Marco Scutaro’s little thingsby Max Marchi
August 14, 2009
Last sunday I was watching the Orioles @ Jays game.
Marco Scutaro had committed an error in the top of the third inning that eventually resulted in the O's taking the lead. In the bottom frame he was at the plate trying to redeem himself, when the men in the booth started an eulogy of his talents.
Jamie Campbell started by saying "he's an absolute bargain at just more than one million dollars this year the way he's playing", and suggested that he "should generate a lot of interest in the free agent market".
Sam Cosentino followed depicting Scutaro's qualities this way: "[he's] doing a lot of the little things that help your ballclub win: he can bunt, he's a good two strikes hitter"; he then added some considerations on how well he plays defense and that he "runs the bases well".
Back in play-by-play mode, Campbell concluded by saying he "really knows how to work the count, never afraid to hit with two strikes".
I could not refrain from smiling, thinking in my head "here goes another story of an athlete who does the little things, that excels in everything that is not measurable..." and so on; meanwhile a couple of events took place.
The first, on the field, was that Marco hit a line drive that cleared the left field wall, putting his team on top - so much for the little things.
The second, inside my mind, was that I realized that most of the "little things" they were talking about were not unmeasurable; they were measurable and, in fact, for the most part already measured - this last part of the sentence implying somebody else is already doing the painful work of writing the code to parse and summarize the data.
Let's go surfing now.
Contract, value, defense.
As stated during the broadcast, Scutaro is playing the last year of his contract for a 1.1 million dollars salary. You can get this info at Cot's Baseball Contracts, where you'll also learn that he'll get $100,000 more for every 25 PAs from his 400th to his 475th.
Last year he cleared the 475 mark; in 2007 he fell short of 400 while playing with the A's. Anyway, according to Fantasy Pitch Fx he hasn't had any trip to the disabled list in the past five years. Both Marcel and Oliver projected him at over 500 PAs for the year*; he has already eclipsed the mark. Thus his final salary, bonus included, is of one and a half million bucks.
*Source: FanGraphs, where you can have a look at the other main projection systems - they don't project PAs, just ABs - except PECOTA.
FanGraphs also shows the value of Marco Scutaro based on his Wins Above Replacement; they have a very good series explaining how they get their values here. Suffice to say here, that batting, fielding (in the form of Mitchel Lichtman's UZR), and position played are taken into account.
Marco is currently worth $21.1 million according to FanGraphs, an absolute bargain indeed. Anyway, going back to his previous seasons, it looks like 2009 is an outlier: he's always been a below average hitter, but this year he is just one run below Alex Rodriguez in terms of Runs Above Average (if you are wondering what Runs Above Average are... well, if you are close to A-Rod you are doing pretty well, even when it's not Rodriguez's best year). Let's expect Scutaro's bat coming back to earth next year.
During his years in Oakland, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, his glove has been average at best. After moving in Canadian territory he's become a solid fielder, totaling 11.2 Fielding Runs Above Average in 2008 and 7.9 in 2009 (nearly all at shortstop after manning all the infield positions for years) at the time I wrote this paragraph.
So, yes, Mr Cosentino, Scutaro is currently playing solid defense.
One of the things not accounted in FanGraphs Value figures is baserunning. One of the little things, we should say.
Back in 2005 Dan Fox was writing here at THT and produced a series on the subject (part I - part II - part III), and rounded it with an article in our 2006 Annual. Thanks to his work we started to appreciate (and, more importantly, quantify) how good a baserunner Carlos Beltran is.
Now Dan is working for the Pirates, e-mailing a weekly baserunning report to the Bucs' third base coach, as we learn from Sports Illustrated.
Some of Dan's stats are still available at Baseball Prospectus.
Taking into account stealing attempts and advancements on ground outs, air outs, hits, and other events, this season Scutaro is 1.66 runs above average, 29th among big leaguers with at least 300 baserunning opportuinities. If you look at the names in front of him you should be convinced that Fox's evaluation of baserunning is very sound.
If you don't like to look at baserunning in terms of run value just look at the fifth table here at Baseball-Reference, where you can see where he ends up in nearly every situation on the base paths. Compare his Extra Bases Taken Percentage (41 percent) with the league value (39 percent): like Fox's numbers already showed, Marco is slightly above average circling the bases.
Hitting with two strikes and working the count.
On with the little things.
Around 44 percent of Marco's plate appearences go to two strikes, but he is striking out only at a 12.1 percent rate in his career, and one and a half point lower since 2007; MLB average is 17.8 percent.
He keeps his strikeout totals low thanks in large part to a insanely high contact percentage - 91 percent, against a league value of 80 percent; when he goes out on strikes he does it often by looking at the last pitch - 54 percent of the time, more than double the MLB figure.
Marco's career batting line is .267/.336/.389; when his plate appearences transit by two-strikes counts he is .232/.323/.353. I'm impressed about how few points of OBP he loses when facing the chance of a strikeout: if you divide his two-strikes OBP by his overall OBP, you get 0.96 (i.e., he mantains 96 percent of his OBP when batting with two strikes); repeat the process for Tony Gwynn (Senior!), maybe the greatest contact hitter ever, and surely one helluva two-strikes hitter, and you get 0.88.
Note: in this extraordinary season, Marco's two-strike OBP (.396) is even higher than his overall mark (.387).
I don't know what working the count does exactly mean. I don't think that looking at his pitches seen per PA (3.77 vs 3.82 MLB average) tells us the story. His PAs that go to 3-0, 3-1 and 2-0 are perfectly in line with the MLB figures.
He has swung his bat somewhat less than the average MLB hitter (41 percent of the times vs 45 percent) during his career; this year he dropped the frequency down to 35 percent. An even steeper drop can be seen in the percentage of first pitches swung at: he's been average until last year (27 percent), but he is currently at 19 percent.
Though I'm sure that his outlying 2009 hitting performance won't carry into next year, I'm willing to believe that the aforementioned change in his approach is responsible for part of the improvement. With such a high contact ratio and a virtually unaltered production when on two strikes counts, refraining from swinging early in the count can't be negative for Scutaro.
Baseball-Reference lists Marco Scutaro with 43 attempted sacrifices, 27 of them succesful; his 63 percent success rate is way lower than the MLB average mark of 72 percent. He makes up for all the gap if we just remove his last season; I'd like to call it the Moneyball hangover effect: he was asked to put down 19 bunts in four season in Oakland, then he was given the signal 14 times (43 percent success rate) in his first season in Toronto - he must have been rusty!
This year Marco has a respectable 71 percent rate.
He is not a bunt-hit threat as he totaled ten in his career, more than half of them last year.
Here's a more comprehensive career line (through 2008), thanks to the only Retrosheet query I made myself for this article:
- 22 sacrifice hits;
- 9 bunt hits;
- 21 bunt outs (14 trying to sacrifice, 7 tring for a hit);
- no bunt double plays;
- 35 foul bunts (twice with nobody on base);
- 3 missed bunt attempts (twice trying a base hit).
Other little things.
Productive outs are something that make saber-oriented people frown, while they produce a lot of high fives in the dougouts (as I write this, maybe I'm understanding what productive refers to). They also appeal many play-by-play and color men, though the Campbell-Cosentino tandem did not mention them during their panegyric of Scutaro's qualities.
Baseball-Reference has numbers for productive outs too, so whether you are a fan of that kind of play or you believe they are just other outs, you won't be hurt by knowing that Marco's outs with men on base moved the runners 37 percent of the times (big leagues average 32 percent).
A more interesting little things stat, in my opinion, is that he has scored (either with a base hit or a productive out), over his career, 54 percent of the runners he found on third with less than two outs, three percent more than his peers; this year he is going at a 71 percent clip, but we have to be aware of small sample size issues (only 21 opportunities so far).
Wandering around websites to collect the needed informations for putting together this article, I noticed that Scutaro is perceived as a clutch hitter.
His clutch value at FanGraphs is on the negative side, both for this year and for his career.
Anyway, Baseball-Reference Blog had a post, right the day before the game that inspired this piece, listing him as the top middle infielder in walk-off plate appearences with nine in his careers. These are events that people easily remember and that make players gain the clutch label.
The points the Jays announcers were making on Scutaro are:
- he is an absolute bargain at 1.1 millions - we found out that he really is, even if he doesn't mantain his 2009 hitting production;
- he can bunt - well, it turns out this is not one of the best arrows in his arsenal, though we might consider him average;
- he is a good two-strikes hitter - Jamie and Sam are wrong here: he is a fantastic two-strikes hitter, maybe one of the greatest in recent history;
- he plays defense well - check, at least since he is a Blue Jay;
- he runs the bases well - correct, too: he is a notch above average and we should always keep in mind that MLB average is a high standard whatever stats we are looking at.
Yes, Marco is doing all the little things.
Yes, Marco is helping his ballclub win.
Part of the latter is due to the former, if you consider defense and baserunning as little things.
But a big part of it is due to his insanely improved offensive contribution.
You can make a case that some of the improvement can be ascribed to another little thing, i.e. his willingness to work the count more this year, thus taking advantage of his terrifct contact rate; but don't overlook the fact his BABIP is nearly thirty points over his career mark.
Marco concluded Sunday's game with four hits (one double, one homer).
References and Resources
Data including the current season have been collected between Monday and Thursday.
Numbers have been collected from:
FanGraphs; Baseball-Reference; Fantasy Pitch Fx; Retrosheet; Cot's Baseball Contracts.
After creating a baseball rendition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover, Max began his baseball writing because he needed an excuse to show the picture. He wrote for an Italian audience for six years before making the jump to The Hardball Times. You can contact him by e-mail.