February 11, 2016
Three Evolving Hitters
About 13 months ago, I wrote a piece for Banished to the Pen examining the brutal 2014 seasons of three previously promising young hitters (Arismendy Alcantara, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Wil Myers) and the implications of those campaigns on those players’ futures. The concept was a rough, statistical sketch of the players’ likely career arcs, without relying either on scouting information or the general narrative.
The piece seems to have mostly pegged Alcantara and Myers correctly. You can read the piece itself to see exactly what I found, but the gist for Alcantara was that the odds were stacked against long-term success for him because of his excessive strikeout rate, and indeed, that shortcoming crippled him in 2015, even after his demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Myers, meanwhile, managed a .288 TAv and 114 OPS+ when he was healthy—numbers that hew eerily closely to those of the people I found who compared closely to him through 2014.
Bradley stumped the system a bit, posting a .280 TAv in the majors last year and a .320 in the minors. That wasn’t outside the spectrum of possible outcomes suggested by my study—the pool of comparable hitters I found for him included Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Juan Uribe. Still, in total, I found Bradley to be slightly less likely than Alcantara to manage a recovery at the plate, and given the way things played out for each, that seems to have been wrong.
Today, I want to re-forecast the same trio using a new year’s worth of data, creating an iterative process that can reveal something about the projection process, even to laypeople of the church of sabermetrics, like me.
If this is starting to sound, to you, like a human’s miserable attempt to mimic the workings of PECOTA, well, you’re not wrong. If you’re thinking that this experiment is also doomed to seem silly and primitive and redundant, if not downright reductive, next to the more scientific and more precise PECOTA, you’re not wrong about that either. My hope, though, is that working all the way through individual cases like these will deepen our understanding of both the players in question and the structure of the game, and that it will give us some human insight into what factors complicate projecting players’ future performances. Let’s just try it and see what happens.
Obviously, a season like Alcantara’s 2015 isn’t a disqualifier from future success. He offered reason to believe that the tools were still there, in the minors, even as he confirmed the problems with his approach and seemed to battle mounting focus issues in the field. As for the brutal April in the big leagues: Alcantara became one of 72 position players to post an OPS+ south of 0 in 30 or more plate appearances, at age 24 or younger, since 1969. He fell almost perfectly into the middle of the sample. On the list with him are names like Ryan Raburn (2004), Garrett Atkins (2003), Chris Carter (2011). Overmatched, 20-year-old rookie versions of George Brett (1973) and Cal Ripken (1981) had similarly miserable starts. There are even a couple of success stories who share a basic profile with Alcantara: Jace Peterson was even worse than Alcantara in 2014, then had a fine (if decidedly uninspiring) season as the Braves’ second baseman in 2015. Rich Dauer had his rough introduction to the big leagues about 40 years before Alcantara fell on such hard times, but although he never had an above-average season at the plate, Dauer combined adequate offense with stellar defense and spent nearly a decade in Earl Weaver’s good graces. Vance Law was unbelievably bad in 1981, but went on to almost exactly the successful utility player’s career of which Alcantara can still dream right now.
Now, most of these guys were showing up and having these problems in September, as rookies. Alcantara’s 2014 struggles, in a larger sample, should inform our analysis, too. Thus, I searched for all the players at positions of defensive consequence who had at least 300 career plate appearances through age 24, with an OPS+ between 40 and 70. There were 160 such players, among whom Alcantara’s current 63 OPS+ (he sports a .220 TAv) ranks 84th. Of those 160, 145 offer us something to look at from age 25 onward. (Some of the disappeared are contemporaries of Alcantara. Others simply never got back to the big leagues after their poor early showings.) In that group:
· 12 were worth at least 20 WAR over the balance of their careers;
· 26 were worth at least 10 WAR; and
· 44 were worth at least 5 WAR; while
· Seven played fewer than 50 more career games; and
· 19 were at least one win worse than a replacement player over the balance of their careers.
Now, that looks at total value, of course. The only players to establish themselves as above-average hitters in prolonged playing time after such rocky starts to their careers were Rance Mulliniks, Todd Hundley, Brady Anderson, Yadier Molina, Tony Armas, and Brian Roberts. Alcantara has little pieces of some of these players in him, but clearly, the odds that he’ll become a productive regular only dwindled after his rough 2015 showing. The most interesting finding might be that they haven’t dwindled as much as you might think, falling from, perhaps, 30 percent to 20 percent. He probably has no future in the Cubs’ organization, though, so a Jace Peterson-like change of scenery would be a tremendous blessing for him.
Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Obviously, there’s nothing especially notable about what Bradley did last season. He only had 255 big-league plate appearances, and a 120 OPS+ in that much playing time is so common as to be of little analytical use. Thus, I jumped right to a wider lens. Sixty-four players since 1969 have completed their age-25 seasons with between 600 and 900 career plate appearances, and an OPS+ between 67 and 83 (Bradley's is 75), while playing either one of the throwing infield positions or the outfield. For those players, the median age-26 performances belonged to Mulliniks and Anderson, with OPS+ figures of 82 and 83, respectively, with Dauer right behind them. Look at performance over ages 26-30, and the median performer is Scott Fletcher, the White Sox and Rangers shortstop from the 1980s, with an OPS+ of 92. Sort by WAR instead of OPS from 26-30, and the median comp is Luis Valbuena.
This is pretty discouraging, actually. Valbuena popped up as a key comp when I was looking through Bradley’s case last year. Anderson, Dauer, and Mulliniks all numbered among Alcantara’s comps, too, though they were the optimistic outlook guys for him, and are more of the median outlook guys for Bradley. Although Bradley played well in 2015, and although his 2015 showing makes up over 30 percent of his big-league track record, and despite the huge gap between what he did last year and what Alcantara did, Bradley finds himself with a 50th-percentile projection that looks uncomfortably like Alcantara’s 75th-percentile one. He projects stunningly similarly to another frustrating outfielder who joined him in the AL East this winter: Aaron Hicks. Both formal projection systems and my rough study conclude that Bradley needs to prove his offensive progress for a bit longer before it’s really, truly reliable. It seems to be easier to drop than to rise, in this framework.
The bad news is twofold:
1. Myers was hurt, and hurt a lot, playing just 60 games in the majors; and
2. About a third of those games were played at first base, which seems to be his new position.
The Padres’ bizarre winter last year led to an ill-fated (in multiple ways) trial period wherein Myers proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he can’t play center field in the big leagues. After that cost the team a bunch of runs and he went down with a wrist injury, Myers mercifully moved to first base, where he seems to be a fixture after the team traded Yonder Alonso. It was merciful for any fans who otherwise had to watch Myers in center, at least, and it was certainly a relief for Myers’ older-than-his-age knees. A move to first base is really hard on a batter’s profile, though. There’s nothing merciful about asking Myers to meet the highest offensive positional standard in baseball permanently, when he’s yet to demonstrate the ability to do so over a full season. Nor is he likely to get relief from this pressure anytime soon: Myers’ height and injury history figure to tether him to the cold corner for the foreseeable future.
His batting line for the season was .253/.336/.427, and with a walk rate over 10 percent and a strikeout rate narrowly above the league average, there’s plenty of reason to view that line (which translated to a .288 TAv and a 114 OPS+) as sustainable. That brought him to a career OPS+ of 107, in 987 plate appearances. Thus, I looked for batters at corner positions who met the criteria:
· 900-1,100 total PA through age 24, with an OPS+ between 100 and 115; and
· 200 or more PA and an OPS+ between 105 and 125 at age 24
The first of those filters brought me a list of 22 names, and a lot of them were encouraging. Eleven of the other 21 posted at least 50 batting runs above average over their ensuring five seasons. Steve Garvey, Bobby Bonilla, Justin Morneau, J.D. Drew, George Bell, and Larry Walker led the list. The second filter brought the number of close comparables down to seven—but Garvey, Bonilla, Drew, Bell, Dmitri Young, and Pat Burrell all still made the list. Although a move to first base certainly dents Myers’ value at this offensive performance level, history suggests that he really turned things around for himself by bouncing back in 2015. His future is much brighter today than it was a year ago, even if the hope of a dynamic corner outfielder now seems to have been permanently stamped out.
So Alcantara’s rough 2015, at least by the numbers, might not be the death knell it seemed to be. Bradley’s semi-breakout shifts him up a tier in terms of possible, eventual outcomes, but it doesn’t fundamentally change his outlook. And Myers, the best prospect before that hiccup in 2014, is right back in that position, even if the shape of his likely career arc has been irrevocably changed. I still enjoy this process, even if computers can do it better, so sometime this spring, we’ll do the same thing with a few pitchers who struggled in 2015. For now, take solace from my haphazard reading of tea leaves: PECOTA 2016 drops on yo’ head next week.