This morning, Eric wrote-up a list of surprising offensive heros, and at the head of the pack was Shane Victorino. The Phillies center fielder has picked up the slack for the disabled Chase Utley and struggling Jimmy Rollins, giving Philadelphia a dynamic top-of-the-order hitter, even though it’s not the same one they’re accustomed to having. And, certainly, it qualifies as a surprise that Victorino has been the best hitter on a team with Ryan Howard; the Phillies first baseman might be overrated, but he’s still a good hitter, and he has outhit Victorino by a good margin for most of their careers.
But in looking at the two side by side, it’s interesting to note that Victorino has probably had a better career with the Phillies than Howard up to this point. In fact, the data suggests that not only has Victorino kept up with his more famous teammate, he’s been the better player for quite some time now.
Let’s start with the career numbers. Victorino was grabbed by the Phillies in the 2004 Rule 5 draft, but at the end of spring training he was offered back to the Dodgers for $25,000. LA decided to keep the cash (whoops!), so the Phillies sent Victorino to Triple-A for the season. He hit well enough to earn a roster spot in 2006, and he’s been a regular in Philadelphia’s lineup ever since. Two-thousand-and-six was also the year that Howard, after getting part-time play in 2004 and 2005, became a full-time regular- so we’ll start our comparison there.
Shane Victorino: +21.5
Ryan Howard: +19.9
Since both became regulars, Howard has played 60 more games due to better health, but has still been outproduced by a small margin.
Offensively, Howard wins fairly easily – his .276/.372/.566 line is 36 percent better than league average (park adjusted), while Victorino’s .283/.347/.440 mark is 11 percent better than league average (again after accounting for Citizens Bank Park) during that time. The gap between the two offensively is just under +13.5 wins, a pretty large margin. But there’s more to the sport than just hitting, and Victorino destroys Howard at nearly everything else.
Not surprisingly, there’s a big disparity in the quality of their base running once they do reach safely. By using his wheels to go from first to third regularly, Victorino has been 15 runs above average on the bases over the last 5 1/2 years. During that same timeframe, Howard’s lack of speed has cost the Phillies 21 runs compared to an average runner. Just in terms of running the bases on balls in play, Victorino has a +3.5 win advantage since 2006.
Moving on to the other area where speed has a significant impact, Victorino makes up even more ground defensively. UZR has rated him as 34 runs better than an average defensive outfielder (with the same distribution of playing time between CF, LF, and RF) since 2006. UZR, meanwhile, isn’t as kind to Howard, as he’s graded out at 21 runs worse than an average defensive first baseman. Again, the gap there is substantial, and Victorino’s defense compared to his peers gives him a +5.5 win advantage over Howard.
And we haven’t even touched on the positional scarcity argument yet. UZR compares players to the average at their position, but we also have to account for the fact that is harder to find an average defensive center fielder than an average defensive first baseman. That’s where the position adjustment comes into play. Since Victorino has split time between all three outfield positions, he actually doesn’t get a huge boost here, coming out with a position adjustment of just +2.1 runs over the time period we’re looking at. Essentially, his time in left and right field cancels out his time in center, so the final verdict is that he’s played positions that are basically right around average in terms of scarcity of talent.
Howard, however, has spent his entire career at first base, the least important defensive position on the diamond. Because it’s so easy to find a guy who can play first base, Howard gets penalized by 64 runs, creating another +6.5 win gap between him and Victorino, which essentially levels out the difference between a guy who can play all three outfield spots and a player who is tied to first base.
That gives us the following final tally:
Hitting – Howard, +13.5 wins
Base Running – Victorino, +3.5 wins
Defense – Victorino, +5.5 wins
Positional Scarcity – Victorino, +6.5 wins
Victorino’s advantages in the other aspects of baseball besides hitting close the gap and then some, giving him a better WAR total than Howard since 2006. But, let’s not just stop there – let’s look at where each of them rank within their positional groups since 2006.
First baseman with more WAR than Howard, 2006-2011: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Lance Berkman, Carlos Pena, Justin Morneau, Derrek Lee
Seven outfielders have performed better than Victorino over the last 5 1/2 years, but 11 first baseman have performed better than Howard during that same stretch.
But because he specializes in the skills that the market doesn’t generally value as highly, Victorino is in the second year of a 3 year, $22 million contract, while Howard is just one year away from his five year, $125 million extension kicking in. Or, to put it another way, Howard will make about as much money in 2012 as the Phillies will have paid Victorino from 2006 to 2012 combined.
At about $30 million per season for the pair, the Phillies are actually getting a pretty decent return on their investment from the pair – it’s just the allocation between the two that is way off kilter. Hopefully, when the two teammates go out to dinner, Howard picks up the check for his superior and underpaid teammate.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.