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December 3, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Prettiest at the Prom

by Eric Seidman

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Over the last week and a half, Baseball Prospectus writers have offered various takes on the free agency market, evaluating the best available players on the basis of different performance aspects. Need power? Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, and Mike Cameron to the rescue. Find yourself lacking in the on-base department? Look no further than Nick Johnson or Chone Figgins. Looking for a reliable innings eater? I heard that Doug Davis guy is currently seeking employment. Suffice to say, there are plenty of options at every corner, pun unintended but existent, and teams are diligently working to correct any and all roster construction issues. Though certain free agents and their documented specialties fit some clubs better than others, one commonality across the entire crop of teams has emerged over the last several off-seasons that can be difficult to grasp: regardless of the number of perceived holes, Mark DeRosa fixes at least one of them.

Just how fervently sought-after is DeRosa? Why is a 34-year-old player who did not regularly start from 1998-2005, who will never lead the league or place in a prominent category, who does not stand out at all on the defensive side of the spectrum, and who has a very low chance of ever making an All-Star team or receiving a significant end-of-season award support-why is he one of the most discussed players in each Hot Stove session?

For starters, he tends to exemplify what I refer to as the .350/.450 principle, wherein hitters who stray above those respective on-base and slugging marks but not by much, if at all, enter our radar regardless of their past exploits or downsides. Posting rates above those thresholds is the key here. Admit it, a .353/.452 holds interest and a .342/.443 seems... less, sure, but more than you'd think. On top of that, a slash line of this ilk suggests that the hitter boasts above average-offensive skills, but skills unlikely to dramatically increase his average draft position in fantasy leagues. He reaches base more than the league, but not by an ample, amount and hits with enough power to notch 30 doubles and 20 home runs, both of which are good, but not great, tallies.

In 2006, DeRosa played 136 games with the Rangers and hit .357/.456 with 40 doubles and 13 home runs, catalyzing his celebrity in the rumor mill. Though he is coming off of a down year, his four-year averages-he was a regular from 2006-09-are .356/.448 with 30 doubles and 17 home runs. Essentially, DeRosa does just enough to be considered a true asset on offense, while not excelling in any specific area. His offensive skill set isn't one-of-a-kind, either, as Martin Prado has basically accomplished the same results over the last few seasons. Don't blame me if this piece puts Prado on your radar and he suddenly becomes overvalued.

What happened next was interesting, sort of a madness of crowds meets baseball fandom. One person might utter, "Hey, DeRosa can hit," before a friend joins him, and each of their parents agrees, as do their neighbors, and the city, and suddenly a guy with a decent but not overwhelming skills is elevated to potential savior. Soon, those who originally opined on his value think the popularity to be way out of hand and will subconsciously turn against him; eventually, they will remember what attracted them to his performance in the first place. This helped explain my opinion of the Dave Matthews Band in the late '90s, as I went from liking their music to spurning it when everyone became overly obsessed, and finally got back to enjoying it upon remembering why I liked them in the first place-and the obsession leveled off. It's fitting to mention that Bill Simmons has written about this concept previously, theorizing that every player considered to be underrated quickly becomes overrated because of the habit amongst analysts of publicizing the talented albeit less heralded players. The players quickly become overrated to the point that what they bring to the table goes overlooked, before returning home as an underrated asset. In this case, DeRosa has not begun his second ascent to the underrated status.

Moving away from offense, one of the big attractions to the DeRosa show is defensive versatility. As we discussed last week, fielding performance is very difficult to judge as our eyes and struggles with spatial recognition make statistical outputs seem incorrect from time to time. A step further, perceptions of ability and preconceived reputations also find ways to ingrain themselves in our minds, so when evaluating a player like DeRosa, it is easy to think he 'brings the leather' because he can play so many positions on the diamond, and his liabilities with the glove are more a matter of range than a lack of throwing accuracy or sure-handedness, two qualities infinitely easier to gauge when you're watching a game.

Why a team would use him at various positions if he was not adequate, we might ask ourselves, but such is the story with DeRosa, who has spent time at seemingly every non-battery position, but rarely excels in any spot. His career UZR/150 is positive only in right field, slightly below average across the outfield corners, and fairly substantially below average in the infield to the tune of seven or eight runs per season. In his situation, mistaking versatility for talent obfuscates valuations. Further fueling the fire is the fact that he simply has not played a couple of these credited positions in any meaningful sample lately and is not the type of player traditionally sought for others. His last extended stretch at shortstop came in 2001, with just 48 games, and his offense isn't that overwhelming to truly justify consistent starting duty in a corner outfield spot. Teams could do worse in these areas, but they could also find a more suitable player, and it has become the norm to forget that he probably shouldn't play some of these positions just because he can and has at various points over the last decade.

Combining the aspects discussed above, it seems that DeRosa is much more suited for a super-sub role, but his status along the .350/.450 line has him miscast in the role of everyday starter, and defensive versatility elevates him much higher above the league average threshold than merited. Another reason capable of explaining his miscasting involves money and contractual obligations. Serving as the cutoff point for players to get wildly overrated, DeRosa does not have the type of resume worthy of a lucrative, multi-year deal. He isn't good enough to receive a three-year and $30 million, but has enough talent and skills that a two-year, $13 million deal seems like steal. The idea that he isn't going to cash in on a payday commensurate with his number of suitors serves as the perfect segue to a tangential portion of this discussion: is DeRosa really that sought after to plug holes, or is he merely the starting point and diagrammed fallback at specific spots should teams fail to find a better solution?

One could argue that if his services were in demand to legitimately fix a roster construction issue that the average annual value of offered contracts and the commitment in years of said contracts would both increase. Whether this happens remains to be seen, but this writer has a hard time seeing DeRosa signing for anything more than two years and $16 million despite over half of the league having kicked his name around. The market appears to be rather liquid at his price point, making DeRosa both convenient and accessible, and he produces enough that a team will not have to dish out much more lucrative deals for marginally better numbers. Should his desired stipend increase, the bevy of suitors will lessen in load; if they are going to dole out hefty deals, the return should be more consistent and productive.

By now, I think we can agree that his attractiveness is derived from what I will currently call Seidman Law of Hot Stove Hoopla, in that the Level of Interest for an individual player is directly proportional to, and commensurate upon, the satisfaction of the following criteria: above average OBP + above average SLG + defensive versatility + team-friendly contractual obligations + X, where X is the sum of intangibles such as DeRosa having attended The University of Pennsylvania, his role as quarterback on their football team, and his age-he is not sprightly by any means but looks so in comparison to players elsewhere with similar roles, like Craig Counsell. This "formula" does not output many players as straying too far above average, while great from a production standpoint, precludes the team-friendliness of the free agent contract, and generally results in the player finding a specific positional home. Inversely, defensive versatility is usually accompanied by a below-average stick, and those who specialize in X and little else tend to serve as the butt of jokes at FireJoeMorgan.com. DeRosa is going to find a home and he will produce for whoever brings him aboard, but a slight reality check is in order in that his actual market value is in no way commensurate with the amount of interest he's generating.

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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