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The NL’s Second Best Outfielder

I suppose it was predictable. If anyone had asked before the season, “who will be two most valuable outfielders in the National League the week of the trade deadline?” I think most analysts would have agreed on two names: Matt Holliday and Andres Torres. Why even look at the leaderboard?

But seriously: Andres Torres?

Drafted in 1998 by the Detroit, Torres never really lit up the Detroit system, and was granted free agency in 2004 after only a couple hundred major league plate appearances. He bounced around several organizations’ systems, but his only pre-2009 major league action consisted of 21 PA for the Rangers in 2005. While he hit pretty well for the Cubs AAA affiliate in 2008, it was still the minor leagues, and he was 30 years old at the time — hardly the sign of someone who might be useful in the majors.

The Giants signed Torres to a minor league contract before the 2009 season, and Torres surprised by not only playing good outfield defense (primarily in center and right), but hitting the ball quite well, sporting a .379 wOBA (.270/.343/.533) in 170 PA. It wasn’t primarily BABIP-fueled as if often the case, as one can see from his impressive isolated power (.263) and above-average walk rate (9.4%). Still, over 170 PA just about anything can happen — observed wOBA is regressed halfway to league average at about 220 PA, which is a more sophisticated way of saying that Torres 170 PA of impressive offense told us less about his true talent, statistically, than just guessing he was a league average hitter. So it was understandable that Torres didn’t figure heavily in the Giants off-season retooling.

More than halfway through 2010, the 32 year-old Torres is at it again, getting 356 PA so far due to Mark DeRosa‘s injury situation and the continuing disaster in center that is Aaron Rowand. Torres is smoking at the plate with a .378 wOBA (.274/.365/.492). Once again, there’s little or no obvious BABIP luck here, Torres continues to hit for power (.218 ISO) and has not only increased his walk rate (to 11.1%) but has decreased his strikeout rate. His plate approach was decent in 2009, but discipline has improved in 2010 with less swings at balls outside the zone and better overall contact. As for his excellent defensive ratings, it’s far too small a sample to garner much about his true talent based on UZR alone, but the 2009 Fan Scouting Report seems in to indicate he’s for real in that regard.

What do we make of all this? Preseason projections certainly didn’t see this coming: CHONE projected a .318 wOBA, and ZiPS saw a .315. ZiPS RoS (which takes into account the current season’s performance) sees a .339 wOBA from Torres the rest of the season, which is above average, but a far cry from his current performance. This is not mean to “show up” these projections systems, whose creators hardly claim infallibility; moreover, there was precious little data from recent major- or minor-league performance that would suggest that Torres’ offensive true talent was even close to .378 wOBA.

To be honest, there still isn’t. While Torres may have more than twice as many PA in 2010 as he did in 2009, that does not mean that we have “twice the certainty” regarding his observed performance’s relation to his true talent level. Statistics don’t work that way. The updated projections from ZiPS and CHONE may not be your cup of tea, but I’ll take them over my own opinion. You may trust your own scouting eye better than I do mine (and honestly, who could blame you). While this isn’t a case of BABIP gone wild, random variation can go beyond just that, and there have been other massive deviations from true talent much larger and longer-sustained than the gap between Torres’ current performance and his projections.

Whatever the case may end up being, this post is not meant to be deflationary towards what Torres and the Giants have achieved so far this season. For as much (justified) criticism as the Giants front office receives, it must be admitted that in cases like Aubrey Huff, the Giants were right and many of “us” were wrong. But before being impressed with Aubrey Huff (who has been excellent), spare a moment for the NL’s second-most valuable outfielder so far in 2010: Andres Torres.