An Attempted Defense of Colby Rasmus’ Defense

Is there a more infuriating player in the game than Colby Rasmus? Rasmus put up a 4-win age-23 season with St. Louis in 2010 and looked like a future star thanks to power, on-base skills (combining for a 130 wRC+) and adequate center field defense. By the end of 2011, though, he was a Blue Jay — pushed out of St. Louis amid reports that he (and, at times, his father) couldn’t find a way to coexist with Tony LaRussa. Rasmus would put up a career-worst 2012 but then had a smashingly successful 2013, matching his 2010 production and adding better defense for what was essentially a 5-win age-26 season. But in 2014, he saw all his progress collapse. He missed a month with a hamstring injury, and he was eventually benched in favor of Dalton Pompey and Anthony Gose in September.

Now he’s a free agent, and he’s among the only intriguing hitters remaining. If you look at the free-agent list, you’ll see that only four active unsigned outfielders are projected for even a single win: Rasmus, Nori Aoki, Chris Denorfia and Andy Dirks. Aoki is the safest bet, easily, though with little remaining upside — he’ll plug a hole, but won’t move the needle. Denorfia turns 35 next year and is coming off the worst year of his career; Dirks missed the entire season due to a back injury and was recently non-tendered.

Rasmus, 28, is the most frustrating of the bunch, with his two star-level seasons stuck amid three replacement-level campaigns. But how true is that? For all the talk that Rasmus’ offense fell apart in 2014 — and a .287 OBP obviously isn’t acceptable — he still hit for enough power to be a league-average hitter (103 wRC+), which isn’t exactly the disaster you might have expected. His batted-ball distance increased from 2012 to 2013, and then again in 2014. Last season’s 290.09 batted-ball distance was equal to or better than Carlos Santana’s, Anthony Rizzo’s, Chris Carter’s and Edwin Encarnacion’s. Rasmus also had a career-best line drive rate, and a career-best HR/FB rate. His infield fly ball rate dropped for the third year in a row.

His plate discipline and contact skills weren’t good last year, which explains a large part (as does a BABIP drop) of his lessened offensive production, but the items above all make for things to like. After all, even in a bad year, he was a league-average hitter. For his career, he’s been a league-average hitter. In 2015, Steamer projects him to be a league-average hitter. It’s rarely that simple, though, because prior to 2014 he’d gotten to “league-average” by a combination of ups and downs. Still, bear with me for a moment and ponder this: If Rasmus were a league-average hitter with an equal chance of breakout as collapse — and paired that with league-average defense in center field — that would make for a valuable player who could help many teams.

As recently as 2013, saying he was a league-average defender in center would be selling him short. That year, UZR/150 scored him a 15.2. DRS and raw UZR both said 11. That’s quite good. But last season, he wasn’t league-average, or really anything close to it. That UZR/150 plummeted to -15.3 — a 30-run difference — although since he only played in 104 games, we can use raw UZR, which put him at -9.1. DRS saw it similarly, dropping him to -7.

It’s fair to say the change in defensive ranking cost Rasmus two or more wins above replacement, which, if paired with a league-average bat, is the difference between replacement level and a capable starter. But I don’t think it’s enough to leave it at that, because this is a huge component of his value in the future. How Rasmus is viewed on defense could be the difference between a one-year, make-good deal or a multi-year contract. Even accounting for the known issues in single-year defensive stats, it’s relatively rare to see a drop like that without some identifiably extenuating circumstances, like age (not an issue here) or serious injury (the hamstring counts, but this isn’t Matt Kemp, either).

In Rasmus’ case, it might be instructive to look at his spray charts:

rasmus_cf_2013-14

There are fewer dots on the right because Rasmus played nearly 300 fewer innings in 2014, but there’s an interesting difference between the two. In 2013, when Rasmus was seen as being a very good defender, most of his misses were coming in, with relatively few balls going over his head. In 2014, he wasn’t beat so often coming in, but he had considerable trouble with balls going over him.

In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might say Rasmus was positioning himself shallower, which would make it easier to come in on the shorter ball while making himself more vulnerable to the deep one. I promise I wrote that setup before I googled to see if that was true, and came across this Shi Davidi article from the first week of the 2014 season:

A study last year by fielding analytics guru John Dewan ranked Colby Rasmus fifth among centre-fielder’s in terms of playing shallow in the field. 

Measuring the number of times a player needed to break back on balls as opposed to breaking in, his going back rate of 40 per cent tied Michael Saunders and Adam Jones, trailing only Denard Span and Ben Revere at 42 percent, and Dexter Fowler and David DeJesus at 41 percent.

**

Thoughts, John Gibbons?

“It definitely takes away more of the cheap hits, it depends on who’s at the plate though,” he said. “If you’ve got some guy who’s got a little bit of juice, you don’t want to be too shallow. The ball gets over your head, if somebody’s on that’s a guaranteed run, it’s extra bases, if the ball drops in front of you it’s just a single, you still have the double play in order. We’ve talked to him.”

Way back in 2010, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Joe Strauss noted much the same, saying that “playing too shallow also became an issue with Rasmus, who appeared to adjust during the season’s final weeks.”

Perhaps this points us in the right direction, because while making the routine plays is obviously important (and while Rasmus was flawless on that in 2014, the lessened playing time meant he did so less often than in 2013), what really sets outfielders apart on defense is making the plays that most others don’t. If we flip over to the Inside Edge stats, we can see Rasmus made five fewer plays marked “Even” or “Unlikely,” and much of the gap is in deep center.

rasmus_cf_2013-14-insideedge

That’s the kind of thing that hurts your defensive metrics. We now know Rasmus has had an issue with playing too shallow more than once, but the next obvious question is, “Did he do that more than he did in 2013?” I’ve been unable to find a solid answer. Complicating the issue is the Jays’ defensive strategy changed considerably over the past two years. In 2013, according to Jeff Zimmerman at The Hardball Times, the Jays ranked 15th in number of shifts. In 2014, they were second, shifting hundreds of times more than they had just one year before, which was clearly a team priority, as indicated in this June article by John Lott at the National Post. There are many reasons why Rasmus may have looked so poor in the outfield, and not all of them may have had to do with him. (His Speed score, for what it’s worth, was much better in 2014.)

In September, Sean Forman, of baseball-reference, put out some very timely thoughts on the issue:

If the team is really good/bad or even lucky/unlucky at positioning players, it may be that the 12% catch would actually be caught 70% of the time given the player’s initial positioning. BIS doesn’t track player initial locations (other than noting shifts) because they aren’t available on TV and even if they did, which number should we go with (88% or 30%) as we don’t really know how much of the positioning is due to the team or the player?

This is the kind of thing we really need StatCast for, though compiling enough data will likely come years too late to help Rasmus. Unsurprisingly, if you regress Rasmus’ defense to league-average (which is what it would be if you took the last two years together — of 33 center fielders with 1,000 innings, he ranks 15th), then he looks like a far more palatable player. For example, if you look for similarly aged center fielder seasons this century who fit Rasmus’ profile in terms of wRC+, defense, and base running…

Since 2000, Age 27 or 28 CF
wRC+ 95 to 105, Def -2 to 2, BsR -3 to 3
Season Name Team PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
2013 Dexter Fowler Rockies 492 .263 .369 .407 .347 104 2.9 5.1 -0.3 2.1
2009 Curtis Granderson Tigers 710 .249 .327 .453 .338 101 0.3 0.9 1 2.6
2008 Coco Crisp Red Sox 409 .283 .344 .407 .333 97 3.5 2.1 -0.7 1.5
2005 Brad Wilkerson Nationals 661 .248 .351 .405 .331 103 -0.6 1.6 1.7 2.5
2002 Preston Wilson Marlins 582 .243 .329 .429 .332 103 0.1 2.6 -0.9 2
2000 Garret Anderson Angels 681 .286 .307 .519 .345 99 -1.3 -2.1 1.4 2.2

… you get a bunch of league-average seasons.

According to our depth chart projections, there are 31 different outfield spots (10 LF / 8 CF / 13 RF) that don’t currently project for 2.0 WAR, which is another way of saying “below-average,” which is another way of saying “needs help.” That’s not the same as saying there are actually 31 situations that teams are looking to improve, because players like Curtis Granderson, Torii Hunter and Jay Bruce aren’t going anywhere, and there’s certainly an element of “Don’t overthink a decimal point of WAR” in there. But there are certainly more than a few spots where real help is required, with left field for the Reds likely topping that list. If you’re not willing to take a gamble on trade targets Andre Ethier, Allen Craig, Carlos Quentin, Will Venable or B.J. Upton, requiring you to weigh how much salary you want to eat and/or talent you want to give up for players whose best days are probably behind them, then you’re looking to the extremely limited market.

Or, you could go for Rasmus. A team would have to accept the much larger risk than Aoki would give you, while hoping for the much higher upside that clearly exists. As Drew Fairservice wrote here in August, there are a lot of different potential outcomes for Rasmus’ career. What happens with his next contract might come down largely to how individual teams measure and value defense. If and when he signs for more than we think is appropriate, keep in mind all bad WAR numbers aren’t created equally. It’s intended to serve as a good starting point to delve into further. In Rasmus’ case, I’m not sure there aren’t more questions than answers.

We hoped you liked reading An Attempted Defense of Colby Rasmus’ Defense by Mike Petriello!

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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ArmSideRun37
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ArmSideRun37

His power makes him fun to watch but the k-rate got silly high this year. I swear he had 100 three-pitch ks in 2014.

Bobo Polaroids
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Member
Bobo Polaroids

This is actually fairly easily researched on BRef. Rasmus had 22 three-pitch strikeouts last year, in 376 PA. He had 26 the year before, in 458 PA. It’s a slight rate increase (5.85% in 2014, compared to 5.68% in 2013) but imperceptible over the course of a full season.

More generally, while I don’t have the full numbers (because I don’t have a Play Index subscription), Rasmus’ P/PA did drop last year, but even after the drop, his P/PA was still 42nd among batters with at least 250 PA. I suspect what you’re perceiving is just that Rasmus struck out more in 2014, not that he necessarily strikes out “quickly”.