Friday, May 20, 2005

why hairston is corey's equal

over at our very nice neighbor in the cubs blogosphere, ivy chat, i got into a discussion about the corey patterson, jerry hairston and the nature of the cubs offensive struggles.

a big criticism of hairston among some cub fans is his lack of power. runs correlate to OPS, the argument goes, and therefore corey is a better offensive player than hairston because he hits for power. besides, corey hit 24 jacks last year.

i can't emphasize enough the speciousness of this argument. many baseball fans understanding of the game has been warped by the power-mad game that has developed in the last twenty years -- but especially since 1998 -- into a simple assertion that whoever hits it hardest and farthest is best. this is simply not so, and why is a matter of nuance that takes some discussion.

first of all, using OPS as a simple predictor for scoring is certainly valid in general. i espouse it myself. but there are yet better approximations, and they highlight why OBP [(hits+BB+HPB)/(AB+BB+HBP+sacfly)] is the more important component of OPS. an astute commenter to that thread noted that the regression analysis of [(2*OBP)+SLG] was even closer to runs scored than standard OPS (which is simply [OBP+SLG]). if we reductively apply this analysis to the recent histories of both hairston and patterson, we see that hairston is actually a more favorable option:

hairston (since 2003): 612 AB, 83 R, 46 RBI, 4 HR, 174 H, 62 BB, 21 HBP, 6 SF, 231 TB, .366 OBP, .377 SLG

corey (since 2004): 785 AB, 114 R, 88 RBI, 32 HR, 207 H, 54 BB, 5 HBP, 1 SF, 350 TB, .314 OBP, .446 SLG

these lines yield a slight OPS advantage for c-pat (.760 vs hairston's .743) but a slight disadvantage in [(2*OBP)+SLG], where hairston edges him 1.109-1.074.

one can further examine runs produced per plate appearance, with runs produced being (r+rbi-hr). over the timeframe above, hairston manages 0.178 per PA, patterson .201 -- what seems an advantage for c-pat. but runs produced is a highly conditional stat, particularly sensitive to your place in the batting order. both hairston and patterson have taken a high number of their at-bats in the leadoff position -- 41% of c-pat's ABs, 48% of hairston's. however, when patterson isn't hitting leadoff, he's hitting second (30%). hairston has been buried in 7th, 8th or 9th (34%) -- and mostly ninth (19%). if one examines instead simply their leadoff lines over the span, the difference is much closer -- patterson's 0.200 vs hairston's 0.192.

these numbers are best contextualized by those of a good leadoff hitter, such as johnny damon in 2004 (0.279) or kenny lofton in 1996 (0.253) -- neither hairston nor patterson is anything like a great leadoff man. but the cubs have to make do with what they've got for now.

individual statistical analysis, of course, is not comprehensive in measuring what a player does for his team offensively. and here is where patterson might be shown to have his greatest deficiency. is there any player in baseball more prone to empty outs than patterson? i wonder. the simple fact is that corey strikes out every third at-bat, and sometimes more. those outs are wasted -- the runner isn't moved over, errors aren't forced, energy isn't expended by the defense. hairston is, on the other hand, going that way only every tenth at-bat. this is a major problem for patterson. making outs is bad enough, but wasted outs are the absolute death of offense.

patterson sees an average of 3.43 pitches (2934 pitches over 854 plate appearances). compare that to hairston's 3.85, which is just behind derrek lee's 3.87 and jeromy burnitz's 3.88 (since 2004) as the most patient hitters on the team. hairston makes pitchers work more, which can be especially valuable in the leadoff spot, both to expose the pitcher's stuff and to wear him a bit before getting to the heart of the order.

things can also be said for patterson -- notably his speed on the basepaths and his range in center field. i wouldn't disagree with either of these. but beyond all i've rambled about, however, is a concept of team construction. as walter alston used to say, "get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in." patterson inability to make contact at the top of this order violates the first part of this maxim appallingly -- he's simply not aboard very often to be driven in by lee, burnitz and ramirez. what this costs the cub offense is hard to say, but a lack of high-percentage players is a significant flaw in the way this team is built. a power-based offense -- which is what the cubs purport to have with dubois and patterson seeing regular action -- can be dramatic but is often plagued by inconsistency and one-run losses. hairston hitting first or second could be a means of at least dampening that weakness.

anyway, the upshot of all this is not to show what a great player hairston is -- he's not, and never will be, an above-average ballplayer. what strikes me about this analysis is more how bad corey patterson really is -- how the promise of his potential and a few homers still exaggerate for many fans the reprehensible offensive player he is. hairston is patterson's equal not because hairston is good, but because corey is pretty bad. given the particularity of his weaknesses, it would be best for dusty to bury him in the seventh slot and give hairston -- who at least gets aboard -- an extended run at the top of the order in an effort to improve scoring.

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