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Beating the …Unicorn?: Seth Smith and the Outfield Conundrum

I must be crazy. I am really sitting here writing an article on Seth Smith, which is already sailing dangerous waters. I'm a noted fanboy of the man, so the gut reaction is that it's just going to be 1200 words on why Seth Smith continually battles Dr. Doom, is a part-time astronaut, and can make baseballs center themselves on his bat using just the power of his mind.

But seriously, I'm trying to make an objective exploration of the topic. Not just saying "HAY GUYS HERE'S WAR NOW DEAL WITH IT", but kind of breaking down the individual numbers, extrapolating a bit, trying to compare piece by piece what's going on.

Now the obvious counterpart of this debate is Brad Hawpe, all-bat-no-glove. Again, I'm striving for objectivity in this piece. It may not be easy, but if I'm going to attempt to present this information in a palatable form, I can't just say "LOOK AT SMITH'S NUMBERS WOOOOO HAWPE IS A BAD FIELDER", but I really just need to demonstrate the methods used and how I reached my conclusions. Which I hope I can do in this.

So the big debate is who should start, Brad Hawpe or Seth Smith? It seems we've already given the starting roles to Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez, on virtue of the nicest smile in the majors and the LAZOR (which I don't really agree with), leaving only one OF spot available to fill, leaving the fight up to Ryan Spilborghs, Brad Hawpe, and Seth Smith. Now, unless Spilborghs suddenly starts showing numbers like he did in 2008 and 2 of the other 4 outfielders suddenly is unable to perform their duties as an outfielder (God forbid) (and if you think about it, that'd be the only way for Spilborghs to actually prove he deserves more playing time), it really looks like we're debating whether to have an OF of Gonzalez-Fowler-Hawpe or Smith-Fowler-Gonzalez.

Now, the blatant debate here is one of total value. Hawpe is very poor defensively, and Smith (in an admittedly limited sample from which to draw conclusions) appears to be pretty solid defensively. Hawpe, however, swings a big club at the plate, and Smith, while solid, doesn't really stack up, purely bat-to-bat. However, Smith excels at being a pinch hitter.

So let's break this down piece by piece, just past the jump.

We're first going to look at the standard AVG/OBP/SLG slash stats. Then we're going to take a look at wOBA (which is a bit skewed, as I didn't use current linear weights to calculate it - reason I did it myself is that there aren't wOBA splits for situational hitting available, and so rather than use Fangraphs' wOBA for the full-time play and then calculate my own for the pinch hitting and such, I just did it all myself for the sake of consistency). Our next step will be to find a quick-and-dirty wRAA (runs added, see this article for background) by multiplying wOBA by PA. Finally, I DID just use UZR straight from Fangraphs to add in a defensive run value for both. Now, I know there's objections to UZR, but it's there, it's simple enough to use, I understand that it's not perfect, so let's just roll with it for the sake of this article. If you hate it to the point of not accepting any conclusions drawn that include it, you might as well stop reading here. Or take the numbers that I use and plug in your own preferred defensive metric. So our final tally will end up with a Total RAA (Runs Above Average).

Just so we're all aware, these aren't park-adjusted or anything fun like that, but seeing how we're dealing with 2 Rockies players and not like Brad Hawpe v Kyle Blanks or anything, it'll do the trick for the sake of evaluation.

Anyhow, on to the analysis.

Let's begin with Hawpe, because we all kind of know what I'm about to write here anyhow.

Hawpe had a very good season overall, just looking at the macro view of the entire season. He batted .285/.384/.519, good for a .903 OPS and a wOBA of .403 (again, remember, faulty linear weights, so this won't line up with Fangraphs, but it's consistent throughout this evaluation). Hawpe posted 588 PA over the season, and that makes his offensive value 37.1 runs, or about a 3.5-win player at the plate.

The downside is obviously that he's a poor RF. Strong arm still, but nobody really runs on him anymore. Hawpe's UZR over the course of the season totaled out to -21.3 runs, or about -2 wins. All said and done, Hawpe provided 15.8 runs in the positive direction, about a Win and a half.

Now here's where it gets interesting.

Seth Smith had a dual-role again on the team, as a part-time starter and a significant pinch-hitter.

As a starter, Smith batted .293/.378/.510, OPS of .889 and wOBA of .359. With 327 PA as a starter, that meant Smith provided 8.1 runs at the plate. His fielding was also very good, and UZR dubbed him a 6.8 run defender in his limited playing time as a fielder. It should be noted that the UZR number includes time as a defensive replacement, but that'll really just add in a small amount of value, when you consider the inning load. Totaling that up, Smith was a 14.9 run player, or just shy of a 1.5 win player, which interestingly enough, is just below where Hawpe was with more PA as a starter.

As part of the exploration, I extrapolated Smith's time as a starter out to if he had the same number of games as a starter as Hawpe did. The slash lines all stay the same, but his value at the plate becomes 14.5 runs, 12.2 runs defensively, 26.6 overall, about 2.5 wins.

But what's really interesting is his PH value.

Smith was OTHERWORLDLY as a pinch hitter. His batting line was downright Ruthian.

In the pinch, Smith batter .472/.574/.861, OPS'd 1.436, and had a wOBA of .611 - you read that right. In 47 PA as a PH, Smith provided 11.4 runs. For those of you keeping score at home, that's MORE RUNS than he provided as a starter. Disgusting.

Now, obviously as a PH, that has 0 fielding value, so he's just over a Win as a PH.

So if we sum up Smith's value as both a part-time starter and a PH, that's 19.5 runs of offense. Add in his 6.8 runs of defense and we have 26.3 runs, right around 2.5 wins. That's in part-time duty.

Now, if I felt we were done here, we'd have a pretty blatant case to just keep Smith as a PH and use that absurd value to win every close game ever. But we have to temper our expectations going forward. First of all, those numbers are in NO WAY sustainable. That's a .571 BABIP. That's unreal. Nobody is that good. No, not even Smith. He was somewhat of a PH jewel in 2008, but he posted a .257/.381/.514/.895/.411 line - which is still excellent, but it's also far more realistic than what we saw in 2009.

So now to bring it all together, it's kind of a tough thing to do, for several reasons.

1.     The pinch hitting line is in no way realistic for next season. It just isn't. If we just add up the value of Hawpe in a similar amount of playing time and Smith in his mixed role, they combine to just over 4 wins. That's awesome. But it's not repeatable, because of reason #2.

2.     There are more guys vying for (and deserving of) playing time, namely one Carlos Gonzalez. Had Gonzalez put up his season numbers for an entire season (again, based on Hawpe's playing time), he's a 33.9-run player, just over 3 wins. He's not going to only get 3 months of consistent playing time this season. There's just no way.

3.     There's no way to do a fair evaluation of how well Smith will pinch in 2010. I'd argue he'd repeat his 2008 numbers (give or take) if still stuck in that role. The problem is that the 2008 line is only worth about 3 runs.

4.     We have Jason Giambi now to be a primary pinch hitter.

Given those problems, trying to move forward and say "WELL HERE'S THE BEST COMBINATION, DEAL WITH IT" is kind of specious, because there are just too many variables to take into play. I mean, if we just use the extrapolated "full season" model to try and pick the best 2 guys to play the corners (we're assuming Dex is not going to move from CF barring catastrophe), it's obviously going to just pop out Smith and Cargo, good for about 6 wins, which ain't bad. Hawpe and Smith give us right above 4 wins, and Hawpe and Cargo are just shy of 5 wins. I mean, just looking at that, the best-case scenario that includes Hawpe is a full win less than the next best option. With the reality of Smith's PH numbers coming back down to the realms of the feasible and the playing time taken away by the fact that Gonzalez gets starts now too, we can't just slap the OF into the same cookie cutter we had last season.

Call me a sucker for defense, but the Rockies were 14 runs below average in the field last year, and that frankly just isn't acceptable. Offense is going to be inflated at our park, that's just not going to change, but we need to be putting our best foot forward wherever we can. We've stressed the infield defense so much based on the groundballing philosophy that we seem to have forgotten that we have an outfield the size of Rhode Island. The metrics all agree on just about everything we know about our 4 primary starting candidates in the outfield: Gonzalez is a very good defensive outfielder, Smith is above average, Fowler has some learning to do, and Hawpe is pretty much abysmal.

I don't mean to hate on Brad Hawpe. I honestly, truly don't. Beneath this Excel spreadsheet with legs beats the heart of a guy who loves the players who play for our team, for the spark they bring, for the excitement and enjoyment they give me for those 3 hours at the ballpark when the rest of my life waits outside for me, for their quirks and foibles, both on and off field, and because I've been able to watch them since their rookie years.

The problem here is that I've come across a new addiction: Winning.

I want to win, and I want to jam those wins down the gullets of every sports outlet that ignores us, every commentator who doesn't bother to learn anything past the humidor, and every snarky analyst who figures that us not spending $140M a season makes us a franchise that just doesn't want it enough.

During 2005-2007, I viewed the team as a family. We supported each other when we failed, we cheered when guys who were slumping like mad finally got a hit, we cheered when prospects finally began to show what all the hype was about. But now that we're past the magic and pixie dust, it's time we start viewing this team as a business, an organization intent on making some Wins. Baby, after 2009, business is looking good.

That's really what it's gonna come down to. If we want our team to flourish in the limelight, we need to scrape those wins from wherever they might come. If we can add another win of value by playing the less glamorous but overall better alternatives, we need to do it. I'm not trying to say "OH NOES HAWPE WILL BE ATKINS A BLOO BLOO BLOO", I'm saying that Hawpe is a destructive bat and a destructive fielder as well.

Smith may have the sparkle as a pinch hitter, and a lot of that shine will be hidden by the extra dirt on his uniform, but the way I see it, the fewer runs we allow, the fewer runs that we're gonna need late inning unicorn magic for.

So how do I conclude this...again, it's tricky. Hawpe provided a lot of offensive runs for us in the first half of last season, and his defensive problems were somewhat swept under the rug. During the second half, however, when his bat cooled off, he played as basically a replacement-level player, all things considered.

So I guess we get creative. Hawpe's probably gonna start out of the gates, and if he bats like he does in the first half, we reap as much benefit as we can from that. But frankly, I'm just not convinced he's the guy to stick with moving forward, especially with 3 capable starters in Fowler, Gonzalez, and Smith, a solid backup in Spilborghs, and guys like Cole Garner not too far away.

Again, the sentimental side of me doesn't want to see another one of our boys depart, but the side of me that's hungering for winning realizes that Hawpe turning back into a pumpkin when he reaches the outfield isn't going to be the best way for us to reach the dance.