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.”

Report: Mark Trumbo signs three-year, $37.5 million contract with Orioles

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04:  Mark Trumbo #45 of the Baltimore Orioles runs the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the American League Wild Card game at Rogers Centre on October 4, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Update #2 (6:21 PM EST): Make that $37.5 million, per Heyman.

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Update (6:02 PM EST): The deal is for “around” $37 million with deferrals that lower the present-day value, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.

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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that free agent 1B/OF Mark Trumbo is close to a deal with the Orioles. He first reported that the two sides were back in touch earlier on Thursday afternoon. According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, the deal is expected to be for three years and under $40 million.

Trumbo’s market hasn’t developed as he expected. The slugger turned down the Orioles’ $17.2 million qualifying offer back in November. Then the Orioles reportedly made a four-year contract offer to him in December but pulled it off the table. Most recently, a report indicated that Trumbo lowered his expectations to a three-year deal in the $40-50 million range.

Trumbo, 31, led the majors with 47 homers for the Orioles this past season. He also hit a solid .256/.316/.433 with 108 RBI in 667 plate appearances. With Trumbo back in the fold and some slight offensive upgrades made, the Orioles figure to have a formidable offense in 2017.

Astros avoid arbitration with Mike Fiers

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 17: Starting pitcher Mike Fiers #54 of the Houston Astros walks to the dugout after pitching an inning during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 17, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Astros won the game 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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The Astros avoided arbitration with pitcher Mike Fiers, agreeing on a $3.45 million salary for the 2017 season, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. The right-hander was in his first of three years of arbitration eligibility.

Fiers, 31, made 30 starts and one relief appearance for the Astros in 2016. He finished the year with a 4.48 ERA and a 134/42 K/BB ratio in 168 2/3 innings.

Fiers had a much better showing in 2015 as well as in limited action in 2014, so the Astros are hoping he rediscovers that effectiveness going forward. He’ll slot into the back of the starting rotation.