Phillies Sign Marlon Byrd, Uncertainty

With all due respect to Geovany Soto and Brayan Pena, I think it’s fair to say that we now have our first notable free agent signing of the off-season, as the Phillies have reportedly agreed to a two year contract with outfielder Marlon Byrd. The Phillies were known to be looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, and Byrd provided a lower cost alternative to the likes of Nelson Cruz. Signing Byrd is a win in that it is not signing Cruz, who I labeled as the #1 “land mine” of this free agent class, so at the very least, Phillies fans should be excited that Byrd will keep them from punting a draft pick for the right to overpay for Cruz’s decline.

But, apart from not-Cruz, what do we expect from Marlon Byrd in the future, and is a two year deal for a guy with his inconsistent history a risk worth taking?

From a broad view, Byrd is pretty easy to describe. He’s been roughly an average hitter over the course of his career, posting a 105 wRC+ in nearly 5,000 plate appearances, while playing all three outfield spots at a respectable level. Now 36, he’s more of a corner outfielder, but still a decent enough defender to have not be a defensive liability. And, even in the more recent past, he looks like roughly an average hitter.

From 2009 to 2013, a span covering almost 2,500 plate appearances, Byrd has a wRC+ of 105, matching his career average. From 2011 to 2013, in about 1,200 plate appearances, he has a 106 wRC+. Over significant periods of at-bats, Byrd has almost always settled in as a roughly league average hitter. However, when you begin looking at the data in one year chunks, Byrd becomes a bit more of an enigma.

His wRC+, by season, over the last three years: 94, 26, 136. One slightly below average season, one truly terrible season, and the best year of his career; not exactly the model of consistency that the larger data sets suggest. Toss in the fact that Byrd served a 50 game suspension for failing a PED test during his miserable 2012 season, and his last few years could rightly be described as perhaps the ultimate baseball roller coaster. At 34, he was the worst player in baseball and then suspended for using a substance, and then at 35, he had the best season of his career and was a middle of the order slugger on a playoff team. How do you evaluate a contract for a player that has recently shown that he could be terrible, awesome, or somewhere in between?

You take the macro view. Judging Byrd by either his 2012 or 2013 season would be a mistake. He wasn’t washed up a year ago, and he’s not a superstar now. Performance fluctuations are just part of baseball, and while not every peak or valley is due to random variation, you’re generally better off assuming a player will perform closer to a larger sample average than relying on a smaller sample of more recent data. And Byrd’s larger samples all suggest that he’s possessed some talent that makes him roughly a league average hitter. Heading into his age-36 and age-37 seasons, he’d have to be expected to perform a bit worse than his career norms, given the normal decline of physical skills, which is why Steamer projects him for a 97 wRC+ next year.

That seems like a reasonable forecast, but probably not an outcome the Phillies would be all that pleased with. For a corner outfielder with okay defense and okay baserunning, a 97 wRC+ over regular playing time adds up to about +1 WAR. Byrd has been about average throughout his career, but now getting older, he should be expected to be a bit below average. At this point in his career, he’s of comparable value to (or maybe a little worse than) a guy like David DeJesus, who the Rays just signed for $10 million over two years. But there’s also a pretty big red flag.

Year Z-Contact% Contact%
2007 90% 80%
2008 90% 82%
2009 88% 80%
2010 91% 81%
2011 91% 81%
2012 90% 80%
2013 83% 72%

Byrd has historically been a pretty solid contact hitter, able to put the bat on the ball at a roughly average rate. Last year, Byrd started swinging and missing at strikes for the first time in his career. His strikeout rate, which has generally been around 18%, jumped up to 25%. Maybe not coincidentally, he posted the highest isolated slugging mark of his career, so perhaps Byrd traded contact for additional power. I don’t know that betting on a sustained boost in power for an end of career player is really a great risk, though, and Byrd’s 2013 contact rates put him at a place where he’s basically useless if he’s not driving the ball when he does make contact. It’s not absolutely a sign of a big problem ahead, but it’s something to at least be a little concerned about, especially given his age.

The FanGraphs Crowd expected Byrd to land a two year, $15 million contract. He actually got $16 million for two years, so nice job crowd. The Phillies have filled a void, as Byrd will replace a spot that saw Delmon Young get far too many plate appearances last year, but he’s not exactly the answer to their problems. And there’s a decent chance that by next year, Byrd won’t be that different from Delmon Young, providing little or no value as age chips away at his skills.

If the Phillies were a really good team that just needed to plug a gap to put them over the top for the postseaon, 2/$16M for Byrd might be a reasonable enough gamble. It’s not the kind of contract that’s going to kill the Phillies by itself, but it’s another aging player probably making too much money for what he’s going to produce, and it probably doesn’t make the Phillies contenders, nor will it provide any value in the long term.

It’s not the worst move the Phillies could have made. It’s better than signing Nelson Cruz. Barring some pretty great moves to fill out the rest of their roster, though, it’s probably going to push them back towards mediocrity rather than making any real substantial impact on their franchise. If the Phillies are all-in on winning in 2014, then Marlon Byrd as their big off-season acquisition probably isn’t enough. If they’re in transition and building more towards the future, well, a 36 year old doesn’t really do much for them. Instead, this looks like a move that will keep them squarely in between, spinning their wheels in the land of not winning now and not winning in the future.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Joe R
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Joe R
2 years 9 months ago

I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Marlon Byrd is certainly in good shape for an older corner OF, and coming off a good season. On the other hand, he’s aging and has a recent history of badness, too. The Phils really have another year or two before they’ve the financial flexibility to sign more “sure thing” free agents.

lesmash
Member
Member
lesmash
2 years 9 months ago

Not trying to pick on you, Joe, but I think all commenters need to stop it with the “Player X is getting older” piece. We all are. And we all know that.

John
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John
2 years 9 months ago

I think it’s pretty clear that when people say a guy is getting older they mean he has declining skills as a result of aging.

the hottest stove
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the hottest stove
2 years 9 months ago

Not trying to pick on you here lesmash, but I think commenters need to stop it with the “One commenter can somehow control what other people should or should not post” piece. You can’t. And we all know that.

This isn’t McCannGraphs….

Franco
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Franco
2 years 9 months ago

As a Mets fan, it sure looked like Byrd radically changed his swing. I think the contact rates dropping are more a result of his swing for fences strategy than age related decline.

Still, a dude his age is a risk for decline. He could fall off a cliff, I just don’t think last year’s contact rate mean as much as they normally due with aging players.

jpg
Guest
jpg
2 years 9 months ago

Mets fan here too and you’re absolutely right. During one of the broadcasts, Kevin Burkhardt was talking to the guys in the booth about a conversation he had with Byrd where Byrd cited a change in his swing mechanics as the reason for his offensive resurgence. He went from having a long, loopy swing to a short, powerful and more compact stroke with a slight uppercut to it. The thought was that as a guy built like a tank he was hitting too many balls on the ground and that he needed to lift the ball more. The batted ball numbers back it up. This past season his GB% was 39 and his FB% was 37. Prior to this past year, his GB/FB by year since 2007: 1.44, 1.41, 0.99, 1.71, 1.78, and 2.0. The red flag is that his HR/FB was 16.4% this year despite never coming within 5% of that number at any point in his career prior.

Stan
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Stan
2 years 9 months ago
someone
Guest
someone
2 years 9 months ago

To be fair, the Phillies’ definition of statistical analysis does not necessarily match ours. For instance, the Dodgers decided to become a more quantitative organization when they hired Alex Tamin to head their analytics department. Of course, he’s a lawyer with no statistical training, and apparently was the catalyst behind signing Jose Cruz Jr for $4 million in 2012. The forward thinking reasoning? Platoon splits

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/tom_verducci/11/11/dodgers.trackman/

Of course, the real reason the Dodgers hired Tamin has nothing to do with improving their analytical thinking. He was hired for arbitration hearings, so agents coudn’t take advantage of the Dodgers using “new age” statistical analysis.

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 9 months ago

I seem to remember someone saying it is usually good for a team to not suck. This is such a low investment, and at least Bryd is not an anti-Semite nor does he weirdly stick his tongue out while hitting (that’s just gross, Delmon) or need a weight clause in his contract. I hate the Phillies and love when they make stupid decisions, but this, $16 million for a serviceable player over 2 years, doesn’t look like one.

Baltar
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Baltar
2 years 9 months ago

The Rays will sign 3-4 players for that same amount of money and significantly improve their team by doing so.

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 9 months ago

And they’ll sign another 3-4 players for the same amount that won’t do shit to improve their team. What’s your point?

Shauntell
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Shauntell
2 years 9 months ago

Still, they could’ve waited and signed a guy like Chris Young for 4M and he likely would’ve provided the same value if not more…

8M is not nothing, even for the Phillies, especially for a 36 year-old. And I mean, where’s the upside?

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
2 years 9 months ago

Where’s the upside? You just saw it this year. He put up a 4 WAR season, and was traded for a good bullpen arm and a nice 2B prospect.

AMB
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AMB
2 years 9 months ago

Why do you think Chris Young would give you the same production? 7-Foot tall pitchers from Princeton with arm problems rarely convert well to the OF.

Seriously, though, why do you think the OFer Chris Young will be a productive player? While I agree that Young is a good buy low candidate he was a good buy low candidate last year as well and proceeded to post his worst numbers in every possible statistical category and played bad defense to boot. Nothing in his statistical profile seems to indicate that he actually can play baseball at a high level anymore and should probably get a minor league deal at this point (a la Byrd in 2013).

Mike
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2 years 9 months ago

I dont really understand this move, Byrd was being looked at as a 4th outfielder and all of a sudden inks a 16MM deal?

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 9 months ago

Who’s looking at Byrd as a fourth outfielder?

vizsla
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vizsla
2 years 9 months ago

How much is Victor Conte’s cut?

_C1V
Member
_C1V
2 years 9 months ago

Save $16 million and deal with sub-par RF defense from Ruf in ’14

Simmonds17
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Simmonds17
2 years 9 months ago

Curious if you’ve seen Ruf play the outfield. He’s a nice inexpensive bat to use at 3 positions next year, but that’s the best role for him now in a non-DH league. The Phillies had atrocious outfield defense last year – Byrd is no gold-glover but he will be at least adequate out there, and adequate defense is not something Ruf could provide at either corner.

Tom Cranker
Member
Tom Cranker
2 years 9 months ago

Ruben Amaro cares not for rebuilding nor your nerdy wrc+.

mch38
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mch38
2 years 9 months ago

If RAJ met Dave Cameron he would push him down on the schoolyard and yell “Nerd!” at him

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Why would dave call RAJ a nerd?

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

RAJ could do whatever he wants to try and intimidate Dave Cameron and Dave probably wouldn’t even blink.

Also a Pun
Guest
Also a Pun
2 years 9 months ago

Why would RAJ think the British Prime Minister is a nerd?

John C
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John C
2 years 9 months ago

Byrd’s not an enigma. He just got A-Rod to put him in touch with his dealer.

olethros
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olethros
2 years 9 months ago

TL,DR: Old, bad team gets older, averager.

Jaybo Shaw
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Jaybo Shaw
2 years 9 months ago

As a Phillies fan, I am elated by this move. As Dave pointed out, Marlon Byrd is not Nelson Cruz (or Morales), and that is good for us. It is only a 2 year deal so RAJ hasn’t burned anymore 2015 and beyond money. Even if Byrd doesn’t produce in 2013, that is 8 million dollars that RAJ can’t spend next off season (if he is still around). Marlon Byrd is also not an 8th inning reliever or a DH (++). Not sarcastically, this team should be looking to make 1-3 year commitments to allow themselves to actually rebuild in a couple years if necessary. If there is a 15% chance that Marlon Byrd gives us 2/3 of his production from last year, that is gravy.

Basically, this is the best move the Phillies have made in years. Back to crossing my fingers and hoping that they don’t sign Ricky Nolasco.

Krog
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Krog
2 years 9 months ago

I said that no major league team would sign Byrd for more than one year and I was right. Thanks for making me look smart Phillies!

Greg V.
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Yes his last season was most likely a fluke but it’s hard to argue with the point that Cameron makes that if you’re a Phillies fan you should be celebrating they didn’t splurge on Nelson Cruz and took Byrd at a cheaper rate. I can already see the stat guy they probably have locked in a dungeon paying off. So unlike the rest of the Phillies fans who are having a meltdown today, I think it’s actually smart they went here instead of Cruz.

Krog
Guest
Krog
2 years 9 months ago

Or they could have not signed either of those guys. Marlon Byrd would probably still be around in January. No need to rush into giving him a two year deal.

False Dichotomy
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False Dichotomy
2 years 9 months ago

Gotcha!!!! Now you have Marlon Byrd on your roster!

Robbie G.
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Robbie G.
2 years 9 months ago

Why wasn’t Amaro fired? I’m not trying to be a smart aleck or make another Amaro joke, I’m being serious.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Because he “has an NL pennant and multiple NL east titles” is my guess. Even though that’s horrible logic.

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
2 years 9 months ago

If we assume that drug testing works (a big if), Byrd’s career reminds us that we cannot necessarily draw conclusions about a player’s possible PED use from his stats.

Dayton Moore
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Dayton Moore
2 years 9 months ago

Damn! Should have pulled the trigger sooner.

bobr
Member
bobr
2 years 9 months ago

What is the source for Byrd’s wRC+? According to FanGraphs, the career number is 101, not 105. (DeJesus is listed at 106.) And the site lists Byrd’s career WAR as 18.8. It lists DeJesus’s WAR as 24.2.

Hank
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Hank
2 years 9 months ago

~3 WAR over 2 years?

Doesn’t seem like a real huge gamble and it has upside. Even if the Phillies aren’t competitive to the point where a good season from Byrd would put them over the top, if he has a good season that will be a tradeable asset.

Brad Johnson
Member
Member
2 years 9 months ago

I’m guessing Nelson Cruz won’t be doing any interviews with FanGraphs anytime soon…

Simmonds17
Guest
Simmonds17
2 years 9 months ago

Does advanced metrics no consider ballpark factors. Byrd had a 24-home run season playing his home games at Citi Field and PNC Park, neither of which is at all friendly to right-handed power. Citizen’s Bank Park is, therefore, Byrd, even at 36 may be a better value for the Phillies than he would be for, say, the Mariners or Padres.
Also, he is an upgrade on what they had. If this was a ruinous contract, I could see the pickiness, but I think this was a sensible move. Now, I don’t expect it to be the Phillies biggest move of the offseason – I think you may see them move a big salary (ok, that might be wishful thinking on my part) and I definitely expect them to add a starting pitcher of note since they are thinner in that area than they have been in some time.

Pdowdy83
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Pdowdy83
2 years 9 months ago

If RAJ hadn’t non-tendered a perfectly serviceable outfielder in Nate Scheirholtz last offseason he could have already had an in house right fielder and not be spending $16mil on one. Scheirholtz would also have only been due about $6.5-7mil last season and this combined. I know Byrd is less of a risk and this signing isn’t too bad but RAJ puts himself into some bad positions and tries to spend his way out in aging veterans.

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