Monday, September 28, 2009

Value, Wins, and the 2009 Rockies Position Players

I'm going to jump about 10 years from the end of my first post on Sabermetrics to one of the most modern statistics available. There have been a number of efforts to quantify the value of an individual player to his team, but none is more ambitious - and, frankly, successful - than the Value figure that unveiled last December. It's still not a perfect number, but it tells you, with a fair amount of accuracy, how much money a player's on-the-field contribution is worth to his team. In a time where we decry the exorbitant salaries of baseball players, it's easy to forget that they are generally generating more money for their owners than they are making themselves, and most are still "underpaid" relative to their level of production. For example, when Alex Rodriguez made $25 million in 2007, he was actually worth almost $40 million to the Yankees (read, $15 million in profit, and that's not even counting the money they make of off A-Rod jerseys, or marketing; that's just the value of his production). Overpaid he may be, relative to his contribution to society, but actually underpaid, relative to how much value he's bringing to his employer. As long as fans are willing to shell out the kinds of money they spend on tickets (and as long as advertisers are willing to buy spots during broadcasts), player salaries will continue to rise until team profit margins aren't so large.

Much as I'd love to talk about how much money the Yankees - or almost every other team, really - rake in, and how valuable their players are, I want to take a step back from quantified value and talk about the various contributions of players on the Rockies this year. As you probably are aware, the Rockies are a week away from likely making their third playoff apperance in their history (assuming they can hold off the charging Braves). As I've watched recent games, however, it seems there are some misconceptions as to which Rockies players are good, and which are not. The offense, as a whole, is horribly overrated because of Coors Field, but that is not a new phenomenon. Conversely, the pitching staff is underrated, as usual, for the same reason (I bet you didn't know that the 2001 Rockies, for example, were 3rd in the NL in road ERA, while finishing 15th in Overall ERA; Coors is like that). More interesting, however, is the way we tend to overvalue players that we like, and players that have been around for a while, and players with "intangibles." The Rockies this year are a study in the pitfalls of trying to evaluate the home team, thanks to all those biases familiarity breeds.

Not that our eyes deceive us in all things. Troy Tulowitzki has been without question the best position player on the Rockies this season, worth 4.8 wins (which is the difference between 81-81, and 86-76; or, 2 games up on the Braves, and 3 games behind the Braves). You may be surprised to note, however, that Tulo's contribution has been almost exclusively offensive. The unreal season he had with the glove in 2007 he has not matched, and in fact has not been particularly better on defense than most other shortstops around the league. That he is a shortstop alone makes him valuable - there are fewer power hitting shortstops than first basemen - but he has not been the wizard with the glove this year he has been in the past.

No matter, because he's hitting very well. In fact, only one player on the team is hitting better: Todd Helton. Sure, Helton doesn't have the power that Tulo does, but Helton's OBP is .413, meaning he only makes an out 59% of the time he comes up. Tulo's .370 OBP is good, but not that good. Of course, Helton is not as valuable as Tulo mainly because he plays first. With no Helton, the Rockies could slide Brad Hawpe back to his natural position, or call up Josh Koshansky from AAA, and suffer a serious, but not devastating, drop off. With no Tulo, we'd probably see Omar Quintanilla every day, which, frankly, would be ugly. Nevertheless, Todd has been worth 3.2 wins this year, which is not bad at all.

Now we get to the real point of the post, though. Who do you think is third on the Rockies in value? Brad Hawpe? Carlos Gonzalez? Maybe Yorvit Torrealba? What about Ian Stewart, or Dexter Fowler? None of those players, it turns out, is even close to the actual third-best player on the Rockies: Seth Smith.

You read that right. This season, Seth Smith has been worth 2.7 wins, and that's without playing every day. Smith has been the fourth best offensive player on the team (behind Hawpe, Tulo, and Helton), and has actually been the second best defensive player, behind only Clint Barmes. Yet, for some reason, Smith is left on the bench about once every three days. Why? He is left handed, like most of the team, and often he sits against left handed pitchers, but I think there are other reasons.

The Rockies see Brad Hawpe as an All-Star, and offensively, he is one. But what the Rockies don't fully appreciate is that Hawpe is - and this is not an exaggeration - one of the worst fielders in the entirety of Major League Baseball. This season, he is third-to-last in defensive value; he has actually cost the Rockies more games with his glove than he has won them with his bat. Because of his arm, most Rockies fans tend to think of Hawpe as a good fielder, but he is anything but. In an unforgiving ballpark - Coors is notoriously hard to play the outfield in, after all - Hawpe is overmatched. And this shouldn't be a surprise, because Hawper is not a right fielder, he's a first baseman (or was coming up) who got moved because of Helton's stranglehold on the position (much like Atkins, who is/was a terrible third baseman). So Smith - who's actually a natural outfielder - doesn't start over Hawpe because it's easier for us to see an All-Star with a strong arm than it is for us to see what he really is: an overrated right fielder who should be a DH in the American League.

Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler are the next two culprits in Seth Smith playing time heist. Cargo has actually been quite good - at 2.1 wins, he's next in line after Smith - and should certainly play every day in center with Smith in left. Fowler, on the other hand, has been worth only 0.8 wins, despite more playing time than Smith at a tougher position. Fowler, it turns out, has been marginal at offense and terrible on defense, almost as bad as Hawpe. The Rockies may like their outfield, but let me reassure you that the success of contact pitchers like Marquis and Cook has a lot more to do with the infield than it does the outfield. Fowler can't really be blamed, of course, since he's a rookie in one of the most difficult center fields in all of baseball. Of course, from the Rockies perspective, Fowler is good at defense simply because he is fast. That may have been true of Willy Taveras, but he knew how to use his speed way better than Fowler apparently does. Fowler does have a promising future, especially if he can start to hit with more power and adjust to the cavernous outfield at Coors, but he's no Seth Smith.

Finally, Ryan Spilborghs. I know what you're thinking (if you're a Rockies fan, anyway, and if you're not you probably stopped reading a while ago), "he's not going after Spilborghs?" I am. He may be fun and quirky, and he may have hit an incredible walk-off Grand Slam against the Giants last month, but Spilborghs has been the worst player on the Rockies not named Garrett Atkins this season. That he ever starts in place of Seth Smith is laughable, because Spilly has been worth exactly 0.1 wins this year. That means you could call up just about any team and take their best outfielder from AAA, and he'd give you as good or better production than Spilborghs has given the Rockies. Spilborghs has personality and experience, however, and that still counts for something in the modern baseball culture.

Early in the season fangraphs ran an article entitled "Free Seth Smith." They should run the same article again. The Rockies may make the playoffs, but they'll be lucky to continue their success in the postseason - and in seasons to come - if they don't play their third best player every day.

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