Is There a Home Run Derby Curse?

With all the discussion of Adrian Gonzalez’ power outage – one homer in 102 ABs since the All Star Break – it’s no surprise that we’re seeing discussion of the Home Run Derby curse. What I haven’t seen thus far, however, is a look at whether there is statistical evidence to support the assertion that the Home Run Derby has a provably negative impact on participants’ home run rates following the contest. So I decided to check.

To save time in data gathering, I picked a single season, 2005. I picked 2005 only because it is the most frequently cited as evidence for the Home Run Derby curse; the winner, Bobby Abreu, had 16 homers at the break but hit only 6 after. The single season means, obviously, that I have a smaller sample size to work from, so the usual caveats apply. I also have made no effort to control for other variables such as games played, so bear that in mind as well.

What I’ve done here is look up the participants from MLB, then compare the players’ career pre/post All Star break splits with their numbers from the 2005 season (all splits taken from Baseball Reference). Here are those numbers:

As you can see, the differences in first and second half home run rates of 2005 compared to their career numbers is slight. For their career, participants have hit 56% of their home runs before the derby; in 2005 that number was 57%. Rather than take for granted that the one percent delta isn’t statistically significant, I ran a simple two-sample proportion test in R. In simple terms, this compares two proportions and determines whether a given proportion is equal for two different groups. The test, the results of which are included below, tells us that there is no reason to suspect that there’s a larger Home Run Derby curse at work; the difference in the observed percentages for the group is not statistically significant.

It’s possible that it affected Abreu – the result if you run the test on his numbers is just this side of significant (P-value of 0.05181), and we can’t prove that it’s not affecting A-Gon. But we don’t have any evidence to say that, in general, there is a curse.

Due to the aforementioned sample size limitations, this study shouldn’t be considered representative. But if someone tells you that Bobby Abreu is proof that there’s a curse on derby participants, you might want to point out that the effects of the “curse,” that year, were around 1% fewer home runs.

Appendix A: Test Results

2-sample test for equality of proportions with continuity correction

data: home.run.derby
X-squared = 0.223, df = 1, p-value = 0.6367
alternative hypothesis: two.sided
95 percent confidence interval:
-0.08324864 0.04819810
sample estimates:
prop 1 prop 2
0.5561181 0.5736434

Appendix B: R Code for Two Sample Proportion Test

> home.run.derby rownames(home.run.derby) colnames(home.run.derby) home.run.derby
Before After
Career 1318 1052
2005 148 110
> prop.test(home.run.derby)

Untouchable Ellsbury?

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Confirming the Catch, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Obviously, we are sensing the proverbial next shoe is about to drop. If it is Adrian Gonzalez (with an outside shot at Miguel Cabrera), which would be a ginormous move by the Red Sox to cap what would be an eye-popping offseason, then what is there not to like? Well, one thing: if one of the players going to San Diego is Jacoby Ellsbury.

If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.

Give up Ryan Westmoreland, and include a better prospect or two at the end of the deal. Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old.” – Nick Cafardo

Chad Finn and I might not agree on much with respect to a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez, but we at least see eye to eye on this much: “If you think Jacoby Ellsbury is untouchable in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez, we’re gonna have to fight.”

Which is not to say that I want to trade Ells. Lord knows I love watching the kid play as much as the next guy, because when was the last time the Sox had a guy who was literally fast enough to run down a deer? But he is what he is, as the cliche says, and what he is is a player who’s good, but unlikely to develop into a star.

You might assume a deconstruction of the Jacoby-is-untouchable argument would begin with his defense, which recently become the subject of much discussion after he won an award as the best defensive player in the majors after posting the single worst UZR/150 at his position. But I won’t. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that his terrible -18.3 UZR/150 in ’09 was statistical noise; he put up a 6.9 at the position in ’08, albeit in less than half as many innings, and the good folks from SoSH at least raise some reasonable questions about the statistical assessments of his play in the field.

But what about his offense? Here’s what Aaron Gleeman, who is very good, said about Ells when the Twinkies were contemplating trading for him as part of a Santana package:

Ellsbury essentially does everything well except hit for power and looks likely to be a very valuable player for a long time, but the question is whether the Twins should build a trade package for the best pitcher in baseball around someone who may never reach double-digit homers in a season. Ellsbury batted .365 with a .157 Isolated Power during his metal bat-wielding college career at Oregon State and has hit .318 with a .116 Isolated Power in 1,282 plate appearances a pro.

At 24 years old Ellsbury will probably develop some additional pop as he matures, but with 29 homers in 1,300 plate appearances dating back to college it’s unlikely that his Isolated Power will rise much beyond .125 or so. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career Isolated Power is .064, so Ellsbury is far from powerless. On the other hand, major-league hitters as a whole posted a .155 Isolated Power in 2007, which would make it tough for him to possess even average power.

Of course, plenty of hitters with below-average power are still able to be very good players by providing some combination of outstanding defense, speed, and on-base skills. Those are all areas where Ellsbury figures to thrive given that he’s an excellent defensive center fielder who’s hit .300 everywhere he’s gone and has stolen 114 bases at an 81-percent clip in 283 pro games. However, there’s some question about exactly how good his on-base skills can be.

Ellsbury has drawn a non-intentional walk in 8.8 percent of his pro plate appearances, which puts him solidly above the major-league average of 7.8 percent and works out to around 50-55 walks per 600 plate appearances. If he maintains that walk rate along with a batting average at .300 or so, Ellsbury’s on-base percentage would be around .360-.370. That’s well above the MLB average of .335, but is it enough to make him a star when it comes along with a .125 Isolated Power?

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

However, while Lofton certainly seems like a good comp for Ellsbury on any number of levels, in reality he’s probably more like a good best-case scenario comp. There’s no guarantee that Ellsbury can maintain his .300-hitting ways in the majors long term, even his modest minor-league power may not fully translate to the big leagues, and walking in nine percent of his trips to the plate could prove difficult if pitchers aren’t afraid to throw him strikes.

At this point Ellsbury looks capable of putting together a Lofton-like career, but with sub par power and non-great plate discipline most of his offensive value is tied to hitting .300. If he instead bats .275 while seeing his Isolated Power drop into the .100 range and walking just seven percent of the time, then Ellsbury goes from Lofton-like to hitting .275/.330/.375. Strong defense and great speed would still make him a solid player, but that’s not someone to build a package for Santana around.

None of us wanted to hear that, at the time, coming off the the kid’s spectacular 2007 late season run, during which he put up a .353/.394/.509 line with his eye popping speed.
But what’s he done since? .291/.346/.405 and an isolated power of .114. Pretty much exactly what Gleeman predicted, in other words. He’s a good player, but he’s not a great player. Even with the steals, which it will be interesting to see if he can sustain.

Some will claim he improved down the stretch, and that’s true: he did. But by how much? He numbers from September on have him at .305/.388/.415 for an .803 OPS. That’s better than his cumulative .301/.355/.415/.770 line, for sure: it would tie for the 5th best CF OPS in the majors, if he could hold that up. But arguments that that represents “improvement” seem to be largely the product of aspirational projections. The simpler explanation, easily, is that it’s a small sample size statistical variation explainable by, say, an influx of September pitching callups.

Nor is Ells a spring chicken at 26. He’s not done improving as a player, but he’s not 24 anymore either. Which the major projections recognize: Bill James has him at .302/.360/.420 (.780 OPS), CHONE .300/.358/.410 (.768 OPS) and ZIPS .290/.344/.398 (.742 OPS). Unless they’re all wrong – and their collective average OPS margin for error last year was .034 (Bill James was the farthest off, optimistically projecting a .843 for Ells) – he’s no star. No matter what Cafardo and his “veteran National League executive” think about Ells being “special” and a “rare talent.”

And for the Ellsbury defenders that want to point to his admittedly impressive 41.4 VORP score, good for second among centerfielders and 38th in the league, we need to acknowledge that the man he could be traded for – Gonzalez – is the owner of a 57.6 VORP, which would be easily the best on our team and good for 13th in the league.

But if he’s not a star player, Ells is cheap and team controlled, at least. Isn’t he? Well, not really. Here’s Olney:

I would respectfully disagree with Nick [Cafardo] about whether Ellsbury would be a great catch for the Padres. In a vacuum, sure, you’d love to have him. But Ellsbury is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season, and in 2011-12, he could make as much or more than Gonzalez will make over the next two seasons. In other words: His salary would become almost an immediate problem for the Padres, and given that he is represented by Scott Boras, the Padres would have to assume there would be no hometown discounts. Ellsbury would be a nice player for San Diego, but he would be a money pit.

So while I certainly wouldn’t trade an asset like Ells for just any player, the notion that he should be untouchable in a transaction for a talent like Gonzalez is absurd. If Hoyer would take him as the centerpiece for a deal, that’s an easy decision to make. Both purely on the players’ merits as well as in the context of our ability to replace Ellsbury on the major league roster.

Unfortunately, however, the Padre’s new GM is much better at player value assessment than Cafardo – who once recommended playing Shelley Duncan over Jason Giambi because of his “energy”, remember – so the chances of us getting Gonzalez for a package headlined by a good but not great player that’s about to get expensive are minimal. Cafardo’s got that going for him, at least.

The Cost of and Need for Adrian Gonzalez

Some of you have apparently gotten the idea, from the last two pieces, that I’m against acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. Not so.

Far from it, in fact. All that I’m asking for – as always – is some perspective. Some examination of the economics involved, the mechanics of the transaction.

The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn, for example, a writer that I have a lot of respect for, is arguing for an acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez at, essentially, any cost:

If Theo has to part with Casey Kelly (is he closer to the next Frankie Rodriguez or closer to the next Zack Greinke?) or Ryan Westmoreland (are the injuries officially a concern?) or frankly, anyone in the organization with legitimate aspirations of playing in Fenway Park someday, he must do it.

Emphasis his. He reiterated this view ten days later, saying:

I’ve explained my feelings on this before, and nothing has changed: It is going to take a bounty of riches to get Gonzalez from the Padres, in part because he is a wonderful, underpaid player in the heart of his prime, and in part because new Padres GM Jed Hoyer probably has as much familiarity with the Red Sox farm system as anyone not named Theo Epstein. But I’ll shout it again: He is worth it. Give them Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two, and do not look back.

As you probably guessed, I do not subscribe to this view. Candidly, I think at best it’s the kind of pre-Theo regime thinking that led us to win nothing for eighty years. At worst, it’s a panic move.

Every asset has a cost, and not every cost is worth paying.

I’ve looked at Gonzalez twice now, so I won’t rehash my analysis of him. Suffice it to say he’s an outstanding offensive first baseman when he’s facing right-handed pitching, below average otherwise. Defensively, he’s an asset.

What of the other pieces to a transaction, however? What of the cost and the need?

Cost

As should be expected, Finn sets up his at-any-cost acquisition scenario with an ostensible reminder of the unpredictability of prospects.

Make no mistake: Gonzalez will bring, as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman cleverly called it this summer when his name first showed up in trade rumors, the madre lode. And yet, chances are Gonzalez will prove worth whatever package the Red Sox part with. All prospects are essentially lottery tickets, even the truly elite. In the 2002 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America founder Allan Simpson rated his top 10 prospects this way:

  1. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
  2. Mark Prior, RHP, Dusty Baker’s Arm ‘n’ Limb Meat Grinder Emporium
  3. Sean Burroughs, 3B, Padres
  4. Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers
  5. Wilson Betemit, SS, Braves
  6. Ryan Anderson, LHP, Mariners
  7. Juan Cruz, RHP, Cubs
  8. Josh Hamilton, OF, Devil Rays
  9. Mark Teixeira, 3B, Rangers
  10. Carlos Pena, 1B, A’s

Joe Mauer was 14th, Marlins shortstop Miguel Cabrera — yes, shortstop; imagine that now — was 31st, one spot below KC’s Angel Berroa, and Gonzalez was 34th, one spot ahead of the Angels’ Casey Kotchman.

So, yeah . . . lottery tickets. Case rested.

Finn may rest his case, but let me have a crack at it. Personally, I look at that and see a pitcher that almost single-handedly won two world series titles ranked one, a pitcher that would have had a stellar career were his arm not abused two, and an eight-nine-ten that anyone would kill to have in their offense. Throw in the fact that Blalock had one .900+ OPS season and three north of .850, the fact that Betemit and Cruz are still playing, and I don’t think the list says what Finn thinks it says.

While it’s ugly and obvious, in hindsight, that Cabrera and Mauer should be near the top of the list and Berroa not on it, better than fifty percenty of the individuals on that list are, or were, successful major leaguers. And most of those performed at an elite level for at least a season in their careers. Not a bad success rate for an organization that knows nothing about the players but what they can glean from their performance and interviews with the staff.

My bet is that Theo, McLeod and co know a bit more than Baseball America about their players than Baseball America. With all due respect to that fine organization, of course.

So yes, prospects are unpredictable. But not that unpredictable. At least relative to their major league counterparts. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus said about Gonzalez in 2005, for example:

Once a Grade-A Prospect in Florida, Gonzalez came to Arlington as part of the Ugueth Urbina trade and is now far from a can’t-miss. He’s still only 23 this season, but he’s at a point where it’s time to pick it up with the bat if he wants to have a career as an MLB starter.

One problem with discussions of “prospects,” in general, is just that: it’s general. Let’s look at a more specific example, closer to home. One in which there was a premium player on the market that we were rumored to be interested in. One Johan Santana.

With the Minnesota Twins insisting on center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in any trade for pitcher Johan Santana, the Red Sox have altered their offer and have told the Twins they are willing to include the outfielder.

But sources say the Red Sox have also told the Twins they will not trade left-handed pitcher Jon Lester and Ellsbury together in the package they are offering.

The Red Sox included Ellsbury in one of their proposals a week ago, but the Twins asked the Red Sox for two players among the group of three prospects — Ellsbury, Lester and pitcher Clay Buchholz. Boston then offered Lester, center fielder Coco Crisp, minor league shortstop Jed Lowrie and a minor league pitcher.

On the one hand, the article on the other serves to prove Finn’s point: were we really valuing Ellsbury’s 2009 .770 OPS and his -14 UZR/150 equally with Jon Lester?

On the other, it’s an accurate illustration of the cost of such trades. Would you prefer to have a.) Santana, or b.) your starting centerfielder, starting shortstop candidate, #1 and #3 starters and a bullpen arm (Ramirez via Crisp)? I prefer the latter, personally.

Which is why I’m less excited than Finn to give up “Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two.”

Need

The conventional wisdom says that the Red Sox are in deep shit, offensively. Let’s take a quick look at the projections for next season, assuming a.) no further trades or acquisitions (including no Bay) and b.) Lowrie as the shortstop:

CHONE projects our offense as a collective .274/.354/.441 offense for a .796 OPS. Bill James, meanwhile, is more optimistic, projecting a .280/.368/.462/.831. For context, the Yankees led the league in OPS last year at .839.

Now before you get excited, remember: the above projections are just for starters. They don’t include all the bench, roster filler – or worse, pitcher – at bats. If we just take the starters from last year, as an example, their OPS was .852. The actual? .806.

Still, the projections indicate that our offense – even without help – isn’t awful. Last year’s CHONE predictions, for example? .817 OPS.

In other words, we’re giving up 21 points of projected OPS to a year in which we scored the third most runs, had the second highest OBP, SLG and OPS. and hit the fourth most home runs.

Is there room for improvement? Undoubtedly. But neither can you, I think, build the case that we’re doomed absent a Gonzalez type. And yes, that’s even if we don’t resign J Bay.

The Net

Do I hope we can acquire a premium offensive asset, someone like Adrian Gonzalez? Yes indeed. The prolonged offensive slumps were, more than anything else, what held the club back this year. But am I willing to hand over four or five legitimate prospects for the privilege? I am not. Our top two prospects, a past number one prospect / #2/#3 starter (and potential ace at Petco), and another prospect is too rich a haul by far for two years of Gonzalez, in my opinion. Particularly since his value is only likely to decline from here, as he’s a.) unlikely to exceed his current performance levels and b.) he’s getting closer to free agency.

Acquisitions are essentially an equation. A complicated one, to be sure, but an equation nonetheless. Divided by the market conditions, the two sides – Padre’s needs (asset and financial) + Asset (Gonzalez) value and Red Sox needs and Asset Value – need to balance. The proposals I’m seeing thus far skew too far – way too far in my view – towards the Padre side of that equation.

We’ll see if Theo and co. agree.

Cabrera vs Gonzalez: Peter Abraham's Made His Choice, Have You?

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Miguel Cabrera, originally uploaded by Kevin.Ward.

True, he came over from a Yankees blog and seems to fall back into that beat from time to time, but I generally like the work that Peter Abraham is doing for the Globe thus far. Which is why his latest piece “Miguel Cabrera? No, thanks” surprised me.

It’s not that I think Cabrera’s a no brainer trade target for the Sox; the .26 BAC on the last weekend of the season was bad, the resulting domestic incident with his wife horrifying. But Abraham’s case against Cabrera, otherwise, seems weak to me.

Let’s review.

There are assorted rumors out there that Cabrera will be made available via trade and — hey — the Red Sox could play him at first base. It’s not quite Adrian Gonzalez, but it would be an impressive acquisition.”

Why doesn’t Cabrera belong in the same sentence as Adrian Gonzalez, exactly?

Offensively, they’re very comparable. Gonzalez’ 2009 line was .277/.407/.551, Cabrera .324/.396/.547. And before you point to Petco’s BPF of 89, remember that Cabrera’s playing in essentially a neutral park (six year average is 100.16) in the American League, against American League pitching. More, James’ projections show Cabrera being the obviously superior option next year: .318/.394/.569 to Gonzalez’ .279/.372/.516. Oh, and unlike Gonzalez (.770 OPS vs LHP in 2009), he shows essentially no platoon split: .315/.441/.517 vs LHP, .327/.380/.556 vs RHP.

Also? Cabrera’s a year younger than Gonzalez and 72 career home runs up on his older rival (209-137). Not that this is a surprise: in his six full seasons in the majors, Cabrera’s put up wOBA’s over .400 three times, and just missed in a fourth season (2005, .399). Gonzalez, meanwhile, only has four full seasons to his credit, and has exceeded a .400 wOBA just once, last season.

If anything, then, Cabrera is Gonzalez’ offensive superior due to the fact that he’s done it for longer, and is more or less equally effective against left and right handed pitching.

Yeah, but the defense, you’re thinking. Cabrera’s eating his way out of a position. Well, maybe he is, and maybe he’s not: I don’t have data on that. But Gonzalez’ edge here isn’t as big as you’d think. In 2009, Gonzalez put up a strong UZR/150 of 3.4. Cabrera? 3.1. And remember, this was just his second season at the position after moving over from third (where he was, it must be said, pretty brutal).

[Cabrera] also is owed $126 million over the next six seasons.”

True (add in the 2015 figure of $22M). Gonzalez, meanwhile, is owed a mere $4.75M, not including an eminently affordable 2011 $5.5M option.

But if the Sox are going to heavily mortgage the farm for Gonzalez, you have to assume they’d like to extend him beyond 2011. And what do you imagine that cost might look like? Fangraphs says Gonzalez’ 2009 season was worth $28.4M. What do you think Gonzalez’ is going to ask for should he hit free agency?

I don’t know, and neither do you. But that’s the point: you don’t have to wonder with Cabrera, you know. Cost certainty is not the primary concern when the total obligation is north of 100 million, but neither is it valueless.

And speaking of value.

The Tigers are owned by pizza magnate Mike Ilitch and have a pile of money. If Cabrera is being shopped, it’s not for budgetary reasons. It’s because they decided they would be better off without him. That should give teams plenty of pause.”

Maybe. But just because Ilitch has money doesn’t mean that he wants to spend it frivolously on a club that may or may not contend (seriously, look at their roster), and is saddled with expensive and unmovable obligations like Ordonez. Nor does it mean that retaining Cabrera represents the quickest route back to the playoffs for the Tigers; indeed, the best option for them may well be to move Cabrera for the talent he would undoubtedly command in return. He’s a premium offensive player locked up for years at a contract that looks to be market appropriate, and would bring a substantial return even with his market limited by the contract size.

Gonzalez, by comparison, is eminently movable with his currently affordable contract. Meaning that the Padres addressable market is wider, and thus more competitive, at least in theory, than it would be for Cabrera.

Anyway, do I really want Cabrera? Not without some assurances that he’s addressing his drinking problems, no. But neither do I think it makes sense to write him off based on superficial observations, particularly relative to a player who is provably his inferior.

Is A-Gon – The Other One – Really The Solution?

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Adrian Gonzalez, originally uploaded by SD Dirk.

The one thing the Red Sox must do to bridge the gap between them and the World Series champion Yankees? Acquire Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Losing out on Mark Teixeira in the offseason – losing him to the Yankees – seemed to be the biggest difference between the teams. The Yankees piled on with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but the Sox had comparables in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.” – Nick Cafardo, Why the Sox should be going, going . . . going after Gonzalez

There is a school of thought – epitomized by Nick Cafardo above – that says that Adrian Gonzalez is the cure for what ails the Red Sox. That he’s the answer to the Yankee’s Mark Teixeira.

On one level, it’s easy to understand why. Over the last three years, his age 25, 26, and 27 seasons, he’s put up a cumulative .279/.371/.519 line, good for an .891 OPS. Not bad. This past season, he put up a .958 cumulative line, good for sixth in the majors of OPS from the first base position. That’s one spot behind Youk, who checked in at .961 (in sixty odd fewer ABs) and one spot ahead of the aformentioned Teixeira, whose slow start kept him to a .948 line in almost sixty more ABs.

And he did all of the above playing in a park that kills hitters: Petco has a batting park factor of 89 (100 is neutral, > 100 is good for hitters). Contrast that with Youk (BPF of 108) or Tex (BPF of 100).

But for all of the analysis that leads the professionals to conclude that A-Gon is what this team needs, I’ve seen precious little attention to a troubling aspect to his performance: his splits.

Not the home road ones: if you can put up an .859 at Petco, you should be fine pretty much everywhere else, and he is – 1.045 OPS away from home last year. No, the thing I’m surprised no one’s focusing on is his L/R numbers.

Last year, Gonzalez put up a .305/.448/.629 against RHP, which is obscene. But lefties didn’t just contain him, they erased him: .234/.339.431. That comes out to a .770 OPS, which is good for 102nd in the league. To put that in terms we can all understand, from the left hand side, Gonzalez is – offensively – Colorado’s Dexter Fowler or, closer to home, Ellsbury. Presumably without the stolen bases.

He’s so good against RHP that this gets overlooked, but it would presumably matter a lot more when we faced, say, CC at Yankee Stadium.

Elite players in the league will show some platoon split, but typically nothing that drastic. Youk, for example, put up a .953 OPS vs lefties last year, .964 vs righties. Teixeira, a .940/.952. You need to produce against both left and right handed pitching to be counted among the best. Gonzalez, meanwhile, has never shown the ability to do that. 2009 was no fluke; his three year splits are .744/973.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t go after him? No. As mentioned, he’s so productive against right handed pitching that he’s a serious asset at the plate, and with a UZR/150 of 3.4, he’s no slouch with the glove.

But should Theo simply throw prospects at San Diego to get him? No. He’s good. Really good, in fact. He’s just not as perfect as a lot of people seem to think he is.