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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.