Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More on Jacobs.

One thing that characterizes Dayton Moore’s tenure as GM is that he’s not afraid of controversial moves. By “controversial”, I don’t mean that as a euphemism for “everyone disagrees with them” – that would the Allard Baird era – but that there is a legitimate lack of consensus about them. Some people think his moves are brilliant; others think they are terrible.

Gil Meche’s five-year contract was felt by some (Rob Neyer and, to a somewhat lesser extent, myself) to be a criminally risky move, and others (Joe Posnanski) as a bold and inspired decision. Jose Guillen’s three year deal was panned by all three of us as a move that was pointless at best and actively destructive at worst, but there were certainly a lot of Royals fans in the blogosphere who loved Guillen’s power and felt that he would help to fire up the clubhouse.

And now comes the Mike Jacobs trade, and judging from the comments on this site and other Royals sites on the web, most Royals fans seem to have very strong opinions about this trade. It’s just that those opinions run the gamut: many fans share my view that Jacobs’ horrible OBP makes him a borderline everyday player to begin with, and a terrible fit for the Royals; others see Jacobs’ power and feel that Leo Nunez is a small price to play for a player who might be the first Royal in five years to hit 30 homers in a season. There seems to be no in-between.

While there’s extensive disagreement among Royals fans about the trade, I must inform you that there’s almost no disagreement among baseball analysts: they think it was a bad move for Kansas City. From Posnanski to Christina Kahrl to Keith Law, to private emails I’ve received, no one understands why the Royals would trade for Jacobs.

There are many reasons why people have lined up into two disparate camps over the move, but from my standpoint (as someone who thinks the trade was a waste of resources), I think the most significant reason why many Royals fans like the trade is that they’re evaluating Jacobs from the perspective of recent Royals history. Ross Gload was the team’s primary first baseman in 2008 and 2007. In 2006, Doug Mientkiewicz logged a plurality of innings at the position.

In 2005, Matt Stairs and Mike Sweeney got most of the plate appearances, but the Royals also got over 200 at-bats from the combination of Justin Huber, Tony Graffanino, Joe McEwing, Eli Marrero, and Ken Harvey. In 2003 and 2004, Harvey was your primary first baseman, although Mike Sweeney played some first base and was a monster when he did, bringing the overall numbers up. You have to go back to 2002, when Sweeney was ably backed up by Raul Ibanez, to find a year when the Royals had a real asset at first base. Courtesy of, here’s a list of the combined numbers from the team’s first basemen going back to 2002:

2002: .320/.390/.588, 44 D, 38 HR, 132 RBI, 67 BB, 21-26 SB

2003: .307/.374/.478, 37 D, 22 HR, 105 RBI, 65 BB, 19-22 SB

2004: .270/.331/.424, 27 D, 24 HR, 86 RBI, 50 BB, 12-17 SB

2005: .285/.333/.414, 39 D, 13 HR, 87 RBI, 44 BB, 6-10 SB

2006: .281/.351/.423, 42 D, 13 HR, 96 RBI, 60 BB, 7-10 SB

2007: .276/.326/.415, 38 D, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 43 BB, 8-9 SB

2008: .277/.324/.396, 26 D, 14 HR, 70 RBI, 38 BB, 6-11 SB

Keep in mind, those numbers represent the totals for the first basemen of every inning of every game all year – so the counting numbers are going to be inflated by the fact that you’re looking at a mythical 162-game first baseman. Even with that inflation, these numbers are terrible for the past five years. The Royals haven’t had a .425 slugging average from first base since 2003, and forget 30 homers – they haven’t had 15 homers from all of their first baseman combined since 2004. And it’s not like they made up for their lack of power with a great command of the strike zone.

So I think many of you look at Jacobs and are mentally comparing him, not to what the Royals could have at first base, but what they have had at first base. There’s no question that Jacobs should be an overall upgrade at the position compared to recent efforts. But that gives the Royals a pass for being foolish enough to rely on guys like Gload, Mientkiewicz, and Harvey to begin with. We’ve been so abused as Royals fans that we start to sympathize with our assailant – we’ve been brainwashed to thinking that it’s normal to play a .280 hitter with 10 homers and 40 walks at first base, so now that we’ve got a guy who will hit .270 with only 30 walks, but might hit 25 homers, we’re somehow impressed.

But if you compare Jacobs, not to what the Royals’ past but to their options in the present, he’s just not that good. Ryan Shealy has had an up-and-down career, but if you look at his overall numbers in 164 career games – basically a full season – he’s hit .271/.335/.429 with 19 homers, 96 RBIs, and 46 BB. Hardly great numbers, but a better performance than the Royals received in four of the last five years. Billy Butler’s career line is almost identical (.282/.334/.420) and he is, of course, just 22 years old. Kila Ka’aihue’s numbers in Northwest Arkansas translate to a .252/.391/.512 performance; his Omaha numbers translate to .284/.403/.569.

The bottom line is that it’s not that hard to find a first baseman who can hit, it’s just that the Royals make it seem that way. The average AL first baseman hit .266/.346/.447 last year, numbers that would be even higher if you took the Royals’ performance out.

So I stand by my position that the Jacobs trade was a mistake. But there are mistakes, and there are Mistakes. This trade was the former. One ex-colleague emailed me after the trade, expressing condolences and urging me to register To which I replied, “Oh please, it's not that bad. I suffered through Dye-for-Neifi; I can certainly handle this one. I mean, if the Royals turn around tomorrow and release Jacobs, they're out Leo Nunez. I love Nunez, but he's a middle reliever. We'll get through it.”

Several analysts have made the argument that Jacobs is on the border of being a non-tender candidate, because while he has value, he may not have enough value to justify a $3.5 million (approximate) arbitration figure. But again, even if that’s true and the Royals come to their senses and release Jacobs tomorrow, all they’ve done is throw away a useful middle reliever. That’s not the end of the world.

This trade isn’t remotely as bad as the Jose Guillen signing, for instance. In one instant, they committed $36 million to a hitter who’s barely above replacement level. This time, all they’ve committed is $3.5 million and a useful pre-arbitration reliever. There’s no comparison.

Rich Lederer makes a good case that the Jacobs trade was no worse than the Rangers’ decision to exercise their option on Hank Blalock, a decision that attracted no controversy to speak of. Blalock is no longer a third baseman, he’s making $6.2 million next year, he’s the same age as Jacobs, and when you take the Arlington air out of his numbers, his performance the last few years is no better than Jacobs. I’d rather have Blalock, because his overall numbers are weighed down by his 2005-06 performances that were injury-plagued, but if it’s worth paying $6.2 million to Blalock, then at the very least, paying $3.5 million and a middle reliever to Jacobs isn’t the end of the world. Especially since you’re also getting the option to keep Jacobs at below market value in 2010 and 2011 on the off chance that he has a breakout season next year.

Now that Jacobs is here, the key is to figure out how to extract the most value from him. He’s a terrible defensive player, by many metrics the worst defensive first baseman in the majors, another reason why so many of my analyst friends are down on him. And he can’t hit lefties. The obvious solution here is to platoon him with Ryan Shealy, and to also make liberal use of Shealy – an underrated fielder – as a defensive replacement. Play Butler at DH every day, and let Ka’aihue go to Omaha and prove that 2008 wasn’t a fluke.

The problem with this is that while Jacobs hasn’t shown he can hit left-handed pitching, neither has Shealy. Here are their career splits:

Against LHP:

Jacobs: .235/.275/.414

Shealy: .179/.266/.298

Against RHP:

Jacobs: .269/.329/.521

Shealy: .307/.363/.481

Looking at those numbers, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out who was the left-handed hitter. Shealy’s splits defy explanation. Even last year, when he finally hit LHP (9-for-33 with 3 homers), he still performed worse than he did against RHP (13-for-40 with 4 homers).

There is a strong body of evidence which suggests that platoon splits are fixed; that is to say, over the long run all right-handed hitters will have roughly the same advantage when facing southpaws over right-handers. (With left-handed hitters there is some evidence that a pronounced platoon split may be meaningful.) Shealy has just 169 career plate appearances against left-handers, so it’s possible that his struggles against them are just a fluke. (In Omaha last year, Shealy hit .250/.393/.511 against LHP, .292/.371/.500 against RHP.)

The problem is that even given the small sample size, Ryan Shealy has the most pronounced reverse platoon split of any right-handed hitter in recent history. With the kind of assistance of my BP colleague Bil Burke, here is a list of the right-handed hitters in our database (going back to the mid-1950s) with the biggest reverse platoon split, and a minimum of 150 plate appearances against LHP:


Player LHP OPS RHP OPS Diff.

Ryan Shealy .179/.266/.298 564 .307/.363/.481 843 279

Johnny Goryl .163/.250/.233 483 .248/.323/.426 749 266

Earl Wilson .138/.193/.257 450 .219/.294/.417 710 260

Donnie Sadler .155/.214/.202 416 .222/.283/.320 603 187

Steve Renko .170/.205/.214 419 .240/.275/.327 602 182

The fact that two of the five players on this list are pitchers, and they were both better hitters than Donnie Sadler (ex-Royal Donnie Sadler) tells you that the inability to hit left-handed pitching is not a hallmark of a good hitter. Having said that, there is likely a selection bias here: of the top 16 hitters on this list, none of them had so much as 400 career plate appearances against LHP, probably because it’s hard to sustain this kind of a fluke for more than 400 plate appearances. But the only players with so few career plate appearances are either 1) pitchers or 2) really bad hitters. Or 3) active players who haven’t had time for their splits to even out.

I’m still optimistic that Shealy’s performance against lefties has been just a fluke to this point, and that the law of averages is on his side. Frankly, I don’t think the Royals have any choice but to find out, because Mike Jacobs has had a lot more time to prove that he can’t hit them. The bigger question is whether Jacobs should play first base at all, or whether the Royals should just stick him at DH and let Butler play first. Butler hasn’t proven he can play first base, but Jacobs has proven rather definitively that he can’t play first base. If I were the Royals, I’d start Jacobs at DH and Butler at 1B against RHP, using Shealy as a d-rep. Against LHP I’d start Shealy at 1B and Butler at DH. This way, Butler gets reps at 1B, but doesn’t kill the team by playing there every day. Shealy gets a fair amount of playing time, both on the field and at the plate. And Jacobs can concentrate on what he does best – hit baseballs thrown by right-handed pitchers a long way.

Oh, and the city council passes an ordinance banning Ross Gload from coming within 300 feet of Kauffman Stadium. That would be nice.

(Sorry for the delay, guys. Now that the election is over, I’m hoping I can concentrate on other things long enough to write the occasional column. God knows there are a bunch of other topics to write about.)