over, and as long as he can keep it up on the basepaths he should remain valuable in those areas. If he suffers a further dip in power, though, there will be issues:
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2003 3.8 42.6% 20.9% 36.5% 15.6% 8.2% .293 .329 +.036 2004 3.7 47.9% 18.4% 33.7% 19.8% 9.0% .322 .304 -.016 2005 3.7 47.9% 19.7% 32.4% 23.9% 6.1% .251 .317 +.066 2006 3.6 44.3% 17.7% 38.0% 24.8% 12.4% .277 .291 +.014 2007 3.7 46.0% 18.6% 35.3% 27.4% 8.9% .314 .306 -.008
As Byrnes turned into more of a power hitter, he began to hit more flyballs. This made his BABIP unstable, and is partially responsible for his inconsistent and lower batting averages. The biggest issue I see with his batted-ball set is the frightening number of popups he hits. Byrnes hit 15.6 percent of his flyballs as popups back in 2003, and that's a higher number than you like to see. But the rate has risen every year since, climbing over 27 percent this season.
This represents a real problem for Byrnes' future, because before he has even reached the age where his bat slows down considerably, he has trouble avoiding infield flies. If it isn't down the middle of the plate, Byrnes doesn't hit it very well, as shown by this chart from ESPN.com:
He gets jammed on the inside a lot, and it causes him to popup at those high rates. Either his strikeouts or his infield flies-or both-will increase as he ages and his bat slows, hurting his already precarious rate stats. A whopping 17 percent of Byrnes' batted balls this year were popups in the infield, and he hit a glorious .011 in that situation.
His problems against right-handers and his splits from the halves are further reasons that keep me from endorsing his contract extension. Chances are good the D'backs will be paying a fourth outfielder $10 million in average annual value for defense and baserunning; this could hurt them, since they have cheaper, younger, and more productive options around in Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez. If Byrnes ends up being used as a fourth outfielder, those pinch-running assignments and innings as a defensive replacement will come at a hefty price.