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December 30, 2008

Prospectus Today

The OBP Pit

by Joe Sheehan

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I am almost always too optimistic about the Reds.

Predicted Wins vs. Actual

Year    Sheehan   Reality
2008      82         74
2007      72         72
2006      83         80
2005      81         73
2004      80         76

Before I was predicting records, I picked the Reds to win the division in 2003 as well. They went 69-93 and finished last. I suspect that I've been overrating the value of their left-handed power-typically Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.-while not docking them enough for poor defense, mediocre back-end pitching, and some lineup holes in each season. In any case, I have usually seen them as a .500 team with some upside, and they haven't been relevant in the NL since BP was an entirely free site.

Now, the team's composition has changed considerably over the last calendar year, as some young talents (Jay Bruce, Joey Votto) have earned lineup spots; as Dunn and Griffey have been traded away; as young starters Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez took rotation slots and combined for 63 starts of 3.96 ERA with good peripheral statistics. The 2009 Reds are going to be built . . . well, let's let GM Walt Jocketty tell it.

"With the addition of Willy Taveras and Ramon Hernandez, along with Alex Gonzalez and Brandon Phillips, our defense substantially improves up the middle." (AP)

Well, just two of those are technically additions, and neither is clearly an upgrade. The Reds did sign Willy Taveras to a two-year contract over the weekend, and Taveras should make their center-field defense better by enough to make a difference in the team's run prevention . . . except that his numbers have been lousy the last two seasons in Colorado; a net negative defensive player per the Plus/Minus system, eighth of ten NL qualifiers in Revised Zone Rating last year, and below average in the same stat in '07. Taveras has the skill set of a good center fielder, but he has not performed like one since he was in Houston, so it's a jump to conclude that he'll make a big difference in Cincinnati. Hernandez had lousy defensive numbers the last two seasons in Baltimore, throwing out just 44 of 211 basestealers. Gonzalez was a slightly plus defender at 29 and 30 years old; he'll be 32 and coming off of a season missed to knee surgery. Of Jocketty's four examples, only Brandon Phillips is clearly an asset with a glove on.

What the four players do all have in common isn't helpful:

             Age  OBP/2008  OBP/Career
Hernandez     33   .308      .326
Taveras       27   .308      .331
Gonzalez      32    N/A      .295
Phillips      28   .312      .308

I encourage you to try and construct a lineup with those four players (and a pitcher) that doesn't break down very badly at some point. Acquiring Taveras exacerbates a real problem for this team, something that Jocketty doesn't seem to recognize:

"Willy Taveras fills two significant needs for our ballclub, a speed base-stealing threat at the top of the order, and superior defense in center field."

The second part, as noted, is in question. The first isn't actually a need. It's 2008, nearly 2009, and you can still hold a GM job saying stuff like the above. I do not get it. The most important thing that a leadoff hitter does is not make outs. You need a high-OBP guy in that slot to bat in front of what should be your best hitters in the second and third slots, the players who bat for average and power that will advance the runner around. Basestealing actually matters less for a leadoff hitter, because the cost of an out is high and the value of the marginal base is low given the caliber of batters to follow. This is all basic stuff, Sabermetrics 040 for the kids who didn't pass in high school, and yet Walt Jocketty thinks Willy Taveras and his .331 career OBP-.308 last year, .333 or less in three of four seasons-is a leadoff solution.

The problem with Taveras is that his only skill is speed. He never walks (115 unintentionals in 2,170 PAs, or a bit more than once a week in his career) and he has no power (.054 ISO, and even that is inflated by "leg" extra-base hits), which means he has to bat .320 to be a viable offensive player. He did that once, in '07 with the Rockies. With a career strikeout rate of one every six at-bats or so, he needs to hit .370 on contact, minimum, to be a viable player. Hie career mark is .338. There just aren't enough actual skills here to build a regular baseball player. Taveras can run, and that's just about all he can do. He strikes out too much for a player with no power, and he doesn't walk enough for a player with his batting average. Ichiro Suzuki or Luis Castillo, guys who Taveras might emulate, both do at least one thing better than he does.

Now, in the short term, this could work out well. Taveras' value is in some large part determined by what happens when he puts the ball in play, and the outcomes there can vary a bit. What would make him a contributor, and would make Jocketty look like a genius, is if he could get a slew of bunt singles, find some holes, and accidentally hit .330 in 2009. That's the entire upside, the potential for an on-contact career year that gets Taveras to first base 36 percent of the time.

As much as the Reds needed a center fielder, they needed OBP more. This lineup spot would have been better used on one on the many corner outfielders lurking on the market, leaving Jay Bruce to patrol center field for another season. Adding Taveras to the many low-OBP right-handed batters already in Cincinnati is likely the straw that breaks the offense's back. When Joey Votto hits .304 with 31 homers and 77 RBI next year and gets derided as "unclutch," remember this signing.

The Reds have some upside. Their front four starters match up with any NL team's outside of Chicago and San Francisco, and in Votto and Bruce they have the beginnings of a championship lineup. The hole in left field is apparently going to be filled by Chris Dickerson, but you have to look at Bobby Abreu, or even Adam Dunn, and wonder how cheaply the Reds could get a hitter to bat third who would make a 20- or 30-run difference for them. The Reds are going to have to score in the middle of the lineup, because the Hernandez/Gonzalez/pitcher/Taveras/Phillips stretch is going to be out-tastic, and they certainly have the money on hand for a short-term improvement.

They could also bargain-shop and snag Juan Cruz, who would not cost them their number one pick, but rather their number two, which won't come up until well past the 60th overall selection. That would give them a bat-missing hurler to pair with Jared Burton in front of Francisco Cordero, and perhaps turn the bullpen into a strength. Add in the aforementioned rotation, and you can see where the Reds might, with just a couple of additions, become a player in the soft National League. They would have looked better, however, without adding another OBP sink to a lineup loaded down with them.

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

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40 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I remember Gene Mauch talking about this when he slotted Brian Downing at leadoff. And foregtting about it when he slotted Gary Pettis there.

Dec 30, 2008 12:05 PM
rating: 0

Tavares's value is in his batting average, and his batting average isn't vey good.

That's a problem.

Batting average does fluctuate a lot without any change in the underlying skills - complare Ichiro's 2003 with Ichiro's 2004 and note that he was basically the same player, with an extra 70 points of BA in the second year - so there's always a chance Tavares can lay down a .400 BABIP and be a valuable player, but it's not predictable and not sustainable.

He's a bad signing if this is how you want to use him.

Dec 30, 2008 12:59 PM
rating: 0

It's impossible to be optimistic about the Reds when next year's rotation will have Cueto, Volquez and Bailey, and the manager is still Dusty Baker.

Dec 30, 2008 13:01 PM
rating: 1

This is a decent signing by the Reds since they really have no other outfielders besides Bruce and Dickerson. The bad move is letting him play every day and lead off.

They should give Dickerson shot. Had they brought Willy in to platoon with Dickerson vs lefties, and to come off the bench to utilize the skills that he does extremely well (the best bunter and base stealer in the majors), the Reds outlook for 09 would be a lot more bright.

Dec 30, 2008 13:05 PM
rating: 1
Drew Miller

That's what I thought the Reds were doing. Bringing in a 4th outfielder. Maybe Jocketty says this to light a fire under Dickerson.

Or maybe Walt's about to see his stock go way, way down.

Dec 30, 2008 13:17 PM
rating: 0

Possibly, but unlikely given the 2-year deal.

Dec 30, 2008 13:54 PM
rating: 0

Dickerson did his Greg Jeffries impression well last year, complete with a .400 Babip and a strikeout pace which would be Dunn-esque, if only Dickerson could hit 40 bombs in addition to his 170 K's. So, the 2009 Reds will feature a left-fielder who strikes out constantly, but can't drive in runs or hit homers. Then again, at least he can catch the ball. This is how progress is measured in Cincinnati. Two steps backward and then another in the off-season.

Please tell me Walt is not done. For God's sake, when is the next time this team will have pitching? Cueto and Volquez are prefect candidates to have their arms fall off this year and the Reds's offense will be out-shone by some American legion clubs.

Dec 30, 2008 13:42 PM
rating: 0
James Martin Cole

Last year I made a three year bet with a friend that, over the 08, 09, and 2010 seasons, the Pirates would win more games than the Reds. It's moves like this that make me feel good about this bet.

Dec 30, 2008 13:14 PM
rating: 0

Willy Taveras is the new Juan Pierre, complete with the "played for Colorado" and managed by Dusty Baker bits.

Dec 30, 2008 13:19 PM
rating: 3
Pat Folz

Just off the top of my head, is it more difficult than normal to play center field in Colorado? His fielding numbers in Houston were notably better. Thinking of what Will said in that Unfiltered post a couple weeks ago, perhaps Jocketty has some metrics that indicate that Taveras is likely to be a better-than-"expected" defensive asset.

Building on that, Volquez, Cueto, Harang, Arroyo, AND Owings were all FB-oriented pitchers last year, per ESPN stats. Thus building outfield defense might be disproportionately beneficial to the team's success.

Why then they feel the need to employ a defense-only shortstop....

Dec 30, 2008 13:46 PM
rating: 3
Nick J

Tavares' bUZR/150 from 2005-2008
(fielding runs above/below avg per 150 games):

2005 (Hou) +8.9
2006 (Hou) +15.1
2007 (Col) -17.4
2008 (Col) -9.7

Weird... Don't think Colorado would have this big of an effect - UZR is adjusted for park and roughly half of those performances came on the road.

By the way, Joe, and everyone, bUZR (BIS UZR) is free on fangraphs now. Any discussion of defense should at least include it.

Dec 30, 2008 14:04 PM
rating: 4
Fresh Hops

This is hard to be sure about: the problem may be that the natural trajectories of balls in Coors is different from that in other fields, and so it messes with a fielder's timing/placement. They learn to over run balls in other fields, or persistently under run them in Coors. I'm not saying this is the reality, but it is a possibility that would help explain why the relatively young Taveras seems like he's aging as an OF.

Dec 30, 2008 14:52 PM
rating: 1
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I sad. :(

Dec 30, 2008 13:51 PM
rating: -17

Enough silliness...

Bring in Milton Bradley to play LF and platoon Dickerson and Taveras in CF.

Trade Phillips to Milwaukee (perhaps along w/ a minor league arm, like Maloney) for Weeks and Escobar.

Bat Weeks leadoff and Bradley 3rd or 4th.

That, right there, would be a step in the right direction, in my opinion.

(By the way, I do think Phillips is, overall, a good player. I just think he's overrated. I think now is the time to shop him. If we could get Weeks to lead off and Escobar to be the future SS in the Concepcion mold, I'd be thrilled. Weeks just has to become a .260 hitter and then his OBP would probably be .370 and he'd be a fantastic leadoff hitter. If Phillips hits .260 -- which he might -- his OBP will be .310. Phillips is a great fielder, but his OBP is brutal.)

Dec 30, 2008 13:55 PM
rating: 0

my only problem with brandon phillips, really, is that he plays for a team where he bats in the top half of the order. the power is nice, the defense is great... on the right team (hitting 6th) i think he's an excellent player.

Dec 30, 2008 14:00 PM
rating: 2

Totally agree - good point.

If he's your 5th best hitter, you're in great shape. If he's your cleanup hitter, you're a 70-win team (and/or you have a dumb manager).

Dec 30, 2008 15:36 PM
rating: -2

well, reds fans and a couple prominent media people in cincinnati helped chase dunn out of town because of his non-clutchiness and strikeouts, so i guess we get what we deserve.

we apparently like low obp here, what with our manager being so anti-"clogging the bases" and a gm that thinks tavares should be a leadoff hitter, etc, etc.

the good news is that corey patterson won't be playing for the team this year... and as unimpressive as taveras is, he'll be better than patterson.

Dec 30, 2008 13:57 PM
rating: 3

If Jocketty could get Escobar and Weeks for Phillips and Maloney that deal would've been done long ago, no way the Brewers even listen to that offer.

Bradley I don't really want a part of and I can't see the Reds going that route. The FA market has some top end guys and bottom feeders and with the possible exception of Baldelli there wasn't much there I liked. I think the trade route might be the best bet to fill the LF hole. What about talking to the Yanks about Swisher now that they have Tex.

I'm not sure how much difference there is playing in Coors instead of Minute Maid. One would think his wheels would help more in Colorado with the large gaps there, but perhaps the ball hangs up a little more there too making it a little easier to get under fly balls. In a small park like the GAP though, even with a fly ball staff, should outfield defense be that much of a priority?

Dec 30, 2008 14:11 PM
rating: 2

I got laughed off some Reds blogs for proposing this deal, and that was even before I proposed adding Maloney to the offer.

I don't think it's crazy either way, but I do think the Reds would be a better team as a result.

Don't you think the Brewers are about sick of Weeks? He's batted under .240 the last two years, and the perception is that his defense is bad. (Personally, I look at his age of 26, his minor league numbers of .289/.404/.493, and his improving defense and I'm all in!)

Dec 30, 2008 15:39 PM
rating: -2

That Brewer trade would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happen. You deserved to get laughed off of those Reds blogs.

Dec 30, 2008 21:09 PM
rating: 1

at least they won't clog the bases

Dec 30, 2008 14:39 PM
rating: 1

I liked this post not only for its analysis, but also its subject matter -- A middling team near the middle of the country.

I don’t mean to complain, but I think that as Baseball Prospectus has become more established, the issues discussed in the Prospectus Today has become more conventional: players and managers from baseball’s biggest teams.

I can’t fault anyone for covering flashier (and generally more successful) clubs. However, I’d like to see some of the little fish get the same great analysis and coverage.

Dec 30, 2008 14:51 PM
rating: 2

Good point - I agree!

I'm biased, of course, as a Reds fan... but it sure seems that the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Mets, and Dodgers get a disproportionate amount of coverage.

Dec 30, 2008 15:34 PM
rating: -2
Matt Hunter

I'm a fan of a small market team. But a.) those teams are talented, and b.) they drive readership because of the market.

Dec 30, 2008 20:38 PM
rating: 0

Joe has only done a handful of "GM of Day"s. Two were the Jays and M's. Not middle America, but certainly not your major teams.

Dec 30, 2008 16:17 PM
rating: 5


Dec 30, 2008 17:23 PM
rating: 1

Regarding what Jocketty says, when a GM signs a player the PR part of his job mandates that any good thing SOME-body might believe about the player is his to then say. So if he's signing Taveras for his 'D', he's also professionally obliged to talk about his upper limit 'O' potential as if it can be expected. Regardless of whether he honestly is silly enough to expect it, or actually juggling contingency plans at the same time he's mouthing those words.

Dec 30, 2008 15:00 PM
rating: 1

I'd suggest that the major market teams, particularly in the offseason are making the most news. They also have the most options available, which makes dissecting their moves and potential moves a more useful exercise than debating the Pirates rotation.

Dec 30, 2008 16:02 PM
rating: -1

Patterson was last years OF flop. He led off 32 times last year finishing with a .238OBP on the year. One of Dusty's boys?
Now, we have Taveras. Although his low OBP will actually be an upgrade from Patterson, there is little to get excited about here.
How about sticking Dickerson in the leadoff slot? Last year he had just as many extra base hits as Taveras with only a fraction of the Ab's
Extra base hits/ at bats in 2008
Dickerson 17/102
Taveras 18/479
An then there's the OBP
Dickerson .413
Taveras .308
Dickerson will only swipe a handful of bags, but the Reds need to look at the big picture here.

Dec 30, 2008 16:08 PM
rating: 1

Milton Bradley really would have looked nice on this team, and would have made the Reds a true contender.

Dec 30, 2008 17:26 PM
rating: -1

I agree... and I keep hoping Jocketty will surprise us w/ something like this.

Dec 30, 2008 18:37 PM
rating: 0

At least the Reds were on the periphery of contention at best prior to this signing. He MAY pump up the perceived value of some of their non-core pitching assets (SEE: Harang, if healthy), which Jocketty in the past has parlayed into admirable swag (READ: Bottenfield for Edmonds).

Now compare this to the Cubs' signing of Joey Gathright and the ominous proclamations of Piniella and Hendry about how often he will start in CF, and it makes a good argument that Taveras may not be the worst low-OBP speedster acquisition of the offseason.

Dec 30, 2008 19:17 PM
rating: 2

Taveras is outstanding....as a 4th outfielder. As a starting centerfielder he flat out sucks. Low obps and slugging. He has a good arm in center and his speed gives him upside defensive potential and his offensive skills, such as they are, are smallball skills that play best off the bench. But handing him 650 PA's in that homerpark is a travesty of epic rallykilling proportion.

Dec 30, 2008 20:15 PM
rating: 2

The money just came out. Per the Denver Post, "According to information obtained by The Denver Post, Taveras received $6.25 million on his two-year deal. He will make $2.25 million this season and $4 million in 2010. He can make an additional $250,000 this season if he reaches 600 plate appearances."

I hate my team.

Dec 31, 2008 05:41 AM
rating: 2

Taveras -class a arm for a center fielder, stls at will -even on pitchouts, good chance at beating it, ie, best base stealer in baseball.
Just because Taveras has (mostly) sucked thus far on getting on base, knows what his job is - get on base. It's just that he only gets walks on pitchers' random control problems - at that rate - like Pierre in that regard.

Taveras is a worse hitter than Pierre, but with his limited and realistic approach with the appropriate emphasis on slap hitting, bunting, etc..don't think a 350 obp is out of the question. If he can get to that, can have some effective Pierre-like years.

Dec 31, 2008 07:35 AM
rating: 0
Camp WitRios

$6.25MM over 2-years. I like the deal even less now that I've seen the figures.

The only way that Taveras differs from Pierre: Pierre has an historically bad deal, whereas Taveras has "just" a bad one.

I feel like we should all take a collection and send the proceeds to Otis Nixon.

Dec 31, 2008 08:16 AM
rating: 0

Or Rickey Henderson. He's still claiming he's not retired, right?

Dec 31, 2008 09:03 AM
rating: 0

Take that back..Taveras is surprisingly bad at making contact with the ball, which means he caught between a rock and a hard place...really can't afford to let anything looking like a strike go by, ie, really can't afford to check out the pitcher for having a bad control event and take good advantage of that random 2-3% walk rate that goes to anyone standing at the plate with a bat. Unlike say Pierre, Taveras lacks the skill of begging walks, even though he has the right attitude. A player like Taveras has to maintain a 340 obp, even that's low, and over a span of 600 at-bats, he's lookin like a very predictable 310 at best. unacceptable.

he's a dud.

Dec 31, 2008 10:57 AM
rating: 0


It's worth noting that, since Coors Field inflates OPB, Taveres' park-neutral numbers are even worse (and, for that matter, I'm guessing that Great American Ballpark does so as well).

That said, you are wrong to lump Phillips in with the other up-the-middle Reds players. BP's own metrics show that he has been an elite 2B each of the past 2 years. Other than future Hall of Famer Chase Utley, there aren't many 2B who have been significantly better than him in that (admittedly selective) sample.


Dec 31, 2008 11:41 AM
rating: -1

I too like Phillips for many reasons (gold glove being one of them). But the .312 OBP from last season was just atrocious.

Dec 31, 2008 18:07 PM
rating: 0
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