Thursday, July 25, 2013

Who's Your Right Fielder?

It's back to reality after seeing center field with many players delivering exceptional value. There are decent right fielders, but like every other position, there are around 8 teams that are set--and the rest are looking. Here's the chart:

If you've read the previous posts you should be familiar with this chart by now. If not, the horizontal axis represents player's 2013 salary and the vertical FanGraphs estimate of the dollar value the player has delivered this year. Points above the line are delivering value greater than their contract, those below are under-performing. The further from the line, the greater or lesser the magnitude of the performance. Given that, Gerardo Parra is having the best year and Josh Hamilton and Jeff Francoeur the worst.

I'll begin with the obvious, which is that Yasiel Puig delivered his value in about half of the games the other have played--if he had played a full season with comparable production, his rank would be better than Parra's. Since I haven't done it in a while, here's how Puig ranks amongst all players since 1916 after 44 games (through Tuesday, July 23rd, players had to play at least 40 of those games):
This table is ranked by OPS, and while Puig has cooled off as of late, it's hard to argue with an OPS of .980. 40+ games is enough to get a decent feel for a player, and the list covers a wide range of players from Hall of Famers to "WHO?" Unless his performance falls off or he gets hurt, I'm pretty sure Puig is the NL Rookie of the Year and gives the Dodgers options as Matt Kemp continues to work through his injuries.

The absolute last place a player wants to be on this chart is in the lower right quadrant, where a player is paid a lot and not performing. It's one thing to straddle the line like Jose Bautista, Shane Victorino or Hunter Pence--they make a lot of money and whether they're slightly under or over the line isn't important. Victorino has been a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox after a slow fade over the past couple of years, but his value is in his fielding, which the Sox can afford as long as Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli continue to hit. Neither the Giants nor Blue Jays can trace their woes to the play of Pence or Bautista respectively. No, it's Josh Hamilton, Jayson Werth and particularly Nick Markakis that are problems for their teams. The moment Werth signed that contract with the Nationals he was overpaid, and they're on the hook for another 4 years and $83 million when Werth will be the tender age of 38. That's bad enough, but with players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann coming due for paydays of varying sizes and having given big money to Ryan Zimmerman already, the Nationals could be in a bind. They aren't afraid to spend, but they're not the Red Sox or Yankees.

Josh Hamilton, Josh Hamilton. Poster child of redemption in modern-day America, 15th-most home runs from 2008-2012, 2010 AL MVP, All-Star all five of those years, but playing in a park that is only slightly less hitter-friendly than Coors Field. The Angels have proved the last two seasons that it only takes one team to make a market and better hope he's just having an off year, because they have him for the next four years at $106 million. He'll be 33 next year and might have already reached the decline phase of his career. Whatever he does he better have an average higher than .223.

The enigma of this group is Nick Markakis, who may never have been what I imagined him to be in the first place. His high in home runs was 23 in 2007, with declines since then. He might have been pigeon-holed as a power hitter who really isn't but he's still hitting for average. RBI are down but that's not necessarily his fault. The Orioles have enough issues at second, short and DH (how does an AL team not have a DH in this day and age) that they can't afford for Markakis to become another liability.

The next clump of players, led by Carlos Beltran and including Alex Rios, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Nelson Cruz, Jay Bruce and Ichiro Suzuki are pleasant surprises. Ichiro was widely considered finished last year but has bounced back well, Alex Rios still might be on another team very soon and Michael Cuddyer might still have something left. Jay Bruce and Nelson Cruz are having solid offensive years. All of these players are delivering decent value for reasonable money, with Beltran having a late-career resurgence that has been as important as anything any other Cardinal has done this year. Cruz will be a free agent after this year but is 32--I'm not sure there's a big contract in his future. The Reds have Jay Bruce signed through 2017 at $47.5 million, and if he continues to perform at the levels he's shown the past couple of years, he'll be a bargain.

The folks at the lower end of the pay scale have widely divergent stories. Marlon Byrd is a cheap add-on getting significant playing time for the Mets, which can only mean they have nothing better to replace him with. Gerardo Parra's value is mainly from his fielding but is having a decent offensive season. Justin Heyward is eligible for arbitration after this season, and I can't think of any reason why the Braves wouldn't try to sign him for a friendly contract, but they haven't signed Freddie Freeman either. The future is uncertain for Giancarlo Stanton--he's been hurt and is having a very nonproductive year. The Marlins aren't going to be competitive any time soon (look at the number of 30+ BAD players that get regular playing time) and they might just trade him and his problems and get some prospects in exchange (read this excellent article by Cee Angi from SB Nation for more on Stanton). The rest of the folks in this group range from the mildly surprising (Nate Schierholtz) to the overrated (Norichika Aoki). There might be a breakout in this group, I don't know, but none overwhelm me.

Consider the prototypical right fielder of old--a burly power hitter with a decent arm a la Larry Walker or Magglio Ordonez. There's still players like that (Hamilton and Bautista, Stanton when he's healthy), but something has changed over the past five years or so. It's no secret that power is down overall in baseball, but runs were scored before the home run had its brief season from 1990-2007 and they'll be scored again. The real issue is that BATTING AVERAGE is down as well as BABIP, suggesting two trends:
1. Hitting ability is declining
2. Pitching ability is increasing
I suspect both are occurring--as greater specialization occurs among pitching staffs, and as they get younger, hitters are seeing a constant stream of power arms that are replaced when they tire in a game. Hitters don't have the luxury of seeing a starter in late innings when he might have lost some zip off his fastball, because he's been replaced. As such, hitters might be seeing fewer mistakes, leading to decreased average.

I write all this because preconceived notions for ALL positions are changing. If it's harder to get on base, then skills like speed, base running and others that were overlooked from 1990-2007 become important again. Multi-dimension players are required, and the rocket-armed right fielder will need other skills. Easily the best outfield arm for the past six years or so was Jeff Francoeur--since 2005, he's thrown out 72 base runners (I accumulated this data a couple months ago, so it's slightly out of date). The next-best in that time span is Hunter Pence--with 30, followed by Nick Markakis with 29. Great one-of-a-kind arm and what did it get him? Cut by the Royals earlier this year and picked up by the Giants. None of the young right fielders looks like what we've seen in the past, and when that occurs, fat contracts don't follow, as Nelson Cruz very well may discover this winter. Going forward, the class of right field will be Puig, Heyward, Stanton (if healthy) and possibly Ryan Raburn and Josh Reddick, but that's a short list. Baseball moves in big cyclical trends, and the trend is swinging toward pitching and has been for the past 5 years or so. As I figure out how to evaluate pitching the way I've done the position players, I'll explore that further.

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