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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, January 24, 2003
The Eight Million Dollar Man
Is being two million better than Lee Majors enough for Erstad and the Angels?
Darin Erstad is going to make a cool $8 million next season, and that?s a crime.
At least, that?s the opinion of many in the stathead community when Darin Erstad was penned to a 4-year, $32M contract by the Anaheim Angels last season. ESPN.com?s Rob Neyer called the move “monumentally stupid.” On the Primer Transaction boards, comparisons were being drawn between Erstad and guys like Juan Encarnacion, Chris Singleton, and the immortal (or at least, international) Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Baseball Prospectus called his signing “good news for the rest of the division” and predicted that Erstad?s contract would be “a millstone on the Angels? payroll.”
Ouch. But he?s the centerfielder for my favorite team, the man is acknowledged by his teammates as the on-field leader of this year?s World Series championship squad, and credited by mainstream media types as the spiritual driving force of the organization, (whatever that means). With his new contract extension, he?s going to remain a part of this squad for the foreseeable future. The numbers so far:
Perspective is important here. Most analysts look at Erstad?s performance and say, “He?s had three bad seasons over the last four years,” and conclude that Erstad?s just another hustlin? white dude getting paid to do a bunch of intangible things in the locker room. However, just two seasons ago, these same analysts were saying, “He?s had two good and one great season over the last four years,” and concluded that Erstad was going to be the next Kirby Puckett. So before we get into it any further, let?s get one thing out of the way: Darin Erstad is not Tsuyoshi Shinjo with more playing time. Nor is he Brian Hunter, Darren Lewis, or any other dime-a-dozen fifth outfielder. Those guys are scrubs; Erstad has been an honest-to-goodness ballplayer who has produced sustained periods of good-to-excellent play.
It?s very important to remember this, because over the last two seasons, Darin Erstad has been a bad good baseball player, championship ring notwithstanding. As an Angel fan, I have to resign myself to having him on the roster for four more years and as an Angel fan who is also an analyst-by-night, I want what the best case scenario for the Angels might be. The contract?s happened; the money is now sunken cost. Is there anything the Angels can do to maximize their investment in him?
One thing the Angels need to notice is that in every single season of his career, Erstad has hit the skids in the second half of the season:
The football-style intensity that is Erstad?s signature style flat out breaks his body down. In six full seasons with the Angels, Erstad?s body has accumulated a lengthy laundry list of injuries. In 1998, it was a hamstring; in 1999, he was on the DL with a twisted knee. In 2000, it was a nagging hammy again, and in 2001, he had strained ligaments in his right knee.
Erstad is also an exceptionally aggressive base runner, taking the extra base at every opportunity. A very good base stealer, Erstad averages over 20 steals a season at a 75% success rate. In true football fashion, Erstad prefers the head-first dive, all the better to hammer himself into the ground with.
The human body can only take so much pounding before its performance becomes negatively affected. In Erstad?s case, it?s painfully apparent that his body needs some down-time. In the playoffs, with all the off-days between games, Erstad’s bat perked up; despite the small sample size, I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence.
I also don?t think it?s a coincidence that, before 2001, Erstad had played just 72 games in five years in centerfield because Jim Edmonds was still with the Angels then. Between 1997 and 2000, Erstad put up +OPS scores of 114, 115, 74 and 137 while playing first base and left field. Now that the Angels have made a long-term commitment to him, they really should look at giving him more days off, and mix in more games at DH or 1st base ever so often to give his body a rest from the responsibilities of playing centerfield.
If they really wanted to save his body, they?d stick him in left field, which he could cover if he were blindfolded, drugged, and forced to drag Anna Nicole Smith?s vapid bulk behind him. Of course, that?s not going to happen because he just might be the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. This past season, Erstad led the major leagues outfield putouts, range factor, and zone rating, finished second in assists, and made just one error in 1227.2 innings. Earlier this season, STATS, Inc. did a quick study of the top centerfielders from 1999-2001 by range factor, zone rating and defensive Win Shares.
“Erstad, the only man to make the top five according to all three metrics, heads the list. His first-place finish is especially impressive considering that he actually spent a little more time in left field (1537.1 innings) than he did in center (1506.0 innings) during the period of our study, and Range Factor and Win Shares totals tend to be higher for center fielders than for those who man the corners. Erstad clearly is a tremendous defensive outfielder.”
He?s also a tremendously reckless outfielder. Early this season, Erstad went back on a ball hit to deep centerfield, dived, slammed into the base of the wall, and gave himself a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for over a week. During Game 5 of the World Series, Erstad broke a bone in his left hand making a diving catch (and hit a pivotal Game 6 homer with that same broken bone). Aside from those more notable injuries, Erstad had the regular collection of sprained ankles, bruises, strains and kinks that are associated with playing centerfield the way he does. Pick any random point in the season, and you can find Erstad playing with an injured body part.
The obvious comparison is to “Pistol Pete” Reiser, the talented Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder who lost a brilliant career to the concrete outfield walls of the 1940?s. Reiser battered his body so brutally that he was able to remain ambulatory enough to accumulate more than 400 at-bats just three times. Outfield walls are padded now, but Erstad still seems hell-bent on trying to make himself the next Pete Reiser by carving trenches in centerfield with his face.
Reiser is the extreme example. A more recent comparison may be with Chuck Knoblauch:
Looks familiar; Erstad?s career numbers look like Knoblauch?s stuffed in a trash compactor. Knoblauch was, like Erstad, the archetypical hustling ballplayer, and an excellent base runner who manned a physically demanding defensive position. Like Erstad, Knoblauch played with a variety of little injuries all the time, and as of this writing, Knoblauch is essentially finished as a productive ballplayer. After being among the best second basemen in the majors for most of his first nine seasons, the wheels have most definitely fallen off. His power is gone, his walk rate has dropped, he can?t play defense worth a lick anymore. At the tender age of 33, Chuck Knoblauch isn?t even good enough to play for the Kansas City Royals.
Chuck Knoblauch was a superior offensive player, certainly better than Darin Erstad, and for a much longer period of time.
There are other problems. Erstad began the last two seasons hitting .279/.351/.401 and .310/.342/.419, when one can assume he was fresher, healthier and ready to hit ? and THEN went into his second half slump; among all centerfielders in the major leagues who totaled over 400 ABs, Erstad finished 17th out of 21 in OPS. His walk rate, which was never high at 8.2 BB per 100 PAs over his career, dropped by half that to 4.1 BB/100 PAs. Is he on the verge of totally losing it? Will Erstad?s 2001-2002 seasons be akin to Knoblauch?s 2000-2001? It wouldn?t be the first time a player peaked early, and then spent the rest of his career on the decline.
However, it?s not all doom-and-gloom. Erstad comes with all sorts of baggage, but he brings some positives with him as well. First, and most prominently, his teammates revere him and Angel fans adore him for his maniacal devotion and style of play. There?s no way to assign a value to that (for all I know, such a value might not even be a blink over zero), but Erstad?s teammates and coaches believe it exists. When Angel GM Bill Stoneman gave Erstad his contract extension in August, it eliminated the possibility that Erstad?s free agent status might become a distraction to an Angel squad that had a shot at the post-season, and promoted the belief, at long last, that the front office was 100% behind the men on the field.
Erstad?s defensive prowess headed what was a superior Angel defensive squad in 2002. We?ve already covered this ground, but it?s worth noting that, on a team where you have several extreme flyball starters, especially Jarrod Washburn and Kevin Appier, having an outfielder with Erstad?s tremendous range allows a pitcher to not just lower his ERA, but to throw with the confidence of knowing that his defense is going to come through for him. Washburn and Ramon Ortiz have said as much in several Los Angeles Times columns. Atlanta Braves pitchers talk about how knowing Andruw Jones gives them more confidence to throw pitch they otherwise might not throw in certain situations. I know that Minnesota Twins pitcher Eric Milton (another extreme flyball pitcher) has said the same thing about Torii Hunter. It would make sense that Angel starters felt the same way about Erstad. It?s impossible to know how much, but there?s value in that.
It?s also interesting to note that Erstad, an extreme groundball hitter (1.51 G/F), only grounded into nine double plays during the regular season. Dave Studenmund noted in his Visitor?s Dugout article (http://baseballprimer.com/articles/studenmund_2003-01-21_0.shtml) that Adam Kennedy and David Eckstein, the two guys batting in front of Erstad, were in scoring position an awful lot in 2002, as was Erstad himself. I?m not ready to say that anyone should get gold stars for hitting slow ground balls to second base, but Mike Scioscia and the Angels played a small-ball style of offense, and they got away with it because the Angels had the best BARISP in baseball. Shouldn?t Erstad get some credit for doing exactly what he was asked to do, especially since it worked out exactly the way Scioscia planned?
I realize that I?m treading on shaky ground here. After all, it?s completely possible that if Erstad had NOT gotten his contract extension in August that the Angels would have unified against the front office and outright won the division. It?s possible that Erstad is just an out machine. It?s possible that Erstad?s defense has absolutely nothing to do with a pitcher?s confidence. It?s possible that the Angels may have wasted $32M and a chance to compete in the future.
I don?t think that?s the case. When healthy, a guy with an .800 OPS with great centerfield defense and base running skills is a plus player for most teams in the league. $8M would be overpaying, yes, but consider that Torii Hunter just signed basically the same contract as Erstad. Hunter, of course, is coming off a career season, but he?s only a year younger than Erstad, and has basically the same offensive skill set but with more power, while Erstad?s range factors are significantly better than Hunter?s (3.39 vs. 2.70 last season). Hunter?s a better player right now, but it?s not as big a gap as some might think. Given the present baseball economy, $8M per for Hunter isn?t a bad idea for the Twins and $8M per for Erstad, in this light, doesn?t seem quite so silly.
Also, Erstad has far fewer miles on his treads than Knoblauch did when he broke down. While Knoblauch had a decline phase of several seasons, Erstad?s offense fell off a cliff. I believe it has more to do with his overall health than with his abilities. Unlike his offense, there?s been no decline in his defense, which indicates that his physical tools are still intact. Given his career walk rate, it?s reasonable to predict that Erstad will be back to drawing 8 BBs per 100 PAs, double what he drew in 2002. If the Angels (and Erstad) are willing to give him the day off three or four times a month, and if Erstad can maintain some semblance of good health, it?s entirely possible that Erstad can reverse his recent offensive slide. He is, after all, one hell of an athlete, and will just be 29 years old this June. There?s still time.
If you think I?m biased towards my subject, well, I am. I?m an Angels fan, and I came into this looking for reasons to justify Erstad?s contract, but I also realize the thin line between this article and a post saying “DAREN EARSTAD RUUUULEZZ!! YEEEAH!!?! Regardless, the coming season is going to be critical for Erstad and the Angels. One bad season can be an aberration, two seasons may be a coincidence, but nobody can put a good spin on three consecutive seasons of .700 OPS production.
Erstad?s new contract is going to be a big key to the Angels? ability to remain competitive in an ultra-competitive division, starting right now. The Angels can?t expect to hit .290 with RISP in 2003 and they likely won?t be able to carry a .700 OPS at the top of the lineup again. Erstad doesn?t need to light the world on fire ? if he gets back to anywhere near his 1998 level of offensive production, the Angels will come away from this contract smelling like roses so long as the rest of the team continues to play near their expected levels. However, if he continues to put up a .700 OPS, then they?ve basically signed a grittier, pumped up version of Gary Disarcina for the next four years, and will have to watch while his contract negatively affects the Angels? ability to retain their own players ? especially Troy Glaus ? as well as their ability to sign free agents.
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