Tuesday, January 23, 2007

No! Nook of the North

Barry Svrluga has some good news in today's Post: Manny Acta is considering someone else, besides Cristian Guzman, for the #2 hole. Unfortunately, it's Nook Logan. Despite the presence of a superior offensive talent on the roster, and last year's hubbub over whether there was a CF competition or not, Acta is insistent that CF is Logan's job to lose: "He's going to spring training as our center fielder. He's going to be his own competition there, and that's it."

The case for Logan rests entirely on his defense. It's something that the Nationals were disappointing at last year, and Acta is right to want to improve it. "We need to play better defense, and we will play better defense," Acta said. "Nook is a big part of that. That's a premium position. You have to cover a lot of ground in center, especially when you play at RFK."

Svrluga builds on that further, appealing to authority with nameless "baseball men": "Baseball men think there is more to it than the spectacular. Before Logan was acquired, Nationals pitchers allowed an average of 9.6 hits per nine innings. After the trade they gave up 8.96 per outing."

Ooooh! Baseball Men have conclusively proved that Logan saves a hit per game!11!1 That's incredible!11!

This is why I hate stats. Although the numbers there are true, it's completely misleading. It's a disservice to the reader to cite those numbers, because it's leaving a false impression.

Logan didn't take over until September. Was there anything different in September? Well, we had Bernie Castro taking over for a hobbled Vidro. We had an experienced Soriano instead of the raw novice early in the season. We had Austin Kearns for most of the month, instead of an injured Jose Guillen. We had Felipe Lopez who had slightly better range than Clayton, even as he committed more errors (which don't count for hits!)

So, yeah. Logan saved all those runs all by himself.

It's example #43,976 of why nameless "baseball men" are usually the ones with their head furthest up their asses. I wonder if these same nameless "baseball men" are the same ones that were confident that Preston Wilson was a good defender?

That being said, Logan IS a good defensive center fielder. Defensive metrics remain the Holy Grail of statheads, but there's some good work being done. USS Mariner helpfully provides an overview of what's out there. There is, though, a general consensus that the best center fielders will save about 20-30 runs over the very worst -- here's one methodology that shows that Ken Griffey stinks. If we assume that Logan is among the best, then he's saving about 15 runs per year over an average CFer. And if you assume that Ryan Church is below average, which the team seems to be doing, then Logan is worth 20-25 runs more than the Nats' best alternative.

Manny Acta believes in his potential offense, too: "I think he can develop into a top-of-the-order guy," Acta said.

And if you look at last year's stats, there's a little bit of promise. He did bat .300/ .337/ .389, which is quite good for a solid defensive CFer. But he did that in just 90 ABs, and it raised his career totals to a thoroughly mediocre .270/ .319/ .347.

If you look at the stats a little more closely, though, there are some warning signs. His isolated numbers (OBP - Average, and SLG - average) are quite low. He doesn't walk at all, and he doesn't hit for any power, slapping singles ala Jamey Carroll. He doesn't control the strike zone at all, combining that lack of walks with a surprisingly high number of Ks (nearly 1/4 of his ABs).

He did bunt quite well, and was successful on 9 of his 13 attempts -- a rate of success much higher than any other year. Was that improved skill, or a fluke in a small sample? Despite his speed, he only had 2 infield hits -- a sign that he's not really hitting the ball well.

But there's one large warning flag with Logan's acceptable performance from last year. He had an ungodly high BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Without getting too deep into the weeds, it simply measures what happens when the player makes contact and keeps the ball in the park. Some statheads ascribe large fluctuations in this to luck. I don't know enough about it one way or another, but his BABIP of .377 last year was roughly 50 points higher than his career average. To put that into perspective, everyone went gaga over Endy Chavez' year last year, and his BABIP was 'only' .341.

If Logan can repeat his high BABIP, the Nats have a player. But if he doesn't -- if he reverts to his career totals -- he'll have fewer singles. And if he has fewer singles, he doesn't walk or hit with enough power to really be useful. If he's batting .270, his OBP and SLG are going to both be in the low .300s. That's borderline Guzman territory. And we've already got a Guzman in the lineup!

Nook Logan is a career .261/ .325/ .334 hitter. Scary, huh? Worse, those are his minor league stats!

What it comes down to is that unless Logan has dramatically changed his approach at the plate (and I suppose that it's possible), then he's going to be closer to his career numbers than to 2006's seemingly fluky performance, and if that's the case, he's not an acceptable starting CFer.

There are a lot of "ifs" with Logan. If he can get some more patience. If he can bunt for some hits. If he can leg out some doubles. If he can get on base.

Doesn't this sound like last spring training with Brandon Watson?

And doesn't this sound like the spring training before that with Endy Chavez?

How did that work out? Three weeks of flailing before they turned to Marlon Byrd and Ryan Church. Fool me once, something something something... But fool me three times? Ye gods.

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