When the Nationals signed Adam Dunn over the winter to a 2 year, $20 million contract, the reaction from the sabermetric community was almost unanimously positive towards the move for Washington. For a fraction of his original asking price, they got the guy who had become something of a poster boy for the kind of player that statistical analysts have been claiming is undervalued for years. The walks and power skillset produces a lot of runs, and Dunn has a master’s degree in the walks and power skillset.
When the Nationals acquired Nyjer Morgan yesterday, the reaction from the sabermetric community was almost unanimously negative towards the move for Washington. He was routinely called a no-power fourth outfielder, easily replaceable, and a 29-year-old with no upside. The Nationals were destroyed for giving up on a “talent” like Lastings Milledge to acquire Morgan. Analysts I have quite a bit of respect for, like Keith Law, Dan Szymborski, and our own R.J. Anderson, hailed this as an easy win for the Pirates, as none of them see much value in Morgan.
Here’s the problem. Nyjer Morgan and Adam Dunn are nearly equals in value, and the polar reactions from the sabermetric crowd puts the blindspots that have been developed over the last 10-15 years on full display.
Let’s just break down the differences by role.
Hitting: Dunn has a massive advantage here, obviously. ZIPS projects a .394 wOBA going forward, which would allow him to finish the season as 37 runs better than a league average hitter. That’s really good. ZIPS projects Morgan for a .307 wOBA, which would lead him to finish the season as eight runs below average with the bat. Dunn is 40 to 45 runs better with the bat than Morgan is. It’s a big difference.
Baserunning: Despite comparing a beefy slugger to one of the fastest guys in baseball, the gap here is actually fairly small. By Dan Fox’s EQBRR, Dunn averages about -2 runs per year on the basepaths, while Morgan has totaled +2 runs in his one season’s worth of playing time. For all his speed, he hasn’t figured out how to steal bases effectively yet, so he hasn’t been able to maximize the value of his feet. There’s still a difference here, though, of about 4 runs per season in Morgan’s favor.
Defense: On Dunn, there really isn’t much of an argument. He’s legitimately the worst defensive player in baseball that is still allowed to wear a glove regularly. Since 2005, his UZR totals have been -18.8, -14.9, -18.8, -28.0, and -14.1 (in half a season!). That spans three teams and four ballparks, so it’s not like the context is causing Dunn to look bad in the field. Morgan, on the other hand, runs like he stole something, and covers all kinds of ground in the prcoess. His +15.4 UZR in LF/RF and +11.9 UZR in CF in partial seasons of playing time are amazingly awesome.
We have to use a fairly heavy regression for Morgan’s defensive projection, however, given that we only have one season’s worth of data. Giving 1/3 weighting to his current numbers and 2/3 weighting to a regression back to league average, we end up with Morgan as a +10 defender in CF. This is probably too strong a regression, but I’m trying to err on the side of caution with defensive data.
If Dunn is a -20 LF, and Morgan is a +10 CF, then the defensive difference between the two is 30 runs plus a five run positional adjustment, for a total of 35 runs. And honestly, I’m being kind to Dunn and harsh to Morgan – the reality could easily be -25 for Dunn and +15 for Morgan. But, we’ll go conservative for now.
Hitting: Dunn, +45
Baserunning, Morgan, +4
Defense, Morgan, +35
Total: Dunn, +6
The gap between Dunn and Morgan, going forward, is expected to be about half a win per season if you use conservative estimates of their respective defensive value.
I’m sorry, but there’s no way that the response from the sabermetric community around these two moves matches that reality. If paying Adam Dunn $10 million per season to be a +2.5 win player is a good idea, then paying Nyjer Morgan $400,000 to be a +2 win player is a great idea. There is no world in which Dunn’s production and salary is more valuable than Morgan’s production and salary. You could acquire 100 Lastings Milledge’s for the amount of money that Dunn is getting to be the big, power hitting equal of Morgan.
There’s just no way around the real conclusion – the sabermetric community, for the most part, has a blindspot when it comes to players with defensive skills at the extremes of the spectrum. Given the cost differences, Morgan is clearly a more valuable asset than Dunn, yet his acquisition is mocked while Dunn’s is celebrated.
Baseball is not just about who can hit the ball further. It’s time we stopped evaluating players on their offensive worth alone.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.