Changing of the Plate Guarders

Okay, so this was going to be the first post... but then the Sale thing happened, so this got pushed back.  But prior to that... I hadn’t been thinking much about the Sox this winter.  I wanted them to go get B.J. Upton.  I wanted them to then go after Justin Upton. Neither happened.  They did sign Jeff Keppinger which didn’t make me excited.  They filled out the bullpen with a cheap arm (Matt Lindstrom)... and that was it.  That was the offseason.  There wasn’t much to talk about.  

So we head into 2013 without AJ for the first time since 2004.  I thought letting AJ go was the right move, even if he didn’t sign for much in Texas.  

Basically the 2013 White Sox are the 2012 White Sox only without AJ but with an actual major league player at third base.

And now we’re here... with spring on the horizon and a White Sox team that isn’t much different from 2012, yet feels a bit foreign since AJ Pierzynski is gone.  I can’t blame the Sox for letting him walk, however, a one year, $7.5 million deal would have been totally acceptable and you have to wonder why the Sox let AJ walk if that’s all he got.  But let’s start here, at catcher, and come back to third base and the rotation later.

That means Tyler Flowers is the #1 guy behind the plate, and well, we’ll see.  Flowers has pop, and he shouldn’t struggle too much to replace and surpass non-2012 Pierzynski power numbers.  However, Flowers strikes out... a lot... like once every three times he comes to the plate.  And that’s not so good, especially since his walk rate dipped last year to under 8%.  However, when we equalize everything, AJ is a career .325 wOBA while Flowers comes in around .315 over the last two years.  Don’t look now, but Flowers’ offense should be able to replace 2005-2011 Pierzynski.  Offensively, what Flowers lacks in batting average, he makes up for in power and—probably, hopefully—walks.  

But we’re talking about baseball, not the 2012 AL MVP race, so we need to look at defense also... and well, it’s not close. Flowers has graded out much better behind the plate by UZR and when it comes to catching base stealers it will be hard to be as bad as AJ is behind the plate.  Pierzynski has sat around throwing out about 25% of base stealers over the last five years and teams have never ever been shy about running on AJ.  He’s not the worst at throwing guys out and slowing down a running game in the AL, but he’s one of the worst.  However, considering that he wasn’t able to throw anyone out or slow anyone down even with Mark Buehrle throwing once every five days... yikes, maybe he was the worst (but to be fair, his numbers didn’t drop last year without Mark and he did also have to catch Jose Contreras and Freddy Garcia).  Flowers showed improvement in nailing guys last year, and hopefully that will continue.  Throwing out one out of three runners is going to make everyone think twice about stealing second, something AL teams haven’t had to worry about in forever against the White Sox.

So this is going to seem crazy, but Flowers might actually replace Pierzynski’s value in 2013.  It’s highly doubtful he’ll come close to 2012 AJ, but last year was the outlier of outlier.  Pierzynski wasn’t going to hit 28 home runs this year anyway.  Most likely, 2013 AJ will be like 2005-2011 AJ... about a 2 WAR player.  And with Flowers providing an upgrade in defense while delivering more consistent power... we’ll it’s not crazy to think that he can’t be a 2 WAR player this year.

Speaking of those 28 home runs from AJ last year... Why did AJ Pierzynski hit so many home runs in 2012?  At 36, last year was Pierzynski’s 11th full MLB season.

He set a career best in homers with 27, flying by his previous career best in 2005 of 18.  Pierzynski also had his best full season walk rate, however, it was still pitiful at 5.4% which is only about a point higher than his career average of 4.1%. However, his K rate was well above his career average and, at the same time, his power numbers are through the roof.  This isn’t uncommon to the theory, though I’m not sure if it’s been proven, that players who aren’t known traditionally as power guys, when their power does go up, so do the strikeouts. 2012 AJ fit that criteria (do note, I’m not sure this has actually been proven.  Take Jose Bautista, he cut down on his strikeouts as he started hitting a ton of home runs).

But back to Pierzynski, his BABIP was below his career average, while his batting average stayed about the same as his normal mark, as was OBP... but then when you look at his slugging, it sticks out as the outlier of outliers in his career numbers.  AJ went on to also post
full season bests in ISO, wOBA and wRC+.

So... AJ hit for a lot more power last year, and at the same time saw a spike in his K rate.  He played about as much as usual, and AJ always played a lot for a catcher.  There's a case to speculate that he was juicing, but you can also say that AJ's always been a pretty big guy and instead of focusing on making contact, he attempted to kill the ball in order to one last good contract contract.

But let's dig a tad deeper: line drive rate is about the same (1.5 points higher than his career average), ground ball rate a tad down (3.9 points below his career average), and fly ball rate a tad higher than career average (2.4 points above). Oh wait, what's this?  A 18.6% home run to fly ball ratio... exactly twice his career average of 9.3%? I think we found the reason to Pierzynski’s power surge in 2012.  AJ's fly balls left the yard last year at a rate that was twice his career average.  He hit a few more fly balls, and a lot more of them went over the fence.  Pierzynski’s previous high in HR/FB was in 2005, which also happened to be his previous career high in home runs.

So 2012, AJ either (i) swung for the fences and thus making a little less contact but hitting the ball harder, or (ii) he got lucky, or (iii) he's got a little extra in the tank, or (iv) the hot summer led to his fly balls carrying just a tad bit more.  No one paid him for his 2012 production in 2013, the Rangers are paying AJ as if he’ll be about a 1.5-2 WAR player.  He was much better than that last year.  However the Rangers, and all of Major League Baseball, don’t think he’ll do it again.  And they’re probably right in assuming that.

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