Monday, February 9, 2009

Francisco vs. Dunn

It's no secret that the free agent market has been down this off-season, leaving many All-Star caliber players unemployed in the first week of February. Teams have been more cautious about adding to their payrolls and handing out long-term contracts than in the past due to the uncertainty brought on by the economy. Without a reliable revenue stream from the fans, merchandising, and corporate sponsors, most teams have limited their free agent acquisitions to one or two year deals at bargain prices. While the Yankees have proven themselves recession-proof, small and mid-market teams are feeling the crunch.

Jason Giambi's one year, $5.25 million deal with Oakland and Pat Burrell's two year, $16 million deal with Tampa Bay should turn out to be excellent bargains in terms of offensive value for the money spent. Two productive sluggers like Giambi and Burrell wouldn't normally take significant pay cuts in free agency, but they were wise to recognize the tough situation most teams are in and chose to take a short-term, guaranteed paycheck instead of looking for a big contract that just wasn't there. These two contracts may have set the market for players like Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn, neither of whom has found any offers to their liking. Dunn is rumored to be seeking a four year deal in the $50+ million range, but with Spring Training quickly approaching, a renewed awareness of defensive value around the league, and an apparent lack of serious suitors it seems doubtful that Dunn will get more than a fraction of that.

What does this mean for the Tribe in 2009? Not much. The team added nearly $19 million to their existing payroll and have already exceeded their planned budget for this season. Cleveland will not be making any more additions to the payroll unless a significant contract is moved first (which won't happen either). So even though there are several quality free agents available at steeply reduced prices, Cleveland will not be signing any of them. The question I'd like to answer is whether or not Cleveland should add one of these players. Would Adam Dunn be enough of an upgrade over Ben Francisco in left field to justify the additional money spent? First I'd like to look at what each player has to offer before moving on to a direct comparison.

Francisco on Offense

2007 66 .261 5 3 0.16 .303 .500 -.04
2008 447 .270 32 15 0.47 .332 .438 3.2

Ben Francisco had a solid overall season in 2008, slugging 32 doubles and 15 homers behind a .266 / .332 / .438 line. Unfortunately, a strong start was overshadowed by a miserable September where Francisco hit .188 with a season low .619 OPS in 81 PA. Francisco may have posted an .832 OPS before the All Star break, but that final month really drained the life out of what had been a strong rookie season. The late season slump also shook the club's confidence in Francisco, leaving him with something to prove heading into his second Major League season.

While the numbers suggest an average offensive performance in 2008 (OPS+ 100), Francisco was able to build upon the 66 PA he compiled in 2007. The last time Francisco faced ML pitching, he had only a 0.16 BB/K ratio and .303 OBP on a shaky .350 BABIP in 66 PA. Last season, Francisco elevated his BB/K ratio to 0.47 (his career BB/K in the minors is 0.56), had a .332 OBP, and saw his BABIP move to a more reliable .301. Ben also featured an improved plate discipline, becoming more selective in the types of pitches to attack. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone 8.4% less often and made contact with the ball in 81% of his at-bats. These are two excellent areas to see improvement for a developing hitter. Francisco had a better time recognizing which pitches to lay-off and was able to square up more often on hittable pitches.

Unlike David Dellucci, the team can pencil in the right-handed Francisco regardless of the opposing pitcher. Francisco had a .794 OPS against lefties and a .762 OPS against righties in 2008. Away from the Jake was a different story though, as Ben had a 109 point difference in his home and road OPS'. This is one aspect of Ben's game that will have to dramatically improve if he hopes to keep pace ahead of the prospects in Buffalo. Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley will be challenging for Francisco's job from the start, so he really can't afford to go through a month-long slump like he has in the past. The good news, at least for Francisco, is that with Dellucci confined to the bench (or the waiver wire, mercifully) and the Tribe's Dynamic Duo still toiling in AAA he should have plenty of room to breathe at the start of the season. The bad news for Francisco is that Mark DeRosa is a more than adequate outfielder and may be asked to step in if Francisco struggles.

Regardless of whether benching Francisco for Jamey Carroll (who would take over at third with DeRosa in left) is the best move, it is definitely a move Wedge has been inclined to make in the past. Francisco will have some slack to work with, but the team does have other options if he stumbles at the plate. Given the sense of urgency displayed by Cleveland in retooling for 2008, it's clear the team knows how much is riding on this season. It's not like Cleveland has been exuding confidence in their outfield situation with the likes of Garko and Barfield under consideration for Spring Training reps beyond the diamond. An early summer call-up for one of their stud outfield prospects is not out of the question, even if it defers from the normal timetable given to such prospects.

I understand the argument against Francisco seeing any notable growth as a player because of his age; perfectly sound reasoning. At 26, he's not your typical sophomore and is probably near his ceiling as a player, if he isn't already there. I'm not expecting any major leaps in his game, but it's not unheard of for players with the right tools to break through at an advanced age if given the opportunity. Look at Casey Blake's career, he didn't even become a ML starter until age 29 and went on to post several solid seasons for the Tribe. Starting third baseman Mark DeRosa is another example of a player posting the best numbers of their career at a later age. We're not talking about a contract extension, just whether or not Ben's capable of holding down the fort until LaPorta and company arrive in 2009.

Ben did not put up any big numbers in his rookie season, but he was never expected to be a major offensive threat. Instead, he showed he still has the tools to succeed as a hitter in the Majors. Now that he has a full year of experience to go with a refined plate approach, Francisco may be poised for an even better campaign with the Tribe. If he can avoid the second-half slump he suffered in 2008, I think there is a strong chance Francisco will see at least modest gains at the plate.

Francisco on Defense

Year Pos Inn PO BIZ Plays RZR OOZ (%PO) UZR/150
2007 LF 102 26 21 17 .810 9 (34.6) 29.0
2008 LF 643 150 136 122 .897 28 (18.6) -0.3

PO = putouts; BIZ = balls in zone; RZR = revised zone rating; OOZ = outside of zone; UZR/150 = ultimate zone rating adjusted for 150 games

Francisco more than pulled his weight in the outfield, displaying good range and a strong arm on defense. In terms of UZR/150 (that's ultimate zone rating adjusted for 150 games), Francisco was above average compared to most ML left fielders with at least 500 innings. His -0.3 mark (he basically broke even in terms of runs his defense cost the team) is significantly better than the next lowest player in Carlos Lee (-2.0), while most of the players with positive UZRs possess exceptional range (Francisco wouldn't be as far from the top if it weren't for transplants like Carl Crawford setting up shop in left). Somewhere well above Lee and on the periphery of the speedy outfielders sounds like a fair estimate of Francisco's range in left.

While he doesn't cover as much ground as some, Francisco does cast a fairly wide net in the field. Francisco's OOZ (out of zone, or the number of outs made by a fielder outside his normal defensive zone) shows that 18.6% of his total putouts were made beyond the expected defensive zone for a left fielder. This is a very respectable range, even though left field is a less demanding position than say, center field. Also, according to THT's Outfield Arms metric Francisco would have saved 3.1 runs over 200 opportunities through kills (throwing a runner out) and holds (preventing an eligible runner from advancing further). For comparison, I a rating around 1.0 run saved is par for the course, making Francisco above average in both range and arm strength.

Overall, Francisco is an asset on defense and has had no trouble holding down his position.

Dunn on Defense

Adam Dunn was one of the last free agents I would have expected to be available in February, yet there he is, unsigned. Now that General Managers are placing a higher premium on defense, statues like Dunn have seen their overall market value plummet. Why some team hasn't dropped a bag of cash in Dunn's lap to be their DH is beyond me though. I had read a while back that Dunn was insistent on continuing to play in the outfield (probably not a smart negotiating move), though he may have dropped this request since then. Plus, I fail to see how Dunn could turn down a multi-million dollar contract at this point just so he can continue to exercise his worst attribute as a ballplayer (props to Dunn for having the right attitude and not wanting to quit on defense, but it isn't terribly practical in this case). So even though moving to first base is a possibility (he has 97 career starts there) and would take some of the pressure off Dunn's lack of mobility, he wants no part of the infield on a full-time basis.

Did Dunn really do more harm than good by making all those starts in left field? Below are Dunn's defensive stats from the last three seasons:

Year Pos Inn PO BIZ Plays RZR OOZ (%PO) UZR/150
2006 LF 1321 279 270 237 .878 42 (15.0) -11.0
2007 LF 1189 244 259 214 .826 31 (12.7) -16.3
2008* LF
915 191 179 161 .899 30 (15.7) -13.5

*I only included Dunn's innings with Cincy in 2008 because it would have been tricky to calculate a combined value with Cincy and Arizona for each stat. The sample size for Arizona was small enough to not worry about anyway.

According to his UZR/150, Dunn cost his team 13.5 runs over 915 innings playing in left field. To give those -13.5 runs some perspective, among ML left fielders with at least 500 innings logged, only Chase Headley (that's a lot of ground to cover in Petco), Pat Burrell (now a DH), Jack Cust (kinda is a DH), Jason Bay (wasn't expecting him to be here), Delmon Young (first year in the Metrodome, should bounce back), and Luis Gonzalez (at 42 years old, I'll cut him some slack) were worse. There's no disputing that Dunn had a pretty rough time fielding his position in 2008. The same trend pops up in previous seasons as well (the annual variation shown is normal for defensive stats, he still hits double digits each year though). Also, who would have thought a guy as strong as Dunn would have a noodle-arm? Ok, that may not be a fair description, but he does struggle to keep runners in check. During his time in left field in 2008, Dunn's throwing actually cost his team 6.0 runs by itself.

Interestingly enough, Dunn's RZR (revised zone rating, or the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that he successfully converts into an out) and OOZ are comparable to Francisco's. Francisco made a larger percentage of plays outside his defensive zone (18.6% to Dunn's 15.7%) but performed about the same as Dunn when fielding balls hit within the left field zone. This doesn't seem right at all. In fact, I can guarantee that in a fan poll, Francisco would display a better defensive reputation than Dunn.

Based purely on what I saw from Francisco last season, he's at the very least an average defender, while the stats cited earlier suggest he's above average in terms of runs saved. Meanwhile, Dunn's reputation certainly precedes him in terms of defensive deficiency. This is a good example of why empirical evidence is still way ahead of any current defensive metrics. It's cool to be able to quantify a player's range in terms of runs, but it's still a good idea to take those numbers with a grain of salt. Defensive stats are still being tweaked and refined by people much smarter than I.

Considering how many intricate variables go into the UZR formula (how hard a ball is hit, where it's hit, park factors, and the type of pitcher on the mound to name a few), it's not too surprising to see it produce a drastically different assessment compared to the revised zone ratings. Factor in a more reliable reputation for UZR and I think I'll stick with that in terms of quantifying each player's defensive value. Based on empirical evidence and the best available defensive stats, Ben Francisco is obviously a far superior defender to Adam Dunn.

Dunn on Offense

2006 683 .304 24 40 0.58 .365 .490 19.8
2007 632 .300 27 40 0.61 .386 .554 36.2
2008 651 .299 23 40 0.74 .386 .513 29.7

The consistency with which Dunn produces the same offensive numbers each year is almost comical. Seriously, who hits exactly 40 home runs for four straight seasons? Dunn specializes in hitting for power, drawing walks, and...that's basically it. The left-handed slugger has posted top five ML totals in both HR and BB in four of the past five seasons. Over eight Major League seasons, his career OBP is an outstanding .381 (sonnets have been written in tribute to Dunn's OBP). There's really not much to say about Dunn's bat that hasn't already been said. As far as launching taters and drawing walks, Dunn has been one of the best in baseball for several years running.

It may be foolish to wonder what the consequences of a Dunn power-outage would be since we're only discussing the short term. However, I'm curious just how big a factor the long ball is compared to all those walks in the context of Dunn's overall offense. If for some reason (a new ballpark, adjusting to a new league, or plain bad luck for example) Dunn sees a decline in his home run ability, how much of his value would he retain? Dunn does not possess much speed and has never been much of a doubles hitter, despite a consistently strong slugging percentage (obviously his SLG is supported mostly by homers). In 2008, his 23 doubles did not even crack the top 150 among all ML players. Excluding home runs, Dunn has never collected many extra base hits and has only two seasons (2004, 2005) with more than 30 doubles and at least 500 at-bats.

One way to determine how heavy Dunn's homers are within his overall offensive value is to consider equivalent average (EqA). EqA (set to the same scale as batting average, where .260 is the league average) is a good bet for evaluating pure offensive production in this case since it does not give homers a weighted advantage like OPS and its refined cousin, wOBA. Looking at the formula for raw EqA, (H + TB + 1.5*(BB + HBP + SB) + SH + SF) divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH + SF + CS + SB) you can see that hits, total bases, walks, and stolen bases are among the most significant variables.

The fact that Dunn lacks much speed on the bases, plays in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and has a dearth of hits would have seriously dragged on Dunn's offensive numbers if it weren't for his ability to advance via base on balls. Dunn had about a .300 EqA the past two seasons, meaning he was a very valuable hitter despite the several factors working against him. As it turns out, all those walks would still carry the day in the event Dunn falls short of his annual 40 homer mark. Even though he's had a top five strikeout total every season of his career, Dunn still possesses the plate discipline to lay off pitches outside the zone and work the count. Dunn can get away with batting .236 since he reaches base nearly 40% of the time, regardless (you can criticize a player like Dunn all you want, just please don't base your argument on batting average).

Amazingly, Dunn only swung at pitches outside the zone 17.2% of the time in 2008 (this is quite good). On the other hand, he made contact with just 71.8% of the pitches he offered at last season. This is a pretty poor contact rate although it is in line with other sluggers like Thome and Howard who have a tendency to swing for the fences (unlike Dunn, they swing at balls outside the zone a lot more). Finally, pitchers showed a healthy respect for Dunn's power by throwing him a strike just 45.5% of the time. Dunn is in good company as far as striking fear in the hearts of scrub pitchers; only Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, and Vlad Guerrero (a notorious free-swinger) saw fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2008.

These trends highlight Dunn's all-or-nothing approach at the plate. While he is very good at identifying pitches not to hit (those outside the strike zone), his swing appears to have some major holes in it. Like the aforementioned Thome and Howard, Dunn usually attacks with a big power stroke to drive the ball as far as possible. This type of long, loaded swing will produce a lot of hard fly balls, but it also leaves the hitter vulnerable and unable to protect the plate as well as hitters with more compact swings who tend to focus on just making solid contact most of the time (singles and doubles). Dunn's approach is on the extreme end for power hitters, resulting in maximum power and minimal precision.

While some may argue otherwise, I don't see Dunn's approach as an issue. The majority of hitters are forced to make the tradeoff between crushing the ball or slapping a single when they come up to the plate anyway. Only a few elite players can consistently produce a true balance in their offensive attack (like Manny and Pujols). In other words, don't expect a guy who hits 40 homers to bat .300 in the same season. Both are valuable in their own way, but you can't expect to have the best of both worlds.

One could argue that Dunn needs the intimidation factor associated with those punishing home runs to maintain his high walk rate. Pitchers are obviously reluctant to throw strikes out of fear he will launch one into the bleachers. This theory is more relevant to a long term projection though, since the the 28-year old Dunn won't be experiencing a physical decline in power anytime soon. It would take a serious drop in power potential before pitchers decided to regularly challenge Dunn within the strike zone. Therefore, Dunn's walk rate won't be going away anytime soon. If he were to experience a decline in homers, this would still impact the bottom line for the team that signs him, bringing us back to the earlier question (sorry, I got a little off track).

What would happen once Dunn moved out of Cincinnati's home ballpark for the first time in his career? Dunn's numbers had to have benefited from all those seasons playing in a hitter friendly ballpark. According to ESPN, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati had a 1.069 park factor in 2008, making it the seventh most hitter-friendly park in the Majors. Chase Field in Arizona, Dunn's post-trade home park, had the second highest factor at 1.135, possibly explaining why his performance did not suffer from the change in venue last season.

If Dunn were to spend half of his at-bats in Cleveland, there is a strong possibility he would experience some adverse effects. Progressive Field had a .995 overall park factor, but really suppressed home runs. Out of 30 ballparks, Cleveland had a HR park factor of .824; third lowest in the Majors (only Kaufmann Stadium and Petco Park saw fewer taters, in addition to having lower overall park factors than Progressive Field). Even if it's only a minor consideration, Dunn's performance will likely reflect his new home to some degree.

Wins and Salary

For me, the choice between Francisco and Dunn is contingent on the gap between Francisco's defensive value and Dunn's offensive value. As an above-average defender boasting at least an average bat, I expected Francisco to match up favorably to Dunn, whose atrocious defense cancels out quite a bit of his advantage on offense. To quantify these two factors I used FanGraphs' spiffy value wins table, replicated below.

Francisco FanGraphs Value Wins Table

Year Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Value Runs Value Wins Dollars
2007 -0.3 2.4 2.2 -1.3 3.0 0.3 $1.2
2008 3.7 -4.3 16.6 -6.3 9.7 1.0 $4.3

Dunn FanGraphs Value Wins Table

Year Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Value Runs Value Wins Dollars
2006 17.9 -12.4 22.8 -7.5 20.7 2.0 $7.4
2007 34.5 -14.9 21.1 -7.2 33.4 3.3 $13.3
2008 27.4 -22.8 21.7 -8.0 18.3 1.8 $8.2

For a detailed overview of how these numbers were calculated, click here and scroll down. The values most relevant to this analysis are Batting, Fielding, and Value Wins. Batting depicts the player's wRAA (offensive runs above average, this time adjusted for the home ballpark and league) while fielding is total UZR (both values were included in the player tables earlier). The Position adjustment accounts for the degree of difficulty for a player's defensive position. For example, left field is a much less demanding position to field than shortstop, so left fielders have a -7.5 run penalty compared to the +7.5 run bonus a shortstop receives (this stems from the idea that a player who can hit at a high level and field an elite defensive position is that much more valuable). The Replacement value addresses the monetary value of wins and a player's time on the field, as opposed to a lesser bench player (the concept of replacement level and calculating salaries can get complicated quick, so I'll let FanGraphs do the talking if you're so inclined).

Assuming positive values are good and negative values are bad for a player's value, the final formula plays out as basic math: wRAA + UZR + Position + Replacement = Value Runs.

As expected, Dunn's superior batting value is largely canceled out by his negative fielding value, producing 18.3 runs above replacement for the 2008 season. FanGraphs makes the run total easier to interpret by converting it into wins using a team's Pythagorean value (calculates a team's expected win-loss record based on its runs scored/against rate). Assuming roughly 10 runs equals 1 win, Dunn was responsible for 1.8 wins during his time with Cincinnati and Arizona.

For Francisco, his batting and fielding values are nearly a wash. I only cited Francisco's innings in LF earlier, while the UZR value shown here depicts his time at every position. Since Francisco was not as strong defensively at the other outfield positions, his fielding value takes a hit (this also results in a lower positional penalty than an exclusive left fielder). Francisco produced 9.7 runs above replacement overall, which translated into 1.0 win for the Tribe in 2008.

Note the difference in innings (288) and plate appearances (152) between Francisco and Dunn. This gives Dunn an advantage in terms of total wins (more chances to contribute results in more partial wins credited). As it stands, Francisco has about a 25% deficit to Dunn in total chances (innings + PA) which roughly equals .25 wins that Francisco never had the opportunity to earn. According to the numbers, Dunn was worth just half a win more (.55) than Francisco in 2008. That's a surprisingly slim difference considering the gap in experience and salary between the two outfielders. To be fair, Dunn did produce 3.3 wins in 2007 and saw his 2008 fielding runs suffer slightly from 128 innings at first base (-12.5 positional penalty), so unless Francisco takes a step forward offensively (or Dunn loses a step defensively) that .55 win difference has plenty of potential to grow.

Finally, assuming each win cost a team about $4.5 million in 2008, Dunn's calculated monetary value was $8.2 million while his actual salary was $13 million. Francisco holds a major advantage in this department and posted a sizable surplus in terms of his calculated value of $4.3 million and actual salary (close to the league minimum of $390,000 due to his brief service time).

I don't view Adam Dunn as enough of an upgrade to justify the money he's demanding (whether or not he gets anything resembling $12.5 million a year is another story). Whoever signs him is probably going to end up losing a few million dollars in undelivered value, although that team will hopefully be filling a dire need. Cleveland, on the other hand, does not have a legitimate need in left field due to their envious outfield depth in the high minors and flexibility within the Major League club. If Cleveland were to sign Dunn, they'd be paying a premium for an extra win, maybe two, in the form of a crowded roster, a downgraded defense, and even less financial flexibility than they had before (namely, none).

The fine line between Francisco and Dunn's overall value for 2008 showed that Cleveland would only be making an incremental upgrade for what amounts to a luxury. Dunn would have to go absolutely nuts at the plate to even begin to justify his atrocious defense and expected salary. Since there's no way Dunn is going to match his career year from 2004, his true offensive value will continue to be negated to the point of being a waste. So much of his overall value dies on the field it's like watching money get flushed down a toilet. I don't want to diminish Dunn's offensive prowess, but he really is costing himself potential salary by refusing to become a DH. At this point the market seems to have cooled so much I don't think even a concession to DH full time could salvage this winter for Dunn and his agent.

Which brings us to yet another issue with Dunn. Without a DH vacancy, there is no way for Cleveland to capitalize on Dunn's greatest asset, not to mention how idiotic it would be to have $24 million wrapped up in dual designated hitters. They were far better off spending that extra $12 million on filling holes at closer and third base (big difference between filling an actual hole and merely upgrading a position; we didn't have a real closer or third baseman until recently) rather than giving it to a free agent outfielder. Dunn is a few tools short of the full set and should not be grouped with or paid like the games truly elite players.

Cleveland absolutely made the right move in going with an inexpensive, low risk, high reward youth movement in left and watching their wisely spent funds (a.k.a. Wood and DeRosa) produce dividends elsewhere on the roster.

UZR, Value Wins formula, and associated stats taken from FanGraphs.

Outfield Arm ratings, RZR, and OOZ taken from The Hardball Times.

EqA taken from Baseball Prospectus.

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