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: Koji Uehara close to signing with the Cubs

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10:  Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports, citing a source as well as Nikkan Sports, that reliever Koji Uehara is close to signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Uehara, 41, finished the 2016 season with a 3.45 ERA and a 63/11 K/BB ratio over 47 innings. He missed some time in the second half with a strained right pectoral muscle. When Uehara returned from the disabled list on September 7, he tossed 11 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks through the end of the regular season. So there’s at least some evidence, albeit in a very small sample size, that Uehara has stuff left in the tank.

The Cubs recently acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals. Uehara would join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery in what is once again a very deep bullpen.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.