Monday, June 22, 2009

It's Super Willie Time

Last season, after Wily Mo Painful collapsed and Manny Acta tried everyone else from Paul Lo Duca to Felipe Lopez to Rob Mackowiak to Kory Casto to Ryan Langerhans (oh yes, all these guys started in LF for the 2008 Scats), he finally handed Willie Harris the every day job on July 25.

Super Willie took the job and never looked back. With a .251 / .344 / .417 batting line in 424 plate appearances and a 30.8 UZR/150 in 562 innings in left field (meaning his fielding prevented runs at a rate of 30.8 per 150 games, compared to an average fielder), Harris led the team with 3.2 wins above replacement (WAR). Despite sitting for most of the first half of the season, he was tied with Pat Burrell for sixth among National League left-fielders in WAR.

This year, the 2008 HR total is looking like a fluke (his 13 homers last season were almost double his career total to that point), but his overall offense is almost as good at .228 / .350 / .386. And with regular playing time he can be expected to do even better.

And his real value of course is with the glove. He isn't quite as far above average in center as he is in left, and with a small sample size the advanced metrics are a little all over the place. Still, for his career he's a +2.3 UZR/150 CF, and much like the situation last year in left, average centerfield defense would be a godsend compared to the alternative.

As I discussed last week, Elijah Dukes has shown that he's every bit as bad in center as Lastings Milledge--he's sitting on a disastrous -23.7 UZR/150 for the year. But he's a career +11.3 UZR/150 right fielder.

Of course the cost of installing Willie in center and moving Dukes to right is that you have to send Willingham and his .246 / .378 / .516 bat to the bench. Based on his career numbers he's not going to hit that well for the rest of the season, but it's a big drop-off from Willingham's bat to Willie's.

Of course you also get Hammer's below average glove out of the line-up. He's a -4.7 UZR/150 LF for his career, and he'd never played RF at all until last week.

Let's try to quantify all these trade-offs. ZIPs expects Willingham to hit .255 / .357 / .463 for the rest of the season. Harris's projection is .254 / .342 / .386. Then, we gain a whopping 35 UZR/150 by moving Dukes from center to right and 7.0 UZR/150 by replacing Willingham's outfield defense with Harris's. Probably that's a little bit of an overestimate of the difference between Dukes's CF and RF defense, but it's also probably and underestimate of the difference between Willie and Hammer.

Punch all that into my wins above replacement calculator, and we find that the Harris/Dukes combo is worth 2.97 WAR over half a season, compared to just 1.91 for the Dukes/Willingham combo. That's more than one additional win over half a season--a significant improvement that most fans wouldn't expect to see from swapping Willingham for Harris.

Plus, all the gain is on the fielding side, and with our young pitchers coming in, we ought to be prioritizing helping them get outs.

And if all that doesn't convince you, watch this and this and this and this and this.


Ben said...

Well Steve, you are a classier man than I, because I would have linked to highlights of Dukes and Milledge thrashing around in center like trout on a river bank.

I think that one of the things that is overlooked as well in the debate over center field (and shortstop) and the vilification of Randy St Claire is that it is very hard to get a young, non-flame throwing, pitcher to throw strikes if he has no confidence in the men behind him. The Expos always tried to play a good defense because their team was based on young pitching.

So many of our problems come from the poor defense, and there is no doubt that the mini-upturn was a largely a product of real big league defense be it Harris, the resugent Hernandez or Dukes.

Steven said...

it is very hard to get a young, non-flame throwing, pitcher to throw strikes if he has no confidence in the men behind him.

This isn't overlooked by me. It's argument #1, 2, and 3 in my mind.

Ben said...

Well, if you know and I know, and Bowden has been put out to pasture, then who is putting Dunn Dukes and Willingham in the outfield right behind Guzman?

Cheryl Nichols said...


John O'Connor said...

On that score, why did Manny do a double switch in the 8th inning yesterday? The pitcher spot was due up 2nd in the inning, so Manny replaced Kip Wells and then did a double switch that put Hanrahan in Kearns' #5 hole (7th batter due up) and put Willingham in the #9 hole (due up 2nd).

Isn't the clear play there to keep the pitcher in the #9 hole (and keep Kearns in right) and then pinch hit Willingham for Hanrahan in the 9th? The score at the time of the double switch was 6-2, so you KNEW that Hanrahan wasn't going to pitch a second inning because the only way you could tie the game up was to rally in the 9th (which means you would have to pinch hit for Hanrahan anyway when his turn came up, which is what happened).

So no matter what, your second batter in the 9th was going to be Willingham (if he was the first hitter you wanted to use off the bench) and you could always use Dukes to hit for Kearns if his spot came up. The net effect of Manny doing a double switch was only to take out a superior fielder (Kearns) in the 8th in favor of an inferior fielder (Willingham) with no benefit whatsoever to your offense.

Deacon Drake said...

Yeah, the 7th inning of game 1 against the Yankees proved to us what we have known for a while now. Having anybody other than Harris in CF will cost almost the Nats at least a run per week, probably more.

Dukes: good athlete, got in good position to catch both balls hit to deep center, missed both with his glove. Very few people are good enough to play CF... Dukes belongs in right, Harris in center, and Patterson at Syracuse.

Will said...

Yes! Thanks for writing this post. I was nodding my head the whole time. I've long thought that the best move this offseason wasn't signing Dunn or Beimel, but resigning Harris to a two year deal.
BtB did a ranking on players by position at the end of last season. Harris ranked as the 6th best LF in the majors. And he only played about 2/3rds of the time as the rest of the guys.

The real solution here is to trade one of Willingham, Dunn or Johnson (in that order), so we aren't forced to play the nightmare OF of Willingham/Dukes/Dunn. It's not a coincidence we've been playing better since Willingham went on the BL. It's not his defense that makes us worse, but the repercussions that come with giving him playing time, like moving Dunn to RF.

Willingham has shown he's got lots of value. For crying out loud, he has a .390 wOBA, and he's actually been good defensively (0.8 URZ150). The more I write, the less convinced I am that Willingham is the problem, and that it's not Dunn who's the problem.

Actually... Willingham has posted a higher WAR than Dunn (1.0 to 0.9) in 100 fewer plate appearances.

Bland Moniker said...

It's been a week, but I just checked and Willie's UZR/150 in CF is now -21. Dukes is -23. I know we're dealing with small sample sizes but they aren't THAT small are they?

Steven said...

Yes, the sample sizes are really small.

But the UZR stats are updated at Fangraphs only once a week. Those numbers haven't changed since I did my post. That's why I used his career number for CF, which is +2.3.

I would take the over on a bet that he ends up over that number if he plays every day from here on out.

Bland Moniker said...

Glad to hear about the delay. I thought he had swung from average to terrible based on his play this past week. If there was that much variance in what looked like a decent week from Willie, I'd have to give up on defensive statistics altogether.
I agree, I bet Willie proves to be above average in center by the year's end.