MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Center Field

Matt Kemp (D-)
.249/.310/.450 .760 28hr 2.3 WAR

Hoo boy. Where do I even start with this one? Remember, Kemp came into the season as arguably the best center fielder in baseball, and most thought that he’d only scraped the peak of his potential. So to say that expectations were sky-high is largely understating it, and he certainly got off to a start that would justify such hype, hitting seven homers in a ten game stretch in April.

I know April 21 is hardly any sort of sample size into a season, but it’s important to remember how in love we were with him at the time:

Matt Kemp may be the single most dangerous hitter in baseball right now, to the point where I’m getting prettttty close to not issuing my standard “non-Pujols division” disclaimer. He’s tied for the MLB lead in homers, he leads MLB in RBI, and he’s one game short of having a hit on every single day of the season. (And even in that game, on April 9 in Florida, he had a walk and three deep flyballs.) He’s homered in 5 of the last 8 games, and his slugging percentage right now is .750. If that number doesn’t mean anything to you, just know that if he was able to keep it up throughout the season, it’d be tied for the 11th highest mark in baseball. Ever.

Of course, no one ever expected he’d keep that up for a full season, but in the back of our minds, we allowed ourselves to remember that this was someone we’d all hoped would break out, not just some no-name who’d had a few fluky hot weeks. Near the end of April, on the 28th, he had a .934 OPS… and then Ned Colletti had to go call him out for his subpar baserunning and defense, which seemed like a ridiculous statement at a time in which the Dodgers were imploding in nearly every way. It’s like I said on April 30:

I think what got lost in Colletti’s comments is that he’s not exactly wrong. Kemp has looked horrendous in the outfield this season, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. I do think part of it is that after years of his defense being underrated, coming into this year he was now overrated, since he never really deserved last year’s Gold Glove in the first place. The Gold Glove voting is such a fantastically flawed process (it often just goes to the best hitter at a position) that it’s barely even worth recognizing, yet most fans still take it to mean something.

Still, that doesn’t absolve Kemp. His play on defense has been lousy, and it needs to change. But being right doesn’t absolve Colletti either; the whole point of yesterday’s post was not that Kemp’s play isn’t a problem, but just that the general manager of a team – one who’s made more than his share of mistakes – shouldn’t be publicly calling out the best player on his team without mentioning the horrible pitching that Colletti himself assembled, or the dozens of other far more pressing issues.

Kemp didn’t quite keep up his scorching April, but he was still quite good in May, getting a hit in 23 of 28 games and ending the month with an .857 OPS. But it was all downhill from there; Kemp didn’t have a month with an OBP over .300 for the rest of the season. In early June, I wondered if he’d been playing too much, but the shit really hit the fan in late June when he got into a confrontation with bench coach Bob Schaefer and was benched. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it wasn’t one game, it was three games – and Joe Torre said that it would have been longer if Kemp hadn’t come to him to talk, as though that makes any sense.

Kemp briefly perked up, hitting three homers in his first five July games – and earning Torre a lot of undue credit – but it was short-lived, as his July OPS was just .715. August was even worse, at .694, as the off-field issues continued when he was called out by Larry Bowa and had his agent, Dave Stewart, start to wonder aloud if Kemp ought to be traded. That’s about when people started wondering how to fix what had gone wrong.

ESPN’s Rob Neyer looked at Kemp’s relationship with the coaching staff:

I don’t have any idea, really. But you can understand the coaches’ frustration with Kemp just a little, can’t you? Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer have been around the game forever, and they haven’t seen many players with Matt Kemp‘s raw talents. And it must be killing them to think he’s wasting it.

Which doesn’t mean they’re helping. Maybe Kemp would benefit from an attitude adjustment, but maybe that process would be facilitated by a coaching adjustment.

Which brings to mind a question that nobody seems to have asked … What’s Joe Torre been up to? In the spring, the general manager ripped Kemp. In the summer, the coaches ripped Kemp. Is Torre waiting for the fall?

Of course, that’s probably too late for the Dodgers, who have already fallen too far. Maybe the solution here is to keep Kemp and find a new coaching staff. Because the old staff doesn’t seem to have accomplished much this summer.

If you know me at all, you know I couldn’t possibly have agreed more with that. Later in August, Chad @ MOKM took a great and thorough look at Kemp’s issues, and settled on his mechanics as the culprit, but Kemp’s September wasn’t much better, with just a .664 OPS.

But there were signs of hope. On September 28, he homered in Colorado. The next day, he left the yard at Coors Field again, and took responsibility for his poor season, saying that he owed the fans more. The team came home for a season-ending three game set with Arizona, and Kemp homered in the opener… and the second game.. and the third game. That’s five homers in five games to end the season, and it was about that time I started thinking that everyone should just let him be:

No one doubts the talent is there, and Ned Colletti claims he has no plans to move him. His clashes with the current coaching staff have been well-documented – though he seems to have a good relationship with Don Mattingly – and if there’s anyone who looks to benefit from the post-Torre era, it might just be Kemp, my early choice for the “No, Chad Billingsley wasn’t dead after one bad year either, now was he?” award next year.

So yeah, Kemp gets that D-, and he certainly earned it with his poor defense (by some measures, he was the worst outfielder in baseball), atrocious base-running (19 SB, but 15 CS), and whifftastic tendencies (shattering the club record for K’s). I’m not defending his performance in 2010, but I think there’s a lot to look forward to in 2011. He ended the year on a great hot streak, Torre, Bowa, & Schaefer are all gone, he’s got a lot to prove after a poor year, he’s playing for a new contract, and he’s still just 26.

Besides, as far as “disaster” seasons go, you can do a lot worse than a 107 OPS+ and a career-high 28 homers. I’ve talked a lot about players I don’t expect to see much improvement from in this review series – like Russell Martin, James Loney, Casey Blake – but as I said in the last quoted piece above, Kemp’s got everything it takes to make 2011 a big year. Now let’s just leave him alone and let it happen.

Trent Oeltjen (inc.)
.217/.357/.348 .705 0hr 0.1 WAR

I just wrote 1200 words on Matt Kemp. Do you really care about Trent Oeltjen and the 30 meaningless plate appearances he got in September? Fine, fine, let’s make this quick. He was released by Milwaukee’s AAA club in July, with me laughing at his choice to join the Dodgers:

For the sake of completeness, let’s note that the Dodgers released Timo Perez from AAA and signed former D-Back Trent Oeltjen, who had opted out of his minor-league deal with the Brewers last week. The Australian native has had minor league OPS’s over .800 in each of the last three years, and had been on a hot streak recently. But it’s not his bat that denied him a call-up:

Oeltjen had been on an offensive tear with the Sounds, raising his batting average to .301 with 24 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 38 RBI and a .851 OPS. But his defense wasn’t considered major-league ready, so the Brewers opted not to call him up and move out one of their players.

“Our reports were that he was coming on dramatically with the bat,” said assistant general manager Gord Ash. “We liked him, obviously. That’s why we signed him. But as a defensive outfielder, he wasn’t what we were looking for.”

So after opting out of his deal, a man who clearly should have signed with an AL team in order to keep the DH option open not only stayed in the NL, but he signed with perhaps the only other team who can top Milwaukee’s level of outfield stackitude. Time for a new agent, maybe?

Oeltjen raked in ABQ, as everyone does, with an environment-fueled .979 OPS. That earned him a call-up in September, where he didn’t do all that much in his limited chances, but he did get four starts in center field, so his defense couldn’t have been all that bad. Honestly, he’s got a pretty decent track record of minor league hitting, and he’ll be just 28 next year; I can think of worse players to stash away in AAA as depth.

******

Next! A tale of two Andre Ethiers! Xavier Paul tries to make his mark! And Reed Johnson‘s ridiculous facial hair! It’s right field!

Should Ivan DeJesus Get a Shot at the 2B Job?

We’re taking a one-day break from season reviews to point out that Ivan DeJesus is off to a hot start for Don Mattingly’s Phoenix Devil Dogs of the AFL, hitting .370/.433/.593 with a homer in seven games. Granted, seven games is a meaningless sample size, and that minimal impact is lessened even further when you’re talking about a fall league of varying competition, so let’s not put too much stock into that stat line. That said, the opportunity to play directly for the new manager of the big club provides a chance to make an impression beyond the numbers.

For his part, DeJesus’ goal is clear:

“I need to be ready in Spring Training,” he said, “and get that job at second base.”

That’s what he wants, of course, but the more pertinent question for us is, is that what we want? Among the many holes the Dodgers have headed into 2011, second base is perhaps the largest. I’ve been through the horrendousness of non-tender candidate Ryan Theriot more than once, and Jamey Carroll shouldn’t be seen as a full-time option at the position. With Blake DeWitt in Chicago, the trade market largely barren beyond Dan Uggla (who’s likely to be priced beyond the Dodgers’ reach), and the free agent market not offering much (and no, Orlando Hudson will not be returning), there’s clearly an opportunity for DeJesus to make his mark.

First, some background: DeJesus was drafted as a shortstop in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft, a pick the Dodgers received as compensation for losing Adrian Beltre to Seattle. Most reviews of him – both predraft and during his first two seasons – mentioned above-average glovework and good on-base skills, but worried about a total lack of power. He largely lived up (?) to those preconceptions between 2005-07, not once generating an OPS over .800 due to puny slugging numbers, but showing encouragingly improving OBP, with marks of .354, .361, and .371 during those years.

In 2008 at AA Jacksonville, DeJesus had a true breakthrough year despite not turning 21 until May, making him one of the youngest players in the league. His .324/.419/.423 line got him a spot in the Futures Game during the All-Star Break and earned him the Dodgers’ 2008 Minor League Player of the Year title.

Heading into 2009, hopes were high. Baseball America had him as the #6 Dodger prospect, while Baseball Prospectus had him at #2 thanks to some kind words:

De Jesus has an excellent chance to outdo his father, a glove-first shortstop who spent 15 years in the majors, and Junior’s pedigree certainly factors into a basic baseball intelligence that raises every aspect of his game. For the second year in a row, his stock rose, and he earned the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year honors for his season at Jacksonville. Though he doesn’t project for much power, Ivan the Younger is a patient, contact-oriented hitter who works the count and sprays line drives to all fields. He’s a strong defender as well, with steady hands, good range, and a solid arm; some feel that second base may be his ultimate destination even with Hu’s fall from grace.

With Orlando Hudson signed for just one season and Rafael Furcal always at risk of injury, the hope was that DeJesus would continue to progress at AAA in 2009, and challenge for a middle infield job in 2010. Those were hopes were dashed when he broke his leg sliding into home during a spring game in early March, costing him the entire season (save for four late season rookie-league games).

The injury was serious enough that he had to be shut down during winter ball in Puerto Rico, and he was still feeling pain during this year’s camp, despite proclaiming himself healthy. Now more of a second baseman than a shortsop, 2010 was seen as a big test, and DeJon Watson had plenty of nice things to say about him in a March interview with Baseball Prospectus, who also claimed he had the “best plate discipline in the system”.

Depending on how you look at it, 2010 (.296/.335/.405) was either a step backwards or a nice comeback. His OPS dropped 100 points from 2008, mainly because while he struck out exactly as often as he did in 2008 (81 times), his walks dropped by more than half from 76 to 32. On the other hand, he’d missed over a year with a serious injury, jumped up a level, and still hit nearly .300 while setting a career high in doubles (33) and tying his high in homers (7).

That said, not in DeJesus’ favor is that he didn’t receive a September callup alongside fellow infielders Russ Mitchell, Chin-lung Hu, and John Lindsey. At the time, Ken Gurnick mentioned it in an mlb.com article:

Clubs send a message with the players they call up in September. For the Dodgers, the most glaring omission from the list of callups is second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr., who hit .299 with 89 runs scored and 70 RBIs at Triple-A Albuquerque after missing the entire 2009 season with a broken leg suffered in Spring Training.

DeJesus was drafted in the second round in 2005 as a shortstop, but he played second base this year, and scouts say his range and footwork around the bag need improvement, perhaps the aftereffects of the injury.

Sources also claim that DeJesus, the son of longtime Major Leaguer Ivan DeJesus, is in the doghouse because he has yet to grasp some of the subtleties of teamwork and game approach. He is scheduled to play in the Arizona Fall League.

So what say you? I’ve seen it suggested in several places that DeJesus ought to be given a real chance to win the 2011 second base job, but I’m not so sure. He’s still quite young (won’t be 24 until May), and he’s only had one year as a full-time second baseman, which is important, judging by the scouting comments from the Gurnick article. Another year in ABQ’s high-offense environment, another year off the injury, and another year refining his 2B fundamentals don’t seem like a bad idea at all to me, and if he can parlay that into a late-season call-up, then you give him a shot in 2012 – when he’ll still be just 25.

Still, someone has to play 2B, and it absolutely cannot be Theriot, who may make nearly $4m in arbitration. You can either pay a comparable cost to get better (though not star-level) production than Theriot, or you can get Theriot-level performance for about 25% of that cost. So if DeJesus continues to impress Mattingly in Arizona, and completely tears up the spring, then sure, I wouldn’t be upset to see him there. I just think that it’s probably better for both him and the team to get a stop-gap solution at second base (not that there’s a ton of options, but it’s not hard to do better than Theriot) with an eye towards DeJesus later in the year or the year after.

MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Left Field

Would you believe that nine different players started a game in left field for the Dodgers in 2010? We’ve already discussed Jamey Carroll and Russ Mitchell in the infield, and you’ll see Trent Oeltjen in center field. Then, even though they had more starts in LF than anywhere else, I’m putting Reed Johnson and Xavier Paul with Andre Ethier in right field just to balance out these articles a bit. That still leaves four men here…

Manny Ramirez (C)
.311/.405/.510 .915 8hr 1.3 WAR

I feel like I wrote a pretty definitive review of Manny’s time in LA back in August, and as little as I want to write more about him, that’s about as much as you probably want to read more about him. So let’s just look at the 2010-only section of that piece:

Heading into 2010, expectations were high. The expected controversy over whether Manny would exercise his opt-out clause never came, as he quietly acknowledged he wouldn’t be passing up his guaranteed 2010 payday on November 6. With that out of the way, conditions were ripe for a comeback. Manny had had the entire winter to rest his hand, he was in a contract year, and if the thought of playing for his next payday didn’t motivate him, the embarrassment he’d suffered in 2009 certainly would.

Well, it didn’t work out exactly like that. Manny landed on the disabled list with leg issues three separate times, and played just 65 games with the Dodgers, the fewest in his career other than a cup of coffee as a 21-year-old with the 1993 Indians. Eight homers, 232 plate appearances, months on the disabled list, and far more Scott Podsednik and Garret Anderson in left field than we ever could have dreamed. That’s not exactly what we’d hoped for, I’ll grant you.

Classic Manny? Clearly not.

But again, nor was it the post-steroid disaster that the media liked to portray it as. Manny’s .915 OPS was 13th in MLB, among players with at least 225 PA. That’s higher than players like Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman, and Evan Longoria. Remember, PED suspension or not, we’re still talking about a guy who’s 38 years old. A .915 OPS is 91% of his career average 1.000 OPS; for a 38-year-old to get that close to matching his usual Hall-of-Fame level is impressive. In fact, it was the 21st highest OPS+ of any ballplayer 38 or older (220 PA or more) in history, and the list above is littered with names like Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb.

I’m not saying he was worth every penny this year; it’s hard to do so with how much time he missed. But to keep up the facade that he could no longer produce is just wrong. If the numbers above aren’t convincing proof of that, how about the fact that they’ve scored more than 5 runs per game with him in the lineup, and fewer than 4 without him? If he’s not classic, “in his Boston prime” Manny, or superpowered “just got to LA” Manny, he’s still an effective force in the lineup, one the Dodgers have proven they cannot win without.

Manny ended his Dodger career with a bizarre ejection after just one pitch while pinch-hitting with the bases loaded, which is oddly appropriate. He also ended his Dodger career atop the team’s all-time leaderboards in OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+ (minimum 500 at-bats), all in exchange for a failed third baseman, a mid-level pitching prospect, and a ton of heartburn. Now, he’s gone, dropped onto the White Sox for nothing but salary relief, and no matter how you feel about Manny’s time in LA, there’s not much argument we got exactly what we signed up for. Dominant offensive performance, more than a little controversy, and a less-than-glorious exit? Yeah, that sounds about right.

None of that’s really changed, with the exception of this week’s revelation that Manny had hernia surgery to fix a groin issue which had bothered him all season. To put up the line he did despite all of the leg issues he had is impressive, though of course all the time he missed due to them balances that out quite a bit.

Scott Podsednik (D)
.262/.313/.336 .648 1hr -0.2 WAR

When Podsednik came to town, I didn’t hate the deal as much as you might think, reasoning that he could be of value as depth in LF and CF and as speed off the bench. (Let me clarify that by saying that I didn’t hate his acquisition; the team overpaid to get him, but that’s not his fault.)

That’s not how it worked, however. Podsednik basically became the everyday LF until he was hurt, a role he was woefully unqualified for, especially since he’s about one-tenth the hitter that Manny was. This was clear less than a month after he arrived:

So here’s all I ask of the team: whichever path you choose, don’t half-ass it. If you think you really have a shot, then don’t trade Manny. There’s no question that his presence fundamentally changes the lineup, and you can’t really be saying you’re trying to win if you’re playing Scott Podsednik (one of the three worst .300 hitters this year, according to baseball-reference) in left field instead of Manny, because that’s a huge dropoff in production. There’s no way you can let Manny go, and act as though you’re still a contender.

But pretend they did, and Podsednik didn’t really do much to contribute before his season ended due to plantar fasciitis in early September:

If this is indeed it for Podsednik’s season, his Dodger tenure ends as a disappointing one. His line of .262/.313/.336, with 5 steals and 3 caught stealing, comes out to just a 79 OPS+ (and -0.2 WAR), well below his 107 OPS+ line for Kansas City. By comparison, Lucas May had an .878 OPS with 5 homers in 24 games for the KC AAA team. So there’s that.

Podsednik will be 35 in March and showed zero power, poor defense, and mediocre on-base skills with the Dodgers. There’s absolutely no way he should be back in 2011. So of course he’ll be back in 2011.

Garret Anderson (those damned kids are on my lawn again!)
.181/.204/.271 .475 2hr -1.1 WAR

Like with Manny, I’ve already spent far too much time this season discussing a late-30s outfielder who didn’t even last the season. So we’ll just point out that it was a bad idea when the rumors surfaced in January

Yes, I don’t like him because he’s old (38 in June). Yes, I don’t like him because he’s coming off the worst year of his career despite having just moved to the easier league (.705 OPS, the third year in a row that decreased). Yes, I don’t like him because he is by all accounts a horrible fielder (-16.5 UZR/150 last year). Hey, a senior citizen who can’t hit or field? Sign me up?!

But what I like even less than the fact that Garret Anderson is a terrible baseball player is the idea of Garret Anderson. Let’s say he was where he was three or four years ago, when he was past his peak but still an average-ish hitter. That’s still valuable, but you’re not playing that guy over Manny, Kemp or Ethier, right? Nor was his glove so good that he’s really a huge upgrade over Manny in the late innings, agreed? And since he’s not much of a LF, you’re sure not going to put him into center or right to rest those guys either.

It was a bad idea in March when he was signed…

Since then, the Dodgers have imported Reed Johnson to be the 4th outfielder, plus Giles and others to battle for the last bench spot.  What Garret Anderson adds to that mix is… well, not “quality” exactly… I don’t know. Formaldehyde?

It was a bad idea at the end of April when he had proven he had nothing left…

Speaking of Manny’s absence… Garret Anderson needs to be cut. Now. Not when Manny comes back. Today. After another 0-4 last night, in which he didn’t even get a ball out of the infield, he’s hitting an almost unbelievable .122. This experiment was a terrible idea from the beginning, and it’s a terrible idea now. The pinch-homer he hit on April 22 is the only hit he’s had in nearly three weeks. How much more do we need to see here? He’s had a nice career, but he’s cooked, and it’s time to acknowledge that. And for the love of GOD, Torre, if you must play him, can you please stop batting him second? The thought process here is almost unfathomable.

And how did it all end up? With arguably the worst season by a Dodger hitter in 100 years:

The list you’re looking at above is of the ten worst seasons by OPS+ in Dodger history, among hitters with as many plate appearances as Anderson’s 163. You’ll notice that of the six seasons worse than Anderson’s, not a single one came after World War I. Let me put that another way: none of those seasons were even recent enough to take place in Ebbets Field, which didn’t open until 1913. Jul Kustus played just that one season as a backup for the Dodgers, never returned to the big leagues, and was dead six years later. Bill Bergen was so historically bad that he still holds the record for the longest hitless streak by a non-pitcher (0 for 46 in 1909), though he was regarded as an outstanding defensive catcher. Not exactly the company you want to keep if you’re Anderson, especially when you’re not contributing at all on the bases or in the field.

The whole experiment was actually pretty painful to watch, just because of the respect Anderson had earned in his long career in Anaheim. He never should have been out there, and knowing that the Dodgers chose to not go with their best 25 men for two-thirds of the season was infuriating. I’ll be shocked if we see Anderson in the big leagues again.

Jay Gibbons (∞)
.280/.313/.507 .819 5hr 0.1 WAR

Here’s how little I thought of Gibbons being signed to a minor-league deal in the spring: if you search “Gibbons” on this blog, you’ll first see a mention from December of 2007, when he was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. Though he was doing well in the minors, he didn’t even warrant a second mention until July 8, 2010, when I noted that he would be taking part in the AAA Home Run Derby. (That’s how come he gets “infinity” as a grade. How can I say he bested a preseason expectation when I didn’t even spend one brain cell thinking about him? It’s like dividing by zero. It’s dangerous.)

Of course, then I mentioned him several times over the next month, pointing out that he kept raking as Garret Anderson kept failing, until he was finally recalled when Anderson was DFA’d on August 8. At the time, I tried to discuss what you could expect from him:

Still, simply besting Anderson isn’t a high bar to clear, and the fact that Gibbons can play 1B as well as LF or RF offers some much-needed bench flexibility. As with any Isotope, you have to look at the home/road splits to see how much the Albuquerque environment helped him. It certainly has – his OPS is nearly 200 points higher at home – but he’s also been effective on the road as well, hitting .306/.335/.503.

Hey, if he works out, great. If not, you bring back up Xavier Paul or try someone else. Either way, he’s far more deserving of the opportunity right now than Anderson is, and this is an experiment which should have been tried months ago.

Gibbons bashed a homer in his first start and stayed hot before tailing off at the end, and though he drew just four walks and did a hilarious impression of “defense” in left field, his bat made the decision to keep him on the farm in favor of Anderson look all the worse. Or as I said on September 6

If you look at #5 on my list of things I wanted to see over the rest of the season, you’ll see “finding out if Jay Gibbons is worth a roster spot for next season.” So what happened? Gibbons got the start on Saturday and collected his third homer of the season. Someone remind me again why it took so long to get rid of the corpse of Anderson and get Gibbons up here – not like many of us hadn’t been calling for just that for months – because I sure as hell can’t come up with a good reason.

Gibbons almost certainly earned himself a spot on the 2011 club, and with good reason; with six double-digit homer seasons under his belt, he’s got the track record, and the defensive versatility is great to have on the bench, though he’s hardly a plus at either. Just keep in mind that, like Rod Barajas, one hot month does not make an All-Star. Gibbons as a power bat off the bench? Love it. Gibbons as your full-time left fielder? Not good. That said, he’ll likely sign for the minimum or something close to it, and that’s great value to add to your reserve corps.

******

Next! Matt Kemp disappoints everyone! And who the hell is Trent Oeltjen?! It’s center field!

MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Third Base

Third base!

Casey Blake (D)
.248/.320/.407 .727 17hr 3.1 WAR

Hell of year for Casey Blake, starting in spring training when we had to listen to rumors that he might actually be the club’s backup shortstop. That never happened, of course; unfortunately for Blake, what also never happened was his ability to perform at all like his career 2009 year, since he had his worst season since 2005 in nearly every way. Even coming off a few good seasons, when you’re 36, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt as far as having an off-season. You get people wondering if you’re cooked.

Though he had an okay April, Blake slumped badly by mid-May, leading me to point out that he was the only Dodger not riding the team’s hot streak:

Yet there’s one member of the Dodgers who hasn’t been able to enjoy the ride as much as everyone else, and that’s Casey Blake. Blake’s been, on the whole, pretty lousy this season: a .233/.323/.397 line with 3 homers isn’t going to get you very far as a third baseman. His .720 OPS in fact ranks him 20th among MLB 3B, and his .265 True Average tells a similar tale, putting him 22nd. Even his defense, surprisingly good last year (12.0 runs above average per UZR), has slipped below average to -0.9 this year. The standard “small sample size” warnings apply, but it’s hard to ignore that he has six errors in six weeks this year, after ten in six months last year.

Later in that post, I jokingly suggested that his failings were because he’d been clean-shaven to start the year, and he’d need to grow back the beard if he was going to succeed. A few days later we marveled that he was indeed growing it back, and it was fun for the next month: between May 15 – June 15, he hit .300/.371/.500 with four homers.

But it didn’t last. His overall OPS for June was just .692, and his July was completely atrocious, at just .174/.242/.314. In August, he contributed to another Jonathan Broxton implosion by allowing a nearly-certain 9th-inning double play ball go through his legs, and in September I had to ask if he was done:

Looking deeper into the stats helps to shed some light here. Blake’s BABIP of .307 is nearly identical to his career .305 mark, so he’s not been particularly unlucky, and his BB% isn’t far off from his usual line either. But he’s certainly striking out more (26.9% would be a career high, and is 4% more than usual), and you can bet that’s in large part because he’s offering at far more pitches outside the strike zone than he’s ever done before (swinging at 27.5% of such offerings, well above his career mark of 20.9%).

Then there’s the fact that he’s getting killed on fastballs. Last year, Blake was worth 18.7 runs above average against heaters, good for 9th among MLB 3B. This year, he’s dropped down to just 3.5 runs above average against fastballs. So we have an older player, who can’t catch up to fastballs anymore, and is losing his plate discipline and swinging at more balls outside the zone – and he’s getting destroyed by fellow righties (.223/.293/.363). You don’t have to go too far to think that the bat speed is slowing and he’s having trouble adjusting.

Unfortunately, history isn’t on Blake’s side either. There’s only been seventeen seasons since 1961 in which a third baseman 37 or older (since Blake will be 37 most of next year) has managed to even play enough to qualify for the batting title. Looking at that list, most of them are Hall of Famers (Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Jr.), or about to be (Chipper Jones) – and even then there’s quite a few dreadful seasons on that list. Do we really expect that Casey Blake is the one who bucks that trend?

Needless to say, I don’t have high hopes for Blake in 2011. This is exactly what I was afraid of back in December of 2008, when he signed his three-year deal – that while he’d be fine in 2009, he’d be questionable for 2010, and totally undesirable in 2011. (Coincidentally, that’s very similar to how I felt about Ted Lilly‘s three-year deal.)

Still, there’s no chance of moving him, so he’ll be back. All you can really hope for is that the Dodgers, as I argued in my 2011 plan, take advantage of his large lefty/righty split (.895 vs .663 OPS) and make him a lefty-mashing 1B/3B off the bench. That’s what I want to do, and it’s what they should do; but I doubt it’s all that high on their list, unfortunately.

Oh, and since there’s no other 3B remotely on the radar in the system (unless Jerry Sands unexpectedly shows an aptitude for the position in the Arizona Fall League), expect a lot of talk next year about who replaces Blake in 2012 and beyond.

Russ Mitchell (inc.)
.143/.140/.286 .425 1hr -0.4 WAR

Mitchell was recalled on September 6, after rosters had expanded, and at the time I didn’t think much of him:

To be honest, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Mitchell. He’ll be 26 before next season starts, yet he had a line of just .241/.298/.406 last year, his second season in AA. Overall, his career OBP in the minors was just .321. Somehow that was good enough to get him to AAA, where he took advantage of the ABQ environment to rake: .315/.363/.535, with 23 homers.

That’s not an accident, either; his OPS at home was 1.164, but on the road it was just .834, and it’s not like ABQ is the only park in the PCL that caters to offense, either. Still, Mitchell offers nice versatility – while he’s primarily a 3B, he also saw time at 1B, 2B, LF, & RF this year – and it’s nice to see another homegrown prospect make the bigs, so maybe he’ll make an impression and get into the mix for a utility role next year.

Mitchell got a decent showcase, starting 11 games and receiving 43 PA in September, but he did absolutely nothing to make a mark. Sure, he hit two homers, and that’s nice, but he started out 0-15, managed just six hits, and didn’t walk even once while striking out eight times. Now, he started at 1B, 3B, and LF, and he can supposedly also play 2B and RF, so the versatility is nice, but he also managed to make three errors in his short time up.

Obviously, Mitchell didn’t really make much of a case towards a bench job in 2011, and there’s really no good reason he shouldn’t be in AAA to start the year. Best case scenario, he puts up some more ABQ-fueled numbers and can be overvalued in a trade.

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Next! We say goodbye to Manny Ramirez! We wish Scott Podsednik never came to town! We try to forget Garret Anderson ever existed! And we welcome back Jay Gibbons from baseball purgatory! It’s left field!

MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Shortstop

Rafael Furcal (B)
.300/.366/.460 .826 8hr 3.4 WAR

I have to be honest, when I first looked back on Furcal’s season, all I could think of at first was, “oh, shocker, he hurt his back again.” And that’s true; he’s proven he simply cannot be counted upon to stay healthy.

However, that’s shortchanging him a bit, because when he was able to stay on the field, he put together one of the finest seasons of his career. Really, you can break his season down into three two-month slices.

In April and May, Furcal started just 24 games, missing most of May with a strained hamstring. His .308/.359/.402 (.761) was quite good even then, yet it hardly compared to his June and July (and two games in August). Furcal played his way onto the All-Star team by destroying opposing pitching with a .320/.391/.540 (.931) line, and all eight of his homers, though he did miss a week while mourning the passing of his father. He was so good, in fact, that in July I ran the numbers and said he was the best shortstop in Los Angeles Dodger history, slathering him with praise:

Last night, Furcal chipped in three more hits, including the go-ahead home run, saving the Dodgers from blowing yet another outstanding Clayton Kershaw start. I mean, choose whatever metrics you want; they’re all ridiculous. He’s got four homers in the last eight games, a stretch in which his OPS is 1.325. Over his last 31 starts (which span more than a month because of the time missed tending to his father) he’s only hitting an absurd .382/.422/.625. Here’s my favorite stat, though: in those 31 starts, he’s gone hitless just 7 times, but he’s had multiple hit games 17 times. Even his defense, which is hard to quantify but especially so over less than half a season, seems to have new energy; I noted on Twitter recently that I think I’ve seen him make more phenomenal plays this year than I have in the previous four years combined.

So it should come as no surprise that all of the leading stats paint him as the most valuable shortstop in baseball. FanGraphs shows him leading MLB SS in WAR, at 3.2 (and no complaining that Troy Tulowitzki has missed time, because with Furcal’s DL stint he’s actually still seven games behind Tulo), while Baseball Prospectus has him destroying the field in MLVr (Marginal Lineup Value rate, which I used instead of VORP because his missed time hurts him there). His position as top dog at his position this year is nearly indisputable.

Of course, it was too good to be true, because his August and September were disastrous, which you could of course say about any number of Dodgers. He played just two games in August before his back sent him to the DL again; when he returned in September he was hardly the same, hitting .237/.310/.329 (.639).

I’ve seen some calls to move him this offseason, but he’s making $12m next year, so that’s just not an option. All you can do is pray that he’s somewhat healthy, but not too healthy; his 2012 $12m club option becomes guaranteed with 600 PA  next year.

Jamey Carroll (A)
.291/.379/.339 .718 0hr 2.7 WAR

Carroll’s been proclaimed the unofficial 2010 MVP of the Dodgers by a variety of outlets and experts, and while you can argue that, it says a lot about this year’s edition of the club that a 36-year-old backup infielder who didn’t hit even one homer would even be in the conversation.

That’s not a slight against Carroll, of course, who had what was essentially a career year while getting far more playing time at shortstop in the wake of Furcal’s injury than ever anticipated. When he was signed, I didn’t mind him as a backup infielder, though at the time I wasn’t thrilled with the second guaranteed year. I felt that Felipe Lopez was a better fit (remember, Lopez was coming off of a great 2009), especially when Lopez signed for barely a third of what Carroll got, which made the Carroll deal look so bad that it made its way onto MLBtraderumors’ list of “worst offseason deals”.

Still, that’s more a concern about management than it is about Carroll himself – he far outplayed any expectations we may have had of him. In fact by August I was wondering why Carroll wasn’t hitting higher in the lineup to take advantage of his high OBP:

I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: there is no rational reason that Ryan Theriot should be hitting higher in the lineup than Jamey Carroll. Carroll gets on base more often, and even hits for a bit more power. I said it before last night’s game, and look what happened: Carroll got on twice, Theriot just once. There’s no question that this offense needs a shake-up; isn’t this an easy and obvious way to do it?

That never really happened, of course, but the unexpected ability of Carroll to get on base and adequately play shortstop (that’s “adequate” in the sense that he caught what was hit to him, despite showing very little range) helped the Dodgers avoid a “2008 Angel Berroa” level disaster at the position. Really, Carroll will be a good barometer of how successful the 2011 Dodgers are. If he’s a nice bench piece, that’s good news. If he’s getting serious playing time again, then things haven’t really gone in the right direction.

Chin-lung Hu (inc.)
.130/.160/.174 .334 0hr -0.2 WAR

Hu made his yearly cameo for the 4th season in a row, but it’s kind of an understatement to say that his career has largely stalled out. At 26, he had just 25 plate appearances in the bigs, less than he had in 2007 or 2008.

Really, it was that 2008 season that seemingly sealed his fate, because coming off a big season in the minors in 2007 (.325/.364/.507) he flopped badly in his big chance to replace the injured Furcal in 2008 (.181/.252/.233 in 121 PA).

Still, even if he was never going to be as good as that 2007 promised he could be, I think he’s still been slightly underrated, in the sense that he at least deserves chances ahead of retreads like Nick Green. There’s never been any question about his glove, and he’d had a pretty decent line of .317/.339/.438 in 223 AAA plate appearances this season, before undergoing surgery on an injured left thumb. He can still be a starter on a second-division club, or a backup on a better one, but since he’s out of options that chance will likely come with another organization next season.

Juan Castro (inc.)
.000/.250/.000 .250 0hr 0.0 WAR

Castro played just one game in his third (and pray to whatever deity you choose that it’s also his final) stint with the Dodgers, so what am I really going to say about him? Really, the highlight of my coverage of Castro this season was while he was still playing with the Phillies, as I was praising Furcal in July. I noted that Furcal’s 2010 was the best season a Dodger shortstop had ever had to that point, and presented a list of the top ten entries. Right after the list, I said…

(Dead last? Juan Castro‘s atrociously amazing .199/.245/.255 campaign in 1998.)

Yeah, that sounds about right. In parts of seven seasons with the Dodgers (1995-99, 2009, 2010), Castro put up a total line of .205/.258/.271. That’s a 43 OPS+. Good lord.

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Next! Casey Blake turns into a pumpkin! Russ Mitchell tries to make his mark! It’s third base!