Here's a Thought: Examining Ryan Sweeney
In my last article, I evaluated one speedy Oakland center fielder, Rajai Davis. Now, I'll look at the other one, Ryan Sweeney.
Sweeney has performed similarly the last two years, hitting .286/.350/.383 in 2008 and .293/.348/.407 in 2009.
Sweeney puts the bat on the ball on 88.6 percent of his swings, well above the 80.5 percent league average, so it's not surprising that he posts strong batting averages.
Sweeney hits a good amount of line drives, with a 23.7 LD percentage this season. His BABIPsare consistently high as a result (.325 career, .331 this year)—with average luck this year, he likely would have hit .300. His BABIP this year actually should have been in the .360 range, but bad luck pushed it down to .331.
Sweeney's BB/K ratio is fine (.6), but he doesn't walk a tremendous amount. He isn't a "classic" Jack Cust/Erubiel Durazo/Matt Stairs/Jason Giambi A's player in that sense, but it's difficult to walk much when you make such consistent contact on swings. As long as Sweeney keeps roping line drives and making contact on about 90 percent of his swings, he can get by with an average walk rate.
The most troubling aspect of Sweeney's game is his power production. Despite being a hulking 6'4", 225-pound outfielder, Sweeney has a career slugging percentage of .387 and an Isolated Power of .103. Those numbers went up a bit this year (.407 and .114), but he's far from the 20-HR player he was once projected to be.
In fairness to Sweeney, he did show substantial improvement in the second half, hitting .319/.378/.463, for a .144 ISO. Even then, however, he just went from a singles hitter to a doubles hitter, only knocking three balls over the fence in 64 games.
While athletic, Sweeney is not a big threat to run. He's 15-for-22 in steals for his career, and was 6-of-11 this year.
Defensively, Sweeney is a premier right fielder. His UZR/150 for all three years he's played there has been above 20. His UZR/150 for his career in RF is a whopping 25.4, and he posted a 21.5 mark there this season.
The most glaring statistical question about Sweeney is what to make of his center fieldUZR numbers.
In 2008, he put up a terrible -22.8 UZR/150 at the position (by comparison, Jack Cust's career UZR is -18.9, so we're talking sub-Custian defense). This year, he rebounded to post a +13.7 mark, which would make him the ninth-best defensive center fielder in baseball, and fourth-best in the AL behind Dewayne Wise (really?), Franklin Gutierrez, and Coco Crisp (OK, those two make more sense).
What makes the 35-runs-per-150-game improvement so bizarre is that Sweeney's RF defense actually went down from 2008 (29.6) to 2009 (21.5). So there's nothing magical that Sweeney did that made him a better defender overall.
It will be interesting to see if he can keep up the stellar CF defense in 2010 (although Rajai Davis will likely be playing there a lot), or if Sweeney reverts to ineptitude.
Sweeney has an ideal baseball body and has the strength to be a massive power hitter. Unfortunately, he employs an inside-out swing designed for singles, effectively turning him from Josh Hamilton to Mark Kotsay.
Sweeney doesn't use his lower half enough in his swing to generate power—though some mechanical adjustments incorporated his lower half better in the second half of 2009, likely triggering his batting surge and leading to an increase in doubles.
Despite his huge frame, Sweeney has good speed but isn't a burner on the basepaths, just like his SB numbers indicate. He is an intelligent, heady baserunner.
Defensively, he is a plus in either outfield corner—he can play center on occasion, but lacks tremendous range in that position. As his body continues to thicken, he will probably lose playability in center and need to stay permanently in right field. His arm is average-plus.
It's easy to get caught up with what Sweeney doesn't do—hit for power. His swing is somewhat frustrating to watch, and you can't help but wish the guy would just swing for the fences once in a while.
However, Sweeney has made himself into a serviceable offensive center fielder who rarely strikes out and can hit .300 with a few doubles here and there. His offensive surge in 2009 lends hope for him getting even better in the future, and if he can hit .319/.378/.463 for a whole season, he'll be a huge asset.
Scouts and pre-2009 UZR agree that Sweeney shouldn't play center field. If 2009 UZRis right that he is now a plus defender there, that really helps Sweeney's value. It's tough to be a good corner outfielder when you're barely slugging .400—but in center, that's fine.
The questions of power and center-field defense will be crucial to Sweeney's development. Right now, he's got a nice singles bat and is a great defensive RF, but that's not enough to make him a good starter. If he finds power and continues his good run in center, he'll be an All Star. If he does one or the other, he'll be a good starter. If he does neither, he'll ultimately be a bench outfielder or poor starter.
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