Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Problems and (Potential) Solutions in Center Field.

I fully expected to hate the Scott Podsednik deal.

For one thing, any time your fan base can predict, months ahead of time, which player you will pursue in free agency – not based on the fact that said player fits the team’s needs, but simply because he’s exactly the type of player that you vastly overvalue – that may be a sign that you’ve become a parody of a GM. Here are a couple of links from early October, where perceptive, if cynical (is that a redundancy?) Royals fans predicted that Dayton Moore would sign Podsednik.

The moment word filtered in early December that the Royals were talking with him, there wasn’t a doubt in the collective mind of the Royals blogosphere that this deal would get done. And it did. The current front office, which has long been terrible at working the free-agent market, is now predictably terrible. That’s some feat.

It’s not that Scott Podsednik is a bad player. Let me rephrase that: it’s not that Scott Podsednik was a bad player last year. He hit .304/.353/.412, a perfectly respectable performance, and also stole 30 bases. He was very durable, playing in 132 games even though he wasn’t called up to the majors until May 1st. If Podsednik has the same performance in 2010 that he had in 2009, he will prove to have been an excellent signing.

You know where I’m going with this. In 2009, Podsednik was a quality everyday outfielder, because he hit .304, and if you can hit .300 and take the occasional walk you have value even if you don’t hit for any power. The problem is that Podsednik’s lack of power is a chronic condition, but hitting for average has proven to be an intermittent ability. In 2008, Podsednik hit .253, playing in the game’s best hitters’ park in Colorado. (This is why he started last season in the minors in the first place.) In 2007, he hit .243/.299/.369 for the White Sox, and lost his everyday job. In 2006, he hit .261/.330/.353 for the Sox.

Yes, in 2005 he hit .290/.351/.349, he stole 59 bases, and after not hitting a single home run during the regular season, he popped two of them in the playoffs while hitting .286/.397/.551, helping the Sox to a world championship. (While several players have hit homers in the playoffs after not hitting one during the regular season, I believe Podsednik is the only player in history to hit two.)

In 2004, Podsednik hit .244/.313/.364 for the Brewers, though to be fair he did lead the league with 70 steals. In 2003, he hit .314/.379/.443 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.

Podsednik’s value is almost entirely driven by his batting average: he doesn’t hit for any power, and he doesn’t walk a lot. Three times in his career – 2003, 2005, and 2009 – Podsednik has hit .290 or better. He was a reasonably valuable player in each season. Four times in his career – 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008 – he hit .261 or less, and he was essentially worthless in each of those seasons. Such are the vagaries of batting average, which is highly dependent on good luck. Cue Crash Davis’ drunken soliloquy about groundballs with eyes and dying quails.

The Royals are betting that 2010 will be a good year, even though Podsednik turns 34 before Opening Day, even though three of his last four seasons were terrible, and even though a year ago his stock had fallen so low that he signed with the White Sox on a minor-league contract.

That optimism is not shared by any projection system on the market. Bill James projects Podsednik at .275/.340/.367; his ZIPS projection comes in at .279/.336/.384. Those aren’t terrible numbers, mind you – it’s just that they don’t represent any kind of improvement over what we could have expected from the guy he replaces in centerfield, Mitch Maier. Bill James projects Maier at .266/.328/.389; ZIPS has him at .268/.323/.378.

“Wait”, the Royals say, “you’re neglecting Podsednik’s best skill, his speed.” True, Pods has speed to burn, something Maier – and, for that matter, the rest of the roster – lacks. And I would be more than happy to give him credit for his speed, if there was any evidence that Podsednik’s speed actually translated into more runs on the scoreboard.

Podsednik stole 30 bases last year. This would have led the Royals last year – and every year going back to 2003, when Carlos Beltran swiped 41 bags. The flip side is that Podsednik was caught stealing 13 times last year – no Royal has 13 CS in one season since Tom Goodwin was nailed 22 times way back in 1996.

This is nothing new for Podsednik, who throughout his career has been known more for the quantity than for the efficiency of his stolen bases. Yes, he led his league in steals once. He’s also led his league in caught stealings. Twice.

The sabermetric conventional wisdom states that the break-even point for stolen bases is around 70% - if you’re not successful more than 70% of the time, you’re better off not stealing at all, because you’re costing your team more runs by getting thrown out than you’re adding with your steals. Podsednik’s success rate last year was…69.8%. For his career, his success rate is a more impressive 75.3%, but over the last five seasons he’s been just over the break-even point at 70.5%. His ability to steal bases isn’t a detriment to his team, but neither is it a significant help.

But actually, it’s worse than that. One of the great unrecognized flaws in conventional statistics is that while baserunners are penalized when they are out trying to steal a base, no record is made of the instances when a baserunner is picked off. The end result is the same – a baserunner is lost, and an out is recorded – but one event is a permanent red mark on their stat profile, while the other is whited out.

Thankfully, in today’s world no baseball event goes truly unrecorded. On Podsednik’s baseball-reference page, the number of times he’s picked off is listed in his baserunning profile. And the numbers are disturbing.

Last season, Podsednik was caught stealing 13 times. He was also picked off 11 more times. That seems like an incredibly high total for me – although we have no point of reference, as I don’t know of any way to bring up the league leaders in this category – but it’s just the third-highest season total of his career. Podsednik was picked off 12 times in 2006, and 14 times in 2005. For his career, he’s been picked off 53 times.

Now, if a player is picked off while trying to get back to the bag, no caught stealing is recorded. But if a player, knowing he’s dead meat, lights out for second base instead and gets thrown out – this is recorded as a caught stealing. Yes, it’s a dumb distinction. In theory, a player who is working on a long consecutive stolen-base streak would have that streak preserved if he dives back into first, but if he heads the other way and gets thrown out, that streak is over. It offers the perverse incentive for a player to not head for second and hope the opposition screws up the rundown, even though it may be his only shot at staying alive.

Anyway, of Podsednik’s 53 pickoffs, 17 were “pickoff caught stealings”, leaving 36 additional pickoffs – nine of those came last year. Add those 36 pickoffs to his 87 official caught stealings, and he’s actually made an out 123 times on the basepaths before the ball has even been put in play. If you count his pickoffs, his career 75.3% success rate on the bases drops to 68.4%; his 69.8% mark last season drops to 57.7%. That’s almost Buddy Bell territory.

By comparison, Carlos Beltran, in a career twice as long as Podsednik’s, has been picked off (not counting the pickoff caught stealings) just 17 times in his career. Pods got picked off more times last year (9) than Beltran has in the last seven seasons (8). (And just for fun, I looked up Chase Utley. Utley has been picked off twice in his entire career.)

My former colleague Dan Fox – now Director of Baseball Systems Development for the Pittsburgh Pirates – created a series of statistics to measure a player’s overall baserunning value. His statistic for basestealing, called (helpfully enough) Equivalent Stolen Base Runs, estimates that Podsednik cost the White Sox 2.1 runs relative to what would have happened if he had just kept his foot on the base on each pitch.

Granted, his speed helps in other ways, by allowing him to advance an extra base on singles and doubles, or to tag up and move up a base on medium-depth fly outs. Fox’s statistic to measure a player’s overall baserunning value – what we call Equivalent Baserunning Runs – credits Podsednik with 3.6 runs above the average baserunner in non-stolen base situations. So overall, he was worth 1.5 runs above average on the basepaths, ranking Podsednik 90th in the majors, right behind speedsters like Matt Tolbert and Omar Infante.

As a baserunner, Podsednik has more speed than wisdom, which limits the value of his legs. This is equally true on defense, where despite his speed, Podsednik ranks as an average outfielder at best. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) pegs Podsednik as being a slightly below-average outfielder last season, a well-below average outfielder in 2008, and an above-average outfielder in 2007; over the last three years he’s a total of 2.6 runs below average. For his career, not surprisingly, he’s more effective in left field (career UZR of +2.1) than in center field (UZR of -12.7).

Does Podsednik bring intangibles to the ballpark? I have no doubt that he does; it’s just that you have to sit near the players’ wives section to appreciate them. At least this time, unlike when the Royals signed Willie Bloomquist, Moore wasn’t kidding when he called Podsednik a proven winner.

Essentially, what the Royals have done is replace their incumbent centerfielder, who is comfortably below-average with the bat and slightly below-average with the glove, with a guy who is…comfortably below-average with the bat and slightly below-average with the glove. This isn’t progress; this is a hamster wheel.

So, to sum up: the Royals signed a free agent whose impact on the team’s win total is roughly the equivalent of a rounding error. Dayton Moore once again satisfies his fetish for players who are more one-dimensional than a character in a Dan Brown novel. Having already obtained the all-or-nothing slugger (Mike Jacobs), the firethrowing reliever (Kyle Farnsworth), and the gritty play-anywhere utility guy (Willie Bloomquist), he finally quenches his need for the speedy centerfielder. Cut the man some slack – it’s been over three years since he traded for Joey Gathright.

So yeah, I thought I’d really hate this deal. But in the end, I find it hard to get too worked up about this move, for the simple reason of cost. Maybe Moore is more devious than we give him credit for, but by giving out contracts like the ones he has for Jose Guillen, or Farnsworth, or Jason Kendall, he has raised the bar of expectations for Royals fans so high that when he guarantees Scott Podsednik 1.75 million dollars, my immediate reaction was, “That’s it? That’s less than I thought. Party!”

Counting his 2011 buyout, Podsednik will make $1.75 million in 2010, plus $250,000 in incentives. His 2011 club option calls for a base salary of $1.9 million with $300,000 in incentives. The option becomes a mutual one if Podsednik gets 525 plate appearances this year. This “mutual option” thing seems to be an idiosyncrasy of the Moore administration; I don’t mind them, but it does make the contracts a little confusing to the outsider. Based on what we know about Miguel Olivo’s contract, a mutual option means that either side can walk away from it, and given that by definition, any contract is likely to be unfavorable to one side or another, a mutual option is basically the same as no contract at all.

The key point, though, is that under no circumstances are the Royals obligated to bring Podsednik back in 2011 if they don’t want to. If he plays as I expect him to play in 2010, they won’t want to – but in that case, they’re out $2 million, tops. That’s one-third the guaranteed money given to Jason Kendall. Podsednik is guaranteed less money than Moore gave to HORACIO RAMIREZ last winter.

I agree with the consensus that the Royals should not have signed Podsednik, that they would be better off with Maier in center field and the money spent elsewhere. But the degree of vitriol over this move is surprising to me. There wasn’t a fraction of this much anger over the Ramirez signing. And while Podsednik is not significantly better than what the Royals already have, he does have value to a major league roster; if the Royals didn’t sign him, some other team would have given him a seven-figure contract. Ramirez was staring at a minor-league contract before the Royals rode to his rescue.

I understand that, particularly after the Kendall contract, we’ve all had enough of Moore’s free agent forays. I just think that we need to keep some perspective here. This wasn’t a good signing, but it’s not worth getting worked up over either.

The best case against the signing, I think, was made by Will McDonald, who makes the persuasive case that the signing of Podsednik represents a failure of imagination by the Royals’ front office, and ultimately is an indictment of the whole notion that the team excels at scouting.

When Moore was first hired, his first big free agent signing was Gil Meche, who the moment he donned a Royals’ uniform transformed from underachieving #3/#4 starter to solid #2 starter. A few days later the Royals plucked Joakim Soria out of the Rule 5 draft. The standard was set then: that the Royals were going to build a winning roster by finding players whose talent had yet to be unearthed.

But since that first winter, Moore and the Royals have completely abandoned this philosophy of grabbing players before their talent emerges, and instead paying for players after they’ve proven themselves, and hoping that their performance doesn’t decline. They threw $36 million at Jose Guillen at the very moment his bat started to slow down – Guillen’s the bizarro version of Meche. They’ve signed or traded for players on the wrong side of 27, like Jacobs and Coco Crisp and Farnsworth and Bloomquist, rather than trying to find younger, cheaper versions of those same players. They just gave $6 million to a player who was washed up three years ago. And now they’ve signed Podsednik.

I completely agree with Will that the Royals have become increasingly unimaginative and risk-averse during the Moore administration. But I don’t think the specific detail of signing Scott Podsednik to play center field fits this narrative. That’s because I think the Royals already have tried to use their scouting acumen to find an out-of-the-box solution to their center field issue. His name is Brian Anderson.

I’m probably even more surprised at the negativity surrounding the Anderson signing than the Podsednik one. Anderson signed a major-league contract for $700,000, or about 10 days’ worth of Jose Guillen, but a lot of Royals fans are furious about this. True, Anderson hasn’t hit a lick in the majors – his career line is .227/.290/.370. His defensive numbers suggest he’s an average centerfielder at best. And he turns 28 in March. Nevertheless, there’s a case to be made that there’s still a decent player trapped inside Anderson’s body, if only because so many teams seem interested in giving him another shot.

He has tools – he was first-round pick out of college by the White Sox – and he has a history of performance in the minors. In 2005, at age 23, Anderson hit .295/.360/.469 in Triple-A, numbers that projected him to become at least an average major league centerfielder in the years to come. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened, and maybe it never will. But a player with present tools and past performance is a player worth taking a flyer on.

It’s a cliché to say that if the Red Sox trade for a player, then he must be worth acquiring – but, well, the Red Sox did trade for Anderson last summer. He played well for them in a very small sample size (21 plate appearances). They let him go this winter, but that’s because they’re the Red Sox – they can afford to pay for real solutions in the free agent market, and sure enough they signed Mike Cameron to play center field and moved Jacoby Ellsbury to left.

In a fair world, Anderson would have gotten an NRI instead of a major-league contract. But Royals fans, more than anyone else, should know this ain’t a fair world. If the Royals had to give him a guaranteed roster spot to avoid losing him to a more appealing team, so be it. He’s making $300,000 above the league minimum. We’ll get through it somehow.

This offseason started with the Royals trading Mark Teahen for Josh Fields and Chris Getz, and while I liked the deal at the time, I wanted to see how all the pieces fit together first. It’s January now, and the pieces are more jumbled than ever. Podsednik might play center field, or they might play him in left and move David DeJesus back to center field. Brian Anderson probably makes the roster, but what of Mitch Maier, who is out of options? Jose Guillen might play right field, or he might DH. If he plays DH, the defense improves dramatically, but Kila Ka’aihue won’t get a chance to play. On the other hand, we all know that Ka’aihue won’t play for the Royals if he’s the last hitter on Earth.

Does Callaspo play second base? Does Getz go back to Triple-A? Are the Royals really hinting that Alex Gordon might not play third base every day? Right now, only three position players have guaranteed jobs at a specific position – and two of them are named Jason Kendall and Yuniesky Betancourt.

The Royals have a bunch of questions to settle between now and Opening Day. Podsednik might be the answer to one of them, but he might also might raise more questions than he answers. But focusing on Podsednik distracts from what should be the real focus of Royals fans as much as the Royals’ front office – making the farm system the envy of baseball. Ultimately the only reason to be livid about his signing is if the money spent on Podsednik limits the money the Royals are spending on the farm system.

In the middle of writing this, I learned that the Royals are expected to sign Paul Carlixte, a Dominican shortstop with a questionable birth certificate but unquestioned tools, for about $1 million. For all of my many, many beefs with Dayton Moore, so long as he continues to make moves like this, I continue to have faith in the long-term direction of the Royals. No matter how muddled their short-term situation may be.