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.