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The Interchangeable Outfield: Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs

Helton: "Wait...didn't I just high-five you?"
Helton: "Wait...didn't I just high-five you?"

When I take off my analyst cap and just look at baseball players - or really any athletes in general, I think of them in kind of a non-descript fashion that constitutes colors and "feelings", which is kind of weird and hippieish. Most of the players the past few years have given themselves a strange mental "image" that doesn't really translate perfectly into something tangible, but when I hear their names and picture them in the place where I first kind of "realized" them as an observer.

For example, the 2006 Rockies. When I saw Garrett Atkins, the "feeling" I got would best translate itself into "groove". He was a high-average hitter who could crank homers but really could put the ball into the gap. Powerful, but not explosive. On the other hand, I saw Matt Holliday as a hammer. Not a sledgehammer like Dante Bichette, but maybe more like a tack hammer. A lot of "bang", as evidenced by his 34 homers in 2006, and maybe not as much of a gapper (even though he was that, too - again, just kind of a feeling), but like I said, "bang" for the buck. Those words might not even really describe the feeling that those two players gave, but it's probably the best I can give. Atkins seemed "smoother" than Holliday, Holliday seemed more jagged.

Moving to 2010, we have this new crop of players. Ian Stewart kind of comes off as a boulder, or perhaps a caber, if you will (and I know a lot of you won't). Brad Hawpe is a tank: slow moving, not incredibly maneuverable, but has a lot of destructive force on the offense. Dexter Fowler is a swiftly moving stream: not like a river frothing with rapids, but a flowing, narrow body of water that moves a long way in a short amount of time but with seemingly little effort. Carlos Gonzalez is a hummingbird, and he darts from point to point in the outfield and settles under the spot he wants to be at. Obviously, some of these "descriptions" relate to batting, like with Holliday and Atkins, some to fielding, like Fowler and Gonzalez.

The two remaining outfielders I haven't mentioned yet strike me as the most interesting, and those are Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith. Smith has that "secret weapon" feel to him because of his Mr. Late Night moniker, but when you look at the two as the "reserve" outfielders, I see them as a pair of perfectly interlocking puzzle pieces.

Join me past the jump and I'll explain why this puzzle-piece description fits Smith and Spilly so well.

Let's assume for the sake of this article that Dex is locked into CF and that Jim Tracy will make the smart decision and put Carlos Gonzalez in RF, leaving Hawpe to play 1B or something and then LF to be platooned by Spilborghs and Smith.

Now, obviously, Smith and Spilly are being used mostly in handedness matchups and sometimes swapped or rearranged in double-switch scenarios. Both are considered average-to-above average fielders (despite both UZR and TotalZone considering Spilly to be below average), so as far as defensive reputation goes, you're not going to see a dropoff in either.

Despite showing signs of being capable vs LHP, Smith is posting a 23 wRC+ against LHP and a 156 wRC+ v RHP. That translates back into a .501 OPS/.222 wOBA v LHP, .986 OPS/.420 wOBA v RHP.

Spilborghs, on the other hand, has a more interesting split line. Versus LHP, Spilly bats a .781 OPS, .355 wOBA, and 113 wRC+ v LHP, and .832 OPS, .362 wOBA, and 117 wRC+ v RHP.

So right there we can see that Spilly and Smith are both LF options, one who can hit LHP, one who can't.

The next interesting split is how they fare as a starter and as a PH. Smith posts a SLG-heavy .837 OPS as a starting LF (.476 SLG) yet a destructive 1.259 OPS as a PH. This continues to fuel the "Smith is a PH and nothing more" fire, but given the plus fielding and the acceptable OPS as a starter, we're not talking about somebody who will start and sink the lineup because his season line is entirely made up of PH wonderment. Granted, the PH amazingness certainly inflates his line, but my point is that we can start Smith and he'll be fine doing what he does.

The other side of the coin is Spilborghs, who flourishes as a starter and is acceptable as a PH. As a starter, Spilly is posting a SLG heavy .890 OPS (which is completely awesome - .531 SLG) and an OBP-heavy .782 OPS as a PH.

Somebody in a rockpile or something posited the following to me: Seth Smith flourishes as a PH because he can get around on the fastball and an awful lot of relievers come in with this mentality:

Larry: Excuse me, but what the hell's going on out here?

Crash Davis: Well, Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here. We need a live... is it a live rooster?

[Jose nods]

Crash Davis: We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present.

[to the players]

Crash Davis: Is that about right?

[the players nod]

Crash Davis: We're dealing with a lot of shit.

Larry: Okay, well, uh... candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern. Okay, let's get two! Go get 'em.

Oops, wrong quote... try this one:

Crash Davis: Why are you shaking me off?

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: [Gets in Crash's face] I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!

Crash Davis: Announce your f***ing presence with authority? This guy is a first ball, fastball hitter!

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well he hasn't seen my heat!

Crash Davis: [pauses] Alright meat, show him your heat.

That really made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to explore it a little further.

In 2010, Fangraphs has Seth Smith rated at a major plus against fastballs, negative against curveballs, and decently productive against most other types of junk. Spilly, however, is a negative vs the fastball and splitter/sinker, but positive on most other types of junk - namely, the curveball. Spooky.

What's extra interesting is to see Smith and Spilly's OPS split by 3-inning chunks. Take a look at this table:


Smith OPS

Spilly OPS

Inn 1-3



Inn 4-6



Inn 7-9



Both batters come out of the gates strong, and I'd make the case that starters are going to bring their heat for the first few go-rounds before adjusting to the lineup and start seriously mixing in off-speed pitches. If we are to believe that very positive rating Smith has against the fastball, it makes sense that Smith would be hitting hard during that first go-round. As pitchers start to mix it up, Spilly's junkball hitting will keep his production strong before the bullpen comes into play. Again, weeeeird.

Seeing how the lineup cards are going to come preprinted from now on with Dexter Fowler in CF and Carlos Gonzalez in either LF or RF, and Brad Hawpe is struggling at the plate the last month or two, this is going to open up a lot of playing time for our dynamic duo (and seriously, given the way they fill in each other's gaps, I can't think of a better moniker to give those two), and it will be a challenge to make sure that we are properly utilizing the tandem's skillsets, or at least their batting splits.

Try this on for size. Spilborghs starts 2/3 games where the dynamic duo is to get playing time. By the 7th inning, we PH Smith, and then leave him in as a double switch, and let him feast on bullpens. That 3rd start just goes to Smith, and it will probably be against a hard-throwing RHP. Maybe I'm micromanaging too much here...but considering who runs this show, I can't imagine it would be that much of a stretch to see this kind of bizarre platoon make sense to our manager.

Before we part ways, let me leave you with one more bizarre split to ponder. Observe this table:


Smith OPS

Spilly OPS










Not what I expected to see, either.

Given what we've covered today as well as that last juicy morsel of small-sample-splits, what do you do? Do you have a good game plan to utilize both Ryan Spilborghs AND Seth Smith? Let's hear it.


Final final thought, for reals: