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October 9, 2008

Player Profile

Andre Ethier

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

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Despite not having a secured starting job in the crowded Dodgers outfield at the beginning of the year, Andre Ethier eventually hit well enough that manager Joe Torre had no choice but to give him one of the everyday spots. Thanks in part to the 26-year-old's hot hitting down the stretch, the Dodgers find themselves in a position to head to the World Series if they can just get past the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS. Ethier's bat is a key to that process, but what can we expect from him in this series, and going forward?

Andre Everett Ethier was originally selected in the 37th of the 2001 amateur entry draft by the Oakland Athletics out of Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona, but he did not sign. Instead, the lefty batter headed for Arizona State University, where he was a teammate of Dustin Pedroia, Travis Buck, and Ian Kinsler, as well as Jeff Larish and Mike Esposito, two other players with brief bouts of major league time. After an impressive 2003 campaign where he hit .377/.488/.573 with 10 home runs and a 23-game hitting streak to end the year, Ethier was selected in the second round, once again by Oakland, but this time he would sign on. The 21-year-old would make his professional debut in Short-season A-ball with Vancouver in the Northwest League, but for just 41 at-bats before finishing up the year with 95 at-bats at Low-A Kane County in the Midwest League.

Despite the limited amount of pro experience, Baseball America liked what they saw, rating Ethier the ninth-best prospect in the Athletics' stacked organization-Bobby Crosby, Joe Blanton, Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher, Justin Duchscherer, and Mark Teahen (to name a few) are among current major leaguers who were all members of that 2004 list. Ethier was applauded for "tremendous hand-eye coordination," and scouts compared a future, filled-out Andre Ethier to Shawn Green. Though he was making progress on learning to drive the ball, he had a tendency to guide the ball that took away from some of his power, but there were those in Oakland who thought he had the highest ceiling of any positional prospect. Looking back at the list of names above, that was a good call by those scouts.

Ethier would spend all of 2004 at High-A Modesto in the California League, putting together a line of .313/.383/.442. The 22-year-old drew a walk in nearly 10 percent of his plate appearances, and he also managed to keep his strikeouts to a minimum at 13.6 percent. Though he didn't show a ton of power, he did belt 35 extra-base hits in just over 400 at-bats, and that was despite a stress fracture in his back at midseason that limited his playing time. Baseball America was not overly impressed with this extended sample of play, however, dropping Ethier to 16th in the A's organizational rankings, stating that "While he drew 52 walks in 68 games in his final year at Arizona State, he has yet to show that kind of discipline as a pro."

Ethier's 2005 season would be a combination of improvement and regression, as he started improving his power numbers somewhat-a .497 slugging percentage, .178 Isolated Power, and 51 extra-base hits-but also saw his punchouts jump to 16.3 percent while his walk rate dipped closer to eight percent. Ethier was also relying on his .356 BABIP to keep his batting average up, which in turn was propping up his OBP and SLG; essentially, if Ethier were to stop seeing as many of his liners drop for hits, he'd look much more like a tweener than these numbers suggest. Ethier was promoted to Triple-A before year's end, but got just 15 at-bats. Those would represent his final appearances as an Athletics' prospect, as he would end up in Los Angeles before 2006 in a trade for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez.

This was a significant deal at the time, and Ethier had just been ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the A's organization by Baseball America. Of course, they also felt that Ethier might end up as a tweener because he lacked the speed to play center effectively, and lacked the power to make for a good regular in a corner. He also had a tendency to overswing, focusing on utilizing power he hadn't developed to that point. They weren't the only ones with this viewpoint; according to Baseball Prospectus 2006:

The Dodgers hope that Ethier, the Arizona State product acquired for Milton Bradley, will be a late-bloomer after a power breakout in Midland last year. He runs better than his stolen-base numbers indicate, but he is considered to have too weak an arm to play center field. His chance could come sooner rather than later, considering that Jose Cruz is the incumbent, but PECOTA thinks he'd be overmatched as a regular.

For reference, his weighted-mean PECOTA forecast for 2006 was .271/.332/.398. Ethier would begin the year at Triple-A Las Vegas, hitting .349/.447/.500 over 86 at-bats before being called up to the majors and given the left-field job. He made it look almost too easy when he first came up, posting a line of .324/.395/.577 during May; despite continuing at that level throughout much of the year, Ned Colletti went ahead and traded for Marlon Anderson, and in one of the more odd developments of that season for the Dodgers, that cut into Ethier's playing time. It worked in the sense that Anderson hit .375/.431/.813 down the stretch, but Ethier's production suffered, and he publicly sulked about the lack of playing time. Though PECOTA missed on his weighted-mean forecast, his overall line of .308/.365/.477 was right on target with his 90th-percentile projection of .306/.374/.474. Granted, he had a bit of help thanks to a .360 BABIP, and with just a 20 percent liner rate, things were pretty far off from where they perhaps should have been.

Ethier would still be fighting for playing time on the Dodgers in 2007, as he collected 447 at-bats-shy of full-time play-and saw his BABIP regress a bit. However, his 2007 season was almost an exact copy of his 2006 one, just that this time his BABIP of .311 was not as high as it should have been, given his 20.9 percent liner rate. He did draw more walks (9.3 percent) and strike out less often (15.2 percent of the time, down from 19.4), both good signs for his legitimate progress as a hitter. There are issues to be taken with the walk rate though-he was intentionally walked 12 times, which helped inflate his OBP-and PECOTA took this into consideration when giving Ethier a weighted-mean forecast of .286/.354/.453 for 2008.

Ethier's season ended up as a combination between the progress made in 2007 and the inflated numbers of his 2006 campaign. He finished the year with a .305/.375/.510 line, a career-high ISO of .205, while walking in 10.1 percent of his plate appearances, this time without a single intentional pass. This step up was in part thanks to an uptick in his line-drive rate to 21.6 percent, higher than either of his previous marks, and in line with his .336 BABIP, making his success this season more likely to be replicated.

That's great news for the Dodgers, who have saddled themselves with plenty of unproductive and expensive outfield options (the oft-flogged Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones) during the past two offseasons. It's also good news for Ethier, who may finally be able to shed the stigma that he's a tweener incapable of helping a team out much in a corner over a full season. The main worry for the future is that Ethier needs every point of BABIP he can squeeze out of his liner rate in order to match those expectations, so slightly disappointing years such as 2007 are not completely in the rearview mirror.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

The Dodgers entered this season relying on Joe Torre to juggle four outfielders-Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Juan Pierre, and Andruw Jones-to cover three slots. Ethier, the Opening Day left fielder, was displaced during May by the then hot-hitting Pierre, but many Dodgers fans were calling for Ethier to permanently be installed in the starting lineup. Eventually, Ethier became so utterly productive on offense that Joe Torre literally had no choice but to start him all the time. How productive? Well, while it's tough to beat Manny's numbers in Dodger blue-.396/.489/.743-Ethier actually gave him a good run for his money in that same time span, hitting .368/.448/.649 from August 1 until the end of the season. Overall, Ethier hit .305/.375/.510 with 38 doubles, five triples, and 20 home runs. The 63 extra-base hits established a new career high for the third-year player, who has improved in a variety of metrics in each of his three major league seasons.

While his rookie slash line of .308/.365/.477 fell to .284/.350/.452 in 2007, a strong case can be made that he actually became a better player. That's because his strikeout rate dropped from 19.4 percent to 15.2, while his rate of free passes rose from 7.9 percent to 9.3. That improved patience at the plate is also reflected in his swinging 48 percent of the time compared to 53 percent of the time in his rookie season. Despite swinging less frequently, his rate of contact actually rose, from 77 percent to 83 percent. Additionally, his 2006 season was built upon a .360 BABIP, which, as expected, dropped significantly in 2007. Ethier's numbers may have looked worse, but they were more normalized than his rookie campaign. If there was one red flag in his first two seasons, it would be that his ISO remained virtually unchanged (.168 and .169).

This year, all of the aforementioned metrics improved, including his ISO. His strikeout rate stayed in the same range at 16 percent, but everything else got better. He walked 10 percent of the time, swung just 44 percent of the time while making contact on 85 percent of those swings, and displayed power in the form of a .206 ISO, way up from the previous two seasons. His .336 BABIP may again seem high, but in light of his 21.6 line-drive rate, it isn't. The crude expected BABIP formula calls for the line-drive percent to be added to .120, which means Ethier was expected to have a batting average on balls in play of... .336, exactly where he should be.

Andre also experienced a shift in his frequency of fly balls, which fell to 32 percent after being 36-37 percent in 2006 and 2007. While this might not mean much on its own, add in his HR/FB rate and we see that he jumped from nine percent in those first two years to 14 percent this year. Ethier was hitting fewer fly balls, but a much higher percentage of the ones he was clouting were leaving the yard. The home runs were not coming at the expense of doubles either, as has been the case with other players, since he hit more doubles this season than ever before. He's improved a bit on the basepaths, from -1.5 EqBRR in 2007 to 0.8 in 2008; he won't light the basepaths on fire, but he has his uses.

Fielding, however, is a different story, as this year marked a drastic decline, one that the Dodgers organization should hope is a fluke or an outlier. After playing left field at three plays above average in 2006, he ranked third among all right fielders last season with a +17 above-average season. This year witnessed a swing of 33 plays, as Ethier fell all the way to -16 plays worse than an average right fielder, 30th at the position; he also ranked close to the bottom among regular right fielders in RZR. With just three years it is tough to tell where his true talent in the field lies, but it's safe to say that this year he was not an asset.

According to his career splits, Ethier's production decreases as the level of situational importance rises, and his 1-for-10 performance in the NLDS did nothing to shake that. He was also hitting behind Manny Ramirez in the lineup, as opposed to before him as he did so often after Manny's arrival. This brings us to the idea that Ethier saw better pitches hitting in front of Ramirez during the stretch run. For those who did not get to read the Unfiltered post from myself and Will last week, I explained that the percentage of fastballs and pitches in a generous strike zone to Ethier did not change before or after Manny arrived. The only significant difference was in his pitches seen per plate appearance, which rose from 3.75 pre-Manny to 4.32 with Manny. My initial suggestion was that Manny hitting behind him had a placebo effect on his confidence; he thought he would see better pitches, which made him work the counts more in his favor, allowing for that solid production line in August and September.

The only pitchers that bothered Ethier this season were those with sub-3.50 ERAs, which sounds trite, but bear with me. While it is common for hitters to become more productive as the ERA of the opposing pitcher worsens, Ethier feasted upon anyone with a 3.51+ ERA, meaning only the truest of true aces gave him a run for his money. In this championship series, that means he may experience difficulty hitting Cole Hamels, but that the subsequent trio of Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton will be ripe for the picking. The Dodgers have a scary lineup one through eight, and three LDS games don't mean much, but Ethier will have to produce much better than he did against the Cubs to help ensure that the Dodgers reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.-Eric Seidman


Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

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

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