Garret Anderson: So Overrated He’s…Underrated?

There is an interesting contrast in the baseball world when it comes to Garret Anderson.

On one hand you have, for lack of a better word, the “traditional” baseball guys. Someone like Peter Gammons, who has touted Anderson for MVP awards, or the people running the Anaheim Angels, who just gave Anderson a $48 million contract extension. These guys see Anderson’s value through traditional numbers like batting average, home runs and runs batted in, and they see one of the most productive baseball players around.

On the other hand you have, for lack of a better word, the “statheads.” The Bill James/Moneyball/Baseball Prospectus/Baseball Primer crowd. For the most part, I would count myself among them. These guys see Anderson’s value through on-base percentage, slugging percentage and any number of more complicated stats and metrics. They see Anderson as a guy with superficially good numbers. Someone who refuses to take a walk, gets on base at a below-average clip, and racks up huge RBI totals because he is hacking at everything while hitting in the middle of the lineup.

The contrasting views of a unique player like Anderson — a very good hitter in the basic sense of the word who simply doesn’t avoid making outs at a particularly outstanding rate — have one side touting him as “underrated” and the other as “overrated.” The truth, as is often the case, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I am of the belief that judging hitters on their batting averages and RBI totals is not a great way to determine how good they are. In that sense, I think the majority of baseball fans (and writers) overrate Anderson quite a bit. They see that he is a career .299 hitter and that he’s driven in 115+ runs in each of the last four years and they think he’s one of the best hitters in the league.

That said, as overrated as Anderson is in those terms, he’s likely just as underrated in the world of statheads. One thing that I think many people are guilty of with a player like Anderson is looking at him for how he does something, not how well he does something. In other words, statheads see that he refuses to take a walk and doesn’t get on base, and I think that clouds their overall judgment of Anderson as a player.

For his career, Anderson has a .328 on-base percentage and a .479 slugging percentage. For the most part, how he got to those numbers — with lots of walks or no walks, with a high AVG and no power or a low AVG and lots of power — doesn’t really matter. If Anderson had the exact same OBP and SLG, but he was a .275 hitter with a fair amount of walks instead of a .299 hitter with very few walks, I honestly think he would be viewed as a better player by many statheads.

So, while it’s true that most fans would have a better understanding of Anderson’s value by looking beyond his batting average and RBIs, it is also true that others would have a better understanding of his value by looking beyond the things he doesn’t do well, to see what he does, period.

How good is Garret Anderson? Rather than ask what this side thinks or what that side thinks, let’s just let his actual performance speak for itself…

Using runs batted in, a stat most MVP voters and traditional fans love, very few players compare to Anderson over the past three years:

Alex Rodriguez              395   
Albert Pujols               381   
Jim Thome                   373   
Todd Helton                 372   
Sammy Sosa                  371   
Bret Boone                  365   
GARRET ANDERSON             362   
Carlos Delgado              355   
Richie Sexson               351   
Miguel Tejada               350

Of course, those of us in the stathead camp would point out how flawed RBI totals are in evaluating a player’s worth. After all, where is Barry Bonds (.345/.542/.808 since 2001) on that list?

In evaluating Anderson, I prefer to use metrics that go beyond something like RBIs, which can be greatly influenced by things Anderson has little control over and can also reward Anderson for making outs and not taking walks. So, let’s look at what Anderson did last season, using Runs Created Above Average (RCAA), which tells you how many runs a player was worth, offensively, over an average hitter.

Last season was likely Anderson’s best. Setting aside his rookie year, when he played in just 106 games, Anderson had his best year for batting average (.315), on-base percentage (.345), slugging percentage (.541), OPS (.885), hits (201), OPS+ (137) and Runs Created (119).

Where did all of that put him among left fielders (the position he played last year)?

                           RCAA
Barry Bonds                 115   
Albert Pujols               101   
Manny Ramirez                59   
Brian Giles                  45   
Chipper Jones                43   
Lance Berkman                40   
Melvin Mora                  33   
GARRET ANDERSON              33
Luis Gonzalez                31   
Geoff Jenkins                27

Whereas Anderson ranked seventh among all MLB hitters in RBIs since 2001, he also ranked seventh in RCAA last year…among left fielders.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense to judge Anderson on just last season, when earlier we looked at his three-year RBI totals. Over the past three years (2001-2003), Anderson had RCAA totals of -4, 28 and 33, for a total of 57. That ranks him 10th among left fielders and 47th among all hitters.

That -4 RCAA in 2001 may look surprising, but Anderson actually was not all that great prior to 2002. In fact, prior to 2002, his career RCAA was -39 and he had just two seasons (1995 and 1998) with positive RCAA totals.

                AVG      OBP      SLG
1994-2001      .296     .325     .461
2002-2003      .310     .338     .540

Anderson has clearly become a much better hitter on the “wrong side” of 30.

If you trust that his 2002-2003 level of hitting is here to stay, then Anderson has been about the seventh or eighth best left fielder offensively in each of the past two years. The catch here, of course, is that Anderson is no longer a left fielder, he is playing center field for the Angels.

Assuming Anderson sticks in center for the entire length of his new contract (highly debatable), here is how his RCAA totals from the past two years could rank among his peers:

RCAA -- 2003                             RCAA -- 2002
 
Jim Edmonds                  42          Lance Berkman                55
Carlos Beltran               36          Jim Edmonds                  54
Milton Bradley               34          Bernie Williams              47
GARRET ANDERSON              33          GARRET ANDERSON              28
Vernon Wells                 32          Andruw Jones                 25

By moving from left field to center field, Anderson jumps up the list offensively. He moves from seventh or eighth into being fourth both years.

All of this ignores defense, obviously. Anderson used to be a center fielder, back in 1999-2000, and I think he was fairly good out there. He’s a few years older now, but I think it’s likely he can be at least an average defensive center fielder for another year or two.

So how good is Garret Anderson? It’s a little tough to say in regard to defense. Offensively, he was a top 10 left fielder in each of the past two seasons and he would have ranked in the top five among center fielders in both of those years.

I would say that Garret Anderson is a “very good” player, but definitely not a “great” one. Does that make him overrated by most? Probably. Does that make him underrated by a lot of statheads? I think so.

Of course, the question Angels fans probably want answered is, does that make him worth $12 million per year from 2005-2008? Depends on how much money the Angels have to throw around, I suppose. I know I wouldn’t be particularly excited about committing that kind of money to a guy who will be 35 years old while there are still two years left on the deal.

Finally, after all this, is Garret Anderson overrated or underrated? I don’t know. I think whole “overrated” and “underrated” thing is probably overrated anyway.

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