20 January 2014

Orioles Agree to Terms With Castoff Tyler Colvin

On Thursday during an ESPN.com chat, Keith Law was asked for his thoughts on Orioles' signings Delmon Young and Tyler Colvin. He was both concise and blunt in his response: "I don't get the Delmon signing. Colvin has his uses as a 4th OF. Delmon has no value any more. None."

Young, signed to a minor league deal, could make the team because he can hit lefties, but he doesn't bring much else to the table. Colvin, though, offers some different skills.

At 28 years old, Colvin has only ever played in the National League. The left-handed outfielder and first baseman was drafted by the Cubs in 2006 in the first round (13th overall) out of Clemson University, and he made his major league debut in 2009 as a September call-up (only appearing in six games). The following season, he had an impressive spring and made the team's opening day roster. Serving as the team's fourth outfielder behind Alfonso Soriano (left), Marlon Byrd (center), and Kosuke Fukudome (right), Colvin showcased plenty of power with a .254/.316/.500 batting line in 395 plate appearances. His 2010 season ended freakishly, though, when in mid-September he was wounded by a shattered maple bat while running from third to home. (Here's a video of the incident. Colvin had to be "treated with a chest tube to prevent a collapsed lung." Yikes.)

Tyler Colvin at first base (via)
In 2011, still blocked by the same trio of Cubs outfielders, Colvin was unable to replicate his 2010 success. He was optioned to Triple-A in mid-May after hitting poorly in 60-plus at-bats, but he returned a couple weeks later when Soriano was forced to go on the disabled list. Colvin again didn't hit, and he found himself back in Triple-A in mid-June. He returned at the end of July, as did his power in August (.462 SLG in 83 plate appearances), but his on-base percentage was just .253. He ended the disappointing season with an awful batting line of .150/.204/.306 in 222 plate appearances.

The Cubs had apparently seen enough of Colvin, because they traded him to the Rockies that offseason along with DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers. Colvin made the Rockies' opening day roster and batted .290/.327/.531 in 452 plate appearances while serving as a fourth outfielder and backup first baseman. Colvin, who has a career BABIP of .292, had a .364 BABIP in 2012 (and just a .175 BABIP in 2011).

Despite his 2012 resurgence, Colvin, surprisingly, did not make the Rockies' opening day roster the following season. One possible reason for the demotion:
Colvin batted just .167 (8-for-48) with 14 strikeouts in 18 games during Cactus League play. While spring training statistics are generally meaningless, the Rockies clearly believe that regular at-bats in the minors will be beneficial.
Not having a good spring apparently matters more to certain teams and managers.

Colvin was finally promoted in June, but he only remained with the major league club for about a month before being optioned to Triple-A again. In that month (78 plate appearances), he batted .160/.192/.280 and managed to put up even worse numbers than he did in 2011. Apparently Colvin also dealt with a back injury for at least part of the season.

In October, Colvin elected free agency; fast forward to Wednesday, when the Orioles agreed to terms with him (pending a physical). The O's still have not formally announced the signing, but Colvin is expected to receive a major league deal.

So why did the Cubs and Rockies sour on Colvin? A few reasons:

1. Struggles against lefties

Colvin has a career .333 wOBA vs. right-handed pitching, yet he has a wOBA of just .278 against lefties. He has a much harder time walking against lefties (3.3 BB% vs. 7 BB% against righties) and hits the ball on the ground more against lefties (47.5 GB% vs. 39.2 GB% against righties). Colvin is a power hitter, and he wants to hit the ball out of the ballpark, not on the ground.

2. Decline in walks

In his solid 2010 campaign, Colvin had a walk percentage of 7.6% (slightly below the 2010 MLB average of 8.5%). Since then, his walk percentages have dropped in every season:

2011: 6.3%
2012: 4.6%
2013: 3.8%

Obviously his inconsistent playing time should be noted (different sample sizes, etc.). But Colvin has a career .289 OBP, so any additional walks would be beneficial.

3. Declining Z-Contact rate

One odd thing about Colvin is that since 2010 he's been improving at making contact on pitches thrown outside the strikezone:

2010: 51.6%
2011: 55.8%
2012: 59.9%
2013: 63.9%

(The MLB average O-Contact% in 2013 was 66.6%.)

However, he's been slowly getting worse at making contact on pitches thrown inside the zone:

2010: 86.3%
2011: 87.9%
2012: 80.7%
2013: 79.6%

(The MLB average Z-Contact% in 2013 was 87%.)

It's one thing to show some improvement on making contact on pitches outside the zone. It's important to be able to fight off tough pitches and extend counts. But making less contact on balls inside the strikezone is a red flag. Pitchers have also gradually started throwing Colvin more fastballs and fewer breaking and offspeed pitches in nearly every season since 2009.

If Colvin continues to whiff as often on pitches inside the strikezone, he might find himself out of the majors for good in the near future.

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Perhaps the Cubs and Rockies jerking around Colvin's playing time is a big reason for his up-and-down production. After all, when Colvin has played in more than 100 games for a team in a single season, he's been very good. But perhaps Colvin's elevated BABIP in 2012 was hiding some of his issues at the plate. And maybe pitchers have figured out better ways to attack him.

Regardless, there seems to be a place for Colvin on the Orioles' roster. Maybe he'll take Henry Urrutia's spot and serve as a left-handed DH and fourth outfielder. Unlike Urrutia, Colvin is an adequate outfielder (-3.3 career UZR and +4 DRS in the outfield), and he can also play some first base. He is also a slightly above average baserunner (3.7 baserunning runs above average).

The roster could use another left-handed bat. Among the regulars, there's Chris Davis, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters (switch-hitter), and (probably) Ryan Flaherty. David Lough also figures to be in the mix for at-bats and time in the outfield. That's about it. Among all the Orioles' outfield signings, Colvin might be the most important.

3 comments:

Joe Reisel said...

The problem with the Colvin signing is that even at his best Colvin provides the Orioles more of what they don't need - a player whose offensive value comes exclusively from power, particularly home runs. I know I'm higher on Urrutia than the rest of you, but I think Urrutia's a better fit for the Orioles than Colvin because he has the potential to provide an additional offensive dimension.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I guess it all just depends on how highly you think of Urrutia. He didn't walk a single time in his 58 plate appearances for the O's last year. Sure, small sample size, but I'm not sure he projects as someone who's going to walk that much in the majors. At least to start the year, I'd rather have Colvin, who has at least shown he can both hit well against RHP and hit for power. He can also fill in at corner outfield and first. Urrutia seems like a question mark, even in left field.

It's not like the O's would have to discard Urrutia to keep Colvin. He would be playing every day at Norfolk.

Larry McLaughlin said...

Another interesting prospect - we have quite a few.

With Urrutia, it would be nice if he could walk more often, or once even.