Ryan Sweeney: We’re Selling Jeans Here

My friend Danny and I have harbored the notion over the last year or so that no single baseball player looks more baseball-y than Oakland outfielder Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney is 6-foot-4, muscular in a lean way, and is conspicuously in possession of what the scouting community refers to as “long levers.” And while I’m no expert on the subject, I’m almost positive that he has The Good Face, too. He is, essentially, a jeans model.

And here’s the thing about jeans models in baseball: we’ve been trained to be suspicious of them. Moneyball — a.k.a. the reason that many of us were called to sabermetrics — trained us to be suspicious*. The draft room scene in which Billy Beane and his nerd sidekick Paul DePodesta are forced to defend the relative merits of bad body catcher Jeremy Brown to the Old Scouts — that scene drew up the battle lines between old and new quite effectively (if a little dramatically). And Beane repeats multiple times in that scene the line that became a veritable mantra for sabermetricians in the early Aughts: “We’re not selling jeans here.”

*Mr. Dave Cameron discussed a similar point recently.

The thing about Sweeney is, regardless of how well he’d do selling jeans, he was more than just a decent player last year. You might be surprised to learn that he was, in fact, a four-win player last year, just below Kendry Morales — 46th out of 154 qualified batters — on the FanGraphs leaderboard for WAR. True, his offense is no great shakes for a right fielder, a fact to which his 104 wRC+ can attest. But defensively — defensively, he appears to have been magical. Regress it however much you want: a 15.5 UZR in only 600 innings is excellent. And it’s totally in line with his 2008 performance, during which he was worth 11.3 runs above average in 487 right-field innings. Overall, for his career, Sweeney has a 30.7 UZR/150 in right with a bit over 1100 innings of play afield.

Our understanding of Sweeney’s value — especially his defensive value — is indicative of a trend in baseball of which you, as a FanGraphs reader, are almost entirely aware — a trend towards run prevention. Certainly, MGL’s UZR metric — which I’m led to believe was referenced on ESPN the other day — has been an important part of that. So, too, Sean Smith’s TotalZone and Tango’s Fan Scouting Reports and John Dewan’s Fielding Bible. Being able to quantify defensive runs has allowed to see certain players in a new light.

What’s interesting about many of these players is that, beyond being toolsy as frig, they’re also what Beane would describe as jeans models. This phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed by the editors of Lookout Landing, for example, who’ve settled on a tagline in praise of Franklin Gutierrez: “Our Center Fielder Is Better And/Or More Attractive In A Sexual Way Than Yours.” Gutierrez is essentially the poster boy for this new understanding of defensive value, and he, like Sweeney, has the sort of tools that would — and probably did, when he was younger — enamor scouts.

Of course, the dramatic coincidence here (note: it’s not irony — but we’ll save that discussion for another day), is that Sweeney the Jeans Model plays for Billy Beane, the man who more or less trained us to look past tools (which we maybe conflated, mistakenly, with ignoring tools altogether). And physically, Sweeney and Beane are quite similar. Sweeney’s Baseball Reference page lists him at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. Beane? Well, I don’t know from which point in his career it’s taken, but his specs are almost identical: 6-foot-4, 195 pounds.

So what’s the lesson here? The same as always, I guess, just in different words. Use all the information you have. Always try to get better information. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if the information suggests you ought to. As the great sabermetrician Ralph Waldo Emerson says:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

To the max, Ralph Waldo. To the max.




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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


31 Responses to “Ryan Sweeney: We’re Selling Jeans Here”

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  1. Danny says:

    “Regress it however much you want: a 15.5 UZR in only 600 innings is excellent. And it’s totally in line with his 2008 performance, during which he was worth 11.3 runs above average in 487 right-field innings. Overall, for his career, Sweeney has a 30.7 UZR/150 in right with a bit over 1100 innings of play afield.”

    ————

    I like Sweeney a lot, but you can’t just ignore his time in CF and LF.

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  2. Aiden says:

    Excellent article…

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  3. Regardless of the fact that I’m male, I want to have your children, Cameron.

    Okay, in all seriousness, I think defense is going to go all Ben Wallace, and become so underrated that it becomes overrated. It’s the next OPS.

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  4. Daern says:

    Emerson and baseball. My life is complete.

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  5. dan woytek says:

    Carson,

    one last thing beside making my new enthusiast post thunder stealing. The parallels between Gut and Sweeney are interesting. Valuable as right fielders because of their defense. But let’s remember that Gutierrez never got a chance in CF till he made it to Seattle and was eminently more valuable in CF because of positional adjustment and demands of RF in general at the plate.

    Sweeney has played some center and although the cry of SAMPLE SIZE will echo in the heads of nerds all over this blog, has seemingly acquitted himself nicely. It surprises me that Beane went and got Crisp (Sweeney’s knee?) when, if Sweeney could hold CF down at maybe 3/4 the manner he holds down right and hit the same he’d be more “wicked valuable” as you would say in your NE parlance.

    Also, Sweeney has two years on Gutierrez (just sayin’)

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    • PL says:

      I think Beane took one look at next years FA market and saw it consisted entirely of Crawford & Werth and figured there would be more CF holes than players available, thus increasing the value of Crisp, Hairston, Sweeney, Davis, Buck & Cunningham (all mlb or thereabouts CFs).

      He “cornered the market” on CFs if you will, and while its going to give Oakland an awkward OF of Davis-Crisp-Sweeney with Hairston hitting against lefties, so going forward if any team needs a CF they are going to have to go to Beane, and overpay what they would normally if there was any kind of a market for CFs.

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  6. dan woytek says:

    two years to be better that is

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  7. Bradley says:

    Great post, Carson.

    Does this mean the Fat Scout was right all along? I don’t think so. If he was, Corey Patterson would be a hot commodity.

    Like Henry David Thoreau once said: “UZR/150 doesn’t make the Fat Scout right, just a little less wrong.”

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    • Felonius_Monk says:

      The fat scout was “kind of” right, in that Jeremy Brown wasn’t very good.

      In fact, the draft that moneyball is largely based around was pretty appalling for Oakland, given that they had (I think) 7 picks in the top 40 or so. They got a genuinely very good player (liked by scouts & sabremetricians alike) in Nick Swisher, a guy who has turned into a slightly below-average LF/3B in Mark Teahan, a league-average pitcher in Joe Blanton, and a bunch of guys that didn’t make it to the majors or sucked when they did.

      I guess it’s hard to draft 7 stars, given a very restricted budget for bonuses. I suppose you could say “good process, bad results”. But it’s somewhat difficult to ridicule scouts JUST for saying that Jeremy Brown or Brant Colarmino or whoever wouldn’t make it in professional baseball, when, ummmm, they didn’t make it in professional baseball.

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  8. Dan says:

    Fangraphs really seems to be pushing the idea that quantitative defensive analysis is some post-Moneyball phenomenon, which is strange considering Moneyball featured an entire section on the defensive analysis (through AVM) the A’s were using at the time.

    This seems to be the same line-blurring that was used in Dave Cameron’s “New Moneyball” post last month. Dave talked about how scouts were right because defense is now in vogue, while this post talks about how toolsy players are not to be overlooked. But these points are both red herrings. The real point of both posts was that quantitative defensive analysis has now taken root in front offices–that players like Ryan Sweeney are good because the metrics say they’re good. But that’s not a “New Moneyball” approach, nor is it some kind of weird coincidence that Sweeney plays for Beane’s A’s. Michael Lewis wrote about this very thing in Moneyball.

    ————

    “The precision of the AVM system, copied by Paul, enabled him to think about every event that occurred on a baseball field in a new and more satisfying way. Any ball hit anyplace on a baseball field had been hit just that way thousands of times before: the average of all those hits was the Platonic idea. Call it a line drive hit at x trajectory and y speed to point #968. From the ten years worth of data, you can see that there have been 8,642 practically identical hits. You can see that 92 percent of the time the hit went for a double, 4 percent for a single, and 4 percent it was caught. Suppose the average value of that event is .50 of a run. No matter what actually happened, the system credits the hitter with having generated .50 of a run, and the pitcher with having given up .50 of a run. If Johnny Damon happens to get one of his trademark jumps and makes a sprawling catch, he is credited with saving his team .50 of a run. “

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    • dan woytek says:

      Pretty sure the idea of this post is right around the part where the author states,

      “So what’s the lesson here? The same as always, I guess, just in different words. Use all the information you have. Always try to get better information. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if the information suggests you ought to.”

      It’s just seems that there is a certain level of comfort in assessing value of players offensively while the Gutierrez case shows us that value can be found in other places. The toolsy part seems logical as defensive value and athleticism seem to make sense. If it turns out that the shortest fattest guy in baseball is the best defender in the league, I’m sure someone here will write about that too. Besides, Defense is the new black.

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      Dan Number One, you’re right: I’m conflating metrics used by front offices with metrics used by informed fans. Oakland — and some other teams, I have to assume — have maybe been using defensive numbers for awhile. The point I’m intending to make is that, until quite recently, accurate defensive measures have not been available to fans. All that A’s stuff was, if I’m remembering correctly, pretty expensive and either proprietary to Oakland or commissioned from a private firm.

      I’m sure you’d agree that the popular moral of the Moneyball story — besides the A’s ability to exploit market inefficiencies — is that OBP is important. The reason that that moral overshadows everything else about the book is because OBP is, and was then, widely available to the public (and free of charge to access).

      It’s like with a lot of basketball metrics now, probably: we know from Lewis’s article on Shane Battier and Daryl Morey that there are important metrics that are currently unavailable to fans — metrics that say Shane Battier is the man. In the absence of those, we look at PER and Roland Ratings and whatever Basketball Prospectus has. We evaluate players based on those metrics — probably more than we should. But because it’s all we have, that’s what we do. Two or five or ten years from now, when the basketball equivalent of UZR is available, we’ll be all, “What the frig were we ever thinking?!”

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  9. Mark says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong (I read the book a few years back), but didn’t Beane also believe that defense was very overrated and a player should be drafted only for their hitting ability?

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      I don’t know if he ever said that. What I do know is that Beane saw fit to play Jeremy Giambi in the outfield, where he (i.e. Giambi) features a lifetime -24.3 Rtot/yr (that is, TotalZone with some other factors).

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    • BX says:

      I don’t know if he said that. The draft may be the one place where that may make sense.

      A guy who can hit but only field passably is more likely to make it than a guy who can’t sniff a .600 OPS at the MLB level probably won’t make it as a starter in the show regardless of his glove ability.

      I mean, besides drafting the best player available, of course, That’s usually the best draft philosophy IMO.

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  10. TCQ says:

    A secondary definition of irony is as follows(from Merriam-Webster)

    “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity”

    Seeing as the point you’re making is (seemingly) that Ryan Sweeney/The Jeans Model playing for Billy Beane as part of a “new Moneyball” is incongruous, I’d say that does match one definition of ironic…

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  11. Aaron says:

    I’m also bothered by the framing of the post. Yeah, Ryan Sweeney looks good in jeans, but that has nothing to do with the point. The point is that front offices value defense. Billy may have said, “we’re not selling jeans” but he never said, “avoid players who look good in jeans.” The fact that Beane employs a player who could sell jeans has no bearing on the point of the post. Tools do not equal defensive ability, though they certainly don’t hurt.

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  12. freshhops says:

    If the conclusion of this article is true, then Adrian Beltre doesn’t have a big ass.

    Beane’s point was that you can’t tell books by their covers and that my man-crush on Franklin Gutierrez should have to do with something less superficial than those nice long eye lashes of his.

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  13. walkoffblast says:

    I do not think Beane was anti-defense. Simply the market was ripe with inefficiencies on both offense and defense. Now offense is both a lot easier to predict, and measure, while also making up a larger part of a player’s value than defense. If you have to make a choice offense is where you are going to spend the money. Teams kept catching on and now the best bargains are on the flip side. It is also possible by valuing something like speed greater than there actually worth the market had inflated the value of defense either purposefully or not.

    Remember looks are still deceiving. The “fat third-baseman” also turned out to be a plus defender. Greek god of UZR to jeans model rating ratio?

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  14. Michael says:

    The premise set out early was that defense was that Oakland had a small amount of money and thus needed to allocate its funds as efficiently as possible. The Eric Walker quote early in the book intimates a few things (I’m actually not sure that everything was from Walker, but it was all in the same section):

    1) Pitching is not predictable enough to spend limited funds on.
    2) Defense is approximately 1/3 of run prevention and thus too ineffective to spend limited funds on.
    3) Of the offensive tools to focus limited funds on, OBP or not-out-makitude was the most effective way. OBP is the largest aspect of offense, which itself is half of the game. And OBP is more of a consistent tool that could be quantified and projected more accurately for the future.

    If you think of offense as 60/40 OBP/power (made up numbers), then you’d say that OBP is 30% of the entire aspect of the game (1/2 offense, 1/2 defense). Compare to focusing their funds on defense, which is 16.5% of the game according to the estimate the book says Oakland made.

    That’s the way I read the early part of the book, the setup prior to the awesome “draft dungeon” scene.

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    • Michael says:

      Sorry, messed that up. Here’s the revised first sentence:

      “The premise set out early was that Oakland had a small amount of money and thus needed to allocate its funds as efficiently as possible.”

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  15. Irregular Joe says:

    Good article. I’m left with one question:

    Did I catch a “Clone High” reference at the end?

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