The Orioles made another low-end move on Wednesday, bringing back L.J. Hoes in exchange for cash considerations. When Baltimore shipped the outfielder away two-odd years ago (in the Bud Norris trade), he had a total of four major-league plate appearances to his name, along with 2,770 in the minors. Since then, he's gone to the dish 333 times in the show and 577 throughout the levels below that. Now that Hoes has returned to their area code, what can fans of the Birds expect from him? Let's dissect his production to this point.
He's shown (probably) acceptable defensive range...
Jon's reaction to one aspect of the deal lined up with my initial thoughts:
LJ Hoes OF UZR/150g: -11 runs. David Lough OF UZR/150g: 22 runs.— Camden Depot (@CamdenDepot) November 25, 2015
This certainly passes the smell test. Lough — whom Hoes would presumably replace as the fourth outfielder — has this and this on his resume, plays that Hoes can't hope to match. Or can he?
Across his 753.2-inning career, Hoes has cost his teams 6.1 runs by UZR, which translates to 9.7 runs for every 1,200 innings. On the flipside, he's saved his teams four runs by DRS, equaling 6.4 per 1,200 frames. That amounts to a difference of more than sixteen runs — one and a half wins of value per year. Certainly, the latter mark can't compare to Lough's lifetime 22.4 DRS/1200, but Hoes still looks like an adequate defender in the eyes of this metric.
When I see such a disparity as this, I usually turn to FanGraphs' Inside Edge Fielding data. This comes from the judgment of scouts, who (in theory) can help to bridge these gaps. For Hoes, they paint a somewhat inconsistent picture:
In terms of "routine" plays — the most common and thus important variety — Hoes has struggled. Although a difference of 0.6 percentage points might look insignificant, it matters immensely: Among fielders with 750 innings over the past four seasons, that 98.7 percent figure ranks 166th, in the 9th percentile. He's paired that ineptitude on easy balls with a total failure to catch the "remote" ones, a distinction he shares with 74 others players in that sample.
Elsewhere, however, Hoes has held his own. His capacity to convert "unlikely" balls into outs places 25th, while he finishes 58th with regards to "even" ones. And he has yet to botch a "likely" opportunity, which ties him for first with ten other fielders. The samples of these pale in comparison to that of the routine plays, but this still appears to give him some credit. In essence, Hoes has done poorly at the extremes and well in the middle.
We should also observe the other variable in play here — quantity. Hoes hasn't seen an even distribution of plays:
|Player||# 0%||# 1-10%||# 10-40%||# 40-60%||# 60-90%||# 90-100%|
Most of Hoes's chances have occurred on the more trying end of the spectrum, which may have harmed his numbers. Given a pitching staff that has maximized weak contact as of late, he could improve his output.
On a per-600 plate appearance basis, Steamer thinks Hoes will lose 4.2 runs defensively in 2016. That projection comes from UZR, though, which takes the pessimistic view. Personally, I think Hoes's talent lies in the middle of the two extremes — going forward, he should be an average-ish fielder. (Argument to moderation, schmargument to moderation.) As a defender, he can't hope to touch Lough, but he deserves some respect.
...in addition to a (seemingly) insufficient arm.
But not all of the UZR-DRS difference stems from range, the element of fielding that Inside Edge gauges. The two pillars of defense have differed regarding Hoes's arm as well:
|Metric||Arm Runs||Arm Runs/1200||Range Runs||Range Runs/1200||Error Runs||Error Runs/1200|
This is a tricky area to parse — in most all cases, UZR and DRS evaluate outfield arms equivalently. Does Hoes possess a limp noodle, or a satisfactorily firm one?
Based on the evidence here, I'd say the latter. Hoes has notched four assists in his 753.2 innings, whereas an average defender would accumulate around five in that span. Plus, scorers have charged him with two throwing errors during his major-league tenure, so he owns an unsightly assist-error ratio of two flat — a far cry from the league average of 7.2 since 2012.
Not only has Hoes neglected to gun down baserunners, they've taken the extra base far too often. Hoes has held opponents on 48.1 percent of his chances, which falls short of the 51.5 percent MLB standard. In particular, he's had trouble with throws home, where runners have scored 60 percent of the time; this contrasts with their 45.9 percent rate of advancement to third base. Hoes has struggled in both the flashy and mundane elements of throwing, as UZR has stated.
I should note that this combination — respectable range to go along with an unthreatening arm — diverges from the scouting reports on Hoes. Back in his farmhand days, he earned a 50 arm grade and a 45 overall defense grade from the Depot's Nick Faleris, indicating decent throws and subpar field coverage. With that said, and I don't mean this to disparage Nick in any way, the numbers here testify differently. While Hoes may have had that potential at the time, I'll go with the major-league achievements.
His batting average hasn't translated to the show...
Enough defense — let's move to the more exciting side of the ball. In the minors, Hoes hasn't displayed anything resembling power, with a career ISO of .094. Rather, he's survived offensively with his ability to reach base, doing so at a lifetime clip of .368. Part of that has come from a 10.7 percent walk rate (which I'll discuss momentarily), but a .287 batting average has contributed to it the most.
To gain hits that frequently, a hitter has to avoid strikeouts and have valuable balls in play. Hoes has done both in the minors, posting a 14.7 percent strikeout rate and .335 BABIP. Neither of those have made the jump to the majors, where's he's gone down on strikes 20.5 percent of the time and seen 28.9 percent of his balls in play go for hits. As the result, his major-league batting average sits at an uninspiring .237.
We'll start with the strikeouts. 19.4 percent of Hoes's pitches at the major-league level have been called strikes, which tops the mean of 17.5 percent. That, and an average swinging-strike rate of 10.6 percent, have allowed pitchers to punch him out with gusto.
Primarily, Hoes hasn't offered at pitches on the outer part of the strike zone:
The opposition has generally targeted him away, which makes for an unhealthy combination. Although Hoes has demonstrated a reasonable amount of aggression on pitches closer to him, he's simply laid off too many on the outer part of the plate.
In terms of whiffs, we see an interesting trend:
Hoes has actually done fairly well within the strike zone, where his 6.6 percent whiff rate trails the MLB average of 8.0 percent. By contrast, he's flailed at pitches outside the strike zone, swinging and missing at 13.5 percent of such pitches — higher than the 11.1 percent standard his peers have established.
Because most of his contact has occurred on hittable pitches, Hoes should have a lot of hard-hit balls on his ledger, right? After all, the BABIP for pitches inside the zone greatly exceeds that for pitches outside it. Sadly, Hoes has a meager 20.9 percent rate of hard contact, a level that even Everth Cabrera can top. That's doomed him to a mediocre BABIP, which along with his high strikeout rate has kept his batting average down.
Hoes's batted-ball profile doesn't disqualify him from success. He's tallied a 19.8 percent line-drive rate, about an average level, to accompany a sky-high 58.8 percent ground-ball rate. That's the sort of line you'd want from a hitter who lacks power — he should keep the ball low, to maximize his chances of getting a hit. And Hoes has even distributed his grounders pretty evenly, with a 42.0 percent pull rate (the major-league average is 53.3 percent) that prevents the shift from becoming a factor. He just hasn't stung the ball often enough to keep his head above water.
Should Hoes learn to swing at pitches on the outside, and swing with more authority, perhaps he'll cut down on his strikeouts and increase his BABIP. Of course, we could make similar statements for every player in this mold — if Henry Urrutia can develop his power, if Dariel Alvarez can start to take walks, if Christian Walker can make enough contact, then they'll become legitimate major-league contributors. Until then, they, like Hoes, will function as quad-A roster depth.
...and neither have his walks.
We'll wrap up with the other facet of Hoes's minor-league game, arguably his calling card: bases on balls. In an organization allergic to plate discipline, his ability to work a free pass set him apart. Why, then, has he only done so in 6.8 percent of his major-league plate appearances?
Hoes has certainly been selective against major-league pitching: He's swung at just 23.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. However, they've thrown 52.6 percent of their pitches inside those confines; the resulting expected strike rate of 63.8 percent matches his actual 63.4 percent clip. While a discerning eye can get you pretty far, at some point you have to make pitchers fear you enough to pitch around you.
Still, that level of play should lend itself to a solid walk rate; after all, 64 percent of all pitches in baseball go for strikes. Hoes's problem has been situational aggression — he's taken far fewer balls when they matter the most:
|Player||0-Ball Strike%||1-Ball Strike%||2-Ball Strike%||3-Ball Strike%|
Hoes has mirrored the leaguewide number for every count except three balls. He'll work his way to the brink of a free pass, then swing away, blowing any shot at one.
This tendency obviously has something to do with Hoes's poor batting average. Since he struggles to hit, he presses, his nerves taking over and wrecking his approach. If he ever implements the aforementioned changes, which should improve his batting average, he'll probably regain his composure and start to take walks. The former premise is something of a stretch, though, meaning the latter is too.
***This poll, from a few hours after the deal to bring back Hoes, accurately sums up the feelings of Birdland regarding the move:
Of these three, which is your preferred 4th OF?— Camden Depot (@CamdenDepot) November 25, 2015
At the time, I voted for Lough (I have my reasons). I don't know, looking back, that I would change that decision. While Hoes has a glorious name and a possibly tolerable glove, his bat just won't suffice on a club that wants to contend. With his 26th birthday coming in March, he has probably passed the point at which he could make the leap. The Orioles should look elsewhere for their fourth outfielder.