Remember back in the 2009-2010 off-season, when some people weren’t sure who was better between big-time free agent outfielders Jason Bay and Matt Holliday? That was awesome. The Bay contract may not have been the nail in the coffin of Omar Minaya’s tenure as general manager of the Mets, but it was pretty close.
It is unlikely that even the biggest critics of the Bay contract at the time (and I was not a fan) thought things would get this bad this quickly. Bay was paid to be a star, but he has not even been an average player in either of his seasons so far with the Mets. Perhaps he was about average overall when he played in 2010, but he missed more than a third of the 2010 season. In 2011 he played more, but went from overpaid average player to just a bad player. He has looked so poor in spring training that there is talk (understandably dismissed by the Mets) that Bay could be platooned if he starts slow this year. The talk may be baseless, but that it is even out there is a bad sign for the Mets given that Bay still has two years and $35 million guaranteed (including the $3 million buyout on the 2014 club option) on his contract, which also includes a full no-trade clause.
But for the sake of speculation, if the Mets did decide to platoon Bay, would it really accomplish anything?
Platooning a mediocre player is usually a good idea, as it can enable a spot in the lineup to be above-average if the right players are chosen. The idea in Bay’s case probably also came about because he displayed a really big split in 2011.
One should be cautious in asserting Bay’s value as part of a platoon. The main reason (detailed here) is that individual platoon splits vary a great deal from year to year, and thus to determine a player’s actual skill we need to regress even several years of observed splits fairly heavily to the mean in order get an estimate of the player’s true platoon talent. Bay had a big 2011 platoon split, but for his career it is not nearly as large. Finally, Bay is a right-handed hitter, and the platoon skills of right-handed hitters generally vary less than those of lefties.
While projection systems do not see Bay hitting like the star the prior Mets administration signed him to be, they do see him having some value. Steamer projects a .336 wOBA, and ZiPS .338 wOBA. Taking the average of the two and applying a simple regression method, we estimate his current true talent wOBA to be .342 versus left-handed pitchers and .335 versus right-handed pitchers. Even if the Mets had a platoon partner for Bay that could wOBA .342 versus righties, that would only project to gain them maybe three runs over a full season.
The player mentioned who might be Bay’s platoon partner is Triple-A outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, whom Marc Hulet ranked as the Mets ninth-best prospect. While Nieuwenhuis has a reputation as a potential platoon player and would very likely be a substantial upgrade in the field over Bay, it seem unlikely that those two factors would be enough to make him an upgrade over Bay, even against right-handed pitching.
Of course, most of this analysis has been from an “objective,” statistical standpoint. There may very well be some legitimate concerns from a scouting perspective that the Mets do not want to discuss publicly for fear of hurting whatever chance they have of trading Bay. However, that points to another important reason the team is probably well-advised to avoid platooning Bay. If he really can put up a wOBA in the mid-.330s, he could have some value to a team in need of a left-fielder or even a DH (the heavily left-haded Cleveland team comes to mind) . Of course, the Mets would have to pick up a substantial portion of his remaining salary, but that is better than eating the whole for two non-contending seasons at the beginning of a big rebuild.
The Mets certainly do not want to devalue Bay by giving potential trade partners the idea that he is only a part-time player. Moreover, he would be the lesser half of a platoon, which would both cuts into his on-field value and decrease his playing time such that it would give the Mets and other teams less of an opportunity to see if he has anything left. Some may say that ship has sailed, but I think that over-emphasizes the 2011 season at the expense of Bay’s prior performance.
One could, of course, point to Bay’s advanced age (33, pretty old in baseball terms), injury issues, miserable Spring, as well as argue that the Mets probably are not going to get anything for him, anyway. Why “go through the motions” of trying to up his trade value? If Bay was blocking a hot prospect, I might agree. But while I was not a fan of the signing at the time, and am not now, at this point Bay may have enough left to offer that if he gets off to a decent start this season, the Mets could at least get some much-needed financial relief. Together, Jason Bay’s bat and glove are such that he is probably an average player at best. But Bay does project to have some value, and something that would be needlessly hurt if the Mets are too quick to bench or platoon him.