Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Case for Kawasaki

Photo by James G via Flickr

Jose Reyes is back you guys! That's fantastic news for for the Blue Jays' middle infield which, since Maicer Izturis' unfortunate run-in with the dugout steps, has consisted of various combinations of Ryan Goins, Jonathan Diaz and fan-favourite Munenori Kawasaki. It's a pretty unspectacular trio, and that's if I'm being generous. Reyes' return certainly helps the cause now that he'll be manning shortstop pretty much every day, but that still leaves Ryan Goins and Jonathan Diaz as the only keystone options now that Kawasaki has been sent back to Buffalo. Quite frankly, I'm still not convinced that Muni isn't the best of a bunch of pretty unpalatable options.

I know I'm going after some pretty low hanging fruit by continuing to harp on the club's second base situation, but it remains the blackest hole in the lineup and the one for which we should have the least hope of positive regression riding to the rescue. For whatever reason, the club seems insistent on riding out the Ryan Goins experiment for the time being, with all indications pointing to him remaining if not the every day second baseman, at least the "strong" side of a platoon. I just can't help wondering how much rope he'll be given when there's a potential upgrade (as underwhelming as it may be) toiling away in AAA.

The first thing we need to wrap our heads around is precisely how bad Ryan Goins has actually been since being called up in August of last season. He started hot with 12 hits in his first eight games in August. It was good for a .400/.419/.467 line, but was fueled by an absurd .462 BABIP. Also, eight games. He came back down to Earth in a big way in September, posting a .202/.211/.303 line and 33 wRC+ in 90 plate appearances that month. So far in 2014, he's picking right up where he left off last season. He's "hit" .140/.189/.160 in his first 55 plate appearances of the season, which puts him in the rarefied company of players with a negative wRC+ (-7). In fact, he's the only player with at least 50 PAs to accomplish the feat. I'll grant that just as his hot start was driven by an unsustainably high BABIP, his frigid start to 2014 is similarly impacted by an unsustainably low .184 BABIP. Still, he's failed to reach base altogether in nearly half of his major league games going back to last season. He may not continue to be quite as bad as he's been so far, but what on Earth has he shown that makes anyone think he'll be better than absolutely terrible at the plate?

It comes back to how much rope you're willing to give him, and how highly you think of his defense at second base. As far as the rope goes, I'm pretty much out of it. Consider that we now have a sample size of 176 plate appearances going back to last August, which is an admittedly small sample, but which still represents about a third of a season. Over his career 176 PAs, Goins is rocking a .219/.241/.290 line for a 41 wRC+. If we time shifted his career so that it had started on the opening day of 2014 (obviously impossible but bear with me) those 176 PAs would take us up until about the end of May, maybe even further depending on how strictly he gets platooned against left-handed pitching. Would anyone out there be willing to watch the Jays get that kind of production for that long before demanding they make a change? Keep in mind that last year's Blue Jays got a 69 wRC+ out of their second basemen, and that was good for just 27th in the league. While his offensive ineptitude has spanned just two months over two seasons, he has a long way to go to even get up to that ridiculously low bar.

I could tolerate giving him more time to figure things out if his minor league career had given any indication that there is more in his bat than what we've seen, but that just isn't the case. Before the Blue Jays called him up last year, he had been hitting .257/.311/.369 for the Bisons, for a 90 wRC+. Prior to that he hadn't been much more than a league average hitter at any level but low-A. It's one thing to wait on a player with some sort of offensive pedigree to make the necessary adjustments to big league pitching, but Ryan Goins isn't that guy and never has been. Hoping for much more offense out of him than what we've seen so far is probably an exercise in wish-casting.

The only reasonable defense of Ryan Goins' ongoing existence as the Blue Jays' starting second baseman is his defense. The line from the front office and fans who were seduced by a handful of spectacular plays in his 2013 cup of coffee is that his defense at second base is so good that it justifies carrying his wet noodle of a bat. Let's check out the validity of that position, shall we?

According to UZR/150, Ryan Goins has been worth 28.7 runs per 150 defensive games at second base. The catch is, he hasn't played 150 games at the position yet. He's only played the equivalent of about 37, which makes his defensive rating by UZR/150 incredibly unreliable, and pretty much guarantees that it's only going to come down. If you don't believe me, consider that over at FanGraphs Darwin Barney of the Chicago Cubs had the highest Defense score among qualified second basemen in both 2012 and 2013. He did so with UZR/150 scores of 17.2 and 15.5 respectively. Unless you believe that Ryan Goins' defense is 10-12 runs better than the best defensive full-time second baseman in the major leagues, you should really come to terms with the fact that his defensive numbers are going to start coming down the more innings he spends in the field.

Keep in mind that Darwin Barney has a career wRC+ of 67, a full 24 points better than Ryan Goins' career offensive contributions, and I don't hear any Blue Jays fans clamouring for Anthopoulos to run out and acquire the proven defensive whiz. Why then are so many comfortable with the assumption that Ryan Goins' likely inferior defense is going to be enough to carry his bat, which thus far has also been inferior to Barney's? It looks like a case of an organization and its fan base over-valuing its own players, and from where I'm sitting there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of basis for it. Darwin Barney is basically the embodiment of the all glove, no bat profile that is probably Goins' ceiling, and that picture ain't pretty. Over the two seasons in which Barney led Major League Baseball in defense at second base, he contributed a grand total of 2.6 fWAR, and that was while hitting better than Goins has. We should hope for better.

Which of course brings us to lovable mascot Munenori Kawasaki, recently demoted to the AAA Buffalo Bisons. By now we probably have a pretty good idea of what Muni brings to the party; capable if unspectacular defense, patient at-bats, some slap singles, and a whole bunch of epic dance moves. He's not a sexy player (but then again those dance moves...), but it's getting to the point that I have a hard time understanding how the club doesn't see him as a better option than Goins, at least until the latter is able to show something, anything at all, in the minor leagues. 

As sad as it is to say, if Kawasaki can approximate what he did in 96 games with the 2013 Jays it's looking pretty likely that he's the better offensive option by a significant margin. For starters, his .229/.326/.308 line and 78 wRC+ that year dwarf Goins' offensive achievements to date, and I'm optimistic that he could be at least that good if he were deployed in much the same way that Goins has been so far. 

The main reason for my optimism, is that 2013 Kawasaki was actually a viable platoon option. Against right-handed pitching, Kawasaki hit .247/.341/.340 for an almost-playable 90 wRC+. By comparison, Goins has hit .231/.256/.299 with a 49 wRC+ against righties. He's been better against lefties than Kawasaki, but in just 51 career PAs. Basically, Kawasaki achieved his mediocrity by being awful against lefties but kind of okay against righties. Goins has done it by just being bad against everybody. If a guy like Jonathan Diaz could be anything more than an automatic out against left-handed pitching in a platoon situation it would likely be an improvement over the current Goins/Diaz platoon or *gulp* running Goins out there every game.

I'd have to agree that Goins is likely a better defender than Muni, but that the gap will get narrower the more Goins plays. Kawasaki is no slouch either. By UZR/150 he's graded out as pretty much average, with most of his innings logged at the more challenging shortstop position. The gap is likely narrowed further by the Blue Jays' apparent willingness to employ defensive shifts this season, with better positioning perhaps mitigating the advantage of Goins' much better range. At the very least, I see no reason to expect that Kawasaki's defense would hurt the team to the same degree that Goins' apparent complete and utter inability to hit will. 

After the defensive gong show we had to endure last year, I can understand that Goins' competence was a breath of fresh air, and why so many fans were willing to prioritize defense over hitting. Still, there's a certain baseline of offensive contribution that needs to be met or the Blue Jays are basically just running a poor man's Darwin Barney out there all season, and I have yet to meet the Jays fan that would advocate that.

So that's it, my baseball argument for Munenori Kawasaki getting a shot as the Toronto Blue Jays' starting second baseman (at least against right-handed pitching), presented without sentimentality or reference to clubhouse chemistry or any other unquantifiable voodoo. If you accept that both players are probably going to be platooned anyways, there's very little to suggest that Ryan Goins will hit enough to be the better overall option. It's a testament to the total lack of Blue Jays' second base depth that this is even a discussion worth having, but it's the situation we find ourselves in. If Goins were to be sent down and show some signs of life, or if Kawasaki can't replicate last year's performance, well they can always make the switch again later. In the meantime, given what we've seen from both players and how tight the A.L. East has shaped up to be in the early going, I don't know how they can justify continuing to let Goins learn on the job. He just hasn't earned that kind of rope.

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