On Jay Gibbons As a Feel-Good Story and a Platoon Risk

With Marcus Thames in the fold and the Dodger roster seemingly all but settled, something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately is what we can really expect from Jay Gibbons. Looking at the rest of the possible contributors in the left field mix, there’s not a whole lot of question about what you’re going to get. Thames is an atrocious outfielder who will likely hit lefties well. Tony Gwynn is a plus glove – good enough to possibly bump Matt Kemp to a corner – who probably won’t hit enough to justify playing every day. Xavier Paul is an intriguing young talent who hasn’t proven he’s more than an AAAA player and probably won’t get the chance to prove otherwise, at least in Los Angeles.

Then there’s Gibbons. You all know his story by now, as he went from “reasonably successful Oriole” in the early and middle part of the decade, to “blackballed Mitchell Report name who was largely out of baseball” in 2008-09, to “heartwarming success story for his hometown team” in 2010. Though he was certainly a nice boost for the team last year, I’ve always felt that his performance got a little more hype than it probably deserved. Coming on the heels of the Garret Anderson debacle, the bar was set pretty low, and Gibbons made a great first impression – he homered in his first start and put up a 1.102 OPS over his first 47 PA back in the bigs. That’s all well and good, except beyond his own 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 for months.

This isn’t to bash Gibbons, who made for a nice story in the dog days of a lost season. It’s just to point out that despite all the accolades, he’s still a 34-year-old who put up a .313 OBP in 80 PA, and can’t possibly be expected to sustain a .507 SLG. While all the stories read that he hadn’t played in MLB since 2007, it actually goes beyond that; due to injuries, he didn’t even get into 100 games in either 2006 or 2007. 

The missed time, injury history, and 2010 semi-rebound should make for a very difficult player to project, but the advanced models seem to have come to a less-than-optimistic consensus on him. Over at BaseballThinkFactory, Dan Szymborski included Gibbons in his ZIPS projections, and came up with .263/.292/.412, which comes out to an 89 OPS+, with 9 HR in 289 AB. I don’t see anything unreasonable with that guess. The CAIRO system has a nearly identical prediction of .256/.296/.409.

I also bring this topic up because yesterday and today, three separate sources have taken on the Gibbons (and Thames) story: a puff piece from Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times and Mrs. Brady’s 4th grade English class, and ideas on the platoon from Dave Cameron and Matt Klaassen, each of FanGraphs.

Let’s start with the respectable writers first. Klaassen:

Thames himself isn’t really a problem as a hitter. For the money, a .249/.311/.448 with a .327 projected wOBA (according to these weights) isn’t all that bad for a platoon hitter. Thames’ platoon skill gets exaggerated because people forget that right-handed hitters’ platoon splits regress heavily to the mean. However, even after accounting for that, I have him as a .344 wOBA hitter versus southpaws, and .314 versus righties. He’s a decent choice for the right-handed half of a platoon.

The problem is Gibbons. I’m happy that he returned to the minors not long after we mentioned him in a “where are they now” post last year. The lefty is the key to any platoon because a) he will get most of the plate appearances, and b) since the platoon skill of lefties varies more than that of righties, by finding a guy with a bigger-than-usual split, a team can leverage that for maximum value. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Gibbons is a probably a terrible hitter overall at this point in his career (CAIRO projects .256/.296/.409 for .304 wOBA). Moreover, he doesn’t have a very large split — his observed split is actually slightly smaller than the league average for lefties over the past four seasons. When I run his catcher-esque .304 wOBA projection through the mighty platoon-a-tron, I get a Jason Kendall-esque .283 wOBA versus southpaws, but hey, he might hit .311 versus righties, so, oh… wait, that’s worse than his platoon partner’s projected wOBA versus righties? Uh oh…

(snip)

At that point, one has to wonder if the Dodgers aren’t better off just going with Tony Gwynn, Jr.’s glove-only approach in left (or preferably, center with Matt Kemp switching to left) rather than taking up all the extra roster space.

That is the final reason, beyond the offensive and defensive issues, that this seemingly inexpensive roll of the dice is problematic: the Dodgers are going to have to keep Gwynn around anyway. Gibbons and Thames can barely play the corner outfield, and with the other starting outfielders being right fielder Andre Ethier and center fielder Matt Kemp (who are unlikely to overshadow the Ichiro Suzuki-Franklin Gutierrez combination anytime soon), the Dodgers are going to need someone to back up Kemp in center. So Gwynn has to stay. That is five roster spots taken up with outfielders for very little gain. Thames has a place on a major league roster as a right-handed DH/emergency outfielder and Gibbons is nice Triple-A depth/minor league deal material. As a left-field platoon on a team trying to contend, they aren’t a winning combination.

Cameron agrees, to some extent. While he acknowledges that a straight platoon of Gibbons/Thames could look good on paper…

The problem is that it rarely actually works out this way. Starting pitchers often don’t last more than five or six innings, so a platoon hitter may only get two or three at-bats against a starter before being faced with a seemingly never-ending supply of specialist relievers coming out of the bullpen. Their struggles against same-handed pitchers are the reason they’re platoon players to begin with, and these matchups often present problems in late-game situations.

The Dodgers are going to run head-first into this problem with a Gibbons/Thames platoon. While they may start the game with Gibbons against a right-handed pitcher, by the seventh inning, their choice will almost certainly be to let Gibbons hit against a lefty (his wRC+ against them is just 88) or use Thames as a pinch-hitter. Both scenarios present problems. As we noted here a year ago, there is a significant performance loss exhibited by players who have to come off the bench and hit cold; on average, hitters lose about 10 percent of their overall abilities when being forced to pinch-hit. While pinch-hitting Thames against a lefty might sound intriguing, by the time you add in the pinch-hitter penalty, the situation turns again in favor of the pitcher.

 Even worse, if there’s a left-handed reliever already on the mound when Gibbons comes to bat, Don Mattingly will have choose whether to send Thames up to the plate to pinch-hit, giving the opposing manager the ability to bring in a right-handed reliever to counter his move. In that situation, not only will Thames be facing a pinch-hitting penalty, he’ll also be facing a right-handed pitcher. The advantage of the platoon is effectively negated in most high-leverage situations.

Cameron goes on to share an interesting thought: the idea of a platoon based on the Dodger starting pitcher. If, as he suggests, the Dodgers have two lefty flyball pitchers (Ted Lilly & Clayton Kershaw) along with three righties who tend more towards groundballs (Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jon Garland), then perhaps it makes more sense to start Gwynn when the lefties are on the mound just to take advantage of his excellent defense.

Finally, and I hate to sully such excellent thinking with such Plaschke-itis, but I have to ask about his praise of Gibbons in today’s article. We all remember Plaschke destroying Manny Ramirez endlessly for getting busted on PEDs, right? Regardless of your viewpoint on Manny, Gibbons got busted for the same offense. Yet Gibbons warrants a nice feature, while Plaschke probably wouldn’t slow his car if he saw Manny crossing the street.  It’s more evidence of the hypocrisy on the subject of PEDs in baseball as a whole, and particularly of the moral void of Plaschke himself.

******

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe has his yearly “Replacement Level Killers“, and wouldn’t you know it, James Loney made the list. An excerpt: 

Since his strong rookie season, Loney has been incrementally moving backward relative to the average major-league first baseman in terms of True Average, from 27 points above in 2007 to 11 points below in 2008, 16 points below in 2009, and 19 points below last year. At the same time, his salary has risen from $400,000 to $3.1 million last year, his first year of arbitration eligibility, giving the Dodgers less for their money each year. Loney got off to a hot start in 2010 (.309/.361/.442 before the break) but limped home (.211/.285/.331 after it); the Dodgers went from 10 games above .500 and tied for the NL wild-card lead at the break to two games below .500 and 12 out when all was said and doneThey got less value from Loney than they did from the similarly disappointing Russell Martin (3.2 WARP), whom they non-tendered.
Remedy (?): If Loney weren’t a favorite son of assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted him in the first round in 2002, he would have been a non-tender candidate as well. Based upon the arbitration numbers exchanged between player and team earlier this week, he’ll earn somewhere between $4.7 and $5.25 million in 2011, money that could have been put to better use toward a bigger bat for the flagging Dodger offense. At the very least, the team should have come up with a platoon partner to protect Loney from lefties, against whom he’s hit just .261/.321/.381 in his career, but Ned Colletti has studiously been sitting on his hands to the point of numbness, neglecting his offense after fortifying his pitching staff.

No hint of bias there: Jay’s actually a Dodger fan.

0 comments

Trackbacks

  1. [...] a nice story at the end of 2010. As much as that made for some fun puff piece stories in the press, I was a bit concerned about what to really expect from him going into 2011: You all know his story by now, as he went [...]