- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

2013’s Valuable Bench Pieces

Cleveland crushed Chicago 6-1 yesterday, largely due to Chicago’s year-long inability to get anything going on offense and Ryan Raburn‘s huge day. The domination of Chicago’s terrible hitting was not all that unusual, but Raburn’s performance was awesome. He had three hits, including two home runs, driving in four. More impressively, two of those hits (and one of those homers) came against Chris Sale. However bad the White Sox’ offense is, Sale has been the opposite of that as a starting pitcher since the beginning of last season.

One might point out that Raburn has always hit much better versus southpaws. Still, it is not as if Sale is a left-handed version of, well, Justin Masterson. Raburn was put in a position to succeed and has been used quite well this year by Terry Francona, who had enough confidence to have Raburn hit third yesterday against one of the American League’s best pitchers.

Raburn has been a great pickup for Cleveland, who right in the wildcard hunt. Inspired by Raburn’s big day and season, let’s take a closer look at him and two other part-timers, Mike Carp and Eric Chavez, who have provided very good value in part-time platoon roles.

For years with the Tigers, Raburn seemed like he would get a shot at the beginning of the year, struggle at the plate, get sent down or benched for a another player who would then fall apart, Raburn theh would get another chance and go on a hot streak. Part of his problem was that he was not a good defender anywhere.
Raburn did have flashes with the bat, though. He put up a .291/.359/.533 (129 wRC+) line in 2009, including 16 home runs in just 291 plate appearances. He got off to a rough start in 2010, but finished the year strong, with an overall .280/.340/.474 (120 wRC+) performance over 418 plate appearance.

At that point, Raburn was eligible for arbitration, but was also going into his age-30 season, and the Tigers bought out a couple of years for cheap. Raburn’s offense pretty much went down the tubes, though. His 93 wRC+ in 2011 was not bad for part-time bench player, but the problem was that that only place he could play acceptable defense was on the outfield corners, despite the Tigers’ wishes. Things really fell apart for Raburn in 2012. In prior seasons, his decent power had made up for his sketchy plate discipline, but in 2012 his power disappeared, and combined with his BABIP streaking down, he managed 28 wRC+ (.171/.226/.254). Understandably, the Tigers let Raburn go.

It was not all that clear that the 32-year-old Raburn would get a major league deal, but Cleveland did give him one. They have been smart, using Raburn as mostly a corner outfielder. He has not been strictly platooned, but he almost half of his plate appearances have been against southpaws, which is a good proportion for a right-handed hitter, given that their splits regress more heavily to average. (Raburn has actually been good against righties this year, but that is probably a fair bit of random variation, too, so Cleveland is right to try not to play him too much against them.) Raburn’s massive 168 wRC+ (.283/.377/.584) thus far this season does not have the typical BABIP hot streak as its main foundation — .321 is not that high. Raburn has improved his walk rate considerably (11.6 percent versus 7.1 percent career) and, more significantly, hit for massive power (.301 ISO). Obviously, while Raburn may have made adjustments, he is probably still way over his head.

No one could have seen this coming from Raburn, but whatever luck is involved, Cleveland deserves credit for being willing to go out on a bit of limb (Raburn is making more than the minimum while in the majors) for a corner outfielder in his thirties coming off of two bad seasons. Raburn has put up almost 16 batting runs in about a third of a full season’s playing time (199 plate appearances), and that has been especially important for Cleveland given the slumps that Nick Swisher and (especially) Mark Reynolds have fallen into after their hot starts, and is a big reason the team has been able to stay in the wildcard race. Raburn has probably given Cleveland one or two wins over what they might have expected from similar bench players so far this year, and that is huge.

[I could also have included Yan Gomes here, but there’s only so much space.]

Mike Carp was in the Mets’ system for four years before being part of a massive (and massively confusing) three-way trade after the 2008 season between the New York, Cleveland, and Seattle that landed him with Mariners. While he hit well in the Mariners’ minor league system, they never seemed all that interested in giving him a shot. He was a pretty bad outfielder, and he was blocked at first base by Justin Smoak. With Smoak and just about everyone else struggling, the Mariners did give Carp just over 300 plate appearances in 2011, and he held his own in a tough park, finishing the year with a 123 wRC+. In 2012, Carp had a couple of stints on the disabled list and didn’t hit (88 wRC+) when he did play. The Mariners were intent on sticking with Smoak (which, to be fair, has finally started to pay off a bit this year) and Carp was going to be 27 with no real record of doing much in the majors, so they traded him to Boston for cash.

I suppose one could credit the switch in parks a bit, but even after making the adjustment, Carp’s 158 wRC+ (.311/373/.589) is impressive. Sure, Carp has even fewer 2013 plate appearances than Raburs, and unlike Raburn, has an incredibly high .419 BABIP, which has helped his 30.8 percent strikeout rate slip by. But the power (.278 ISO) has been a big factor, too. As in all of these cases, there is a sample size versus true talent issue, so yes, there is luck involved. But again, the Red Sox have to be given credit for picking Carp up for practically nothing — it was virtually a no-lose proposition. They have also utilized him properly, as he has seen only 23 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching. Carp has been worth a bit more than a win above average on offense, which is excellent for a part-timer, and is exactly the size of their lead over the Rays in American League East as of this writing.

Whereas Raburn and Carp were pretty much always likely to end up up as part-time role players, Eric Chavez is a former star who has found a second life as a utility bat. As is well known, Chavez was a superstar third baseman for the Moneyball-era As, who started having serious injury issues not long after the As extended him through 2010. In his prime, Chavez was a Gold Glove third baseman who hit about 30 home runs a year. By 2007 it was a struggle for Chavez just to stay on the field. During the last three years of his contract with Oakland, he played in just 64 games and hit three home runs.

Chavez still wanted to play, and although he did not do much with the bat with the 2011 Yankees (80 wRC+), he did show he could stay on the field long enough to be a part-time player, as he got into 58 games. Still, one might wonder why the Yankees would bring him back for 2012 given that he could really only play on the corner infield. Chavez justified their faith, though, and in put up his best wRC+ (126+) since 2004, and his most plate appearances (313) since 2007. The significant change was his power, which came back as he popped 16 home runs in about half a season’s worth of playing time.

Chavez had proven he had something left, but when the Diamondbacks gave him a $3 million contract, it left many scratching their heads. Sure, Kevin Towers loves the “glue guys,” but didn’t Arizona already have plenty of those? Chavez turned 35 in the off-season, and even if one thought 2012 was more than a fluke, Chavez still had dealt with injury issues during his two seasons with the Yankees, including missing half of 2011 due to a broken foot and a concussion in 2012.

It has only been 194 plate appearances, but Chavez’s 138 wRC+ in 2013 is his best since, well, ever. As with both Raburn and Carp, the primary driver behind his .305/.352/.542 performance has been his power. As Boston has done with Carp, Arizona has maximized Chavez’s value by strictly limiting his playing time versus southpaws (only 23 plate appearance against them so far this year), something the Yankees did as well. The Diamondbacks are currently threea nd a half games behind the Dodgers in the utterly mediocre National League West, and even further back from the current wildcard teams. They still have a shot, though, and the additional win Chavez’s bat has brought them this year is has been significant.

What is common to all three cases? Each team refused to simply with an off-the-shelf replacement level player, was willing to give up a bit more in money (whether in salary or in the cash Boston sent to Seattle) than just the minimum, took a chance on a player not an age where they usually have much upside (even 27 in Carp’s case is not terribly young), and have put them in advantageous platoon situations. One would assume that each team saw at least some sort of remaining power in each player. Given that each team is also in a race for the playoffs, all three moves have easily been worth it.