The Mockingbird

The Case For Eckstein

with 15 comments

It says a lot of good things about the state of Blue Jays blogging when one of the most notoriously overrated fan favorites of all time is signed and the reception online is decidedly underwhelming. The Drunks swore. Tao of Stieb was sarcastic as hell. Wilner exploded in question marks. I guess we grudgingly condoned it. Unfortunately the team’s incumbent underdog shortstop isn’t getting the same ruthless, steely-eyed evaluation, because he’s comparatively showered in praise despite being one of the five worst hitters in the entire league. So here’s a (devil’s advocate) argument for why it was worth bringing in Eckstein.

The Numbers

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Yesterday Mike Wilner started the ball rolling on the idea that John McDonald is clearly a better option because he makes up for his lack of offense with his work with the glove. Thankfully he ventures into the world of advanced fielding metrics, because I am sick of people saying that we can obviously afford to have Mac stinking it up in the 9th spot because he’s the best fielder in the league without looking any further into it. At a certain point, a players offense gets so bad that it doesn’t matter if he’s the best fielder of all time, you would be better off having an average bat with an average glove out there.

Is Mac that terrible? Tough call. I tried to figure this out last year when the questions of whether John McDonald should win a Gold Glove and if that made him a legitimate starter were being raised. The result? I learned a lot about modern fielding stats, started to get the feeling that Mac balanced himself into a league average SS, and then got really frustrated with some inconsistencies in the data and gave up. The same weirdness is happening in this case: last year STATS agreed that Eckstein had a off year defensively, but still considered him league average.

But plus-minus is a good, intuitive, system so let’s run with it. It says that John Mcdonald fielded +26 more balls than the average fielder last year, while Eckstein was at -14. What’s more important, a difference of 40 ground balls fielded or 77 points of OBP? Over 420 plate appearaces at-bats (halfway between the two of them), 77 points translates into 32 more times on base. So if you’re willing to accept that a hit saved is worth about as much as getting on base and that their slugging is a wash, Mac wins out by a handful of hits and a couple of runs. This is glossing over a lot, but agrees pretty well with the 1/3 of a win difference between their WARPs (wins above replacement player), if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Seasons

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Ok, so Mac was a (slightly) better player last year. But that has to be taken in context of the rest of their careers. McDonald has always flashed the leather, but has never before been among the best in the league. Last year he had the best zone rating of his career, but in comparison his .821 in 2006 was downright mediocre (and not the sort of thing that would be as affected by his late-season fatigue-induced meltdown). When a guy has a career year at the plate at the age of 32, we know to take it with a grain of salt. A career year with the glove should be taken with the same caution. I know, I know…you saw him do things that were just not normal time and time again. But the bottom line of how many balls he gets to is what really matters, and that took a giant spike in 2007.

On the other hand, Eckstein had his worst fielding year ever. Last season, he was ranked 10th best in the league in +/- with a +7, which is average for his career. It’s possible that his small frame has finally caught up with him, or it could have been just a blip. The most likely thing is that both these guys move back a little towards their career numbers, which decreases Macdonald’s edge with the glove.

The Job

I know, I know…Mcdonald worked out like mad before last season so he could handle the starting role. Whatever. He still hit .216 in the last two months (as he has for his entire career) his defensive numbers slipped from clearly ahead of the AL pack to “right up there”, and he ended the season injured. He’s 32 and has never played 800 innings in his career. If you don’t have any worries about his ability to go the distance without falling apart, it’s because you’re just as in love with the man as Joe Morgan is with David Eckstein.

The Lineup

The Jays really, really, need a leadoff hitter. Reed Johnson is a big question mark, and there aren’t any other good options for the top of the lineup. Aaron Hill struggled with getting on base last year (not to mention going 1-19 batting first). Rios has way too much power. The numbers call Frank Thomas our best bet. This is actually one of the intangible things Eckstein brings that can have a significant effect on run scoring. A lot is made of the fact that his career OBP is only league average for leadoff hitters, but that’s looking pretty damn good for the the Jays, who were 30 points below average there last season (even as they wasted Rios’ power on solo shots).

The Splits

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The Jays were terrible at hitting right handed pitching last year, and Mcdonald lead the charge of the light brigade. Although he loves those soft-tossing lefties, he hit a mind-boggling .223/.250/.289 against right-handers (not far off his career numbers). Mac wasn’t in a platoon situation that much last year, but his career numbers are inflated (?!!) by being hidden from Lefties. Eckstein is that rare breed who is hardly affected by the handedness of the pitcher he is facing. His average is actually higher, although his OPS ends up lower in the end.

Do splits really matter? Yes, because a consistent offense helps you outperform your pythagorean projection. If the team is constantly racking up blowouts against lefties (the Jays were 23-14 in games decided by +5 runs last year), then they end up winning fewer games than their pitching and hitting numbers would otherwise predict (the Jays ended up 4 games below last year). Having a balanced lineup helps as well, which goes against the idea that it’s ok to have a black hole at the bottom of the order if he can make up for it.

The Wrapup

He’s a mediocre shortstop, but for an extra 2.7 million bucks (Paul Lo Duca money!) the X-factor solves a number of problems and eases some doubts that should be lingering about the prime minister of defense’s first starting role. It would be a terrible waste if McDonald was totally banished to the bench, but for 1.8 million we’re paying him that seems unlikely. Instead, he can have a much better season over less time by hitting against lefties and tracking down the Doc’s endless stream of ground balls. Used smartly, these two guys are a great compliment to each other, as they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in almost every way and are both incredibly unlikely to play 162 games.

Written by halejon

December 14, 2007 at 11:19 pm

15 Responses

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  1. […] [Read on] […]

  2. Zang!

    mulliniks

    December 17, 2007 at 4:03 pm

  3. I’m warming up to the Eckstein signing, if only because he’s the first Blue Jay since Craig Grebeck that I can look eye-to-eye (as if I actually meet a Blue Jay in person though).

    Weird thing is, I think I would be more excited if they had traded for Clint Barmes. Couldn’t they have gotten him for someone like Jason Frasor?

    scamper

    December 17, 2007 at 10:38 pm

  4. I would think so, but is he really that much of an upgrade over Mac/Scutaro? For anything other than a real offensive upgrade/leadoff guy it doesn’t make sense to me to take on another SS.

    I wonder what kind of value Frasor has. I know scouts aren’t hot on him, but he strikes a lot of guys out, hitters hit .220 off him last year, and middle relievers are signing for disgustingly large sums. And what the hell are the Jays going to do with him if League and Ryan make it back? They hardly let him pitch the second half of last year anyway…

    halejon

    December 17, 2007 at 11:13 pm

  5. Frasor throws hard, straight and even has “closer” experience. I like him in the pen, a solid 6-7 guy that messes with the batters timing. But there’s something about his overall make-up the just reminds me of this guy a little too much.

    Back in ’96, every time we needed him to save the day, he’d always find a way to blow it, or give you a heart attack in a the process. He became a very different pitcher in old age (and I’m actually suprised he didn’t show up in the Mitchell report) which gives me hope that if Frasor matures well – he could have a very solid future ahead of him.

    mulliniks

    December 18, 2007 at 6:03 pm

  6. If I didn’t know 96 I would have no idea that was Timlin. I agree they’re kinda similar because Mike was famous for trying to overthrow when things were tight which made his sinker flatten out. That’s what they say about Frasor though I’m not sure if it’s his brain or his stature that’s the problem…

    halejon

    December 18, 2007 at 7:28 pm

  7. Frasor has the stuff, no doubt. But I think rushing him into the closers role when we had no other options may have broken his brain a bit.

    mulliniks

    December 18, 2007 at 7:32 pm

  8. You mean this year, or his first?🙂

    I really don’t know what to think about him. He’s got good stuff, his numbers are great, but that’s two years in a row that they’ve given up on him. Someone sees something or just doesn’t like him…I suspect if he were traded to Oakland he would save 50 games.

    halejon

    December 18, 2007 at 7:50 pm

  9. Halehon, that’s a very fine article. Congrats!

    As to Frasor; in the Jays Pen he ranks below Ryan, Accardo, Janssen, Wolfe, Downs, Tallet and League. BUT, he’s not too bad at all.

    Mylegacy

    December 19, 2007 at 4:36 am

  10. Thanks! Someone had to get behind this signing…

    I agree with that list and personally think League and Ryan will be back to form reasonably quickly. But jeez…that makes Frasor the 8th man out. Would they seriously consider sending him down (options?). If they just DFA and dump him it will be disappointing as hell- Frasor looks pretty good in a lot of bullpens and he’s super cheap.

    halejon

    December 19, 2007 at 6:01 am

  11. The Timlin comparison is apt. Frasor has the same kind of mental issues in high pressure situations. He tends to slow down his delivery and overthink, and when your stuff is by and large consistantly mediorce, it gives the batter time to get inside your strategy when you go to the plate.

    The reason he’s a good pitcher is that he throws four pitches at a consistant level with excellent control. So he can locate the change, slider, and curve all over the plate, and can muscle up his four seamer past a lot of hitters. The bad is that when he fails to locate, or doesn’t fool the batter, anything he throws is going to get hit hard.

    Personally, I’d keep Frasor in the mix. He’s a quality mid-reliever with good enough stuff to remain a consistant strikeout threat to the other team. If Janssen or Wolfe ends up in the rotation next year, he fills into there roll. If not, he should still have trade value. Just don’t try to make him a closer, and don’t roll him out with a couple of guys on. Frasor’s the guy I bring on to start the inning, and let him eat 6-9 outs.

    Plus, he’ll at least get to start a couple of games at SS when Gibbons keeps mixing him and Eckstein up.

    Bryant Telfer

    December 19, 2007 at 9:53 pm

  12. I don’t think Frasor throws four pitches any more. Didn’t he dump the curveball when he went to the minors in 2006?

    Hahaha…I wonder why short players get all the love and short pitchers are just shrimpy.

    halejon

    December 20, 2007 at 4:52 am

  13. I could have sworn he was throwing it last season. Although, it looks like he’s not throwing the slider 86+mph any more, so I could be getting confused. Shame. He had a tendancy to top his curve, and turn it into a meatball special, but when he was on with it, he had nice location in the zone. I guess they decided he couldn’t be consistant with it.

    Johnson is scrappy. Eckstein is Santa’s Favourite Elf making the team. I’ve never been a huge fan of Eckstein (immediately turned off by any one the media tells me I have to like, which explains my lack of pop music knowledge) but I’m also obviously a major fielding/pitching nerd, so losing the PMoD for a SS sieve pains me greatly.

    Bryant Telfer

    December 20, 2007 at 5:57 pm

  14. Yah, it was a really good strikeout pitch. I wonder what happened or if he just lost confidence in it. Kind of odd to start dump it entirely.

    “As soon as I got down there, I said, ‘Rick, I don’t ever want to throw another curveball again for the rest of my life,'” Frasor recalled. “It was pretty clear that the change had to be made. If I didn’t do it, I’d still be [in the Minors].”

    I thought the problem was that he couldn’t throw it for strikes so they were sitting on his fastball, but I guess he was hanging it.

    halejon

    December 20, 2007 at 7:11 pm

  15. Frasor used to locate the curve extremely well. It had a nice, late bite, and he could catch the edges like a slider. One of the problems with the curve ball is that it requires a weird pronating of the elbow and wrist. If he changed his pitching setup at all or altered his arm slot, that could have forced him to use more action bringing the curveball around prior to release, which translates into a reduction in control and a tendency to ‘top’ the throw. I’ll see if I can dig up some 05, 06 footage on it, and see if he’s going into his windup differently.

    Bryant Telfer

    December 21, 2007 at 4:06 pm


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