Is Marlon Byrd A Regression Candidate?
Marlon Byrd was one of the most surprising players to break out in 2013. The New York Mets took a flier on him, signing him to a one-year, $700,000 deal. It was on the heels of Byrd’s awful 2012 campaign, when he posted an aggregate adjusted OPS of 33 — with a .210/.243/.245 line — with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. At the age of 35, Byrd rewarded the Mets with a 138 adjusted OPS in 464 trips to the plate. The Mets were so enamored with him they willingly passed up the opportunity to trade him to a contender by the July 31 deadline. Reluctantly, they traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates through waivers on August 27, just a few days before the waiver deadline and his 36th birthday. In 115 plate appearances with the Pirates, Byrd again posted a 138 adjusted OPS, then hit .364 with a pace-setting home run in the second inning of the Wild Card game against the Reds.
At some point in 2013, the clock was to strike midnight, turning Byrd back into a pumpkin, but it never happened. Aside from a cold April, Byrd posted an OPS of .805 or better in each month between May and the end of the season.
The Phillies signed Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal earlier today. GM Ruben Amaro clearly thinks — or is steadfastly praying — that Byrd’s Cinderella story continues through 2015. But there are plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view on the Byrd deal, even if it’s a shorter-term deal for a meaningless amount of money that doesn’t cost a draft pick for a team that will almost inevitably hover below or around .500 in 2014.
Byrd posted a .353 BABIP last season. He has always been a hitter who relies on a higher-than-is-typical BABIP as he carries a .325 career average. An increasing majority of Byrd’s batted balls have been of the line drive and ground ball variety. I ran a query on Baseball Reference’s Play Index for hitters since 2000 to post a .350 or better BABIP. One of these things is not like the other:
Each player in the list above saw his BABIP decline by at least 30 points the following year, though many managed to stay above .300. In asking if Byrd can be like Larry Walker and post a .321 BABIP the next season, we have to ask ourselves what allowed Walker to do exactly that. Walker always hit for a high average (career .313); Byrd has not (career .280). Walker drew a ton of walks (11.4%), meaning that he was mostly swinging at very hittable pitches; Byrd has not (6.4%). Walker always hit for power (.252 ISO), relying more on his ability to make hard contact than anything else; Byrd has not (.145 ISO), relying more on luck and the inability of opposing defenses to turn his batted balls into outs.
You can even do this exercise with Ichiro. Byrd and Ichiro have similar walk rates and Byrd has superior power, but Ichiro was able to post a high BABIP up until 2011 due to his speed and unorthodox approach to hitting that gave him a running start out of the batter’s box, allowing him to beat out a lot of infield ground balls.
Byrd posted a .220 ISO in 2013, ranking 19th in the Majors, just behind Domonic Brown. It was the first time he crossed the .200 threshold in his career and it marked a 185-point increase over his 2012 output. In fact, he was only at .119 in 2011 and .136 in 2010 as well. The power was certainly unexpected, especially considering that his two home ballparks — Citi Field and PNC Park — were two of the most pitcher-friendly in the league. It showed in his splits. At home last year, Byrd posted a .727 OPS with a .168 ISO; on the road, Byrd posted a .962 OPS with a .269 ISO.
Over the last three seasons, players to post a .220 or better ISO at the age of 35 or older include David Ortiz and Alfonso Soriano in the past season, Carlos Beltran, A.J. Pierzynski, and Soriano in 2012, and Lance Berkman, Ortiz, and Soriano in 2011. Ortiz is an easy explanation, as is Beltran and both are on a level far above byrd. Soriano has always shown that kind of power. Berkman broke down. Pierzynski is interesting, especially since the Phillies have also expressed interest in him minutes after signing Byrd. The catcher’s ISO dropped from .223 in 2012 to .153 last season. Pierzynski was remarkably consistent in terms of power, ranging from .118 to .163 from 2001-2011, but then had a power surge in 2012. It was a mirage.
Strike Zone Judgment
Byrd is marginally better than Delmon Young at drawing walks. Among 64 qualified hitters, Byrd’s walk rate was the ninth-lowest in the National League in 2013, per FanGraphs. A low walk rate by itself is not necessarily a bad thing — as mentioned, Ichiro did not draw many walks because he consistently put the ball in play and got hits at a high rate. Byrd, however, had the highest strikeout rate of anyone with a walk rate of 7.5 percent or lower. His ratio of walks to strikeouts was the second-worst in the NL behind only Starling Marte.
If we are expecting Byrd’s BABIP to decline by at least 30 points and his power to return to pre-2013 levels (around .120-.150 in terms of ISO), Byrd’s inability to draw walks and/or consistently put the ball in play will become a larger issue.
Byrd doesn’t add anything on the bases. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both graded him out as an average runner, more or less. Since 2011, he has stolen five bases in 14 attempts (36%).
As for defense, UZR has rated him from slightly below average to above-average but mostly very slightly above average. Baseball Reference thought he was a well above-average defender with the Mets and Pirates.
We shouldn’t expect Byrd to be nearly as good as he showed last season in any facet. At his absolute best in 2013, he was worth 5 Wins Above Replacement, per BR; 4 WAR per FanGraphs. However, the contract has an average annual value of $8 million, which pays Byrd like a slightly below average player (about 1.5 WAR). Byrd has mostly ranged from 2-3.5 in recent years, so the contract either slightly underpays him or is more or less fair value, depending on exactly how pessimistic you are about Byrd’s production over the next two years.