Utley or Wright? (Photo: SI.com)
We interrupt the Jonathan Papelbon talk to focus our attention elsewhere for a few minutes. This post was written by one of our finest commenters, “Publius.”
A few weeks ago, when Jayson Stark uttered the Rumor That Launched a Thousand Comments by possibly linking the Phils to David Wright, I engaged with other Phillies Nation commenters who said they would happily trade Chase Utley for the Mets third baseman. Pat has been kind enough to let me write in more depth on the topic. I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity to go a bit deeper and talk about player projection in general, as we move from the end of the 2011 season and into the dark, rumor-filled abyss that we call the offseason. I, by no means, think such a trade is imminent or even likely, but it’s a fun conversation topic and allows a deeper examination of how we look at, and try to project, a player’s talent level.
First, the ground rules. Let’s assume for this exercise that Utley and Wright get similar contracts for a similar number of years, so we are essentially comparing these players in a vacuum. The main thing to keep in mind, both here and looking forward in general, is not “what has this player done so far,” but instead “at what level can we assume this player will play at in the next couple years?” This distinction is incredibly important.
For example, we can compare their lines (both traditional and SABR-driven) from the last 3 years:
2009: .307/.390/.447, 10 homers, 72 RBIs, 124 OPS+, 2.4 WAR (BBRef)
2010: .283/.354/.503, 29 homers, 103 RBIs, 131 OPS+, 3.9 WAR
2011: .254/.345/.427, 14 homers, 61 RBIs, 114 OPS+, 1.4 WAR
2009: .282/.397/.508, 31 homers, 93 RBIs, 137 OPS+, 7.7 WAR
2010: .275/.387/.445, 16 homers, 65 RBIs, 123 OPS+, 4.6 WAR
2011: .259/.344/.425, 11 homers, 44 RBIs, 109 OPS+, 3.6 WAR
Over the last 3 years, depending on your metric, these players are either very close or Utley has been significantly better. But that’s not the point here. The question is, would you trade Utley for Wright? Would the Phillies be better off in 2012-2013 with Wright instead of Utley?
Wright or Utley? (Photo: NJ.com)
It’s hard to answer these questions by looking at their last few years. How would you even do it? Average their lines? Assume a slow decline in both, since they’re both past their prime? Bet that one is due for a massive, Bautistan breakout? What would the basis for that even be? In short, while these conventional and newer measures are useful at comparing players’ histories for awards purposes, they’re ill-equipped for future projections. Even WAR, the go-to stat for budding SABRmetricians, has flaws, especially in measuring defense. Plus players go through massive WAR drops all the time (Chone Figgins, Adam Dunn just to name a couple examples). But all is not lost. There are numerous tools and measures available which can at least give a general indication whether a player will do better, worse or more of the same. Most writers refer to these as “peripherals,” or stats which show how batters approach an at bat, but which won’t show up on the scoreboard.
Different people have different preferences for which peripherals they prefer, but for me personally the ones I look at are BABIP (batting average on balls in play), LD% (line drive percentage), HR/FB% (how many fly balls turn into dingers), BB%, K% and BB/K%. These peripherals show how “unlucky” a player is, how solidly they’re striking the ball and whether they’re patient or getting swing-happy. Here are the peripherals of Wright from the last 3 years:
2009: 12.0 BB%, 22.7 K%, .53 BB/K, 25.7 LD%, 6.9 HR/FB, .394 BABIP
2010: 10.3 BB%, 24 K%, .43 BB/K, 18.9 LD%, 15.5 HR/FB, .335 BABIP
2011: 11.6 BB%, 21.7 K%, .54 BB/K, 18 LD%, 12 HR/FB, .302 BABIP
2009’s insane .394 BABIP makes sense, given the 25.7 LD% (second highest in the majors…behind Jason Bartlett of all people). The HR/FB indicates he wasn’t hitting for pop, but was essentially hitting lasers all over the park. In the last 2 years Wright’s gotten better at hitting homers, but at the cost of his patience and line drives. As a result of hitting more pop-ups instead of line drives, Wright’s BABIP fell across the 3 year sample. Even still, it’s hard to argue that Wright was getting “unlucky,” given the .302 BABIP in 2011.
2009: 12.8 BB%, 16 K%, .80 BB/K, 18.5 LD%, 14 HR/FB .300 BABIP
2010: 12.3 BB%, 12.3 K%, 1 BB/K, 19.9 LD%, 11.2 HR/FB, .288 BABIP
2011: 8.6 BB%, 10.4 K%, .83 BB/K, 12.7 LD%, 6.7 HR/FB, .269 BABIP
Utley, on the other hand, has been getting unlucky, especially 2010, given the higher LD% and lower BABIP. The decline in LD% 2011 is definitely concerning, as Chase hit a lot more fly balls, and a lot fewer of them went over the fence.
But what about park effects? Surely Wright will get a massive boost coming to CBP from Citi Field, Right? Well, there’s one more tool I like to look at: the Ballpark Overlay tool, which lets you take a players’ hits in a ballpark and overlay that over another. For example, here’s Wright’s 2010 overlaid with CBP:
Surprisingly, Wright only gains a couple homers from moving from the caverns of Citi to the friendly confines of CBP. Thus, it’s not reasonable to assume that Wright is going to massively break out moving down I-95, and will probably only result in about a five-homer increase at home over the year.
So what do these numbers tell us? What’s the answer? Is Utley or Wright better going forward? I gotta admit, it’s a lot closer than I thought when I first started this project. Wright has been getting a little lucky recently and the steady decline from 2009’s LD% is a concern. On the other hand, Utley’s LD% plummeted this year, as did his HR/FB. However, the BABIP shows that Utley (especially in 2010) was getting unlucky, and is most likely going to put up numbers consistent with or even better than his last few years. Wright, even moving from Citi, is more of an unkown quantity, and even at his peak cannot match Utley’s patience at the plate. As players age, its important they keep their patience, as their batting averages usually decline over time, so walks are increasingly important in getting on base. Since both Utley and Wright are most likely past their primes, this walk tool is incredibly important.
In short, Utley will probably perform in line with recent seasons, while Wright could go either way. Adding in defense, baserunning, and sheer (intangible) awesomeness, I stand by my claim that I would rather take Utley instead of Wright, though I have to admit it’s closer than I thought.
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