The worst outfield for the dough

After some feedback following my previous installment, where I looked at the worst infield money could buy, I’ve incorporated a new twist. Along with Win Shares Above Bench, we’ll also consider Net Win Shares Value. Developed by The Hardball Times’ Dave Studemund, Net Win Shares Value (WS$) is a dollar amount representing how much a player contributed, given the total value of his contract.

Today, we look at the outfield—and, for the American League fans in the house, a DH. Again, our mission is simple: We’re looking for rampant fiscal irresponsibility coupled with underachievement to build the worst lineup possible.

Scott Podsednik – LF
.243/.299/.369
-3 WSAB, $ -5.9 million WS$

Scott Podsednik has missed parts of the last three seasons with groin and leg injuries. Serious problems for sure, but when your offensive game is built around speed, injuries to the lower half of your body take on added significance. The assortment of aches, pains and muscle strains kept Podsednik on the sidelines for the most of the first four months of the 2007 season. And once he returned to the lineup, he was far from productive.

Over 159 plate appearances from July 24 to the end of the season (his largest chunk of playing time), Podsednik performed way below replacement level, hitting just .231/.271/.354. Even though he’s been a leadoff hitter most of his career, getting on base via the walk never has been his strong suit—his career walk rate is 8.6 percent. Last year, with just 13 walks all season, his BB rate dipped to an unacceptable 5.7 percent.

Combine poor plate discipline with a .284 BABIP and you begin to understand why he was held to a sub-.300 OBP for the first time in his career. As the axiom goes, if you’re not getting on base, you can’t use your speed. It’s a battle Podsednik has fought throughout his career before bottoming out in 2007.

Podsednik has long been overvalued because of his speed, but this was the season where his inability to manage the strike zone finally caught up with him. That, along with the injuries which really hampered his ability to run the bases on those rare occasions where he actually reached base, makes it no surprise he landed on this list.

Last year was a lost season for the White Sox anyway: They fought to stay out of the cellar in the AL Central. By the time Podsednik was healthy enough to return, he had been replaced in his customary leadoff role by Jerry Owens. Owens, who hit .283/.343/.343 over the span from Podsednik’s return to the lineup to the end of the season, was an adequate replacement as a leadoff hitter. Meanwhile, Podsednik was hitting seventh, ahead of Juan Uribe and Danny Richar. In a season where much went wrong for Ozzie Guillen and the Sox, keeping Podsednik lower in the order was the right move. It probably saved them a couple of wins and kept them out of the cellar.

Podsednik’s decline has not gone unnoticed among baseball’s power brokers. He in the Colorado Rockies camp as a non-roster invitee, competing with Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan for a backup role.

Jim Edmonds – CF
.252/.325/.403
1 WSAB, -$4.4 WS$

Because his flair for making the diving catch in center field gets featured in the highlight reels (and he has made some great plays), many fans think of great defense when they think of Jim Edmonds. But Edmonds has put together some solid offensive seasons as well. From 2000 through 2005, he averaged 35 home runs a year while hitting .292/.406/.584. Pretty sweet numbers. But while still playing a solid center field, Edmonds has seen a sharp offensive decline the past couple of years.

In his 1987 Baseball Abstract, Bill James outlined the skills as they apply to a player’s age. For example, James points out, speed-related skills usually are found in younger players, while power is a skill generally found in older players. No surprise there. At the plate, James finds hitting for average is a younger player’s skill, while older players will be inclined to take more walks. The thinking here is an older player knows his limitations (not to mention the strike zone) and becomes more selective at the plate.

After the best season of his career at age 34 in 2004, Edmonds entered the decline phase of his career. Since hitting .301 that season, Edmonds has seen his batting average fall three consecutive years, culminating at .252 in 2007. Applying James’ logic, a declining batting average is to be expected. However, that should be balanced by his walk rate. But after a prime in which he took a base on balls in around 15 percent of his plate appearances, Edmonds is taking the opposite approach—and it hurts.

With Edmond’s falling batting average and a walk rate that tumbled to 10.1 percent last year, the result is a steeper than expected decline in on-base percentage. From a .418 OBP in 2004 (two points shy of his career best set in 2002) Edmonds has seen his OBP tumble to last year’s mark of .325 against the league average OBP of .341. That’s the first time in his career he’s played in more than 100 games and posted an OBP less than the league average.

And it’s not just about getting on base. After flashing some power later in his career, Edmonds has seen a decline in all power categories. Just from 2006, his power production fell dramatically: His HR/FB rate went from 16.8 percent to 9.2 percent and his slugging percentage dropped 68 points to his career low of .403.

What about the defense? Edmonds still flashes an above-average zone rating and, according to the Fielding Bible, has posted a positive plus/minus rating for the last three years. He shouldn’t be mentioned when discussing the best defensive center fielders in the game, but he still does a fine job in the outfield.

After the Padres traded for Edmonds in December, he will now call Petco Park his home. The spacious outfield in San Diego means he figures to continue to be tested—both offensively and defensively.

J.D. Drew – RF
.270/.373/.423
2 WSAB, -$5.3 WS$

Following a pair of solid yet unspectacular seasons with the Dodgers, J.D. Drew opted out of the final three years of his five-year contract. Much was made of the move at the time, since he left $33 million on the table, to once again test the free agent market. It ultimately paid off: Drew was able to land another five-year contract—this time worth a total of $70 million with the Red Sox.

Since being traded to Atlanta before the 2004 season, Drew’s batted ball rates—he has a career GB/FB ratio of 1.2—have been largely static, which tells us his approach at the plate has remained the same. However, while his fly ball rates have been consistent since 2004, his home run rate has fallen by more than half over that time.

   Year      FB%     HR/FB %
   2004     38.1%     20.1%
   2005     38.5%     19.0%
   2006     36.0%     14.1%
   2007     36.6%      8.1%

What’s interesting about Drew is despite having decent speed, he’s hit more than 20 doubles only three times in his nine-year career. While his home run output has dropped, he’s seen a slight increase in two-base hits—he topped 30 doubles in 2007 for the second consecutive year—but it’s not enough to overcome a severe drop in ISO since his 2004 season:

While Drew is not driving himself across the plate with the home run, he’s not bringing his teammates around, either. Drew cashed in on just 12.3 percent of his RBI opportunities and hit a scant .237 with runners in scoring position last year. His percentage ranked him 138th out of 156 hitters, and placed him ahead of players like Corey Patterson, Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre and Rickie Weeks. In other words, he capitalized on his opportunities to drive in runs better than your basic leadoff hitter. That would be the optimistic way to look at his production.

But reality says Drew’s RBI percentage left a lot to be desired. That’s especially so when you accumulate more than 400 plate appearances batting fifth in the lineup, immediately behind on-base machines Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

Certain expectations come with being the second highest-paid player on the team with the second largest payroll in the game, and Drew fell way short of those expectations in his debut season with the Red Sox. The Sox owe Drew, who turned 33 this winter, $56 million over the next four years. It’s highly likely his name will be mentioned in this space through 2012.

Jay Gibbons – DH
.230/.272/.348
-3 WSAB, -$7.6 WS$

In 2006, the Orioles locked Jay Gibbons into a four-year deal, essentially buying out the first three years he would have been eligible for free agency. To that point, Gibbons was a decent yet unspectacular player, hitting .261/.315/.466 over his first five years in the majors. He was about as close to league average as they come.

While his numbers were average, Gibbons always has been a good contact hitter with a below-average strikeout rate. But injuries have halted any kind of improvement since he signed that contract. The injuries—first to his hip and knee in 2006 and then to his shoulder last year—have accelerated a decline in which he has become a below league average player.

Gibbons has the shown the potential to hit for modest power: His career best in home runs is 28, which he reached in his first full season in 2002. His most productive season came in 2005, when he set a career high with a .516 slugging percentage on the strength of 33 doubles and 26 home runs. In his best seasons, like the ones just described, Gibbons is a fly ball hitter. But since 2005, he’s hit fewer fly balls while his HR/FB percentage has dropped. It’s a dangerous combination that has led to his overall decline in slugging.

   Year      FB%     HR/FB %
   2005     46.7%     12.9%
   2006     45.9%      9.6%
   2007     40.7%      6.7%

Limited to 378 plate appearances in 2006 (140 fewer than the previous season) Gibbons saw his power decline sharply: He hit 23 doubles and just 13 home runs. And in 2007, battling a shoulder injury for most of the season, Gibbons saw his power all but disappear. He hit just three home runs over his final 175 plate appearances before landing on the DL for good in the middle of August. He finished 2007 with the lowest slugging percentage of his career.

After undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum, Gibbons says his shoulder feels fine, but he has other concerns heading into 2008. First, is the fact he will miss the first 15 games of the season due to a suspension for receiving a shipment of human growth hormone. When he returns, he’s going to have a battle for playing time, since the Orioles spent this offseason looking to youth and acquiring prospects Luke Scott and Adam Jones to go along with Nick Markakis in the outfield.

References & Resources
Once again, Fangraphs and Cot’s Baseball Contracts is a gold mine of information. The WS$ numbers were found in our own Hardball Times 2008 Baseball Annual.

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