Saturday, January 3, 2009

Have the Nationals Given Up on Milledge?

Bill Ladson's report that the Nationals are interested in Milton Bradley has sparked quite the reaction in the Natmosphere. Setting aside the obvious point that Ladson's reporting is almost never accurate, my reaction is twofold.

First, Milton Bradley is a really good player, when healthy. 'Nuff said there.

The other and frankly far more important implication in my view is that this could mean the team has given up on Lastings Milledge. After all, the team didn't trade for Josh Willingham to sit him, and there's nothing Elijah Dukes has done to deny him a starting job. And then you have Austin Kearns on contract for $8 million and Willie Harris was just resigned for two years. So... there's an odd man out here somewhere, and all indications point to Lastings.

If in fact this is the case (and again we could all be reading far too much into a Ladson-based rumor), I think it's a mistake.

Milledge's final line of .268 / .330 / .402 was a disappointment, no question. PECOTA's 50th percentile projection had him at .282 / .352 / .472, and his actual production fell a hair below his 25th percentile projection (meaning they saw a 75% chance he'd do better than he did).

But consider a few important pieces of context. First, Milledge was still just 22 years old on opening day in 2008. He was younger than any position player who put on a Nationals uni last year except Emilio Bonifacio. He's younger than Jesus Flores, younger than Ryan Zimmerman, younger than Elijah Dukes.

Second, last year was the first time that he'd ever played centerfield, really at all. He played 120 innings there with the Mets last year and played exactly 3 games in center total in the minors since he broke in with the Mets at age 19. That's not just relevant to his defensive performance (I'll get to that shortly) but also to his offense. It's hard enough as a young player to learn how to hit every day in the major leagues, but to do so while literally learning a completely new position? It's kind of amazing he didn't just completely flop out there and get sent down.

(Edit: this paragraph is wrong, my apologies. Before 2007, defensive positioning wasn't recorded for minor league games; all we know is that players were in the outfield, not which of the three outfield positions they played. However, reading some of the contemporaneous coverage on, it's clear that Milledge did play centerfield from '04-'06 and was moved to the corner outfield in '07 because of Carlos Beltran and then back to CF by the Nationals in '08. So although it's fair to say he's young and still learning, it's not accurate to describe him as completely new to CF in '08.)

But the really encouraging thing about Milledge's 2008 was how he got better as the year went along. He struggled pretty badly early on, skidding all the way to .245 / .312 / .368 when he went down with a groin injury on June 28. Pitchers have always thrown him an extraordinarily high percentage of breaking balls, and last year was no exception. He saw just 54.7% fastballs, and that wasn't going to change until he showed he could hit the off-speed stuff.

After he came back from a month lost to the groin, he got just 17 at bats in rehab, which anyone could see when he came back wasn't enough. He struggled very badly for a week after getting rushed back, and then from August 1 till the end of the season he was fantastic, putting up a .318 / .378 / .485 over that final 223 plate appearances.

You could write off that fast finish as a fluky hot streak, and to some extent it was, as he was floating on a .389 BABIP over that period. But he also had a 17.5% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate and .167 ISO Power. Those three numbers are highly indicative of a player's true skill, and although none of those are great numbers, they all represent improvement. His contact rate also was on a steady rise, reaching 78.7% last season, up from 76.1% in '07 and 72.9% in '06.

With a player this young you have to look for more for steady improvement than bottom-line success. The progress is there, and if he can get the bat on those breaking balls and get more fastballs, his numbers could jump by an order of magnitude fast. And you gotta love that eye-popping bat speed that has turned heads for years.

Which brings us to the question of his defense. As noted above, last season wasn't just the first time he'd played centerfield every day. It was almost the first time he'd played centerfield ever. And by any measure he was bad. UZR/150 had him at -9.8 runs allowed versus average. Baseball Prospectus's Rate2 stat had him at 12 runs below average over 150 games. And PMR thought he was even worse, pegging him at -14.9 runs over the 138 games he played. His routes to the ball were bad, and he just didn't look at all natural out there.

The question is can he get better and how much? I think there's basically no doubt he'll get better. For the umpteenth time, you cannot underestimate how hard it is to play every day for the first time while learning a new position at age 23 at the major league level. You can see the natural athleticism is there. I think he has a very good chance to become an average defensive centerfielder by 2010, by which time if his bat continues to develop at its current pace he'll be a near-all star-level performer.

If Milledge went out there next year and regressed either in the field or at the plate, I would consider moving him out of center or even demoting him to a fourth outfielder. But based on what we've seen, the trendline is there, and the progress is coming. I say pat the kid on the back and send him right back out to centerfield. He is, after all, one of only 4-5 guys on the whole major league roster who has a serious opportunity to contribute to a contender in DC.


JayB said...

Don't see it at all. His Defense got worse in September not better by my eye.

Trend line......he got hot finally for a month....that is not a did Austin Kearns....when are you going to write about why he should be starting based on moving his numbers up before getting hurt again!

Youth.....23 is not that young.....look at other teams and you will see examples of 23 year olds who have developed and changed positions, please stop making excuses for him. His projections are based on his age and experience and he did not get close to them.

He is not the type of hard worker that is going to improve at age 24 in my view. I could be wrong and hope so, but the biggest problem with Lastings is his lack of baseball fundamentals....he has had 5 years to learn the game and show no interest at all in playing smart him high now and get some pitching help.

Hendo said...

Trading Milledge now would be giving up. He's the kind of guy you want in trade. And you can be sure there are teams that do -- although they'll keep their interest muted as they try to yield as little as possible, even as they cast sending Church and Schneider to the Mets as a giveaway or a bust.

It's incorrect to say Milledge doesn't have fundamentals, because we've seen him execute them well at times. It's certainly correct to say he hasn't always executed them as he should, which I think points as much to the leadership and expectations of the team as it does to Milledge.

Change is needed, but not necessarily in center field. (Which, I guess, is why we're here.)

JayB said...

Hendo, Lets not get caught up in semantics here......Yes he can crow hope and throw with his momentum going forward.....but he does not...he throws off his back foot all the time....that is poor fundamentals and yes he can cut a corner rounding 3rd and heading home but he does not, he ends up near closer to the visiting team dugout in Nats park then the baseline. Yes he can hit a cut off man but he does not..........yes he could take a pitch after a 4 pitch walk but he does not.....goes on and on.......

Leadership is a huge issue and that is one of the MANY MANNY problems I see. Acta is not the right person to teach this team how to win games......he is a Single A manager at best. Even with all these fundamental errors every game, every inning, Acta talks about how much progress is being that why Jerry M admitted in September that Milledge had to play on the warning track because he had not learned after 500 innings how to go back on a ball?

James Bjork said...

I concur with sentiments that Milledge has not progressed like people hoped, and not necessarily at the hyped, overblown, doomed-to-disappoint level predicted by Bowden.

However, I don't think Milledge was that much more a letdown than any of the other youthful "core" of the team. Flores hit nothing special for a catcher, with a sub- .700 OPS. As for hitting breaking balls, I didn't see any player swing feebly at as much out-of-the-zone crap as I did a certain overhyped third baseman of the future.

That said, given the logjam of corner outfielders, I wouldn't mind seeing Milledge flipped for some decent, QUALITY near-major-league ready pitching. I'd really prefer they moved Kearns and ate some of his contract, but that's not going to happen.

I share Steven's nagging feeling that Milledge might be dumped for a lackluster return in a fire sale.

Steven said...

Jay--I did actually look at other teams. There were exactly 6 batting title-qualified players age 23 or younger in 2008, linked here:

They were, in order of OPS+:
Evan Longoria--125
Delmon Young--102
Lastings Milledge--91
Daric Barton--85
Adam Jones--85
Carlos Gomez--79

None of these guys was asked to change positions either. Gomez is probably the closest comp, having played all three defensive outfield positions, but even he wasn't as new to center as Milledge.

I know you aren't a Milledge fan, and that's ok, but arguing that 23 isn't really all that young is a really uncompelling argument.

Steven said...

The problem with trading Milledge for a pitcher is that pitchers have a way higher flop rate than hitters because of injuries. You gotta be really, really careful about trading young hitting for young pitching.

I think you're better off building the pitching staff by stockpiling live arms via trading vets and draft picks.

JayB said...


I did the same search and found those and more if you look at the same basic conditions as Milledge for prior years.....most often you find infielders that moved from ss to 2nd Base, and that is tough too, just like LF to CF the ball comes off the bat at a very different angle...I know I made the change in College......lots of young guys like Braun have moved positions and still hit......go back a few years and you will see them.......Point is Milledge is going to be 24 in April.....he regressed again last year.....sure he has talent that is not the point...the point is he is headed in the wrong direction and we should sell high not wait for the trend to continue and be forced to have more Lopez, Kearns, Chad types that now are useless.

Steven said...

I just made an edit on the original post--it's not accurate to say Milledge was totally new to center. I was misreading Baseball-Ref. He seems to have played there quite a bit from '04-'06. So I think we have to strike the "he was learning a new position" context from our eval.

I still see enough improvement on the walk rates, strikeout rates, contact rates, and ISO power to believe the ability is there.

As for whether his defense improved as the season went along, I really don't have an opinion. I would have needed to be watching most games in person and really paying attention to him to really say, and suffice it to say I was not. I just see his speed, arm, and athleticism should be enough to allow him to be an average centerfielder.

It may never happen, but the potential value of his bat at that position is too great I think to pull the plug this young. That's where I am at this point. If he's given the chance though, 2009 would be a big year for him, and I could move more into your camp if he's still costing us more than a win defensively with a sub-100 OPS+.

JayB said...

So it is your contention that at age 24 after 550 AB in CF with the Nats and 2 full years in the Minor Leagues and All of High School and and a few games over two years with the Mets....he is now going to learn to play CF.......and why would this make sense?

Steven said...

The same reason that Collin Balester got better at throwing the change up or Brett Favre reduced his interceptions in 1995-6 or Michael Jordan got better in the post after age 30... you're young, you get challenged at a higher level, you work at it, and you get better. Assuming the talent is there, there's no reason he can't get better.

JayB said...

Two Flaws Steven.....Tools and talent are different in baseball.....He has tools he does not have CF talent or what I would call instincts. Second Flaw is work and I have been through this....I have watched him for 2 hours before game time. I have watched him between pitches. This spring I will be watching at Spring Training....He is NOT one to work at his craft..........he feels he is good enough and that TOOLS is all he needs.....BIG PROBLEM IN BASEBALL.

John said...

It certainly seems like management has given up on Milledge- they brought in Corey Patterson and have been linked to Milton Bradley and now, god forbid, Andruw Jones. I don't know why. He really seems to be progressing with the bat, and he is still young enough to keep improving in the field as well.
I'm not that thrilled with any of the replacements that the Nats have been linked to (Bradley is clearly the best option, but he's only played 100 games in the field once in his 9 year career), so at this point I would rather they give Milledge another year and see what he can do.

JayB said...

Oh and Flaw #3 is Milledge has shown nothing ever that would lead me to put them in the same sentence with Michael Jordan was old and polished by age 24....not like you keep cutting Milledge slack, "learning the game"….that is just a poor rationalization for lack of progress by Lastings.

An Briosca Mor said...

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Bowden is trying to move Milledge. But if he is, it will be the same situation as the Cordero trade rumors in 2006 and 2007. Bowden will be asking for much more in return than other teams will be willing to give up. He's not just going to dump one of the team's most valuable assets for nothing. If some other GM offers the moon for Milledge, though, Bowden would be stupid not to take it.

Corey Patterson was not signed to compete with Milledge for the CF job. He signed a minor league deal, remember. He may not even start spring training in the big league camp. If by some obscure chance he tears it up in Florida, sure they'll add him to the 25-man roster. But they are by no means planning on that happening.

Steven said...

Jay--Let's for the sake of argument assume that Milledge is overly confident, thinks his talent will carry him, hasn't always dedicated himself the way he should (I'm not really convinced that he's any different than any other young kid, but for the sake of argument let's say he is)... Isn't it possible that he would mature at some point and focus?

The Favre comparison is probably most direct here. He thought he could get by on arm strength in Atlanta, and only when he got to GB and grew up a bit did he harness some of that talent.

As far as the instincts thing, you may be right. I'm just not ready to write him off on that basis. But I could see how that could be his undoing.

JayB said...


Well that is starting to make some sense as long as you take out the instincts aspect, which of course you can not. Time will tell, because, ABM is correct Jimbo never trades his guys because he over values them.....Milledge will be here because nobody wants him as bad as Jimbo does....that is why we have your blog......and why the Nats once again are on the road to nowhere with him at the wheel.

An Briosca Mor said...

Time will tell, because, ABM is correct Jimbo never trades his guys because he over values them

That is not what I meant by what I wrote. What I meant was that Bowden would not trade those players I mentioned unless he got top value for them. Same as you would not trade something you really wanted to keep unless someone totally blew your socks off with an offer.

In other words, JayB, you do not agree with me. As always.

e poc said...

i have nothing to add, but thanks for the post, steven. milledge is my favorite player, and i have huge hopes for him.