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.”

Pirates activate Starling Marte

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Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is back in the lineup after the team reinstated him from the 10-day disabled list on Saturday. Marte served the bare minimum on the DL after making a rapid recovery from the right oblique strain that sidelined him several weeks ago.

Prior to landing on the disabled list, the 29-year-old outfielder was off to a strong start. He slashed a robust .308/.366/.503 with six home runs, 10 stolen bases and an .869 OPS in 175 plate appearances with the team. This is the first time he’s dealt with an oblique issue, and the first DL stint he’s served since he suffered a bout of back tightness in 2016. While he has yet to prove he can bounce back to his pre-injury production levels, his quick recovery bodes well for a successful return to major-league play.

In a corresponding move, outfielder Jose Osuna was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. The move came as somewhat of a surprise, given that the Pirates elected to retain top prospect outfielder Austin Meadows rather than the more established Osuna. Meadows was recalled from Triple-A in the wake of Marte’s injury and has only played seven games at the major league level so far, but he’s already made a strong impression: he went 13-for-29 with three home runs, two stolen bases and five RBI since his call-up on May 18.