5 MLB Free Agents Who Will Get Less Money Because of Sabermetrics
While debating the AL MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, reporters, analysts and fans drew lines between those who took a more traditional view of baseball and those who favored a deeper look into advanced statistics—or sabermetrics.
Those same debates could very well be taking place between free agents and MLB teams during this offseason, as each side tries to find an advantage while negotiating for contracts.
For some players, sabermetrics could reveal some numbers or trends in their individual games that they likely hope teams overlook during their decision-making process.
Perhaps a batter doesn't hit for as much power as traditional numbers indicate. Maybe a player is worse defensively than the eyeball test shows. And maybe a pitcher really is as bad—or worse—than his ERA demonstrates.
Here are five players who could receive a worse free-agent contract than anticipated if teams showing interest take a deeper look at their sabermetric numbers.
Please take a look at Zach Rymer's list of players who could get a better contract because of sabermetrics. He's better at this stuff than I am, and I freely admit it.
B.J. Upton (UZR)
B.J. Upton is likely to get paid far more for his bat than his glove with his free-agent contract.
Teams pursuing Upton are surely intrigued by a right-handed bat that could potentially smack 30 home runs and legs that have stolen 40 bases.
But Upton will be asked to provide strong defense in center field too. And he's coming off a season that wasn't his best, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating.
Essentially, UZR measures how many runs a fielder saves above or below an average player at a certain position. How many balls a fielder gets to in his surrounding area and how many errors he commits compared to his position's average also factor in.
An elite defensive center fielder like Michael Bourn saved 22 runs more than an average center fielder this season. He was also credited with 24 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which measures how many successful (or unsuccessful) plays a fielder makes compared to the average at his position.
By comparison, Upton allowed two runs more than a replacement-level center fielder. Additionally, he gave up four defensive runs saved.
For a team with strong defenders in the corner outfield, this might not be as much of a concern. But any club looking for Upton to take control in center might find him performing below expectations.
Nick Swisher (ISO)
Nick Swisher is one of the top corner outfielders on the free-agent market. He could even help a team at first base.
That defensive versatility and switch-hitting bat figures to draw interest from several teams looking for some pop from their outfield.
But Swisher's Isolated Power (ISO) indicates he might not quite be the slugger a team will hope for when signing him to a big free-agent contract.
ISO measures a player's raw power by subtracting his batting average from his slugging percentage. What that leaves is the hitter's extra bases.
As a point of reference, Josh Hamilton led MLB hitters with an ISO of .292 this season. That's probably what you'd expect from a guy who slugged 43 homers.
But is Swisher the same sort of power hitter, someone who can give a team 25-30 home runs from right field? His ISO of .201 indicates otherwise. That ranked No. 46 among qualified MLB hitters this season.
Swisher's .473 slugging percentage was his lowest in four seasons and his 24 homers are 11 fewer than his career-high of 35. He'll give a team some power, but will it be the kind of power that they're paying for?
Cody Ross (wOBA)
Cody Ross is reportedly seeking a three-year, $25 million contract on the open market, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.
His splits against right-handed pitching might be enough to keep him from getting a deal like that. Against righties, Ross batted .256 with a .729 OPS this season.
But it's Ross' wOBA that could also give a prospective suitor pause as they decide whether or not to sign him to a long-term contract.
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) measures a hitter's full value by combining his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS into one statistic. (I'll let you click here to see the mathematical formula that works this out. I was an English major in college.)
To give you an idea of what a good wOBA is, Joey Votto led MLB hitters with a mark of .438. AL MVP Miguel Cabrera was at .417.
Cody Ross compiled a wOBA of .345 this season, ranking No. 72 among MLB hitters.
We weren't under any delusions that Ross was one of the top hitters in baseball. But that puts him with hitters like Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Santana, who were all considered to have disappointing 2012 campaigns.
So for any team excited about adding a player who slugged 27 homers this year, a deeper look into Ross' sabermetrics stats might be wise before opening the checkbook.
Shane Victorino (UBR)
I have to tip my hat to my B/R and Horsehide Chronicles colleague Zach Rymer for this one.
I didn't even know there was such a sabermetric stat as Ultimate Base Running (UBR) until Zach used it to measure a skill that Angel Pagan might promote as he looks for a big free-agent contract.
UBR is measured by how a runner holds, advances or is thrown out on the basepaths. Whether or not he made the "safe" play or tried to take the extra base is factored in based on the success rate of, for example, a runner advancing from second base to third on a ground ball to shortstop.
A player who stays put at second when he could have advanced is penalized. Someone who advances and eventually scores is credited accordingly.
As Zach put it, UBR rewards players for good base-running plays and penalizes them for bad ones. By this measure, Jason Heyward was the best baserunner in MLB this season with a UBR of 7.4.
So if Shane Victorino is trying to sell himself with speed that netted a career-high 39 bases this year, he's probably hoping a prospective suitor doesn't look deeper into advanced statistics to check how effective a baserunner he really was.
Victorino's UBR was 2.3, ranking him No. 23 among qualified MLB hitters.
Dan Haren (FIP)
Dan Haren's poor 2012 season cost him both a spot with the Los Angeles Angels and $12 million for next season.
Haren is coming off the worst year of his career, compiling a 12-13 record and a 4.33 ERA in 30 starts. A back injury hindered him throughout the season, resulting in the poor performance.
But the Angels weren't sure what to expect from him next year and decided to buy him out for $3.5 million rather than pick up his $15.5 million option for 2013. That could also be why a reported trade between the Angels and Chicago Cubs eventually fell through.
Or perhaps the Angels and other teams interested in Haren looked at his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and saw a pitcher who wasn't throwing effectively.
FIP measures what a pitcher can control—strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit by pitches—and basically disregards whatever happens once a ball is put in play and left to the fielders.
For example, Felix Hernandez had a 3.06 ERA this season, but his FIP was 2.84, indicating that he was even better than his ERA suggests. Of course, a defense can't make every single play behind a pitcher, so an ERA is typically higher.
Dan Haren's FIP was 4.24, which also shows that he pitched better than his ERA demonstrates. However, that number is actually below average by FIP's measure.
Haren would benefit from a team with a good defense behind him. But he also got knocked around pretty hard in 2012. Any club that signs Haren will hope that he does a better job of missing bats and keeping the ball in the park next season.
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