Friday, November 25, 2016

Braves Get Ahead of the Black Friday Rush, Add Sean Rodriguez

By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Thanksgiving is a time for family. It's a time for giving, well, thanks. It's also a time to apparently sign super utility players because, well, when really is a better time?

Yes, in a bit of a surprise, the Braves have lured Sean Rodriguez to Atlanta for $11.5 million dollars ($5M annual salary plus $1.5M signing bonus). The salary total will double Rodriguez's pay from last year, which was his highest single-season salary of a nine-year career that has included stops with the Angels, Rays, and Pirates.

I hate to use the phrase "NL Player." As in, a guy who is perfectly suited for the National League. That said, if that phrase has an ounce of validity, Rodriguez fits the mold quite well. He has logged a hundred games at each infield position and in left field. He can also fill in at the other corner outfield position and in a pinch, slide over to center field.

He is a perfect super utility guy in more ways than one. He carries historic splits that include a .249/.344/.411 slash against lefties with a .335 wOBA and 116 RC+ compared to losing the platoon advantage and posting a .224/.274/.377 slash with a .287 wOBA & 82 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. To be fair to Rodriguez - that split isn't nearly as stark over the last three seasons (.332 wOBA & 111 wRC+ vs. LHP, .315 wOBA & 98 wRC+ vs. RHP). That latter fact makes him not a complete waste against right-handed pitchers, but you still want to maximize his opportunities against lefthanders. Incidentally, the Braves could certainly use a bat at second base against southpaws - at least until Ozzie Albies is ready.

Rodriguez isn't much of a runner. Early in his career, he maxed out at 13 steals, but over the last four seasons, he has attempted just 14 attempts and he's been caught as many as he has been successful. Beyond that, Rodriguez is 5% below the average career-wise in base-running advances according to Baseball-Reference.

Before I get into his defense, I wanted to touch on a "skill" that might interest people as Rodriguez likely will be a super utility guy with a lot of non-starts throughout the season. As a pinch hitter, Rodriguez is no Lenny Harris or even Dwight Smith for that one season. Career-wise, he's 16-for-110 with 2 HR. Of course, being that pinch-hitting really isn't a skill that is repeatable year-after-year, Rodriguez will likely have ten pinch-hits this season and a walk-off Grand Slam against the Reds. I think I remember that happening once so why not again?

Now, let's talk about his defense. He's flexible and quite difficult to grade. While cumulatively, if you look at the number of innings he's logged over a career, you can get somewhat an idea, those cumulative numbers are based on easily swayed single-season marks where he logged 100 innings or less at a variety of positions. With that in mind, it's rather impossible to give you much of a grade that you can take to the bank, but I'll give it a try. At first base, where Rodriguez will become Freddie Freeman's new backup, Rodriguez grades out as slightly above-average. 4 career DRS with a 5.1 UZR/150. Actually, he might be a better defender than Freeman is, though reports are scare on Rodriguez's Splits Runs Above Average.

Rodriguez came up as a second baseman and has his most extended career look there. He's pretty stout there and hasn't missed a beat throughout his career. At worst, he's below-average. At best, he's elite. That doesn't remain a fact if he switches to short stop. He can play the position for you and is a better option than relying on guys like Daniel Castro (overall), but Rodriguez is a below-average option at shortstop. In fact, his DEF component of Fangraphs WAR was hit hard by the 177.2 innings he logged as a shortstop and -24.3 UZR/150. Over at the Hot Corner, he's about average. Nothing too good, nothing too bad.

He doesn't have a wealth of experience in the outfield (814.2 innings combined in his career), but his DRS and other metrics paint the picture of a guy who is adequate in the corners and a bit stretched to play more the occasional center field.

All in all, Rodriguez picked a great time to have a career-season. Of his previous six seasons before 2016, he finished the year with a wOBA between .305 and .313 (with two bad outliers). And then, 2016 hit and Rodriguez suddenly added new tools to his skillset. One of the most surprising was a 9.6% walk rate. While his career high was a comparable 8.7% in 2011, since then, his walk rate had declined from 7.9% the next year to Rafael Belliard-level 2.1% in 2015 (ed. note: Belliard actually had a career 5.4 walk rate and I love him).

He swung at pitches outside the zone at a rate that was was nearly 7% less than the previous season according to PITCHf/x. For that matter, he swung less in general. Interestingly enough, he made the worse contact of his career, which helps explain a career-high 29.8% strikeout percentage. However, where we might think the walk rate was a trend-buster, his strikeout rate wasn't that much worse than his 2015 rate (+3.5%) or career rate (+4.7%).

To go with his new approach at the plate, Rodriguez made more solid contact. His ISO was a career-high .240 over a .157 career rate. One of this biggest questions can be connected to his Quality of Contact Stats. Rodriguez has fluctuated percentage changes between his Soft and Medium contact rates, but has been steadily in the mid-20's for his hard-hit rate. However, last year, he posted a Soft/Medium/Hard percentage breakdown of 15.3% / 41.6% / 43.1%. A general guideline on how to read these numbers suggested that a 15/45/40 breakdown was considered excellent.

Now, can he repeat this effort? According to Ronnie Socash of Around the Box Score, there is reason to believe he can. Much like another former Pirate, Jose Bautista, Rodriguez re-worked his swing to include a larger leg kick at the plate in order to get more torque and power. The results in Year 1 indicated that the switch was a game changer for Rodriguez and gives us hope that it wasn't smoke-and-mirrors, but sustainable adjustments that led to Rodriguez's breakout performance in 2016.

That's not to say everything is likely going to be repeated. A quarter of all flyballs Rodriguez hit in 2016 turned into homeruns. To put that into perspective, it would have ranked tied for fourth in the game with Chris Davis and Yasmany Tomas provided Rodriguez had enough at-bats. That's not to say Rodriguez will fall back to his career norm of 11% of flyballs turning into homeruns, but there is good reason to be skeptical. That said, if he keeps the Soft% / Med% / Hard% rates, or at least something similar, it really doesn't matter how many of those hit become homeruns because that is a rate breakdown that will lean toward successful.

The signing of Rodriguez is a nice coup for the Braves. He's the type of player that makes good teams better. It remains to be seen how good the Braves will actually be in 2017, but you have to imagine that the market for Rodriguez was fairly large as the super utility role has been considered much more valuable in recent years. For the Braves, Rodriguez fills another role that the Braves have been lacking - competent options to take over in case of injury. Over the last few years, if there was an injury at shortstop, it was Daniel Castro taking over. The Braves used AAAA lifers like Brandon Snyder, Reid Brignac, and Blake Lalli because they were the best options from a pretty bad group of choices. Atlanta gave the ball to Joel De La Cruz, Ryan Weber, and Roberto Hernandez because they had to. With signings like Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon, and R.A. Dickey, the Braves are trying to avoid such situations.

Whether that makes Atlanta a contender for a playoff spot in 2017 seems iffy. The young pitchers still need to step up. The catcher and third base positions are still questionable. Nevertheless, these signings indicate, to me at least, that the Braves feel that window to compete is cracking open.

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