Will batting .220 hurt Andruw Jones’ contract chances?

Andruw Jones is probably having one of the worst free agent seasons of all time. As we stand today his line reads an anaemic .225/.317/.425—Mario Mendoza would be proud.

Outside of the Braves blogosphere astonishingly few column inches have been dedicated to Andruw’s tailspin. Many analysts seem to have accepted that Andruw is having an off year and it isn’t worthy of analysis. I disagree.

Before the season began Jones was arguably going to be the biggest name free agent this offseason and liable to garner one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Both those assertions are now in serious, terminal doubt. The question remains what has caused Andruw’s slump and is he likely to bounce back? And, perhaps more importantly, what sort of deal will he sign in the coming Hot Stove?

2007 and Andruw

Let’s take a look at Jones’ sorry 2007 season and try to decipher what is going on. Below is a month-by-month breakdown of his season (up to August) by the three traditional offensive metrics: batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, as well as OPS and OPS+.

Month      PA      BA       OBP      SLG      OPS      OPS+
April/Mar. 112     0.261    0.402    0.534    0.936    155
May        112     0.202    0.286    0.343    0.629    69
June       114     0.143    0.211    0.276    0.487    28
July       119     0.263    0.37     0.566    0.935    144
August     108     0.263    0.315    0.455    0.769    98

Wow, look at June! Have you ever seen a star slugger with a monthly OPS+ as low as 30? And check out May too, that was another bad month with a .343 SLG, which is lower than his career OBP. Superficially April, July and August look like better months. April and July were, but August is a little deceptive because it appears he eased off on the power to try to compensate with contact—August OPS was nothing to write home about; walks also took a tumble.

To peer under these headline numbers let’s look at some of Jones’ peripherals and compare them to his career rate.

Month      BB%     K%      HR%     BABIP
April/Mar. 17%     23%     4%      0.305
May        10%     26%     3%      0.250
June       8%      22%     4%      0.145
July       13%     18%     7%      0.254
August     7%      19%     4%      0.301

Career     10%     19%     5%      0.279

The first thing that jumps to mind is his April numbers, which looked fine, were artificially inflated by an unsustainable BABIP of .305 compared to a career BABIP of .279. Had Jones’ April BABIP been more in line with his career numbers his average for the month would have been closer to his current season rate—.230. The same is also true for August.

However, in May, June and July, Andruw was unlucky on balls in play. In a horrendous June he had a BABIP of .145. Amazingly in that month he had more BIP than any other month, but they fell to glove rather than to ground.

What about some of Jones’ other peripherals? His home run rate has held up reasonably well and is more or less on par with his career mark. Despite his general poor play he has still belted 24 pitches into the seats, although that is partly the result of a surge in July. When he connects he connects.

One problem that many commentators identified in the early months was a gaudy whiff rate. However, Andruw’s career strikeout rate is a lofty 20%, which is once every five plate appearance he goes down swinging so his April, May and June figures of 22-24% weren’t crazily high. Since then he has kept his strikeout rate below average and his performance at the plate has improved. Over the past couple of years Andruw has been trying to work on being more patient at the plate to drive down his K/BB. In April his walk rate was almost double his career average, but as he started struggling his walks plumbed in an effort to hit.

If you allow me to blatantly speculate, what appears to have happened is this: in the early few weeks Andruw was trying be selective but swung hard and fast when he saw a hittable pitch. He walked a ton, got a dash of luck but didn’t hit many home runs despite playing well. In an effort to dial up the power he became less selective and more ragged and his production worsened considerably. Since then he has reigned in the power, focused a little more on contact and seen a corresponding change in his peripherals.

So was he swinging more in desperation in early summer? Or perhaps he just wasn’t making contact because his mechanics were off? I asked THT’s mechanics guru Carlos Gomez for his opinion. Carlos was pretty busy, but he did offer some advice:

I don’t think that I’ll have the time to REALLY break down his mechanics but it is apparent to me that his approach changed significantly. Locate a spray chart, MLB.com’s for example, and you’ll see that Andruw is hitting the ball the other way much less than years past. Whether that’s a result of his mechanics, I don’t know. He has just looked like he is trying to pull everything this year.

Carlos knows his stuff, so let’s look at a couple of spray charts courtesy of mlb.com. On the right is 2007 and on the left is 2005, the year that Jones pounded 51 long balls.

Can you see a difference? It’s tricky that’s for sure, but if you look at the distribution of fly balls, ground outs, singles and home runs and compare the two charts carefully, I do think it is possible to see more of a pull tendency. Kudos to Carlos.

Another test is to look at the pitch-by-pitch data can we see any change in plate approach?

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Year    Pit/PA  Strike looking   Strike swinging   Swing %    Contact %
1996    3.4     21%              27%               50%        66%
1997    3.8     23%              23%               47%        70%
1998    3.49    19%              23%               52%        71%
1999    3.59    23%              17%               47%        78%
2000    3.69    23%              16%               48%        80%
2001    3.85    24%              20%               47%        73%
2002    3.84    21%              23%               47%        71%
2003    3.51    20%              23%               51%        71%
2004    3.88    24%              24%               46%        69%
2005    3.82    22%              21%               48%        73%
2006    3.9     26%              21%               43%        72%
2007    3.94    22%              22%               48%        71%

Tot     3.75    22%              21%               48%        73%

Perhaps surprisingly nothing seems to stand out, although this data is aggregated for the year so we can’t pick out monthly trends. Contact rate, swinging strike rate and overall swing rate seem to be in line with career averages. In fact, without the benefit of scouting information just looking at the numbers we’d conclude that Jones was in a slump and will likely bounce back.

But Braves fans have been saying that for a few months now, and so far there is little evidence that this will happen. Let’s try to normalize some of his numbers this year. If we assume a career average BABIP, then his line improves to .259/.353/.508, which is starting to look a little more respectable. If we bring his strikeout rate down to his career average then his line jumps a fraction more to .265/.359/.519, which is marginally ahead of his career line.

With all this in mind what sort of deal will Jones sign during the winter?

The deal

The answer obviously depends on whether you think Jones has been unlucky or whether there is something fundamentally wrong with his play.

Let’s look at a couple of long range projections and run some scenarios to work out a range of career evolutions. Then we can work out what sort of deal he might get.

First, the projections. Below is THT’s three-year projection as well as PECOTA’s five-year forecast for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

THT     AVG     OBP     SLG
2007    0.273   0.360   0.533
2008    0.265   0.354   0.510
2009    0.257   0.348   0.486

2007    0.279   0.365   0.540
2008    0.277   0.365   0.535
2009    0.276   0.362   0.528
2010    0.269   0.356   0.510
2011    0.267   0.349   0.502

Hmph. PECOTA is quite a bit more optimistic than THT is. Interestingly the 2008 THT forecast is in line with Andruw’s adjusted 2007 line. It will be fascinating to see what the various projections believe will happen to Jones when the 2008 numbers are released in the new year. One thing we are sure of is that these numbers will come down but by how much is hard to say.

Okay, let’s construct a 2008 baseline for Jones from which we can apply an appropriate age adjustment. To make life simple we’ll consider four scenarios: outperform, average, decline and slump. Here are my suggested 2008 baselines:

              AVG     OBP     SLG     WAR
Outperform    0.277   0.365   0.535   4.3
Average       0.265   0.345   0.51    3.4
Decline       0.25    0.33    0.48    2.6
Slump         0.22    0.31    0.43    1.4

For the top line (outperform) I’ve simply taken the PECOTA 2008 number. Jones has only beaten that line once, in 2005, and if he were to post that next year I think he’d be playing at the top end of expectations. The average line is the THT forecast albeit with a slither shaved off OBP. I suspect that this line reflects an average expectation for next year, and as I pointed out above it reflects his normalized 2007 numbers. For the decline line I’ve just subtracted 15 points from both average and OBP and 30 points from slugging. Why? If we believe that at least some of Andruw’s performance this season is a fluke then this feels like the base of expectations. Slump is basically this year’s numbers.

In summary we expect Andruw to be somewhere between zero and three wins above replacement for 2008. Hey, but let’s not forget fielding. Depending on whom you believe Jones is somewhere between 0 (UZR) and 20 (PMR & fielding bible) runs above average with the glove. It’s isn’t easy to resolve this discrepancy so let’s credit him with one WAA, still good but certainly not Gold Glove caliber. The WAR number you see in the table above includes fielding.

Okay, so how do these scenarios translate into a contract? To answer this we’ll use a free agent calculator provided by Tom Tango, which I have updated to adjust for 2008 wage inflation. The calculator works out the size of the deal based on a player’s current wins above replacement, the length of contract and a decline of half a win (five runs) per year. And I’ve assumed that he’ll always earn a minimum of $3 million per year whatever the circumstances.

Based on these assumptions here are the possible contract values for Andruw Jones for each scenario:

Years   Outperform   Average   Decline  Slump
3       65           57        44       24
4       86           74        57       28
5       105          90        67       31
6       122          104       75       34
7       138          115       80       37

To read this chart if you believe that the “average scenario” best reflects Jones’ 2008 line then he will score anything from a 57/3 to a 104/6 deal, assuming a 0.5 win decline each year. If anything there is downside risk over the long term in all these scenarios. The consensus view is that because of his physique Jones will age slightly faster than the average ball player. Let’s create a second set of scenarios but with a decline of 0.75 wins a year. This is what we get:

Years   Outperform   Average   Decline  Slump
3       61           53        40       20
4       77           66        49       23
5       90           75        52       26
6       99           80        51       29
7       102          83        54       32
The answer

Which scenario is most likely and how do we make a judgement of value? Of course, there is no right answer. We simply don’t know. What we can do is to work out an educated guess by using weighted probabilities. This is slightly arbitrary but it is the best we can do.

Based on the eight scenarios above I’ve assigned equal probability to the different decline phases—essentially assuming a 0.625 win decline every year, which is marginally above average. My guess is that in both cases the average scenario is more likely than the extremes. With that in mind I’ll shoot for 10% weights for outperform and decline; 5% for slump; and 25% for the average.

Let’s tot it all up and see what we get:

Length    $$$
3         51
4         64
5         76
6         84
7         90

There we have it. Jones should secure a contract in the region of 80/6, a number slightly ahead of his current deal which nets him $14million a year but still below Carlos Lee money.

However, that may not be the full story. If Andruw believes he will bounce back then we may see him take a one year deal in a hitter’s park to boost his value and sign a long term agreement in 2009. Of course that strategy is fraught with danger. Another bad season and his free-agent value would plummet. And that is something he probably won’t risk—what is a few swagbags of money when you’re a multi-millionaire already?

References & Resources
Most of the data came from Baseball Reference. Also a big thanks to Tom Tango for his salary chart.

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