January 8, 2010
33 y/o four-corner player with proven track record of power hitting seeks team in need of proven veteran left-handed hitter. I enjoy hitting ground balls and the occasional walk, whether by the beach or not. I used to be a swinger in my early days, but I've since changed my ways. Wanna have some fun this summer? Call my agent.
Imagine if free agency worked like one of those online dating sites. You log on, read a four-line intro filled with half-truths and decide whether you want to spend the next six months with this person. You pick one that at least sounds interesting. Then you meet, spend some time together, and you find that he's better than some of the other jokers you've found on the site. You watch a few games together, and he moves in. That's when you find out that the half-truths from the bio are only 90 percent true.
For example, let's take the above personal ad of Mr. Aubrey Huff. Huff enters free agency after spending a few years in Baltimore, and then being shipped off to Detroit for the second half of the 2009 season. He really is 33(we think), but while he carries the reputation of being a four-corners guy, the truth is that he hasn't played in the outfield in a couple of years, didn't play third base in 2009, and for the most part, he didn't play first base much either. Worse still, defensive metrics haven't been too fond of his contributions at any of those positions, even going back a few years; there's a difference between being willing to stand in the vague area of a position on the baseball diamond and being any good at it. So, he's a designated hitter/occasional first baseman type who might be able to fool a team into believing that he can "help out" at third.
Huff's big problem is that he had a big season one year too early. In 2008, Huff ranked 16th in VORP among all major-league players (as a DH!), while posting a spiffy .304/.360/.552 line and 32 home runs. In 2009, his performance fell to .241/.310/.384 and 15 HR. Which one is the real Huff? More to the point, which one will be the 2010 Huff?
Huff's agent will no doubt try to sell a team on those 32 homers in 2008 and get them thinking about how it could happen again. It's not likely. In 2008, Huff, who had been a pretty steady 46 percent ground-ball hitter saw his GB rate drop to 40 percent. The extra air balls, combined with a spike in his rate of HR/FB led to a 30-homer season. In 2009, his ground-ball rate returned to normal and his home-run total came down. It's hard to hit a lot of home runs when you hit almost half your balls into the ground. But an odd thing happens once you've logged a 30-homer season; it's kind of like logging 30 saves. At that point, you are a "proven power hitter," which is much like being a "proven closer." That word "proven" does strange things to people, who seem to mistake it for "guaranteed to repeat."
There's one other curious thing about Huff that is worth noting. When Huff played in Tampa Bay from 2001-06, he would swing at 68 percent of pitches he saw in the strike zone, and about 22 percent of the pitches outside of the zone. When he got to Baltimore in 2007, his pattern shifted notably. He began swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone (~63 percent) and more pitches out of the strike zone (~26 percent). Sometimes a player will make a conscious effort to swing more or less overall, but in this case, it looks like Huff fell into some bad habits (or was getting some bad advice). His out-of-zone contact rate did jump from 53 percent to 63 percent, but in his 2
Aubrey Huff is a textbook case in a player who looks better when you describe him in four lines than when you study him up close. So what sort of team might go for him? He won't cost a draft pick, so that's not a concern. It's hard to figure out. His lack of a true defensive position makes him better suited to an AL team, but his "versatility" might persuade an NL team to give him a shot. His numbers in 2008 garnered him a few MVP votes, while his numbers in 2009 put him below replacement level as a DH. He's the sort of guy that really should start only on a bad team and come off the bench for a good one. But he'll probably demand the sort of money that a team wouldn't justify spending on a bench player with no defensive value and probably would be a little rich for a rebuilding team. Might the Royals take a swing at Huff? After non-tendering Mike Jacobs, they are short a veteran DH/1B type if they get nervous about handing the job to Kila Ka'aihue. Huff could provide them with some pseudo-comfort.
Any way you slice it, though, Aubrey Huff is a bad date waiting to happen. It's not that he'll be completely worthless. He'll probably do some useful stuff, play with the kids, and have a few nights where he's just magic. He's probably not the scary stalker type, but he's the sort of signing that really only ends in heart-break for everyone involved. Just like most of those online personals.
Russell A. Carleton, the writer formerly known as 'Pizza Cutter,' is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.