Well, as it turned out, Willie Harris had himself one heck of a year, easily the best of his career, and has been rewarded with a two-year contract worth $3 million. It's a steal for the Nationals.
Willie finished 2008 with with 367 at bats and a .251 / .344 / .417 line. That's nice, but for a corner outfielder it's certainly nothing to crow about. After all, the average major-league LF hit .269 / .344 / .442. It was Willie's defense that really set him apart. Whatever metric you look at, Willie was an absolute stud in the field. And combining his world-class defense with his solid bat and speed, he was one of the better left-fielders in all of baseball.
Before you decide I've gone completely off the deep end, I'm not the only one crowing about Willie's 2008. Sky Kalkman over at Beyond the Boxscore pulled together various metrics to account for both offense and defense and had Harris as the sixth best LF in baseball in '08, ahead of some guys you might have heard of like Adam Dunn, Alfonso Soriano, Pat Burrell, and Josh Willingham.
Let's look at some objective measures of our own and see what we get.
For offense, I'm going to use a Tom Tango stat you can now find on the player pages at Fangraphs called weighted runs above average (wRAA). You can read all the details and little thread about it here if you're interested in the details, but if not just think of it as the number of runs a team would gain or lose if the player being measured was replaced by an average offensive contributor. It builds on the old Bill James runs created metric, but is much better because it doesn't overvalue certain players the way the original James systems did.
For defense, it's harder to quantify the exact contribution of a player's performance in runs, but two of the better ones that do so are UZR and Rate2. Since I don't totally trust either I'm going to just take both and split the difference. UZR is also posted on the player pages at Fangraphs and gives us a projection for runs saved (or allowed) per 150 games compared to average defense. Rate2 does the same thing, but crunches the number per 100 games, so to get apples to apples I'm just multiplying the Rate2 runs above average by 1.5. Also, just FYI both stats break down performance by position, so for I'm just using the stats for the position each player played most often (LF for Willie, RF for Dukes, etc.).
Finally, to make sure we aren't weighting defense too much for the guys who didn't actually play a full season, I'm projecting out those wRAA numbers for a 600-PA season, about what a typical player hitting around the middle of the order would expect in 150 games.
These adjustments just allow us to adjust for playing time and establish some kind of apples-to-apples comparisons, but of course the obvious problem is that I'm assuming that if player X performed at Y level for 400 PAs that he'd maintain the exact same level for another 200. It's a little like early in the season every year when you hear about so-and-so who is on track for 100 homers after a hot opening week. In particular, this is relevant for Willie, because the rap on him is that he's a little guy who has tended to wear down over the season, an impression solidified by 2007 season, when Atlanta handed him a starting job only to see him fall apart in the second half to the tune of a positively blech .214 / .294 / .354 line. But still this will allow us to compare the overall offense + defense rate of production of different players while accurately weighting both aspects of the game. And given that Harris appeared in 140 games with 424 plate appearances, it's not like we're projecting an entire season out of fantasy.
With that caveat out of the way, let's get to the numbers and see just how good Willie really was. First, let's see how he stacks up against other Nationals position players who had at least 275AB in 2008. Short answer: there was no one better--not Guzman, not Dukes, no one.
|UZR/150||Rate2*1.5||wRAA||RAA/600||Total RAA |
Hold onto your hats, because if that surprised you, let's get a look at the very most valuable seasons by any Nationals position player since 2005.
OK, before you delete your bookmark to this page in protest of the apostasy of suggesting that Harris was better than Soriano, just step back and think about a few things. First of all, Soriano's '06 was impressive primarily because of the incredible counting stats he piled up--46 HR, 41 steals, and 41 doubles. No one's ever done that, and those are amazing achievements. But guess what? He also had a whopping 738 plate appearances, leading off all year. Only 47 hitters in the last decade saw that many. He was caught stealing 17 times. His rate stats (.351 OBP, .560 SLG, 135 OPS+) were very good, but not Hall of Fame great like those 40-40-40 numbers suggest.
And, of course, Soriano wasn't very good in the field. I'm actually surprised that these metrics liked him as much as they did. Many baseball fans (and some GMs I know) tend to grossly undervalue defense, but ask yourself--is a run prevented by a great defensive play worth any less than a run scored from a home run?
It's also worth noting how under-appreciated Nick Johnson was. If Soriano had been re-signed and had two bad injuries like Nick did, I don't think people would be so ready to toss him overboard. But Nick at his best was decisively better than Soriano at his best. Tex is an even better hitter and defender than Nick, but the fact remains there's something puzzling about a team going to such lengths to replace its very best player.
But back to Willie. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade Willie Harris for Alfonso Soriano or anything like that. I'm not even ready to hand him an everyday job for the Nationals in 2008. This was a career year for Willie both at the plate and in the field, and I think the odds he repeats or improves on it are not all that good. But looking at just this snapshot of one season, it happened.
If you're still shaking your head that Willie couldn't have been this good, you probably were one of the many who stopped watching the Nationals while Wily Mo Pena was still out there. Treat yourself. Have a look at these clips:
- Willie robs Ryan Church of an RBI double with a game-saving flat-out horizontal diving stab in the bottom of the ninth of a 1-0 win in Shea Stadium. This is one of the most amazing defensive plays I've ever seen.
- Willie robs David Wright of a two-RBI double with a game-saving catch over his head in the sixth inning of a 1-0 win over the Mets.
- Willie stabs a sinking liner in the gap off Fernando Tatis.
- Willie dives for a shoe-string catch off Brad Hawpe.
- Willie does it to the Mets again with an impossible catch over his head before bouncing off the wall and making a perfect relay throw to double off Jose Reyes from first base, preserving a 3-3 tie.
- Willie takes a home run away from Corey Hart with a leaping grab at the wall.
- Willie crashes into the wall in left to steal extra bases from Shane Victorino.
- Willie stabs a low liner from Ichiro, making it look easy.