Friday, June 04, 2004

All About Jack

As this blog develops, you're probably going to see a lot of annoyance directed at the Pirates and their fans for their irrational love for Jack Wilson (unless he continues to hit, which he won't, but anyway...). In the Pittsburgh press recently we've heard some muttering about signing Wilson to a long-term deal. My question to Paul Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Jack was published this Wednesday. Here's the text:

Is it just me or is all the rumbling going on about a long-term deal for Jack Wilson a little bit crazy? Yes, he dives a lot and has a goofy smile, kind of like my dog Emma. That's nice. But like Emma, Wilson hasn't helped the Pirates' offense at all in the last three years. A player who hits .250 with no power and no walks shouldn't even be employed as a utility infielder anymore. We know Wilson's supposed to be good with the glove, but the numbers say he's overrated there and that his glovework hasn't come close to offsetting his ineptitude at the plate. The Pirates have several interesting young middle infielders who could step in if Wilson left. Wilson's had six good weeks this year, which is wonderful, and we all hope the improvement sticks. But the Pirates should at least see how the year plays out before they even consider whether he'll be on the team next year, much less whether it would be wise to sign him to a long-term deal. Wilson's improved power this year is an encouraging sign. But he still isn't drawing walks, which means that the rest of the improvement is concentrated in his batting average, which is subject to high levels of fluctuation. Once he cools off -- I hope he won't but think he probably will -- he'll probably be some version of his former self, maybe with a bit more power. That means he probably still won't be a very helpful player. The Pirates have so little money and so many needs (that) it would be a huge shame to commit $10 million or so to a light-hitting infielder.

Charlie Wilmoth of Wheeling, W.Va.

I went a bit too far with the "shouldn't even be a utility infielder" part, but I think the rest is basically right. Here's Meyer's response:

Perhaps Jack Wilson didn't contribute much offensively in his first two seasons, Charlie, but in 2003, while batting .256, he did hit nine home runs and did drive in 62 runs. And he's having a great season offensively thus far in 2004. Plus, he's not overrated defensively. One scout said a couple months ago that Jack Wilson is the best defensive shortstop in the National League. Granted, he doesn't draw many walks, but who on the Pirates does outside of Jason Kendall? With very little power in the Pirate lineup to worry about, pitchers don't need to be careful pitching to this team.

Before this season began, I mentioned that Jack Wilson would need to have a good year if he wanted to come back to the Pirates. So far, he's having a great year. What this has done is force the Pirates -- at this point -- to entertain thoughts of signing him long-term. That doesn't mean they will. It just means they have to think about it. They won't do anything until after the season no matter what Wilson does the rest of the season. And they might just decide to go to arbitration with him again for one more year.

The Pirates have a lot of decisions to make about 2005. But they don't have to make them now, and that includes what to do about Jack Wilson.

About the counting stats first: when a player gets over 500 at bats, nine homers and 62 RBIs is nothing, especially when the player spent a good percentage of those at bats hitting second. Also, when you get past superficial stats like RBIs, Wilson wasn't any better in 2003 than in 2002.

Here he is:
2002: .306 OBP, .332 SLG, 4 HR
2003: .303 OBP, .353 SLG, 9 HR

The small increase in power is mildly encouraging (and it continues this year: Wilson already has 21 extra base hits, as compared to 33 in all of 2003), but this still isn't Alex Rodriguez we're talking about. Wilson was a huge drain on the Pirates' offense both years, mostly because he still hadn't learned to take a walk.

This year, Wilson is batting .341/.357/.495. That power is nice, but .341/.357? Are you kidding me? Wilson isn't Ichiro; he's not going to sustain those numbers. Either he's going to start taking walks (he currently has just five) or the batting average is going to come way down, and given Wilson's past history, I think I know which one of those things is going to happen.

Regarding Meyer's argument about Wilson's walks: besides Kendall, who on the Pirates draws walks? Well, Craig Wilson, Jason Bay and Bobby Hill all have been fairly patient hitters throughout their minor and major league careers, and Rob Mackowiak has always drawn walks in the majors. And if pitchers don't have to be careful when pitching to the Pirates, why does Kendall continue to draw walks while others don't/'don't'? And why didn't Jack Wilson draw walks last year, when the Pirates had several well-known power threats in their lineup? Answer: because he simply doesn't know how to take a walk. It's not a matter of context. Put Wilson in Boston's lineup and he won't draw walks; put him in Tampa's lineup and he won't draw walks; bat him cleanup for the Williamsport Crosscutters and he won't draw walks. And without the walks or a serious power spike, he won't be a productive hitter unless he hits about .320.

Meyer also skirts the issue of what the numbers say about Wilson's defense. A scout's opinion wasn't really relevant to my claim that Wilson's defense is overrated, since scouts, analysts and broadcasters are the ones overrating him. This isn't an issue I know a ton about, but I would think Meyer and Dave Littlefield would at least be curious about Baseball Prospectus' numbers (BP ranks Wilson seven runs above the average shortstop over the last three years combined), or Tangotiger's numbers, which rank Wilson an average of eight runs below average per 162 games over the same period, or this comparison of several different defensive systems. Only in one - the one by the Baseball Prospectus writer - does Wilson rank as even an average defensive shortstop.

I'm not a statistician, so there's a lot I don't know about these systems, and the high variability of the results just in Wilson's case shows us that statistical analysts still have a lot of work to do to figure out defense. But if someone's an elite defender - if the scouts know it, if everyone knows it - that's usually reflected in the numbers. Mark Ellis is ranked above average in all four systems. So is Travis Lee. J.T. Snow. Derrek Lee. Mike Cameron. Andruw Jones. Jose Cruz Jr. Ichiro.

Let's look at David Pinto's Probabilistic Model Of Range for a second. Like most metrics I'm aware of, Pinto's system ranks Wilson a below-average shortstop. As I understand it, Pinto's metric examines the percentages at which fielders turn batted balls into outs, just like Zone Rating does. Pinto also weighs the number of each type of balls (line drives, fly balls, etc.) hit to those zones and the rate at which those balls are usually turned into outs. This seems simple enough. If Jack Wilson is a great defender, why does he fail to turn such a relatively high number of balls hit his way into outs?

Is there something special about the balls hit his way? Are the line drives hit in Wilson's direction different from the line drives hit in, say, Edgar Renteria's direction? Possibly. But probably not. Isn't it much more likely that Wilson simply isn't a very good fielder?

We all know Wilson has a knack for turning spectacular-looking plays, which is at least one reason why scouts (and Sportscenter-lovers) like him so much. So what might be causing the discrepancy between the scouts and the numbers? A poor first step, perhaps, or poor positioning, which may be why Brian Boehringer chewed him out on the field last year. Either way, it's far from clear that Wilson is even a good defender, and it's almost certain that he's not good enough to offset the damage he's done to the Pirates with his bat over the last three years. He's hitting well right now, but unless he can sustain that for another couple of years (and I think that's very unlikely), there's no way the Pirates should give him a long-term contract. And if Wilson tails off this year, the Pirates should cut bait and let one of their young middle infielders take his spot.


Blogger StatsGeek said...

I like this essay, but the player you see and the player I see are very different. The defensive stats I see, such as Range Factor and Zone Rating, have Wilson at the top or near the top of the league. And as the at bats mount, it becomes more and more likely that the hitting is real. Wilson is batting well above .300 in the 400 or more at bats since the All-Star Break last year. While it's possible that Sanchez and Castillo may develop into better middle infielders than Wilson, can you bank on that and throw away a player like this? I don't know why you would.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Mr. O'Neill: Thanks. I wrote this before I read your recent column. I was interested to learn that Wilson's defensive numbers have improved dramatically this year. Perhaps he is growing into the position. Let's revisit this at the end of the year and see if the improvement has stuck.

As for his hitting: I must admit that every day I get a little more unsure as Wilson continues to hit. Perhaps he really has gotten better, and I certainly hope he has. But his lack of walks makes me suspicious.

I guess I'm not advocating throwing Wilson away. I just don't want people to get carried away with the idea of giving him a long term contract. It's far from clear that he'll be able to contribute at a high level the next few years. And if he tails off this year and returns to his previous poor levels of performance, I think we'll have to say the real Wilson has stood up.

Consider the case of Tike Redman. Before last year, he was bad in the minors, and he was bad in the majors. Then even last year he was pretty bad until he got called up and hit .330. It's easy to get excited about that, but now that our excitement has cooled off it's pretty obvious he's not a .330 hitter or even a very productive player (last night's heroics notwithstanding). Perhaps I am guilty of going a bit overboard in my criticism of Wilson, but I do think it's a good idea to not get too excited about a few hundred at bats, especially when some are advocating spending lots of money to keep him.

2:04 PM  
Blogger StatsGeek said...

That's a reasonable take. Whatever Littlefield's mistakes have been, he has not as yet thrown big long-term money at anyone, so I expect he'll be cautious with Jack Wilson, too. But there are a couple of things that give me hope this represents a breakthrough year for Wilson.
1. Unlike Redman, Wilson hit very well in the minors before making the jump from Double A. (He even hit well when he was sent back down for 100 at bats in triple A.)
2. Before the season started, I noticed that Dick Groat made a huge jump in hitting in his fourth season in the big leagues, at the same age as Jack Wilson. I never expected Wilson to hit .340, even for three months, when I wrote that, but I didn't think a decent spike was out of the question.
3. His continued increase in slugging each year.
4. He hit .282 after the all-star break last year.
Like you, I'd like to see more, but this is not totally out of nowhere.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Agreed on all that... until this year I used to look at Wilson's minor league numbers and wonder where that hitter went. Let's see how the rest of the year goes.

3:39 PM  
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7:27 AM  

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