27 June 2014

David Lough, Starter in Disguise

GIF lifted lovingly from BSR.

David Lough is one of those lightning rods.  Back in the Winter, I criticized the move for Lough if it meant that he was to be the Orioles' starting left fielder.  Simply, it was a matter that defense first 27 year old rookies are rookies at age 27 for a reason.  Plus, defense is a skill that tends to peak in a player's early to mid 20s.  When you go over the history of exceptional, defense-first 26 and older rookies, you are left with success benchmarks of F.P. Santangelo and Wayne Kirby.  That is a very low benchmark and not one a team should plan on trotting out there if they dream of playoff sugar plums.  That kind of player simply is not worth much, which was clear for all to see in that the cost was Danny Valencia.

I received a bit of bitter disagreement with my assessment.  Fingers were pointed toward Lough's gaudy AAA numbers where he toiled many a season without a sniff from the parent club.  On my side, I tried to explain the problems with performance scouting, offensive environments in the PCL, and how a large body of indifference from scouts should usually be accepted as a most likely characterization of the player.  Numbers are not everything.

That all said, I might have been wrong.  No, I was right about his bat being anemic.  Where my fault was in how I was evaluating his defense.  When I look at a player, I first check out the statistics.  Defensive metrics have improved to the level of a graduated litmus test, but they still not are as accurate as a similar sample size of batting data.  You tend to want a few years to figure it all out with any certainty, Lough had some amazing defensive metrics.  At worst, he was probably a +10 player over a full season.  Those are rare.  I severely doubted that he was a +28 player as 835 innings as a Royal.

I then consulted people I know and available scouting reports.  With Lough, he was described as a player with a fringe bat.  He plate discipline was not great, but he made decent contact and showed gap-to-gap power.  His defense was considered solid, but not enough to carry his bat in a corner position.  Additionally, with the emergence of high offense producing bats in center field, his wares were thought a poor fit.  Weighted all together, the general view was that he was a fourth outfielder who would be shuttled back and forth between the Majors and Minors while occasionally getting on hot streaks.  The cost being Danny Valencia, that assessment made sense.

How Lough has been deployed by the Orioles also makes sense with respect to the numbers as well as to the scouting.  After experiencing some struggles at the plate, Lough has been largely removed from the field and his place of shame, the batter's box.  He also might find himself as this club's 23rd, 24th, or 25th man.  All of those positions are likely up in the air.  This is particularly true with Nolan Reimold pushing the active roster.  Added to the equation, Lough cannot be optioned to Norfolk.

That all said, this is what Lough has accomplished this season:

PA AVG OBP SLG oRuns Innings UZR
126 .182 .262 .282 -2.2 300.2 5.3

I converted oWAR into oRuns just to put it on the same scale as UZR.  I also included the positional adjustment in that value instead of placing it in with defense.  Basically, playing about 30 games of innings, Lough has put up 3.1 runs over a replacement player.  Over a full season, that would be worth about 1.8 WAR.  That is an average quality player even though he has been horrible with the bat.

Of course, the problem is that so much is dependent on the admittedly scant sample size for measuring defense.  You really would want something like 2000 innings to feel comfortable about Lough's ability.  In his career, he has played 1136.1 innings (about a season's worth of innings) and consistently has a rate of about 25 runs saved above average, which would make him the second or third best defensive outfielder in baseball.

Yes, the sample size is small, but it appears to be relatively consistent in over three years of play.  To me, that suggests that it likely is a real performance level and that performance level alone is worthy of starting.  More so, it is hard to see his hitting getting worse.  Over the rest of the season, we could expect a line like this:

PA AVG OBP SLG oRuns Innings UZR
ZIPS 270 .227 .281 .342 1.4 600 10.6
Continued 270 .182 .262 .282 -4.7

The above is the updated projection of what ZIPS thinks Lough should do the rest of the season looking at his career statistics to date.  The expectation as a full time player is that he will be worth about 12 runs above replacement or roughly 1.2 WAR.  If he continues to hit as poorly as he is hitting, we would expect 5.9 runs above replacement or roughly 0.6 WAR.  To think of that as full season WAR, it would project to a player between 1.6 and 2.9 WAR.

That is rather solid, but we can probably make this even more solid.  What if we replaced Lough with Delmon Young as a leadoff hitter in away games against left handed pitcher?  Any successful hit, Lough would come in as a pinch runner.  Any unsuccessful appearance and Lough will simply jog out to left field in the bottom of the inning.  Here is how that would look:

PA AVG OBP SLG oRuns Innings UZR
Lough Z 250 0.227 0.281 0.342 1.3 600 10.6
Lough C 250 0.182 0.262 0.282 -4.4

Young 20 0.285 0.321 0.471 1.2

For Delmon Young, I only considered ZIPS adjusted for left handed pitchers, which expects Young not to keep up his current pace.  In other words, this might be considered a conservative estimate.  Using ZIPS also for Lough and taking away 20 plate appearances, Lough's value decreases by 0.1 runs to 11.9 runs above replacement while Young adds 1.2 runs.  In other words, the effort changes from 12 runs above replacement to 13.1 runs, a difference of about a tenth of a win.  In the continued performance scenario for Lough, his value is 6.2 runs above replacement, an improvement of 0.3 runs.  Put on Young, this improves it by another 1.2 runs or 1.5 runs total.  If we were talking about a full season, we would be talking about an improvement of almost a whole win.  Yes, it would take a pinch hitter away from you in about 50 games, but how often are pinch hitters really used?

Of course, all of this ignores who really is now patrolling in left field.  That essentially is a 50/50 mix of Steve Pearce and Nelson Cruz.  Lough and Lough / Young should be compared not with a vacuum, but against this other mix.  While patrolling left, ZIPS sees Cruz as worth 0.6 WAR while it sees Pearce as 0.7 WAR for a grand total of 1.3 WAR.  That is equivalent to what Lough is worth out there, meaning that there currently is no reason to put Lough out there even though he appears to be in the neighborhood of an average starter to fringe All Star player simply due to his defense.

Going forward, that is incredibly important to know.  If those metrics are accurately describing Lough's performance level, then there is no total dropoff between him and the current group of starters.  That is depth.  It also suggests that Pearce or Young could be available for use as complementary pieces in a trade.  Lough is an important piece of the club and could potentially have good value next year if the team has difficulty finding elite performance in left.  All in all, those cries for designating Lough for assignment sounds like a pretty bad idea.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting/informative analysis. Sentimentality would have me keeping Pearce and shipping Young in any trade scenario. Why can't Steve Pearce learn to play catcher really well overnight?

Anonymous said...

Where does Nolan Reimold fit into the outfield equation on Monday. Seems like the Orioles need to trade him or put him on the roster since he probably won't clear waivers.

Philip said...

Havent read the article yet. Just wanted to say that that catch is one of my all-time favorite catches. Just amazing. Running away, at an angle, leaping, over the back, just amazing.
now i'll read the article.

Philip said...

Good article.
I sometimes chat with folks at the Royals blog, and I asked for an assesment of whether the Royals or Orioles had "won" the trade. Danny is hitting about .250 and I thought that, with his defense, the Royals would have won.
i was quite surprised when one of the replies stated that Lough's overall WAR is higher than Danny's, and it wasn't that close(0.3 to .08. I think)
I love Lough's defense, and I'm glad you think he's an overall asset to the Os.

Anonymous said...

Took a look at Lough's offensive numbers and I think the bandbox that is Camden Yards got into his head, too many flyballs. He's a better hitter than that.

As for why Dave was a 27 year old rookie, blame that on management and the signing of Jeff Francoeur to a two year contract. Lough tore up AAA the first year of it, 2012, hit even better early the second year, came up and produced 2.4fW in the bigs in about 85 games while having virtually no splits. Then after the poor trade for Aoki, Lough was the odd man out in a six-man outfield.

jim fetterolf

Anonymous said...

Isn't Adam Jones' defense overrated? Maybe he shouldn't be playing center, Lough should be?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Jim Fetterolf (which I rarely do.) I don't think the trade for Aoki was bad...at least at the time. Like so many other Royals position players, this year Aoki is struggling at the plate. If he put up numbers like last year it would be no problem. As far as Lough goes, I liked him in a Royals uniform but unless you surround him with a lot of real talent you're not going to win the Series with him in RF. Solid player. Good head on his shoulders. Hustles a lot. But he's really a top-end AAAA player in the end.