Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Dodgers' Right-Handed Hitters

The Dodgers last year had eight batters accumulate 350 or more plate appearances in 2014. Half of them batted left. Here are the four right-handed batters:
OF Yasiel Puig 23 148 558 92 165 37 9 16 69 11 7 67 124 .296 .382 .480 .863
OF Matt Kemp 29 150 541 77 155 38 3 25 89 8 5 52 145 .287 .346 .506 .852
SS Hanley Ramirez 30 128 449 64 127 35 0 13 71 14 5 56 84 .283 .369 .448 .817
3B Juan Uribe 35 103 386 36 120 23 0 9 54 0 1 15 77 .311 .337 .440 .777
Generated 12/13/2014.

Two of them are no longer Dodgers. Hanley Ramirez, as I wrote, signed a free agent contract with the Red Sox. And this week, the Dodgers traded Matt Kemp to the Padres.

I thought there was a pretty stark difference of opinion regarding the two departures. Ramirez, a lot of folks seemed to feel, was not worth the four-year, $88 million contract that the Red Sox gave him. The departure of Kemp (along with backup catcher Tim Federowicz and $32 million to offset some of the $107 million due Kemp over the next five seasons) to San Diego (for catcher Yasmani Grandal, starting pitcher Joe Wieland, and minor league pitcher Zach Eflin) has been less well-received. That's partly because of the players the Dodgers got in return: Grandal, 26, is solid but not a star; Wieland, who turns 25 next month, has pitched only 39 innings in the majors; and Eflin, 20, is well-regarded but hasn't pitched above Class A. It's also partly because of Kemp's status as one of the Dodgers' stars. He was runner-up to Ryan Braun in the MVP race in 2011, and was arguably jobbed out of the award given Braun's later admission that he was using PEDs. Kemp hasn't approached his numbers from that season (39 HR, 115 R, 126 RBI, .399 on base percentage, .586 slugging percentage) before or since, but he was second on the Dodgers in doubles, home runs, and RBI last year, and led the club in slugging percentage.

I'm going to do a review of all the player moves over the past week or so in a separate post, but I wanted to focus here on the comparison to Ramirez. Those who weren't heartbroken to see Ramirez go to Boston focused on two aspects: Defense and durability. Ramirez was never a very good shortstop--the Red Sox are going to move him to left field--and he played only 214 of the Dodgers' 324 games in his two full seasons with the club, missing time due to a variety of injuries. 

Let's handle the second issue first, since it's easier to illustrate. Here are games played, by age, for Ramirez and Kemp over their careers:
Disregard Kemp's first couple years, when he spent a lot of his time in the minors. Do you see a whole lot of difference there? I don't. I see two extremely durable players through their mid-20s who started missing significant chunks of time thereafter. Does Kemp's 150 games played last year mean he's back to full-time status? Maybe, but maybe it's like Ramirez's 157 games played in 2012. I don't see enough here to convince me that the Padres have acquired a player who won't miss 30 or more games per year.

As for defense, both players grade out pretty badly using modern fielding metrics. Kemp's defenders will say that's nonsense; he's won two Gold Gloves! Or, as Torii Hunter said, regarding his poor defensive numbers, "whoever believes in that sabermetric stuff never played the game."

I should come up with a better term than "modern fielding metrics," because it sounds like a bunch of comp sci geeks coming up with an algorithm using all sorts of arcane numbers rather than "the eye test"--people actually watching the games. The thing is, the modern numbers to which I refer, which do have sort of esoteric names (Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved) aren't the product of differential calculus and quadratic equations. Rather, they're based on the most thorough eye test imaginable--baseball experts (scouts, coaches, former players) watching every single play to determine which plays are good and which ones aren't. This classic article, by Bill James comparing shortstops Derek Jeter and Adam Everett, explains it thoroughly. Key excerpt:
John’s [Dewan, who designed the Defensive Runs Saved measure] henchmen at Baseball Info Solutions [Dewan's company] had watched video from every major league game, and had recorded every ball off the bat by the direction in which it was hit (the vector) the type of hit (groundball, flyball, line-drive, popup, mob hit, etc.) and by how hard the ball was hit (softly hit, medium, hard hit). Given every vector and every type of hit, they assigned a percentage probability that the ball would result in an out, and then they had analyzed the outcomes to determine who was best at turning hit balls into outs.
So when somebody like me says that defensive metrics say that Kemp's a bad center fielder, what we mean is that guys who watch every single play have documented that Kemp doesn't make plays that other center fielders make. It's not a formula; it's basically the ultimate eye test. Kemp's numbers have been bad for years. So have Ramirez's. Why Kemp has a reputation for being good while Ramirez has one for being bad, I can't tell you. But I can tell you that one has a deserved reputation and the other doesn't.

So the reasons cited for why Dodger fans shouldn't feel bad that Hanley Ramirez left the team--Ramirez is a bad fielder who can't stay in the lineup--should really apply to Kemp as well. And while the Dodgers got nothing but a second-round Red Sox draft pick in return for Ramirez, the Dodgers got three active players for Kemp. Grandal ranked tenth in park-adjusted OPS among 33 catchers with 75 or more games caught.  Wieland struck out 36 and walked only six in 38.2 innings across three minor league levels this year as he came back from Tommy John surgery. Eflin's a 2012 first round draft pick. Kemp could contribute more to the Padres in 2015 than Grandal, Wieland, and Eflin will to the Dodgers, but that balance could easily shift in 2016 or soon thereafter.

Look, I'm not saying Kemp and Ramirez are equivalent. Kemp's a year younger, and I think his 150 games played in 2014 is more encouraging than Ramirez's 157 games played in 2012. Kemp should be an adequate fielder in left or right, while Ramirez is going to have a learn a new position in possibly the most idiosyncratic left field in baseball. But I don't see how one guy's departure is ho-hum and the other's a disaster. I'd put them both more in the middle.

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