Numbers tell outfielders' stories

December, 18, 2008
Once a month I see something on this very site that I just have to mention, and today it's Jerry Crasnick's piece about a certain corner outfielder's seeming inability to draw much interest this winter …

    As outfielder Bobby Abreu prepared to hit the open market this offseason, his agent, Peter Greenberg, thought a little promotional effort might be in order. So Greenberg's group assembled a 28-page statistical tribute filled with red and blue bar graphs and comparisons linking Abreu to the game's elite hitters.

    Sift through the charts and headlines proclaiming Abreu an "Offensive Force" and "Amazingly Consistent" and you're left with a distinct impression: For a guy who's widely regarded as a complementary-type player, Abreu sure keeps elite company.

    Baseball has its franchise players and go-to guys, its middle-of-the-order "aircraft carriers," as Rockies bench coach Jim Tracy likes to call them, and Albert Pujols, who's a walking antidote to concession-stand visits.

    And then there's Bobby Abreu -- serial compiler.


    Abreu's alleged price tag is contributing to the inertia. The word in baseball circles is that he wants a three-year deal or two years with a vesting option for $15-16 million annually. The Phillies just signed Raul Ibanez for three years and $31.5 million, and Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr., [Milton] Bradley, [Pat] Burrell and [Garret] Anderson are among the outfield-DH-types still available, so Abreu's salary aspirations are destined to get squeezed.

    "He's still a dangerous hitter," said an American League front-office man. "I just think that as a complete player, he's starting to go backwards. He's not the outfielder he used to be. He still has a decent arm, but it's not the cannon he used to have. And he doesn't have the foot speed he used to have. He's a solid player, but not a $14-15 million a year player."

In the same vein, I would like to submit for your approval (or not) four free-agent outfielders, along with their 2008 salaries, and their Ultimate Zone Ratings (per 150 games and averaged over the last three seasons):

Manny Ramirez  $20M  -19
Bobby Abreu $16M -15
Pat Burrell $14M -14
Adam Dunn $13M -14

Atop those scary numbers, you've got the positional adjustments. For corner outfielders, it's -7.5 runs. So now Burrell and Dunn are more than 20 runs in the hole before they even get a chance to run (ugh) or hit (yea!). Sure, they can dig themselves out of that hole … but not far enough out to justify raises. This is, in my opinion, why neither of them were offered arbitration: Arbitration leads to raises, and neither the Phillies nor the Diamondbacks believed their left fielders deserved raises.

I think they were probably right.

Does this mean those guys won't get raises? Hardly. Ramirez will get a raise because of what he did with the Dodgers, and Dunn may get a raise because he's still a year shy of 30. And also because it takes only one team to blow all our analysis out of the water. But as more and more teams buy into modern defensive metrics and the notion of positional adjustments, more and more sluggardly sluggers are going to be disappointed by the contract offers that do come in.

Eventually, these things do find some sort of natural balance. In this case it just happens to have taken more than 30 years.


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