Thursday, September 1, 2011

Addition by Subtraction

While an Orioles fan, I have spent the past five years living in San Francisco. I have always rooted against the Giants, due in part to an unpleasant run-in with Barry Bonds when I was a child, and in part to an intense dislike of Brian Sabean's style of general management. While I have enjoyed living in a city excited about baseball, I was concerned that 2010's championship would vindicate Sabean's "throw-money-at-dessicated-veterens-and-hope-they-all-play-as-well-as-they-did-when-they-were-ten-years-younger" style. The person most convinced that Sabean's predilection for the formerly mediocre was a recipe for success seems to have been Sabean himself.

Now that the Giants have officially given up on what was left of Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand, an experiment occurs to me. As I type, the giants are 6 games behind the Diamondbacks for the NL West, and look to go home at the end of September a year after winning the World Series. I wonder, could this failure have been avoided? Now obviously it is simple to say, "the Giants should have signed [insert free agent having a good season], they would have won." However, Sabean made a number of moves prior to, and during the 2011 season that EVERYONE thought were crazy.

The experiment is this, is it possible to make up those 6 games, not by ADDING any players (excepting those currently in the Giants system), but by NOT giving playing time to players who nobody (at least in the statistical community) thought had any chance to perform well.

The biggest failure of the Giants has been the offense. Aubrey Huff, Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Jeff Keppinger, Aaron Rowand and Cody Ross have COMBINED for 1865 Plate appearances and -.7 WAR. Let me restate that. Those 6 players, have combined for 38.6%…over one third, of all non-pitcher plate appearances…and have been worth almost 1 win below replacement level (the level of talent readily available to all teams on the open market at any time).

These acquisitions, with the possible exception of Keppinger and Ross, were universally derided at the time they were made. This, being an offensive minded list, does not even mention the lack of contributions by Barry Zito. The giants have not suffered in terms of pitching, but the money wasted on Zito could certainly have been invested in an upper-echelon offensive talent.

Let's take these position by position.

Short Stop

Miguel Tejada

Tejada had 343 Plate appearances. He played 334 innings at short stop. This is a player who, in successive seasons, had been told by the Orioles and the Astros, neither of whom were trying to make the God Damn World Series, that he was not good enough to play short stop for them. He played 372 innings at third base. He was signed to be the Giants shortstop. It wasn't an accident or anything.

Orlando Cabrera

Cabrera took over for Tejada when Tejada moved to third to cover for the injured Pablo Sandoval. He has cost the Giants .05 WAR in 26 games.

Mike Fontenot has played 275 innings at short for the Giants. Due to his solid defense, and to his not being the worst hitter in the history of baseball, Fontenot has been worth .9 wins on the year. Brandon Crawford has also seen some significant time at short. He is an excellent defensive shortstop…but may actually be the worst hitter in the history of baseball. Had Fontenot been the Giants' shortstop to start the year and then moved to third while Sandoval was out (with Crawford filling in at short only during those 41 games), how many more games would they have won?

Adjusted for individual playing time, the -.6 WAR would have been replaced by an extra .9 WAR produced by Mike Fontenot. Crawford's numbers would have stayed the same.

short stop net gain +1.5 wins

First Base

This is perhaps, the most infamous of Sabean's mistakes. In 2009, Aubrey Huff, was, essentially the worst player in baseball. He cost the Orioles and the Tigers almost 2 wins (1.8) below replacement level. The year before he had hit very well, but he was 33, an immobile first baseman, and looked to be done as an everyday player. The Giants signed him to a one year 3 million dollar deal. A deal that few thought would work, but was not for a cripplingly large sum. He was one of the ten best players in the league. He was worth 5.8 wins above replacement. It was the best year of career. Most of us saw a fluky great season. Essentially no player gains skill at 34, and Huff had stopped hitting for power in the second half, few thought he was capable of repeating.

Sabean signed him to a two year deal worth 10 million dollars a year. He outbid only himself. He was either rewarding Huff for helping the Giants win in 2010, or he was deluded into thinking that Huff really was the third best first baseman in the league. Either position is inexcusable.

Huff has cost the Giants -1.0 below replacement player.

Of course, the issue with Huff is not just that he is bad. It is that he is blocking the best offensive prospect the Giants have had in the past few years. Brandon Belt.

Sabean mishandling of Belt is well known. Belt hit .309/.448/.527 in triple A while being shuttled back and forth from San Francisco to Fresno. In 145 Plate Appearances with the big club, he has been worth .4 WAR. Erase Huff's 529 PAs, give 375 of them to Belt. If we assume that being given a job and allowed to settle in would have helped Belt a little bit, it is easy (maybe even conservative) to project Belt as a 2.0 win player.

Net Gain by not signing Huff and letting Belt play +3.0 Wins

The Outfield

Cody Ross Cody Ross #13 of the San Francisco Giants reacts after striking out in the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Five of the NLCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at AT&T Park on October 21, 2010 in San Francisco, California.

Cody Ross has had 402 Plate Appearances in 2011. He has been worth 0.0 WAR. He has played at both outfield corners, taking plate appearances away from Nate Schierholtz in right, and a combination of Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrel in left. Burrell has been frequently injured, but split Ross's 400 PAs evenly between Schierholtz and Rowand/Burrell would give the Giants an extra win.

Net cost of Not keeping Cody Ross in a starting role 1.0 WAR.

That's 5.5 wins just from not making silly decisions that seemed silly at the time. The Giants could be either tied for first, or one game back, instead of 6 games behind the Diamondbacks.

Had they done either of the following:

sign lance Berkman instead of Huff

sign Carlos Pena instead of Huff

and subsequently put Belt in left field, sending Rowand to the bench, it would have added another 1-2 wins to the team total, making them the odds on favorite to be in first place right now, even with injuries to Sandoval and Posey.

Total number of Wins Sabean could have easily gained for the Giants by not making silly decisions and signing one first basemen for LESS THAN AUBREY HUFF MAKES…..

7 Wins!

Who's on third Pt 2

Last post I discussed possible replacements at third should Mark Reynolds move to 1st base.

My four options:

Josh Bell, Robert Andino, Chris Davis, and free agent Wilson Betemit.

My solution: Sign Wilson Betemit as an offensive-minded 4-corners (and occasionally 2nd bae and SS sub). Begin the year with a Left-Right, Offense-Defense platoon at third between Chris Davis and Robert Andino. Should Davis falter after an extended tryout, replace him with Betemit.

Betemit is probably the better of the two, but lacks Davis's dramatic upside.

check out the following two players

700 PA H 171 D 41 HR 25 BB 54 K 202 .261/.321/.444
700 PA H 177 D 44 HR 17 BB 65 K 166 .278/.345/.435

The first is a left right platoon of Andino and Davis, the second a platoon of Andino and Betemit.

the BetDimo combo would be the superior hitter (and probably defender), but would lack the upside of the AnDavis pair.

Starting off with AnDavis to see what Chris Davis can give the Birds is a reasonable gamble for a team that will not be playing for the post-season, and if Davis falls flat, Betemit can easily step in and take his place. If Davis DOES succeed, you have Betemit in a bench role, acting as one of the best pinch-hitters and spot-starters in the league. He can occasionally spell Reynolds against tough righties, and step in at 2nd, 3rd, and the outfield corners when needed.

Furthermore, all three players together would be cost effective. Andino makes 415,000 this year, and even with a big raise next season shouldn't make more than 850,000. Davis makes 420,000, and Betemit's current contract is paying him 1,000,000.

All told, The Orioles could give themselves a league average (with upside) third baseman and a bench bat for a total of 2.5 million dollars.

who's on third

In my last post, I wondered whether Mark Reynolds can successfully move to 1st base for the 2012 Orioles. If this move does happen, it will create an opening at third. Below - the possible replacements. Next up, the solution (should one exist)

The Candidates:

Robert Andino
Josh Bell
Chris Davis

Wilson Betemit

Not an inspiring group. Let's take 'em one-by-one.

Robert Andino has filled in ably this season, moving around the infield providing surprisingly production (in the context of what sort of production you expect from Robert Andino) in the absence of Brian Roberts, Lee (with Reynolds moving to 1st), and Chris Davis. Andino has been a sub-par hitter throughout his career. In 2011, a walk rate of 8.4% has pushed his "production" up to 83 RC+, still very poor, and unfortunately, probably the high end of his range. He has no power, and I think a .260/.330/.330 is reasonable to expect of Andino going forward. A mediocre fielder at 2nd, Andino has been very solid at 3rd, with 3.6/150 UZR (runs saved per 150 games).

Andino has displayed one offensive plus over the past two seasons, an ability to hit left handers for average. He has put up a .325/.385/.382/.767 line against left handers, compared to a shockingly inept .222/.295/.293/.589 (shudder) against north-paws.

Andino is exposed being forced to play regularly against righties, and is not a viable everyday option, but he does provide flexibility and league average offense against lefties.

one of many poster children for Orioles Prospect disorder, a Baltimore specific illness that strikes Orioles minor leaguers upon their ascension to the majors. The key piece on the George Sherril deal (one that looked at the time like a real feather in McPhail's cap), Bell has proven utterly incapable at the major league level. As recently as 2010 he projected as a fringe-average defender at third, with a good arm, and a major league ready bat, capable of putting up consistent .280/.340/.460 type numbers. An average third baseman. An incredible exchange for a fluky 3 months from a mediocre relief pitcher.

As we know, things have not worked out like that. Bell has been worth nearly a win below replacement in his extended trial so far. He has failed against lefties .202/.233/.253. He has failed against righties .201/.223/.229. And while he was solid with the glove in 2010, he has, in 2011, failed defensively, costing the O's a run on defense in limited playing time. I'll say this for him, he has been consistent.

Worse than the above, Bell's approach has fallen apart. He has turned into an all-or-nothing hacker, and has incredibly poor pitch recognition skills. He is still on the young side, and deserves more extended minor league trials, but the Orioles (and particularly their pitching staff) can't take another season of defensive butchery at third.

Convenient that Davis may be the most likely replacement for Reynolds at third, as he is sort of the left handed counterpart to his predecessor (with slightly lower walk and K rates). He has big, big power, legitimate 40+ homerun power. His inability to get on base has largely mitigated that power thus far in his career. Davis had a fantastic half-season in 2008, putting up a Babip driven .285/.331/.549 in hitter-friendly Rangers stadium. Since then, he has absolutely mashed at triple A: .327/.418/.521 in 2009, .327/.383/.520 in 2010, and a mind-blowing .368/.405/.824 in 2011.

He may be a case of the mythical 4-A player, the hitter who can excel at Triple A, but can never translate his skills into league average production at the Major League Level. His numbers at the bigs in the same period: .238/.284/.442 in 2009, .192/.279/.292 in 2010, and .241/.279/.379 in 2011.

In Triple A he's Babe Ruth with fewer walks, in the Majors, he's Freddie Bynum.

Defensively, Davis has been bad at third in limited playing time. Mark Reynolds bad. However, scouting reports sugget that he has fringe-average potential at third. His offensive potential (despite a lack of success to this point) is exciting enough that he may yet deserve a trial.

In has career Davis has had much more success against righties, hitting for a cumulative .256/.308/.466, while batting only .226/.272/.408 against southpaws. In his outlier 2008 he crushed Left AND right handed pitchers. Since then, he has shown nothing against lefties, OPSing .546, .411!, and .789 in only 31 plate appearances in 2011.

The 2012 third base free agent class is rough...

(from Cot's Contracts)

Third Basemen
Wilson Betemit KC
Casey Blake LAD *
Eric Chavez NYY
Mark DeRosa SF
Greg Dobbs PHI
Edwin Encarnacion TOR *
Wes Helms FLA
Melvin Mora ARI
Aramis Ramirez CHC
Miguel Tejada SF
Omar Vizquel CWS

Yikes. Aramis Ramirez is a good third baseman having a good year, but at 33, and presumably demanding 12 million+ a year, not a reasonable target for the O's (unless the market falls apart and they can get him on a one year 6-8 million type deal).

I wouldn't look at the rest of this list without protective eyewear. A 45 year old, the corpse of Miguel Tejada...

The one potentially intriguing option is Wilson Betemit. A former top-prospect, Betemit has only once had more than 300 at bats in a year. That year, with the Royals, he batted .297/.311/.511. This year, split across two teams, he is hitting a slightly above average .286/.344/.415.

Betemit has played at all 4 infield positions, and has been below average at all 4. He is least offensive at 1st and at 3rd, where he is -14.3/150 UZR.

A switch hitter, Betemit has been much better against right handed hitters in his career, putting up a .277/.349/.464 line versus a .245/.378/.378 against lefties.

Next up - what to do....what to do

Can Mark Reynolds play 1st for the 2012 Orioles

Mark Reynolds Mark Reynolds #12 of the Baltimore Orioles throws to first base during the game against the Cleveland Indians on April 17, 2011 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mark Reynolds has been as expected offensively in 2011. His line of .225/.324/.486 is significantly better than his 2010 .198/.320/.433, particularly given the switch to the tougher league, and the overall decline in offense. His wRC+ (overall offensive contributions relative to league average via fangraphs) is 117. That 117 means that he has been roughly 17% better than average at the plate, and is the second highest of his career, second to his Babip driven 44 homeroom season in 2009.

Despite his production at the plate, he has been worth only .7 Wins Above Replacement (fangraphs). The reason? Reynolds has had a miserable season defensively, costing the team over 20 runs - roughly equivalent to two wins, with his glove at third.

Since moving over to 1st base, Reynolds has *looked* much better. He has shown quick instincts and smooth hands, while not making many obvious mistakes. His defensive numbers are not awe inspiring (in a limited sample size), but suggest that he has, at least, not been dramatically bad since moving across the diamond.

Reynolds has put substantial time in at 1st only once in his career, playing 218 innings there in 2009. That season, Reynolds was, according to fangraphs UZR/150 (measuring the number of runs a player costs/saves per 150 games), absolutely horrible. He was on pace to cost the Diamondbacks almost 40 runs with his glove, for a total cost of 4 wins.

It is highly unlikely that Reynolds is THAT bad at 1st, given that even in his disastrous defensive 2011 season, he has been better than that at 3rd, a much tougher position. Additionally, to my untrained non-scouting eye, Reynolds looks pretty good at first.

Let's say he can be only a subpar defensive 1st baseman, not a historically bad one, and costs the team…5-10 runs (0.5-1 win) with his glove, after extensive training and practice at the position.

Reynolds is an historic offensive talent. Not historically great, just historic. He has the all time single season record for strikeouts, as well as the number 2, and 3 seasons on the list. Despite his proclivity for the swing-and-miss, Reynolds has been an above average hitter through his career, average a 110 RC+ (10 % above league average).

However, the offensive standards at 1st base are much higher than those at third. How would Reynold's offense stack up at 1st? His 2011 RC+ of 117 would rank 15th of qualified 1st basemen, tied with Carlos Santana, right above Gaby Sanchez, Carlos Pena and Carlos Lee. That sounds about right to me. Offensively, Reynolds would be a mid-tier 1st basemen, without (most likely) bringing much to the table with his glove.

All in all, it looks like Reynolds would be a slightly below average MLB 1st basemen, with a chance for upside if increased reps result in positive defensive numbers or if he has another 2009. He would be a 2.0 player, with a shot at 4.0 wins if everything breaks right. Not necessarily a bargain given his salary, but worth a shot, and most likely the bet Orioles first baseman of the last decade. (better than David Segui!)

next up…what to do at third if Reynolds stays at 1st.