MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Right Field

Andre Ethier (C-)
.292/.368/.421 .789 11hr 1.3 WAR

Andre Ethier started out his season with some completely unnecessary public comments, complaining about his contract status the day before the season started and wondering if he might actually get non-tendered. (Spoiler alert: no.)  He ended his season with another round of public controversy, claiming that the Dodgers were forcing him to play on an injured knee before quickly backpedaling, and then undergoing knee surgery anyway. In between making a fool of himself in the papers, he came within one game of setting a franchise record with a 30-game hitting streak, yet ultimately ended up with a less-than-satisfying season as his power deserted him.

Really, most of the season was a disappointment after his outstanding April, wasn’t it? I say that in something of a positive way; other than his lousy August and September, this is a generally good season from an average outfielder. But we expect so much more from Ethier that just being “generally good” isn’t really good enough.

Split PA H 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 121 41 10 3 13 21 .380 .446 .556 1.002 .452
May 102 23 2 2 14 17 .261 .363 .352 .715 .304
June 110 30 8 2 7 24 .300 .345 .440 .785 .368
July 100 23 5 3 9 20 .261 .340 .420 .760 .303
August 99 22 4 1 12 17 .253 .343 .333 .677 .304
Sept/Oct 19 3 1 0 3 4 .188 .316 .250 .566 .250

The hope here is that much of this can be explained by injury, and I’m not just talking about the knee problem that ended his season early. In early May, Ethier missed a game with soreness in his throwing elbow, an issue that appeared to be altering his throwing mechanics even a week later. Two weeks after that, he crashed into the right field wall in Chicago, suffering what was termed at the time “a right elbow contusion, lower right back contusion and sprained left big toe”, costing him much of the next week. But it didn’t completely ruin his game, because going through the archives I can see that even in to June and July I would be continuously pointing out things like “Kemp & Ethier went 6-9, everyone else went 3-32″, performance (along, likely, with the well-publicized hitting streak) that got him added to the All-Star team as a injury replacement for Shane Victorino

Even still, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his first half:

Andre Ethier (B+) (.311/.383/.463 9hr 1.9 WAR)
Ethier, without question, represented one of the more difficult grades to give out. 30 game hitting streak? Yes, please. .383 OBP? Delicious. While his OPS is nearly 40 points off his 2008 career high, the lower offensive environment this year means that it’s good for a career-best 141 OPS+, so hooray for that. No, he’s not hitting lefties (.242/.282/.368), but he never hits lefties, so that’s not much of a surprise. All in all, it’s been a very solid year from one of the two main offensive threats this club has.

Yet… it feels like something is missing. Prior to his two-homer day yesterday, he’d hit just seven dingers, and his SLG is down for the third year in a row. It’s certainly not enough of a problem to criticize him, hence the good grade, and perhaps yesterday’s outburst was the start of something new. I just can’t help shaking the feeling that is very unpopular among the casual fans who love him so much: Ethier is a very good player, but not a superstar. We’ll need to keep that in mind when his contract is up. I don’t want to get too down on him, though: right now, he’s the second best player on this team, and that in itself is quite valuable.

Yet as the knee began to bother him more, his performance on the field suffered, hitting just .252/.339/.333 after the break, before squawking about it to T.J. Simers and finally going under the knife.  To be honest, this all makes me think he’s going to have a big year in 2012, since he’ll (presumably) be healthy after two years of troublesome-but-not-debilitating injuries and headed into a contract year, he’s likely to have a large chip on his shoulder. You know, larger, than the usual one. But can we please, please get him a righty handcuff? I’ve been beating this drum for years, and it never seems to happen; once again, Ethier’s numbers against righties in 2011 (.321/.410/.468) were far ahead of his stats against lefties (.220/.258/.305), just like they are every year. Ethier won’t like being benched against lefties, but to be honest, I don’t care: playing him against LHP is simply giving away outs.

Juan Rivera (A)
.274/.333/.406 .739 5hr 0.7 WAR

This, I admit, may not be the most flattering photo I’ve used in this series. But Rivera is crushing a dinger in this shot, and I wanted to use at least one guy wearing a Brooklyn throwback.

These days, there’s not a whole lot of moves that come as a complete and total surprise with no rumors preceding it, but the acquisition of Rivera from Toronto certainly falls under that category. At the time, expectations were small, since he wasn’t doing a ton with Toronto before being DFA’d; he was merely expected to be slightly better than Marcus Thames and be a righty partner for James Loney at first base:

First off, let’s not worry too much about the player to be named – Rivera was DFA’d himself on July 3 and would have cleared waivers in another day or so, so it’s not like the Jays had a whole lot of leverage there. On the field, this seems like a tiny upgrade; Rivera wasn’t doing a whole lot for Toronto at .243/.305/.360, but it’s still better than Thames for the Dodgers at .197/.243/.333 – when Thames was even healthy enough to play. Against LHP, Rivera was doing what Thames was supposed to do, hitting .327/.400/.509 in 65 PA. And while Thames is an atrocious fielder, Rivera has been a plus defender at times in the past, even playing 40 games in center field throughout his career (though he hasn’t started there since 2006). That’s probably no longer the case at 33, but at least there’s some positive history there. He’s also got some experience at first base, which is more valuable than you think, because with Casey Blake on the shelf, the Dodgers don’t have a viable righty option to pair with James Loney. Rivera should be expected to now play 1B against most lefties.

In the short term, this deal probably makes the team better than they were this morning. Not by much, perhaps, but that’s good enough.

Well, that was one of the bigger understatements of the year, because Rivera was outstanding after coming to the Dodgers, in large part helping to fuel the second-half turnaround. Well, let’s clarify that: a 105 OPS+ is nice but not stellar, yet his .274/.333/.406 line is outstanding compared to the garbage he was replacing, and coming at essentially zero cost he provided a good deal of value. So good on Ned Colletti for upgrading from Thames, and good on Rivera for showing he still has some life in him.

What’s next, though? I find that people forget that Toronto completely gave up on him halfway through the year, and it’s not like Toronto is run by people who can’t identify value; he also hit just .221/.297/.308 after August 25 and offered little value in the field. Yet the narrative reads that he’s an “RBI machine” and a “savior” of the season, so don’t be at all surprised if he’s back in 2012, even though the track record of return engagements from midseason veteran acquisitions is mixed at best in the Colletti era. For the right price, that could be fine; he’s still effective against lefties, with a large platoon split, and with Ethier and James Loney around being completely unable to hit southpaws there’s definitely a need in Los Angeles for that kind of role. He’ll just need to take quite a paycut from his 2011 salary of $5.25m (I wouldn’t go above $2m at most), accept a one-year deal, and not be looked at as an every day player.

Trent Oeltjen (inc.)
.197/.322/.324 .646 2hr 0.4 WAR

It dawns on me that for the second year in a row, Oeltjen gets a glamour shot rather than an action one. This is not simply because I’m enraptured by his Aussie charm, but because “sitting around rather than playing” is basically the best way to sum up Oeltjen’s 2011, where he was on the team continuously from June 9 through the end of the season but made just about no lasting impact.

Of course, that’s what happenens when you’re given just three starts over the final 69 games of the season, isn’t it? The difference was clear; in 12 starts (not the greatest sample size, I will admit), he hit .256/.380/.462, while in 49 games as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement, he hit .125/.243/.156. That’s a problem he needs to sort out if he plans on having much of a career, since it’s certainly not like any team is going to just hand him a starting job, though it’s possible there’s a little more there than we’ve seen. Oeltjen still has options remaining and I imagine his 2012 will look much like his 2011, with time spent both at AAA and the bigs, filling out some team’s roster.

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Next! Clayton Kershaw is a god! Jon Garland‘s durability only goes so far! And Nathan Eovaldi arrives ahead of schedule! It’s starting pitchers, part 1!

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