Sort this year’s free-agent corner outfielders by last year’s production, and Angel Pagan’s name appears right at the top of the list. Sort that same list by projected production, however, and Pagan falls to seventh best, right behind the recently signed Matt Joyce. We all know how projections work: at the most basic level, they’re the product of past performance and age. For most veteran players, those two variables conspire to create a pretty dependable vision of the future.
Pagan has proven to be a difficult case for projection systems, however. He’s been particularly volatile over the course of his career — specifically with regard to his offensive production. If we could identify the causes of that volatility, perhaps we could improve upon the vision of Pagan’s future provided by the projections. And along the way, we might find him the right team.
Look at Pagan’s work as judged by weighted on-base average, and you find that he’s recorded as many below-average years as above-average ones. All along, though, he’s both walked and struck out less frequently than the average player. He’s been consistent in that regard, in other words. Where he’s been less consistent is the power he’s exhibited upon contact. Check out his isolated slugging percentages over the course of his career, and you see peaks and valleys.
Here’s a weird thing, though. Check out Pagan’s slugging figures at home compared to his slugging figures away. While the former have been subject to dramatic highs and lows, the latter numbers have been much steadier — a virtual metronome when compared to his home slugging. That’s of some interest, as we know that Pagan plays in one of baseball’s most pitcher-friendly parks.
Since he makes good contact most years and walks just a bit less often than an average player in most years — and since his defense profiles as roughly average in a corner outfield these days — Pagan’s power remains the uncontrolled variable. Is he merely below average by that measure or much worse than that?
The good news is that we can look at Pagan through the lens of angle and exit velocity over the last two years. Traditional metrics say he hit the ball on the ground as much (1.25 GB/FB in 2015, 1.32 in 2016) and as hard (23.3% Hard in 2015, 24.3% in 2016) during that span. Yet, he somehow almost doubled his isolated slugging percentage from one year to the next. How does that happen?
|Average Exit Velo||86.3||86.1|
|Line Drive Angles||21.2%||27.8%|
|Home Run Angles||17.0%||11.1%|
|Over 90 mph||41.8%||41.7%|
Home-run angles defined as 25-35 degrees
At first glance, there seems to be very little difference between the two seasons. Pagan didn’t exhibit particularly strong contact authority in either year, but produced a decent average launch angle in the line-drive sort of way. If you poke the distribution of the angles a bit, it looks like he hit more line drives in 2017. It’s tempting to point to that as a precise measure of his stroke.
The problem is that we know that certain balls drop out of this analysis more than others. Particularly, it misses upwards of half the pop ups in play. Pagan hit 0.7% of his balls in play straight up in 2015, and 3.0% of them as pop ups in 2015. That could easily change the calculus of all of our stats, especially the percentage angles.
And it does change it. Fortunately, however, not by that much. Even if you double the pop ups in Pagan’s 2016 batted-ball numbers, you still end up with a 26.8% line-drive rate for 2016. If you approximate the exit velocity and the launch angle for the missing data (as Jeff Zimmerman did, working backward from the landing spots of those batted balls), then it seems as though Pagan hit about 21% of his batted balls on a line in 2015 — versus roughly 28% this past season.
It looks like Pagan hit more line drives in 2016! Seems like a lot of work to say something so little, but we’ve been working on this for a decade now.
There’s another variable regarding Pagan that I’ve avoided until now, but is also relevant both to his past and his future as a ballplayer — namely, his health. Even when Pagan has appeared in the lineup, he’s been dealing with nagging injuries that may have sapped him of effectiveness from year to year. In 2013, he went on the DL for a strained hamstring, then got surgery on it later in the year. In 2014, he strained his back. In 2015, it was for patella tendonitis. This past year, the left hamstring came back.
It’s tempting to say that, as he depends less and less on his defense and baserunning for overall value, that the leg injuries are less significant, too. The trouble is, those leg injuries seems to rob him of hitting value. Moreover, absent a real change in approach at the plate, there’s little reason to put a ton of stock in last year’s power resurgence. In the end, you might be looking at a guy who’s best suited as a platoon corner bat on a team that can bake in a DL stint.
It’s not a package that will get him a big deal, but it is a package that could be useful for a few contenders. Right now, the Seattle Mariners are counting on Mitch Haniger (righty) and Seth Smith (lefty) to play left and right, when they should probably just share one spot. The Blue Jays have Melvin Upton Jr. (righty) and Ezequiel Carrera (lefty) patrolling two spots on the depth chart. The Orioles have Joey Rickard (righty) atop the heap in right field. If the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen, they’ll have an opening in the corner outfield and will be looking to fill it with a cheaper option. Heck, the Giants could use some outfield help.
Considering that Jose Bautista, Ian Desmond, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gomez, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Michael Saunders and Mark Trumbo are all still out there, Pagan has some competition for those roles. At least he can tell teams that his line-drive stroke is still there, and that he won’t cost as much as those guys. He can do that, and then wait.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.