Dangerous Free Agent Market for CF

The marquee market in this year’s version of free agency is center fielders. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez excluded, there is no glitz and glamor available at any other position on the baseball diamond, talking strictly about free agency.

Not surprisingly, the people in charge of human perception have botched the project again. For some reason, not only was Torii Hunter the first big name — not named A-rod — to sign, but he was signed before Andruw Jones. Usually, the best player is signed first, for logical reasons.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract recently. The rationality of that move aside, Hunter is A) not worth that money and B) not in the same class as Andruw Jones.

You know what? I’m not going to put the rationality of that move aside. The Angels’ outfield now consists of Vladimir Guerrero ($14.5 million in ’08), Gary Matthews, Jr. ($9 million), Garrett Anderson ($12 million), and Hunter ($18 million). They’re paying their outfield $53.5 million, or slightly less than half of their 2007 payroll. And don’t forget about Juan Rivera, who will probably be making another $2 million or so as their 4th or 5th outfielder.

According to the Angels’ website:

Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Hunter would be the regular center fielder, with Matthews providing depth at all three outfield spots. Anderson and Guerrero are expected to spend more time in the designated-hitter role in 2008, giving Matthews plenty of opportunities to play left and right.

That’s right, the Angels are paying two of their outfielders almost $27 million combined to be occasional offense-only players. Matthews is getting $9 million to be a utility outfielder.

Anyway, back to free agency. Andruw Jones is perceived to have lost value because of his poor 2007 showing. He put up only an 88 OPS+ despite hitting 26 HR and driving in 94 runs. His walks and doubles were around his career average, he just didn’t get too many hits, despite a .283 BABIP (a bit less than average).

However, Jones is only 31 and the chances of him returning to being a top-tier offensive center fielder are highly likely. Jones’ other poor season, 2001, was followed by some of the best years of his career, though they were in his prime years (ages 25-29). And despite common perception, Jones’ hasn’t lost much, if anything, on defense, as he led the National League in both RZR and OOZ.

A quick glance of Andruw Jones’ statistics tells you that he has been and still can be the best center fielder in baseball. The common perception around baseball disagrees. Jayson Stark, for instance, called him the most overrated center fielder of all time. In Stark’s article, he states about Jones’ defense:

[...]while most of us weren’t paying attention, Andruw was slowly, apparently imperceptibly, losing the part of that gift that made him special.

[...]

I thought: that can’t be right. A friend suggested maybe it was a function of the Braves’ pitching staff. Maybe they were just throwing fewer fly balls than they used to. Great point. So I checked. Fortunately, there’s a stat that measures that, too — zone rating (the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical zone).

So I called up the 2006 zone rating of all qualifying major league center fielders on ESPN.com. Guess who was last on the list? Yessir, Andruw. He also finished last in 2004. And fifth from the bottom in 2005. I kept checking. As recently as 2001, he led his league in zone rating. So obviously, we had a definitive trend on our hands.

However, using the Revised Zone Rating (RZR), we find that Andruw’s defense only slipped in one season: 2004 (8th out of 11 NL CF in RZR; tied-first in OOZ). His OOZ shows that he was still able to get to balls most CF weren’t able to get. But in 2005, he was third among 9 qualified NL CF in RZR and second in OOZ. 2006? 4th of 11 in RZR, 2nd in OOZ. And, as mentioned, he led in both categories in 2007.

So, his defense hasn’t slipped nearly as much as Stark thinks.

Sticking with Sabermetrics — in such a lousy year for Jones, he still managed to add almost six and a half wins to his team. Guess how many Hunter added in one of his best seasons of his career? Eight. The difference between Jones at his worst and Hunter at his best is one and a half wins.

Jones’ worst WARP-3 prior to 2007 was 7.9. Hunter’s best was 8.3. Just a half a win difference there.

The other misconception is that Hunter’s defense is impeccable.

YEAR: RZR, RANK; OOZ, RANK

2007: .891 RZR, 7th out of 10; 47 OOZ, 5th in AL

2006: .894 RZR, 8th out of 10; 48 OOZ, 6th in AL

2005: Not enough defensive innings

2004: .822 RZR, 3rd out of 8; 65 OOZ, 1st in AL

Even Hunter’s “good” defensive season in 2004 is mediocre compared to the seasons after.

Offensively, Hunter is good, but isn’t anything truly special. In his nine full seasons, his career average OPS+ is 104. League-average is always 100. His last two seasons, though, have been among the best in his career, so there’s hope for a trend there if you’re the Angels. Overall, Hunter is the overrated center fielder, not Jones. The Angels will likely end up regretting giving Hunter such a large contract. A player that produces on average only slightly better than the league average doesn’t deserve $18 million per season.

Another center fielder looking for a big contract is Aaron Rowand. In his 5 seasons of 300 or more at-bats, two have been below-average, two have been above-average, and one has been average. So, he’s an average center fielder coming off of a career season in his walk year. That has warning labels stuck all over it.

Rowand, perhaps more so than Hunter, is noted for his grit and disregard for his own safety, as evidenced by his face-plant into the Citizens Bank Park center field fence in 2006 that earned him a broken nose.

Aaron Rowand post-face-plant

Beware of Rowand. Compare his career .343 OBP to the .342 league average. Or his career .462 slugging to the league average .439. He averages 5.75 wins per season to his team, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t place him among the elite in center field.

You never know with his defense, either. In 2006, the year he busted his face, his RZR was 9th among 11 qualified NL CF. He was 10th in OOZ plays, but OOZ is a counting statistic and Rowand missed time twice with injuries in 2006. However, his teammate Shane Victorino had one more OOZ and a .902 RZR (to Rowand’s .882) in 343 fewer defensive innings in 2006.

Realistically, only Jones deserves to be paid highly, but the prices aren’t dictated like that. The market for any good player is remarkably high, since the free agent class has been so weak not just this off-season, but last off-season as well — remember Adam Eaton and Gil Meche’s contracts?

Hunter and Rowand will be sought after highly not only because they’re perceived (wrongly) to be great players, but because they’re the best among what little is available. Who would you want: Aaron Rowand or Corey Patterson? Torii Hunter or Jeff DaVanon?

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