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:
Orioles being pushed to take Colby Rasmus on a one year dealWould this pay off? Let's look into it.
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) December 14, 2014
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.
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.
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.