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March 26, 2009
  
Playing Devil’s Advocate on Church

[Before I begin, being of Japanese heritage (among others), I wanted to congratulate team Nippon for repeating as WBC champions. In honor of the win, I shall be drinking my favorite Japanese beer and listing to my (current) favorite Japanese artist while writing this article. I strongly suggest checking out both.]

As I’m sure you’re aware, Mike wrote a very good article about Ryan Church last week. I particularly liked his break down of Church’s career up until now. I also enjoyed reading the comments section as opposing viewpoints squared off; special hat tip goes to Lunkwill Fook for pointing out that Church was not really given the starter’s job at anytime with the Nationals, taking the words out of my mouth.

With Meddler’s article over at AA, as well as others this offseason, there are plenty of articles that try to answer the question “Who’s the real Ryan Church?” The obvious answer being that the real Church is somewhere in between his hot streak to start the season and his post-second-concussion play. So, why am I throwing my two cents into the Church collection? Simple, I think the Mets community is missing a big part of Church. It seems the arguments regarding Church are all about the offense. I mean I know chicks dig the long ball, but let’s talk defense.

Over the past three years, Church has had UZR/150 in RF of 18.8, 34.2, and 4.8. (It must be noted that the lowest rating comes from his most recent season and there are minor sample size issues. Regardless, it’s clear that Church can play a helluva right field.) For comparisons sake, Endy Chavez in right field over the past three seasons has put up UZR/150 of 11.6, 43.6, and 19.8. Considering Chavez is an absolute freak in the field, Church is respectfully close. Combine Church’s defense with his hitting and he’s a pretty valuable player going into 2009. While the last sentence might fly in other places, I know the readers of MetsGeek want something more quantitative. So, let’s calculate how valuable Church is projected to be in 2009.

Using Sky Kalkman’s handy spreadsheet, we can calculate Church’s value by inputting projected offense, defense and base running. Base running is a bit tricky to project, so I’m just going to go with PECOTA’s projection of -1.6 EqBRR. For offense, I like to average out the projections of a number of systems. Using FanGraphs’ provided projection systems (Bill James, CHONE, Marcel, Oliver, and ZiPS,) Church has an average projection of a .348 wOBA. Consider that over the past three seasons (in the ML,) Church has put up wOBAs of .383, .351 and .339, the projection of .348 seems very reasonable if not a bit pessimistic. Lastly, in order to project defense, I used a weighted average of Church’s past three seasons’ UZR/150 (weight by a 5:3:1 ratio) to come up with a projected 16.2 UZR/150, which is somewhat reasonable but probably very optimistic. Now comes the tricky part.

In order to properly project Church, we need playing time in the form of plate appearances. This brings up the question, how should you project playing time for a player in regards to valuation? That is it say, do you project based on if he was a full time starter, thereby ignoring time lost to platoons and, in Church’s case, time rested by the manager for health reason? While the latter would obviously be flawed, it would allow for an easier comparison of Church to other right fielders. However, health is more of a skill than some realize, so for this projection, I’m going to go with 525 PAs, or roughly 120 games for a player hitting in Church’s projected spot in the order. The results of the data being:

 PA   wOBA    Hit     BR    Pos   Fld   Rep   FA $   WAR
525   .348   0.79  -0.10  -0.75  1.62  2.50  $14.1   3.0

Wow, Ryan Church a 3 WAR, $14 million dollar player, I’m honestly surprised by how well Church projects. If Church put up these numbers last year he would be ranked the tenth-best right fielder in baseball ahead of Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerroro, Jermaine Dye and Bobby Abreu. I know what you’re thinking, this projection must be busted, but consider this, last year Church was worth $6.6 million in 359 plate appearances. Had Church sustained his production and got to 525 PAs, he would have been worth $9.65 million. In 2007, in 530 PAs, Church was worth $11.2 mil. Thus, considering the injuries last year, while the projection seems a bit optimistic (probably due to the defensive projection,) it’s really not all that inconceivable.

Church’s defense is one of the most underrated strengths on the Mets. I think this has to do with the fact that the guy is built closer to a keg than a beer flute, companied by the fact that Church is not that fast. While most Mets fans realize Church has a great arm and plays well in the field, especially after watching Shawn “Cap flies off head” Green in right, I think Church’s great jumps, positioning, and routes get lost on most. So, next time you debate about Church, don’t just mention his offense, talk about the D.


21 Responses to “Playing Devil’s Advocate on Church”

  1. Comment posted by Danny, Best Shape of My Life on March 26, 2009 at 8:52 am (#941567)

    Nice work, Joe. The projection definitely seems optimistic. I also think there is some legitimate concern for any long-term effects from the concussions and the mishandling of his situation.

    I’m definitely on board that Church has the chance to be a very valuable player for the Mets this year, I’m not just comfortable placing any expectation on that. I thought I knew about what we had in him going into last year, but I think we actually know less about what we have going into this year (due to the concussion issue). He’s certainly not as good as first-half Church and not as bad as second-half Church, but where does he fall in between? I don’t know.

  2. Comment posted by Danny, Best Shape of My Life on March 26, 2009 at 8:56 am (#941569)

    Oh, and I also wanted to mention about Church’s defense. I think he is closer to the slightly above average he was in RF last year than he is to the WELL above-average in RF he was in 2006 and 2007. His jumps and positioning may be the same, but he doesn’t seem to move around as well as he used to.

  3. Comment posted by dogcatcher on March 26, 2009 at 10:50 am (#941680)

    Some things to consider:

    1) Mets fans continually moan about the Castillos of the world…Church is the anti-Castillo. He plays hard, hurt and most importantly, he plays the game right

    2) I dont think his 2008 first half was a mirage. As for his D, given his age, there is no reason to believe he is in a physical decline, and his D can be outright dominant.

    3) I think the fact that his D slipped in 2nd half last year while he was struggling at the plate is an indication that both things might be primarily attributable to his concussion.

    4) Think about it, your brains needs to make split second decisions about batting a ball, and breaking on a ball…hopefully, he’s recovered and will resume his stellar play of early 2008. He didnt just have a good couple of months, he was probably our best player.

  4. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm (#941814)

    I enjoy watching Church play the field, so I hate be a party pooper, but:

    1) According to baseball-reference.com, Church played 97 innings of RF in 2006 and 0 in 2007. So you can basically throw those seasons’ numbers out. He played 135 innings of RF in 2005; maybe that’s where Joe’s numbers are coming from? Either way, there is effectively no sample size before last year.

    2) Church isn’t in his HITTING decline phase, but a lot of outfielders’ DEFENSIVE peak is at a much earlier age (like basestealers). Name me a gold glove CF who wasn’t better at 24 than at 29.

    3) UZR is like OPS — a nice summary, but you need to know what went into it in order to evaluate that number. Was Church’s good UZR last year based mostly on (a) getting to balls other RFs didn’t, (b) very few errors, or (c) throwing out runners?

    All that said, unless Church’s value last year came from throwing out runners, and they stop running on him in 2009, then at least this gives me some optimism:

    last year Church was worth $6.6 million in 359 plate appearances. Had Church sustained his production and got to 525 PAs, he would have been worth $9.65 million

    Anyone want to compare that with Milledge?

  5. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 26, 2009 at 2:34 pm (#941825)

    Er, uh-oh, I now see that Church put up a 106 OPS+ from a corner OF spot… For those money rankings, how much money is “league average” worth? Is a league avg bat + good D really worth $9.7mil?

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  7. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on March 26, 2009 at 3:21 pm (#941868)

    Nice catch argonbunnies, I used Church’s numbers on FanGraphs and overlooked the years listed. The numbers I used were 135 innings in 05, 97 innings in 06 and 724 in 08. Thanks for pointing that out. Also, I did point out that there were sample size issues with regard to his defense, but even with injuries last year, again, he put an UZR of 4.8 per 150 which is good.

    A league ave bat and good D can be worth a lot of money. With apologies to cat lovers, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. To compare, think about a RF with a good bat with bad defense ala Bobby Abreu. According to FanGraphs, he adds 22.7 runs above replacement with the bat but is 22.9 runs below replacement with his defense. Throwing in replacement levels and a positional adjustment gives us 1.5 wins, which would translate to a fair market value salary of $6.8.

    The thing is, it’s much easier to see good offense than good defense. Fans tend to take defense for granted, noticing if a player commits an error but failing to notice when a fielder isn’t even close to a ball that a better defender would have gotten to with ease.

    As for you claim that defense declines earlier than hitting, I would be very interested in a link that shows that. Beltran is into his 30s now and he has sustained his fielding. Wright’s defense is better than when he was 24. I’m not saying this is concreate or anything, but I would like to see a study before I believe this claim.

    Lastly, Milledge was worth 1.9 million last year in 587 PAs, with a -16.8 UZR in CF and worth negative 2.2 runs above replacement. Just for refrence, Milledge had a -13 and -33.4 UZR/150 in 07 and 06 respectivly (in 200+ innings.) It would be in Milledge’s best interest if he could play a corner spot for an extended period of time in order to blossom. Unfortunatly, Washington doesn’t look like the place for him to do that.

  8. Comment posted by littlefallsmets on March 26, 2009 at 3:28 pm (#941870)

    The real thing of it is… in a sense in terms of people making excuses for him, Church was LUCKY to be injured so much last season.

    It allows his career long pattern of unbearable streakiness to be ignored for the purposes of last season.

    “Look how great he did for like a month and a half! If he hadn’t been injured and did that all season…”

    He wouldn’t have, though. He would’ve evened right out with a slump of near-Delgadain magnitude had he kept his health about him.

    Yes, for short streaks, he looks like a complete everyday player. Nothing suggests that if the dude was starting 155 games against both kinds of pitchers that he’d have ANYTHING like those sorts of offensive numbers.

    And… the whole thing about “underestimating” the fact that he’s an above-average-but-unspectacular right fielder as opposed to an acceptable right fielder?

    Are you kidding? Are you actually serious?

    How much does being, oh, an 8 outta ten in right field matter over being a 6.5 outta ten? In how many plays in a season does an incremental defensive improvement such as Church’s over average actually come into play?

    The plays a Gold Glover would make, Church ain’t making. Most of the plays he makes IN RIGHT FIELD (not short, not catcher, not second, right field) either any decent right fielder would make or only a much much better right fielder would make.

    It’s not a plus defensive position and he’s not EXTRAORDINARY at the position, he’s just above average.

    Which, again, would be a great tool for a fourth outfielder off the bench but isn’t all that useful with a hitter who can’t hit lefties and is streaky as hell even against righties.

  9. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 26, 2009 at 4:04 pm (#941884)

    Joe,
    What’s fair market value for 0 wins?

    Shouldn’t a UZR/150 of 4.8 mean 0.48 wins? Isn’t “10 runs per win” the formula?

    Of course I agree about defense being harder to see. I’ve said this myself many times in arguing that Reyes is a below-avg shortstop. (I think he gets poor jumps, something we never see on our TVs except for the very occasional replay. He also has a slow transfer. But most fans seem to better recall his running speed, rocket arm, and athleticism around the bag.) Anyway, as for defensive stats, whenever a bunch of metrics agree on a player, I believe the evaluation. When they don’t, I don’t. Any idea how Church looks on non-UZR metrics?

  10. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 26, 2009 at 4:05 pm (#941885)

    For defensive decline, take a look at the ZR stats for Ken Griffy Jr., Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, Torii Hunter, and Kenny Lofton. The ones who weren’t already decreasing in range at 27 did so shortly thereafter. These are just the first guys that come to mind; not sure if I’m cherry-picking or not.

    Beltran’s a weird case, as he was declining from his final years in K.C. through his first year with the Mets, only to bounce back in a big way over the last 3. Seeing as ZR is relative to other CFs, it could just be that there are fewer good ones around now to compare him to…

    Of course there are exceptions, such as Jim Edmonds. But, y’know, the OF who’s as good at 30 as he was at 25 might be like the hitter who’s as good at 33 as he was at 28. Not bizarre by any means, but also not the average.

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  12. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on March 26, 2009 at 4:52 pm (#941930)

    littlefallsmets, to state that Church was lucky to suffer two concussions is terrible.

    argonbunnies, thanks for replying with a thought provoking reply. I’m not sure if your first question is tounge in cheek but the fair market value of a zero win player is $0. Yes, a UZR/150 of 4.8 equals .48 wins. Each win is worth roughly 4.4 million. Thus, that has a UZR of 4.8 would be worth 2.112 million dollars in defense alone.

    To better explain why Church is rated so high, I’ll breakdown the values by wins, since it’s apparant you have a firm grip of the concept. The conservative offensive projection I made for Church (slighty ahead of 08 but below prior years) has Church as a .79 win above replacement hitter over 520 PAs. Thus (assuming 150 games played) taking the .48 wins above replacement for defense from last year, 1.139 wins above replcement for offense (the .79 projection over 150 games,) add 2.5 wins replacement level (got to add it back,) and add the -.87 wins postional adjustment and we get a grand total of 3.249 wins, a $14.3 million dollar player on the open market. So, Church is still valuable even if his defense stays at last year’s level.

    Now, Church is not worth 14.3 million because there is no way the guy plays 150 games and teams only have to play fair market prices when a player is a free agent and the market values players correctly (it does not.) I just use monatary value because it’s a good way to compare players, compare how properly front offices value players and is easy for most to understand.

    I agree with you on your assesment of Reyes and have a hard time convincing my friends. Reyes has shown flashes, particulary in 07, so I have hope his defense can/will improve. I also agree that more metrics the better, so as for other metrics, both FRAA and RZR see Church as roughly average while OOZ thinks highly of him rating him with the likes of Ichiro and Gutierrez. So calling him above average but not top 10 seems fair.

    As for defensive decline, I think it would be an interesting study but I unfortunatly don’t have time and confidence in my ability to run a proper one. I’m not sure if you’re cherry picking, though you did pick all CF. It makes sense, players tend to lose their speed first and speed is a huge importance to defense, so I see where you’re going. I just would feel more comfortable with more data to prove it to me.

  13. Comment posted by Kneel Before Zod! on March 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm (#941931)

    just wanted to mention something:

    Lunkwill Fook is, in fact, a homoseksual

  14. Comment posted by littlefallsmets on March 26, 2009 at 5:21 pm (#941932)

    He was lucky in terms of his statistics, yeah.

    His offensive statistics were frozen, to an extent, that made a small early season streak count for much of the bulk of his season.

    It has allowed the sort of fans who wear rose-coloured glasses over rose-coloured goggles over rose-coloured contacts after some sort of… rose-coloured lazik procedure to pretend that those statistics are his actual potential.

    And they’re just not.

    Fact of the matter is that Church and Schneider are both only considered full-time major league players because they came up with the Expos, an organization so strapped for talent that incomplete players would be brought up full-time because there are no other options.

    A fine half of a platoon and a fine back-up defense-only catcher that could’ve easily been replaced relatively cheaply on the freeagent market without giving up a genuine prospect.

    These guys just aren’t starters on a team that wants to legitimately contend, especially on a team already saddled with hasbeens at second and first.

    Hasbeens at second and first, neverweres in right and catching… three all-stars and a promising young talent at the other four positions, there’s only so much those four can do when the other half of the starting eight is so fundamentally lacking.

  15. Comment posted by Gina on March 26, 2009 at 5:50 pm (#941936)

    Church’s range rating, according to UZR, for last year was exactly 0. Which was right in the middle of the league. And like someone else said it’s hard to take his defensive ratings in previous seasons much into account because the sample sizes are ridiculously small. Also if you look at 06 & 07 when he was worth so much at the plate his at bats against lefties were definitely being limited.

  16. Comment posted by Pat Andriola on March 26, 2009 at 7:33 pm (#941993)

    As a guy not big on Church, I must comment.

    Church is a decent outfielder. That’s it. He’s better than league average, but not by a ton. He looks great in right field because he tracks down balls on the run that Endy Chavez would have been in front of, and he has a helluva arm.

    His numbers versus lefties were atrocious. His numbers versus righties were fair. If I were making the lineups, he’d platoon with Tatis, but wouldn’t always play against righties, whereas Tatis would always play against lefties (other than days that the 5th outfielder played).

    If he breaks out, ride his bat for as long as possible. I just don’t see it.

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  18. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on March 26, 2009 at 9:52 pm (#942058)

    Gina and Pat,
    You guys bring up good points. I just wanted to point out that the projection I made used data not my subjective opinion. I agree with you Pat that Chavez is far better defensively, but Church is no slouch is more my point. And Gina, the hitting projection for Church is roughly an .800 OPS, which seems reasonable. What I wanted to get across in the article was that there is value to a player like Church, even if he projects to have an average bat with average defense. There are a number of fans that I hear on wFAN and read on blogs that expect all-stars at every position. While I do think he should platoon, I don’t think he in anyways holds the Mets back when he does not replicate his play pre-second concussion this upcoming season. We shall see though.

  19. Comment posted by Gina on March 27, 2009 at 8:12 am (#942142)

    I don’t think anyone is saying he by himself holds the mets back. I think the combination of so-so players around our big 4 is what people say hold the mets back. He just happens to be one of those players. A team with Church can win 90+ games, a team with Church, Murphy, Castillo, Schneider, a questionable bench and bullpen, after the 8th and 9th innings, and a 37 year old first basemen might not be able too.

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  21. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on March 27, 2009 at 9:44 am (#942149)

    I agree with what you’re saying Gina. I just want to add that by definition, a team full of average players would win 81 games. The comment section in the provide link has some great posts by Dave Cameron and Tango Tiger. Last year, Castillo and our bullpen were not average, had they been we would have been in the playoffs. Basically if you could take a team full of “Ryan Church’s” at every position and replace some of them with superstars (Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Santana) you should win 90+ games. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Church isn’t as big of a problem as some fans are making him out to be. The bigger concerns for the Mets are, like you mentioned, Murphy, Castillo, how the bench turns out, the health of the rotation, if Ollie pitches more like 07 than 08, etc.

  22. Comment posted by littlefallsmets on March 27, 2009 at 11:56 am (#942182)

    Oh, I’m with you there.

    Church is the least of the positional problems… Castillo and Schneider might as well change their names to Punch and Judy and who knows which Delgado will show up on any given day and when the bottom of the bucket will finally completely fall out there. All three are far more problematic than Church.

    If you were hiding him hitting eighth, on a team with seven legitimate bats, you’d probably say “ah, he’s not much but he’s better than most eight-hitters, he clears the pitcher pretty well” etc.

    But when Delgado goes down (not if) Church is going to be expected to be a five-hole hitter on a regular basis and… he will deeply suck in that role.

  23. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm (#942520)

    Each win is worth roughly 4.4 million . . . . Thus (assuming 150 games played) taking the .48 wins above replacement for defense from last year, 1.139 wins above replcement for offense (the .79 projection over 150 games,) add 2.5 wins replacement level (got to add it back,) and add the -.87 wins postional adjustment and we get a grand total of 3.249 wins, a $14.3 million dollar player

    Wait wait wait. If replacement level = 2.5 wins, and each win is $4.4 mil, then a replacement level player is worth $11 mil per year. This is obviously incorrect.

    “Replacement level” usually means someone you could pay the major league minimum to, someone who is far worse than average. I’m guessing that replacement level is negative 2.5 wins. So, rather than adding 2.5 to Church’s total, you should have subtracted it.

    3.249 wins minus 2.5 equals 0.749 wins. I think that is what Church provides in RF, and that’s a $3.3 mil player.

    What are we paying him? $2.6 mil? So we’re paying a slightly above-average player about what he’s worth.

  24. Comment posted by argonbunnies on March 29, 2009 at 10:58 pm (#942521)

    P.S. A team of 25 Church-level players (i.e. 0.75 WAA per 525 Plate Appearances or Batters Faced) would theoretically win ~95 games. How’s that for an illustration of “he’s not the problem”?

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  26. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on March 30, 2009 at 10:30 am (#942553)

    Hey argonbunnies thanks for taking such an interest. The definition of what replacement level is and the value of it can be found by clicking this sentance. I really recommend reading the linked article. Replacement level roughly assumes negative batting (I forgot if it’s -10 or -20 runs,) 0 defense (which adds the most value) and rewards playing time while not taking into account positional adjustment (this is key.) Thus, there are problems with the theory, since 0 defense is harder to achieve than it would seem and rewarding playing time is a sketchy area among other things. As for the equation I used, please also refer to FanGraphs as it is a great resource, the best free baseball resource in my opinion.

    PS to your PS, when I wrote a team of “Church level players” it was a response to Gina calling Church average, so I considered him average in the example I using. But as you know, I consider him slighlty above average, so you are correct about the estimated wins and it’s a great illustration of “he’s not the problem.”

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