Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bouncing Back

Looking through the list of free agents this offseason, a few names popped out to me as players who are prime for a bounce back year. This denotes a player who has talent, or has proven efficiency on the field before, but had a relatively disappointing season that pushes them from "in for a payday" to "looking for a job". First I'll outline a hitter who fit this description, then a pitcher, and finally I'll make some predictions as to where said players will play next season.

James Loney: Loney is coming off of a season in which he hit for a .249 batting average, hit only 6 home runs, and put up a very weak 70 wRC+. In his career, Loney has a .282 batting average, 103 wRC+, and .137 ISO. He's put up two seasons in his career with an fWAR above 2.0, 2007 and 2011, and he consistently performs well in high leverage situations as shown by his predominantly positive clutch numbers. So, from a hitting perspective, it might seem like Loney is a player in the beginning of decline. For a number of years he put up solid numbers, and very recently they fell off. This thinking may have prompted the Dodgers to involve him in a trade to the Boston Red Sox, while the idea that Loney's 2012 was merely a minor aberration possible coaxed Boston into accepting him via trade.

Defensively there is much less to speak of. Loney has almost always been a very good defender. All three major defensive stats, UZR, DRS, and FRAA portray Loney as a well above average defensive first baseman. Loney is slightly below average as a base runner, but throughout his career he hasn't caused too many issues on the base paths.

Both the Bill James projections, and PECOTA projections on Baseball Prospectus predict a bounce-back year for Loney. While Bill James doesn't make predictions in the form of wins above replacement, PECOTA has him as a 1.3 WARP player. That would be an increase of 2.7 WARP from 2012 to 2013. In addition, PECOTA has Loney at an .812 OPS, with 12 home runs, and 66 runs scored. The Bill James predictions put Loney at a .743 OPS, with 7 home runs, a wOBA of .319, and an ISO of .127.

Loney's numbers show a player who will improve, especially give his low .269 BABIP from 2012. Some of this was due increases in swing percentage, strikeout percentage, and swing percentage on pitches out of the strike zone. On the other hand, some of his low BABIP is explained by bad luck. BABIP normalizes on a year-to-year basis to around .300, so we can expect a higher BABIP, and thus higher batting average merely based on randomness.

Because Loney had such a poor 2012, and he just completed his 3rd year of arbitration, mid-level and poorer teams will have a better chance of signing Loney while the teams with more money, and thus options, will look for the better, flashier players at the same position. This is even true in 2013 when the market for 1st basemen is distinctively barren. Teams that should give Loney a looksy include the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, and the Seattle Mariners.

The Rays need inexpensive hitting, combined with consistently solid glove work, and a short commitment. Loney fits all three of those categories. He should hit better than the Rays 2012 1st baseman, Carlos Pena, his price tag shouldn't be more than $6 million for the season, and a 1-year contract would suit him well. If Loney can have a the bounce-back year I, Bill James, and PECOTA predict he will, he could use it as leverage to sign a multi-year contract for more money, as he would sign such a deal before his 30th birthday.

Boston needs a first baseman to replace Adrian Gonzalez, but given the awful stock of free agents, Loney's connection with Boston, and his path towards a rebound year, Loney would make sense for the Red Sox as a backup plan. The Sox have money to sign whomever they want, could look towards a trade for the answer, or remain patient and look into filling the vacancy at 1st base later. Loney would provide a solid 1-year stopgap, but it comes down to whether the Red Sox can't find a better solution elsewhere.

The Mariners have a solid infield with Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, and Kyle Seager at 2nd base, shortstop, and 3rd base respectively, but everyone knows Justin Smoak isn't the answer going forward for the M's at 1st base. With prospect Nick Franklin on pace to replace Ryan in the 2nd half of 2013 or in 2014, the Mariners have bright, young players locked into three out of 4 infield spots. Having a sure-handed big target to throw to at first base would be an asset, and while the size of SAFECO field would usually be an issue for Loney, Seattle is moving in the fences. If the Mariners, like the Red Sox, look to use up some clock on finding a long-term option at 1st base, Loney would provide a great place holder at a cheap price.

Daisuke Matsuzaka: Commonly referred to as Dice-K, Matsuzaka came over to the United States from Japan, touted as one of the best pitchers to ever come from the far east. He cost the Boston Red Sox over $100 million is contract money and a signing fee, and didn't even remotely come close to living up to that sum of money throughout his 6 seasons in Boston. Now, Dice-K is coming off his worst season in the U.S. putting up negative fWAR, rWAR, and WARP. His career FIP is 4.37, a number he hasn't gotten close to over the last two seasons. His last 2 seasons were marred with high walk rates, high home run rates, and injuries. Ever since Dice-K stopped throwing his fastball early in the count to get ahead, his walk rates and pitches per plate appearance rates have risen, leading to fewer innings, more injuries, and poorer performances.

Despite two awful seasons, Dice-K had previously put up 10.4 fWAR in four seasons. His 2011 and 2012 were injury shortened seasons, meaning that if Dice-K can stay healthy in 2013, a team could count on him for 2 wins above replacement. PECOTA predicts 1.6 WARP while Bill James has Dice-K at a 4.28 FIP, 150 innings, and an 8.05 K/9. With his potential for a comeback, but also the possibility of another injury-laden season, Daisuke projects to get no more than a two-year deal. More likely he'll end up with a 1-year contract with a base salary of $5 million and some room to increase that number via performance incentives. Teams that should take a look at Matsuzaka include the Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, and the dark horse Texas Rangers.

The Brewers might consider looking at a better starter like Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, or Scott Feldman, but with Gallardo, Estrada, and Fiers solidified in 3 of 5 spots, Matsuzaka could provide some value in the backend of the rotation. He won't be expensive, and a shift out of the stacked AL East to the less impressive NL Central can't hurt. The team already has fellow countryman Norichika Aoki in right field, which could create a friendlier environment for Dice-K. A signing like this would also give the Brewers a chance to sign a more expensive free agent like Josh Hamilton.

The Pirates fit into the same boat as the Brewers. The Buccos could use a back of the rotation starter at an inexpensive price. The Pirates have Jamison Taillon and Gerrit Cole prime to burst onto the MLB scene, but it's possible neither will be ready for any of the 2013 season. If Neal Huntington wants to move Cole up midway through the season, and Dice-K is either injured or pitching badly, Cole could fill Dice-K's spot. The Pirates, like the Brewers play in the NL Central, and there won't be any pressure on Dice-K like there was in Boston.

The Padres may be moving the fences in at Petco Park, but between Bud Black, and one of the larger parks in the majors, pitchers will still go to San Diego and come out with better stats. The NL West is a nice change of scenery for Dice-K; in fact the west coast is closer to his homeland of Japan. He can fit into the back end of the Padres rotation, live in sunny San Diego, and forget about his recent New England woes. The Padres get will keep putting Dice-K out there if he pitches at least to replacement levels, and if he goes on the DL, they will insert a prospect, no hard feelings.

The Rangers probably don't want Dice-K. To the Rangers he provides them nothing of value. Alexei Ogando would probably be a better option, and won't cost them any money, but I think could be hurting themselves by not looking into it. Dice-K would go to a warmer place, join with fellow countryman Yu Darvish, and be a part of a team that has young talent waiting in the wings, and a need for a 5th starter.

The job of the general manager is to find the most production for the least amount of money. Often times this value comes in the form of players on pace to rebound from a bad season. James Loney and Daisuke Matsuzaka may just be in the decline, accumulating worse and worse numbers until their careers come to a sudden end. On the other hand, given their age, previous success, and limited time due to injuries, both players have chances to be great pickups for a team willing to take a chance on one of them. If I had to predict I see the Padres signing Matsuzaka and the Mariners signing James Loney, but only Dice-K will truly bounce back.

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