Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Ryan Theriot, Micah Hoffpaiur and the defensive spectrum

This is not a post about Ryan Theriot. But Ryan Theriot is somewhat central to the point I'm making, so I have to start by addressing his performance to date. (Which is probably something, given how vocal I've been on the topic, something I should be doing anyways, if nothing else simply to avoid looking like I'm dodging the issue.) But it's secondary to the main point - you can skip on down past the Theriot discussion if you'd like.

So far this season, Theriot is hitting .324/.398/.405, which is perfectly respectable - quirky, but respectable. Beat reporter Bruce Miles recently wrote:

No, this time, the stats are on Theriot's side. Not only did Theriot bring an on-base percentage of .410 and a batting average of .333 into Tuesday night's game against the Astros, he was tied for the National League lead in multihit games (20) with Houston's Lance Berkman and Atlanta's Chipper Jones.

That's some heady company for any player, especially one who ran afoul of the stats-oriented crowd last year when his numbers dropped precipitously in September.

...

Theriot won the starting shortstop job early last season but finished with an OBP of .326 and a slugging percentage of .346 for an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of only .672. Entering Tuesday, Theriot's OPS was a nice .828.

"Hopefully we'll be talking about this in four months, and it will be the same scenario," [Theriot] said.

Theriot made some changes to his swing over the winter and came to spring training in good shape, proving that perhaps you can work and "grit" your way to better numbers.

it's a subtle little dig at quite a few there at the end, including myself, who make fun of Theriot's scrappiness quota from time to time. It's also an odd bit of rhetoric - can you really prove a perhaps? But there are reasons to have doubts about Theriot's renaissance on offense.

Theriot continues to flirt with having an OBP higher than his slugging, with only seven points currently separating them. Very few ballplayers are able to maintain a productive lineup presence in the lineup hitting that way in the modern era, because singles more than any other kind of event are subject to random chance.

[As an aside: Theriot could have an OBP over his SLG while maintaining his current walk and power rates, if his batting average drops. If he were to not reach base in his next 28 plate appearances, his OBP would (just barely) be above his slugging. This is a mathematical quirk in the way we calculate rate stats in baseball. Batting average and slugging are denominated by at bats. On-base percentage is denominated in plate appearances, which include walks and sacrifice flies. I want to go ahead and add that this isn't necessarily meaningful, it's just the sort of thing that I find fascinating.]

So... can Theriot maintain his current level of performance? I doubt it. Using the ZiPS projection tool, the rest of Theriot's season is projected to be .281/.344/.363 - it doesn't know about Theriot's grit and improved workout habits, but it does understand regression to the mean and historical performance levels. (I seriously recommend reading about regression to the mean - Sal has a great summary on how and why it's important. Eli does a great job giving the technical details. VERY short version - over time, all extreme performances have a tendency to become less extreme. That's why almost anyone in baseball has a chance at hitting .400 or above in a single game, and why Ted Williams was the last person to do it over an entire season.)

Remember: this is just a median forecast, not a certainty. It is the most likely set of outcomes, based upon a model of how baseball players perform and on Theriot's past performance. Is it possible that the model is not capturing everything about Ryan Theriot? Sure! But the model contains a lot of information about baseball and seems to work reasonably well on baseball players as a population.

That's all I want to say about Theriot for now (although we'll come back to him briefly in a moment); maybe his performance on offense will become more of an issue (especially given his adventures on the basepaths) if/when his performance declines. But the Cubs have bigger fish to fry -Lou says that Edmonds needs to start hitting better, and I honestly think that's asking too much of Edmonds at this point. That would leave us back where we started in regards to center field. It also moves us back to square one regarding Lou's search for an additional left-handed presence in the lineup.

Lou may be focusing on Micah Hoffpauir as a solution to his problems:

With recently acquired Jim Edmonds finishing a 1-for-11 series in his first extended chance to play, rookie Micah Hoffpauir got his first major-league start and delivered a pair of doubles for two of the Cubs' five hits during their 5-3 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

''We're looking for some left-handed hitting here that can drive the ball,'' Piniella said. ''If this young man can, we'll find a place for him in the lineup.''

After 2,190 minor-league at-bats in six seasons, Hoffpauir, 28, had only two plate appearances in the majors before Wednesday. And one start doesn't prove much. In fact, neither he nor Edmonds might play much during the weekend, with the Pittsburgh Pirates planning to start three lefties against the Cubs.

But look for Hoffpauir to get a shot to earn more time. And Edmonds might start to run out of time if he doesn't pick it up quickly. He's only 2-for-15 with two singles in four starts since signing last week after being released by the San Diego Padres. And while he flied out deep the opposite way in the fourth inning, he turned on a fastball in the seventh, only to watch it fall short of the warning track in right.

''We need to see improvement with the bat, to be perfectly honest,'' Piniella said of Edmonds before the game. ''He needs at-bats, and we're going to give him as many as we can.''

I haven't exactly made it a secret that I'm not impressed by Hoffpaiur. His (admittedly small sample) of performance at AAA looks impressive at first blush; translated into a Major League Equivelency, it's a less impressive .278/.288/.536 line, or a .842 OPS. Still not bad; I've never claimed that Hoffpauir was a poor hitter in the abstract. And yet, contrast it to Matt Murton, who (while seemingly mired in a season-long slump where he can't buy an extra base hit) puts up a translated line of .283/.368/.344, or a .712 OPS. (Based on past performance before this season, and the fact that Murton has a history as an MLB hitter, I'd take the over on Murton and the under on Hoffpaiur, but that's another story.)

Different skills translate differently to the majors; Hoffpaiur's home run prowess in AAA (which is where a lot of his value comes from) is far less likely to translate to the majors than Murton's ability to take a base on balls.

Again, I expect him to be a league-averagish sort of hitter, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing - and certainly an upgrade over our current production in center of .244/.327/.295. So what's the issue here?

The issue is defense, which does not seem to be Lou's favorite aspect of baseball. Hoffpauir wasn't a minor-league left fielder or right fielder - coming into this spring he was a first baseman, and first base has been his primary defensive position since he was drafted out of Lamar University, where he also played first base. A player's age 28 is a very odd time to decide that his position is right field, not first base.

Even your least defensively-minded team wouldn't dream of making Hoffpauir a center fielder. Fukudome did play the position for a time while in Japan, however, and is a plus defensive right fielder - it's concievable that the organization would consider moving him into center field. Looking at players who move between positions, players tend to lose ten runs a season moving from one of the corners to center field. Remember: that's the average, and there are selective sampling issues - generally, players who are able to play multiple positions are selected for certain reasons of ability. That said, Dome doesn't seem to be lacking any of the necessary skills to play center, and has experience in the outfield and in center. I think his transition to center would be around average.

Now, for Hoffpauir. We really have no idea how good his defense is at first base, but let's (for the sake of having something to work with) presume he's average defensively; backups and other replacements tend to be about average defensively, so it's a reasonable assumption, at least. On average, a player moving from first base to one of the corners loses about five runs a season on defense. Again - that's based on the assumption that the player is suited to play the outfield. Since a throwing arm isn't essential for a first baseman, we can't assume that he has a good enough arm to play the outfield regularly, especially right. Experience is another issue - Hoffpauir only has 91 games in the outfield as a professional baseball player. So when I refer to him as five runs below average as an outfielder, this is based on a series of assumptions that could end up being wildly optimistic. (I think given that the Cubs have used him as a first baseman for so long, we almost have to assume these are optimistic assumptions; that said, I don't know of any better assumptions to make.)

So the Cubs are surrendering about 15 runs on defense this way over a full season - not that we expect Hoffpauir to play a full season in this arrangement, but that's a convenient unit of time to use. (We're ignoring the fact that Cubs center fielders have been above average defensively, because while that's technically true, only Pie has been so; Johnson and Edmonds have been below average defensively, if only slightly, highlight-reel catches aside.) That eats up most of the advantage Hoffpauir has at the plate over Johnson and Edmonds in a platoon (moreso if Pie is used instead of the abmoninable Edmonds).

Hioffpauir is essentially a compromise between Daryle Ward and Mike Fontenot - he has a bit more pop than Fontenot and a bit more mobility in the field than Daryle Ward. (I think looking at Hoffpauir as Mike Fontenot with about 10 more home runs in a full season is a good way of conceptualizing his offense; Daryle Ward about five years ago as a good way of conceptualizing his defense.) 

Okay, go ahead and digest that for a moment. While you're thinking about Micah Hoffpauir and his place on the team, I want to introduce you to the concept of the Defensive Spectrum. One of the most valuable things Bill James came up with, it's not a statistic at all and it involves no numbers at all. It's the idea that as players age, and their defense declines, they end up moving down the spectrum:

  • Catcher
  • Shortstop
  • Second base
  • Center field
  • Third base
  • Right field
  • Left field
  • First base
  • Designated hitter

This makes intuitive sense, doesn't it? More players move from shortstop to second base later in their careers than second basemen move to shortstop. What James also found was that players attempting to move up the spectrum late in their careers generally failed at it.

What interests me is that the Cubs organization, since Lou Piniella has become manager, has started trying to do this with older minor league players - guys that are past the point on the aging curve where they can be expected to develop. They did it last season with Ryan Theriot, who had drifted over to second base in the minors; they tried it in spring training (and to some extent last season) with Mike Fontenot at shortstop as well. And in spring they tried it with Micah Hoffpauir as well, and it seems they may be emboldened by their lack of obvious failure.

I can't explain it - I'm not familiar enough with other organizations to say for certain that they don't do this, but if they do I'm not hearing about it. I'm just playing a hunch here, but I'd lay on odds that this is the sort of hitter that Lou favors:

  1. High ball in play rate, low strikeouts. Make the other team beat you. Have the flexibility to hit and run.
  2. Takes walks. Again - make the other team pitch to you.
  3. Speed/bunting ability. Lou likes to bunt, hit and run and steal bases. Lou likes having tactical options.

Those aren't hard and fast rules, mind you, and I don't think they especially apply to guys who've already established themselves as big-league hitters - Lee, Ramirez, Soriano. But Lou prizes batting average more than he should - certainly more than I do. And he prizes hitting - and hitting is not entirely judged by batting average, but it's prominently featured - well above defense.

That’s why the amazingly punchless Reed Johnson continued to leech playing time from the defensively superior Felix Pie.

There are other concerns – his need for a second left-handed hitter, for example, as well as his ideas on giving Ramirez lineup protection. (The team’s best hitter so far, Geovany Soto, has been about as protected in the lineup as the Iowa-Illinois border, although you don’t seem to hear Lou talking much about that.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be stunned by this – old-school baseball man values batting average more than Excel-wielding Internet blogger! – but I’ll admit there was a strange moment of epiphany when I wrote those past two paragraphs. (I have a tendency to overthink things sometimes.) I suspect the area where Lou and I differ most in our evaluations of a player’s offense is in doubles production; I think the ability to hit doubles is supremely underrated.

But if Jim Edmonds doesn't start to produce in the lineup, expect Lou to try and find someone who will. I give Lou credit for his creativity sometimes, if nothing else. But Hoffpauir in right - yeah, it doesn't exactly give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

Say what you want about the Iowa-Illinois border...

...one night several years ago, it seemed plenty well protected to me. By the grace of God did I NOT end up in jail. Damn Davenport cops.

I made mention before of Hoffpauir in RF in the short term. By short term, I am talking about 14 days, if that. The organization has to make a decision about Pie (and Edmonds, first) in the next two weeks, or else risk pissing the season away screwing around in CF.

While that happens, maybe Micah gets some at bats and showcases himself for a trade. I believe he IS ready to play first base for a major league team in desperate need of a first baseman. No, he isn't DLee, or Pujols, or even Konerko. He might be LaRoche from Pissburgh, though.

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