Dodgers Outfield Can Easily Support Four Regulars — with Quasi-Proof!

Matt Kemp recently voiced his distaste for being a potential fourth outfielder. He’s presently dealing with ankle issues, but I think most would agree that when he’s healthy he has the talent of one of the best outfielders in the league. He’s certainly wasted as a bench player, or a late-game defensive specialist, or a guy you put in when the other guy has a hangover. But Los Angeles is paying four outfielders something like a quarter of a billion dollars, so someone has to stomach this demeaning role.

OR DOES SOMEONE?!

In short, no. A study of all the outfielders to make a plate appearance in the last decade demonstrates that teams get 2389 PA for their outfielders, on average. The player with the fourth-most plate appearances got on average 304 of those PA, a mere 12.7 percent. That would indeed be a pitiful use of Matt Kemp, but again that’s just the average. A few teams have demonstrated a better balance of playing time, none more so than the 2007 Yankees. Let’s take a look at their example.

First, it helps that those Yankees got 2668 PA from their outfielders, well above the average, leaving more pie for everyone. That’s no problem; the 2014 Dodgers should have a powerful offense that generates more batting chances than the average offense does. In fact, last year’s Dodgers got 2524 PA from their outfielders, and they were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of run scoring. We should expect at least that many PA from this year’s outfielders, given that injuries last year gave insane playing time to inferior players. Take a look: 10 Dodgers suited up in the outfield last year. That’s a sign something went wrong.

13dodgers

This year, health permitting, the Dodgers can mimic the 2007 Yankees and give 95 percent of their PA to their top four guys. Those Yankees were not only healthy and top-heavy, they were incredibly even.

07yanks

Their top four guys each got at least 23 percent of total outfield PAs, leaving just 4 percent for the scrubs and replacement players at the very end of the bench. If you apply those ratios to last year’s Dodgers (2524 PA), then the consensus top four guys each get at least 580 PA, which is plenty, just shy of a typical starters’ amount.

That is of course just one possibility for 2014, one that treats the four Dodgers outfielders equally. If you subscribe to the idea that Andre Ethier is just a platoon player at this point, you could subtract say 150 PA from his total and spread those around among Kemp, Puig and Crawford. At that point Ethier becomes a $15 million part-time player, but he’s still getting a sizable part, and that’s the luxury of having the highest payroll.

Two All-West Trades, Let’s Savor Them

(Sorry, White Sox.)

Angels receive LHP Tyler Skaggs from Diamondbacks and RHP Hector Santiago from White Sox.
Diamondbacks receive 1B Mark Trumbo and RHP A.J. Schugel from Angels and OF Brandon Jacobs from White Sox.
White Sox receive CF Adam Eaton from Diamondbacks.

We went into Trumbo’s power yesterday (see the sidebar), so we’ll get into the other aspects of his game for Arizona. The behemoth GOLDSchmidt does not retreat from first base for any mortal being; Trumbo will probably play left field. The Dbacks had Fangraphs’ highest team defensive rating last year, and Adam Eaton was considered a rangy defender with a capable arm. But if you check out the data, you’ll see that Eaton actually had a drastically negative defensive score, -11.2, equal to Jason Kubel. Yeesh, that’s ugly, and probably a poor measure of Eaton’s talent, given the sample size. All the same, Eaton’s negative figure did not knock Arizona out of first place, nor did Kubel’s (the two combined for about 500 PA). Trumbo could honestly be that bad, but the defense as a whole will remain elite.

The Angels get two young, cost-controlled pitchers who are bound to them for many moons. If you’ve found this blog, I don’t need a long ass paragraph to convince you that’s a good thing.

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Rockies receive LHP Brett Anderson from A’s
A’s receive LHP Drew Pomeranz and RHP Chris Jensen from Rockies

We’ve long been bullish on Brett Anderson, and we view his injury history as just an unlikely clustering of obstacles to his success. Anderson has an excellent pair of breaking pitches and locates them both well. His groundball rate is a bigger asset at Coors than it is elsewhere. Anderson could be the best pitcher on the Rockies for the next two years, after which he’ll become a free agent. If it goes the other way and he keeps getting hurt, all the Rockies gave up was a middle-of-the-rotation starter and a minor league arm. Not bad for a team currently out of the playoff picture.

Drew Pomeranz might become the next young A’s pitcher to blossom under pitching coach Curt Young. You figure A.J. Griffin, Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker and Scott Kazmir all come above him in the rotation. That leaves Pomeranz in competition with Tommy Milone (another lefty) and Dan Straily (a righty). If he doesn’t distinguish himself in the spring or early in the season, he’ll come into play later on as a testament to the wonders of Oakland’s depth. He’s much cheaper than Anderson, too, meaning the A’s could continue to stock their bench this winter (with great dividends come summer, the opposite of the ant in the fable).

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Despite the prevailing criticism of Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks, we think all four teams made smart decisions yesterday. Arizona’s isn’t far from the wild card or even the division. Look at this scatterplot of runs scored and allowed per game. The teams on the bottom right almost universally made the postseason. The Diamondbacks are on the fringe of that group. They addressed an offensive need, and the resulting defensive sacrifice doesn’t affect their standing as an elite defensive team. Now all they need is a couple of proven starters and a rebound year for the bullpen. Bullpens rebound all the time.

Last year’s Angels had laughable pitching depth. Bear witness if you have a strong stomach. Santiago and Skaggs should take most of the 254 and two-thirds innings that went to Jerome Williams and Joe Blanton. If they self-improve on top of that, huzzah! They’ll be Mike Trout’s teammates for a while.

The Rockies could be a playoff contendah in the next two years if they hit on the Anderson gamble. If it busts, they’re in the same position they are now.

The A’s, already a very good team, they don’t need an expensive boom-or-bust pitcher when they have six others at the same position. Acquiring cheap depth like Pomeranz allows for more cheap depth. That’s how they succeeded last year. And even with better Angels and Rangers playing opposite, I’d count on it happening again.

The Case for Mark Trumbo

Rumors of the MLB trade variety suggest that Angels third baseman/hitter Mark Trumbo might soon be on the move to Arizona as part of a three-team deal involving also the White Sox. From what I’ve seen, the internet’s opinion (served hot, in take-out form) has been critical of Trumbo and the Diamondbacks for targeting him. We say Trumbo is written off unfairly thanks to sabermetric cynicism.

Time for us to be clear: we came of age in the present era of sabermetric explosion. Advanced stats are second nature to us, and beautiful; OBP is like the Mona Lisa and batting average is this thing (NSFW?). I’ve hated pitcher wins since I was 12 years old. So we know the criticism of Trumbo’s plate discipline is valid, that any OBP below .300 should be considered untenable by a sound-minded front office. But we don’t agree that Trumbo’s OBP will stay that way in the next few years. And we don’t think that the sabermetric community fully appreciates his power.

Recently we’ve been studying the year-to-year correlations of stats that express a hitter’s power. With pretty much the same data, we’ve also been studying aging patterns over the last ten seasons (2004-2013). In this article we’ll use some of our findings to talk about Trumbo. The whole shebang will be presented later this week. If you care about these things, keep in mind that we limited our research to player-seasons with at least 100 plate appearances.

Let’s start with the power stats. Below is a bar graph showing the year-to-year R-squared value for a bunch of different stats. The higher the bar, the more consistent the stat is from one season to the next. For now, focus only on the green bars; they are concerned only with home runs.

summaryrsquarednoleged

(Data taken from Fangraphs.com)
Air = FB + LD
Contact = PA – (BB + K + HBP)

Home Runs per Contact (HR/Contact) has the highest R-squared value of the bunch. In terms of predictive power, it’s better than plain Home Runs, Home Runs per Plate Appearance (HR/PA), and Home Runs per Airborne Ball (HR/Air). It’s better than Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO), itself way better than regular Slugging Percentage. HR/Contact isn’t difficult to calculate, either. You only need five stats: home runs, plate appearances, walks, strikeouts, and hits by pitch. (Hits by pitches? HBP, you know what I mean.)

HR/Contact is better because, more than any other stat, it separates a hitter’s power from the rest of his batting skills. It does not care about how many times a batter walks or whiffs, all it knows is how often the ball goes out when that batter does make contact. For Trumbo, that means appreciating his raw power free of context. By context we mean his prolific out-making. Bear with us here. We’ll re-contextualize him by the end.

Trumbo has been a regular player for three years, so we compared him to the best power hitters of those years (2011-2013), guys with at least 1000 PA over that span. Of the 30 players with the most home runs, Trumbo ranks 11th in HR/Contact. Of the 30 players with the highest ratio of home runs to fly balls, Trumbo ranks 12th in HR/Contact. Here’s a table of the latter group.

trumbohrcontact

I like this group better because it has Trumbo’s potential future-teammate GOLDSCHMIDT in there for a nice comparison. (Click to engorge)

Based on this data, it’s easy to come up with crude tiers of raw power. (Crude things usually are easy, and fun.) Chris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton are clearly the elite mofos of the present day. The group from Adam Dunn to Mark Reynolds can claim to be distinct from those two above them and the morass below–Tier 2. Trumbo definitely belongs to Tier 3, however large you want to make that. Let’s say you’re Mother Teresa. You want to be generous with your rankings, so you define Tier 3 as anything above seven percent. Trumbo would sit in the upper half of that tier, above a lot of other people who are more celebrated than he. All told, only 21 players have a HR/Contact over seven percent, a.k.a. fewer than one player per team. If the Diamonbacks pulled this trade off, they’d have one, and another guy by the name of Goldschmidt, currently 23rd, a near-certain lock to crack the top 20 by the end of next year. That might just be the most powerful duo in the league.

You already knew about Trumbo’s power, though maybe you didn’t know the extent of it. Still, you’re skeptical of his plate discipline, and of his somewhat-related ability to avoid strikeouts. However, the aging data we’ve studied suggests that in the next two or three years Trumbo is likely to draw more walks and strike out less. Since 2011, his walk rate, according to Fangraphs, has risen steadily from 4.4% to 6.1% to 8.0% last year. His strikeouts have actually increased, however, bucking the traditional trend illustrated below.

kpa

(Data taken from Fangraphs.com)

That steady decline across all ages bodes well for Trumbo, even though he hasn’t yet demonstrated a prolonged improvement. Batters find avoiding strikeouts easier as they age and gain MLB experience. Trumbo is a professional like the rest of them, and in his prime: the smart bet would be that he figures something out and shaves a couple of percentage points off his abnormally high strikeout rate. Especially if he bats in front of Goldschmidt, and you’re a believer in lineup protection (I think I am). Fewer strikeouts of course lead to more plate appearances ending in contact, so that Trumbo would get about two dozen more chances to put one in the seats. And if you think–with bias, presumably–that his gains in walk rate are bogus, then it stands he’ll have even more chances to make contact. That’s when Trumbo is dangerous.

Kendrys Morales or Spare Parts

The offseason has begun, qualifying offers have been offered, or tendered, or non-tendered–whatever, things have happened. We don’t really know the some of the lingo, but we’re gonna cover this shit anyway. Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence have re-signed with the Giants, so the biggest fish from the West right now is one Kendrys Morales.

This poor bastard broke his leg jumping on home plate after winning the game about 30 seconds beforehand. Now that he’s set to make a lot of money in his first go at free agency, eminent baseball writers are comparing him to land mines. Things that kill people or mangle their legs or do both of those things, you hope in quick order. There’s even a song about them, and in the song, the land mines have taken the speaker’s sight, taken his speech, taken his hearing, taken his arms, taken his legs, taken his soul, left him with life in Hell. Legs show up right next to soul. Coincidence? Nah.

We’re not saying that Dave Cameron and Fangraphs and the sour fans of Seattle are wrong about Kendrys. He might very well be an albatross for whichever team signs him. Scott Boras is his agent, and there haven’t been any indications that he is inclined to settle for one year at about $14 million, the value of the Mariners’ qualifying offer. There are a few other teams who might be interested in Morales’ services, namely the Rangers and Orioles, but they’d have to give up a draft pick, so blah blah blah probably not gonna happen.

All we are saying is that, while Morales isn’t a dynamic player or an exceptional hitting talent, he is the best player on the DH market. There are only seven players out there, according to Fangraphs: Morales, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Michael Young, Delmon Young, Luke Scott, and Travis Hafner. All of them are on the wrong side of 30 and might as well wear heels in the field, so they’ve got the qualifications down. A look at their hitting, for power specifically, might convince you of Morales’ worth. (Michael Young won’t be included because I think some old school, tobacco-chewing GM will grab him as a utility infielder, much to twitter’s delight.)

A few days ago we tweeted that the Mariners should sign Paul Konerko. He’s coming off a bad year with the White Sox, who have already replaced him with Cuban slugger Jose Abreu. If he still wants to play somewhere, why not Seattle? He could fill the short end of a DH platoon, maybe even play some first if Justin Smoak really struggles with lefties. He’d be the wise and wise-cracking old dude on a team of talented youngsters who just need to learn how to win. At the end of the season, he’d call his shot to left field, get backed off the plate, and call his shot again, only to lay down a surprise bunt down the third base line that scores Franklin Gutierrez, who was running on the play, from second. Then his librarian-by-day, vixen-by-night, on-again-off-again girlfriend will leave her stuffy, old-money fiancé and his plush, post-modernist bullshit high-rise apartment, because not once has he ever done anything with the level of passion that Paul just displayed in that fucking legendary game, game 163 versus the Yankees.

For the Mariners, the benefit would be huge savings. Assuming Morales rejects the QO, they’re looking at a two- or three-year deal at about $15 million in average annual value. Konerko would be an iota of that investment, less than $5 million for just one year, I’d bet, freeing them up to chase Jacoby Ellsbury, perhaps. They could still fill the left side of the platoon with another cheap, cagey veteran, like Hafner or Scott.

The problem is, Konerko’s been declining pretty hard. Here’s a picture from when we brainstormed this article:

earlykonerkodraft

My, uh, little cousin did this. Click to engorge.

What you see above is the result of a moron using Bill Petti’s interactive spray charts. Paul Konerko’s last two seasons are up there–2012 on the left, 2013 on the right–and most of his batted balls are filtered out. What’s left are line drives and fly balls that traveled 300 feet or more. That’s a nice round number, and even the shortest home runs need to be about 300 feet. We thought the number of airborne batted balls that travel 300+ feet would be a good proxy for power potential, so we looked at all the other DHs on the market and put the data into a table. We also, and this is important, tried to replicate Mariners colors from the default choices on Microsoft Excel.

But first, a brief explanation of what follows. We separated all the players, even switch-hitters Morales and Berkman, by handedness, because we’ve seen how valuable platooning cheap players can be with this year’s Oakland team. The first column, FB+LD>300ft, is just the raw number of those kind of hits over the last two seasons. Then we have three different baselines. We wanted to know how often these long hits occur, period, so we have plain old plate appearances. (Again, for Morales and Berkman, these are split up by handedness.) Then we wanted to know how often these long hits occur out of the times the batter makes contact, so we subtracted walks and strikeouts from plate appearances. Then we wanted to know each batter’s percentage of long LDs and FBs out of all their LDs and FBs. That’s the last column.

If you prefer to know how many plate appearances it takes on average to hit one long balls, we provided that (1 every…). We also have the percentage of all plate appearances that ended with a long hit, for those of you who like it that way (300ft%). Here you go:

dhmarket

One final note about this data: Morales and Berkman, the switch hitters, have platoon advantages built into their numbers, whereas the other players do not. This is because I could not figure out how to filter for pitcher handedness in the Petti charts, only batter handedness. So Morales and Berkman are of course only facing righties when they bat lefty and vice versa–we don’t have that certainty with the rest of the lot. I don’t think this invalidates what I’m about to say, but it is something to keep in mind.

The first thing we took away was Konerko’s power decline. His ratio of long hits over all FB+LD is seriously lagging, about half of righty-Morales’ ratio. Konerko is a seriously great and serially underrated hitter, but it’s not just the home runs that vanished, it’s the long fly balls too. His back troubled him throughout 2013 but those problems may subside next year, so a cheap gamble on a once-great player could pan out beautifully.

Given the data, however, we must recognize there are better, higher-percentage options. Luke Scott’s figures are virtually identical to lefty-Morales, and there’s zero chance he commands the money that Boras wants for Morales. Plugging in Scott or even Hafner (whose numbers here are worse by the tiniest of margins) as the big end of a DH platoon would go a long way toward replicating Morales’ production. You probably don’t want either to play every day, so you sign a righty to cover the small end. At the right price, even Delmon Young can do good for you there.

The Mariners are a not-bad team getting better. They know what their infield looks like now, and it’s actually pretty good. Mike Zunino is ready to take the catching reins, so maybe Jesus Montero, who in his brief career has mashed lefties, could enter the DH mix. That makes good sense, and solves the problem cheaply. If the Mariners are going to throw money around this offseason, it should be for Ellsbury or to bolster the rotation.

Every team in the course of a season gives plate appearances to about 20 dudes (excluding pitchers). The bottom 10, the guys who rank 11th through 20th in plate appearances, still get a lot of playing time collectively, and the little differences they make individually matter a lot in a close playoff race. The A’s got 1.7 WAR from those guys last year; the Mariners, -1.2 WAR. If the Mariners stack their bench on the cheap with role players, they can approximate Kendrys Morales and turn their bench into an asset. Meanwhile, Morales is free to be a rich man’s version of himself for a team that can afford such a thing.