Spreadsheet Baseball: LaRue's Average is Going Down, and Other Scary Stories

I was an awesome singles hitter in little league, as practically everyone was. You see, back then all you had to do to get a hit on the score was hit the ball not directly at a fielder and you had about a ninety percent chance of it getting through or beating the lollipop throw. Some kids have already learned how to drive the ball a bit in little league, but barely anyone knows how to field. There was about one pitcher in our league out of six that we faced that could get through a game without walking more than he struck out. It was definitely a hitter's league, and my last year on the little league field I hit .536. I couldn't tell you what my OBP was, but just to brag I'm going to write that it had to be at least .650. Slugging average? Not so much, but I was good.

A funny thing happens to you, though, when your average gets above .500. I realized, twelve years old at the time, that I could go 2-for-4 and my average would go down. 2-for-4 is a pretty gosh darn good day's work, but it was actually below average for me on the season (and god knows how many other players). It struck me as an odd pecularity at the time and, obviously, the memory has stuck with me. For those interested, my Indians defeated the White Sox for the championship that year, sweeping a best two-of-three series from those baseball villains that included my neighbor down the street who had sold out after coming up in the minors with me.

In the majors, you don't have many people hitting .500 these days, so 2-for-4's no longer a good example. You do, however, have players every year who hit .380 for the first month and then see their average decline even when they get a hit in every three at-bats. It's an unwinnable game that way, in that you'll come back to earth even if you hit reasonably well. The flip side of this is the player who starts out his season badly, to the point where a 1-for-4 night raises his pathetic batting average. If we're talking about a player who's sub-.200, one measly bingle in five at-bats can cause a rise.

Then, there's Jason LaRue. Jason could go 1-for-6 in the next game he plays, and his batting average would go up. That's how bad he's been at the plate this season. I know I've brought this up before, but he's managed to hurt the team well above and beyond the impact you can expect from a back-up catcher. LaRue has been--I love typing this--0-for-August. He's 0-for-19 since the month started. At least he avoided not getting on base all month, as he managed a walk against the White Sox on the 22nd. Yippee. Saying "at least he had a walk this month" is like saying "at least that ant is still alive" after an unfortunate insect has been torn in half by a particularly sadistic eight-year-old. It's not much consolation to the ant. Or the Royals.

For those wondering where all of this is going (other than to crow about my little league abilities) NYRoyal's diary below prompted me too examine just how badly of the Royals are compared to the theoretical "league average hitter" team. As all of you know, widely-felt preseason expectation were that this team was going to be pretty good offensively and bad at pitching. That hasn't even come close to being true, as heroes like Gil Meche, Joakim Soria, and Brian Bannister have saved the pitching staff from nigh-certain embarrassment. Meanwhile, the Royals--LaRue being the most extreme example--have flailed at the plate quite a bit this year despite notable improvements over the course by guys like Alex Gordon, Mark Grudzielanek, Billy Butler, and (shrug) Emil Brown. So how do the Royals measure up to the league averages by position?

Catcher LA: .252/.315/.391

John Buck - .226/.316/.459

Jason LaRue - .141/.230/.275

Buddy Bell's self-fulfilled prophecy has, uh, come true. Neither catcher is hitting well right now, but it still should be painfully obvious that Buck has waaaaaaaay more value than LaRue. In fact, even though he's hitting .228, Buck's OBP is one tick above average for AL catchers and his slugging percentage is a nifty 68 points higher. In other words, Buck's secondary skills (power, higher walk rate) are carrying him to the point where he's still above average. Was anyone else surprised to see how low the league average was for American League catchers?

Jason LaRue is terrible at hitting a baseball. No two ways above it.

First Base LA: .270/.348/.446

Ross Gload - .301/.321/.462

Ryan Shealy - .221/.286/.308

Anyone else long for the days where Ryan Shealy was going to be a slugging presence in the middle of the line-up for the Royals? Shealy OPSed nearly 800 in his first go-round with the Royals in 2006, but between injuries and general suckiness, he proved totally incapable of follow his 2006 act. It really was a bit uncanny how bad he was. Get well soon, Ryan, your MLB career depends on it.

For you Ross Gload fans out there, this is me acknowledging that Gload has exploded all the way up to the vicinity of the DH-diluted average line for an AL first basemen (though the loss in OBP hurts more than the gain in power). If he were a guy who played a position up the middle of the diamond, I'd like him. He's not, and the end result is he's logged a lot of playing time at first that hasn't turned out as bad as I would have expected. He's absitively posolutely not the future at first for the Royals, but keeping him around to sub at the corners is fine.

Second Base LA: .282/.339/.413

Mark Grudzielanek - .304/.346/.439

Esteban German - .265/.357/.369

Another fine season for Grudzielanek, as he ends up being a pretty nifty player at second when you factor in his (generally accepted) above average defense. He's outstripped the LA second basemen on all three hitting line fronts as his batting average his risen steadily after a slow start. The lone problem with Grudzielanek is that he has to keep hitting around three hundred to keep this up, and players with his skillset--low walk totals, no speed--can disappear off the map when they get old. No disrespect meant to Mark, of course. He's an oldie, and, for now, he's a goody.

German's batting average is running a little low for him, and so he really hasn't been as good as Grudzielanek to this point in the year. If he gets back up around .280, the Grudzielanek-German celebrity deathmatch needs to be arranged to settle this matter once and for all. In any case, German's been a useful reserve again this year, with a very good walk rate that suggests he could hold down a starting job at second if someone gives him a shot.

Shortstop LA: .270/.323/.394

Tony Pena Jr. - .262/.282/.345

Pena's got just nine walks all year long, which is impatience to the point where it's very very hard for any other skill to compensate for it. Pena's defense has got good, not great, reviews from the jumble of metrics and observers that one is forced to go by when getting into a serious defense evaluation discussion. He's contributed twenty doubles on the year as well, and he probably takes his vitamins and loves his mom. He's still not even close to being a league average shortstop with the bat. There are plenty of things that you can do to compensate for a .282 OBP. Examples include slugging .700, rescuing handicapped orphans from evil villains every morning, firing Joe Morgan from ESPN, feeding an entire third world country, and qualifying for sainthood. Actually the fact of the matter is that even if Pena takes the Mother Teresa life path, it would be hard for me to recommend him to an actual baseball team. He's too old to expect much in the way of improvement. Please pass the Moose Tacos.

Third Base LA: .263/.332/.425

Alex Gordon - .244/.319/.401

Another one where I expected the league average line to be higher, which just goes to show that there are some pretty crappy third basemen lying around. Gordon is not anywhere near as crappy as early in the season, and has broken the .400 mark for his slugging percentage. Amazingly, after hitting about .043 over the first eight months of the season, Gordon is twenty BA points from being almost dead-on league average.

Needless to say, we all expect Alex to be capable of greater things, but it's encouraging that he's managed to do better here in the second half. If there's anything un-obvious that bothers me here, it's that his OBP is hiked up because of HBPs. I asked Alex if he thought that was a repeatable skill, and all he did was smirk knowingly. Here's hoping he's the next Craig Biggio in that regard, because every little bit helps.

AL Left Field LA: .273/.333/.423

Joey Gathright - .347/.404/.388

Needless to say, there's more to this than meets the eye. Gathright, gosh love him for his positive contributions to KC this year, is OPSing thirty-six points above league average. If I was absolutely positive he could replicate his current line over a full season, I'd already have penciled him in as a starter for 2008 with "+" next to his name. He's a speedster who isn't bad in the outfield, and is virtually incapable of hitting for power (.41 IsoP[!]). In other words, he's kind of like good-year Scott Podsednik right now.

Joey's career line, even with this year's 160 PAs, is .269/.335/.320. That's not acceptable from a center fielder, much less a corner outfielder. How much you value Gathright depends on the weight you place on his at-bats this season as compared to the way he's hit in the majors in the past. Given this, it should be pretty unsurprising that I can't take him seriously as a good starting solution for next year. No matter how much you think 2007 represents an improvement for Gathright as opposed to a fluky 160 PAs, you are not going to convince me that he's going to hit .347 every year. Albert Pujols doesn't hit .347 every year. No one does. So, how high do you expect his average to stay once he comes back to earth? That's the question you need to ask if you want to project Gathright's value for next year. If Joey's "true ability" is hitting .305, for example, and you give him credit for his current level of power and patience, he'd hit around .305/.365/.355. Vintage Podzilla, and nowhere near good enough to start in left field and be a plus, but arguably good enough for center. If his true ability is around .285 (sixteen points higher than his career average)...well...it doesn't matter where he plays.

Center Field LA: .270/.333/.424

David DeJesus - .277/.356/.392

Super Joey - .347/.404/.388

NHZ Optimism Joey - .305/.365/.355

NHZ Pessisism Joey - .285/.345/.335

Career Line Joey - .269/.335/.320

Let the argument begin. DeJesus, with his solid hitting, patience approach, and low salary is both one of the Royals most reliable assets and at the same time one of their best trading chips. He doesn't have the "no power" rep that Joey does, and he's not paid much, so it's reasonable to assume that he could bring a pretty good return. The thing is, what with him already signed at below market prices and being a plus with the bat (if definitely not a star), trading him what with the Royals' lack of good bats seems loony when looked at from another angle.

DeJesus is probably a little above league average because twenty-odd points of OBP are worth more than the equivalent SLG points. DeJesus does have some extra base power, with fourty XBH from the lead-off position this year. His past history woudl suggest his BA is a little low right now, but not too low compared to what you expect. It appears that "this" is what he is, as preseason breakout predictions really haven't come true, but he's still a useful player at a key defensive position who you can expect to be at least average with the bat, maybe a little more. To facilitate the whole DeJesus-Gathright match-up, I include the four horsemen of Joey: Super, Optimist NHZ, Pessimist NHZ, and Career Line. Super looks like an improvement on DDJ for sure. Optimist is acceptable but nothing that DDJ can't do better. Pessimist is bad. Career line is worse. I report, you decide. Who's the better option in center next year if DDJ maintains his previous levels of performance?

Right Field LA: .287/.358/.464

Emil Brown - .245/.296/.346

Mark Teahen - .284/.351/.407

Shane "The Pain" Costa - .200/.219/.243

A recent topic on RR was that Emil and his Noodle Bat might be an illusion brought on by lack of playing time, and that Emil might be league average again if he had been allowed to play through his slump the whole way. Even so, even if you up all Brown's percentages by fourty points, his power is down this year and "league average, old, and with bad defense" is not exactly a performance that screams "he's a building block" anyway.

Mark Teahen I somehow forgot about when I initially put this article together, which must have had something to do with him being on the DL. Those familar with Mark's performance this season and his off-season shoulder surgery might have actually expected him to go the disabled left earlier as Teahen's power has been sapped compared to last year when he slugged .517. For now, it is kind of for us to know what to expect from Teahen in 2008, as I think shoulder surgery has both limited his power and upped his k-rate. While I would hesitate to predict Teahen slugging .517 next year, I think he can get back to league average for a RF--820 OPS--with room for improvement. For now, Mark's plate discipline has remained intact, which is encouraging, but he missed the LA slugging line by sixty points. We all like Teahen a lot, I think, but I really hope I'm right about a bounceback next season because a .407 SLG won't help much in a corner spot.

Shane Costa is included her so those so inclined can tell nasty jokes about him behind his back. Costa's performance this year is like a terrible sandwich from McDonald's: the next time around he'll be better, but that doesn't mean there should be a next time around for the McChicken...or for Shane.

Designated Hitter LA: .263/.350/.433

Billy Ray Butler - .295/.352/.436

He'a already a league average DH at age 21, which is yet another way of saying that Billy Ray is going to be a good one. With muscular maturation and experience will come the power he displayed in the minors, and I think I speak for us all when I say that thank god he hasn't been Huberized. Butler should be a very good hitter for a very long time. The only question now is if he can play first well enough to start there, or if he's a career DH. It's not the worst thing in the world to be a career DH.

In Conclusion, We Stink

Naturally, it's not as cut and dried as that. However, if you go by this year's batting lines, Grudzielanek, Gathright, and Butler are the three definite above averages for the Royals. If you read this closely, you know what I think about the chances of Gathright and Grudzielanek repeating their 2007 production next year. DeJesus is probably a little better than league average. Buck is defintely better than average thanks to all his dingers, but LaRue has ruined everything when it comes to catcher (maybe a slight exagerration).

In the end, we're left with a team that needs a healthy dose of power and patience in the line-up next year. For those of you who haven't already done so, I recommend you visit the FA diary by NYRoyal that's on the main page to view which guys you think could fit the bill. By my count, we need a 1B/DH, a corner outfielder (maybe two) who can hit the ball over the fence (preferably one without a BB gun), and a shortstop. Other than that, we're not bad off in the line-up if the young players like Gordon and Butler improve.

Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week but probably not at its regular time due to my return to my institute of higher learning. Sorry for my recent absence; I always get sick when falls sets in and the temperature changes, blah. For this week's edition of SB, comments/questions are welcome/encouraged.

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