Should the Phillies Break Up with Raul?
At Phillies Nation, Corey Seidman has authored a thought-provoking piece on what the Phillies should do with Raul Ibanez going forward. I encourage you to read the whole article because he backs up his arguments with a lot of facts and logic. But to quickly sum up, Corey suggests the Phillies ask Raul to wave his no-trade clause, eat his salary (roughly $8.5 million remaining in 2010 and $11.5 million in ’11) and have him go to another team. If he doesn’t waive the NTC, the Phillies simply cut ties with him, eat the salary, and move on into the Domonic Brown era.
Corey’s arguments make a lot of sense. After all, Raul is 38 years old, OPSing only .712, and playing poor defense in left field. However, I do disagree with his suggestion. The decision to cut Ibanez seems to be based on his prolonged slump in 2010 and a poor performance last year when he returned from a groin injury. His second-half performance in ’09 looks especially bad compared to how he began the year, on an MVP-pace that earned him his first All-Star selection — in the starting lineup, no less.
In the first half of ’09, Raul hit 22 home runs, drove in 59 runs, and compiled a slash line of .312/.371/.656. In the second-half, after battling with a groin injury, Ibanez hit 12 homers, drove in 34 runs, and compiled a slash line of .232/.323/.448. While the .771 OPS is not great, it is more in line with what we should have expected from Ibanez. After all, Ibanez benefited from a freakishly high HR/FB rate above 21% over the entirety of 2009, much higher than his career rate at 13%. Raul’s second-half struggles were somewhat due to his groin injury but mostly due to regression to the mean and comparing those results to his first-half results.
From the start of the ’09 season until his last game before going on the DL on June 17, Raul hit 78 fly balls. Since we know he hit 22 HR, we now know that his HR/FB rate was 28%. In the second half, he hit 67 fly balls with 12 HR for a HR/FB rate of 18% — still high, actually, but definitely more realistic. This year, Raul hasn’t been so lucky as his HR/FB rate is only 5%. Just as we did last season, we expect Raul’s HR/FB% to not stay constant, but to more closely reflect that of his career average 13%.
Additionally, Raul hasn’t just been unlucky with home runs; he has been BABIP unlucky as well. His career average is .304 but only .250 so far in 2010. It mostly has to do with line drives as his BABIP on liners is only .600 compared to the ’09 Major League average of .724. Hitters don’t have too much control over their line drive rate so crediting it to randomness is entirely warranted here.
Let’s say that Raul turns the normal 13% — and not 5% — of his 60 fly balls into homers: three homers becomes eight. Raul has hit 30 line drives, so if he gets normal BABIP luck, he gets an extra 4 hits. If we credit Raul with an extra five homers and four singles, his OPS goes from a miserable .712 to .823. While that is a good illustration of some of Raul’s poor luck, it also shows the folly of the small sample size. We are, after all, only talking about 205 plate appearances (excluding yesterday’s game against the San Diego Padres). At this point, the only reliable statistics are (per Corey’s brother Eric, formerly of FanGraphs):
50 PA: Swing %
100 PA: Contact Rate
150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA
200 PA: Walk Rate, Groundball Rate, GB/FB
250 PA: Flyball Rate
300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB
500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate
550 PA: ISO
At present, we have about two-thirds of the necessary sample size to reliably use HR/FB and merely half of the required PA for our slash stats. Ibanez isn’t quite as bad as he has looked, although a month ago I noticed that his bat looked like it was slowing down. He is closer to the Ibanez of 2008, who OPS’ed .837 with 23 HR, than the Ibanez we have been watching with an OPS of .712 and 3 HR. Furthermore, Ibanez is actually showing good plate discipline, increasing his walk rate to nearly 14%, up from 10% last year. He has also cut his strikeouts down to 17%, down from 24% last year.
On a tangential subject, I disagree with Corey on simply cutting ties with Ibanez. If the Phillies can find a taker for him and get a warm body in return, even if they have to eat the rest of his salary, that’s fine. But there is no reason to simply throw him away while still paying his salary. He is a better hitter than everybody else on the Phillies’ bench. Even if he becomes a Matt Stairs-esque pinch-hitter, that’s fine. Getting him to accept that role may be difficult, however.
Corey makes salient points about bench versatility. If the Phillies demote Ibanez, they become very outfield-heavy with Greg Dobbs, Ross Gload, and Ben Francisco. When Jimmy Rollins returns, Wilson Valdez will likely get the boot back to Triple-A (if he goes through waivers unclaimed, something that has already occurred once this year), meaning Juan Castro will be the back-up for both middle infield positions. With Rollins’ calf, that’s a shaky proposition and someone is bound to claim Valdez if he continues to pass through waivers. At third base, Dobbs would be the only one capable of backing up Placido Polanco, who had missed a few games due to a bruised elbow.
Cutting Ibanez isn’t the best option in that scenario. Instead, when Rollins comes back, the Phillies can cut either Dobbs or Gload and keep both Castro and Valdez (both capable of fielding at third base) on the roster. Dobbs and Gload are pretty much the same player: left-handed, replacement-level bench bats with poor defense. If Ibanez is demoted and kept on the roster, the Phillies should cut Dobbs or Gload, preferably Dobbs. Dobbs’ salary is only $1.35 million this season before hitting free agency in 2011, while Gload is only owed $1 million this year and $1.6 million next year.
Of course, Corey wants Ibanez cut more so to usher in the Dom Brown era. Brown is hitting well in AA Reading with a .969 OPS and has improved each year he has been in the Minors since 2006 as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League. The Phillies wouldn’t call up Brown to pinch-hit or to even platoon with the right-handed Ben Francisco; they would only bring him up to play full-time, which would essentially require Ibanez to be out of town (unless he’s keen on getting 100 PA the rest of the season).
Playing Brown full-time also allows the Phillies to know exactly where they stand when deciding whether or not to offer Jayson Werth a contract in the off-season. If Brown plays well, the team may feel it does not have to pay Werth $15 million over each of the next four or five seasons when they can have Dom Brown with similar production at the same position making the Major League minimum $400,000. As such, the Phillies could patch up other areas in need of repair.
That is, I believe, the strongest argument for cutting Ibanez. Otherwise, I don’t see a reason to cut ties with a left-fielder who, while he may be 38 years old, is more likely to OPS in the high .700’s or low .800’s going forward than his current production in the low 700’s.
Yes, Ibanez is struggling, but if I can preach one concept to Phillies fans, it’s patience. It took patience to see Cole Hamels through his early-season struggles; it will take patience to see Joe Blanton through his. It took patience to see the Phillies through their terrible two-week offensive slump and they still may not be out of it despite scoring five and six runs in their past two games. There are a lot of factors out of a player’s control in this great game called baseball, and to panic because a bunch of those breaks haven’t fallen our way is not a good idea. I don’t want to say Ibanez is fine because I do think his bat has slowed down, but I am more concerned with Ryan Howard than Ibanez if you catch my drift.
Every team, even the best, experiences these problems plenty of times throughout every season. The Phillies have been extremely lucky the past few years since they have not only been relatively injury-free, but have had the luxury of enjoying the primes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth with enough payroll flexibility to keep them in town. The Phillies have not had to deal with the thought of dumping a crucial member of the team off at the nearest exit. Sure, they ate the salaries of Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins, but no one viewed them as mainstays in the Phillies organization as Eaton was a back-of-the-rotation starter and Jenkins had already lost his starting job to Werth.
The 2010 season has been a real struggle for Raul Ibanez and the Philadelphia Phillies, but it is not unique. The Atlanta Braves are wondering if they are ever going to get anything out of Nate McLouth; the New York Yankees have been waiting for Curtis Granderson to find his power; the Houston Astros are trying to find out who took away Carlos Lee‘s offense. Over the next four months those three hitters will, most likely, improve offensively not because someone found a mechanical flaw or they fixed their timing (although that could certainly happen), but because they are simply regressing to their mean. I can flip a coin ten times and get eight tails. If I continue to flip a coin 100 more times, I should expect that coin to come up tails not 80% of the time, but 50% — its true probability. The same holds true for Raul and many other struggling baseball players.