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

Aubrey Huff: Championship Factor

The Washington Nationals had under contract one of the very best starting pitchers in baseball, and they decided against using him in the playoffs, where they lost. The decision was talked about for weeks and months in advance. It’s probably still being talked about somewhere, and it’ll be a topic for years. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants have under contract one of the better hitting outfielders in baseball, and they’ve decided against using him in the playoffs, where they’ve advanced to the World Series. With the stakes at their absolute highest, the Giants are still committed to going forward without Melky Cabrera. The Cabrera situation and the Stephen Strasburg situation are very different, with little to do with one another, but I needed an intro and I feel like this served the purpose.

So here’s where we are: the Giants are in the Series, and while they have home-field advantage — in part thanks to Melky Cabrera’s performance in the All-Star Game! — they need to identify a designated hitter for Games 3 through 5 in Detroit. Were Cabrera on the active roster, this decision would be pretty easy. He’s not, so it isn’t, because the Giants’ bench is bad. Still, there has to be a best of the worst, so let us discuss in some depth.

The first thing to note is that we’re talking about two or three games, meaning we’re talking about, I don’t know, ten or 12 plate appearances. All of the Tigers’ starting pitchers are right-handed, so the Giants’ selected DH would be going up against Anibal Sanchez in Game 3, Max Scherzer in Game 4, and Justin Verlander in an if-necessary Game 5. Sanchez has never shown much of any platoon split. Scherzer has shown a huge platoon split, where he’s struggled against lefties. Verlander dominates everybody and it’s best not to think about how hopeless that is.

If the Giants wanted to, they could activate Cabrera. It would be that easy. They could activate Cabrera and drop, I don’t know, Xavier Nady, and that fast the Giants would have a versatile switch-hitter at the most important point of the entire season. This year Cabrera posted a .387 wOBA before getting suspended and it turns out that’s one of the good wOBAs. On paper, the Giants’ best odds follow a Cabrera activation.

But it isn’t happening, and I doubt the Giants have even considered it. Cabrera is completely out of the picture, and if anything he’s already made his contribution by lifting the Giants in the standings and helping to give them home field in the final best-of-seven. There’s a chemistry argument against bringing Cabrera back, because the team has played well in his absence and hasn’t missed a beat. They could conceivably be disrupted by Cabrera re-joining the roster. We don’t know how much this does or doesn’t matter. There are more tangible arguments as well. For one thing, how good a player is Cabrera when he’s not using performance-enhancing drugs? How much of that wOBA should be credited to a synthetic substance? And for another, would Cabrera not be rusty? He hasn’t seen game action in months and you generally don’t just pick up where you left off. If you gave Cabrera a pure, objective projected World Series wOBA, you’d have to ding him for the PEDs and you’d have to ding him for the time off. So it’s not like the Giants are choosing not to activate a .350 hitter.

So let’s just ignore Cabrera and focus on what the Giants have to pick from. As things stand, here are the players who could play more in the American League ballpark:

I say “play more” instead of “DH” because these players wouldn’t necessarily DH. Huff, probably, would DH, and the same goes for Nady. Sanchez might DH and catch, depending on the starting pitcher. Arias would probably play third base and shift Pablo Sandoval to DH. Theriot would…I don’t even know. It’s hard to take the idea of Ryan Theriot: World Series DH seriously.

None of these are good hitters. Two of them would be left-handed hitters against the Tigers’ right-handed starters, so I’m automatically drawn to them. There’s some argument to be made that Arias would improve the Giants’ infield defense over Sandoval, but Arias projects as a lousy hitter against righties, and then you also have to consider the possible hit that Sandoval’s offense would take by DHing. Research has shown that position players hit worse when they DH, and while that doesn’t mean it’s true across the board in any and all circumstances, it’s a factor. Sandoval might be at his best when he’s constantly involved.

So we’re looking at Huff and Sanchez. One of them just posted a .280 wOBA over 95 plate appearances, while the other just posted a .296 wOBA over 227 plate appearances. The latter wOBA was probably inflated by a high BABIP, while the former wOBA was probably held down by a low BABIP. Huff, a year ago, wOBA’d .295 as a regular. Sanchez, a year ago, wOBA’d .294 in triple-A.

There’s no great decision to be made here, because you don’t ever want your DH options to come down to Aubrey Huff or Hector Sanchez in the year 2012. But Huff, at least, is capable of drawing walks and making contact; Sanchez finished with 52 strikeouts and five unintentional walks. Sanchez swung at 57 percent of all pitches he saw, while Huff swung at 40 percent. It’s not that Huff represents much of a threat, but he seems more likely than Sanchez to work quality at-bats and less likely than Sanchez to make an out. To say nothing of the potential complication of the Giants having both their catchers in the starting lineup.

Given the situation, if I were in charge, I’d probably tab Aubrey Huff as my World Series DH. I’d be open to the idea of Hector Sanchez, but I just can’t buy into a player with that sort of offensive skillset and approach. I’d know that, statistically, my best odds would probably follow activating Melky Cabrera, but I just don’t think that would be realistic, given the humans involved. The Giants don’t want Cabrera to be there and you can’t just go against the wishes of your players and coaching staff the day before the start of the championship. Cabrera and the World Series would make for a fascinating, compelling philosophical discussion. To what lengths do you go to try to maximize your chances? But it’s all purely hypothetical.

Now then, maybe you’ve heard that, in Italy, six scientists and a former government official were just found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The charge was that they were too reassuring prior to a 2009 earthquake that devastated L’Aquila and resulted in 309 deaths. The reality is that earthquakes are unpredictable and the scientists weren’t wrong to say the region wasn’t at elevated risk, and the real problem is that people didn’t understand the difference between “no elevated risk” and “no risk”. It was an issue of poor communication and poor education. But this has underscored for me the importance of issuing caveats. I don’t want to go to prison for potentially misleading an audience on a baseball website. Because we’re talking about so few plate appearances that a Giants DH would be given, we have to acknowledge that anything could happen. On average, the difference between Huff and an average bat in a game is about a ninth of a run, and the difference between Huff and Cabrera in a game is more than that. The difference between Huff and Sanchez in a game might be quite small. But in one game, or three games, maybe Huff goes 5-for-12, or 0-for-11. The Giants’ DH could be the Giants’ MVP! Or the Giants’ DH could be the whole reason the Giants lose the series. This is the magic and the insanity of the playoffs.

But what’s most important is that we were able to dedicate several hundreds of words to the subject of who the Giants should bring off the bench for two or three games in Detroit. And as ugly as that situation might look, at least the Giants won’t be starting Delmon Young in the outfield.