Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Nationals Review: Right Field

When the Nationals traded off some spare relievers for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, the reaction was practically universal. It was a heist. A complete steal. But at the halfway point of 2007, it seemed like Bowden's deal had more in common with Jack's trading for three magic beans than anything. Lopez was struggling. And the All-Star outfielder Bowden thought he had acquired was anything but.

I've always been a fan of Kearns. He's the kind of player that's hard to appreciate. He doesn't do anything particularly well, excelling only at some of the finer points of the game that are hard to appreciate unless you're watching him on a daily basis. He's not a slugger, but he hits for power. He's not a walking machine, yet he gets on base. He doesn't hit for average, but he's not a hacker. He's average a lot of different things, adding up to a player who's probably better than the sum of his individual parts.

Kearns played practically every day, starting 156 of the team's games. Fick (3), Langerhans (2) and Pena (1) were the only other players to start games for the Nats.

His season, it seems, could be boiled down into three distinct phases: 1) Unlucky; 2) Bad; 3) Good.

The unlucky streak came early. While not a true power hitter, he started the year hitting cleanup before the team realized what they had with Dmitri Young. After a few so-so games, he shifted down to 5th, where he stuck for most of the season (126) games. For that first month, he was getting his fair share of hits, but without really excelling.

He ended up hitting a pretty decent .283/ .360/ .455 for the month, but it's two counting stats that stick out: 2 homers, 7 RBI. Despite acceptable on-base and slugging numbers, he wasn't hitting for power the way some people thought he should, and he wasn't driving in runners. He even went 13 straight games, despite hitting 5th, where he didn't drive in a single run.

I remember this stretch, and some of the surrounding games as being one of just bad luck. Kearns was hitting the ball hard, but it wasn't finding holes. I remember looking at his line-drive rate and it was near the team lead. He just wasn't getting results as ball after ball found leather. He was doing everything right, but he wasn't getting results.

May was particularly difficult for him. He hit a woeful .225 because none of the balls he put into play went for hits. His .241 batting average on balls in play (ie: what he does when he doesn't strike out or hit the ball over the wall) was way below his career averages, and it would be the worst month of his season.

At some point during the month, though, he stopped hitting those line drives. Perhaps he adjusted his swing to 'counter' the results even though hitting liners is what every batter strives to do? For whatever reason, he went into a two-month haze, hitting grounders with increasing frequency, at least when he wasn't hitting towering flyballs in a park where towering flyballs are manna from heaven for a pitcher.

From May 1st through the All-Star Break, Kearns was a complete drain on the team's offense, hitting .235/ .306/ .330, a line not all that dissimilar to Cristian Guzman's 2005 campaign.

At the break he was hitting .250 and slugging .369 with just 5 homers, a pathetic line for a centerfielder, let a lone a corner position.

But somewhere right around then, talk began of how he had altered his swing, and he worked with hitting coach Lenny Harris to get back to where he was.

Whatever advice Lenny gave him, it worked.

Kearns had a terrific second half, leading the team in homers and walks, second in RBI and runs scored. Just as important, he led the team with a terrific .390 on-base percentage and upped his slugging to .461, right about where you'd expect it to be.

And his performance upped those terrible first-half numbers all the way up to a tolerable .266/ .355/ .411 good for a league-average OPS+.

With his early struggles, you can't say it's a fine season. But at the same time, you can't look at two bad months and ignore all the other contributions the guy gives you. He's not good enough to carry a team, but that's hardly an insult. His typical .265/ .360/ .460 line, especially when you consider the defense he plays, makes him an above average outfielder. He walks just enough. Hits for just enough power. And he helps the team win ballgames. That's about all you can ask for.


    Because he played every day, only one other RFer in the league created more runs than Kearns. But because he didn't play especially well, he's far from the most valuable offensively. That honor belongs to Brad Hawpe of the Rockies and Corey Hart of the Brewers.

    If you look at how many runs he created compared to how many a league average right fielder would have using the same number of outs, Kearns was about 5-6 runs better than average. (Hawpe and Hart were roughly 18 above.) Kearn's total puts him roughly on par with Ken Griffey and Jeff Francouer in the league's second tier of hitters.

    Kearns has been reasonably consistent throughout his career. If we just chalk those 2.5 months up to just a fluke, we can probably tack on another 5 runs or so to his value. But, up until the last two years, he's also been very injury prone. So there's always a chance of losing him and replacing his performance with Ryan Church's -- which offensively would only be a slight dropoff, if that.

    There might not be a better all-around defensive right fielder than Austin Kearns. He is terrific at just about everything a right fielder has to do. He has a strong arm that's pretty accurate (though he did have some accuracy problems late in the season). But what makes him such a great outfielder is his hustle. He gets a good jump and runs hard to the ball to take away doubles in the gaps and singles in front of him.

    He's also especially good at charging hits, getting into good position to make a strong throw to third, enough so that runners take the extra base on him far less than many other right fielders. They don't challenge him not so much because of his arm, but because he's on the ball quicker than many other rightfielders, some of whom play defense with a casual indifference.

    You can tell that he puts a lot of pride into his defense and that invisible sort of hustle, the kind that never shows up on the stat sheets, adds a lot of value. But, there are some cases where it does show up in the stats:

    -- Two errors all year, leading the league in Fielding Percentage
    -- First in double plays
    -- First in putouts -- by 50!
    -- First in Zone Rating
    -- Most plays made outside his defensive zone

    If you convert his zone ratings numbers into an estimate of how many runs he saved relative to an average RFer, it's a staggering number, roughly 16 runs.

    That's likely a bit high; I think RFK's spacious outfield distorts the numbers a bit -- though that's just speculation.


    It's that defensive component, the one that's so hard to see and measure accurately, that gives Austin Kearns so much value. Even if you think that the 16 runs saved is high, if you assume he's saving 10 runs relative to the average rightfielder, it closes up most of the gap in value between him and the league's top offensive right fielders.

    Hawpe, for example, is a slightly below average defender by these stats. Even if you pretend he's average, his overall value in terms of runs scored and allowed is roughly that of Kearns.

    When you factor in his range and his ability to hold runners, Austin Kearns is one of the 4 or 5 best right fielders in the league, even in a year that was somewhat off.

    He's never going to be a 40-homer slugger. He's never going to throw 25 runners out. He's never going to drive in 120 runs.

    But each little thing he does adds up, combining to make a solid, strong player.

    The Nationals are a better team because of Austin Kearns, even if you sometimes need to cock your head and squint your eyes to see it.


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