Second in a series of articles about the Orioles' most prominent newcomer, Miguel Tejada
The same week of his December 2003 column on Miguel Tejada, Rob Neyer was asked in an ESPN.com chat if Tejada, who hit a superficially unimpressive .278/.336/.472 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 2003, was really worth $12 million a year. Neyer responded succinctly, "Yes, I think [Tejada] is worth $12 million in this market. You're talking about a player who's every bit as good as Nomar Garciaparra."
The question raised was a valid one. After all, there are many players who hit about as well as Tejada did—or better—last year, and most of them aren't going to make anywhere close to $12 million a year for the foreseeable future. First baseman Travis Lee, for one, hit .275/.348/.459 in 2003, and despite being just a year older than Tejada, he got few offers on the free-agent market. He eventually signed a one-year deal with the Yankees worth $2.25 million. Look around and you'll find many other players who outproduced Tejada in the BA/OBP/SLG columns last year, yet signed smaller, shorter contracts to relatively little fanfare in the offseason: Carl Everett, José Guillen, Raúl Mondesí, Reggie Sanders, Shannon Stewart, and Rondell White, to name some.
But they weren't shortstops, of course, and good-hitting shortstops command a premium because of their defensive value. Besides being a shortstop, Tejada has several other positive qualities. One is his relative youth: he'll turn 28 in May. That gives him a good chance to maintain his current level of production for most of the next six years. A player in his mid-30s, like Mondesi, does not inspire such confidence. Another distinctive asset Tejada possesses is a history of durability: 594 games played without missing one since 2000, and no major injuries to this point in his career. In contrast, oft-injured players like White and Garciaparra can scare away potential suitors, not to mention insurance companies. Then there is his 2002 MVP award—one of the highest laurels a ballplayer can receive—and all the acclaim and respect that goes with it. Not many players own a trophy like that. There is Tejada's reputation as a clutch player, which was greatly embellished by his performance down the stretch in 2002. And then of course there are traits that do not appear on the scorecard, like leadership and desire and fan-friendliness, and Tejada seems to have an ample supply of these as well.
The subtext of Neyer's chat response is that it is too simplistic just to take a hitter's BA/OBP/SLG and use them to construct a salary figure. You also have to examine the context in which those stats took place to get a more complete picture of his worth as a player.
The short end of the stick
A big part of the context of evaluating a position player is the difficulty of the player's defensive responsibilities. The worth of Tejada's offense is tied to his ability to play shortstop, one of the hardest and most critical defensive positions on the field. To capably play shortstop every day calls for a special athlete, one who possesses range, hands, and an arm beyond that of a typical player. People with those skills are rare enough; people who can do all that and render damage with the bat are rarer still.
This scarcity of talent shows up in the decreased level of offense at the shortstop position. By ranking the positions by OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), one can construct a "defensive spectrum" circa 2003 showing how offensive talent is distributed among positions.
Although they had competition from catchers, shortstops pulled up the rear among non-pitchers in OPS at .721. (Using BP's Equivalent Average as the standard of comparison, shortstops edged out backstops, .254 to .252, due to EqA's greater weighting of OBP.) As one might suspect, the balance of power at shortstop favored the American League, as AL shortstops hit .269/.329/.414 (.743 OPS) in 2003 while their NL counterparts hit a mere .262/.317/.385 (.702 OPS). (Note that this imbalance may result in Tejada being undervalued in statistics that compare a player to peers at his position in the same league.) While shortstop output has risen along with the rest of the league in the past decade, the stereotype of the good-field, no-hit middle infielder is still largely valid. Indeed, shortstops who can out-hit the overall league average are still an elite group, and Tejada, with his .808 OPS, is part of that group.
Travis Lee, on the other hand, plays first base, which is one of the least demanding positions on the field. With its .829 OPS, first base was the position that hosted the heaviest hitters in 2003. Lee was so-so offensively compared to his peer group, as his .807 OPS fell below the ML average at his position. That, and his erratic track record, meant that the demand for a player of his talents was low.
Home's no holiday
Another important bit of context that doesn't show up in a superficial look at the stats is the effect of a player's home park. Tejada's offensive statistics are not as lusty as his reputation might suggest in part because they have been deflated by his pitcher-friendly home park, Oakland's Network Associates Coliseum. There are various ways to measure the effect of a ballpark on offense, but most "park factor" statistics show that during Tejada's career, NA has been a slight to moderate pitchers' park—i.e., it has consistently deflated run scoring by a small amount (typically 5–10%) compared to the rest of the league. Its dampening effect shows up in Tejada's home-road splits.
(Hm – Rd)
Although Tejada has hit ten more home runs at home than he has on the road, most of his other statistics are significantly better on the road, if not overwhelmingly so. The 56-point OPS deficit at his home park summarizes the story: home has not been sweet to Tejada over the years.
In contrast, Garciaparra has a home park that plays friendly to hitters. Fenway is not a great place to hit homers, in large part due to the Green Monster in left field. But while the Monster knocks down a lot of would-be homers, it also turns many would-be flyouts into singles and doubles. This effect shows up in Garciaparra's home statistics.
(Hm – Rd)
Sure enough, Garciaparra has hit fewer round-trippers at Fenway, but his career batting average is 31 points higher at home, and he has hit about 40% more doubles at home than he has on the road. Compare Tejada's career road numbers to Garciaparra's, and the gap between them narrows, but Garciaparra's superior power numbers keep him comfortably ahead of Tejada. Or at least one would think so. But take a look at their 2003 home-road splits, and you might waver about which is truly the better player right now.
(Hm – Rd)
(Hm – Rd)
For some reason, last year Garciaparra treated Fenway like it was Planet Coors and morphed into Deivi Cruz away from home. This probably is a one-year aberration, but it makes you wonder where Garciaparra's true ability really lies nowadays.
Tejada, too, had a big home-road split in 2003, but it was in the other direction and vastly smaller in magnitude compared to Garciaparra's. He actually out-hit Garciaparra on the road by a fair margin. Besides playing 81 games in a pitchers' park at home, Tejada also played more games than Garciaparra at two other pitchers' parks, Safeco Field and Edison International Field, because of intradivisional play. This disadvantage was partly counterbalanced by some extra games at the hitter's haven of The Ballpark in Arlington, but on the whole, Tejada faced a much more difficult hitting environment than Garciaparra did last year.
It's not likely that Oriole Park at Camden Yards will help Tejada's hitting a great deal; after an early reputation as a launching pad, park factors in recent years classify it as a mild pitchers' park. The relatively cozy left-field wall at Camden Yards is generous to right-handed home-run hitters, yes, but Oakland's dimensions were also kind to Tejada's home run totals. Oriole Park makes up for the extra homers by cutting down on singles, doubles, and triples relative to the rest of the league.
(For those who are wondering, Tejada's career Camden Yards numbers are pretty impressive at .304/.383/.500. But keep in mind that those numbers represent a tiny sample of 102 AB, and that he won't have mediocre Birds hurlers to hurt from now on.)
Inspecting Tejada's swing
Without question, Tejada's forte offensively is his power. He has reached 30 doubles for five years running and has hit 30 or more home runs in three of the last four seasons. His .460 career slugging percentage, while not awe-inspiring, is significantly above the norm for shortstops, and he is perennially among the top three or four shortstops in doubles, homers, runs scored, and runs batted in.
However, he is not a particularly well-rounded hitter. His career batting average is a pedestrian .270, and his .331 on-base percentage is also ordinary. As O's VP Jim Beattie described his new acquisition to The Washington Post last December, "[Tejada]'s not your typical on-base-percentage machine, but he's a guy who knows how to drive in runs."
Before you start rolling your eyes at the second part of Beattie's statement, consider this: the evidence shows that Tejada has indeed fared significantly better at the plate when he has had baserunners to drive home. This phenomenon shows up in his career situational splits:
|Runners on base||1623||.294||.353||.514||.867|
|Runners in scoring position||915||.292||.351||.504||.854|
This kind of situational hitting improvement is rather large to dismiss as mere happenstance. These are not fluky numbers caused by too-small samples, either. Tejada has over 2100 plate appearances in his career with the bases empty. He also has over 1750 career PA's with runners on base, and over 1000 of those occurred with runners in scoring position.
It is true that hitters, as an aggregate, perform better with runners on base. One reason for this is that bad pitchers allow more baserunners than good pitchers do, so as a result, a majority of at-bats with runners on base occur against below-average pitchers. In the last ten years, hitting with runners on base has had the effect of adding about 20–30 points to a batter's expected OBP plus a lesser amount (typically 5–10 points) to his expected SLG. (With RISP the expected OBP goes up yet another 5–10 ticks, but the expected SLG decreases to about the bases-empty value or lower.) So hitting with runners on has had a net effect of adding some 25–40 points of OPS.
Yet Tejada's OPS with bases occupied is about 140—that's one-hundred forty—points higher than it is in none-on situations. This is patently abnormal. Whatever the reason, Tejada has been ordinary with nobody on base, but extraordinary in run-producing situations. If he could bottle that magic and transfer it to bases-empty situations, he would be an even more dangerous hitter than he already is.
(A few notes follow for sabermetrically inclined or otherwise skeptical readers. Various studies have cast doubt on the existence of a "clutch" ability—that is, the tendency of a player to repeatably raise his performance in clutch situations. But most of those studies, as I understand them, define "clutch" so that it covers a narrow subset of at-bats, such as those in "close and late" or "late-inning pressure situations." By restricting their data sets to circumstances so rare that they typically comprise fewer than 100 at-bats per season, these studies made it likely that there would be large season-to-season variability in such statistics. Thus they almost ensured the conclusion that clutch performances were not repeated year after year. So I don't think that the book is closed on clutch hitting. Anyway, the situations where Tejada has shown such massive improvement, namely hitting with runners on base and RISP, are much less restrictive than the typical notion of "clutch." As best I can tell, Tejada has not shown the same improvement in "clutch" situations as they are more typically defined.)
I noticed that Tejada and Garciaparra virtually tied in Win Shares last year with 25, even though Garciaparra clearly outpointed Tejada in Wins Above Replacement Player, 8.1 to 6.6. Although there are many differences between the two methods, some of the discrepancy can be traced to Win Shares giving credit for hitting with runners on base and RISP. Tejada bested Garciaparra in both categories last year, posting an .872 OPS with runners on base and an .887 OPS with RISP; Garciaparra's splits were .848 and .811.