Monday, January 16, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Five.

Finishing up the hitters with the second half of my outfielder review:

Jeff Francoeur: A-

A year ago, Jeff Francoeur was even more of a punch line than Melky Cabrera. Today, well, Francoeur is still a punch line among a certain element of baseball analysts, who believe that his 2011 season 1) was a fluke and/or 2) does not abrogate his horrible performance from 2008 to 2010. But even those analysts who believe that Francoeur will once again be an out machine in 2012 say so with considerably less confidence than before.

I can certainly see the case for their skepticism. Despite having his highest OPS (.805) since his 70-game rookie season, and despite having the best overall season of his career by Baseball-Reference (2.7 bWAR), Francoeur’s improvement was not the result of addressing his biggest weakness, his lack of discipline at the plate. Francoeur actually drew fewer walks (37 to 39) and struck out more times (123 to 111) than he did in 2008. That was the same 2008 season in which Francoeur was a full three games worse than a replacement-level player, one of the ten worst seasons by a position player in the Expansion Era.

But if you look closer, you can see some signs of improvement. I am hardly an expert when it comes to understanding Pitch f/x data, so I apologize if I’m completely misinterpreting the data. But if you compare Francoeur’s performance in 2011 to 2008, here’s what you find:

In 2008, when a pitch was outside the strike zone, Francoeur still swung at it 40.5% of the time. In 2011, he swung only 37.8% of the time. The league as a whole swung at bad pitches 27.6% of the time in 2008, and 28.6% of the time in 2011. I don’t think the entire league suddenly became more aggressive – this is probably an artifact of subtle alterations to the definition of the strike zone by the Pitch f/x computers. So let me phrase it this way: in 2008, Francoeur’s swing rate at bad pitches was 12.9% higher than the average hitter. In 2011, it was 8.8% higher.

In 2008, when Francoeur swung at bad pitches, he made contact 64.8% of the time – 1.1% lower than league average. In 2011, he made contact 72.4% of the time – 7.7% higher than league average.

Francoeur’s swing rate and contact rate on pitches within the strike zone did not appear to change significantly. But in 2011 he swung at fewer bad pitches, and took better swings at those pitches, than he did in 2008, or even in 2010. The improvement in his selectivity wasn’t enormous, and frankly it wasn’t enough by itself to explain his performance at the plate. But it was, at least, part of the answer.

The one other data point at Fangraphs that stands out is the data which breaks down Francoeur’s performance by pitch type. Frenchy showed, by far, his greatest improvement against fastballs – he was 6 runs above average against the heater, compared to 16 runs below average in 2010. That would go against the narrative that Francoeur improved when he stopped swinging at breaking stuff in the dirt.

Single-season data is fluky, and 2010 might be an outlier – he was above-average against fastballs in 2009, and terrible against sliders. From 2008 to 2010, he was 19.8 runs below average against the fastball, but 20.6 runs below average against sliders. In 2011, he was +6 against fastballs, and +2.7 against sliders. It’s fair to say that he showed significant improvement against both pitches.

My impression from watching Francoeur is this: he was a little better at laying off waste pitches down-and-away. He was also surprisingly good at dropping the bat head on inside fastballs and turning on them, whether for doubles down the line or homers into the left-field bleachers. The data certainly doesn’t contradict that. Francoeur was a little choosier about which pitches to swing at, but he was also served well by a new approach to inside fastballs.

The end result of his altered approach was a very solid .285/.329/.476 season, including 47 doubles, which nearly led the league. (After Ned Yost benched Francoeur for the last five games, Miguel Cabrera snuck past him with 48.) He hit right-handers for a line of .279/.318/.445, which is better than what he had done against all pitchers in his career (.270/.313/.433), and he crushed left-handers (.302/.363/.570).

Francoeur stole 22 bases, nearly equally the 23 bases he stole in the previous six years combined. He threw out 16 baserunners, which ranked second to Alex Gordon in all of baseball, and the amazing thing is that Francoeur threw out baserunners at pretty much his career rate. When you combine strength with accuracy, Francoeur might well have the best arm of any outfielder in the majors. (Francoeur’s arm alone has been worth somewhere between 5 and 8 runs a season, which is remarkable.)

So it was a good season, better than a lot of people thought possible, and there’s a lesson in that. It is very hard for me to write about the lessons learned without coming off as smug, given that I loved the Melky Cabrera signing and advocated that the Royals acquire Francoeur back in 2009. But I’ll try, and please forgive me if I fail.

In the three-division era (since 1995), 22 different players have played in 120 or more games in a season at the age of 21 or less. Here’s a list of those players, roughly in order of (present and future) career value:

Alex Rodriguez
Albert Pujols
Miguel Cabrera
Andruw Jones
Adrian Beltre

Justin Upton
Mike Stanton
Ryan Zimmerman
Jason Heyward
Eric Hosmer

Carl Crawford
Edgar Renteria
Elvis Andrus
Freddie Freeman
Starlin Castro

Melky Cabrera
Jose Guillen
Delmon Young
Cristian Guzman
Rocco Baldelli

Luis Rivas
Mike Caruso

Remember, the only qualification to make this list is to have played in 120 games in a season by age 21 – it didn’t matter how well or poorly the player performed. And yet: look at that list. You’ve got Mike Caruso, who somehow dinked his way to a .306 average for the 1998 White Sox, and was never heard from again. Luis Rivas was a bad defensive second baseman as a rookie and never improved. Rocco Baldelli had a pair of good seasons before he was felled by a rare mitochondrial disorder.

Every other player on that list has gone to a long, and in most cases excellent, career. Cristian Guzman, as a rookie, was just this side of Tony Pena Jr bad: he hit .226/.267/.276. But he was a 21-year-old rookie. The next year he led the AL with 20 triples, and the year after that he hit .302/.337/.477. His career petered out after 1406 games. Jose Guillen, who I ranked 17th out of 22 players, spent 14 seasons in the majors and played in 1650 games. At least half the players listed above have Hall of Fame possibilities.

Melky Cabrera is on that list. Jeff Francoeur is not, because he wasn’t called up as a rookie until mid-season – but he was so exceptional as a rookie that he was worth 2.5 bWAR in just 70 games. Among all players 21 or younger since 1995, Francoeur’s rookie season was the 16th-best. Only three other players in the Top 25 played in fewer than 100 games: Brett Lawrie last season, Adam Dunn, and Jose Reyes.

You might think, from my past writings on the topic, that player age is a bit of an obsession for me. You’re probably right – but only because I think that most people don’t comprehend just how important it is. For position players, it’s absolutely vital. As the list above shows, if a player is talented enough to play every day in the majors by the time he’s 21, it almost doesn’t matter how well he performs – he’s talented enough to have a long and successful career.

Cabrera was talented enough at age 21 to be the starting left fielder for the New York Yankees, on their way to winning the AL East for the ninth straight year. Francoeur was talented enough to be the everyday right fielder for an Atlanta Braves team that was on its way to finishing in first place for the 14th time in 15 years. That talent was largely wasted by both players over the next few years – Cabrera because he got out of shape, Francoeur because he never learned the strike zone. But the talent was still there.

Cabrera was 26 for most of last season. Francoeur was 27. Those are the two most common ages for a hitter to have his best season. Just like how some presumed washed-up former child stars come back to have a second career, Cabrera and Francoeur were both young enough to do the same. Sure, some child stars are fated to be Gary Coleman or Emmanuel Lewis. But some turn out to be Jason Bateman or Neil Patrick Harris. The Royals spent less than $4 million combined to find out whether either one was salvageable - and they got savaged for it.

There is a term used among fantasy baseball adherents to talk about players who were hyped prospects once upon a time, and then went bust, and just as they were over-rated when they were young and their upside appeared limitless, they’ve become under-rated now that the shine has worn off. They’re called “post-hype sleepers”. That’s what Francoeur and Cabrera were: post-hype sleepers. They were such deep sleepers, in fact, that even people who were familiar with the strategy thought that Dayton Moore was insane. He wasn’t. For at least one off-season, failed phenoms were the new market inefficiency, and Moore profited greatly from it.

He then doubled down on Francoeur, and it remains to be seen how that investment will turn out. You’ll recall that I was not partial to Francoeur’s extension at the time. However, two of my main objections to the deal have dissipated. My first objection was that the Royals gave him that extension in mid-August, when we had just four months of data suggesting he was an improved hitter. He could have easily gone in the tank over the last six weeks and the contract would already look like an albatross before it started. But after the signing, Francoeur actually performed better – he hit .313/.328/.523 in his last 30 games. (Albeit with just two walks – one intentional – and 26 strikeouts.) Waiting until the end of the season would not have lowered Francoeur’s market value – it might have increased it.

My second concern was that Francoeur was not as strong a fit for the Royals’ lineup as Melky Cabrera or Lorenzo Cain, because Cain provided defense and Cabrera provided the switch-hitting bat. That concern remains, but the Royals managed to solve their outfield glut while getting good value in return, by turning Cabrera into Jonathan Sanchez.

The lineup still tilts to the right too much – Gordon, Hosmer, and Moustakas are the only left-handed bats most nights – but I’d argue that upgrading the defense in centerfield means more to the 2012 Royals than having a fourth left-handed stick. The problem is that the right-handed lean to the Royals lineup is not just a problem for 2012. While the Royals are loaded to the gills with left-handed pitchers, they don’t have a single left-handed-hitting prospect of any note in the minor leagues. Balancing the lineup will be an ongoing project for the Royals’ front office for the next several years. But if you’re only going to go with three left-handed hitters, you could do a lot worse than Gordon, Hosmer, and Moustakas. So long as those three stay healthy, the lack of lineup balance won’t be a critical concern.

Also, we now have a number of similar contracts handed out to free-agent outfielders this winter, to compare with Francoeur’s deal:

Jeff Francoeur: 2.7 bWAR (2011), 3.3 bWAR (2009-2011), 2 years, $13.5 million
Coco Crisp: 2.1, 5.9, 2 years, $14 million
Jason Kubel: 1.3, 5.2, 2 years, $15 million
Josh Willingham: 1.8, 6.3, 3 years, $21 million

Francoeur had a better 2011 than any of the others, but had the worst three-year performance by far. Where you’d place Francoeur among his peers depends entirely on how much weight you place on his 2011 performance.

But Francoeur has two undeniable advantages. The first is that he has the least pricey contract. The difference with Crisp and Kubel is miniscule, but the third-year commitment for Willingham is a big strike against him.

The other edge for Francoeur is, once again, his age. Francoeur just turned 28 last week. Kubel will be 30 in May, Crisp is 32, and Willingham will be 30 before the season begins. Francoeur will be younger at the end of his contract than the other three at the beginning of theirs.

And then there’s the whole issue of Francoeur’s clubhouse influence. I have no doubt that the value of a player’s leadership in the clubhouse is overrated by insiders. I also have no doubt that it exists. I have no way to quantify its importance, but common sense tells me that having a player with a strong work ethic, and who is willing to impart that work ethic on his fellow teammates, is a lot more important on a team brimming with rookies and sophomores than on a team full of veterans.

If having Francoeur around to guide them makes it, say, 5% more likely that Hosmer and Moustakas reach their potential, to say nothing of Giavotella or Salvador Perez or even some of the pitchers, that effect would almost certainly be undetectable even if there was a way to measure it. And yet that effect would almost certainly be worth seven figures. I can’t prove that Francoeur has that effect, but “unprovable” is not the same as “non-existent”. Even stat guys have to take some things on faith. Everything I know about Francoeur tells me that he’s a positive influence on his younger teammates. That doesn’t justify a long-term deal to an undeserving player, but for a borderline case like Francoeur, that matters.

So call me crazy, but gun to my head, I’d rather have Francoeur under the terms of his contract than any of the other guys above on the terms of theirs. There’s a risk that Frenchy turns back into a punchline, sure. But you have to endure some risk to get a reward, and if Francoeur comes even close to duplicating last year’s performance, there will be a reward. So I’ve staked out a place of my own in the French Quarter. Go ahead and laugh at me. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Alex Gordon: A

And speaking of post-hype sleepers…going into 2011, Gordon was pretty much the definition of the term. In fact, googling the phrase led me straight to this column from last spring, and Gordon was the very first name on the list.

Of course, Gordon could have been the very first name on the list in 2010…or 2009. And there was a very real worry that if he was still on that list in 2012, it wouldn’t have been in a Royals uniform.

Instead, by year’s end the only lists Gordon was on was at the bottom of a few MVP ballots. He hit for average (.303), he hit for power (23 homers, 45 doubles), he drew walks (67, which led the team), he stole bases (17 in 25 attempts), he played good defense (he won a Gold Glove*), and it was as if 2009 and 2010 never happened.

*: I said he won a Gold Glove. I didn’t say he deserved it. My apologies to Brett Gardner.

Seriously, if you just erased 2009 and 2010 from his stat line, Gordon’s progression as a player looks completely normal: College Player of the Year at age 21, Minor League Player of the Year at age 22, a somewhat disappointing rookie season at age 23, an above-average season at age 24, and an All-Star-caliber season at age 27. Just never mind what he did at ages 25 and 26.

In pointed contrast to Francoeur, I don’t know anyone – stat analyst or scout – who thinks that Gordon’s breakout was a fluke. That doesn’t mean he won’t regress a little this season, because he might. But the base skills that produced 5.9 Wins Above Replacement – the best season by any Royals position player since Carlos Beltran in 2003 – are legitimate. As much as I write about how the Royals need to sign Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt, the reality is that the Royals’ #1 priority is still to sign Gordon to a contract extension that keeps him in Kansas City through at least 2015.

There’s no obvious reason why a deal won’t get done, and frankly I’m a little disappointed it hasn’t already. That was always part of the appeal with Gordon, why he was such a perfect player to be on the board when the Royals had the #2 overall pick in 2005: he’s from Nebraska, he grew up a Royals fan, he has a brother named Brett for God’s sake. Scott Boras is not his agent. He’s not Eric Hosmer, where you pretty much knew from the moment he was drafted that in a perfect world where he turned into a superstar, he was ours for six-plus years and then off to the highest bidder. Gordon seemed like a guy whose greatness wouldn’t prevent him from sticking around a while. And here we are, he’s coming off a great year, he’s two years from free agency and he’s expressed a willingness to sign a long-term deal. Let’s get this done, guys.

The most comparable long-term extension given to a player approaching free agency this winter was the one Howie Kendrick inked with the Angels. Kendrick has had a similar career arc as Gordon: massively hyped in the minor leagues (where he had a .360 career average), some early success in the majors (he hit .314/.340/.435 in 2007-2008 combined), followed by consecutively disappointing seasons in 2009 and 2010. Like Gordon, Kendrick had his best season in 2011, hitting .285/.338/.464 and making his first All-Star team. He also plays a fine second base, so while he wasn’t as valuable as Gordon was, he was closer than you might think – he had 4.3 bWAR, which is a very good number.

Kendrick signed for 4 years and $33.5 million. While he didn’t have as good a season in 2011, he also never struggled as badly as Gordon did in 2009 and 2010. He’s about seven months older than Gordon. Most importantly, he was going to be a free agent in one year, not two. Add all the factors together, and while I think Gordon can ask for more, I don’t think it’s a lot more.

I said during the season that Gordon probably was worth somewhere between $38 and $42 million for a four-year deal, and those numbers still fit. Maybe on the high side if there’s an option year, maybe on the low side if Gordon wants a no-trade clause, but those are details best left for the two sides to negotiate. The big picture is this: Gordon wants to stay, the Royals can afford to pay him, and they absolutely can’t afford for him to leave. Get it done, guys. Everyone – myself included – will sleep better at night.

If it’s going to happen, it will probably happen soon. In the last 12 hours, Brayan Pena and Chris Getz have agreed to terms on a contract. There’s a reason for the timing here – the deadline to exchange arbitration figures is tomorrow. Dayton Moore is a student of the Braves Way, and the Braves have long had a policy that if they don’t come to terms with a player before both sides have to exchange figures, then they will see the process through – meaning they will go to an arbitration hearing no matter what.

The rationale is that, if a player knows that the team will put them through the arbitration process, they will be more motivated to get a deal done before figures are exchanged – and by and large that has been the case, as I’m pretty sure the Royals haven’t had an arbitration hearing with a single player since Moore became the GM. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.)

The one exception to this policy is if a player is willing to sign a long-term deal. Last January, Billy Butler exchanged numbers with the Royals – and one week later, on January 23rd, they announced a four-year deal. I suspect the same thing will happen here – once the Royals put all their other contracts to bed, they can devote all their resources to getting Gordon signed for the long term. But if Moore and Gordon aren’t shaking hands at the front of a press conference by month’s end, getting antsy is a perfectly justifiable reaction.

Mitch Maier: C+

Poor Mitch Maier. It’s hard to be on a team’s active roster all season long and wind up with fewer than 100 at-bats, but that’s what happens when the three outfielders in front of you avoid injury all season and all have the best seasons of their career. Maier batted so infrequently that when he finally got some pity playing time in the last three games of the season, he went 1-for-9…and it nearly ruined his season numbers. He was batting .244/.365/.360 until then, and his final line was .232/.345/.337, which is borderline acceptable at best for a backup outfielder.

In Maier’s defense, it’s not really fair to judge him based on 113 plate appearances. On the other hand, Maier’s career line is .253/.332/.346. This is who he is. He has no power, and he doesn’t hit for a high average. It’s a credit to him that he’s made himself a viable major leaguer anyway – he has the highest walk rate on the team, he’s a good baserunner, he isn’t vulnerable to left-handed pitching (he’s actually hit lefties slightly better than right-handers for his career), he can play all three outfield positions adequately, and he understands and has embraced his role as a bench player.

Is that enough to keep him in the majors? It really depends on how large a bench the Royals want. The Royals will be keeping a backup catcher (Brayan Pena) and a utility infielder (Yuniesky Betancourt). Even with the mammoth 12-man pitching staffs that teams like to employ these days, that still leaves two open roster spots. It would make more sense for the Royals to employ Jarrod Dyson, who does two things (run and play the outfield) better than Maier, and Clint Robinson, who does one very important thing (hit) better than Maier. (I don’t think Robinson will ever hit well enough to play every day, but as a pinch-hitting threat he has his uses.)

But the Royals are making noises about starting the season with thirteen pitchers, which is absurd, as it would leave them with a three-man bench. If that’s the case, though, then Maier is probably the best choice for the job. He can’t run as fast as Dyson, but he runs fast enough that he can pinch-run for Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. He doesn’t hit as well as Robinson, but he hits well enough to pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar against right-handed pitchers, and against certain pitchers he might be a better option than Perez or Giavotella or Cain. His jack-of-all-trades skill set makes him the best option for a roster spot that requires him to do a little of everything. But the Royals as a team would be better off splitting that role into two parts. And if they do the right thing, Maier may find himself the last guy without a chair at the end of spring training.


Royals said...

Nice to have a new column to read, thanks Rany.

I was at the Royals Charity deal last Saturday and had the opportunity to talk to some of the players. 2 highlights from that evening stood out.

1. Francoeur is the coolest guy on the team. He said on more than one occasion that the team is not done making moves for next year. Take it for what you will but that made me excited at the possibility of further rotation help.

2. I asked Gordon about the extension. He said it's all but done and that he'll be in KC for a long time. Again, take it for what it's worth but that also got me pumped.

somedevil said...

Bravo all around! I think you're right on the money with Maier, Gordon, and Frenchy. Maier's situation really sucks. I like him a lot as a bench player, and think he would do very well in the national league. He also seems like a good dude, which makes me root for him. If they aren't going to give him a place in the majors, I'd like to see him traded to the NL, preferably the Cubs (my favorite NL team). It doesn't make sense for the Royals to do that, since they could keep him in Omaha and use him for depth, but I don't like the thought of a player who has proven himself a valuable bench guy being forced to AAA. In fact, I'm leaning toward rooting for Maier to get the bench spot over Dyson, who can't hit his way out of a paper bag.

Unknown said...

My ass Maier has no power...

Get a load of this

adoyleBU said...

hey unknown - did you notice how that video was from July 7th, 2010 and it noted that it was his 3rd homer of the year? yeah, that was his "power" year in which he slugged 5 of his 8 career home runs. but i guess the video proves that he has gotten a hold of at least one pitch in his 1,000+ PAs. nice detetive work.

Antonio. said...

I used to disagree with you on Morris...and made arguments about it. But now, I think the K/BB slightly favoring Ape and the ERA+ heavily favoring Ape probably overcomes Jack's HUGE innings pitched advantage. Not that I'd ever want to see either of them enshrined.

Jack Campbell said...

On the point that 21 year olds with significant playing time in the majors are likely to go on to have successful careers: Just a clarification - there could be a chicken/egg misconception that people make often in sports (not saying Rany is guilty here).

A football example: Teams that run the ball more than 30 times are more likely to win. It's tempting, reading that sentence, to think that running the ball 30 times CAUSES the football team to win more often. It's more likely, however, that running the ball 30 times was the EFFECT of the fact that the team was winning--the team started running more to protect its lead. People are often tempted to look at correlations and make causal arguments.

Same mistake could make here I think--calling a player up when he's very young doesn't CAUSE him to have a successful career, nor does choosing him in the draft because he's 10 months younger than another pick.

The cause of his successful career was the fact that he's an awesome baseball player - that he played 120 games as a 21 year old is simply happens to be the mark of many good players.

Rany's point here is simply that--let's get excited about what Hosmer's rookie season seems to indicate for the future.

But let's not start thinking that calling players up younger will propel them to better careers. More importantly, let's not start choosing younger players in the draft simply because they're younger.

Jayboid said...

I like Mitch, normal fan loyalty. I also remember driving like a crazy man while skipping sales calls so I could check into my hotel and watch a late afternoon Royals playoff game.

I like the latter much more. Just can't see Mitch getting us there.

Why couldn't Yuniesky Betancourt take a few games in the outfield if needed and have Dyson on the roster?

Antonio. said...

I'm sorry, but where is it that Maier is or is not taking us to..?