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Austin Kearns Could Be a Bargain As the New York Yankees' Left Field Solution

PHOENIX - MAY 08:  Austin Kearns #25 of the Washington Nationals bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the game at Chase Field on May 8, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Nationals defeated the Diamondbacks 5-4.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
GregCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2009

This morning, Joe over at River Avenue Blues pointed out a few things about the Yankees' left field situation. In short, he suggested that the Yankees will be signing someone to complement the outfield and not necessarily take Brett Gardner's starting spot.

The Yankees should in no circumstances go into the season with Jamie Hoffmann as their fourth outfielder, so it really is essential that they add another player. Reed Johnson is the most common name mentioned, but I think there's a better option available who has not been talked about at all.

This player put up a combined 7.9 WAR in 2006-2007, but has struggled quite a bit since then with injuries and just poor play. Over the past two seasons, he's only netted 0.6 WAR. This is a player who won't turn 30 until after the season has already begun, so he should be in his prime.

This player is Austin Kearns. The Nationals declined his option for the 2010 season, which stood at $10 million, so he is a free agent.

He was 29 years old during the 2009 season, when he should be peaking, but instead he had the worst season of his career. In 211 plate appearances, he hit .195/.336/.205 with a .298 wOBA.

At age 28, he had an equally terrible year, piecing together a .287 wOBA in 357 plate appearances. For a guy with a career wOBA of .342, it doesn’t seem to make sense for him to just fall off a cliff when he should be entering his peak.

Now, I assumed that this would be the case of some serious bad luck, and his BABIP confirmed that. His 2009 season was obviously a very small sample size, but he had a BABIP of .258 and his career mark is .302.

I plugged his 2009 numbers into this xBABIP calculator, and it spit out an expected BABIP of .326. For a player who just posted the lowest line drive rate of his career (18.7 percent) and has an average career BABIP, this seemed a bit odd to me.

I continued on and calculated his career xBABIP, and this cleared things up a bit. While his career BABIP stands at .302, his career xBABIP stands at .344. That is a huge difference It seems to me that there are some players who have the ability to consistently outperform their xBABIPs, while others underperform their expected BABIP. Austin Kearns seems to be one of these players.

This probably isn’t the most scientific way to say what a players BABIP should have been without luck, it seems to make sense to me. After normalizing Kearns’ line with my new BABIP of .284 (.326-(.344-.302)), I get a line of .213/.351/.322 (.316 wOBA), which is still terrible. It seems pretty clear to me that Kearns miserable season was not caused by bad luck

The two red flags in his performance were his strikeout rate and ISO. His strikeout rate stood at 29.3 percent, significantly up from his 23.7 percent career rate. This isn’t particularly new for Kearns, he has had quite a few seasons where has struck out too much.

The biggest concern, going forward, is Kearns’ precipitous drop in ISO. In his first five seasons, he never posted an ISO below .185. In 2008, it dropped to .145; then, it dropped to a minuscule .99. In 2009, it stood at an equally poor .109. Kearns power has practically disappeared over the past three seasons. His HR/FB rate has steadily dropped as well.

I’m sure part of his struggles in 2008-2009 can be attributed to injuries. In 2008, he had elbow problems, and in 2009 he missed time with a thumb injury. Both of those injuries seem like they would directly affect a player’s hitting ability if they are lingering.

Heading into 2010, Kearns should be healthy. There isn’t really any telling if his ISO will be able to jump back up into the .200 range, but I am pretty convinced he would be a valuable player if he managed to post an ISO of around .150 because of his other tools.

Even with all these struggles, Kearns has managed to post above-average walk rates and above average defense. His career UZR/150 in right field stands at 9.8, so you can expect him to be worth almost a win on defense alone. To me, good health along with his walk rate suggests that Kearns can return to being a league average hitter, or better.

It won’t take much to sign Kearns at this point. I’m not sure if he will be signed as a backup outfielder or will only require a minor league deal. It would be unheard of to sign a guy coming off a sub-.200 bating average season and give him a starting job, but if an astute team did this, they could be rewarded with a league average or better player for pennies on the dollar in 2010. If not, he cold be a perfect fit as the Yankees' fourth oufielder.

 

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