Don’t Sleep on Chico

Last week, noted fast boy Chris Taylor made an out at second base in a Dodgers intrasquad game. That’s hardly news; players run into outs all the time, particularly in games that don’t matter, while they get used to when they should and shouldn’t gamble. There was just one notable thing about this out, however:

That’s right; the fielder on the play wasn’t an active roster Dodger, or a minor leaguer, but clubhouse attendant Francisco “Chico” Herrera. As if that play wasn’t enough — gunning down a runner from deep left field in Dodger Stadium is no joke — he doubled up on impressive plays by doubling Gavin Lux off of first base after a spectacular outfield catch:

Chicomania is in full swing in Chavez Ravine. Justin Turner wore a #LetChicoHit t-shirt for batting practice one day, and questions about Chico are a mainstay in Dodgers press conferences at this point. The excitement led play-by-play announcer Joe Davis to ask for a statistical assist:

Well, here we are. Could the Dodgers make the playoffs with Chico? Let’s find out.

The first thing to know about this exercise is that it’s nothing like taking a man off the street and putting them in left field. Herrera isn’t Joe Six Pack living out a fantasy camp dream. He’s a clubhouse attendant for the team, but he’s also a talented baseball player in his own right. Plenty of people think they might be able to catch a fly ball in a big league game, but most of them didn’t bat .500 for their high school team and play two years of junior college baseball, as a starting shortstop no less.

So don’t take this as a referendum on whether a random person off the street could get by in the bigs without embarrassing themselves. They couldn’t. That’s not Herrera, though. In fact, we can probably get at least an estimate of his WAR. It won’t be pretty, not even a little bit, but that’s the point. He’s going to be pretty bad. There’s a reason he’s the clubhouse attendant instead of a minor leaguer. The question is merely whether the Dodgers could withstand his play.

Let’s start things off easy, by approximating Herrera’s outfield defense. I’ll be honest and say that I have no idea how to do this. The Taylor play was impressive, but it’s an unlikely spot to tag up in a real game. Herrera also showed off his arm on a throw home earlier in camp — he looks like a legitimate major league left fielder when throwing, something like the Fenway fan from a few years ago. Let’s give him a league average arm.

The next question to cover is range. I can’t do anything other than speculate; Statcast data on clubbies’ top speed and initial jump are unsurprisingly hard to come by. So I’m going to use another random piece of Chico history; he garnered a measure of local fame in 2012 by ascending from team ball boy to getting a pro ball tryout. He did it on the strength of his defense; largely his throwing arm but also his instincts. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a defense-first player earning a tryout managed average left field defense — it’s the easiest position to play out there, after all.

That was eight years ago. It’s hardly controversial to say that he might have slowed down a bit by 30. I unscientifically looked at range factors of 30-ish outfielders in the majors and assigned him -5 runs from range plus errors per 150 games, or -2 in a 60 game season. This is all hypothetical nonsense, but hey, now we have a number.

From there, it’s time to look at Chico’s offense. I’m going to be honest; I was a little stumped here. We know he hit .500 in high school, and that’s really good. He got the bat knocked out of his hands in college, though, to the tune of a .239/.326/.319 slash line in 2009. He probably hasn’t improved since then; he’s spent the last 11 years as a ball boy and later a clubhouse attendant, not in the cage getting in his cuts.

How can I compare JUCO stats to a major league batting line? Mostly I can’t. Instead I went extremely approximate. Clay Davenport maintains a site that estimates major league equivalents of batting lines in various leagues. He only has pro ball, which is a real mark against us; the Pioneer league, which is as low as I could get, is still probably too high. But we’re looking for extremes here, so we’ll try it; Luis Avalo of the Brewers hit .236/.268/.382 in Colorado Springs, which works out to an estimated .143/.162/.214 line in the bigs. Yikes!

I wanted to cross-check that with one more thing, because we actually do have a decent sample of athletic people with some but not much hitting talent having to suddenly face major league pitching. That’s rookie pitchers; at this point pitchers get roughly no at-bats in the minors, so their first year in the show is frequently their first meaningful experience with professional pitching. It goes about how you’d think; rookie pitchers hit .106/.136/.121 last year, good for a .118 wOBA. That’s worse than pitchers overall (.144 wOBA), and we’ll use that line instead of the minor league translations.

A .118 wOBA means that every time Chico bats, on average, the Dodgers’ run expectancy goes down by 0.17 runs relative to a regular hitter. That’s, well, awful. It’s like a bad-hitting pitcher, because we used pitchers who can’t hit as our guide. That’s not all of his offensive game — baserunning matters too. But given how rarely he’ll be on base and the fact that he seems fast from watching a few defensive highlights, I’m comfortable making him an average baserunner to go along with being one of the worst hitters in league history.

Now that we have all the components of WAR, we can plug them in to get an overall value. This is all ridiculously approximate, so all the misguided complaints that WAR is measuring the wrong thing actually make sense here; you can’t really stitch a player together like this. I don’t care, though, because again, this is an article about what would happen if a clubhouse attendant played every day for the best team in baseball. Let’s have some fun with it.

WAR happens to have a pretty handy formula, which you can find here. That’s great; all we have to do is fill in some boxes. First, batting runs. All we have to do there is compare Chico’s wOBA to league average, convert that into runs, and multiply it by plate appearances. I’m making him play every game and bat ninth; call it 3.77 PA per game, and that works out to 39.5 runs below average over a 60-game slate. You could throw some league and park adjustments in there, but both of those terms are far smaller than my uncertainty about Chico’s talent level, so I ignored them.

The next few terms are easy. Baserunning runs? We’ve agreed that’s zero. Fielding runs? I unscientifically landed on -2 over all 60 games up above, so we’ll stick with it. That’s -41.5 runs of value relative to league average so far, with a positional adjustment, league adjustment, and replacement level adjustment left to go.

Positional adjustment is pretty easy. Left field has an adjustment of -7.5 runs per full season. Convert that down into 60 games of playing nine innings every day (allowing defensive replacements isn’t fair because they’d be offensive upgrades, so we’re running him out there for every single inning), and it comes out to an additional -2.8 runs. Now we’re at 44.3 runs below average.

You could, in theory, work out an estimated league adjustment. That accounts for the fact that the two leagues aren’t identical (to oversimplify things). Given how confusing the league adjustment will already be without inter-divisional league games this year, I’m choosing to ignore it and instead move directly to replacement level. It’s a complex formula, like so:

Replacement Level Runs = (570 * (MLB Games/2,430)) * (Runs Per Win/lgPA) * PA

That looks like a lot, but all it means is that we’re constraining position players to be worth 570 wins above replacement overall in a full season. That means that the average player (which every single one of our calculations so far has been in relation to) accumulates a tiny fraction of a WAR every time they come to the plate.

How tiny? 570 wins times the number of runs that make a win, divided by the number of plate appearances in the league as a whole, will give you the number of runs above replacement an average player produces per plate appearance. Using 2019 values (we don’t have any 2020 values yet), that works out to an arbitrarily precise 0.0315 runs per plate appearance.

That sounds like gibberish, because “runs per plate appearance” is a gibberish unit. In plain English, it means that a perfectly average player who got 200 PA this year would be worth 6.29 runs above replacement or 0.61 WAR. We’ve allocated Chico 226 plate appearances this year, which means we need to add 7.1 runs to his calculations. That leaves us with the following formula for runs above replacement:

Chico Runs Above Replacement = -39.5 + 0 – 2 – 2.8 + 7.1

Chico’s total value relative to replacement comes out to -37.2 runs. After converting those into WAR at last year’s rate, that’s -3.6 WAR over 60 games, an unimaginably brutal number, though one with huge uncertainty bands in both directions.

There’s more, though. He’s not playing a new position, but rather replacing the current Dodgers left field situation. In our recent Positional Power Rankings, we pegged them for 0.9 WAR split between AJ Pollock and Joc Pederson. It won’t be easy to get either of them more at-bats with Cody Bellinger in center and Mookie Betts in right, so I’m deeming the starts they would have gotten to simply disappear. That means that Chico would cost the Dodgers 4.5 wins, in expectation, relative to their current situation.

That sounds pretty brutal! There are no players projected for 4.5 WAR this year, for example. There aren’t even any players projected for 3.6 WAR. Mike Trout leads the pack with a 3.3 WAR projection. Chico is, in essence, anti-Trout. A player who was Chico half the time and Trout half the time might come out to roughly replacement level.

That sounds like a pretty definitive answer. But there’s more! The Dodgers, as you might know, are really good. They can afford a 4.5 WAR hit more than any other team in baseball. We actually project them to win their division by five games, by far the biggest expected margin in the league. Adding Chico to the fold would knock them down from 36.4 projected wins to 31.9. It would also add 4.5 wins of expected value to the teams the Dodgers play, split something like 0.75 wins to each divisional opponent and 0.3 wins for each interleague opponent. Bump second-place San Diego’s win projection up by 0.75 wins, and you get a 32.05 win estimate, a rounding error ahead of the Dodgers’ new 31.9 projection.

Want an estimate of how the NL West would look with Chico in left? Think of the NL East. To do a rough translation, the Padres and Dodgers are the Nationals and Braves, neck and neck at the top of the division. The Diamondbacks are the Mets, a game or two off the pace but certainly drawing live. The Phillies are the Rockies; maybe, but probably not, interesting. Lastly, the Giants are the Marlins.

Would Chico doom the Dodgers? Almost certainly not. Even if he hits like a rookie pitcher and fields like a 30-year-old, the team has enough talent elsewhere to make it work. And this isn’t remotely an exhaustive study; his actual impact on the team’s run scoring is less than my calculations because he’ll be batting ninth, with fewer runners on base than average. The team can also shade outfielders toward him, given their sterling outfield defense, and heck, I project him to be such a bad hitter that he could increase his value by frequently dropping down sacrifice bunts. On the other hand, he could be an even worse hitter than I project, which would swing things the other way.

Would the Dodgers be NL West favorites with Chico out there? It would be close. The moral of the story isn’t so much that, however, as it is the fact that the Dodgers are amazing. They could play literally anti-Mike Trout in every game of the season and still have the same playoff odds as the Nationals and Braves. That shouldn’t be possible. Chico is, according to my math, bad in a way no one has ever been bad — a clubhouse attendant facing real big league pitching every single day. But this isn’t the story of Chico being overmatched, though he would be. It’s the story of the NL West being overmatched.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Is there a Blue Jays article somewhere?

3 years ago
Reply to  Fredchuckdave

You can read about the Blue Jays in today’s SP depth chart piece. But if, as I assume from your comment, you’re a Toronto fan, you might be better off continuing to believe Fangraphs is ignoring the Jays.