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February 20, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Fixing the Holes, American League

by Sam Miller

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Every team is worse at one position than it is at the other positions. At the end of the season, that position is a good one to upgrade. Most teams upgraded at that position this offseason. And so here is a review of where each team was worst in 2012, and what they’ve done to get better, using our invaluable year-to-date display and our invaluable visual depth charts.

Angels: Catcher
Extent of despair: 0.6 WARP
Primary delinquent: Bobby Wilson (-0.3)
Projected for 2013: 2.6 WARP
For the third year in a row, the Angels attempted to solve their dysfunctions at catcher by sending a catcher to Canada. Wilson hit .202/.267/.292 in his final two years as an Angel; Jeff Mathis hit .184/.222/.268 in his. Dean Chance hit .082/.120/.087 as an Angel. Sorry to shift this conversation, but Dean Chance was notably bad at hitting, and being a pitcher is no excuse. He had 662 official at-bats as a big leaguer and struck out 420 times, with two extra-base hits (both doubles). In 496 career at-bats against right-handers, he hit .060/.105/.060. To make his career line match the OBP and SLG of Bobby Wilson’s worst season, Dean Chance would have to homer in 39 consecutive at-bats, and then walk in 90 consecutive at-bats.

And STILL Chance walked every 25 trips to the plate. We don’t make nearly enough of the fact that pitchers (on the mound) are just barely holding it together at all times.

Anyway, the Angels’ plan for catcher is to stick with what they’ve got, but hope that it stays healthy. Chris Iannetta was a positive contributor last year and signed an extension after the season. He’ll be backed up this year by Hank Conger, not Wilson. Conger has the pedigree, if not the recent history, to suggest this is an upgrade. Here’s Wilson’s B-Ref sponsorship banner, by the way:

Which, I admit, has me intrigued. 

Athletics: 2B
Extent of despair: -1.0 WARP
Main culprit: Jemile Weeks (-1.1)
Projected for 2013: 1.7
Remember Josh Barfield? Hit .280/.318/.423 as a 23-year-old rookie, stole 21 bags, got traded for Kevin Kouzmanoff and hit .243/.270/.324 in his second year? That guy’s still playing. He hasn’t appeared in the majors since 2009, but he spent almost all of 2012 in Double-A with the Orioles. He was 29. He played all three outfield positions and occasionally in the infield, hitting .267/.318/.351. "Every successful ballclub wants a Josh Barfield on the team, because he does a lot for your team when you're not even looking," said Gary Kendall, his Double-A manager, and maybe that’s true. Maybe Josh Barfield was responsible for the Orioles making the postseason despite a terrible run differential and not many good players or performances. He never actually joined the big-league team, but maybe when we weren’t even looking...

Weeks hit .221/.305/.304 after a .303/.340/.421 rookie year. The A’s put a lot of effort into upgrading around second base, which has the benefit of upgrading at second base: Between the additions of Hiroyuki Nakajima (primarily SS) and Jed Lowrie (plays any infield position) and the return to health of Scott Sizemore (2B or 3B), the A’s should basically have three “new” players to soak up starts at three positions. Resident A's expert Jason Wojciechowski estimates that Weeks will get 50 starts this year.

Astros: LF
Extent of despair: -2.1
Felon of most renown: J.D. Martinez
Projected for 2013: -0.5
Flash* your clearance badge to Harmon and take the elevator down to the tunnel level. Don’t turn right, as you normally do, but turn left, and just before you get to the No Entry entry to the players' clubhouse, veer to the right. It looks like a closet off to the side, but if you open it you can take a staircase down into a basement room. It’s 20 feet by 20 feet and it’s filled, floor to ceiling along three walls, boxes stacked in the middle of the room, mountains of cardboard all threatening to topple on anyone who intrudes. You take your box cutter out and slice through the packing tape, then open a cardboard flap to find what you’ve discovered. The orange glow from the box makes you optimistic, and you reach in. You pull out:

A poster of J.D. Martinez, holding a gold bat over each shoulder. Seven teammates stand behind him, an army of gold-bat-wielding huns. There’s Jordan Schafer, and Brian Bogusevic, and Chris Johnson, and the rest of the Astros’ starting lineup. The text, in bright orange: J.D. POWER (And Associates).

The light from the doorway is replaced by a shadow and a rough voice. “We had planned to give them away in September,” a man says, “but then we had to send him down instead. We had to send them all down. And now, Mr. Miller, we have to send you down...”

And with two clicks, the door shuts, and the door locks.

(The Astros traded for Chris Carter and declared the big guy the new left fielder.)

Blue Jays: 2B
Extent of despair: -0.4 WARP
The Bastard to Blame: Omar Vizquel (-0.4)
Projected for 2013: 1.8
This is from Feb. 17, but of what year?

Omar Vizquel is signed through next season, but he wants to play beyond that. The shortstop, who turns [redacted] on April 24, expressed a desire Thursday to play "maybe three or four more" years.

Now you get to guess. Is that from:
a) 2002
b) 2006
c) 2009
d) 2011
e) 2012

Have a guess?
Okay,
the correct answer
is

b) 2006.

From the article: "I don't feel I'm a 38-year-old guy yet," said Vizquel, who hit .271 and won his 10th Gold Glove award last season. "I felt like I played 120 percent last year. My body never felt that I was tired or needed a day off. That kind of season tells you something right there, that you're not really slowing down too much. Most of it is mental. If you believe you're tired or getting old, your body's going to act like it."

There are a couple ways of looking at Vizquel since then. After that article came out, Vizquel played 678 games, turned 45, stole 62 bases, and reached base at a better clip than 89 other players (minimum 400 games played), including: Erick Aybar, Alexei Ramirez, J.J. Hardy. Yes, he produced -0.4 WARP at second base for the Blue Jays (in just 73 PA!!!) but he produced about 1.8 WARP overall in the seven years since his “three or four years” prediction. That’s not a lot of WARP, but it is a lot of WARP compared to the hundreds of players who produce negative WARPs each year. Put another way: By Baseball-Reference’s measure of WAR, Vizquel has been better than Yuniesky Betancourt in each of the past four years. And his positive WARPs might not even capture his positional flexibility and purported leadership. Vizquel is going to be coaching Angels minor-league infielders this year, which is probably for the best, but making it past 45 without embarrassing the game—not bad.

The Blue Jays picked up two better, younger versions of Old Vizquel (not to be confused with “better versions of young Vizquel”) in Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis. Both switch hit. Both play multiple infield positions. Neither has power yet both can draw walks. It’s a nifty restoration.

Indians: LF
Extent of despair: -1.0 WARP
Son of a gun who done it: Shelley Duncan (-0.6)
Projected for 2013: 1.4
The Indians’ second-worst position was 1B, where the club did a lot to upgrade this offseason, including signing Mark Reynolds. Have you ever watched Mark Reynolds play? Have you ever wondered whether, in fact, he’s totally blind? Wait, we did this one already, huh?

What’s interesting about last year’s Indians isn’t just that they had their lowest WARP at left field and their second-lowest at 1B, but that they actually had their worst offensive performance at left field and their second-worst offensive performance at 1B. Those are the positions where it’s supposed to be hecka easy to find something that can hit. When Jeff Passan wrote about the Royals’ perspective on trading Wil Myers (plus others) for James Shields (plus others), he raised this point:

...corner outfielders, while not a dime a dozen – see: Reggie Sanders, Jose Guillen, Jeff Francoeur and the misery they've unleashed upon Kansas City – are not exactly bank-breaking sorts, either. Whether it's Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Ryan Ludwick, it's easy to find someone cheap who can hit in a corner-outfield spot.

How unusual was the Cleveland experience? The closest any team came to getting their worst production from high-offense positions last last season was the Dodgers, who had their worst TAv at 1B and their third-worst, just barely behind SS, at LF. The Marlins had their second- and third-worst TAvs at 1B and LF, both better than at catcher. There are 30 teams, which means 60 individual positions were either their team’s worst or second-worst TAv. Of the 60, the frequency of each position goes like this:

SS: 16 instances in the bottom two
C: 13
2B: 11
CF: 5
LF: 5
3B: 4
1B: 4
RF: 2
DH: 0

So it would be truly impressive if Cleveland could post its lowest TAvs at RF and DH. If, say, Mark Reynolds were injured and the Indians played Drew Stubbs in right and Chris McGuiness at DH, they might have an outside shot.

Mariners: 1B
Extent of despair: -2.8 WARP
Most grievous antagonist: Justin Smoak (-2.6 WARP)
Projection for 2013: 1.2 WARP

The Mariners did go out and trade for a bunch of big bats (both sincere and ironic) capable of playing first base (or capable of playing left field and freeing up big bats to play first base), but it’s still sort of in that phase like in Ticket to Ride where you’re collecting whatever cards you can hoard and you’ll figure out your route later. Which is to say that they added Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, and Raul Ibanez, but might still end up giving 600 plate appearances to Justin Smoak at first base. And if they don’t, this kid ain’t gonna be happy:

Orioles: 2B
Extent of despair: -1.9 WARP
The bestseller at the Jerk Store: Robert Andino (-1.1)
Projection for 2013: 1.2
I’ll be honest: I’d probably bet the under on that 2013 projection. It expects nearly 400 plate appearances of near-average play from Brian Roberts, who has produced around 400 plate appearances of sub-replacement play over the past three seasons combined. The Orioles didn’t do much else to combat the problem at second base besides trading Andino to Seattle and signing Alexi Casilla (himself a negative-WARP performer last year). But it’s understandable, as the Orioles had an awful lot of problems heading into the offseason. Their third-best position produced just 1.3 WARP last year; the Angels’ eighth-best position (third base) produced almost double that.

Rangers: 2B
Extent of despair: 0.4 WARP
Chief Exsuckutive Officer: Michael Young (-0.3)
Projection for 2013: 3.1
Before I started writing this, I tried to guess what position would be lowest for all 30 teams. I got 13 of them correct, which is a lot or not a lot, whatever, but there is no chance I’d have had this one right. Ian Kinsler wasn’t the problem, though he wasn’t good enough to undo all the damage done in just 60 plate appearances by Young. Young actually hit better as a 2B than overall, so to produce this much negative WARP in such a short time means he must have been almost exactly as bad at defense as every person in the world would have expected him to be. I just went through eight of the games he started at second, looking for any hits in the direction of second base, and found five where an average, good, great, or elite second baseman might have had a play:


I wouldn’t call those five missed plays by Young. Maybe two, maybe three? Three hits in eight games would be about 60 hits over the course of a season, or roughly the gap between a .330 hitter and a .240 hitter. Three hits might be too harsh, though. Maybe two is too harsh. Maybe he had diving stops in there that no other 2B would get to (lololol). Likewise, maybe there were misplays I didn’t catch, double plays that Young turned into simple fielders' choices. Who knows, really.

Here’s a Michael Young error at second base that happened during the eight games I reviewed:


And so here are Michael Young Second Base Error Faces:

The Unnatural Follow-Through:

The Spit:

The Pained Grimace:

And the Pebble Hunting


Rays: C
Extent of despair: 0.0 WARP
Lead agitator: Chris Gimenez (-0.1)
Projected for 2013: 0.4
This is the smallest projected upgrade at a team-worst position since last year, but if you believe the things that we believe around here, that’s because the Rays’ catcher WARP might have been low but the Rays’ catcher value was quite high. As you’ll recall, the Rays have Jose Molina behind the plate, the 50-Run Receiver. When we get catcher framing incorporated into WARP—I’m told it’ll be soon—you will look at the Rays’ performance by position in 2012 and quite possibly see that the catchers were the best position on the team. It won’t even take all 50 runs to get them past the 2.8 WARP produced by last year’s Rays third basemen, the best position on the team under current WARP calculations.

Stephen Vogt also joined in at -0.1, in five plate appearances. For more on Vogt, one of my half-dozen favorite players at the moment, go read this.

Red Sox: CF
Extent of despair: -0.7 WARP
Leader of the resistance to quality production: Ryan Kalish (-0.4)
Projection for 2013: 3.5 WARP
The Red Sox project to get 4.2 wins better without doing anything, other than writing Jacoby Ellsbury’s name into the lineup a bunch more times. But they also upgraded their Plan B this offseason by signing Shane Victorino. If Ellsbury is hurt this year, it’ll be Victorino, not Kalish (and Podsednick, Sweeney, McDonald, Byrd) filling in.

Royals: RF
Extent of despair: -2.9 WARP
Main drag: Jeff Francoeur (-2.9)
Projection for 2013: 0.5 WARP
The Royals’ right field was actually the worst position in the American League in 2012, topping the Mariners’ 1B and the Tigers’ 2B by small margins. The Royals’ solution, of course, was to trade their one solution away. In three-ball counts last year, Jeff Francoeur slugged .350.

Tigers: 2B
Extent of despair: -2.4 WARP
Illest: Ryan Raburn (-1.0)
Projection for 2013: 3.0 WARP
Oh man, remember this?

Before the season began, we collected names being touted as breakouts and put them into a word cloud. The bigger the name, the more they were hyped…

The Raburn name stands out like the giant rock my wife and I visited on our honeymoon, but just imagine if you’d drafted in a keeper league based on the biggest names in that word cloud. Here’s your past two years of stats:

Ryan Raburn: .642 OPS, 187 games
Daniel Hudson: 4.14 ERA, 267 innings
J.P. Arencibia: .716 OPS, 231 games
Jose Tabata: .688 OPS, 194 games
Gordon Beckham: .651 OPS, 301 games
Alcides Escobar: .679 OPS, 313 games
Mitch Moreland: .756 OPS, 248 games
Chris Iannetta: .764 OPS, 191 games

If ever there was a refutation of the value of punditry...

Twins: 3B
Extent of despair: -0.6 WARP
Most Twin killing: Danny Valencia (-0.9)
Projection for 2013: 1.5 WARP
Most of that upgrade comes from Trevor Plouffe, who hit 24 home runs last year. Here’s Trevor Plouffe’s minor-league career, through 2011, by OPS at each stop in chronological order. Take your time to go slowly down the list, admiring the comforting consistency of the numbers, until: 

  • .719
  • .645
  • .681
  • .736
  • .723
  • .735
  • .712
  • .720
  • .730
  • 1.019

"The man smiles and put out his hand. Trevor put his into it and felt the warm grip. 'I'm George Baruth,' said the man. 'You're Trevor Plouffe the third, aren't you?'"

White Sox: 3B
Extent of despair: -0.4
Crookedest operator: Brent Morel (-0.8)
Projection for 2013: 0.5 WARP
The fix is Jeff Keppinger, in an apparently non-platooning role, so.

Brent Morel, September 2011 (100 PA): Eight homers, 15 walks, .224/.340/.553
Brent Morel, otherwise (539 PA): Five homers, 18 walks, .231/.259/.302

"The man smiles and put out his hand. Brenton put his into it and felt the warm grip. 'I'm George Baruth,' said the man. 'You're Brenton Morel the third, aren't you?'"

Yankees: LF
Extent of despair: 0.9
Culpable party: Andruw Jones (-0.1)
Projection for 2013: 2.7 WARP
The highest low in the American League, a figure so unembarrassing that there’s barely even a sub-replacement player within the subset (Jones is joined by Jayson Nix at -0.1). Great job, Yankees. We're all so proud of you guys! Keep it up. 

National League coming on Friday.

*fiction

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

Related Content:  WARP

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