This week’s SABR piece is a shoutout to ESPN’s Chris Berman for discussing “Sabermatics” yesterday on Baseball Tonight. You know, those new-fangled numbers the kids are talking about these days? Also the ones that Jon Stenier has dropped on us for a few months now. This week’s topic du jour? The Muscle.
When the Indians inked Russell Branyan to a one-year, $2 million deal this off-season and guaranteed him an everyday job as the team’s first baseman, there were plenty of legitimate questions about the move. Was the front office playing the service clock game with Michael Brantley? Was Matt LaPorta not recovered from his two off-season surgeries? Wasn’t this club already a bit heavy on the left-handed hitters?
At least those were the questions that went through my mind, and to be honest, I haven’t yet answered all of them. It is weird that on a rebuilding team, you promise to give 450 at bats to a journeyman slugger who didn’t seem to fit any of the team’s pressing needs (youth, right handed hitters, starting pitching, etc.).
But one question that didn’t occur to me was whether or not Branyan is a good player. Branyan is plenty good, and plenty worth $2 million on a one-year free agent deal. But we’ll get there in a bit.
For the time being let’s play devil’s advocate. One thing is certain: Branyan is a strikeout machine. For his career, Branyan has struck out in 39.0% of his plate appearances. That’s a lot. I mean, four out of every ten times he steps in the box, he’s gonna strikeout. For comparison’s sake, Grady Sizemore—oft-maligned for his strikeout tendencies—has struck out only 22.4% of the time. Jim Thome’s career mark is 30%. Albert Pujols—my measuring stick of offensive excellence—boasts a career rate of only 11.2%. Last season only three players struck out more often than the Russ-Bus: Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, and Carlos Pena. Windmills all.
And all those strikeouts lead to some pretty lousy batting averages. Branyan’s career line is .234—worse than Mike Redmond (.288!), David Dellucci (.254), and Josh Barfield (.264). His career on-base percentage is fairly unspectacular as well, at.331—well below Jason Michaels (.342). And you didn’t think Jason Michaels was better than anybody at anything! Learning!
In fact, I bet I could slip Branyan’s career slash line by you without you even stopping to think: .234/.331/.492. Looks unspectacular. It might even look downright bad. The guy’s batting average is awful. His on-base skills are average. And who ever looks at slugging percentage anyways?
Well. That’s the thing. Slugging percentage matters. It’s not just chicks who dig the longball anymore. Home runs are really valuable to scoring runs. To explain why we care about power numbers so much, let’s look at one of our old friends. Below is a run-expectancy chart, which tells us how many runs an event adds to the end of an average inning (quoted from The Book):
I know most people are going to look at the top of this table, and notice that a single adds less than half a run to the end of an average inning, while a homerun adds about 1.4 runs. And yes. That’s certainly part of the point. Like I said, home runs are really valuable, and Branyan leads the team in hitting them.
But first I want to bring your attention to the bottom of the table. Look at those last two entries. An out that’s not a strikeout (flyout, groundout, lineout) costs your team .299 runs compared to what they could have expected to score that inning. And a strikeout? It costs you two-thousandths of a run more. Not a huge deal. The “whys” of this tiny difference are multitudinous, and have to do with the myth of “productive outs” and an increase in hitting into double plays. But what’s more important is the simple fact: strikeouts aren’t demonstrably worse than any other kind of out. (Except, of course, as Crash Davis reminds us, they are fascist.)
Now look at the non-intentional walk. For obvious reasons, a walk isn’t as valuable as a single, but it isn’t too far off. So if we have a hitter who can hit home runs and walk a bit, do we care that most of his outs come by way of a strikeout? Not me.
Do I want that player to make an out 66.9% of the time, which is what Branyan’s .331 OBP means? Not particularly. But that’s how often an average baseball player gets out—the mean OBP so far this year is .330. So Branyan makes an out exactly as often as a league average player would. The question is whether or not his non-out plate appearances are enough to make him an above average player.
Let’s look at some of Branyan’s peripheral batting statistics to see what more we can learn about those non-outs, especially his walks and his home runs.
Branyan’s career BB% is 11.2%. For comparison’s sake, league average is usually around 8.5%. In 2009, Jose Lopez had the worst walk rate in the AL (3.7%) and Nick Swisher had the best (16.0%). So the Russ-Bus is slightly better than average at drawing a walk. Good for him. But unfortunately, his batting average is well below average, so all those extra walks basically just balance out his on-base percentage to league average. In short, he walks more than the average hitter, but he has to in order to make up for his crummy batting average.
What about home runs? There are plenty of ways to measure a hitter’s power, but to start I’m going to use the ratio of a player’s homeruns to his flyballs. In short, what percent of his flyballs leave the park? Branyan’s career HR/FB ratio is 21.9%. That means that more than one-fifth of balls he hits in the air become homers. Again, to compare him to other sluggers, Mark Teixeira has a career rate of 18.7%, Albert Pujols is at 19.9%, and Prince Fielder is at 20.1%. Not bad company, considering Branyan makes about one-tenth of the money these guys do. (For the record, Ryan Howard leads all humans at 31.2%! No one else is remotely close.)
But maybe you’re not a fan of HR/FB. For you skeptics, here’s a little quiz using more commonly accepted measuring sticks for power: home run percent (i.e. how many of a player’s plate appearances result in a HR), slugging percentage (total bases per at bat), and ISO power (which is just slugging percentage minus batting average). Below are the 2009 lines from six of the best power hitters in baseball—Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Prince Fielder—with Branyan mixed in there somewhere. Can you pick him out? I bet not. (Answers at the end of the post.)
The point is NOT that Branyan is as good as these players. He obviously isn’t. The point is that at one important skill—hitting home runs—he is basically indistinguishable from the best in the game. And that skill counts a lot. Remember, home runs are the single most valuable thing a hitter can do, and the Russ-Bus does it with the very best of them.
Branyan is a bit of a puzzle: he’s so good at some things (hitting homeruns), so bad at others (making contact and, consequently, batting average), and reasonably good at still others (taking walks), that it can be difficult to wrap your head around whether or not he’s a valuable player. But you’ll remember that in my very first post at WFNY, we talked about weighted on-base average (wOBA), and how it counts all the things a batter does and gives you a number that’s scaled to look like on-base percentage: .330 is average, .300 is bad, and .400 is an All-Star.
Here is Branyan’s wOBA last season, with his closest compadres and their 2010 salaries:
|Ichiro Suzuki||.369||$17 million|
|Russell Branyan||.368||$2 million|
|Bobby Abreu||.367||$9 million|
If Branyan is bad, then so are Ichiro and Abreu. And if Branyan is overpaid at $2 million, then I don’t even want to think about how overpaid those other two are. Somehow, I’m guessing Mariners fans and Angels fans are just fine with those guys though.
So while I understand all the legitimate questions about why the front office signed Russell Branyan—and there are many—I don’t wonder if he’s a good player. I don’t wonder if he’s worth a one-year, $2 million deal. I just can’t get behind the Russell-Branyan-is-what’s-wrong-with-the-Indians campaign. Does he strikeout a lot? He sure does. Is he a great player? He sure isn’t.
But Russell Branyan is a good player who came relatively cheap, and he’ll help this team win a few more games than they would without him. And it’s hard for me to get too worked up over that.
See you next time.
Oh yeah, the answers to my devious little quiz:
Player A: Mark Teixeira
Player B: Albert Pujols
Player C: Ryan Howard
Player D: Prince Fielder
Player E: Russell Branyan
Player F: Alex Rodriguez
Player G: Adrian Gonzalez