The Arizona Diamondbacks outfield roulette continued today, as they announced they’d shipped a pair of low level minor leaguers to Chicago in exchange for Tony Campana. Yes, the Diamondbacks just traded for another outfielder, despite the fact that their OF is already one of the most crowded in baseball. With Adam Eaton and Gerardo Parra in the fold, it doesn’t seem entirely clear why Kevin Towers felt that the organization needed another speed-and-defense center fielder.
What is clear, though, is that Campana can help a big league team even though he can’t hit. In fact, Campana might be one of the most interesting bench players in baseball.
Campana has been in a position to steal a base — on first with second open, on second with third base open — 152 times in his Major League career, often because he’s been inserted as a pinch-runner for someone more capable of getting on base than himself. Campana has taken off in 59 of those 152 opportunities (39%), and has been successful on 54 of those attempts (92%). That’s an extraordinarily high stolen base success rate, especially given the frequency with which Campana runs.
Let’s put this into context. In the Major Leagues last year, there were 66,083 stolen base opportunities, and baserunners attempted a steal in 4,365 of those opportunities, or a SB per SB attempt rate of 6.7%. Of course, that includes a lot of sloths who never run, so we don’t necessarily care about the league average, but more what the average is among guys who do run.
So, let’s just look at players who stole at least 10 bases last year, and then look at their stolen base attempts and successes in relation to their opportunities. There were nine players who ran in at least 30% of their opportunities last year.
In terms of frequency of stolen base attempts, only Rajai Davis ran more than Campana last year. In terms of successful stolen bases per opportunity, Davis narrowly edges Campana out for the top spot, but only does so because of the extra usage rate. While Davis stolen 16 more bases in 39 more opportunities, he also was thrown out ten more times. Additional steals at a 61% success rate have negative value, so it’s fair to say that Campana was probably the best high volume base stealer in baseball last year.
That’s why Campana finished in a tie for sixth in the Majors in 2012 by wSB, which measures the runs added by a player through base stealing, even though all of the players surrounding him on that leaderboard were essentially full-time players.
If you extend the leaderboard back to 2011, you’ll actually see that Campana rates #2 in Major League Baseball in runs added through base stealing, behind only Coco Crisp, a player with 750 more plate appearances. Campana has created more runs through base stealing the last two years than Michael Bourn, despite the fact that Bourn has almost 1,100 more plate appearances and is one of the game’s best baserunners.
Put simply, Tony Campana is probably the very best base stealing weapon in Major League Baseball right now. He runs even when everyone knows he’s running, and he’s been ridiculously successful even without the element of surprise. He can’t hit, and Cubs fans aren’t as kind in their defensive evaluations as the very-small-sample-metrics have been, but there should be little question that Campana can create a significant amount of value as a pinch runner, and potentially as a defensive replacement as well — there aren’t too many examples of big leaguers this fast that weren’t above average defensive OFs, after all.
With Jason Kubel around, the Diamondbacks have a starting outfielder who needs a defensive caddy and could certainly be pinch run for in late game situations. Parra was presumed to be the guy filling that role, but he may also be Arizona’s best left-handed bat off the bench and could be pressed into fairly regular starting duty if Cody Ross continues to struggle against right-handed pitching, as he has for most of his career. Having Campana on the roster gives Kirk Gibson the ability to start Parra without losing the ability to pinch run for Kubel any time he gets on base in a high leverage situation, and Campana has the ability to get himself into scoring position with regularity.
Jack Moore noted last year that the offensive decline in baseball has made the stolen base more valuable than it used to be, and while a guy like Campana might have seemed like a wasted roster spot 10 years ago, a player with his unique skills can be a significantly larger weapon in this day and age. Even if he doesn’t hit, and even if he isn’t a great defensive outfielder — the jury is still out in that regard — he’s probably still capable of producing close to +1 WAR as a pinch-runner extraordinaire.
We don’t often talk about the value of bench wins, but they’re real, and they can add up. If Campana ends up replacing Eric Hinske on the roster, this could end up being a significant improvement for the D’Backs, especially if he’s deployed in a role that maximizes his baserunning skills without asking him to hit too often.
The days of simply evaluating a player based on his ability to hit are over. Or, at least, they should be. There are ways to produce value in the big leagues without being a good hitter. Tony Campana is probably one of the best people alive at producing that non-hitting value. Instead of focusing on what he can’t do, let’s acknowledge what he can, and note that Campana likely makes the Diamondbacks a better baseball team than they were without him.