Crash Bag, Vol. 31: The Michael Young of Damocles

The winter meetings are over. Nate Schierholtz is kaput. Ben Revere and his OBP almost being higher than his slugging percentage are on the way. Michael Young and his clubhouse integrity hustle whatever were almost on the way. Part of me expects to see the Phillies trot out 25 of the claw machine aliens from Toy Story next season. Which would be adorable, and only slightly less effective from a baseball standpoint than an infield that includes Ryan Howard and Michael Young.

We start with one that I meant to answer last week.

@aisflat439: “should I move to Houston and buy season tickets now or can I wait until 2015? #singleton

Where are you moving from?

“it would be as a Philly expat.”

Interesting. Well, from a strictly baseball standpoint, you might actually have a point. I’ve long wondered if it’s better to root for process or results. Is it more fulfilling as a fan to cheer for a team like the Giants or Phillies that kind of gropes around like Tom Cruise after the eye replacement surgery in Minority Report, stumbling upon 90-win seasons and World Series appearances in spite of overwhelming evidence that the franchise is run by a junta of YouTube commenters on quaaludes? Or is it more fulfilling to cheer for a team like the Blue Jays or Athletics, with a progressive, creative front office and no real chance of being a consistent contender anytime soon. Essentially, would you be happier being happy, or would you be happier if you were unhappy but got to be all jaded and righteously indignant about it?

Yeah, me to. I’d pick the Astros.

But surely jumping on a team’s bandwagon doesn’t require actually moving there. I know this because the population of Massachusetts didn’t balloon to 150 million upon the release of Fever Pitch. And now I’ve reminded myself of that movie’s existence.

Anyway. Actually moving to Houston is an interesting plan. I’ve never been there, or even to Texas, but I know that there’s no state income tax, and that in my experience, Texans seem to be a uniformly attractive group of people. So there’s that. However, there’s the heat, which is oppressive, and Rick Perry seems not to be the most forward-thinking governor currently working. Though to be fair, Tom Corbett ain’t exactly George Washington either. So really, if you like the heat, by all means, move to Houston.

@Major_Hog: “Why is Kevin James allowed to make movies?”

It’s a free country, man. You want your “democracy” and your “free speech?” You have to pay the price. And that price is a steady dose of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I will say that such considerations won’t matter when I’m dictator of the world.

But in all seriousness, I really loved Kevin James in Hitch. That’s an all-time favorite pint-of-ice-cream and bottle-of-wine romcom for me.

@hdrubin: “Who makes the MLB Twitter All-Star team?”

A fine question. I don’t follow very many baseball players, because they tend to be boring. For instance, I follow a bunch of baseball players who seem like really nice guys, and while following them on Twitter will probably make you like them better, it won’t change your life. Denard Span, the dearly and recently departed Vance Worley and, yes, Jackie Bradley are among these.  But we’re talking about ballplayers who have alternate off-field interests, for instance, or do something more interesting than make sneakily misogynistic jokes and, well, act generally like the guys from the baseball team at your high school. Those are relatively few. Even Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison‘s legendary Twitter account has kind of taken a turn for the Men’s Humor of late, which is sad.

I will say that it came to my attention yesterday, via Dustin Parkes, that Ross Detwiler of the Washington Nationals goes by @NationalDet. Which…just…well done.

But as far as really worthwhile baseball player follows go, there aren’t many. C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of California does come off as the guy who gets up in front of the class and gives a report on the benefits of organic rabbit farming. But he also spends a lot of time around racetracks, so you get a lot of cool car talk. Which, if you’re seven years old on the inside, like I am, is worth a follow.

But yeah, the real queen mother of all baseball player twitter accounts is that of free agent pitcher Brandon McCarthy. First of all, it takes some serious personality to take a line drive off the noggin and then turn an image macro of the event into your Twitter avatar. I’d follow him based on content alone. There probably aren’t many other athletes I’d say that about.

@natleamer: “Is Benjamin Revere the most patriotic baseball player in history?”

Yeah, okay, be impressed by some weak amalgamation of two Revolutionary War figures when there’s a legitimate Founding Father actually playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.

In no way is Ben Revere more patriotic than, say…Grover Cleveland Alexander. Or John Hale? I’d call Nathan Hale far more of a patriot than Paul Revere. And John Hancock? John Paul Jones? If we’re playing Lego Patriot, we can do better than Ben Revere.

But I chose to answer this question not because I wanted to answer the question but because I wanted to say this: you have…let’s call it until 9 a.m. on Monday to make your Paul Revere/Ben Revere jokes. I was going to say that at that point, they’ll be officially old, but they’ve been old and unfunny for years already. So I’ll let y’all have your fun for the weekend, but at 9:01 a.m., Eastern time, anyone who makes a Ben Revere joke and expects it to be received as funny will be sent to France to dig for truffles with his nose from now until the end of time. Forever and ever, world without end, amen.

@MichaelJBlock: “Does Michael Young make more or less sense than Raul Ibanez did in 2009?”

Less sense. You see, Michael Young is a former batting champion who’s played all four infield positions. But the thing is, he’s kind of bad now. I will now demonstrate this through the Socratic method.

“Bad?” you ask. “But he hit .277 last year. A .277 batting average isn’t bad.”

And that’s true, but he doesn’t walk. His OBP was only .312.

“Ah, but you can get over a .312 OBP to have a respectable offensive season if you hit for power.”

But Young only slugged .370. That’s about what Freddy Galvis and Rajai Davis slugged.

“Also what Jason Kipnis and Elvis Andrus slugged. Aren’t they good?”

They are. But both of them play up-the-middle positions. Young played mostly first base (41 games) and DH (72) last year, where the demand for offensive production to be above replacement level is much, much higher.

“But Young also played 20 games in the middle infield, where he’s spent much of his career.”

True, but he wasn’t even a good defender there when he was in his 20s. Kipnis and Andrus are both very good defenders.

“So what do you get with a middling batting average, no patience, no power, no defense and an exile largely to first base?”

Player WAR/pos Year Age Tm
Jeff Francoeur -2.7 2012 28 KCR
Michael Young -2.4 2012 35 TEX
Greg Dobbs -2.1 2012 33 MIA
Joe Mather -2.0 2012 29 CHC
Ryan Raburn -2.0 2012 31 DET
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/3/2012.

Well I’d call that the second-worst full-time player in baseball last year.

Now, Young did hit .333/.371/.423 last year against left-handed pitching, and considering the serious platoon issues facing Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the later stages of their careers, Young could provide some value as a bench bat, so long as he’s not expected to play the field very often. And believe you me, I’ll have a vial of sodium thiopental handy for when he does.

At least Ibanez, at the time, looked like he’d be at least a mediocre corner outfielder. And you know what? He was being paid like a starter, but if the Phillies really do only give up a replacement-level reliever and a low-minors youngster, and the Rangers pay most of Young’s salary…no, I’m sorry, almost all of Young’s salary, then I can live with giving Young some time as a bench or platoon player.

@pinvert: “so is cloyd now in the rotation at the start of the season? eeep”

You know what? Cloyd isn’t very good, but he throws a lot of strikes and stands to give the Phillies about 150 innings of replacement-level starting pitching. Which, if memory serves, is about what we expect from Kyle Kendrick every year, so I’m cool with that. You don’t have to be very good to be a passable back-end starter.

So here’s the rub–Hamels/Lee/Halladay is still a formidable 1-2-3, but the fourth starter would still, if you’re lucky enough to make the playoffs, start a playoff game. Now, it’s not inconceivable that the Phillies would go out and sign a veteran No. 4 in the offseason, or make a trade midseason, as they did for Joe Blanton to fill that role in 2008, but as of right now, the guy they have to go up against, say…Ryan Vogelsong or Dan Haren in Game 4 of the NLCS is Kyle Kendrick. And who knows? Maybe Kendrick has reinvented himself and is now a competent starting pitcher, but I’m not putting all of my hypothetical eggs in that basket if I’m Ruben Amaro.

That said, if I were Ruben Amaro, I’d either have Albert Pujols at first base or $25 million to go splurge on Zack Greinke this offseason. But c’est la guerre. The point is, Cloyd is an acceptable No. 5 starter, but the back end of the rotation, for the first time since 2007 or so, is a place where the Phillies stand to improve.

@DrakeCCampbell: “which team should I root for until RAJ is fired”

A kindred spirit to our would-be Houstonite, I see.

If you can get over the 1993 World Series…okay, I know that sounds ridiculous, so I’ll try to give a more concrete meaning. Emotionally, of course I still carry the scars of that World Series, but I’ve learned to enjoy that season for what it was: a glorious, hilarious aberration that led the Phillies to their best season, by far, for 10 years in either direction. So while Joe Carter‘s home run was itself heartbreaking, time and perspective have allowed me to forgive the Blue Jays for what they did to us.

So anyway, if you’re about where I am, the Blue Jays are the obvious answer. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about this before, but in hockey and football, I have attachments to non-Philadelphia teams for personal reasons. If that’s the case for you, like if you went to college at Michigan State and knew a lot of Tigers fans there and you went to Comerica Park a few times, for instance, then that’s your obvious bandwagon to hop on. The “hometown team,” such as there was, at my college, was the Atlanta Braves. So that’s not exactly an option for me. But it might be for you.

But assuming you have no outstanding attachments other than to the Phillies, the Blue Jays are a great neutral’s favorite. They have perhaps the best uniform set in the game, particularly this gorgeous blue alternate. They have a robust online fan community. They have, in Brett Lawrie, Anthony Gose and Travis D’Arnaud, a plethora of exciting young players who are either contributing now or will contribute soon. The Jose Reyes/Mark Buehrle/Josh Johnson trade has brought them into a new era of contention going forward–those robust internet fans are nittering with glee and optimism right now, insofar as Canadians nitter with optimism about anything other than Dave Foley and Rush.

If you’re a Blue Jays fan, you get to root for an exciting, creative front office for a change. And you get to root against the Red Sox and Yankees thirty-eight times a year. Thirty-eight times! The prospect of that got me so excited just now that I tried to spell “thirty” with a “g.” True story.

You know what? Screw you guys. I might just become a Blue Jays fan anyway.

@buttbutt: “do you prefer orange juice with pulp or with no pulp?”

No pulp.

@buttbutt: “do you snore? wet the bed? toss and turn in your sleep?”

Only when I’m sick, not anymore, and yes.

@CM_rmjenkins: “who the eff is Ender Inciarte?”

I dunno, but that’s definitely a still from his upcoming movie! Squee!

Okay, that’s my one. In the spirit of the Ben Revere jokes, by the start of next week we’re going to have to either stop making Ender jokes or make better ones. So, like, if he gets a Wolf Pack-like fan following here, and it’s called Dragon Army, that’s acceptable. But if you make an Ender Inciarte joke and the punchline is “Ender’s game,” that’s not. Everyone’s made that joke already. Remember what I said about the truffles and your nose and my being the dictator of the world.

But seriously, he’s supposed to be a good defender, good runner with a decent arm and some patience, potentially a useful player indeed, plus he’s only 22, so unlike such Rule 5 luminaries as Michael Martinez, he stands to improve markedly in the coming years. The issue is, he has only half a season at high-A ball, and the odds of skipping AA and AAA and hitting the ground running the big leagues are slim. As in, nobody does it. Okay, Albert Pujols did it, but if this kid were Albert Pujols, I don’t think the Diamondbacks would have left him off their 40-man roster.

Anyway, if he’s a good defender and he can run, he can be useful off the bench even if he doesn’t hit all that much, which offers late-inning substitution possibilities for Darin Ruf, Laynce Nix or Ryan Howard. But between him and Ben Revere, the Phillies now have two good defensive center fielders who don’t offer much, if anything, with the bat. If he even makes it out of big-league camp.

@tigerbombrock: “of the remaining available guys, including trades, who do you want for outfield and third?”

I could stand a contract for Nick the Swish. He could play a competent defensive outfield corner and get on base, plus negate some of the insane platoon issues the Phillies have with Howard, Mayberry, and maybe Brown and Ruf, depending on what we see out of them. For third base, I’ve said it before, but the cupboard is so bare there that I am 100 percent comfortable entering the season with Kevin Frandsen as the everyday starter and playing mix-and-match from there. There is just no value to be had there, either via trade or free agency. And to those of you who invoke the cursed name of Chase Headley…how eager you must be to repeat the mistakes of the Hunter Pence trade.

We end with one from the boss.

HAHAHAHAHA. No, but seriously.

@CrashburnAlley: “rank the top 5 inventions of the 2000’s”

  •  iPhone/iPod/iPad. The MP3 player and the PDA were certainly not unheard-of in the 1990s, but from a consumer standpoint, our daily lives have been changed immeasurably by the proliferation of miniaturized personal electronic devices. Now we take everything everywhere, and not only can we access information and files–and be accessed by others, by the way–wherever we go, but we expect that. In 2000 I thought it was a big deal that I had a portable CD player that I could take everywhere, with my 15 tracks’ worth of dcTalk or whatever. Now, I have a 160 GB iPod that I dutifully load up with the latest episode of a dozen internet radio programs I subscribe to, but more on that later. And if I can’t get the latest Marek vs. Wyshsynski onto Jarome iGinla (I named my iPod that, because it starts with the letter “i” and it’s something that’s black that was traditionally white) before I head out the door, it ruins my day. Imagine that. I used to listen to broadcast radio all the time, and now, if I have to sit through 30 minutes of it in my car on the way to and from work, instead of a podcast that I control, it ruins my day.
    I was actually working at a technology magazine when the iPad came out, and I said out loud at the time: “That looks so stupid–why would anyone buy the world’s largest, most unwieldy iPod Touch?” But there’s an invention that’s changed the way we consume media–movies, television, books,  the internet, board games, you name it. It’s brought to fruition the touch-screen reality we assumed, until 2004 or so, was something from science fiction.
  • Web 2.0. By this I mean the democratization of content creation and publishing. Until the late 1990s, publishing was an almost entirely centralized affair, save for some indie filmmakers and Usenet nerds who toiled in obscurity. But now anyone can start a blog; write and publish an ebook; write, record, press and publish a record or make a movie. And share it instantly with anyone in the world with a computer and a broadband connection. Fifteen years ago, to do what I do now, here, for free and in my spare time, I’d have needed to work for Sports Illustrated. Now, there’s more information, more analysis, more voices, and they are better organized and more easily accessible. Knowledge is cheaper now, by orders of magnitude, than at any point in human history. And I’m not talking about the Renaissance–I’m talking about, like, 1996. And it’s a shame that more people don’t appreciate that, because if they did, we could all be getting smarter and better-informed at a truly astonishing rate. To say nothing of breaking the stranglehold on knowledge and influence previously held by those who owned the printing presses or the movie studios. That’s probably not strictly a 2000s invention, but it’s been in that time that blogging, YouTube and social media have all gained mainstream acceptance.
  • AbioCor Artificial Heart. This was the first fully-implantable artificial heart. So while humans can now survive catastrophic organ failure thanks to implants from organ donors, if we can make hearts, kidneys, livers, and so on out of plastic, rubber and metal, or grow new organs from cloned cells, it would change the way we live. This heart, which required no external tubes, batteries or pumps, represents the first step toward that.
  • SpaceShip One. Because our government appears to have entirely abdicated its mandate to seek out new worlds and explore space, it’s good to see that someone is invested in keeping space from becoming a haven for those damned Russians and Chinese. Much as I hate to trust private industry with a public good, it’s better than nothing. Plus Burt Rutan was involved and he’s awesome.
  • Wawa Hoagiefest. I don’t think this needs any further explanation.

We’re a little shorter than usual this week, but in case you’re left with time to kill, here’s a video of a bunch of Ukrainian guys sitting by the pool and playing “Highway to Hell” on accordion. Have a pleasant weekend, everyone.

On Scoring Runs, Preventing Runs, and Perception

The Phillies traded for center fielder Ben Revere yesterday. It was met with mixed reactions, and was surprisingly not split along the usual traditional/Sabermetric divide. Those of us, such as myself, in favor of the deal cited Revere’s youth, relative cheapness, and promotion of financial flexibility. Those against the deal cited Vance Worley‘s value, Trevor May‘s upside, and Revere’s mediocre offensive abilities.

The last item is particularly interesting to me because it is easily the most-cited reason for disliking the deal, and I don’t buy it. In past years, the Phillies have acquired light-hitting, defensively-capable players as part of their approach and it generally worked out. Placido Polanco joined the team after the 2009 season and more than lived up to his three-year, $18 million deal, despite posting an aggregate .306 wOBA (the NL average third baseman ranged between .312 and .318 in those three years). Looking back, the only option at the time that would have panned out better for the Phillies was Adrian Beltre, and even then, that’s only if all other things are held equal (butterfly effect and such).

The Phillies went to the World Series in 2009 as shortstop Jimmy Rollins posted a .312 wOBA, his lowest since 2003. It was the start of a three-year-long decline for Rollins, held up mostly by injuries. Remember Pedro Feliz? The third baseman who preceded Polanco posted a .305 wOBA, but the Phillies reached the World Series in both years he was a part of the roster.

That being said, the Phillies’ offenses of yesteryear could afford to have a mediocre hitter at the bottom of the lineup because they had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth in the primes of their careers. Howard and Utley took a combined 654 trips to the plate in 2012, normally a full season for either player. Because of their injuries — Howard with a torn Achilles and Utley with patellar chondromalacia — the Phillies had to give their at-bats to vastly inferior players, including:

The Phillies gave 674 PA to the aforementioned dreck instead of a healthy Utley and Howard. When fans clamor that the Phillies need offense badly, they are talking about yesterday’s offense and not tomorrow’s offense. Utley and Howard may not be in the primes of their careers, but having them back for mostly-full seasons will do wonders for the Phillies’ offense. Add in one or two more free agent signings or trade acquisitions, and you have a team that could reclaim the NL East crown in 2013.

We also have to adjust our expectations when looking at the past because league-wide, run-scoring has declined. The average NL team scored 4.76 runs per game in 2006, then declined to 4.71, 4.54, 4.43, 4.33, and 4.13 in the next five years before rebounding slightly to 4.22 in 2012. The difference of a half-run per game between 2007-12, over 162 games, is about 87 runs. As an example, Jayson Werth‘s 2008 triple-slash line of .273/.363/.498 turns into .264/.354/.484 when neutralized in a 2012 run environment. Who had an .838 OPS in 2008? Raul Ibanez. That’s the impact of the decline in offense in recent years.

Revere’s .300 wOBA in 2012 tied with Ichiro Suzuki for the 51st-worst out of 57 qualified outfielders in 2012, and was 27 points below the MLB average for outfielders. However, it still seems like we haven’t mentally adjusted for the change in offense. For fans that still think run scoring is at similar levels to 2008, Revere looks worse as the average outfielder then had a .338 wOBA.

Then there’s the issue of properly evaluating speed and defense. While Sabermetrics have made some headway into objectively evaluating defense, there are still many areas upon which to improve. The methodology behind UZR is flawed and needs several years of data to become reliable anyway, while other statistics have their own shortcomings and sample size issues. The most intellectually-honest statement we can make about a player’s defense is that he is with a certain range of runs above or below average for his specific position. Oftentimes, that range, or margin of error, will be so hilariously large as to dilute the point entirely.

So there’s the instinct, at that point, to set all defensive contributions to zero and move on. If we can’t evaluate it properly, why evaluate it at all? The problem is that method, hilariously enough, grossly rewards terrible fielders, grins at mediocrity, and unfairly punishes great fielders. Thus, we see Revere’s uninspiring triple-slash line, get disappointed, then we refuse to even give him credit for his greatest strength.

But there’s more. Revere’s value also lies in two areas that don’t show up in the stats: youth and contract control. Revere turns 25 years old on May 3. To put that in perspective, Domonic Brown turned 25 back in September, and most of us are more than willing to grant him plenty of leash, so to speak. Is .294/.333/.342 his ceiling? Perhaps, but most 24-year-olds don’t reach their ceiling the following year. Revere’s career .278/.319/.323 triple-slash line in 1,064 PA is not that much different than Michael Bourn‘s was at the same point — in 2008-09, his first two full seasons spanning 1,073 PA, his triple-slash was .261/.325/.348. In the last three seasons, Bourn’s triple-slash has been .279/.346/.376 in a lower run environment.

Moreover, Revere earned $492,500 last season. He will get a slight raise going into 2013, then enters his first year of arbitration entering 2014. As he’s a “Super Two” player, the Phillies will have to go to arbitration with him through 2017, barring a contract extension at any time during. Revere was worth 2.4 rWAR and 3.4 fWAR in 2012. Even if he improves only incrementally, he will be worth every penny the Phillies pay him between now and when they would consider trading him.

Whether the Vance Worley and Trevor May pairing was too steep a price to pay for Revere is a separate discussion. To summarize, it doesn’t seem like Revere is being given enough credit for his assets, and is being graded too harshly for his flaws. An average player will post 2 wins above replacement, and that is an important point to consider. Average players are very valuable, even if the connotation of the word “average” is valueless. Of the 265 non-pitchers to have taken at least 300 trips to the plate in 2012, only 129 (48.7%) posted at least 2 WAR according to Baseball Reference. When you also consider the survivorship bias, it is easy to see why Revere isn’t a scrub, but rather a very undervalued asset.