Monday, July 25, 2005

Sour Mash

With the team's recent struggles (struggles is probably too generous a word for what they're doing), some are grabbing pitchforks, making torches and rounding up the villagers for a good ol' fashioned riot. The object of scorn, in many of these criticisms, is the Kentucky Masher, Brad Wilkerson.

He's been an easy target lately. He's hitting a pathetic .235/ .316/ .341 for the month, with just six extra-base hits. But what really gets everyone's goat is the strikeouts. He's up to 25 with 104 on the season.

It's hard to defend his recent performance, but the majority of the criticism is misguided. One of Bill James' old saws is that struggling teams tend to focus on what players can't do, instead of what they do do.

With thatin mind, what are Wilkerson's strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths:
Hitting for power -- although he hasn't shown the home run stroke this season (just 6) he hit 32 last year after seasons of 19 and 20. Additionally, he cranks out doubles: 39 last year, and he's on pace for 49 this season.

Getting on base -- He has a good eye for walks. He had a career high 106 last season, and is on pace to come close to that total this season. If the pitch is out of the zone, he'll take it.

Defensive versatility -- Whether left field, center field, right field or first base, Wilkerson has proved to be a capable fielder wherever he's landed. He's been surprisingly good in center, showing off average range, and an accurate arm.


Weaknesses:
Hitting for average -- No one will confuse him for Rod Carew. He's a career .259 hitter, who's hitting .261 this season.

Contact hitting -- Wilkerson has an all-or-nothing swing that results in him waving at a lot of pitches. He seems especially susceptible to the high pitch.

Baserunning -- While the 4-8 SB/CS ratio is mostly a product of Frank's misguided hit-and-runs, he's been amazingly unaware in certain situations, and has been picked off at least three times. It seems like he's shown average speed first to third and second to home, but the number of CS and pick-off outs in unacceptable.

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What especially grates his critics is his strikeouts. And I admit that they frustrate me too. But, some statheads have shown that strikeouts really aren't that much different than other outs.

Striking out, they argue, eliminates the possibility of the double play (which is true in Wilk's case -- his career high is only 5). They also argue that players who walk a lot, like Wilkerson, are going to work deeper into counts than hackers like Guillen. They'll accordingly see more 2-strike counts and have more opportunities to strike out. Also, the nature of a power hitter's swing results in more Ks; if you swing for the fences, you're going to miss some pitches.

Those all make sense intuitively, and also when you figure the numbers out with your abacus.

Yet they're so damn aesthetically incorrect it isn't funny.

In general, I disagree with their assessment because (and this mostly goes for those who tend to misuse tools they don't fully understand) people apply it as a blanket. They'll say that it's ok for Jamey Carroll to strike out; it's not. He's not the right kind of hitter.

But with the type of player that Wilkerson is, I'll live with the strikeouts. When you look at the other things he does well -- walking, hitting for power -- they are things that, by their nature, create strikeouts.

If you want his walks and you want his extra-base hits, you live with the strikeouts.

That's not to say that it's not frustrating when he does, and it's not to say that he'd be a better player if he didn't strikeout as much.

But that's not the kind of player he is. You have to take what you have, not what you want. If Wilkerson cuts down on his swing and alters it, it'd change the kind of player he is, and more than likely, weaken him.

Just as you wouldn't ask Ichiro to turn into Mark McGwire, you shouldn't ask Wilkerson to turn into Joe Sewell (Check out his K numbers).

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One more consideration with Wilkerson. With the logjam of outfielders and the team's many needs, there's been fanboard speculation about Wilkerson being used as a trading chit.

Wilkerson has two years left before free agency (I'm 98% sure on this), but he should be due a healthy raise each of the next two seasons. (I wish I had salary arbitration!)

He's also represented by Scott Boras, who loves that process and rarely settles for less than a pound of flesh. Boras has also never heard of the Home Team Discount. And no matter how good a guy Wilkerson is, he's probably going to go wherever the most money is. And really, who could blame him?

At any rate, to retain him, it's going to cost a decent amount of money. Is he worth it in the future?

I'm going out on a limb here and saying no.

Bill James also wrote about old player's skills. (Whenever I hear that term, I think of Eddie Murray, for some reason.) Towards the end of their career, many players lose points off their batting average, they hit for increased power, and they walk more.

James brought that idea forth, because he believes that those types of players don't age well. Since they're already doing things players frequently do at the end of their career, they, in effect, have no place to slide.

Athletic isn't really a word I'd use with Wilkerson. While he shows athleticism through his versatility, his body type and batting stroke make it look like he's getting by on effort and natural talent, not pure athleticism. (As a Yankee fan, Bernie Williams struck me the same way)

With that type of player, once the talent starts to slip, the athleticism isn't there to make up the difference.

If you look at Brad Wilkerson's list of similar players (towards the bottom, the age 27 list), you'll see a list of players who had decent, but not spectacular careers.

On his list, only Kirk Gibson and Andre Thornton were major league regulars after age 32 (mostly thanks to the DH). Most of the others were washed up or out of the league completely.

That's not a good sign for the future.

John Sickels, the Minor League Guru, did a look back at how Wilkeron was as a prospect and has come to a similar conclusion. (It's worth a quick skim)

So, if the right deal is there, Wilkerson's value might not be higher.

The key would be the right deal.

Back in the spring, there was talk of a Wilkerson for Vernon Wells deal. I don't know why the Jays would do that, but that's the kind of deal would need to make, because Wilkerson, in his best seasons, is a borderline All-Star talent.

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Whatever happens from here on out, Brad Wilkerson, despite his strikeouts, has been one of the Nationals most important hitters.

Without his performance, this team wouldn't have been on pace for 50 wins. But it's not fair to scapegoat him for its recent losses.

Whatever his faults, he's been pretty damn good.

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