Unlike some of the other positions I've audited before in this series, the Rockies' left field position had a bunch of people plying their trade in Coors' spacious outfield. Six to be exact. In order of most games started at the position: Seth Smith (59), Carlos Gonzalez (51), Ryan Spilborghs (32), Eric Young Jr. (9), Jay Payton (7), and the unfortunate Melvin Mora outfield experience (4). Of these players, two (Smith and Payton) started more games in left field than at any other position, so they (mostly Smith) will be evaluated in this column. Mora and Young have already been covered, while Gonzalez will get his recognition in the CF audit and Spilborghs will be looked at in the RF audit.
Left Field, according to Tom Tango's positional adjustment scale, is given a rank of -7.5, meaning that left field is an easier position to play defensively relative to short stop or center field. The main responsibility of left fielders is not only to catch fly balls but also to deny baserunners advancing to an extra base. Therefore, arm strength and accuracy are desired traits of left fielders.
However, since left field in a ball park is usually the area that requires the shortest throws (and the smallest area to cover) of all the outfield positions, arm strength, accuracy, and range (speed, often) is usually placed on the back burner and offense (particularly power) is emphasized in the major leagues. Coors is a bit of an oddity in this regard, as the left fielder is expected to cover quite a bit more territory than usual.
In this vein, Smith defended better on the road in LF (2.5 UZR) than he did at Coors (-0.5 UZR), though counter to what Jim Tracy would have you believe, he was actually slightly better in RF (0.3 away, 2.8 home).
For those of you who missed it, here is the premise and methodology of this series. These links will help you if you have questions about statistics that I reference: sOPS+, wOBA, WAR (and wRAA), and wRC+.
Smith was coming off of a breakout 2009 season in which he'd compiled a .293/.378/.510 (.383 wOBA, 128 wRC+) line with 15 HRs and 55 RBIs in only 387 PAs, good for 2.9 fWAR. As a result, many (myself included) were clamoring for the Rockies to give Smith a starting position and trade Brad Hawpe. In fact, Bill James' projection system had projected Smith to be a 3 WAR player. However, others held the firm belief that Smith was aptly suited to be an ace pinch-hitter. Either way, expectations were relatively high for a player who had yet to get a full season's worth of PAs.
As far as expectations for Jay Payton, there really weren't any. The 37 year old outfielder, who didn't play for anyone in 2009, was signed to a minor league deal prior to the start of the season and was promptly forgotten about by most Rockies fans as he toiled in Colorado Springs.
Seth Smith's season (like several other Rockies in 2010) is a story of two halves. He wasn't used heavily at the beginning of 2010, giving way mostly to a Gonzalez/Fowler/Hawpe outfield. However, he managed a 111 sOPS+ in the season's first month. He followed it up with months of 152, 134, and 144 sOPS+ from May to July, posting a .287/.350/.545 (146 sOPS+) line with 12 HRs and 33 RBIs in only 226 PAs in the season's first half. In other words, Smith was living up to his preseason hype and the cries for him to become the starter grew louder.
Unfortunately, the beginning of August brought on Smith's worst month as a pro, in which he hit a pathetic .115/.193/.269 (27 sOPS+) in 57 PAs. It was at this point, the nadir of Smith's career, that the Rockies finally let Hawpe go and gave Smith a chance to play everyday. Of course, Smith was still struggling with whatever had gone wrong with him at this point and though he improved his line to .199/.299/.345 (84 sOPS+) in his 67 PAs in the season's final month, the Rockies' brass had seen enough (reportedly) to stop considering him a starter and to consider him as a platoon/bench player going forward.
Okay, so I'm a little bitter about the quick hook Smith was given by Jim Tracy and company. Why? Because while Smith has only hit .190/.267/.331 (45 sOPS+) against lefties in his career, the sample size is still quite small and was really dragged down by his awful showing in 55 PAs in 2010 against them (.154/.182/.393, 15 sOPS+). My point is that many of those bad PAs happened during his career-worst slump when it didn't matter who was throwing to Smith -- he couldn't hit anyone.
Contrast this with his stellar 2009 showing against LHP in a larger sample size: .259/.368/.500 (146 sOPS+) in 68 PAs. Smith performed very well against lefties in 2009 and was godawful against them in 2010. Shouldn't that make 2011 the tiebreaker or something? Again, Smith's L/L sample size is only 136 PAs out of 916 (14.8%). In 780 PAs against righties, Smith has put up a line of .285/.363/.513 (110 sOPS+). I think that Smith deserves an extended chance to proove that he can hit lefties like it's 2009.
The other split that many fans focus on with Smith is the reserve/starter split. In 2010, he hit .252/.315/.469 (112 sOPS+) in 336 PAs as a starter and .208/.306/.472 (142 sOPS+) in 62 PAs as a reserve. Smith's production as a starter far outstrips his production as a bench player. That's including the opportunity cost of filling his everyday playing time with Ryan Spilborghs.
Continuing the trend of most other 2010 Rockies, Smith was far more productive at home (.284/.352/.585, 146 sOPS+, 12 HRs, 199 PAs) than on the road (.209/.276/.357, 79 sOPS+, 5 HRs, 199 PAs). Another interesting thing to note is that Smith's BABIP was only .256 in 2010, a number that should regress upward to the mean in 2011 given his .324 BABIP in 2009. Overall, Smith's 2010 line was .246/.314/.469 (.338 wOBA, 103 wRC+) with 17 HRs and 55 RBIs. Combined with his UZR total of 5.3, it was worth 1.7 fWAR, which is above league average production if you extrapolate his playing time to 600 PAs.
Meanwhile, Payton was hitting well in AAA, putting up a .323/.365/.469 (.370 wOBA, 116 wRC+) line. The combination of this and his veteraniness gave Dan O'Dowd and company a reason to promote him to the big club for the September playoff push over prospects like Cole Garner or Matt Miller. Payton made the Rockies look like geniuses during his limited MLB playing time. In 36 PAs, he put up a .343/.361/.514 (.385 wOBA, 135 wRC+) line and 0.2 WAR. Ultimately it didn't matter, but that's still a nice surprise to get production like that from a guy like Payton who everyone had written off.
As a positional group, Colorado's left fielders were propped up by CarGo's superlative slugging, posting a .311/.368/.562 line with 34 HRs and 105 RBIs in 712 PAs (139 sOPS+, meaning that as a group they were 39% better than an average MLB LF).
The way Smith ended 2010 was certainly disappointment, but he still remains a player with great potential. I firmly believe that if the Rockies committed to making him a full-time starter, Smith would reward them with 20+ HRs and at least an .850 OPS and the 3+ WAR season many thought he was capable of going into 2010. When he's on, he's got that great blend of power and patience that plays well in Colorado's lineup. The decrease in his BB% (from 11.9% in 2009 to 8.8% in 2010) bothers me, of course, but I'm hopeful that a show of faith in him by Colorado's management and consistent playing time would get him to stop pressing at the plate.
As I theorized in the section above, if the Rockies want to put out their strongest team in 2011, Seth Smith needs to play a starring role. Like Ian Stewart and Chris Iannetta, I feel that if Smith is given a sustained trial next year, he will blossom into a borderline All-Star player. All three will vie for the honor of being Colorado's third best hitter in 2011.
Although Colorado doesn't have their fifth outfielder spot filled yet, it's unlikely that Payton will be back. He's had a nice run in Colorado, but at 38 years old it's probably time to call it a career. Here's to hoping that Cole Garner finally gets his shot in the Show.
Next up...Center Field
Wherein I discuss Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler