There’s glory, always, in winning the World Series, but it doesn’t take long to start wondering about the season ahead. Pablo Sandoval went away, and many wondered how the Giants might replace his ability and power. Michael Morse also went away, and many wondered how the Giants might replace his ability and power. As far as the former is concerned, Brian Sabean brought in Casey McGehee, who last year hit as many home runs as Madison Bumgarner. And as far as the latter is concerned, Sabean has now brought in Nori Aoki, who last year hit as many home runs as Gio Gonzalez. In case you’re very new to baseball, Bumgarner and Gonzalez are both pitchers, and pitchers don’t bat very often, and they certainly don’t hit many home runs. (Home runs are good.)
Yet there’s so much more to baseball than home runs. Sabean, at least, is betting on that being true. Dave already wrote some time back that Aoki compares very well to Nick Markakis, who signed with the Braves for $44 million. Aoki has signed for a minimum of $4.7 million and one year, and he’s signed for a maximum of $12.5 million and two years. Aoki apparently turned down a bigger offer or three because of San Francisco’s comfort and track record, but I think he’s been pretty clearly undervalued, which makes this a good get for a team whose success somehow always seems sneaky.
At the best of times, Aoki wasn’t a home-run hitter. As a rookie in Milwaukee, he knocked out ten dingers. Then he hit eight, then he hit one. His power didn’t translate to Kauffman Stadium from Miller Park, as Kauffman’s plenty bigger and Aoki’s power is just about completely down the right-field line. He’s yanked every single one of his career home runs that wasn’t an inside-the-parker (of which he’s hit one). According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Aoki has hit one home run with a standard distance of at least 390 feet. He’s averaged 372 feet. He’s hit weak home runs, basically, and he’s hit a total of three career dingers that would’ve left every MLB ballpark.
San Francisco shouldn’t be bad for him — AT&T Park will yield home runs down the right-field line, and of course there’s the triple spot in the right-center gap. AT&T will be no more difficult for Aoki than Kauffman, and I probably shouldn’t even be dwelling on power anyway. Aoki has selling points, and power’s never been among them.
He’s very difficult to strike out. Every year, Aoki posts one of baseball’s highest contact rates. He doesn’t chase much, so Aoki can also work a walk. He’s shown absolutely no vulnerability against left-handed pitchers, so he doesn’t need to be platooned, and there might be no less shiftable hitter in the game. Aoki hits the ball anywhere and everywhere, provided you’re only looking within 350 feet of home plate. Though people remember some Aoki baserunning gaffes, he’s not a lousy baserunner. Though people remember some Aoki defensive gaffes, he’s not a lousy defender. As a matter of fact, by both DRS and UZR, he’s been above-average. He did see the bench during the World Series, but then just about everybody is an inferior defender to Jarrod Dyson. Aoki doesn’t have baseball’s greatest defensive instincts, but to this point he’s made more than enough plays.
In some sense, Aoki might seem redundant with Gregor Blanco, a versatile outfielder who’s also underrated for not having any power. But now the Giants have four functional outfielders, instead of three and Juan Perez. And while Angel Pagan is good, he hasn’t played every day since 2012. In 2013, he had surgery on his leg. In 2014, he had surgery on his back. It would’ve been irresponsible for a contending team to go into the year with three decent outfielders, and one of them being Pagan, so the Giants have done themselves an affordable favor, improving depth now and at the very least strengthening the bench.
Let’s go back to power, for a minute. I wanted to know about projected home runs, so I combined our team depth charts with the Steamer projections. Here’s every team’s current Steamer-projected dinger total, and while all the individual numbers are debatable, the general order ought to be fine:
Have you found the Giants yet? Keep looking. Down. Down some more. The Giants are in last, and they’re in last by a pretty good margin. The Giants are separated from the mean by 2.4 standard deviations. Runner-up: 1.5. Though these raw totals don’t adjust for ballpark environment, I think it’s pretty clear the Giants project to be under-powered. There’s power in the lineup, but there’s relatively little of it, and Aoki is pretty much the complete opposite of Morse.
But, who cares about power, right? At least, in isolation. Power’s highly valued on the market, but power is just one way to accumulate runs. What we should really care about is value. Here’s projected team position-player WAR, plotted against dingers:
There are the Giants, all by themselves. The Braves and Phillies project to hit relatively few dingers, and they’re also projected to suck. The Giants are projected to hit even fewer dingers, but at the same time they’re projected for almost as much position-player WAR as the Orioles, who have the highest team dinger projection. It’s almost like the Giants know what they’re doing. For as much crap as Sabean has taken over the years when he was thought to be the furthest thing from an analytical executive, that was never close to the truth, and here we have evidence to support the idea that Sabean believes in WAR. Or at least that he believes a run is a run, no matter how it’s created. Power, right now, is highly valued. So Sabean has sacrificed power, without sacrificing much in the way of total value.
And it’s not like this is completely radical. Just look at some of the things that have happened lately. Last year’s Royals made the World Series, and they hit 95 home runs, the lowest team total over the past three years. The 2012 Giants won the World Series after hitting 103 home runs. Last year’s Cardinals made the NLCS after hitting 104 home runs. Accumulating power is one thing you can do, but it’s not the only thing you can do, and Sabean shouldn’t feel bad about the team that he has. I mean, obviously. But while the 2015 Giants should miss a few dingers, they shouldn’t miss much overall run production. Aoki in particular is a non-star player, but the evidence suggests he’s a wonderful bargain.
No team in baseball is projected to be less powerful than the 2015 San Francisco Giants. They locked up that position by inking Nori Aoki to play regularly in the outfield. I can’t imagine it’s something they’re worried about. I don’t think the Giants worry about much, these days.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.