MSTI’s 2009 in Review: Right Field

85toppsandreethierAndre Ethier (A for Amazing!)
(.272/.361/.508 31hr 106rbi)

You know, we always try to keep our views here pinned in the realm of reality. Just because Mark Loretta won our hearts with the clutch single in NLDS Game 2, we couldn’t overlook the previous 6 months of awfulness. It works both ways, too; just because Chad Billingsley fell off a cliff late in the year and lost everyone’s trust in him, we couldn’t forget how great he’d been in the first half and in previous years.

But when it comes to Andre Ethier, it’s pretty difficult to think just with your brain and not with your heart. It’s not that his numbers weren’t great, of course - he was was the first Dodger to hit 30 homers since Adrian Beltre in 2004, and finishing as the 5th highest RF in terms of VORP in baseball is nice too. That in itself is deserving of an A, which I’m happy to award him. That’s without even mentioning the enduring knowledge that all it took to acquire Ethier was the flaming remnants of Milton Bradley’s career. (Okay, and Antonio Perez too. You tell him thanks when you see him pumping your gas sometime.)

It’s just that, while we were all captivated by the flashy HR total and the amazing string of walkoff hits, there’s a few reasons why Ethier’s breakout 2009 might not be exactly what it seems. This is not to pick nits in what was a fantastic season, but these are points worth mentioning.

For example, believe it or not, his BA, OBP, and SLG all dropped ever so slightly, meaning that his OPS was actually 16 points lower than in 2008, with his percentage of line drives dropping from 26.6% to 20.5%, which is worrisome. Really, the main difference between his 2008 and 2009 was his percentage of fly balls, because even though he only slightly raised his homers per flyball rate in 2009 (14.1% to 15.4%), the fact that his percentage of fly balls hit overall jumped from 32.0% to 41.5% made for a lot more balls leaving the yard. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it clearly resulted in more homers, but when all of his other rates have dropped since 2008, it does put the idea of a “breakout” season into perspective.

There’s some other issues, as well – for example, he’s rapidly turning into a player who really ought to be platooned to keep him away from lefties. This year, Ethier destroyed right-handed pitching to the tune of a .960 OPS and 25 of his homers. Against lefties, he had just a .194 BA and a .629 OPS and only 6 homers. It’s actually been a pretty clear downward trend for him as far as a lefty/righty split goes:

2006: .842 vs RH, .846 vs LH
2007: .830 vs RH, .816 vs LH
2008: .953 vs RH, .692 vs LH
2009: .960 vs RH, .629 vs LH

As he continues to improve against righties, he’s quickly becoming unplayable against lefties, and the four years of stats clearly show there’s not any improvement happening here.

In addition, his defense has been declining as well, as FanGraphs dedicated an entire article to last week:

Ethier’s first two seasons suggested some defensive talent. Over his first 271 games (212 starts), Ethier compiled a +6.5 UZR in the outfield. Of course, this is not the only example of a UZR sample of this size showing a significant deviation from the following two seasons. However, we can ask: what changed?

First of all, let’s look at the biggest component of the statistic: range. Ethier showed fantastic range in 2007 after showing average range in 2006. His range fell off a cliff then in 2008 and 2009, at -6.6 and -6.9 runs, respectively.

Similarly, Ethier’s arm looked fantastic in 2006, at 6.8 runs in merely 92 DG (defensive games adjusted for attempts). He has not shown that skill since, and his arm dipped below -5 runs above average this season. It is possible that his arm was better suited to left field – his ARM in 154 DG is +4.1 in LF vs. -6.9 in 371 DG in RF.

It appears that we have two major outliers skewing his results from 2006 and 2007. Ethier’s +6.8 ARM rating may have been a product of both his time in left field as well as random variation in the statistic. Since his move to playing primarily right field in 2007, his arm has rated as nearly 10 runs below average, the ninth worst overall mark over the past three years.

I realize that this review has sounded overwhelmingly negative towards a player who provided the Dodgers with several of the most enduring 2009 memories, and I really didn’t mean it to come off that way. So he still gets his A, because this is just one of those situations where the heart (“OMG! 31 homers! Crazy walk-off hits! Give him an A! Give him 40 A’s!”) overrides the brain (“Horrible against lefties! Kind of a lousy outfielder! Somewhat declining stats from 2008!”)

Besides, despite the negatives, there’s no doubt that Ethier was an incredibly valuable player in 2009, and he could be even moreso in future years if used properly. For example, whenever Manny’s no longer a Dodger, Ethier should be moved to left field, rather than keep him in right and acquire another left fielder. In addition, he really should be kept away from as many left-handed pitchers as possible. Not to turn everything back to Juan Pierre, but this is yet another reason why you really need a different backup outfielder, because sitting Ethier against a lefty just to have Pierre there instead (with Matt Kemp in RF that night, of course), doesn’t really help you.

Still, the overriding image of Andre Ethier’s 2009 should be a positive one, most encapsulated by what is without a doubt my favorite picture used on any of these 1985 Topps cards. Well, until we get to Jason Schmidt, that is…

85toppsjamiehoffmannJamie Hoffmann (inc.)
(.182/.167/.409 1hr 7rbi)

Considering that Jamie Hoffmann started the year in AA and was somewhere around 8th on the Dodger outfield depth chart, just getting to the bigs should be seen as a pretty nice year for him, with his first big league homer a cherry on top.

Sure, it took a series of events unexpected (Manny’s suspension), unfortunate (Xavier Paul’s staph infection), and unavoidable (another Jason Repko injury) to get the former hockey player up with the big club, but hey, you take what you can get, right?

Besides, when your year includes your father breaking the news that you’ve been called up to a small-town Minnesota newspaper, and that father just so happens to be the lead sheriff in a high-profile case that made national news, and finally you end up getting DFA’d but then re-signed to an odd contract that prevents you from being on the 40-man until next May, well, you can at least say you’ve had an interesting season.

As far as actual baseball goes for Mr. Hoffmann, he didn’t do all that much with the Dodgers, collecting just 4 hits. However, he did hit well at AA (.952 OPS) and AAA (.815 OPS), in addition to his reputation as a superlative defensive outfielder, so we can expect to see him back sometime next year for a week or two when an extra body is needed. 

85toppsmitchjonesMitch Jones (inc.)
(.308/.400/.385 0hr 0rbi)

If you didn’t cheer for Mitch Jones this year, you have a black, black soul and a heart of stone. Don’t remember his heart-tugging story? Let me refresh you:

If the thought alone of having an all or nothing strikeout/homer machine doesn’t grab you, then tell me that his story isn’t worth rooting for him. He’s 31 years old, has been poking around the minors since as far back as 2000, and is still looking for his first major league appearance. While the jaded among you may say “uh, that’s because he sucks”, it goes further than that. This is from an ESPN story last season on career minor leaguers who may have missed their chance due to choosing not to take steroids:

What happened to Jones on May 19, 2006, alone ought to be worth a few mil in punitive damages. He was in Richmond when the Yankees called him up, emergency style. He raced to the airport, flew to LaGuardia, got in a cab, had to talk his way into Yankee Stadium, picked up his uniform, called his dad to tell him (“I’d always dreamed of the day I’d make that call,” Jones says), sat next to Sheffield in the dugout (oh, irony!) and … never got into the game.

Afterward, Joe Torre called him into his office and said, “Man, I hate to do this to you, but we’re sending you back down.” Jones was, naturally, crushed. But the worst part was still to come:

“I had to call my dad back.”

He hasn’t been up since.

Now Jones is in the Dodger organization, and guess who’s the Dodger manager? Torre.

Guess who’s still the Dodger manager? Joe Torre. I’m not usually one to put emotion ahead of winning games – how could I, with a soul as black as a steer’s tukus on a moonless night – but if Jones somehow has to be on yet another team with Torre and Joe doesn’t find a way to get him an at-bat here or there? I’ll have no problem with looking the other way while Mitch does what needs to be done.

Well, Jones finally did get that chance to hit – 15, even – and managed a .785 OPS in that short time, though without a homer.  That shouldn’t obscure the damage he did in the minors, either, as finished third in the PCL in OPS a won the Bauman award for most homers in MiLB – despite missing a month of time while in the bigs and passing through waivers.

Clearly, at 32, his time has just about passed. But if you look at the numbers he’s put up in the minors, how has some team not taken a shot on him as a part-time DH or power bat off the bench? I’d have taken him over Mark Loretta, that’s for sure. At least he got his at-bat.

Next! Randy Wolf’s career year! Clayton Kershaw’s raw talent! Hiroki Kuroda lined up for the swine flu, probably! A tale of two Chad Billingsleys! And how did Eric Stults make the cut?! It’s starting pitchers, part 1!

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  1. [...] people want to admit it, they need someone who can replace Andre Ethier against lefties, because Ethier is useless against fellow southpaws. Johnson fits that role perfectly – for this career, he’s lousy against righties (.707 [...]

  2. [...] month plus – Ethier has solved his biggest problem from previous years, and that was his complete inability to hit lefties: 2006: .842 vs RH, .846 vs LH 2007: .830 vs RH, .816 vs LH 2008: .953 vs RH, .692 vs LH 2009: .960 [...]

  3. [...] weakness this year, and that’s hitting left-handed pitching. I mentioned this problem in 2009′s season in review: This year, Ethier destroyed right-handed pitching to the tune of a .960 OPS and 25 of his homers. [...]