Is Rios really underrated? (Why defense matters)

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This morning part of my analysis of the Blue Jays’ decision to dump Alex Rios’ contract on the White Sox included referring to him as “an underrated outfielder in his prime.” That statement drew quite a few e-mails, comments, and tweets from people who disagreed, some very strongly, so let’s examine things a bit further.
Most of the anti-Rios sentiment came from people focusing on his offensive production, which is admittedly far from jaw-dropping. He’s a career .285/.335/.451 hitter who’s batting just .264/.317/.427 this season, and many comments boiled down to “they’re paying $60 million for a guy with a .750 OPS?!” The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores Rios’ tremendous defensive value and strong baserunning.
According to Ultimate Zone Rating, per 150 games Rios’ defense has been worth 14 runs more than an average right fielder and 12 runs more than an average center fielder, although the center-field numbers are derived from a relatively small sample of playing time. He’s also stolen 68 bases at an 82-percent success rate during the past three seasons, along with being a very good baserunner in general.
His offense is indeed nothing special, but .285/.335/.451 is hardly poor production from right field or center field and when combined with a glove that’s 10-15 runs better than average and another handful of runs on the bases it equals a very good all-around player. Add it all up and during the past four seasons Rios has been worth 35-40 runs more than a replacement-level outfielder per 600 plate appearances.
Rios hasn’t lived up to his usual standards so far this year, but last season he was worth 55 runs above replacement level, which ranked third among AL outfielders behind only Grady Sizemore and Nick Markakis. Two seasons ago he was worth 47 runs above replacement level, which ranked fifth among AL outfielders behind Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, and Ichiro Suzuki.
Rios offers average offense with outstanding defense, but for various reasons it’s a lot easier for most people to recognize value in someone who puts up strong numbers at the plate while playing poor defense. For instance, my friend Howard Sinker of the Minneapolis Star Tribune compares Rios to Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who will make $8.5 million in 2010 and $10.5 million in 2011.
Cuddyer has an edge offensively, but the difference isn’t anywhere close to as huge as the advantage Rios holds defensively. Over the past four seasons Cuddyer has been 15 runs above average offensively per 600 plate appearances, compared to 10 runs for Rios. However, during that same time Cuddyer has been five runs below average defensively per 600 plate appearances, compared to 10 runs above average for Rios.
In other words, Cuddyer is +15 offensively and -5 defensively. Rios is +10 offensively and +10 defensively. Cuddyer appears better if you focus strictly on hitting, but at the end of the day a run is a run regardless of what facet of the game it comes from and their overall values relative to “average” are +10 for Cuddyer and +20 for Rios. Similar comparisons can be made to good-bat, poor-glove outfielders across both leagues.
Defense matters, even if it’s not as easy to measure and analyze as offense, and Rios is an elite defensive outfielder. Assuming that he bounces back to his previous norms offensively–and at 28 years old he should–Rios is among the best all-around outfielders in baseball. Focusing on his OPS doesn’t even begin to tell the story, which is why he’s “an underrated outfielder in his prime.”

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 24:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the fifth inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. And here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Pirates 4: Evan Gattis and Carlos Correa homer as the Astros scratch out five runs off of Gerrit Cole. Finishing the road trip 5-2 has to make the Astros feel a bit better about things at the moment. They’re still four and a half back with four teams ahead of them in the Wild Card, but there’s still time.

Brewers 7, Rockies 1: Two homers from Ryan Braun, driving in three while Zach Davis allowed one run over six, striking out eight. Four wins in a row for Milwaukee. That means nothing for playoff purposes — they ain’t in the conversation — but they can mention it in the holiday letter.

Athletics 5, Indians 1: Kendall Graveman allowed one run while pitching into the seventh while his teammates scratched out runs with singles, sac flies and reaching on errors. The Indians scored three runs total in this three game series. They somehow managed to win one of the three games but, boy howdy, that’s not what a playoff team wants to do against a losing team with the worst defense in baseball.

Yankees 5, Mariners 0: Gary Sanchez homered again, his seventh in his past nine games and his ninth overall. The Mariners intentionally walked him twice, which had Joe Girardi talking about how unusual it is for a team to do that to a rookie and how much respect it shows for his power. Probably worth mentioning that the guy they walked him in order to get to was Mark Teixeira, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a friggin’ boat anymore, but I get why Girardi didn’t mention that. Masahiro Tanaka tossed seven shutout innings.

Cubs 6, Padres 3: Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over six innings which actually increased his ERA from 2.16 to 2.19. He leads all of baseball in that department nonetheless. Ben Zobrist had two hits including a triple which knocked in two.

Orioles 10, Nationals 8: Zack Britton allowed a run on an Anthony Rendon RBI double but his ERA remains a nice 0.69. The reason he was in the game was because Daniel Murphy hit a late grand slam while the Nats were down by seven, transforming a blowout into a save situation. I wonder if Britton had sort of mentally written off his need to pitch before going in. Who knows. Manny Machado and Matt Wieters each drove in four. The win plus the Blue Jays and Red Sox losing brings Baltimore back to within one game of the division leaders.

Angels 8, Blue Jays 2: Albert Pujols homered, pushing him past Mark McGwire on the all-time list. He’s now 10th in history with 584 bombs. He had four hits in all and three RBI. Mike Trout homered too and Matt Shoemaker tossed six shutout innings.

Rangers 6, Reds 5: Yu Darvish of all people homered and Adrian Beltre hit a tiebreaking RBI double in the eighth. The Rangers had a three-run lead, blew it, but pulled it out in the end. Speaking of Rangers, y’all should go see the movie “Hell or Highwater.” I took a night off of baseball last night and saw it and it was amazing. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger of the law enforcement variety and he’s fantastic. Chris Pine was something of a revelation, though, playing a west Texas dude who finds himself living an outlaw life due to desperate circumstances. Just a good, tight, well-written and well-acted flick.

Marlins 3, Royals 0: The Royals nine-game winning streak ends thanks to Jose Fernandez’s nine strikeouts in seven shutout innings. Christian Yelich singled in two. Best news of the night for Miami, though, was trading for Jeff Francoeur. That’s not great for baseball purposes, but he really is a nice young man who will light your day up with his smile.

Rays 4, Red Sox 3: Boston had an early three-run lead that was cut to 3-2 before Evan Longoria‘s eighth inning homer tied things up and forced extras. In the 11th Boston reliever Heath Hembree got two outs before giving up a double to Luke Maile. Then Hembree dropped the toss while covering first base on a Kevin Kiermaier grounder, allowing Maile to score from second. That doesn’t exactly make Kiermaier a hero in this situation, but he made the contact that resulted in the winning run so he is still The Cool Cat of the game, and is still worthy of an award: a video from one year ago today of my kitty cat Scully eating cold oatmeal out of a cup on my desk. She’s the cuuuuuutest. Congratulations, Kevin!

Phillies 5, White Sox 3Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez homered. The White Sox sure had a crappy day yesterday. 

Tigers 9, Twins 4: Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer. The suddenly useful Justin Upton homered as well. Cabrera was a triple shy of the cycle, which we’d like to remind you still isn’t a notable thing.

Cardinals 8, Mets 1: The Cards smacked three homers off of Jacob deGrom who wasn’t too deGreat last night. Carlos Martinez allowed one run over eight innings, however, and that’ll do just deFine.

Diamondbacks 10, Braves 9: Brandon Drury hit a walkoff sac fly in the 11th. Drury was a Braves draft pick once upon a time. They traded him to Arizona to get Justin Upton. That seems like it was about 10,000 years ago.

Dodgers 1, Giants 0: Rich Hill made his Dodgers debut and it was worth the wait: six shutout innings. Four members of the bullpen tossed three more to complete the shutout, which allowed Justin Turner‘s fourth inning solo homer to stand up. A three-game lead in the West now for L.A. This Giants second half is a nightmare.

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.