16 December 2014

Can Colby Rasmus Be the New Nelson Cruz?

Entering the 2013 offseason, the Baltimore Orioles needed an outfielder. After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, they finally struck, signing Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal. That obviously worked out very well, as he accrued 3.9 WAR and played a key role in their division title. Although they couldn't re-sign him, the deal was a success.

Entering the 2014 offseason, the Orioles once again needed an outfielder. After waiting, and waiting (albeit not as long as last year), they may soon strike:
Would this pay off? Let's look into it.

Last week, Matt Kremnitzer scrutinized Rasmus as a possible outfield option. I don't want to analyze it from that angle — I want to find the probability of a Cruz-like breakout.

It's important to establish that Rasmus is a very different type of player than Cruz, in many regards: While the latter predicates most of his performance on hitting ability, the former takes a more balanced approach. Rasmus is also much younger (28, to Cruz's 34) and has a more recent history of excellence — a year ago, he accumulated 4.8 WAR in only 458 plate appearances.

With that said, they do share one trait: volatility. Their performance could reasonably vacillate from star- to replacement-level, depending on several factors. Basically, I'd like to make the case for the first extreme out of Rasmus in 2015. It's not as unrealistic as you might think.

OFFENSE

Offensive production generally boils down to three things: walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power. In 2013, Rasmus smacked a 129 wRC+ on the power of the latter two, as his .225 ISO and .356 BABIP made up for a 8.1% BB% and 29.5% K%. This year, the clout and free passes stayed the same, but the fans and hits on balls in play took turns for the worse, resulting in offense a mere 3% better than average.

For 2015, Steamer projects an analogous base on balls clip, with which I can't argue; its modest BABIP projection also seems logical, seeing as how Rasmus hits a lot of fly balls (and popups). The strikeout rate should come down to earth as well, mainly because of regression to the mean. But Steamer sees a significant drop in ISO, to .185, meaning his wRC+ will remain at 2014 levels. And I don't really see why this will happen.

Rasmus had a lot of power coming up in the minors — as a 20-year-old, he abused AA pitchers for a .275 ISO in 556 trips to the dish — so the past two seasons weren't unprecedented for him. Moreover, his batted balls support such a rise. According to Baseball Heat Maps, he's hit fly balls an average of 289.4 feet since 2013 began. For comparison, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Rizzo had 288-foot marks this year. So, yeah, that's pretty powerful.

If he does keep up the brawn, his wRC+ will stay in the 110-120 range, which represents a 5- to 10-run upgrade over Steamer's projections. Even that. though, won't make him a breakout. No, for that to happen, he'll need improvement on the other side of the ball.

DEFENSE

Fielding is where things get weird. For his career, Rasmus has put up mediocre defense: His career UZR/150 sits at an uninspired -0.6. However, that number comes as the result of a lot of uneven outputs. His UZR/150 has ranged from the very good (13.7 in 2009, 15.2 in 2013), to the average (exactly 0 in 2012), to the very bad (-8.3 in 2010, -10.4 in 2011, and -15.3 in 2014). Indeed, the tale of Rasmus's work in the field deftly illustrates the problem with contemporary defensive metrics.

So what'll happen in 2015? Nothing noteworthy, according to Steamer: It projects him for -5.7 defensive runs per 600 plate appearances. We're not here to focus on that, though — we want to see if he could explode, as he did in 2013.

Let's again look at 2013 and 2014, in which his defense matched his offense (for better or for worse). In that glorious campaign, he made plays on 227 of the 237 balls in his zone, for a revised zone rating of .958. That didn't decrease that much in 2014; at .944, it still easily beat the MLB-wide average of .919 for center fielders.

The routine plays didn't drive the 30-run discrepancy between the campaigns. Rather, he simply had many fewer out-of-zone plays made — 81 in 2013, 48 in 2014. If he receives more opportunities, which can always happen in the crazy world of baseball, he would have more chances to provide value, pumping up his UZR and his WAR.

This comes down to true talent level, and Rasmus's consistently high RZR leads me to believe that he has the ability to field well. That he hasn't done so particularly often probably testifies to his injury woes; assuming they disappear in 2015 (as happened to Cruz, albeit to a lesser extent, in 2014), his defense could take a turn for the better.

Realistically, this could happen. Probably, it won't (hence the projection). Regardless, as a team without much payroll and with a shrinking window for contention, the Orioles need to take risks, and Rasmus certainly has the upside to make a one-year deal pay off.

Baltimore will need some incredible performances in 2015 if it wants to replicate its 2014 division crown. Cruz can't do what he did in 2014, so maybe Rasmus can step in. It's unlikely, but so was Cruz's breakout. You never know.

19 comments:

Matt Perez said...

I would be hesitant to say that Rasmus's strikeout rate will decrease because of regression to the mean. His SwStr% jumped went from 10-11% from 2009-2012 to 11.5% in 2013 to 14.2% in 2014. He also swung at a large percent of balls in 2014 compared to other years.

It could be that this was a one year fluke. It could also be that Rasmus tried to hit for power in a contract year to get more money and therefore swung at worse pitches. It could also be that his plate discipline has digressed.

Health is another issue. In 2013 and 2014 he was on pace to hit 29 HRs per 600 PAs but failed to do so because of injuries. If he can stay healthy at Camden Yards then he should be able to hit over 30 HRs.

Erik said...

The Orioles are going to make a signing. Why not make one where there is upside? If the price is right, you will have big upside, and only a little downside. At that point you are playing with house money, like we were with Cruz.

Anonymous said...

Trying to summarize on the fly....

Run out of St Louis by Tony Larussa and more or less seems to have worn out his welcome in Toronto contrasted to Dan Duquette saying Nelson Cruz was the leader of the Orioles. When I think of Colby Rasmus for some reason I think of Jay Cutler....

Getting off the turf in Toronto may lead to his being healthy but he wont be playing CF in Baltimore so how does that affect things?

I dont think he is worth the money but its not my money. I also dont know if he is mature enough to add leadership or stability. Can Buck do what Tony Larussa and others havent been able to do because IF so he could be pretty good.

But then Colby Rasmus has always reminded me of Jay Cutler....

Jolly Roger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

With 3 adequate current options, the hole isn't simply a corner. The need is situational such that wRC doesn't capture it. The missing skill is a high obp for lead off and Rasmus is only okay. The nice-to-have is a leadoff who can run to protect Davis, who hits way, way better when a man on 2nd moderates the shift.

Anonymous said...

I've never been a Colby Rasmus fan. He's way too inconsistent in his career. I do kinda like the idea of his "power stroke" as a lefty hitter at Camden Yards. If he were to fall into our laps at a one-year bargain price then I think it would be a chance worth seizing...

Anonymous said...

Trade for Carlos Quientin and call it an off-season.

Ted Nelson said...

I would say that BABIP is largely what will decide Rasmus' offensive success. Certainly what he'll need for a breakout year that continues the Orioles lucky streak of finding diamonds in the rough. The two seasons where he's hit substantially above league average (2010 and 2013), he had BABIP's around .355.

Defensively, it's worth considering that he's almost always played CF. He should be an above average fielder if he's moved to a corner.

It will be interesting to see who els the Orioles add, but I think that what might ultimately drive their season is getting a bounce-back/breakout season from one or more of Davis, Wieters, Machado, Hardy, and Schoop.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the love is for this guy. he's vastly overated and all people see is the potencial to be better than he has. The only thing going for hom that has super star status is his ego.

James said...

I've followed Colby since he was drafted. Saw him play with Springfield way back when and was quite taken with his skills. Both at the plate and in CF. When he came up to the show, he regressed a bit on both sides of the diamond. That's not unusual at all. Most young players do. But what i noticed most about Colby in the majors as opposed to the minors was his non interaction with others. Players and coaches(counting TLR) seemingly had to approach Colby rather than him seeking help. I believe(and he himself said as much) that baseball became less fun and more of a job for him in the majors. He has never looked like he has had much fun since his call up. That wasn't the case in the minors. He was always joking with others down there. There could be a myriad of reasons why.

He definitely has a power bat. The ball screams off his bat. That is, when he makes contact. He's a decent CFer with speed, though his arm is below average for a CFer. Putting him in RF will make his arm even lower than below average.He won't likely steal many bases, though he has the speed for it. He's definitely not a lead off type with his K rate. What he is, is a #7 hitter with very good power for that slot.

I would imagine that a 1yr/$10 mil deal is about what he'll get. Perhaps a 1yr/$8 mil contract with incentives ould be better. He needs to have a golden season or he'll be searching for a team every off season.

Anonymous said...

An ego? Really? Cruz has an ego, but Rasmus is way more humble than Cruz...

What is the price for 15 HRs, 60-75 RBI (assuming he bats 7th) and average defence? Pay for that and you will likely get that as his floor. The rest is gravy and then let another club pay $14 M per season for 5 years starting in 2015

Anonymous said...

As a life long Toronto Blue Jays fan an someone who saw EVERY SINGLE GAME of the Jays last year, all I have to say to this is one thing; good luck Baltimore! LOL. Colby Rasmus will bring tears to the eyes of your fans (and Buck Showalter) and guarantee the Blue Jays the American League East :D :D :D

Laura Palmer said...

As a Jays fan, I can tell you, he will still strikeout a ton in camden yards, but if he plays an entire healthy season in Camden, you're looking at 35hrs, and a few extra plaques on the street.

Anonymous said...

Reds fan here, and on thing I have seen to be certain is that Jocketty never forgets about an ex Cardinal, especially one that he drafted. I have a standing bet with a coworker that he ends up being a Red, and I think he'll be an excellent fit even if he does have to make the move to LF.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't hear you over your incredibly long playoff drought....

Sean Roark said...

Rasmus looks like a nice semi-platoon corner outfielder for the Orioles. He can't hit lefties but Steve Pearce and Delmon Young sure can.

Is he a nugget? Buck may not like this guy based on his past personality issues, but only Buck can make that call.

I think he will be too expensive for a platoon corner outfielder, someone will give him some money to play CF.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see you have been in the TOR and STL clubhouses to gauge his interactions with coaches and managers...and K rate means nothing for leadoff hitters, getting on base is all that matters.

Mickey from Arnold said...

The title of this column alone is hilarious. No, Rasmus won't be the new Cruz, but even Cruz wouldn't be again this year. It was his greatest season of his life, while staying healthy. Rasmus never has put together a season or for that matter a career that rivals Cruz. However, the positive points in Rasmus' favor are that he will be off the hard carpet, he will be platooned, getting about 450 AB'S facing only righties, will probably play RF where Markakis was able to use the short space to his advantage in the field covering up for his lack of speed and shorter throwing distance. It helped him greatly to become a gold glover. If you think I exaggerate, just watch what happens in the cavernous RF that is Atlanta's ballpark. Plus, Rasmus does have 25-30 HR potential. I think if he fits the clubhouse mold, along with the guys getting healthy together, it could be just what we need on a 1 yr/$8 million deal again.

Mickey from Arnold said...

Not necessarily changing my mind here, but quite frankly if we are looking for the "perfect" platoon player in RF, I think it's actually David Murphy. However, we'd have to trade something for him. I would think he and Pearce in RF would be a great move all around, if we can't get a big name OF'er.