Thursday, March 09, 2006

It's Elementary, My Dear Watson

One of the biggest questions left for the Nationals (other than the REALLY BIG question) is whether speedster Brandon Watson can wrest the centerfield job from Ryan Church. I've been skeptical about his abilities, but Frank Robinson was certainly effusive the other day:
"I like what I see," Robinson said of Watson, who a year ago struggled both during spring training and in a couple of late-season call-ups. "Last year, we talked about the same things, and he just didn't have that feel. This spring he does have that feel for it... He's ahead of Endy [Chavez] now, understanding what he has to do and what we need from him."

I don't put a lot of stock in spring training stats. As I've said before, pitchers are working on new pitches and stiffs who won't sniff Double-A are getting chances to stink, etc. But they can tell a little bit about a player's approach. Are they walking a lot? Are they striking out? Hitting for any power?

When you look at the stats in context of what the player has done previously, as well as with what the team is saying about him, it can give you an idea of how they're doing. Like Frank says, he's made progress. So far, so good:
19 AB, .316/ .435/ .368, 4 walks, 1 strikeout, 2/2 SB.

Frank likes his approach at the plate, and the walk total is respectable, even if we don't quite know the context of those walks.

I've called Watson Endy 2.0 before. And that's based solely on his minor league performance. (STATS)
Level AVE  OBP  SLG  SB  CS  BB  SO   AB
AAA 318 360 378 53 23 59 101 898
AA 304 348 350 25 22 46 81 717
A 297 344 357 81 42 81 156 297
R 303 361 319 4 2 11 11 119
Let me explain why I'm not completely impressed by these stats.

There's a term you'll see tossed about stathead sites referring to players like Watson. They'll say that he has an empty batting average. By that, they mean that the player's lone offensive contribution is through his batting average. He doesn't hit for power. He doesn't draw walks. He doesn't do anything but smack singles.

That's not to say that there's not value in smacking singles. It's just that it's not THAT valuable, and because people place a lot of emphasis on batting average (more than they should) these types of players get overvalued.

Now look at Watson's stats. Pay attention to his isolated levels -- that is, what are his On-base percentage and slugging average when you subtract the batting average component? In almost 900 ABs at triple-A, Watson has walked just 59 times. He's hit just 3 home runs, and only 32 doubles -- a surprisingly low total considering his speed.

To be fair to Watson, he has done very well with hitting for average. You can't knock that. But I'm always wary when a player's game is nothing but singles. If Watson's not hitting .300, he's killing your team. If he bats .270, he won't walk enough to have a respectable on-base percentage, and he's certainly not going to slug homers. And given his lack of doubles and triples in the minors, he's not spraying the ball into the outfield.

How confident are you that Watson's going to continue to slap singles on the infield for a .300 average? He could do it against minor league pitchers with minor league defenders. Can he do it against NL pitching with Gold Glovers charging in hard on bunts? I just don't have a lot of faith.

He had a brief major league trial last year (STATS), and didn't fair that well. I'm not going to write him off for that, but it is something you need to factor in with the other evidence.

Watson certainly has his age going for him. He's just 24. There's certainly time for him to learn and adapt, even if his minor league track record shows that he has a lot to learn. And his performance at triple-A in 2005 was certainly a step forward (although NFA puts his PCL performance in context). Perhaps he'll surprise.

The best thing for him is to listen and learn with the big club during the spring, then to take those lessons and instructions and bust his butt off in New Orleans. If he can build off the improvements he made last season, he's got a good chance to contribute as early as the second half.

He seems like a good kid, and Frank's compliments indicate that he's willing to learn, and to work hard. The Nats certainly need more players like that. I'll be pulling for him for sure. I just don't think he's the answer for the team's leadoff needs, especially now.


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