Sam Fuld and the Value of Defense

According to Internet: Sam Fuld once caught a cold and then set it free. Sam Fuld once threw himself out at home just to see what it was like. Superman wears Sam Fuld pajamas to bed. When Sam Fuld shaves, his razor begs for mercy.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays seem to have serendipitously acquired themselves a Legend. The 29-year-old outfielder, traded to the Rays in the Matt Garza deal this offseason, has earned himself a nifty Twitter hash-tag (#LegendOfSamFuld) in which Tweetors pine away about the preposterous magnificence of the base-pilfering, run-saving highlight-reel machine. In an uncanny show of heroics, Fuld has made two stupendous diving catches, hit a near-cycle (he was too fast for the necessary single), and seemingly won the left field job — all in the Rays’ first 11 games.

But this brings us to a most difficult quandary: Is Sam Fuld a legitimate starting option? The Rays, despite their loathsome start, sit a mere four games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. The Rays certainly have the talent to fight for the division, but should Fuld be a part of that fight?

Fuld has three distinct strengths: patience, running, and fielding.

Through the minors, Fuld exhibited not only relatively neutral platoon splits (as he demonstrated to Jon Lester last night, getting a single and a steal off the transcendent left-hander), but he also showed a knack for getting on base. One can only imagine this proved particularly useless while he wasted away in the Cubs minor-league system.

In his major-league time — altogether a total of 190 plate appearances — he has proved deft in that same way, cobbling together a respectable .264/.368/.393 slash. The .368 on-base percentage (OBP) also appears not-unlike his minor-league numbers, which teetered at or around .370.

The second Discipline of the Fuld is his baserunning. In a combined 810 Triple-A plate appearences (from 2009 through 2010), Fuld absconded with 44 stolen bases at a success rate of ~76%. While he will not mystify the world with his blurry legs and 10-steal games, Fuld’s responsible and effective baserunning no doubt has a perfect match in manager Joe Maddon’s aggressive strategies.

Much of Sam Fuld’s value rests in his defense — his amazing catches and slides. We sabermagicians must realize, though, that this is an area where we fall short. Our best present efforts (which include, in my humble opinion, UZR and TZL) require copious amounts of data for legitimate estimates. On the other hand, Father Tango’s Fan Scouting Report, which combines eye-ball guessonometrics and good-ol-fashioned linear weights, basically amounts to a crowd-sourced return to square one.

Here’s the rub: Sam Fuld’s greatest asset is a complete unknown (at least until Field F/X comes and blows our minds). We know it’s positive — he certainly seems more “rangey” than dive-tastic Nate McLouth — but we cannot be sure exactly how valuable he is.

Let’s say, for instance, the Rays make him their starting left fielder and he puts up around a .330 wOBA (something to the tune of .340/.400 for OBP/SLG). Then, let’s imagine what kind of defense he can put up: Will he be Shin-Soo Choo (perfectly average)? Will he be Juan Pierre (eh, like above average)? Or can he dare to attain Carl Crawfordness (we’re talking: Buh-BLAM!)?

Well, let’s imagine what 500 PAs of Sam Fuld would look like in these situations. The following chart does not include baserunning, but rather combines Fuld’s possible offensive production (we’re assuming average-ish) with his potential run-prevention values. We put those two possibilities into a WAR calculator — beep bop boop beep — and then we can see how many wins Fuld might be worth:

Remember, this assumes Fuld to be a neutral baserunner, which seems unlikely. Still, the contingency chart above shows he would have to strain to muster only a 1.0 WAR season. In all likelihood, Fuld could be worth ~2.0 wins, depending on how much his defense is worth — and 2 WAR is about what we expect from a typical starter at the major league level.

Can the Rays still contend will Fuld in left? Certainly. He may not be a long-term solution (and with Desmond Jennings incubating in Triple-A, the Rays don’t need him for the long term), but he can certainly tow his end.

In fact, Sam Fuld can tow all ends — simultaneously. #legendofsamfuld

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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I just saw the guy play four games in Chicago. In that limited sample size he seemed more like a fast outfielder than a good outfielder. He got to a lot of balls quickly, saved some bases and made that one spectacular catch to save at least three runs but he took some bad routes on flies then made up for it with his speed, misplayed some other balls (some quite badly) to allow extra bases and flat out dropped one for good measure. Was it just a bad series or are the rumors of his defensive prowess Griffey-esque?