Friday, June 12, 2009

A Jay A Day: Statistics say, keep Wells and Rios together, just much lower in the lineup

You can see by the look of Vernon Wells' numbers it's time to get into this again.

One wonders what was behind Wells having been written into the fourth spot in the lineup day after day. (Tony Ambrogio's Twitter says he'll hit third, with Adam Lind — finally! — hitting cleanup and Alex Rios dropping to the six-spot. Why did it take this long? Was it part of a power struggle, with Paul Beeston as the permanent interim president and J.P. Ricciardi trying to stay employed? Is it the cult of personality around Cito Gaston that kept Toronto baseball writers from saying, "My wife, she has been most vocal on the subject of Vernon Wells. Where is he hitting today? When are you going to move him out of the cleanup spot? And so forth."

The Jays are not dumb on the baseball side. Someone working for them must be aware that 274 plate appearances into the season, a player's numbers are pretty much are what they are. The upside of fan anger, best represented by Sports And The City's Vernon Wells Hatred Advisory System, is that at least there's a way to show leaving Wells in the cleanup spot on faith is unsubstantiated baloney, in the parlance of our times.

Baseball Musings has a lineup analysis tool which anyone can use to determine the best batting order. You type in the on-base and slugging percentages of nine hitters, hit the submit button and voilĂ , find out that yes, it is crazy for Cito (more like Sito, since he's sitting on his hands) to keep writing Wells into the middle of the order. The $126-million-dollar man has the worst slugging (.387) and second-worst on-base percentage (.307) among the Jays' everyday players, for pete's sake. This is the best possible Jays lineup that it returned, with each's players on-base and slugging percentages in brackets:
  1. Marco Scutaro, SS (.400/.451)
  2. Lyle Overbay, 1B (.397/.553)
  3. Scott Rolen, 3B (.382/.455)
  4. Adam Lind, LF or DH (.381/.562)
  5. Aaron Hill, 2B (.346/.500)
  6. Rod Barajas, C (.303/.408)
  7. Alex Rios, RF (.319/.423)
  8. Vernon Wells, CF (.307/.387)
  9. José Bautista, LF or DH (.400/.368)
For argument's sake, the team's splits vs. lefties suggest that against southpaws, Overbay could be dropped to the sixth spot, with Barajas sliding into the 5-hole and Hill batting second.

In a run-neutral setting, that collection of data representing Blue Jays hitters would average 5.82 runs per game. The worst possible lineup, which would have Barajas, the paunchy catcher, in the leadoff spot with Wells batting second, would still average 5.25 runs.

The current Jays are averaging 5.03 runs (above the league average, 4.78). That's good, but it suggests they could be more productive if Wells wasn't dragging them down.

Another feature of BM's tool is that it shows outcomes for a number of possible lineups. The constants are Marco Scutaro hitting leadoff, some combination of the two lefties, Lind and Overbay, and the righty-hitting infielders, Hill and Rolen, in the 2-5 slots, and Wells being well down in the lineup. There were a few that show the Jays could get away with Alex Rios as the No. 3 hitter.

Data representing Blue Jays players does not fully capture their mental or physical well-being, or if they have just been hitting a lot of at-'em balls, or have a flaw in their swing which can be corrected. If you liken the baseball swing to a golf swing on another plane, Wells does not look like he was what golf nuts call "quiet hands," which makes it harder for him to square up and make solid contact. That might explain his low batting average on balls in play (.258) and why any improvement the rest of the way will probably be marginal.

The point is as a fan, either take it on faith that Wells will snap out of it or accept that in a snug-panted exercise in statistic memorization such as baseball (fist bump: Jay Pinkerton), there's usually a reasonable projection of how someone's going to produce. Wells is nearing 300 times at bat for the season. The water has found its own level. FanGraphs has Wells projected to end up with 15 homers and 75 RBI. Those aren't cleanup hitter numbers in any generation.

Meantime, the FAN 590's Mike Wilner said Gaston will consider making a change in "a month" if things don't improve. A month? We have seen enough already.

The bottom line is the sample sizes are big enough to know Wells will only improve somewhat over the last 100 games of this season. As The Tao of Stieb noted today, he has not produced to the point where it is costing the ballclub:
"In the 32 games since Vernon Wells last hit a ball out of the park (May 6th versus Anaheim), he has posted a .574 OPS and driven in a grand total of seven runs in 134 plate appearances. Each one of which, it should be noted, with him hitting fourth in the Jays batting order, just to beat that dead horse again.

"And dare we mention that Travis Snider was exiled to Las Vegas after posting an OPS of .686 in 108 plate appearances? If that sort of performance merits a demotion - and it did - then shouldn't Vernon receive some sort of demotion himself? Like maybe a week or two of hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup?

"Most importantly, the Jays have gone 14-18 in those games. We'd hazard a guess that not many teams would do much better with their cleanup hitter putting up numbers that could be bested by the fourth outfielder on their Triple-A team."
Personally, there was reluctance to get into this, since it would be running over some well-trod ground.

Most Jays and/or Toronto sports blogs have been harping about this for several weeks. It seemed best to just to fall back on the old standby adopted by office drones the world over, "You don't want to know what I think." However, there was a spur to speak up after hearing Gaston tell Jerry Howarth prior to last Sunday's game that he wasn't giving consideration to dropping Rios and Wells. The gist of it, from Gaston's point of view, was that "you don't want to panic." He also said you can't "hide" struggling hitters in the lineup, which did not answer the question of why he would keep them in the two spots in the lineup which get the most chance to produce runs, either by driving in the table-setters or. Now he's going to wait a month?

The irony is that there is a counter-argument that the Jays might be reluctant to take decisive action since Rios and Wells are perceived as their two highest-paid players. They would open themselves up to criticism if they take two players due to earn close to $200-million US through the 2014 season and hit them 7-8. (Technically, the Jays' highest-paid position players are actually Rolen and Overbay.)

However, there is a lot of cynicism in the Toronto sports market. Jays attendance is down a bit this year, although their TV ratings have risen about 7%. There is interest in this team, but not blind devotion. A demotion for Wells and Rios probably would be good from a bottom-line point of view.

A strong organization would ride it out and make the best of being stuck with Wells, instead of exacerbating the worst of it.


eyebleaf said...

(more like Sito, since he's sitting on his hands)


Torgen said...

Vernon's LD% and FB% are basically the same as they were last year, when he was great while in the lineup, but his BABIP is down 40 points and his HR/BIA is less than half what it was last year. Was last year the fluke, or is this year? Last year's HR/BIA matches his great 2006, but about 5% of his balls in play being grounders instead of line drives probably explains the 50 point BABIP difference between this year and 2006. Do his fly balls just suck this year? How do we prove this without HitFX? Even when we have this year's data, we won't have 2006's to compare against. I guess the best we can do is compare against other hitters in the league.

sager said...

Is it possible, and I don't have the facility you do with numbers, Torgen, that his success with hitting the ball in the air comes back to the issues with his hands, the herky-jerkiness he's displayed? If your hands are getting in the way of the weight transfer, you won't have much luck when you hit it in the air.

He also seems to be producing a lot of grounders where he tops the ball.

(HR/BIA is Home Runs/Balls In Air, correct?)