Crash Bag, Vol. 112: Evaluating Ben Revere

Sorry for the service interruption–last week I was driving through Pennsyltucky en route to seeing the beloved Taney Dragons get their heads bashed in by a bunch of enormous blond kids from Nevada. Here’s what I wrote about the spectacle, in case you’re interested in reading. If not, you can just head down to the question part.

@tssmythe: “Revere is young & cheap, has skills (avg, speed) and flaws (OBP, SLG, Def). Is he a good fit as CF on rebuilding team?”

Long have I been fascinated by Ben Revere. He’s not exactly a unique player–once we get past the pre-K “everyone is a snowflake” nonsense, there’s probably not such a thing as a baseball player who is beyond comparison. But Revere is fairly special in terms of how he plays the game, and for that reason I’ve always found him interesting, and for that reason, conventional stats aren’t particularly good at painting the whole picture. (Note: I wrote this before Tuesday night’s games, so these numbers might have changed slightly between then and now.)

For instance, the way you framed the question is instructive: Revere has a high batting average and speed, but has a low OBP and SLG and is a bad defender. That’s not actually true, or at least isn’t the best way of stating it. Revere is hitting .311/.330/.364, against a National League average of .249/.312/.384. So OBP is actually an asset, and SLG isn’t actually that much of a drag–20 points isn’t trivial, but neither is it too low for him to hold down a major league job. If we’re using SLG alone as a measure of power, how come we still consider Ryan Howard to be a power hitter with a .379 SLG, while Revere’s .364 SLG represents a lack of power so severe it renders him unplayable? The same is true with OBP–Revere’s actually got an above-average OBP. What people mean by that is that he’s not walking. Personally, in this run environment and with this roster, I’m cool starting a really fast guy with a .330 OBP in the leadoff spot–he’s getting on base, and for all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter how he does it.

What Revere represents (and this is why I find him so interesting) is the limit of batting average as an evaluative tool. SLG and OBP are far better descriptors of a player’s offensive value than batting average, but the primary determinant of both stats is batting average. That’s why the triple slash line is so great as a shorthand–whether those numbers are high or low tells you how good the player’s been, and the difference between those three numbers actually gives you a good feel for what kind of hitter he is without using any math more advanced than division of three-digit numbers.

So what are Revere’s actual assets and deficiencies as a hitter? Simply put, he doesn’t walk, and he doesn’t hit for power, which is what people actually mean when they say he’s got a low OBP and SLG. The good news is that by hitting for a high enough average and generating a ton of contact, you can overcome these things. Revere is one of the best contact hitters in baseball: among 152 qualified hitters, nobody makes more contact on pitches in the strike zone, and only Denard Span makes more contact overall. Revere hits 4.37 grounders for every fly ball (by far the highest ratio in the game) and he doesn’t so much run the bases as he’s transmitted from one base to the next like heat through an aluminum gutter on a sunny day in Texas. Given that grounders turn into hits more often than fly balls, and fast guys beat out more grounders than slow guys, Revere’s .339 BABIP is not luck-inflated. Put all that together and you get a guy who’ll hit over .300 in any run environment, and if you’re hitting over .300, you’re almost always going to have at least an average OBP nowadays, plus a high enough SLG not to be embarrassing. Revere’s strengths as a hitter not only compensate for his weaknesses, they directly counteract them, at least to a certain extent.

HOWEVER.

Now that I’ve spent 600 words arguing semantics, let’s talk about why Revere never walks. It’s not because he’s some hacker without a conscience who can’t tell the strike zone from a school bus. Among those 152 qualified hitters, Revere is 94th in swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone–he’s actually rather patient. The problem is the lack of power. We actually do have a stat in fairly common use, isolated power, that formalizes the gap between batting average and SLG. Revere’s ISO is .053, second-lowest in baseball, above only Derek Jeter, which is kind of hilarious on its own. The other day on Twitter, Matt Winkelman of Phillies Minor Thoughts held forth on the causes and effects of Revere’s lack of power, so you should go follow him, then scroll back through his timeline to Monday to see what he said.

If you don’t feel like doing that, here’s more or less the point of that–Revere’s got so little power not only because of a lack of physical strength, but because of his swing mechanics. His swing has been engineered to hit ground balls, and while the Phillies could get him to alter that, they do so at the risk of damaging the high-BABIP, high-contact swing he’s got now. Without the risk of giving up a home run–or really, even a double–pitchers don’t fear Revere enough to throw him balls. They’re content to pound the zone and have him beat a ball into the ground and take their chances–Revere sees the 10th-most pitches in the zone of any hitter, and even though he has the fifth-lowest swing percentage on pitches in the zone, he almost never misses. Tally up all the pitches Revere sees and he’ll swing and miss maybe once or twice a week, on average.

Put another way, if you take away his lack of power, Revere is very nearly a perfect hitter: he’s extremely selective, makes a preposterous amount of contact and turns a lot of those balls in play into hits. But the direct and indirect effects of not being able to hit a mistake for extra bases makes this, the best-case scenario for Revere as an offensive player, about league-average at the plate.

And I really think we all ought to sit down and take a moment to contemplate that, because that’s fucking wild. I mean, how cool is that, that such an extreme case of a flaw can undo so many other great parts to a player’s game? Baseball is the best sometimes.

Anyway, when Revere came over from the Twins, I assumed that if he hit for as high an average as this, he’d produce nearly league-average results at the plate, which, when you put it together with good center field defense and 45 steals a year, is a first-division starter. The problem is that Revere’s graded out as a dreadful defender, and I have no idea why or what can be done to fix it. I know the arm is bad, but I figured he’d be able to get to enough balls in center to make up for it. Maybe the arm is just so extremely bad that it doesn’t matter how many balls he gets to, and given that everything else about Revere’s game is extreme, it wouldn’t shock me if that were the case. Maybe he’s got Domonic Brown‘s Disease, where you look at a player’s tools and just scratch your head as he gives back 15 runs a year with the glove for reasons passing understanding. Maybe it’s a fluke of the advanced defensive metrics. I have no idea. But I’d have given you long odds that it would be the glove and not the bat that would make Revere a replacement-level player. Because the bat plays as it is.

Back to your original question: Is Revere worth keeping around? Absolutely. He’s still only 26 and cost-controlled, and it’s not like the Phillies have a surfeit of better, younger center field prospects, so I see no reason to be aggressive in getting rid of him. But if he doesn’t turn into a scratch defender overall, he won’t be the center fielder on the next good Phillies team.

@FelskeFiles: “What’s your take on defensive metrics/stats, given that Fangraphs has Revere and Trout rated about equally defensively?”

There was an episode of Effectively Wild recently about how much we trust defensive stats, in wake of the Great War and Pestilence that resulted from Alex Gordon leading Mike Trout on the fWAR leaderboard. I think we’re frustrated by advanced defensive stats because they’re imperfect, and they lag behind offensive stats in terms of accuracy. Offense is simple–you know what you want to measure, and because offense occurs in discrete individual confrontations and produces simple numerical outputs, data’s extremely easy to measure. Defense is fluid. So much of it depends on factors outside the player’s control–particularly in the outfield–that it’s hard to come up with the kind of clean, exact data we expect from baseball. This will get better once the data gets better, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.

Left field in particular can get wonky, because there are a couple oddly-shaped left fields (Houston and Boston in particular) and the range in quality of left fielders is so great. You’ve got guys out there who can barely play first base, and you’ve got some guys who would be very good right or center fielders if their teams didn’t already have good right and center fielders, so the baselines for replacement-level and average are all shot to hell.

What I do now is make a mental adjustment whenever the defensive metrics spit out a number that doesn’t make sense, at least until we get enough data to iron out all the weirdness. So Alex Gordon’s a great defensive left fielder, but he’s probably not so much better than Trout is defensively to make up for Trout being a much better hitter at a much tougher position. When the going gets tough, the smart people give up.

Good question. Let’s have another.

@FelskeFiles: “should the Phillies spend whatever it takes to land Yasmani Tomas, or should there be a limit? If so, what’s the $ limit?”

I don’t know enough about Yasmani Tomas to be able to answer the second part of the question intelligently, so let me say this: Yes, they should spend whatever it takes. The Phillies’ greatest organizational strength is their economic might, and their greatest weakness is player development. Restrictions on spending for most amateur players and the leaguewide recognition of how aging curves work relative to free agency has blunted the Phillies’ ability to leverage their economic advantages into an on-field advantage. Except when it comes to international free agents like Tomas, who, as an added bonus, come nearly fully-formed.

Therefore, yes, I would want them to spend whatever it takes to sign him, within reason, obviously. I’m not suggesting they should give him $50 million a year, because I care very deeply about whether the Phillies win, and do not care even a little about whether ownership turns a profit. So if they think Tomas is the guy for them, the sky’s the limit. Of course, they’ll be bidding against other teams with equal economic might and better on-field situations, so maybe there’s a chance someone will give Tomas an offer that even I would consider unwise. Anything can happen.

@Ut26: “Listening to a baseball game on the radio (called by a strong broadcast booth) is better than watching on TV. True or False?”

False. Come on, the Phillies aren’t so bad that the games are actually better if you can’t see them. There’s probably some nostalgia about the bygone days where you and Granpappy would sit on the porch outside his Arkansas farmhouse and listen to the Cardinals games on the radio and sip iced tea and play checkers while Norman Rockwell painted your picture. But you can bet your ass that given the choice, Granpappy would rather take his iced tea indoors and actually watch the game in HD. And so should you. I’m reminded of the Lance Reddick light bulb commercials from last year.

No, Lt. Daniels, I do not do the warsh down at the crick, and neither do I listen to the ballgame on the radio unless I’m in the car. Technological advancements, on the whole, are a force for good, and those who oppose them in favor of a simpler time would best serve society by sucking it up going on with their lives, as people did in the cholera-infested wasteland to which they’d want us to return. The best thing that can happen to a generation is for the generation that came before it to die, and allow us to move on in peace.

@dj_mosfett: “What is the one baseball player name you never could pronounce right, no matter how hard you tried?”

Hyun-Jin Ryu, which I’m really embarrassed about. I forget who pointed this out, but when Giannis Antetokounmpo (I spelled it right on the first try, by the way, though I had to check after the fact) broke in with the Bucks and everyone made a big deal out of his name, everyone (read: Mostly white, American men) made a big deal about how crazy his name was and tried to shorten it so they wouldn’t have to pronounce or spell it. Anyway, the objection was that it might be 61 letters long, but it’s still his name, and it’s disrespectful at best, imperialist at worst, to truncate or mispronounce it right just because it’s foreign. So while acknowledging that I think it’d be cool if he went by “Giannis” only, like Ichiro or a Brazilian soccer player, I’ve tried to make more of an effort to pronounce players’ names correctly.

That said, even though I’m like 85 percent sure I’m trying to pronounce Ryu’s name right, I have a hard time physically making the noise you should make when you’re saying “Ryu.” So I’m sorry for being the ugly American, but I’m doing the best I can.

@andymoney69: “which one of the following scenarios are most likely the sun swallows the earth whole, we find happiness or ruben amaro goes bye”

1) The Sun swallows the Earth. This is pretty much a lock to happen in, like, 4 billion years, right? At least according to our current understanding of the way stars work, it is certain that the thing that gives us life will engulf us in a nuclear fire from which there can be no escape.

2) Ruben Amaro goes bye. Even if he’s never fired, he’ll get bored or frustrated or die at some point in the future.

3) We find happiness. The first two are virtual certainties–if you think great fulfillment awaits, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

@tholzerman: “Which potential playoff team is the most kosher for Phillies fans to adopt?”

So, my standby was always the Rangers, which is, um, probably not happening this time. Really, I don’t care as long as it’s not the Yankees or Cardinals, who are Evil, or the Braves, who are a hated rival. Even the Nats I’m ambivalent about, because they’re fun and even though they’re a division rival, they’ve never bothered me for whatever reason.

My first instinct was the Orioles: great uniforms, tortured fans, Mid-Atlantic solidarity, Buck Showalter. But they’ve also lost Manny Machado and gained Delmon Young, so I feel like we can do better. Mariners and Brewers fans deserve a trip to the World Series, while the Angels and Dodgers have the two most exciting players.

But I really want to see the A’s at least win the pennant. Those poor bastards have been losing in Game 5 of the ALDS since time immemorial, and they’re due. I think that’s my preferred winner, but anyone but the Braves, Cardinals and Yankees are kosher, as far as I’m concerned.

Thank you for patronizing the Crash Bag. Come back next week.

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22 comments

  1. ES

    August 27, 2014 11:29 AM

    I remember a few years back, when Revere first came up with the Twins, KLaw was going on about how he was a plus-plus defender, and that certainly seemed to be the case: Fangraphs pegged him at 10.4 and 11.6 fielding value in 2011 and 2012, his first two full years. Then he comes to the Phillies and starts flailing around. And Dom Brown, if I recall, was forecast to be at least average in the field, plus that cannon attached to his left shoulder. I wonder if whoever coaches fielding for the Phils at the ML level just doesn’t have a clue?

    • Beez Nutz

      August 27, 2014 12:13 PM

      you think the major league coaches / manager at the major league level actually made them become worse fielders? is that what im reading?

      • Mike

        August 27, 2014 12:26 PM

        +1

        There is no chance that there is a coach forcing Dom and Ben to make bad reads on fly balls, which is the single most important skill for an outfielder. It’s a skill that isn’t really taught so much as acquired through repetition, though I’ve never quite seen the kind of regression through repetition Dom and Ben are displaying if they really were better fielders at some point.

      • ES

        August 27, 2014 04:33 PM

        Just looking for a way to account for the precipitous decline in Revere’s defensive abilities, which don’t appear to have anything to do with injury. No, I don’t think that the coaches have actively encouraged him to take bad routes, but in theory a good coach should be able to spot what’s going wrong when a player with tremendous natural defensive ability suddenly starts taking Raul Ibanez routes.

  2. Ryan

    August 27, 2014 12:41 PM

    I’m 100% with you on the Kosher-ness of the teams mentioned.

    Except for the Nats. Screw the Nats. Screw them and their nattitude, horrible announcers, and communist ticket selling principles (take back the park).

    Also, KC is a fun team that’s been bad for a long time. Throw in the fact that their currently leading the Tigers who have a ridiculous rotation and it makes them that much more appealing.

  3. Chris S.

    August 27, 2014 01:19 PM

    Thank you for re-affirming my notion that Revere’s walk rate is low, not cause he is a hapless hacker, but because of the sheer number of strikes he sees. It is an interesting way to approach Ben Revere especially since he is always a threat to turn a single into a double by stealing 2nd Base. I don’t know where to find them but it would be interesting to see a heat map of where pitchers pitch the ball to Revere. Regardless, I like Ben Revere and I wonder if the Phillies can get better defensively by putting Revere in LF and moving Brown to CF. After all, Brown was a CF coming up through the system and LF would hide Revere’s arm issue.

    • Ryan

      August 27, 2014 01:43 PM

      The bad reads in center would get no better (possibly get worse), and the difference in speed would make the difference seem more drastic if Brown were in center.

      Arm strength aside, I believe the only glaring hole in Revere’s CF defense is a ball hit directly at him and over his head. He looks completely ridiculous trying to track those hits. A ball hit to the gaps is where Revere excels due to his speed and not having to turn his back to the ball to get to it. That would be lost with Brown.

      I do agree that their arms would be much better suited if they were to switch positions.

      Of course I have no stats to back any of this, just observations.

      • MattWinks

        August 27, 2014 01:49 PM

        Dom actually gets his best reads in CF, then RF, and then LF. He didn’t play LF at all coming up, he has essentially been moved there at the major league level.

      • Beez Nutz

        August 27, 2014 02:02 PM

        Dom Brown is awful … at everything. The End

      • Ryan

        August 27, 2014 02:23 PM

        I’m no expert on OF defensive techniques, but it seems to me that reading a ball off the bat is a natural ability (reinforced with repetition of course). I just find it hard to believe that a professional outfielder could be great a reading balls off the bat in center or right, and then suck so mightily at reading them in left… Yes I understand that balls tail differently when hit by a left or right handed hitter. I also am aware that there are probably a host of other subtle differences in fielding the different positions. But at some point, an outfielder is an outfielder regardless of what specific position he’s playing and the performance should not drop off so greatly when that position changes.

  4. Dan K.

    August 27, 2014 02:18 PM

    Gotta go with the A’s for most kosher team to cheer for. Not only do they have a brilliantly-run organization, terrible luck, and ridiculous team depth; they’ve also got the Philly connection.

    If we can’t cheer for a Philly team in the playoffs, we might as well cheer for a former Philly team.

    And also, I hate the Nats more than the Braves. That’s partly because I wasn’t old enough to be scarred by the Braves dynasty, partly because Harper is a douche, and partly because their marketing team makes me want to punch everyone in D.C. in the face. Twice.

    • Dan K.

      August 27, 2014 02:20 PM

      Also, regarding that last comment, sorry Brad. But no, you don’t get an exemption. Not until you overthrow the bastards.

    • Carmine

      August 27, 2014 03:29 PM

      Dan, Absolutely the A’s, the greatest baseball franchise in Philadelphia baseball history, even if it is in the distant past. Plus, Billy Beane is the anti-Amaro.
      I’m a Philly fan living in DC. I follow the Nats, and they have some likeable players (Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos). The real challenge is listening to the idiots down here say their football team (which must not be named) is going to the playoffs after one win in September.

  5. Mike

    August 27, 2014 02:44 PM

    Would Revere’s contact skills work better batting 2nd? Jimmy has a similar Obp but makes less contact. Or is JRolls slg% more important than Revere’s BA?

    • Ryan

      August 27, 2014 04:23 PM

      With Revere’s ground ball frequency I’d rather have him at leadoff. Even with his speed he’d hit into quite a few double plays. Jimmy’s fly ball tendency plays better at the 2 hole as evidenced in the 8th inning last night where Revere got on, stole second, moved over on a Rollins fly ball, and scored on Ruiz’s sac fly.

  6. Gabe

    August 27, 2014 03:33 PM

    I have played a lot of baseball and softball in my life. The balls hit right at you are by far the hardest to read. In one’s head you should know the strength of the player, if there is any stitutional hitting to take account of, and ambient conditions. Even then you will still get a surprise. As to regression; Maybe they think they do not need to pay attention to these small details. Just a thought.

  7. Oliver

    August 27, 2014 07:27 PM

    The Barves may not be “evil” per se, but they’re still dicks (and also possibly racist).

    • zengreaser

      August 28, 2014 11:25 AM

      The Atlanta Braves are about as racist as the Minnesota Vikings or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Redskins? Yeah, that’s racist. Chief Wahoo? Yeah, he should probably disappear. But let’s be level-headed here.

      • Oliver

        August 28, 2014 03:00 PM

        I mean, the Tomahawk chop is pretty bad. I also remember reading an article about their move from Atlanta to Cobb County being motivated in part by race, but I can’t find it at the moment. The articles I can find about the move, however, are certainly pretty damning.

  8. Tim

    August 28, 2014 11:27 AM

    Here’s the thing about radio vs. tv though. Sure, it’s unassailable that tv is a better way to experience the game. But I think listening to the game on the radio has a higher enjoyment level over replacement entertainment. If you’re watching tv, you can choose to watch a Phillies game and enjoy yourself. But you could also choose to watch a great movie, or one of the many readily-available (if you have on-demand or access to good streaming) critically acclaimed tv shows. So with such a glut of high-quality alternatives available, the game-on-tv’s value over replacement entertainment is very low (some would say negative). But if you’re listening on the radio, that usually means you’re doing something else where you can’t watch the game (driving, yard or house work, cooking dinner, playing yard games, etc.). In those cases, where you don’t have the option to watch something else that’s awesome, the replacement entertainments are not nearly as good and baseball has a significantly higher margin. So even though radio isn’t as good, it can seem to give you more pleasure than tv would in certain situations.

    • Ryan

      August 28, 2014 11:31 AM

      Did you just make up new stat? EAR (entertainment against replacement)… I like it!

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