Alex Rios And Problems of Perception

Everybody remembers the movie Inception, right? Nice visuals, convoluted premise, and that killer score – a more than sufficient popcorn delivery system. Fun fact: the main plot point of inception, that an idea can be planted in someone’s subconscious without them realizing, is real!

At some point this summer, exasperated Texas Rangers writer/blogger/fanalyst Jamey Newberg tweeted something to the effect of “Alex Rios is one of those players whose production will never line up with his numbers.” At first, I was offended. A player produces what he produces, his numbers reflect his….production. But the thought, the idea that a player is less than his final stat line, it stayed with me. I couldn’t shake it.

Then the offseason rolled around. The crop of available outfielders is charitably described as “very much ungood” and then a bunch of guys signed. One of those signees, Nick Markakis got four years and an AAV north of $11 million, to the surprise of many. And then, piling shock on top of shock, Rios himself signed a one-year deal with the Royals for $11 million.

There are plenty of reasons to scoff at the big outfielders contract. Entering his age-34 season, Rios comes off a rough season in Texas. He produced right at replacement level in 2014, displaying a worrisome lack of power (just four home runs and a career-low .118 ISO) and he missed time with injury, as older players are wont to do.

But more than most players, Rios’ problems are matters of perception. There are many reasons to not like Rios as a player or this signing in a vacuum, all factors that I believe contribute to the shrugs and disbelief when news of his Kansas City contract broke.

Most pressing, the concern expressed by the Rangers fan above: does his production lag behind his numbers?

The idea that a given player’s numbers might be hollow is tough to prove and even tougher to make stick, given the fickle nature of “clutch” performance. But, if we zoom out a bit, sometimes a pattern emerges.

Below is a plot of all batters with more than 1500 plate appearances over the last decade. It graphs their weighted runs above average (wRAA, the main offensive component of WAR) against their REW24, which includes base out context in measuring the value of a given offensive event. This graph highlights players close to league-average as a means to focus on Rios.

(click here to see the full chart)

The relationship between the two is strong (r squared = 0.9288) and it serves our (my) purposes well. All players more than one standard deviation (around 30 runs) off the mean are highlighted in yellow. There, with a 30 run differential between his RE24 and wRAA, sits Alex Rios.

Rios consistently underperforms in terms of RE24 relative to his overall numbers. Rios has played on a good team exactly once in his career (the 2013 Rangers, to which he came as a deadline acquisition and actually played quite well), with a grand total of zero postseason at bats to his name.

A player without a great deal of exposure during baseball’s playoff pressure cooker, a player who bounced around a little bit during his career (and one who made an ugly exit from the team that drafted him), one who didn’t build up the “gritty grinder” reputation like his mirror image Nick Markakis, and suddenly you have a player well on his way to falling through the cracks.

There are many names on the above scatter plot who “fail” to produce situationally in a way that represents their true talent and it didn’t prevent them from signing lucrative, long-term deals. It isn’t a deal-breaker but it contributes to the view of a player is viewed by fans and, perhaps, front offices.

*Rios’ former team, the Texas Rangers, are reportedly pursuing Jonny Gomes, rather than trying to bring Rios back into their fold. A cheaper option (because he’s older and worse) who offers nearly the same core ability – hitting left-handed pitching. Gomes boasts an ineffable quality that teams seem to love while Rios…does not.

Doubling down on Rios’ troubling inability to produce “when it counts” are his wild swings in value. Terrible seasons sandwiched between very good, above-average years. Compared to the reliably 2 WAR Markakis, Rios yo-yos up and down and makes it hard to get a good read on him.

Source: FanGraphsAlex Rios, Nick Markakis

By signing Rios, the Royals are betting on a bounceback from the notoriously hit-and-miss player. It’s just a one-year deal and they have contingencies like Jarrod Dyson and others ready to take over if Rios’ bat truly slowed down and his career is mostly over, not just waning. As Dave notes over and again, teams are paying a premium for these kinds of plug-ins, risking little in the long term but coughing up more for a low-ceiling lottery ticket.

Unfortunately for the Royals, our projection systems don’t care about perceptions. They don’t think of Rios as undervalued because of historic inabilities to produce when it matters. They forecast him as a 1 WAR outfielder, an aging player without much power and slowing legs to drag down his defensive contributions. Basically the same guy that sleepwalked through his final season in Texas, in other words.

Is Alex Rios a good bet in this environment? When presumably worse players are getting longer and richer deals, a team in Kansas City’s position can take on this minimal risk, secure in their belief that he can be the guy of 2012 and 2013 again. So long as they don’t ask him to deliver the kind of impeccably-timed base hits that fueled their World Series run.

Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

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8 years ago

Should I find the Rios signing irritating after hearing that Michael Morse is in Miami for 2 years and less overall money? I feel somewhat irritated. I would rather have had Rios than Morse, but why such a discrepancy in $$? This has been a hella-weird offseason.

8 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

It’s $11m versus $12m. The only difference is the payment plan.

8 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd


It’s $11m vs $6m (x2)… He’s wondering why one year of Rios costs nearly twice as much as Morse.

8 years ago
Reply to  KC

Because Michael Morse can’t play the outfield, regardless of what his player card says. Alex Rios can at least do that.

8 years ago
Reply to  KC

No income tax in Florida “adds” $700K to Morse’s overall contract.

8 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

The initial report said Morse got 2 years and $8 million, my comment was based on that figure. Now the $12 million figure is popping up in reports.

8 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

2 years, and $16 million plus potential incentives