First Impressions Are Far Too Important

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the baseball season is too long to look at season stats. Streaks happen, injuries happen, and just because a guy was good 6 months or 6 years ago doesn’t neccessarily mean he’s any good right now. Think about this – Chad Billingsley has a 4.05 ERA in 184.1 IP this season, and Cole Hamels has a 4.07 ERA in 177 IP. Identical, right? Well, who would you rather have out on the mound right now

hudsonruns.jpgIt’s with this in mind that we take a look at the suddenly simmering second base “controversy” between Ronnie Belliard and Orlando Hudson. Belliard’s been hot and has started in each of the last two games over Hudson, leading some to wonder who would be the starter when the playoffs start.

For his part, Hudson has been nothing but professional about the situation, and it’s worth pointing out:

After Sunday’s game, Hudson said he felt fine physically but conceded “I haven’t been doing the job.”

“My man Belliard came in, they made a great trade to get him in here and he’s doing a great job at second base,” Hudson said. “All I can do is cheer for him.”

Almost weird to see that, isn’t it? Guys whine all the time, but here we have Hudson taking responsibility for his own performance, or lack thereof. It’s great. Take a hint, 90% of professional athletes!

Anyway, there’s no question that Belliard’s been far outplaying Hudson lately. In addition to being absolutely on fire over the last week (2 homers and a 1.500 OPS), Belliard’s done nothing but hit since joining LA (.304/.339/.589 in 18 games) and had actually started hitting weeks before the trade – as I said at the time:

To be fair, since his OPS cratered at .459 (!!) on July 1, Belliard’s hit a nice .323/.380/.475 in 35 games (20 starts).

Meanwhile, Hudson’s been lousy, as even he’d admit. He has just one hit in the last week, and over the last month his line is an underwhelming .266/.329/.359. If he keeps this up, it will be his second month of 2009 with an OPS in the .600s (awful) and fourth with an OPS under .800 (mediocre for a middle infielder, unacceptable anywhere else). In fact, I was worried about him as far back as our midseason review series

So why just the B grade? Because while Hudson may have made an enormous first impression (come on, a cycle in your first home game for your new team? Who does that?) I think it may have obscured just how horrible he’s been over the second half of the first half. (Shut up, that’s a thing.)

Apr. 6 – May 13: 35 games, .348/.429/.539
May 14 – Jul. 10: 49 games, .237/.300/.320

For some reason baseball-reference hasn’t updated to include yesterday’s games yet, so I am missing his 2-homer outburst in that latter section, but still: the difference is glaring. You’d like to think that was the start of something, because at some point he’s going to need to turn this around, or all of the good feelings of April are going to dissipate.

And while his July and August weren’t as horrible as his June, nor were they all that great. This gets us back to my point; the perception of Hudson as a great player is largely due to his outstanding Dodger debut; his play over the last four months just hasn’t backed that up. (This is exactly the same phenomenon that we saw when Juan Pierre filled in for Manny during 99′s suspension – he was great for the first two weeks, horrible for the last three, yet far too many people recapped the entire stretch as great. What if he’d been horrible for the first three? He likely doesn’t get a chance to be horrible for two more.)

Now, this story has been picked up by FanGraphs, a site I greatly respect and link to often. This isn’t going to be Plaschke-esque, but let’s just say, I don’t agree.

If you haven’t been following the Dodgers of late, there’s an interesting development down in LA – Joe Torre has decided to give a significant chunk of the playing time at second base to Ronnie Belliard, sending Orlando Hudson to the bench in the process.

With most personnel decisions in baseball, there’s a gray area where a legitimate point could be argued for either side. This is not one of those scenarios. Belliard is half the player Hudson is, at best, and if Torre is actually contemplating swapping the two out as his team heads into the postseason, then the man should have his sanity questioned.

I don’t really expect a lot of people to jump on the “Belliard over Hudson” train – and to be fair, I’m not even saying it’s a must-do, because we’ll see if Belliard can keep up his streak until October – but just judging by their second-half OPS lines (.882 for Belliard, .758 for Hudson), it’s a little harsh to say there’s not even an argument for the guy who’s winning OPS by nearly 130 points.

Hudson is a known quantity, and a productive one at that. His .342 wOBA so far this season is basically a dead even match for his .339 career mark. He’s a good contact hitter with some gap power and draws a fair share of walks, making him an above average hitter overall. UZR thinks his defense has been in decline, but still thinks he’s around average with the glove.

The total package makes Hudson a slightly better than average player – he’s been worth +2.2 and +3.3 wins in each of the last five years. He’s consistently a quality asset, and certainly the kind of guy you can win a world title with as your second baseman.

belliardhits.jpgSee, this is what I mean about relying too heavily on seasonal stats. A .342 wOBA is all well and good, and if Hudson had put up that line consistently all year and was still that player now, then great! This isn’t even a question. But you can’t just put that stat out there and pretend that the guy who’s putting up a .643 OPS in September is the same guy who put up a .941 OPS in April. Sure, it all counts towards the season total, but what happened in April isn’t going to get us base hits now. If it did, then Chad Billingsley would still be an ace instead of a disaster.

Besides, Belliard’s career wOBA – from FanGraphs‘ own site – is .330. Not as good as Hudson… but not all that far off, either.

Oh, and this fun stat line based on that last statement:

World Series won by teams with Orlando Hudson playing 2B: 0
World Series won by teams with Ronnie Belliard playing 2B: 1 (2006 Cardinals)

It’s really neither here nor there – Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter probably had a little to do with that title – but since they’re making that claim, I couldn’t help but bring it up.

Belliard simply is an inferior player to Hudson. His entire production bump since the trade to LA is a function of a 25% HR/FB rate that has allowed him to slug .589 in 18 games. If you think that’s sustainable, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Belliard is a swing-at-anything hack without the contact or power to make that kind of approach work. In 204 plate appearances before the Nationals shipped him to LA, he posted a .297 wOBA.

Belliard is an inferior player… except for all of the varied statistics that show that right now, on September 21, 2009, he’s not. Hey, he could go 1 for his next 20 and it wouldn’t completely surprise me – he’s Ronnie Belliard, not Chase Utley – but the fact is, he’s now completing his second solid month of being excellent. Hey, he wouldn’t be the first guy to get the juices flowing after moving from the worst team in baseball to a pennant race, would he?  

He’s not a defensive wizard. He doesn’t run well. He’s not as good of a hitter. The only thing Belliard can outdo Hudson in would be some kind of eating competition.

There’s no question that Belliard’s not as good of a defender, and I wouldn’t dream of making that comparison. Let’s not overrate Hudson too far, though. As the article even states, UZR has Hudson as average at best, and considering that we spent four years watching Jeff Kent, that is like moving up from Keith Partridge to Audrina Patridge, but it’s still just average. It’s nice, but it’s not vintage-era Hudson.

When October rolls around, Torre better have Hudson installed back at second base and Belliard on the bench where he belongs. Any other alignment will be a blow to the Dodgers chance of winning a World Series.

And if Hudson finally remembers how to hit and Belliard’s streak ends, then I’m all for it. Until then? Look, I haven’t forgotten my own lesson – first impressions get far too much credibility, and we’re watching Ronnie Belliard make a fantastic first impression. I’m well aware that it can fall apart at any second. The point is, Hudson’s been struggling for some time and Belliard’s been killing the ball. Why not ride the hot hand, and if this extends into the playoffs, so be it. At the very least, it’s hard to kill Joe Torre for somehow making his team worse by starting who is – at the moment – the better player.

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  1. [...] with that outstanding start to his Dodger career, and it’s that his amazing first impression seemed to color everyone’s impression of him for the rest of the season. I started getting worried about him as far back as July, when I was doing our mid-season reviews [...]

  2. [...] defensive issues, 47 PA is hardly a large sample size, he ended the season in a 6-32 slide, and we’ve learned several times that people put far too much stock into first impressions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been saying the exact same thing about Rod [...]

  3. [...] We’ve seen this phenomenon happen before. Rod Barajas had essentially one good week in all of 2010, yet since it was in his first week as a Dodger, he didn’t receive a whole lot of criticism for the fact he did little in September – and it helped him get a hefty contract for 2011. In 2009, Orlando Hudson got off to a fantastic start, hitting .348/.429/.539 through the first 35 games of the season. Despite the fact that he played so poorly the rest of the year that he eventually lost his job to Ronnie Belliard in the playoffs, that first impression (and the fact his batting average looked pretty on the scoreboard every night), meant most Dodger fans remembered their first impression of Hudson as a second base superstar. [...]

  4. [...] defensive issues, 47 PA is hardly a large sample size, he ended the season in a 6-32 slide, and we’ve learned several times that people put far too much stock into first impressions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been saying the exact same thing about Rod Barajas [...]