09 February 2015

What Does Travis Snider Bring to the Orioles?

Editor's note: I recently answered some questions for a 2015 team preview of the Orioles for Razzball. It doesn't include anything specific about Travis Snider, and we are still about two months away from opening day, but you might find it interesting. Look out for at least one or two more team previews as we get closer to the beginning of the season. Thanks.

It would an oversimplification to think the Orioles chose just Travis Snider over Nick Markakis. Really, the O's chose Snider, Steve Pearce, and financial flexibility over Markakis. Snider won't be filling the Markakis role. He won't be playing every game in right field, but he will be filling in more at designated hitter and if needed could see some innings in left field. But Snider will play a lot in right field, he is left handed, and he is on the Orioles, so some will inevitably compare him to Markakis, particularly those angered by Markakis's departure.

Snider is not Markakis. They are both former first-round draft picks -- Markakis (7th) in 2003; Snider in 2006 (14th) -- but each player has taken a much different career path. Clearly, Snider does not come close to Markakis's career accomplishments. One quick way to view that would be to observe their career wins above replacement totals:

Nick Markakis: 25.8 bWAR, 22.6 fWAR
Travis Snider: 4.2 bWAR, 2.7 fWAR

Markakis was arguably the Orioles' best player for about a decade (Adam Jones is right there, and did so with less playing time). Add in that Markakis was a homegrown talent -- something that's been rare for the Orioles during a period of truly awful baseball (basically 1998-2011) -- and it's not difficult to understand why so many fans latched on to Markakis and are having trouble letting him go.

Markakis has been a popular topic on Camden Depot; both his achievements and shortcomings have been analyzed frequently. So it has been noted often enough that Markakis was not a superstar. And it's not a dig to realize that the 2008 version of Markakis would have been extremely tough to replace, while the 2014 version is not.

So why is Snider the better fit for the Orioles? He's four years younger, and he possesses something that Markakis doesn't: some upside. Markakis hasn't been a great player for a while, and even though he's only 31, he does seem to have more wear on him than most. He has played in at least 155 games in every season but two: in 2006 (147), his rookie season; and in 2012 (104), when he missed part of the season after breaking his wrist and then missed the rest of the season after a CC Sabathia fastball broke his left thumb in September. Of course it's not a bad thing to be a durable, everyday player, but there's at least some health concern, as Markakis's recent neck surgery apparently worried the O's enough to back off a longer-term deal. The Orioles aren't always right about these things, but they are right often enough.

It's tough to ignore Snider's early career struggles. He showed a good amount of promise in his rookie season, posting a .301/.338/.466 (110 wRC+) line in a limited sample. The next couple seasons he hovered around a wRC+ of 100 while struggling to carve out consistent playing time. His production then fell off a cliff in 2011 (63 wRC+ in 202 plate appearances), and the Blue Jays traded him in the summer of 2012 to the Pirates for Brad Lincoln, another underwhelming 2006 first-round draft pick.

For the rest of 2012, Snider wasn't good (84 wRC+). And he certainly wasn't good in 2013 (71 wRC+) while playing through a nagging left foot injury. Snider eventually had surgery in the offseason to fix the issue. But in 2014, Snider was healthy and posted a career best 121 wRC+ while setting career highs in games (140) and plate appearances (359). Snider wasn't fortunate on balls in play (.298 BABIP), though he did have a modest uptick in his HR/FB rate (16.5% vs. career 13.3%). He also cut down on his strikeouts (18.7%) -- he never struck out less than 24.8% of the time in any other season -- walked more than he had in any season since 2009, and chased fewer pitches outside the zone than in any other season while making contact on 81.3% of his pitches (previous high of 79.1%). Still, one season of improved offensive performance shouldn't convince anyone that Snider is going to be fantastic or that he'll definitely hit a ton of home runs in a ballpark more suited to left-handed power than PNC Park.

Steamer projects Markakis to finish with a 101 wRC+ in 2015. It projects Snider to have a 116 wRC+ in 101 plate appearances. Certainly Snider is going to play much more than that, but it wouldn't be surprising if he outperformed Markakis. Much of Markakis's career is behind him, almost certainly including his best work. That might not be the case for Snider. And while Markakis does possess some on-base skills (Snider is close or maybe a little worse in that department), he doesn't currently have the same level of power that Snider does.

Even including his up-and-down, disappointing earlier seasons, Snider still has a greater career isolated power (.160) than Markakis (.145). He has fared better in hitting for power against all three types of pitches -- hard, breaking, and offspeed:

PlayerHard ISOBreaking ISOOffspeed ISO

The breaking and offspeed categories are close, but Snider is better at hammering fastballs. And in 2014, Snider's ISO was double Markakis's when facing hard pitches (.189 vs. .095). He was also better against breaking pitches, though he did struggle against offspeed (Markakis wasn't great in this area, either).

Snider, who as noted above was much better plate discipline wise in 2014, did a better job of making pitchers pay when they threw him pitches in the middle of the plate or inside. Here's his ISO zone profile in 2014:

... vs. his career ISO zone profile:

He also swung and missed less on pitches in the zone, which is key since he was already chasing fewer pitches outside of it. Pitchers want to attack Snider away (and down), so swinging and missing at fewer of those pitches obviously helped.

Maybe you view what Snider accomplished last season as a fluke. It might be. But it may also be an example of a hitter refining his approach at the plate. Not every player improves or matures at the same rate.

Markakis's body of work is much larger, so there's more to analyze and predict what he will do. That's not the case for Snider, who has the upside advantage or unknown variable, whatever you want to call it. Mike Petriello of FanGraphs even referred to Snider as a "lottery ticket." That seems more than fair.

Shifting gears quickly to discuss defense, Markakis has won two Gold Gloves. Snider hasn't won any. But, as a reminder, Gold Gloves aren't a great indicator of outstanding defensive performance. I've always thought of Markakis as a decent to good defender who has a strong, accurate arm and makes most of the routine plays, but lacks range. But I'm not a scout. The advanced metrics differ on how good Markakis is in right field:

UZR: -2.5 (UZR/150: -0.3)
DRS: +6

While Markakis has mostly played right field, Snider has split his time between left and right field. Oddly enough, he's been much better in left field, according to the metrics:

LF UZR: 5.8 (UZR/150: 5.3)
RF UZR: -5.9 (UZR/150: -5.5)
LF DRS:  +16
RF DRS: -4

Maybe Snider is more comfortable in left field. Or maybe it doesn't mean a whole lot, since Snider still hasn't played a ton of innings overall in his career. He still seems like, at worst, an average outfielder. Maybe he's a little worse than Markakis, but either way, it's close.

Snider will make $2.1 million in 2015, and he has one arbitration-eligible year remaining after that. So he'll most likely see another modest raise in 2016. So the O's could end up paying, for example, around $5 or $6 million for Snider's age 27 and 28 seasons. Meanwhile, the Braves are locked in to a four-year, $44 million deal with Markakis for his age 31-34 seasons. Maybe Markakis will end up proving many analysts and fans wrong who think the Braves unnecessarily overpaid for his services. But the O's could end up getting similar production, both offensively and defensively, from Snider for a couple seasons at a fraction of the cost. Snider has not yet demonstrated that he can be a full-time player, and maybe he can't. But the O's will already have decisions to make beyond this season with so many impending free agents (including outfielders Steve Pearce and Alejandro De Aza). So Snider will get plenty of opportunities.

Not only did the O's minimize risk by not matching or exceeding Atlanta's offer for Markakis, but they also picked up a seemingly improving player with power who will be able to fill multiple roles. It's all right to be sad that Markakis is gone but to also realize that a Pearce/Snider combination in right field could and probably should outperform Markakis.

Photo via Keith Allison


Statistics Don't Lie said...

Looking at Snider's hitting charts a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, it seems like if pitchers only feed him pitches on the outside edge, he's an easy out. Second, it would seem that he would be a dead pull hitter susceptible to the shift. When he gets his pitch on the inside half, he'd better put it in the air.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

He did a decent job of spreading the ball around last season. He had some doubles and a few home runs to left field, though most of his hits to the left side were singles. Most of his home runs went to either center or right.

Anonymous said...

At least a more fair article on Nick that totally doesnt bash him but you have alot of "could", "should", "probably", and "potential" in that article. Obviously I am a Markakis homer but I still believe that we have this window of opportunity to win while the rest of the division is below us and to not sign a known commodity and fan favorite is a mistake.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Obviously I can't predict the future, and it's possible that Markakis has a few really nice seasons left in him. But I wouldn't count on it.

Anonymous said...

I guess its "possible" that our RF's will not make an error this season....."But I wouldn't count on it".

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I'm sure they will make at least a couple errors. Does that mean they'll be less valuable than a right fielder who doesn't hit for any power? Sure, I guess.

I like Markakis. For less money and years, I would have been fine with bringing him back. But the goal is to win and keep winning, not to keep overpaid fan favorites around. If that means taking an unpopular stance against bringing back a popular player, so be it.