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.”

Astros’ bullpen throws combined one-hitter for MLB-best 30th win

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The Astros’ bullpen did yeoman’s work in place of the injured Dallas Keuchel on Monday against the Tigers. Keuchel is temporarily sidelined with a pinched nerve in his neck.

Brad Peacock made the spot start, limiting the Tigers to one hit and two walks with eight strikeouts over 4 1/3 innings. Chris Devenski took over with one out in the fifth, finishing out that inning as well as the sixth and seventh, facing the minimum. Will Harris pitched a perfect eighth and Ken Giles closed out the 1-0 victory in the ninth. Devenski, Harris, and Giles each had two strikeouts.

The Astros scored their only run in the bottom of the first inning as George Springer drew a leadoff walk, then scored on Jose Altuve‘s one-out double. Tigers starter Brad Fulmer pitched well enough to win on most days, giving up the lone run in seven frames.

After Monday’s win, the Astros became the first team to reach 30 wins, sitting on a 30-15 record. With a +55 run differential, even their expected record matches up with their actual record.

Brandon Phillips hit his 200th career home run

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Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips became the 337th player in baseball history to hit 200 career home runs, driving a solo home run to left-center field during Monday night’s home game against the Pirates. Phillips is the 14th second baseman (who played a min. of 75 percent of his career games at the position) to rack up at least 200 career home runs.

Phillips, 35, entered Monday’s action batting .290/.345/.405 with two home runs and 12 RBI in 142 plate appearances. If he’s anything, he’s consistent, as he finished with an adjusted OPS between 90-99 (100 is average) every year between 2012-16 and it was sitting at 97 coming into Monday.