Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/11/13
Craig Calcaterra made me do something I have not done for a long time yesterday: think about Deion Sanders. Calcaterra’s post is worth reading in itself (at least click the link to see an incredibly time-bound photograph), as it is reflection on Buster Olney’s (annual) reflection (how meta!) on some interaction Olney had with Deion Sanders years ago as a rookie reporter. Okay, that sounds equal parts boring and confusing, but Craig makes it funny, at least to me. Leaving aside the mystery of why Olney makes this his annual Spring Training Kickoff Tradition and what it is supposed to mean (nothing against Olney; like Craig, I am simply baffled by the whole thing): man, it has been a long time since I’ve thought about Deion Sanders, especially Deion Sanders the baseball player. My memories of that are pretty hazy, so others can recall various cool, fun, or just ridiculous Deion Sanders stories. I do not want to take that approach and end up with a car wreck of a post. Sanders had his moments on the diamond, and the whole part-time football/baseball thing is itself a curious artifact of the past. (The latter is worth a long post in its own right. “Well, sure, I could make millions guaranteed, but I think I’d rather spend part of the year doing something far more dangerous for non-guaranteed money.”) Leaving all of that aside, I was struck by just how unusual, especially these days, Sanders combination of skills was. What players recently have had seasons like Neon Deion at his best? Deion Sanders was, of course, not all that great at baseball relative to his fame. Of course, neither was Bo Jackson, who turned a couple of above-average seasons and some (very) memorable plays into legendary status. Sanders even at his best did not play all that much because of his duel-sports commitments, topping more than 500 plate appearances only once (in 1997), and 400 twice (1994 and 1997). One can debate what “counts,” but I feel pretty comfortable saying that his best season was 1992. He only played in 97 games (325 plate appearances), but managed to hit an impressive .304/.346/.495 (136 wRC+) with 26 steals. he hit .400/.455/.500 for Atlanta in the playoffs, including .533/.588/.667 in the World Series. Sanders never hit that well again, and like pretty much all career years, he was probably pretty lucky. Sanders rode a high BABIP and surprising (for him) power to his .374 wOBA. For his career, Sanders had only average (at best) contact abilities, did not walk much, and had only average power — pretty much the standard recipe for a player who needs luck on balls in play to have a big offensive year. Rather than discussing Sanders’ true talent from 20 years ago, I am more interested in seeing whether his combination of certain peripherals in 1992 is rare these days. It is, but just how rare? I did not take a terribly sophisticated approach. I picked a few peripheral stats as my basis for comparison: walk rate, strikeout rate, BABIP, isolated power, and speed score. It is sort of a strange mix, but I thought it decently represents plate discipline, power, and overall speed (a big part of Sanders’ game) and not leaving BABIP completely out. Things have changed since 1992, so I compared each of those rates to league average for Sanders. I then looked at individual seasons since 2010 that had rates (normalized for era) comparable to Sanders in 1992. Although Sanders only had 325 plate appearances in 1992, I set the minimum at 500 (that turned out not to make much of a difference). At first, I could not find anyone, so I had to loosen up the thresholds. The main issues were speed score and isolated power — not too much of a surprise since power-speed combinations are rare, and in 1992 (likely in large part due to sample size-based random variation) Sanders had rare isolated power for a player with his speed. He was also helped out by his speed in this respect, too, having an incredible 14 triples in 325 plate appearances. The thresholds (roughly) were: substantially low walk rate, worse than average strikeout rate, above-average isolated power, above-average BABIP, and a speed score well above average. Two individual player seasons since 2010 met those criteria. In 2011, Peter Bourjos got a full season in as the Angels’ center fielder. Bourjos had been known as a great defender in the minors, but his bat was a question. However, in 2011 he more than held his own offensive. He stole 22 bases, too, but somehow managed a 113 wRC+ despite absolutely dreadful plate discipline (5.8 percent walk rate, 22.5 percent strikeout rate). His BABIP was a bit high (.338), as was his power (a .167 ISO was higher than anything he had ever done in the minors since rookie ball, 11 triples also helped). It looked like a house of cards. His horrible hitting in 2012 (.220/.291/.315, 72 wRC+) seemed to confirm that evaluation, although 195 plate appearances tell us very little. He probably is not that bad, but, although the Angels are set to have him start 2013 as their center fielder with Josh Hamilton in right and Mike Trout in left, they have to be a bit nervous. Must be the money. Bourjos might seem like a strange comparison to Sanders, but it sort of made sense after thinking about it a bit. A more impressive recent player with a similar combination of power, speed, and poor plate discipline leading to success was Carlos Gonzalez in 2010. In that year, after being a couple of seasons of being toolsy outfielder who still needed to “put it all together.” That is what happened in 2010 with Gonzalez, as he hit .336/.376/.588 (144 wRC+) with 34 home runs and 26 steals and finished third in the voting for the 2010 National League MVP. Those are impressive numbers no matter the home park. Although the flashiness of Gonzalez’ 2010 season may look like the better match to Sanders on an intuitive level, Bourjos seems to be to be closer. While both Bourjos’ and Sanders’ big years include better-than-average isolated power (greatly aided by triples), Gonzalez has real power with plenty of home runs. His .262 ISO in 2010 is still his career best, but his seasonal isolated power in the years before and after are high: .241 in 2009, .231 in 2011, and .207 in 2012. This should not be taken to be a celebration or denigration of Bourjos. I am surprised that his 2011 ended up being s comparison for Sanders’ 1992, but it does make sense, as noted before: steals, triples, high BABIP, and questionable plate discipline. A look at Sanders’ seasonal numbers shows ups and downs, and Bourjos has similar skills that could lead to similar results, even if he does not get the publicity. Now let’s just sit back and wait for Bourjos and Gonzalez to show up in a timely re-make of the Too Legit to Quit video.
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