14 January 2004

Payton Through the Nose?

So much for the Jason Kendall trade. Padres GM Kevin Towers must have read my blog yesterday. Well, probably not.

I see now that instead the Padres have signed Jay Payton to patrol centerfield in their new stadium (Petco?!) for the next two years. He's gotten a $5.5 million dollar deal for those two years, which is not bad, but it's not as good as he'd have gotten two or three years ago with the same track record. His bad luck, being born in 1972.

Towers made a big deal about the fact that his offensive numbers in 2003 were not as skewed as some other players' have been by Coors Field. They pointed out that 15 of Payton's 28 homers and 16 of his 32 doubles actually came on the road in '03. What they failed to tell the press conference attendees is that all five of his triples came at Coors, that his batting average and OBP were about 40 points higher at home than on the road, and his slugging average was almost 60 points higher.

In fact, over the last three years...

Avg/600AB 88 174 29 6 22 78 38 78 .290 .339 .468 .807
Non-Coors 72 159 24 3 20 65 34 84 .265 .312 .414 .726
Coors Field 119 192 39 12 26 100 45 56 .357 .411 .616 1.027
?????????? 103 190 42 4 27 104 51 39 .357 .418 .603 1.021

So you can see that there is a significant disparity between his home and road numbers.

His overall numbers are decent, but his road splits, when projected over a full season's at-bats, make him look a lot like Ken Harvey. (Everybody's favorite Internet baseball columnist/Royals fan, Rob Neyer, will tell you that Harvey himself has an abysmal L/R platoon split, but his overall numbers are sub-mediocre. He's ranked #135 in OPS out of 165 MLB players with enough plate appearances in 2003 to qualify for the batting title, not that that will ever be a likely accomplishment by either Harvey or Payton. But now you know ...the rest of the story.)

Interestingly, his (Payton's, not Paul Harvey's) numbers at Coors Field over the last three years, when projected out over a full season's at-bats, resemble one of Nomar Garciaparra's better seasons, 1999. (That's who all those ?????????? belong to, in case you were wondering.) Ironically, at the press conference, Towers indicated that when he saw both Payton and Garciaparra play at Georgia Tech, Payton was the better hitter. We can't really verify this wiothout contacting GA Tech's records department, but at least through some of their minor league careers, Payton was a better hitter, in terms of batting average. But Nomar had better plate discipline and a reasonable knack for preventing the phrase "season-ending [something] injury" from appearing in newspaper columns about himself, while Payton didn't. Nobody's arguing that Payton is still a better hitter than Nomar, but at Coors Field at least, they're pretty even. Unfortunately for the Padres, they play fewer than twenty games at Coors each season. Actually, on second thought, that's probably a good thing for the Padres, as everyone else pretty much hits like Nomar at that altitude as well.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that this is a bad deal. I was just reading Bill James explanation last night of why evaluation systems like the Linear Weights method, in which everyone's relative value is based on being above or below average, do not work, in his book Win Shares. Value, he appropriately argues, does not lie merely in being above average, but in being above the skill of those who cannot play at this level at all.

Travis Lee, for example, is obviously a below-average offensive first baseman, and plays a sufficiently easy defensive position that he cannot possibly make up for that hitting deficiency with his glove, no matter what Ed Wade or Terry Francona used to tell you. Travis, however, keeps getting jobs in the majors because, as below average as he is, he's still better than all but about twenty or twenty five guys in the world at what he does. The replacement level first baseman is still a notch or two below Lee's paltry contributions, and so he has value to the team. He does not have as much value as, say, Carlos Delgado does to his team, but he has more than say, Travis Nelson would if anyone offered him two million dollars to do the same thing. Not that I wouldn't take the job.

Similarly, Payton's got value because he's better than a replacement level CF, even without the aid of Coors Field, though he's not as good as Kevin Towers and some of San Diego's beat writers might have you believe. But players rarely fall as far as their non-Coors stats would suggest will when leaving Colorado, so Payton will probably end up with something like a .275 average, 35-40 walks and about 18 homers, which is just about what you'd expect from a 32-year old journeyman outfielder making under three million a year.

Looks like the Padres got one right after all.

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