Update: After yesterday's game, Buck Showalter was quoted as saying this, "We're still looking for [a right handed designated hitter], because Nellie's going to play (left field) against left-handed pitching, at least." This helps validate what I have been suggesting since Cruz signed: he is going to play the field. Part of it is due to the likelihood of Lough's bat failing, but the other part of the likelihood is that the Orioles may have promised Cruz field time. That might be why he refused signing with other teams for more money.
Transactions since our last Arrivals and Departures post:
Signed Nelson Cruz, DHEveryone loves a prediction in baseball. They can range from a simple feeling about the season that lays ahead or they can be seemingly conjured up in monkey paw fashion using historically derived projection models based on empirical evidence. Last week, I rabbited on a bit about projections and their usefulness in developing a baseline of expectations. In this post, I will go into a study that also uses empirical evidence, but this one is about shifting from a fielding position to a designated hitter. I will then tie that in to Nelson Cruz and his projections because this is after all an Arrivals and Departures column.
Designated for Assignment Chris Jones, LHP
You may be unfamiliar with the name Mitchel Lichtman (or his web handle MGL), but you are probably very familiar with some of his public work. For instance, he developed UZR, which you probably use all the time or complain about all the time. His resume also includes being a co-author of The Book as well as having been a consultant for several Major League teams. More currently, you can find some of his work on his own blog, MGL on Baseball.
An article that appeared on that blog last December was a further rumination on some of his work about pinch hitter and designated hitter penalties. This topic was originally visited in The Book and a few other venues as he describes, but he wished to take a harder look on potential decreases in offensive performance using more current data. You can read that study in whole, but I am extracting (with a little variation) the notable portion here:
I probably took a little too much here for the purpose of this post, but I found the difference between starters and relievers interesting. That difference may be a sample size issue or perhaps it is something on the lines of good hitters doing well against middle relievers with that making the penalty less. I do not know. What we do know is that there is a good bit of evidence showing that a position player shifting to a designated hitter position can result in a rather large penalty in terms of offensive performance. Potential reasons for this could be simply being physical cold. If a person is not moving around efficiently, then they may perform worse. It could also be that designated hitters move around more. It has been shown that weighted bats and other warm up techniques tend to tire muscles out and slow bat speed. Another conjecture is that it is more difficult to remain focused with long periods of idle time between at bats.
Role Penalty (wOBA) DH 14 points DH vs. Starters 16 points DH vs. Relievers 8 points
This leads us back to the acquisition of Nelson Cruz. Historical evidence suggests that we should expect a decrease in performance from him switching from left field to designated hitter. Add that to his past strongly expressed preference to remain in the field, it might not be a great scenario for him. So, looking at projections, what would a 14 decrease in wOBA mean?
A mid-.320 wOBA is somewhat rough for a designated hitter. Last year, three Orioles with at least 400 plate appearances had a wOBA in that range: Manny Machado (.325), Nate McLouth (.323), and J.J. Hardy (.322). To put it another way, a drop of 14 points of wOBA is equivalent to a drop from being a 2 WAR player to something in the range of 1 to 1.5 WAR. That may not seem like a lot, but it is an erosion of value in the neighborhood of 25 to 50%. That sounds like a lot to me because, well, would any of you be happy if you were told that J.J. Hardy is now your full time DH?
wOBA Penalty 2013 .359 ZiPS .340 .326 Oliver .341 .327 Steamer .338 .324
Let us say that Cruz is a 1.5 WAR DH. How would moving to left field affect his value? Well, the DH penalty would go away and he would be worth 2 WAR. The positional adjustment from DH to LF is 12 runs, which is roughly 1.2 WAR. That means 3.2 WAR. However, he is a poor left fielder to the tune of about -5 runs, which would leave him at 2.7 WAR. With that in mind, it would not be a surprise to me if Cruz eventually becomes the team's starting left fielder. David Lough appears slated in for that position, but potential rookie of the years at age 27 have a pretty awful track record. Simply put, if you are good enough to start in the Majors, you basically have already put in enough time to lose eligibility by that time in your career. Lough has a stellar glove, but there are a lot of questions attached to his bat.
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