Grizzly or Teddy?
First, I’d like to throw a little cold water on the Taoism that Jeff Blair is a big grouch.
During the State of the Franchise whinefest, I wanted to talk to Blair but had been told he was cruel and gruff to non-reporters. I sheepishly introduced myself and lied about the fact that I was from Winnipeg, his home state, and he talked pleasantly for 15 minutes. I’ve admired him from afar since. I would vote him into the hall of fame even if he wasn’t deserving.
Seriously, he was friendly as hell and his eyes lit up like a little child telling baseball stories. Some people just can’t help it- they take a bad-ass picture and look best in full glower.
Anyway, man-crush established, I’d like to take issue with his dismissal of Reed Johnson’s defensive advantage in left-field:
Guys: Johnson’s a fan favourite, but Stewart can be much more of an offensive factor. He’s a better hitter. Period. Defence is over-valued in left field, compared to offence at least. If you’re asking your left-fielder to throw out guys on the bases, your team is in trouble.
Stewart just isn’t the same player that you can say “Period.” about any more. His power hasn’t been there for three years now. OPS’ of .711, .715, .739 are well below average and not much better than Reed’s .711 against righties. It takes a little off the shine of calling him a “proven” insurance option in left field when what he’s been proving since 2005 is even healthy, he’s a significantly below-average outfielder.
At the very least they’re close enough that their defense could easily tip the scales. The only reason that there isn’t much value put on defense in left field is that it’s usually somewhere you hide a slugger with a lousy arm because of the short throw to third- there’s nothing that makes extra plays or throws coming from left field any less important to the team.
So how much better a fielder is Johnson? Other than his gimpy 2007 of +2 (which is totally out of character for his career), Johnson has averaged 14 plays above average since 2005 (according to the Fielding Bible). Over roughly the same playing time, Stewart is a total of +3. That means 11 more plays made in left field over an average 400-at bat season over that time. Even if this stuff seems like hocus pocus, one more play every 15 games sounds reasonable, no?
A hit saved has about the same value as a hit earned, and 11 hits in left field over 400 at bats would equal another 26 points of average! (to say nothing of slugging percentage). All of a sudden Reed’s possible return to hitting .270 doesn’t look so bad.
Then there’s the arm. Johnson’s is the best left field arm in the majors, while Stewart’s is one of the worst (in 2007 only Matt Diaz and Luis Gonzalez were ranked lower). In addition to an extra baserunner “kill” a year, over the last three years runners took the extra base (in situations it was possible to go first-third, second-home, etc) .297 of the time against Johnson and .411 against Stewart. Over a normal 120 chances, that’s another 14 extra bases per season.
Without getting into linear weights and all that, that’s significant. Imagine Reed had another 14 sucessful stolen bases and one less caught stealing (18-1), except more because a fair number of those extra bases involve going home.
Of course, I clipped the second part of his Blair’s reply, where he nails it:
Hustle? Meh, sounds like one of those bad sportswriter cliches that get dredged up around the NHL playoffs. Like grit. Screw grit and hustle: I’d rather have talented players. Plus, I don’t think the Blue Jays trust Johnson to be healthy.
If Johnson isn’t healthy, all this goes out the window. If Stairs isn’t healthy (he sprained his ankle the other day), Stewart’s value goes up as a full-time left fielder. But even if the powers that be have already made this a foregone conclusion, objectively the left field situation is still really a close call, and defense makes it even closer. (They certainly aren’t making things any easier by hitting .100 and .144 respectively so far in spring training).
It’s funny, I’ve always been on the other side of the Johnson debate because his shortcomings are glossed over due to his “hustle”, but now nobody seems to have noticed that Shanny is no prize any more because of another one of baseball’s red herrings- the “pure” .300 hitter, and the underrated effect of defense.