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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.