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November 21, 2008

Player Profile

Aubrey Huff

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

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Saying that Aubrey Huff's performance this season was surprising is a significant understatement; he outperformed all of his recent campaigns by a country mile, and wound up looking like the Huff who was once considered to be the greatest Devil Ray ever in their (short) history. Since he has performed at this level in the past, the question we will look at today is whether or not he will be able to replicate this production in the future.

Aubrey Lewis Huff was selected by the Devil Rays in the fifth round of the 1998 amateur draft out of the University of Miami, where he had been a first-team All-American. He was a third baseman at the time, and after signing quickly was sent to the Sally League for his professional debut. He put together an impressive line for a player selected 162nd overall, hitting .321/.371/.547 over 265 at-bats, with 33 extra-base hits and 24 walks against 40 strikeouts. While he was already 21 years old, it was expected that he'd need additional seasoning before the Devil Rays could treat Huff's performance was a realistic indicator of what they could expect from him going forward.

They wasted no time, skipping over High-A entirely and sending him directly to Double-A. Huff would put in a full season at Orlando during his first full year in the minors, and his .301/.385/.530 line with 65 extra-base hits, 64 walks, and 77 punchouts over 491 at-bats did much to ease any doubts about his impressive debut. He was suddenly on the prospect radar, with Baseball America ranking Huff the 98th-best prospect in the majors, and third-best with the Devil Rays organization. Baseball Prospectus 2000 liked him even more than they had after his first year:

Last year, after his outstanding half-season debut with Charleston, we said to check back to see if it was for real. It was. Aggressively pushed up two levels to Double-A, Huff improved his walk rate while maintaining his 900 OPS against much tougher competition. According to Clay Davenport's rating system, which combines hitting, fielding and age, Huff was the best player in the Southern League. His defense at the hot corner is said to be inconsistent, but you wouldn't guess it from his numbers. His poor Arizona Fall League stint and the Castilla pickup will mean Huff will spend 2000 at Triple-A.

Huff would have little trouble after arriving in Triple-A, and he continued to hit at the same level he had during his first two seasons. The 23-year-old smacked the ball around at a .316/.394/.566 clip over 408 at-bats, hitting 20 home runs (which good for the highest per-at-bat homer rate of his professional career) before earning a promotion to Tampa Bay. His performance there in 122 at-bats was nowhere near as stunning as his minor league numbers, but he did do a very solid job for a first-timer, hitting .287/.318/.443.

Although he dropped to fourth in the Devil Rays' organizational rankings, he jumped to 43rd in Baseball America's overall rankings:

Huff's calling card is his disciplined ability to swing the bat. Immensely confident at the plate, he can drive the ball to all fields with his quick swing. He isn't vulnerable against left-handers, though he shows more power against righties. Though he has shown improvement over the past two years with the glove, Huff needs to continue polishing his abilities at third base… The Devil Rays are satisfied that Huff is ready to compete in the major leagues.

He would begin the season in Triple-A despite his readiness, but he was up in the bigs within two weeks. His first full season in the majors did not go nearly as well as expected, with Huff hitting only .248/.288/.372, with nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks and just eight home runs. He brought his walk rate up slightly, from 3.9 to 5.3 percent, but his strikeout rate rose by more than that, and there was a dip in his already lacking power output.

Baseball Prospectus 2002 made note of manager Hal McRae's preference for poor options in his lineup:

Huff's defense at third base was so poor that he essentially lost his job late in the year to no-hit, good-field Jared Sandberg. We shouldn't be all that surprised: Hal McRae displayed a strong preference for gloves over bats when he managed the Royals. The Fred McGriff deal allowed Steve Cox to move back to first base and might free up the DH role for Huff if the D-Rays can get out from under Greg Vaughn's contract. Huff will need to get back to hitting the way he did in 2000.

With Huff struggling to hit, he was sent back to Durham to begin the 2002 season to see if he could straighten out his swing. He did manage to improve a bit, hitting .325/.386/.468 over 126 at-bats, and he was back in the major league lineup on May 28. The Huff that Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus thought so highly of finally emerged, with the 25-year-old hitting .313/.364/.520 the rest of the way.

He returned to the kind of disciplined approach that had brought him his success in the first place, increasing his walk rate to 7.5 percent while cutting his strikeouts down from 17.5 to 12.1 percent. This more than doubled his BB/K ratio, and also allowed him to see better pitchers to drive, increasing his ISO by 83 points as well. He also managed to dramatically improve against left-handed pitchers, jumping his production up from a paltry .172/.209/.241 in 2001 to .307/.362/.504.

Huff would then rattle off two more campaigns that made him the most productive player on the Devil Rays; hitting .311/.367/.555 in 2003, and .297/.360/.493 in 2004; in both of these years, he kept his BB/K rate near that of his breakout 2003 campaign, even bumping his walk rate up during '04. His power would peak in 2003 with a .244 ISO, a figure he would not approach again until this year, when he surpassed it by three points, and it would also be his last season with a strikeout rate in the 12 percent range.

The wheels began to come off for Huff in 2005, as his strikeout rate climbed to 15.3 percent, while his BABIP would fall below the league average, down to .275. The combination of these two factors would cause Huff to hit just .261/.321/.428, his worst production since his rookie campaign in 2001. The struggles against left-handers came back to haunt him, as he hit just .256/.300/.401 against them, dragging down his more playable numbers (.264/.332/.443) against right-handers. Thanks to the dip in BABIP-caused in part by an abnormal drop in his line-drive rate-Huff was a solid bet to bounce back. Baseball Prospectus 2006 made note of this, the most important aspect of the comment being this tidbit about Huff's trade value:

Huff has been a prime trade target from the moment he established himself, but the Rays have already waited too long to pull the trigger. In what should have been one of his peak seasons, Huff turned in his worst performance since his rookie year. The Rays have done themselves, and Huff, a disservice by dragging him all over the field.

The Devil Rays would eventually send Huff packing to Houston during the 2006 campaign, where he would improve on his .261/.321/.428 line for Tampa Bay by hitting .250/.341/.478 for the Astros. Although he failed to hit productively against southpaws once again (.233/.303/.383), he did bring up his production against righties, hitting a convincing .278/.358/.500 in 334 at-bats. Overall, Huff was, as Baseball Prospectus 2007 succinctly put it, "merely okay." He signed with Baltimore for three years, where he fit into the picture as a corner bat capable of crushing right-handed pitching.

Huff played essentially every day, collecting 603 plate appearances during his first year in Baltimore, but hitting just .280/.337/.442 with a .162 ISO. His lefty/righty split was, for the first time in a few years, not an issue, as Huff hit .305/.359/.420 against lefties and .272/.330/.449 against righties. Instead, Huff was experiencing a power outage, with a HR/FB rate that was below 10 percent for the first time in his career.

PECOTA called for more of the same from Huff as he entered his age-31 campaign, with a weighted mean projection of .269/.333/.423, and a 90th-percentile forecast of .289/.354/.466. He was able to outperform both of those thanks to the return of his power-his HR/FB jumped to 14.9, a significant increase from his disappointing 8.5 percent in 2007-thanks to an increase in liners and fly balls, and a significant dip in his ground-ball rate. It fell enough that Huff moved away from being an average G/F hitter, and was instead leaning more towards the fly-ball extreme.

Most of this production came against right-handers, with Huff destroying them at a .321/.382/.607 pace. He hit around the same as he had the year before versus left-handers, but with a bit more power, putting together a line of .270/.313/.439. Chances are good that Huff will not be able to duplicate those high averages against right-handers every season from here on out-he's going to be 32 years old next year, after all, and has never had success at that level against them in the past-but at the very least, the O's should have themselves a productive trade chip that they can move before the deadline while they rebuild the foundations of their organization. Unlike the Devil Rays of old, maybe the Orioles will be able to deal him before the shine comes off.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

In a season with several great performances that essentially came out of nowhere, very few were as impressive as Aubrey Huff's. The Silver Slugger-winning designated hitter of the Orioles put together a 55.6 VORP, good for seventh in the junior circuit, and identical to, or within striking distance of better known players like Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley, Joe Mauer, and Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia and Mauer were the top two vote-getters for the AL MVP award, and Hamilton and Bradley received plenty of air time. In addition, Huff's MLV of 38.2 was sixth best in the AL, right on par with Carlos Quentin's, and ahead of both Hamilton and Mauer. Despite these numbers, Huff went largely unnoticed this past season, a difficult task for someone with 32 home runs and 48 doubles.

From 2007 to 2008, Huff turned a .280/.337/.442 line into .304/.360/.552. How did this happen? Well, interestingly enough, the usual statistical subjects responsible for performance shifts were virtually identical over these two seasons. Huff's BABIP barely increased, from .310 to .314, and his walk rate stayed at eight percent. His rate of strikeouts decreased from 15.8 to 14.9 percent, an improvement, but not one so overly significant as to stake claim as the primary contributor to his turnaround. One shift that did boost his performance, however, is his ISO, which jumped from .162 to .247, the highest such mark of his career, and the first time it's been above .240 since 2003. Back during that season, Huff produced numbers eerily similar to those from this past campaign.

In 2003, Huff hit .311/.367/.555, right in line with the .304/.360/.552 from 2008. He hit 34 home runs and 47 doubles then, compared to the 32 home runs and 48 doubles he hit in 2008. He drew 53 walks in both seasons, posting identical .314 BABIP marks as well, with ISO rates of .244 and .247. In 2007, Huff's percentage breakdown of line drives, ground balls, and fly balls was 16.1/46.0/37.9. Last year, he cut down on grounders and replaced them with line drives and fly balls, aiding in his increase in home runs from 15 to 32. Likewise, his HR/FB played a large part in this, as the rate fell to 8.5 percent in 2007 after historically being between 12-15 percent. Huff increased that to 14.9 percent in 2008, so not only did he hit a higher percentage of fly balls, but more of them left the yard-a definite formula for successful power hitting. These home runs were not the byproduct of a favorable home park, as was the case with last week's profile subject Carlos Quentin, as six of Huff's home runs were no-doubters via HitTracker, while another 12 cleared the fences with plenty of room.

He heated up over the summer after starting on somewhat of a pedestrian level, posting an OPS of 1011 in June, 1130 in July, and 1056 in August. Twenty-one of his 32 home runs were hit in these three months. Huff also experienced a split when ahead 1-0 as opposed to behind 0-1, that was not as significant as it can be with most power hitters: when ahead, he hit .311/.402/.591, with a .308/.337/.535 when behind. In the clutch department, even though Huff put up a 942 OPS with runners in scoring position, the same metric decreased as the crucial nature of the situation increased, to the point of his delivering just a 736 OPS in extremely important situations.

Huff experienced changes in his plate-discipline performance as well. For starters, his percentage of first-pitch strikes seen, or plate appearances that conclude following one pitch, decreased from 60.4 percent to 54.6 percent. His major improvement, however, dealt with pitches outside of the strike zone. While his rate of swings at pitches out of the zone remained the same at 26 percent, Huff increased his contact rate on such pitches from 60.3 percent to 64 percent. All told, his overall rate of contact rose from 81.5 percent to 84.8 percent. Grouping all pitches seen together, his 57 percent pitches-taken rate is the highest of his career, and his 15 percent rate of swings and misses happened to be his lowest rate. Taken together, Huff was able to get his bat on more balls out of the zone, take more pitches than before, and reduce the number of those swings that bore nothing in return.

Moving forward, Huff is a truly talented hitter, perhaps a .280/.345/.480 player, not quite as potent as he was in 2008, but much improved from the disappointing 2007 season. If he can sustain the rates posted on balls in play-a very reasonable expectation-as well as those involving his plate discipline (which tend to fluctuate for many players year to year), there is little reason to suggest he could not surpass this crude projection. If there was one player this season who deserved to be discussed much more than he actually was in 2008, based on extremely solid performance, that player was Aubrey Huff.-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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