The Right-Handed Power Problem

Ten years ago, everyone wanted young pitching. It was the considered the currency of baseball, the thing you could always trade if you needed to acquire something else. But these days, random kids on the street can throw 100 mph, the strike zone is gigantic, and preventing runs is now the easy part of the game. What everyone wants now is offense, and seemingly, offense in the form of good right-handed hitters.

This seems a reaction to the fact that the league’s platoon splits have gotten larger over the last few years; specifically, left-handed hitters have been exploited more often by left-handed pitching. Here is the league average wRC+ for LHP vs LHB match-ups in each year since 2002:

LvLwRC+

Or if you prefer to see the data in table format.

Season PA wRC+
2002 13,545 89
2003 14,540 86
2004 14,249 90
2005 13,541 85
2006 12,925 84
2007 13,866 85
2008 15,253 85
2009 15,246 85
2010 14,580 86
2011 14,536 80
2012 16,857 77
2013 16,134 78
2014 14,785 83

Note that the decline in left-vs-left offensive production is mirrored by a rise in left-vs-left plate appearances, which is likely not a coincidence. There are only so many left-handed hitters in baseball good enough to regularly face left-handed pitching, and as you go further and further down the ladder, you start scraping the bottom of that barrel. The primary way to increase left-on-left plate appearances at the league level is for teams to start more left-handed hitters than they used to, which could be caused by a lack of quality right-handed hitting alternatives for managers to use instead.

As such, teams are starting to skew a little bit too heavily to the left-hand side, and many teams are looking for right-handed hitters to balance out the middle of their line-ups. This desire for right-handed punch was a driving force behind the Mets decision to punt their first round pick in order to sign Michael Cuddyer, and seems like the reason the A’s gave Billy Butler three years and $30 million despite his modest production. Of the five free agent hitters who have signed contracts so far, four bat right-handed and the other is a switch-hitter. The early money in free agency is going towards right-handed bats.

This is good news for Hanley Ramirez, Yasmany Tomas, Nelson Cruz, Michael Morse, and Torii Hunter, all of whom might face more aggressive bidding wars than we otherwise might have expected. This is probably also good news for the Atlanta Braves, who have both Justin Upton and Evan Gattis on the trade block. For teams with money (or prospects) to spend, there are some guys available who can offer some production from the right side, but they won’t come cheap. And perhaps that’s why the Mets and A’s struck so quickly, sensing that the price on right-handed hitting was never going to come down this winter, and waiting for a bargain might just leave them leaning too heavily from the left side once again.

Looking around baseball, it does seem like there aren’t a lot of great alternatives for teams looking for above average right-handed hitters. Decent left-handed hitters seem to be a dime a dozen — the Blue Jays dumped Adam Lind for a song, while the Pirates just DFA’d Ike Davis, and both project for a 118 wRC+ in 2015, one point better than Butler’s 117 wRC+ projection — but there just aren’t that many equivalently decent right-handed bats. And thus, the premium we’re seeing paid to right-handed hitters early on in free agency.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any decent right-handed hitters who could be acquired on the cheap. So, to those teams who don’t want to pay the markup on established right-handed veterans, I’d like to offer up Tyler Moore as a low-cost alternative.

In terms of availability, players don’t get much more likely to move this winter than Tyler Moore. His role on the Nationals essentially went away with Adam LaRoche, as fellow right-hander Ryan Zimmerman is going to move across the diamond to first base, eliminating the need for a right-handed backup first baseman. The Nationals have used him in the outfield to an extent previously, but with Steven Souza and Michael Taylor around, there’s little need for Moore to serve as a reserve there either. He’s out of options, so the Nationals can’t send him back to the minors, but they don’t have a spot for him on their team either.

Moore is the definition of trade bait, and as a 28 year old with a career WAR of -0.3, he’s probably not going to bring back much in return. But if you’re for a right-handed +1 WAR 1B/DH type who can kind of fake it in the outfield a bit and don’t want to spend $30 million (or $21 million and your first round pick), Moore might just be a guy to go after.

Citing his negative career WAR is slightly unfair, as that’s driven by a -7 UZR in just 500 outfield innings, which translates to a -21 UZR/150; in other words, his defensive value has been rated at a level that would make him something like the worst defensive outfielder in the game. Even Michael Morse, probably the least effective defender still allowed to wear a glove and roam free on occasion, only has a -19 UZR/150 in the outfield. So, we shouldn’t project Moore to continue to play the outfield as poorly as he has, or realistically, play it at all. Any team acquiring him should see him as a 1B/DH, which should hide his defensive limitations.

For those spots, Moore’s bat isn’t anything to write home about, as he has a career 94 wRC+ in 449 plate appearances. However, 90 of those 449 plate appearances have come off the bench, and we know that there is a definitive penalty that pinch-hitters and other substitutes face when they come into a game cold. We shouldn’t be too surprised that Moore’s been a disaster as a pinch-hitter, then; in 65 pinch-hit plate appearances, he’s hit .131/.185/.279, good for a 21 wRC+.

You don’t want to throw out those plate appearances entirely, but we don’t want to treat them as equivalent to the same opportunity as a starter, and his off-the-bench plate appearances account for 20% of his career total, so adjusting for that penalty makes his 94 wRC+ seem a little bit better in comparison. And we don’t just have to rely on his big league performances, since he’s spent parts of each of the last three years in Triple-A as well. In 669 plate appearances in the minors, he managed a 149 wRC+ thanks to a solid walk rate, an average strikeout rate, and some real power.

The combination of mashing in Triple-A and producing roughly average results in the big leagues has Steamer slightly optimistic about Moore’s production level in 2015, projecting a 104 wRC+ for next season. And that’s not accounting for the potential improvement from moving some pinch-hit plate appearances into starting at-bats, so perhaps you bump him up a few more ticks to the ~107 wRC+ range. That would make Moore’s offensive value over 600 plate appearances something like +4 runs above average.

For comparison, Steamer projects Cuddyer at +6 runs on offense, and Butler at +8. Michael Morse projects for +5. Moore offers 90-95% of the potential production of guys signing mutli-year deals, and yet the team who acquires him will pay him something close to the league minimum. And control his rights for four years, in case he does break out and turn into a legitimate everyday player.

It does happen. Last winter, Steve Pearce was a 30 year old with a career 87 wRC+ in 847 big league plate appearances, but he’d hit the crap out of the ball in Triple-A. And then, wham, a +5 WAR season in 383 plate appearances. Tyler Moore probably isn’t going to do that. There’s a reason he’s projected as a +1 WAR per 600 PA guy; his power is just okay for a guy with poor contact skills. But teams are paying a big premium for right-handed bats right now, and Moore can offer a good chunk of what these expensive players are going for, only without being expensive.

If you’re in the market for a right-handed bat this winter, maybe skip the brand names and look at a guy like Tyler Moore instead. The shortage of good right-handed bats shouldn’t mean that teams have to start paying mediocre players like they’re not mediocre.

We hoped you liked reading The Right-Handed Power Problem by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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southie
Guest
southie

So Mike Trout is valuable?

Eric
Guest
Eric

Uh, maybe a little bit.

On a serious note, anyone who has watched the Nationals like I have the last 3 years knows that Tyler Moore bats like Mary Tyler Moore right now. The team that picks him up will have to make sacrifices. Either you let him play and give him a full fledged shot at an MLB job, or you ship in to the minors for regular ABs. This bring him up, send him down stuff can hurt a kids confidence in himself, hopefully some team sucks it up and gives him a chance.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

Tyler Moore would be a 20-25 hr guy with passable defense if given a chance to be an everyday first basemen. When he gets real playing time, he’s a good hitter. He’s been a terrible pinch hitter.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Maaaaaybe. We just don’t know that with any certainty. He’s been very good in AAA, but sometimes those guys develop into legit hitters, sometimes they’re AAAA guys who can’t make it work and bounce back and forth between the majors and minors.