Wednesday, January 19, 2005

2005 Dodgers: Cesar Izturis

You know about Cesar Izturis’ defense. It’s good, if overrated.

You know about Izturis’ batting. He’s a light-hitter, but he’s shown substantial improvement in each of his seasons as a regular. He doesn’t walk much, but that area of his game is certainly improving. He’s not a power hitter, but he gets a decent share of doubles and triples thanks to his speed. Given that his isolated power is so closely tied to his speed, it’s unlikely to expect it to ever exceed .100 or so. All told, Izturis’ value as a hitter depends on whether he can continue to rapidly improve his plate discipline and whether he can maintain a batting average in the .280 neighborhood. There’s reason for optimism, but not for enthusiasm, if that makes sense.

What I want to talk about is Izturis’ baserunning. No doubt his biggest advocates will, after devoting drool to his defense for a few moments, refer to his 25 stolen bases last season. His detractors would counter that he was caught 9 times, so his actual success (73.5%) was just above the 71% general rule for the break-even point on stolen base attempts. Given that Izturis was only 25 for 38 prior to 2004 and that the average player’s stolen base abilities peak at age 24, it’s unlikely to expect Izturis to be a great base theft going forward.

But that’s how we’d evaluate Izturis raw value as a base-stealer, not his baserunning in general. Baserunning value is heavily linked to the quality of hitters hitting behind the base runner. As such, the question about Izturis that interests me most is how can the Dodgers best leverage his baserunning abilities.

Tom Ruane has done the key work in understanding when runners should attempt stolen bases, and you may be surprised by one of his main findings: very fast baserunners tend to actually cost their teams runs by attempting to steal. Few runners are successful enough stealing bases to outweigh the heightened cost of losing a speedy runner from the basepaths. Fast runners on first base increase the chances of scoring runs because they tend to take the extra base on hits and they slightly reduce the number of double plays and substantially decrease the number of fielder’s choices so that more ground balls advance the runner. As such, the break even point for fast runners on SB attempts is much higher because the opportunity cost from a CS is higher and the value added from the successful SB is lower.

Also important is that if better hitters are coming up, the stolen base attempt is less valuable and the CS is much more harmful. In a lineup of nine completely average hitters, it wouldn’t matter where you put your fast runner. However, if the ninth hitter was removed and replaced with a pitcher, the most valuable slot for a base stealer would be #8, since there’s less risk in running and a proportionately higher reward. That’s the value of stolen bases, though; if the player in question also adds value through speedy baserunning, then their overall baserunning value might be more valuable elsewhere.

Now, if you read this blog regularly you’re familiar with the idea that the Dodgers’ offensive composition consists mostly of players who loosely qualify for “Three True Outcomes” status: hitters whose game consists of many home runs, walks, and strike outs. Alternately, it can be said that the hallmark of TTO hitters is providing offensive value without putting the ball into play very often. Jayson Werth, J.D. Drew, Hee Seop Choi, Jose Valentin, and Milton Bradley all very clearly fit the description, even if none of them have quite attained TTO-hero status thus far. When Dave Ross is productive, he also clearly qualifies. Jeff Kent is pretty much the opposite: he’s a well-rounded offensive player who puts the ball in play more than average.

As such, Izturis’ value as a baserunner can be leveraged best by hitting in front of Jeff Kent and refraining from stolen base attempts outside of situations where a one-run strategy is clearly warranted. When Izturis reaches base, his value from base advancement will come into play most if he’s followed by Kent because Kent puts the ball into play more than any of the other Dodger regulars. Thus, if Jim Tracy is hell-bent on having Izturis hit lead off, he should probably also restrict his stolen base attempts and put Kent behind him. That’s not to say that with a player besides Kent in the #2 slot Izturis should be attempting stolen bases; they’re actually of even less marginal utility in front of the TTO types because their walks won’t advance Izturis if he’s just stolen a base. If Izturis is on base with good hitters on deck, he shouldn’t be running in most circumstances, period.

Now, Izturis #1 and Kent #2 would best leverage Izturis’ baserunning value, but that doesn’t mean that his overall value is optimized in that situation. The leadoff hitter will receive the most plate appearances, so having Izturis hit first isn’t likely to be a great idea unless his OBP improves dramatically again. While Izturis’ speed and lack of home runs make him of the right skill set for a lead off hitter, the composition of his ability to get on base is not optimized by hitting first. Lead off hitters have the fewest runners to advance, so the value of Izturis’ solid batting average (if it does indeed remain solid) is partially diminished as a leadoff hitter. As such, he’s not a great choice for hitting leadoff if your team has another fast player who gets on base more often and draws a good deal of walks. A pretty good description of Milton Bradley, isn’t it?

Now, a good deal of Bradley’s value comes from his home run power, which is certainly not maximized by hitting leadoff. However, Bradley doesn’t hit that many home runs, so the loss isn’t too huge. Furthermore, though I hesitate much more than most to look at situational hitting to evaluate future performance, Bradley has shown a huge trend toward performing much better with the bases empty, including his home run power. Moreover, Izturis has been better with runners on and with runners in scoring position, and while the confidence level on those trends maintaining is fairly low given the sample size, it’s more reasonable to expect those trends to continue than to expect them to reverse. As such, Bradley looks like a much better choice to hit leadoff than Izturis. Izturis should probably figure in at seventh or eighth. I expect to get more into the nuts and bolts of the Dodgers’ lineup construction in the future, so stay tuned if this interests you.

But what about the money? Izturis gets between either $9.9m for 3 years or or $15.45m for 4 years, with another $450K possible if he wins the next three gold gloves. That’s not a great deal for an arbitration eligible player, and it’s certainly a high risk deal relative to arbitration. The reward kicks in, obviously, if Izturis continues the growth he’s shown at the plate and turns into a top-tier shortstop. I’m not sold that that outweighs the risk involved, but if the Dodgers got a good insurance policy than it probably does. If Izturis puts up the .284/.323/.360 line ZiPS projects, he’s only a few runs off of the .267/.313/.393 the average NL shortstop put up last season. Expanding the numbers to include the AL shortstops as well, Izturis is a little further behind the pack, but if he matches his defensive production from last season then he figures to be a few runs above average overall among major league shortstops. Given his youth, he figures to add in a few extra runs on top of that, so he projects as a marginally above average shortstop for the next few seasons. He certainly projects much better than the Cristian Guzman, who will make more money over the next four seasons, though comparing him to a free agent is misleading even before factoring in the Jim Bowden factor. Izturis is worth four or five mil per, and for an arbitration player over the next three seasons three and a half per is about right. As far as deals to buy out the entirety of a player’s arbitration years go, this is a good one.

Comments:
I want to ask you a question. Do you think a platoon of Valentin/Perez will outperform Cesar Izturis all things considered. If so wouldn't it make sense either next year or even this year if theres a chance to get a qaulity or even average 3rd baseman to move Valentin and Perez to SS to make room for a Randa type player? I like myrow and Mike Edwards but theres no garauntee they will translate to the majors. Just wondering.....
 
How about:

Bradley
Izturis
Kent
Drew
Werth/Choi
Choi/Werth
Valentin/Perez
Ross
Pitcher
 
Bradley's not that much of a TTO player. He's also the most groudball heavy hitter they have other than Izturis. They didn't bat him second last year though, so I guess we can expect Werth to hit there. I think the only things we can be sure of is Drew #3, Kent #4, Valentin #7, and catcher #8. I expect Choi will be #6 until he establishes himself, and then move up to #5, at least againt righies. I wouldn't really object to Izturis, Bradley, or Werth leading off.
 
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