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September 11, 2009

Prospectus Today

Dunn'd and Damned

by Joe Sheehan

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The Braves' offensive explosion last night was good for a hang-on 9-7 win over the Houston Astros, but it may have come a bit too late, as it followed a devastating hitting week that saw them squander some of the best starting pitching you'll see a team get in one swing through the rotation. Starting last Friday against the Reds, the Braves got five straight quality starts, their starters allowing just seven runs in 36 innings, going at least seven innings every night. All told, their pitchers allowed 13 runs in 47 1/3 innings in the five games.

The Braves went 1-4 in those five games, scoring seven runs, with no more than two in any contest. Legends such as Kip Wells-pitching for his seventh team in four years-and Felipe Paulino put the Braves' bats in lockdown, helping push the team seven games behind the Rockies in the wild-card chase and effectively ending their shot at the postseason. It was a waste of resources even the federal government could take pride in, perhaps a permanent counterexample to the phrase "pitching is [DUMB_NUMBER] percent of baseball."

When a team racks up 1.4 runs per game, singling out any one player for blame is a bit foolhardy. Let's be foolhardy and note that Garret Anderson went 1-for-12 in that stretch, sitting out two of the games. His lone hit was a single, his lone other success getting in the way of a pitch, for an .083/.154/.083 slash line. This example of veteran leadership yanked Anderson's numbers down to .278/.314/.421 on the season, making him almost exactly a league-average producer at the plate (.258 EqA). As consistent as they come, this performance would mark the fourth time in five seasons that Anderson's EqA has landed within three points of league-average, and it's also within three points of his PECOTA weighted-mean forecast of .261. He's played slightly more than PECOTA projected him to play, a point that would weigh more in his favor if his doing so was helping.

While Anderson was hitting, professionally, for a 237 OPS as his team sank into the Atlantic, another left fielder, also a free agent last winter, was also watching his team lose four of five. Well, not "watching" so much as "doing a lot to try and prevent it." Adam Dunn, playing first base in the absence of the traded Nick Johnson, hit .364/.391/.364 during the five days in question, in the lineup for all nine innings every day. That's an unusual stretch for Dunn, who is currently going through a power outage that has seen him go without an extra-base hit since August 29, and without a double since August 20. Even at that, he's been a productive hitter, with a .372 OBP and .431 SLG in the three weeks since his last two-bagger. For the year, Dunn is hitting .282/.411/.557, making him the fifth-best hitter in the league with a .327 EqA and 105.2 Equivalent Runs produced. This is the best offensive year of Dunn's career to date, thanks to slight improvements in strikeout rate and batting average on balls in play, and better power once you consider his move to DC. He's outperformed both his recent seasons and approached his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection.

Dunn was a free agent for a long time last winter, eventually signing a two-year contract on February 11 that is paying him $20 million total, and $8 million in 2009. Eleven days later the Braves, who may have had Dion James leading their depth chart at that point, signed Anderson to a one-year deal for $2.5 million. They saved $17.5 million over two seasons, and just $5.5 million in 2009, by filling their left-field hole this way. Dunn has produced 61 batting runs above replacement, or 48 more than Anderson. Forty-eight runs is just shy of five wins in a vacuum, and for a team so desperate for offense, for OBP, and for a middle-of-the-order hitter, Dunn would have been worth even more than that to the Braves, as his plate appearances would have been more valuable than the average player's. Even if it's five wins, those five wins would put the Braves two games behind the Rockies-and four behind the Phillies-with a little more than three weeks to play. Make the minor assumption that one of those five might have come at the Phillies' expense, and it's easy to see the Braves, led by Dunn, making our September a lot more interesting.

To repeat, the decision to sign Garret Anderson rather than Adam Dunn saved the Braves $5.5 million this year. The decision may have cost them ten times that, however. What's a post-season berth worth in direct revenues, or indirect revenues? What's an extra 2,000 people a night coming to the park just in the last homestand add to the till? What's one series win, advancing to the NLCS, do for the coffers? The decision to sign Anderson instead of Dunn may well be the difference between going to the playoffs and not, and it stands out as one of the most penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions in recent memory. The Braves went cheap because they cared more about the cash commitment then about the impact on the field, and it went about as badly as it could: Anderson gave them exactly what they paid for, and the difference between him and a real left fielder may well be the difference between success and failure in 2009. It was the kind of decision you make running a corner grocery, not a baseball team, and the outcome was predictable on February 22.

I've focused just on offense here, which is mildly shortsighted given that it's Adam Dunn we're talking about. Plus/minus calls the two even this year as outfielders, while Ultimate Zone Rating indicates a small edge for Anderson in left field. Dunn has cost his team runs at first base as well. However, I'm comparing him to a 37-year-old who played about 40 percent of the time as a DH in his last season in the AL, and who is someone who routinely gets lifted for a defensive replacement. Anderson may be better than Dunn, but he's not good. You don't sign Garret Anderson because you're looking for glove, not when you have Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco in the room.

If the Braves have Dunn, do they trade for Nate McLouth at midseason, or deal Jeff Francoeur for Ryan Church? Both deals made the team slightly better this season, maybe by about win total, so even if they elect to do both they're ahead of the game. McLouth is having a better season defensively-basically average-and has hit for a .281 EqA with the Braves, so he's been a help. A Dunn signing would have made the Braves less likely to take on McLouth's contract, which I'm not sure would have been such a bad thing in the long term. In any case, the benefits of having Dunn would have outweighed the short-term gains made in the trades.

I'm focused on the Braves here because of just how stark the difference between having Dunn and having Anderson would be in terms of their chances. You could actually make the argument that not signing Dunn was the critical decision of the winter for a number of teams, given the gap between his performance and what they've gotten from their left fielders or first basemen or DHs. The Giants have one above-average hitter, and have gotten .332 OBP and .391 slugging from their left fielders, and .323/.422 from their first basemen. Dunn would have them leading the wild-card race. In retrospect, nothing would have saved the Mets' season, but Dunn would have helped a team whose left fielders slugged .418. The Mariners went with Ken Griffey Jr. instead of Dunn, and have gotten a .325 OBP and .404 SLG from their DHs. Dunn puts them in both the wild-card and AL West races.

No team will regret the decision to pass on Dunn more than the Braves will, however. As they limp home in front of a half-empty ballpark, headed for elimination, it is impossible to not look at the decision to save $5.5 million, a pittance in baseball finance, and wonder how it might have been different.

Perhaps someday MLB will encourage the purchase of teams by ownership groups who understand that the benefits of running a franchise aren't in the annual bottom lines, but in the intangible benefits of the property as you operate it and the financial gains when you sell it. Until that time, however, the game will be ill-served. No amount of revenue sharing, draft slotting, or complaining about market size will overcome the damage done by owners who just don't give a damn.

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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