Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Name The Second Baseman! - Midseason Edition

Friends for now, but wait till Reyes is back!
Maybe it's just me, but the long, cold months of this past offseason seemed longer and colder than in years past. Rogers Hornsby once famously answered the question about what he does in the off season with "I stare out the window and wait for spring". Well, with apologies to Mr. Hornsby, we've come a long way since then. Now we have Internet equipped computer screens to stare into while we anxiously await the day we all circle on our calendars (or enter in our smartphones) the second the season ends: pitchers and catchers report. Despite the technological advances, the news worthy tidbits that trickle out during the offseason are still few and far between, especially for a fan base so recently re-energized by The Trade with the Marlins. So we, as fans, must amuse ourselves from time to time with games of our own making.

The two most common this offseason were "Set The Starting Rotation" (we all lost, unless you called Chien Ming Wang, in which case AA would like to offer you a job) and "Name The Second Baseman", and it's the second of these I'd like to re-visit now that we have some data from this season to go off of, and because it's about to be relevant with Reyes' seemingly imminent return. Also, there is a new contender for the role that was on quite literally nobody's radar in the offseason. At that time, it was basically between Izturis and Bonifacio, but since being called up to fill in during Reyes' absence, Munenori Kawasaki has slapped, bunted, bowed and danced his way into our hearts, filling the void left years ago by John McDonald as the batless bench player that we can't help but love. Now there is a sense of anxiety among some fans the Blue Jays' mascot/spirit animal will be back riding buses in AAA once Reyes comes back or, if not then, when Lawrie returns from his latest boo boo.

So far this season, injuries have rendered the offseason deliberations of armchair managers everywhere moot, with all of these players forced into near every day duty to fill the gaping holes in the infield. Obviously more injuries could always crop up, but assuming Reyes and Lawrie are back fairly soon and nobody else goes down who should we expect to see as the every day second baseman from here on out? Who should we hope to see as the every day second baseman? Are the guy we should hope to see and the guy we should expect to see the same guy? I would hope so! Confused yet? Good. Let's check it out.

The Contestants:

Maicer Izturis:
- Career: .270/.332/.377 .314 wOBA 92 wRC+ 1.14 Avg. WAR/Season
- 2013: .224/.259/.321  .256 wOBA 57 wRC+ -1.2 WAR 51 GS

Maicer Izturis has been pretty bad. Really bad, in fact.  It's easy to understand why some fans are lamenting the three year contract AA signed him to this offseason. He's well below all his career numbers, and while he's 32, it's difficult to believe that he has fallen off a cliff quite so quickly after having been a pretty consistently average-ish utility infielder throughout his career.  Encouraging, however, is that his numbers are trending in the right direction.

His batting average has improved every month, it is .263 so far in June after he hit just .193 in April and .232 in May.  His calling card has always been contact.  He doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out hardly at all, putting lots of balls in play.  His 4.4 BB% is down from his career 7.9%, but his 8.4 K% is also down a bit from his career 10.6% so making contact still hasn't been a problem. What has been are the outcomes of all those balls put in play. Izturis' career batted ball numbers are pretty much spot on league average at 20.6 LD%, 45.2 GB%, and 34.2 FB%. In 2013, however, he has hit 54.1% ground balls, largely driven by a 60% rate in May. Unfortunately for him this increase in the number of ground balls he's hitting has come along with some pretty lousy luck, as his BABIP so far is an atrocious .225 although that number is also trending back towards average as it was bound to do. It was an almost impossibly bad .187 in April, .245 in May and it is a bit better so far in June at .259. He also hasn't been popping up very much, so it seems like he's been making half decent contact all along, but has been suffering at the hands of the BABIP Gods. Further evidence is that with each monthly increase in BABIP has come a corresponding increase in batting average. It seems as though his luck is starting to turn, and better results are coming along with it.

Defensively he hasn't looked great, either anecdotally or statistically.  We can only put so much stock in defensive metrics for this season because of the small sample, and monthly splits would be even more useless, but so far at second base he's been worth -1 run according to DRS and -19.4 according to UZR/150. While he may have lost a step with his range, those numbers are 3 DRS and 4.9 UZR/150 for his career so there's reason to hope for better going forward.  This is especially true when one considers the margin for error in imperfect fielding metrics.  However, if I were to apply the trusty eyeball test to his defensive play so far this year I'd say it was bad, but has been improving steadily throughout the year. For what it's worth, according to UZR/150 second base has been his strongest defensive position throughout his career, so his overall defense (both his numbers and our perception) would likely improve with more time at second and less at third or short.

Emilio Bonifacio:
- Career: .261/.320/.340 .295 wOBA 79 wRC+ 0.39 Avg. WAR/Season
- 2013: .206/.233/.311 .237 wOBA 44wRC+ -0.7 WAR

Where Izturis' play has been bad, I would call Bonifacio's frustrating. That's because it's been bad, but he flashes so much athleticism that it's hard not to be tantalized by the potential.  There are similarities and differences between the two this season, as well as how they've gone about "achieving" their results to date.  They've both experienced lower than average BABIPs, which is especially surprising for Bonifacio, but he's done so while also striking out way more, almost 24% of the time. That number is inflated by a 31.5% rate in April and has gotten back in line with his career rate since, but his career rate is also pretty bad at 20.3%.

If Izturis' calling card is contact, Bonifacio's is speed. Generally, players with Bonifacio's speed are able to sustain a higher than average BABIP because they can beat out grounders for hits that would be sure outs for the less fleet footed. Bonifacio has fit this mold for his career, sporting a .330 BABIP over more than 2000 plate appearances. This year, however, it has been .263 which isn't as bad as Izturis' has been, but is still sub-average. What is interesting is that this number has remained far more static than it has for Izturis and is actually down to .219 for the month of June.

To be honest I'm not even quite sure what to make of this. Bonifacio doesn't seem to have slowed down too much from seasons past, and nothing has suggested he's nursing an injury that might have affected his speed. He still has lots of range and shows great wheels when he actually manages to put a ball in play and get on base. It is possible that it is just a run of bad luck, or perhaps the quality of the balls he has put in play has been bad enough that even he can't beat them out to turn some outs into hits. With the exception of June where he's hitting 66.7% ground balls and just 10% line drives (correlating with his lowest monthly BABIP) his batted ball numbers aren't that far off his career norms. He's hitting a few more fly balls but that probably shouldn't account for a 70 point drop in BABIP. So basically we're back to luck, or quality of contact. His pop up rate is almost exactly league average, but that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.  Obviously all ground balls are not created equal, and there's a big difference between a hard grounder and a dribbler back to the pitcher in terms of the likelihood of it going for a hit, and most available batted ball info doesn't make this readily apparent. However, the general thinking is that even these differences are largely random. I have a hard time believing it all comes down to randomness for Bonifacio though, as his BABIP is so far below his career rate and has been for the better part of three months. At least Izturis' numbers are all heading back towards his career averages whereas Bonifacio doesn't seem to be showing many signs of improvement at all.

Defensively, I would say he has also improved at second base over the course of the season. The same sample size caveats apply, but so far at second this season Bonifacio has been worth 2 runs according to DRS and -2.1 according to UZR. For his career those numbers are 2 DRS and -5.4 UZR/150, so depending on how much stock you place in defensive metrics he hasn't shown the defensive reliability that Izturis has in his career. My eyeball tells me that Bonifacio has settled in a bit at second as the season has progressed as the misplays have become fewer and farther between. In particular, the throws have seemed to grow less erratic, and he's made a few highlight reel plays, but he's hardly a defensive stalwart at the keystone sack so won't likely be winning the job with his defense alone.

Munenori Kawasaki
- Career (MLB): .207/.305/.253 .260 wOBA 62 wRC+ 0.1 Avg. WAR/Season
- 2013: .219/.337/.292 .290 wOBA 80 wRC+ 0.6 WAR

The people's champion! The front runner in our hearts! As mentioned earlier, nobody was making a case for Kawasaki in the preseason, and now people are losing their minds over the prospect of him being the odd man out when the wounded warriors return. If you say you had any preseason expectations of Kawasaki, you're lying. That makes you a liar, and liars suck so stop it. However, he has filled in admirably in Reyes' absence and his antics were, at times, pretty much the only reason to tune in to a Jays game. So look, I get it. He's fun to watch it and we all want him to stick around so we can continue to enjoy watching him do his thing. 

Would he really help the Jays win more baseball games than Izturis or Bonifacio though? Because come on, quirky Japanese short stops are fun, but winning is more fun right?

Well for starters, he can't hit even a little bit. His wOBA and wRC+ are driven almost entirely by his solid OBP and that's definitely something, but his approach is based on barely ever swinging, and when he does swing it almost seems like it's with the intent to foul off pitches in hopes of getting to four balls before three strikes. Let us not forget that just last season in about 50 less PAs his wOBA was just .215 and his wRC+ was 35. Even his OBP was fugly at .257. Those numbers weigh out to a career wOBA of .263 and a wRC+ of 64. 

Defensively Kawasaki is fine. Not bad, but certainly not great. His sample sizes are too small for defensive metrics to even be meaningful, especially at second base where he's only played 39 innings. His range is decent and his arm is strong enough but always looks to require a lot of effort to get it there. He always seems to hesitate to set himself very well before throwing with everything he's got, and I'm not too sure how well that would translate to turning double plays with a runner sliding into his back. He would probably be fine at second, but people seem to take it for granted when the reality is that we can't really know. 


If I were making the decision I would give the every day job to Izturis, because he's had a solid career of league average play both at the plate and in the field, and because he has been showing signs that his early season awfulness was more of a blip than a new normal. His numbers are all trending in the right direction which doesn't seem all that surprising given his history. It was almost impossible to believe he would continue to be as bad as he has been, and the numbers say he hasn't been recently. 

Bonifacio just hasn't shown enough at the plate to be an every day player, but he is a much better weapon coming off the bench than Kawasaki who will never be a threat to pinch hit, and who runs decently but isn't much of a threat in that regard either.

Basically Izturis has him beat for the every day job, but Bonifacio's speed and greater versatility in being able to play the outfield beats him for a bench spot. Keep in mind they are both underperforming their career numbers while Kawasaki is outperforming his. Should they all regress to something like their career numbers the choice would be much clearer. Neither Izturis or Bonifacio would get you anything in a trade and Kawasaki's numbers are not nearly good enough that you bend over backwards to make room for him when you can just as easily send him back to Buffalo in case of further need. 

Kawasaki has done more than could be expected of him, but there is no reason to push it. He's filled in capably, but the odds of him keeping it up from here on out are slim. Plus, as fun as Kawasaki has been to watch, we're talking about Jose Reyes coming back. Jose Reyes! Fun is great, but fun and really good at baseball is better, so let's not shed tears over Kawasaki. Let's all just offer him our deepest, most respectful bows as he departs for Buffalo and hope that we don't have to see him again too soon, but take comfort in the fact that if we do we could do a whole lot worse. 

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