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Revival by Rios, His Contract, and, Yes, Sample Size

The 2010 season isn’t going the way the Chicago White Sox had hoped. They are currently 7.5 games behind the Twins, and 5.5 behind the surprising Tigers. It’s still early, but given the talent gap between the Twins and White Sox, and the unlikelihood of the AL Wild Card coming out of a division other than the East, the White Sox playoff chances are fading rapidly. Starts at DH by Juan Pierre, Zombie Mark Kotsay, and, above all, Zombie Omar Vizquel are a fitting summary of the troublesome season on South Side.

There have been bright spots. Paul Konerko and, in particular, Andruw Jones have been hitting better than they have in years. One hitter whose season is off to an excellent start while not getting much press (although I’m sure White Sox fans are aware) is Alex Rios. Rios, who came over in a waiver claim from Toronto last August, has been on fire offensively, hitting .308/.350/.564 (.401 wOBA) while stealing bases efficiently and playing good center field defense. This is probably a surprise to many given his terrible 2009, when the Blue Jays let him go for nothing in return other than someone willing to take on the remainder of the seven-year, $70 million dollar contract that extends through 2014 (with a 2015 club option). While many analysts criticized the original contract as well as the White Sox/Blue Jays decisions to pick him up/let him go, as Dave Cameron and Tom Tango showed last season, all three decisions were justifiable at the time they were made.

Rios didn’t get better upon arrival in Chicago, to say the least, and finished 2009 with a horrific .247/.296/.395 line (.306 wOBA), with his fielding nowhere near his usual standard. Some probably thought the Jays had pawned off an albatross. So far in 2010, however, there are no obvious “luck” indicators for Rios. His current average on balls in play (.312) is actually lower than his career average (.319), and he’s hitting plenty of line drives without it being unsustainable. His home run per fly ball rate is a bit up, but not excessively, and it may be that he is better suited to his new home park. Hit Tracker doesn’t see him as overly lucky, in any case. Rios walk rate is down a bit and his O-Swing% is up a little, so those are worth tracking.

I doubt anyone thinks that Rios’ true offensive talent is really .400 wOBA. ZiPS sees his current true talent (“rest of season”) as .350 wOBA. Given his performance so far, if he hits .350 with average defense (to add to his current +7 figure) for the rest of the season, he will be worth about five wins in 2010. That’s a great deal for the White Sox money this season (Rios is owed $9.7 million guaranteed).

What about going forward? From 2011 to 2014, Chicago owes Rios about $49 million dollars. Assuming a gentle salary inflation (7%) and 0.5 WAR a season decline, they’re paying for a player who will be worth somewhere between 3 and 3.5 wins in 2011. Assuming Rios is a .350 wOBA hitter, that makes him a +12 hitter over 700 PA. I currently estimate Rios to be about a +4 position neutral defender. +12 hitting + 4 defense +25 AL replacement level all times 85% playing time = a 3.5 WAR player. This is a decent deal for the Sox. Not great, it isn’t as though the contract would be easy to trade if they wanted to do so. But it hardly looks like an albatross at this point.

A more interesting facet of this whole thing has to do with sample size. Yes, I know, that gets mentioned here all the time. The ZiPS RoS projections incorporate the proper amounts of regression for the various components, so it isn’t as if the current .350 wOBA projection is getting “fooled” the hot start. The point about sample size I want to make isn’t about 2010, though. Rather, it is about the overreaction that many had to Rios’ 2009. Rios was bad in 2009. However, from 2006-2008 he was worth an average of 4.5 wins a season. That history did not disappear during or after 2009. So many times we get wrapped up in pointing out that the current season is a “small sample size” that we forget that even a whole season (Rios had 633 PA in 149 games in 2009) tells us surprisingly little about a player’s true talent. That isn’t to say that 2009 should get thrown out as an ‘outlier’. But once previous performance and regression to the mean are taken into account, even the significance of a full season can be exaggerated.

I’m not sure the White Sox front office was thinking in exactly these terms when the picked Rios up off of waivers — I’m sure they consulted their scouts heavily, as well they should have. However it came about, they rightly understood that there was more to Rios than his 2009 performance, and got a very good player at a reasonable price without giving up talent. 2009 counts, but it wasn’t the whole story — or the whole sample.