The Obvious Lessons of One Dimensional Hitters

The past week has been particularly instructive for those interested in the real world implications of the word “value.” Despite league-wide offense nearing 40 year lows, some good hitters found themselves either looking for work or on the move with salary concerns in tow.

If you asked most armchair general managers, they would  jump at the chance to add a hitter claiming a 135 wRC+ over the last two years, especially for the low price of $7.5 million for 2015 (plus an option for 2016.) But that describes Adam Lind, traded by the Blue Jays (so they weren’t forced to decline his 2015 option) for Marco Estrada, a swingman who plans on taking the “serviceable” descriptor to its logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals declined the option they held on Billy Butler, another homegrown talent and hitter guy with a reasonable price tag ($12.5 million for 2015).  This is hardly shocking as Butler comes off his worst professional season and the Royals are a team for which times are perpetually tight. But given the going rate for a hitter projecting to produce 20% better than league average, $12.5 mil is a steal, no?

In a simpler time, these decisions might appear dubious. These players hit for a high average! They’re good RBI guys! How could the clubs be so foolish to walk away from valuable commodities in an offense-starved time?

These players and a few other free agents like them (Michael Cuddyer and Michael Morse, to name two) are tough to gauge. For Lind and Butler, we see their own teams walk away as the price tag grew too high. Two teams that either believe what we saw in 2014 wasn’t especially “real” or weren’t willing to pay for the honor of finding out. No deal occurs in a vacuum but Lind’s contract seems almost laughably affordable for a player whose rate stats exceed those of Justin Upton and the soon to be very rich Nelson Cruz.

The problem is utility and a distinct lack of power. Lind and Butler have home runs in their past but, in 2014 in particular, they failed to show the pop associated with great offensive players. They became line drive/singles hitters, guys with high contact approaches but little ability to generate any other value whatsoever. Lind hit just six home runs in limited time this season, Butler managed only nine. Morse clouted 16 but saw just two clear the fence after the calendar changed to July. It makes these hitters, high average and good contact rates though they claim, tough sells for teams in need of offense.

Both are defensive zeroes with nothing to offer on the bases, a lack of foot speed which further limits the contributions with the bat. The company they keep speaks volumes about the type of player who can make this style work. Butler in particular ends up with some strange bedfellows when we isolate high-BABIP/low ISO/low strikeout hitters.

In his top 50 free agent breakdown, Keith Law of ESPN wondered if the Royals playoff run might entice some front offices to seek out high contact players like these two (both strikeout less frequently than league average). The early returns suggest otherwise. Contact might be en vogue but the players making it need the ability to make something of it when they do slap it the other way.

Michael Cuddyer confounds this trend, slightly. Though he possess marginally better defensive versatility, he remains another aging, injury-prone player who puts the bat on the ball at an above-average rate. In Colorado, that resulted in more extra base hits and a nice little power surge. How likely is that to follow him to a new home?

While the Rockies were widely panned for their qualifying offer dare, there is an off-the-field element of his veteran presence that Colorado could work into the price. There is also the option that the Rockies are well aware of his Coors Field-inflated numbers and feel his approach benefits from the vast outfield expanses more than a comparable player who might replace him.

It isn’t that these players are useless. They’re all specialty items, the finishing touch for teams otherwise built out with more complete players. R.J. Anderson wrote at Fox Sports this week about Morse’s value to the Giants, but he probably shouldn’t play the field too often going forward, and there are only 15 DH jobs out there. On top of that, many of those are used as more of a flex role, cycling players in and out and offering rest days to other every day hitters.

The market hasn’t spoken but it is, at the very least, clearing its throat. Morse and Butler are likely to fight over the same scraps while the Brewers are happy to improve their dire first base situation almost by default.

Cuddyer is the canary in this coalmine. If he accepts the Rockies QO, it suggests a distinct lack of multi-year contract interest among other clubs, though the draft pick tax surely intensifying this effect. If we take his Coors Field numbers at face value (which we would never do), he is likely the best hitter of the bat-only players available. If contact is now king, a player like Cuddyer is sure to reap the benefits on the open market.

Or, as Kendrys Morales learned last winter, you need to be very good at your one skill to overcome for those you lack. Teams are going to buck the strikeout scourge as best they can, it doesn’t mean one-dimensional players without power are suddenly worth their weight in gold. As baseball looks for other ways to generate offense, you need to bring a little more to the table than hollow OBP.

We hoped you liked reading The Obvious Lessons of One Dimensional Hitters by Drew Fairservice!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

newest oldest most voted
LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

I thought we’ve been talking about how power is overvalued on the market.

vince
Guest
vince

If this were an article about building a winning franchise it would be. However, this article is about running an MLB franchise, which has little to do with winning.

williams .482
Member
Member
williams .482

How so?