By In Stuff

Angels in the Outfield

In the next few days, I have a post coming on hitting at home and on the road. It is based on the fun new book Scorecasting by my colleague Jon Wertheim and his lifelong friend Tobias J. Moskowitz. More on all that soon … maybe even a conversation (a Pozcast?) with Jon himself.

In any case, the book has re-energized many of my questions about why players generally hit better at home than they do on the road. Why? In the cases of players like Jim Rice or Dale Murphy or Todd Helton, it is fairly obvious that they spent (or spend) their home games playing in great hitting ballparks. So, obviously they hit better at home. Chuck Klein is in the Hall of Fame largely because of the absurd dimensions of his home ballpark, the Baker Bowl. He is not the only one in the Hall of Fame based on perception and context (and a liberal veteran’s committee).

But even beyond the extreme cases, players hit better at home, and I will talk a bit about that that later. But for now, I want to show the home and road statistics of one Vernon M. Wells from 2010:

Home: .321/.363/.628 with 20 homers, 44 runs, 54 RBIs.
Road: .227/.301/.407 with 11 homers, 35 runs, 34 RBIs.

Something kind of weird happened in the Rogers Centre in Toronto in 2010. For one year, the place kind of turned into a launching pad for right-handed hitters. It seems to happen every now and again in Toronto. Most years, it’s a pretty neutral place, but in 2006, for instance, righties found it to be a nice home run park. That year, Troy Glaus mashed 38 homers (25 at home) and Wells hit 32 homers (24 at home) and Alex Rios showed his first real signs of power, hitting 12 of his 17 homers at home.

But then in 2007, it was back to normal. It’s weird — the right-handed power thing just shows up every now and again, like Charo on The Love Boat. Maybe it’s the quirks of opening and closing the roof. Maybe it’s just chance — you really shouldn’t judge a park based on only one season. Or maybe it’s my imagination. Whatever the case, in 2010 right-handed hitters absolutely bombed Rogers. Of course, the most noticeable of those was Jose Bautista who, having never made any impact on anybody, suddenly mashed 54 home runs, 33 of them in the friendly confines of Canada’s Wonderland.*

*Of course, this still means Bautista hit 21 homers on the road, which is rather stunning. Still, that .737 home slugging percentage stands out.

Aaron Hill didn’t really hit anywhere, but he did hit 15 home runs at home. And, of course, you see Wells’ numbers above. It did not work that away for everyone, but Bill James’ park numbers show a 131 home run park factor for righties in Toronto, second-highest in the league behind that all-around wonderful home run playground in Chicago*.

*Adam Dunn, get ready to have some fun.

We’re focusing now on Wells because, as you know, the California Angels (as I continue to insist on calling them) have what I think is the most expensive outfield in baseball history — especially if you consider ALL of it. Wells is the centerpiece of that outfield, of course — he will be paid $23 million (though it now seems that $5 million will be paid by the Blue Jays). Torii Hunter will get $18 million. Bobby Abreu will get $9 million. And the Angels will pay the long-absent Gary Matthews Jr. $11 million for the one-time privilege of watching him not hit, listening to him demand a trade, then finally finding a team willing to take him (as long as that team did not have to pay his salary).

With fourth outfield options like Reggie Willits, the Angels will have about $56 million of outfield debt in 2011, which will be more than six or seven teams entire payroll. It really is an extraordinary thing. The bulk of the Angels’ payroll responsibilities are for four outfielders — Wells, Hunter, Abreu (now a DH) and the departed Matthews. The youngest (Wells) is 32. None of the four have has won an MVP … or ever finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting. The four have started a total of three All-Star Games. None of the four has ever hit 35 homers in a season or led the league in runs scored or RBIs or batting average or on-base percentage or slugging percentage or OPS or just about anything else (Abreu and Wells have led the league in doubles). None of the four was rated even a league average defender last year by Total Zone rating system or Ultimate Zone Rating or John Dewan’s Plus/Minus. None of the four stood out as a good base runner in 2010.

I’m not saying any of these things — especially the MVP voting, the All-Star Game starts and those flawed offensive stats — mean anything. Most of those things don’t mean anything at all. In fact, I usually rip those very measures when talking about Hall of Famers. But I’m not trying to make any point about the players VALUE. I’m just trying to make the point that this diamond-studded outfield is utterly inexplicable even on those ridiculous terms. At least if one of those guys was a former MVP or a perennial All-Star, you could see how someone might have been tricked into paying that kind of money.

Of the four, Bobby Abreu is clearly the best deal. For one thing, he’s the cheapest of the lot. For another, he has been unquestionably the best player over his career. Abreu’s great downfall in the minds of the masses is that he’s legendarily and indisputably boring. The boring part comes from both his mind-numbing consistency and his C-Span II excitement level at-bats.

The mind-numbing consistency? Bobby Abreu has hit exactly 20 home runs five times in his career — most in baseball history. And I would argue that nothing — NOTHING — is more boring than a 20-home run season. What IS a 20-homer season. Is it good? Is it bad? Does it tell you anything at all? No. It’s like driving across Kansas. You’ll be happy to know that Professional Hitter Harold Baines has the second-most 20-homer seasons (4) which is exactly as it should be.

Bobby Abreu has six seasons between 100 and 105 RBIs — again, most in baseball history. Boring. He has seven seasons between 95 and 104 runs scored — tied with Joe Cronin for the most in baseball history. Boring. Abreu has been absurdly sturdy — he has played more than 150 games in 13 different seasons, which is as many as Willie Mays and just one season behind that wonder of reliability Brooks Robinson — and that’s boring. He has walked a whole lot, which has made him more valuable than people realize but watching him foul pitch after pitch, take forever to dig back in, let pitches go that are 1/10th of an inch outside, no, it isn’t Spielberg. And he has put up the sort of consistent numbers that make him both admirable and invisible all that once. There probably is not another player in baseball history quite like Abreu.

Whatever the case, he had his worst season in 2010 — he hit .255/.352/.435 and coughed around in the outfield — and it’s likely that he is in serious decline. He will move to DH. He’s turning 37 in March. It’s hard to see much good happening from here on in. Abreu has two years and $19 million left on his deal. Got this wrong. Abreu has one year left on his $9 million deal and another $9 million option for 2012 … with a more likely $1 million buyout.

Torii Hunter has actually had perhaps his two best offensive seasons the last two seasons, which has made his signing look better than it looked on deal day. Hunter has always been a flawed offensive player because he doesn’t get on base much. His lifetime on-base percentage is .332 — and that’s actually up quite a bit from the .324 OBP he had when the Angels gave him a monster 5-year, $90 million deal. Hunter’s value was in his spectacular center field defense (though it is true that his defense never quite scored as high as expected on any of the big three defensive scales), his nice combination of power and speed and his general sturdiness in the clubhouse and community. Torii Hunter was the kind of player you wanted to have in your clubhouse, and the kind of player you wanted to cheer from the crowd.

Hunter has become a better offensive player with the Angels — he has hit .285/.353/.477 in three seasons, which is quite a bit better than his time in Minnesota — but he’s getting to that age where it could easily fall off at any time, and his defensive reputation has fallen enough that the Angels moved him out of center field in 2010. His numbers don’t really play all that well at the corner outfield spots. He was also, according to the Bill James system, one of the worst base runners in the game in 2010. He has two years and $36 million left on his deal. Can’t see how that will end well.

Gary Matthews … he was just a mistake and everyone has no choice to admit it now. But that deal was stillborn from the day it was signed. Nobody really understood what the Angels were doing when after the 2006 season they gave him a five-year, $50 million deal when he was 32 years old and had a career OPS+ of 97. He was coming off a good offensive season in Texas … but there you go. It was in Texas. Always look at those home and road splits when you see someone coming out of Texas. Granted, Matthews was pretty good on the road that year, but he hit .324/.396/.512 in that Texas hitters haven.

Up to 2006, Matthews had hit .249/.327/.397.

After 2006, Matthews has hit .245/.322/.377 and the Angels are stuck paying him even though he’s long gone.

Sometimes, you just wonder what is going through people’s minds.

Which brings us, finally and happily, to Vernon M. Wells. Two years ago, I wrote that Wells had the worst contract in baseball, even beating out Barry Zito and Jose Guillen, whose contracts were spectacularly bad. Then Wells — and I give it up to him — had a big rebound year in 2010. He’s still almost unplayable in center field, at least by the numbers I believe, but he was at least somewhat better defensively. And offensively he posted a 127 OPS+, mashing 31 homers and slugging .515.

Now, even if he would maintain those numbers (and the Angels plan on moving him to right field so his defense should be less of a problem … but also of less perceived value), he would not be worth anything close to the unbelievable $86 million he still has left on his contract ($23 million this year, $21 million next year, $21 million in 2013 AND $21 million more in 2014 … this contract goes on FOREVER).

But I would say that it is almost a sure thing that he will not maintain those numbers. Vernon Wells is 32 years old. And he is exactly the sort of player — .280 or so hitter, few walks, inconsistent power — who falls off a cliff around age 32. There is just example after example after example of this — George Bell, Kevin McReynolds, Carl Everett, Jose Guillen, Richie Zisk, Jeff Burroughs, Bobby Murcer, Amos Otis, Chet Lemon, Gus Bell … I could go on like this forever. Reggie Smith was a part-time player at 34. Raul Mondesi was mostly done at 31. Dale Murphy went into free fall at 32. Shawn Green, Greg Luzinski … obviously you could argue that Wells is different from some of these players — maybe even all these players. But the point is you don’t want to bet on ANY player to be great in their mid-to-late 30s, but especially not sporadically good offensive outfielders who don’t walk like Vernon Wells.*

*The best comp for Wells would be Andre Dawson … the hope would have to be that Wells could put together a career second half like Dawson did. There are not many Andre Dawsons in baseball history.

And yet, the Angels went out and got him and took on all that salary … and actually traded semi-useful players to make it happen. It’s almost like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the game; if a deal like this happened in your fantasy baseball league you would invalidate it on the assumption that one player didn’t know what he was doing. When writing my worst contracts a couple of years ago, I wrote that you could almost forgive the Angels for the Matthews contract because they keep winning despite what seem to be irrational moves. But the Angels didn’t win in 2010. And they don’t look especially healthy for 2011. And you wonder if it’s all just caught up with them.

Now, look, if Vernon Wells goes on to have great years, I will be the first one to congratulate the Angels for seeing something that was not apparently there. But I have to say, having read this story in the LA Times where Angels owner Arte Moreno defends the move not by saying that Wells will be a great player worth the money but by saying that he won’t have to raise ticket prices … well, yeah, this looks like it will be every bit the disaster that everyone except for the most intense and optimistic Angels fans knows it will be.

Maybe the weirdest part of all is that the Angels will be spending all that money on their outfield, but their centerfielder looks to be a 24-year-old, former 10th-round pick named Peter Bourjos, who can run a bit, and showed a great feel for the outfield in 51 games out there last year while hitting .204 over those same 51 games. Scouts and baseball people disagree about his future as an offensive player, but everyone agrees that he’s special defensively. He will get paid the minimum in 2010.

“It’s our money,” Moreno told Bill Shaikin of the TImes. Well, actually, not anymore.

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25 Responses to Angels in the Outfield

  1. Vidor says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The closing line was a killer. Dead square on the nose. Man, Mr. Posnanski, you are something!

    But you’ve got to stop using lines like the Charo/Love Boat line. Old guys like me will chuckle and appreciate the bit. But most of your readers aren’t that old and will say, “Whuh?”

  3. LoCoDe says:

    The last 2 seasons Vernon has had the weirdest splits. 2009 he was atrocious at home and decent on the road, 2010 he was great at home and bad on the road.

    If you combine his 2009 road and his 2010 home, his numbers are:

    .310 47 2B 37 HR 85 RBI

    2009 home and 2010 road:

    .220 34 2B 19 HR 69 RBI

    The only constant the last 2 season is that he’s lost the ability to hit left handed pitching.

    In 2009 he hit only .206 .279 .323 against LHP
    In 2010 he hit only .195 .289 .354 against LHP

    His career (including 2009/10) against LHP is .296 .359. 484

    I’m guessing the Angels will be likely to get something like this line:

    .259 .294 .384 19 2B 23 HR 67 RBI

  4. Wm. Don says:

    Like Charo on the Love Boat

    BEST. SIMILE. EVER.

  5. Frankie B says:

    I’m with @Wm. Don – “like Charo on the Love Boat” – man, that’s just beautiful.

  6. James says:

    “this looks like it will be every bit the disaster that everyone except for the most intense and optimistic Angels fans knows it will be.”

    Guilty as charged. “Intense, optimistic Angel fan” here.

    All I can say is that Torii Hunter has probably been overpaid, but I’ve enjoyed every single moment of his time in Anaheim. I’m hoping for the same with Vernon Wells. After all it’s spring and hope is a beautiful thing.

  7. stephen says:

    Joe: Your previous Vernon Wells article contains my favorite quote of yours, in reference to Wells and his agent being able to snag that ridiculous contract: “This is a testament to the power of mankind to do the impossible.”

  8. “Well, actually, not anymore.”

    Nice end. Very nice. In Boston, my home, the Sox write off millions every year on traded or released players. The big market teams just shrug off mistakes. But first hearing the names of these outfielders, my thought was, this is really a fine outfield.

  9. stephen says:

    Also: I’m only 27, but got the Charo joke. Still, a more recent example would be, “Like the Beach Boys on Full House”.

  10. “Torii Hunter has probably been overpaid, but I’ve enjoyed every single moment of his time in Anaheim.”

    They ARE entertainers, so watching a fine ballplayer shouldn’t be undervalued.

  11. Robert says:

    What’s most baffling to me about the Wells trade is how inconsequential it will likely be to the AL West standings. It’s one thing to take on a big contract if it seriously boosts your chances of winning. But even in a best-case scenario in which Wells repeats his 2010 performance (127 ops+), he’d just be replacing the production of the departed Hideki Matsui (124 ops+). The Angels finished in 3rd place last year, they looked like a 3rd place team prior to the trade, and they still look like a 3rd place team now.

  12. The 1962 Mets were entertaining, but (reserve clause aside) I don’t think you would have wanted to pay those guys all that much!

  13. LoCoDe says:

    Maybe Vernon and Torii can form a singing group and “entertain” the fans after they lose.

  14. Jeremy says:

    Torii Hunter was the kind of player you wanted to have in your clubhouse

    Not if you’re Joe Mauer: http://aarongleeman.com/2007/07/18/5578/

  15. Steve Sax says:

    I miss Charo. Thanks for the reference, JoePo.

  16. NerdMan26 says:

    I love Joe’s blog and think he’s the best writer out there. And I realize that this post is in line with what all the other analysts are saying. But I think he’s way off. If you proceed from the premise that the Angels are stupid, you might arrive at an analysis like this one. But the Angels are not stupid. They’ve won their division 5 years out of 7. The teams they’re competing against pretty clearly know what they’re doing, and only the A’s seem to be operating under any serious budgetary constraints.

    Taking it point by point (and please forgive the long post):
    -Bobby Abreu: productive player. Reasonable contract. When he signed it, people seemed to think it was a bargain. I’ll grant you that he makes Mike Hargrove look exciting, but there you go.
    -Torii Hunter: Torii is a lot of ballplayer. Obviously. The Angels signed him at the going rate for players of his caliber, and they have gotten what they paid for. BTW, it was not his defensive reputation that fell, but his actual defense. The Angels were clever enough to recognize this and move him to RF. And his #s play just fine there. The best RF in the AL is Shin-Soo Choo. After Shin-Soo, there are several guys who are in Torii’s class and several others who are not. To me about the worst thing you can say about him is that when you SABR-fisk his career, it turns out that he’s not a legitimate HOF candidate. And that ain’t so bad.
    -Sarge Jr: the Angels made a bad signing 4 years ago. It happens. Life goes on. We’ve seen worse signings.
    -Vernon: was one of the bright young stars of the sport. He got hurt a lot, but was productive and healthy-seeming last year. Put him on grass, take him out of CF and see how he does. It wasn’t Plan A, obviously, but it seems like a decent Plan B. The only thing, and it’s a big one, is it seems like they coulda shoulda squeezed $30m+ out of the Blue Jays. And I don’t think the age comps from the ‘70s and ‘80s are really relevant given the advances in sports medicine, training regimens, etc.
    -Rivera/Napoli: not semi-useful. The Angels had 3 guys under contract that they didn’t want getting anywhere near a glove. So, they kept the one who’s actually a good offensive player and jettisoned the other 2 and the $11m they were owed. Makes perfect sense, I think.
    -Bourjos: I don’t know why this is the weirdest part, or even weird at all. The kid came up late last year, flashed a bit of speed and power, and played an absolutely spectacular CF. I mean, wow. Worst case for him, I think, is Gary Pettis. Devon White seems more likely.

    My point with all this is if you try to understand what they’re thinking, it makes a lot more sense. Is their outfield expensive? Yes. Historically so? I dunno. The Red Sox just invested more in Carl Crawford than the Angels have tied up in all these guys put together. Given their track record (not to mention their front-line pitching), I really don’t understand why folks are picking them to finish 3rd rather than 1st…..

  17. bob says:

    hey, Charo always looked good from a distance, and I’m halfway across the country so Wells looks pretty good to me . . . for my team that is.

  18. Number Three says:

    Hey! Chet Lemon was the real deal. Stay away from disparaging “Chester.”

  19. James Smyth says:

    Great stuff, Joe. Your 20 homer season description is much like Stringer Bell’s 40 degree day rant on the Wire.

  20. bokonin says:

    How did Amos Otis and Reggie Smith turn into players who don’t walk? Amos was walking in over 10% of his plate appearances (which is very good) throughout his prime; Reggie Smith was near the league lead in walks sometimes. Otherwise excellent article, of course.

  21. Ben says:

    I often wonder how people in charge of multi-billion dollar baseball teams can base their most important decisions off flawed statistics. If you were in the position wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make sure you had the best and most accurate information possible?

    I’m a Twins fan, and they do this constantly. They are also, I believe, one of the few teams left without a sabrmetrics person on staff.

  22. Mark Daniel says:

    The home/road split issue is often brought up when it comes to Jim Rice, but if you look Rice’s contemporaries, who were also members of the Red Sox, they all had the same issue.
    For example:
    Player, home OPS/road OPS
    Rice, .920/.789
    Yaz, .904/.779
    Fisk, .909 (Fenway)/.775 (away),(Comiskey, .772)
    Boggs, .991/.781 (.790 OPS after leaving Sox)
    Lynn, 1.021/.780 (.799 OPS after leaving Sox)
    Evans, .884/.798

    None of these Red Sox HoFers and near HoFers has a road OPS higher than .800.

  23. Tonus says:

    “the California Angels (as I continue to insist on calling them)”

    Bless you for that. I’ve been an Angels fan for almost 30 years, and they’ll always be the California Angels. Besides, that rolls off the tongue much better than “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California in the USA on planet Earth.” That is what they call themselves now, isn’t it?

  24. jimfhammond says:

    I too, vote for the Charo-type analogies! They keep us on our toes. Kootchie-Kootchie!

  25. Ben Hall says:

    Joe–interesting post on Beyond the Box Score about the bias in the strike zone towards the home team: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/1/29/1961942/strike-zone-a-marginal-component-of-home-field-advantage

    Related to Scorecasting.

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