Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ruben Tejada Is More Valuable Than You Might Think

Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

In 1991, Hubie Brooks replaced Darryl Strawberry in right field when the Straw Man packed his bags to go home to the West Coast.  Fifteen years later, Paul Lo Duca was called upon to suit up behind the plate after Mike Piazza played his last game as a Met.  Neither player produced the type of offense that was typical for the players they replaced.

Strawberry was a perennial 30-30 candidate who would cause fans to reverse course from the Shea Stadium concession stands to their seats whenever he came up to the plate.  Brooks produced 16 homers and 50 RBIs in 1991 for the Mets, numbers that Strawberry would have compiled by the All-Star Break.

Mike Piazza was arguably the most complete hitter in Mets history and the most prodigious power hitter after Strawberry.  Even after his skills had deteriorated, he could still be counted on to approach 20 homers per season.  Paul Lo Duca didn't hit a total of 20 homers in his two years as a Met.

But Brooks, who was once a fan-favorite on a Mets team that was expected to lose, lost a lot of fans in 1991 when the team was supposed to win.  Meanwhile, Lo Duca became a beloved Met even though his offensive production didn't approach what Piazza contributed in his best years.

Lo Duca's value to the Mets was great because he had the intangibles needed to help the team win, even if those qualities didn't show up in the boxscores.  Lo Duca did the little things to help the team win, whether it be on the defensive end with a steadfast blocking of the plate, or the offensive side with a well-placed hit-and-run single.  Cumulative statistics measured the worth of players like Strawberry and Piazza.  Mental statistics determined how valuable Lo Duca was to the Mets, for it was in the mind that Lo Duca's worth would be determined, not in the casual perusal of a daily boxscore.

Strawberry's departure in the '90s and Piazza's departure in the '00s represented a changing of the guard for the Mets, just like the departure of Jose Reyes has done for the team in the '10s.  Ruben Tejada has now become this decade's version of Hubie Brooks and Paul Lo Duca, being called upon to occupy the position once held by a team icon.  But will Tejada be the modern version of Hubie Brooks or will he become a key contributor to the team's success a la Paul Lo Duca?

If Tejada continues to play like he did in 2012, the latter might be the correct choice.

Take a look at Tejada's cumulative statistics.  A year after Reyes won a batting title, scored 101 runs, lashed 54 extra-base hits and stole 39 bases, Tejada produced a .289 batting average, 53 runs, 27 extra-base hits (of which only one went for more than two bases) and four stolen bases.  Like Brooks and Lo Duca before him, Tejada couldn't replace the offensive production of his departed predecessor.  But Tejada didn't have to.  He contributed to the team's offense in many other ways.

Sometimes it's the little things that pushes a player to the top.

According to baseball-reference.com, Ruben Tejada saw 1,882 pitches in 2012, an average of 3.75 pitches per plate appearance.  Compare that to Jose Reyes, who witnessed 3.61 P/PA in his last year as a Met in 2011.  Also, Tejada swung and missed at 10% of the pitches he saw, which was far less than the league average of 16%.  As a result, Tejada made contact (either by putting the ball in play or by fouling off the pitch) in 85% of his swings.  The league average was 79%.

Tejada made the pitcher work when he came to the plate, taking good swings to put the ball in play or to foul off a pitcher's pitch.  Given his good contract rate, manager Terry Collins could afford to hit-and-run with Tejada knowing that the chances of a "strike him out - throw him out" double play was less likely with the shortstop handling the bat.  Also, by working the count, Tejada could see the opposing pitcher's complete arsenal, which would help him in his next at-bat against the pitcher.

Need proof?  In 2012, Tejada batted .218 against a pitcher the first time he faced him in a game.  That number went up to .363 in his second at-bat versus the same pitcher.  Compare that to the other high-average hitters on the 2012 team, David Wright (.311 in his first AB, .252 in his second) and Daniel Murphy (.309 in his first AB, .315 in his second).  Tejada went up to the plate to learn what the other pitcher could do, in essence sacrificing his first at-bat so that his later at-bats could be more productive.  (Tejada improved to .370 in his third at-bat against a starting pitcher.)  It was a sacrifice that didn't involve a bunt and didn't show up in the boxscore, but did help the team as the game progressed.

In addition to his offensive contributions, Tejada was also one of the team's steadiest defensive players in 2012.  A quick look at the cumulative defensive statistics will show that Tejada committed the second-most errors on the team.  His 12 miscues were three less than the 15 committed by double-play partner Daniel Murphy.  But that doesn't take into account Tejada's range or throwing ability.  For that, we look at dWAR (defensive wins above replacement).

As a team, the Mets' cumulative dWAR was -3.4, a number that is, to say the least, not very good.  Eleven position players who played at least 30 games in the field finished the year with a negative dWAR, including Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Jason Bay and Ike Davis.  Only four position players who played in at least 30 games had a dWAR above zero.  One of those four players was Ruben Tejada, whose 0.6 dWAR was third-best on the team.  Simply stated, Tejada's presence on the field gave the team have a better chance to win.

In addition to Tejada's 0.6 dWAR, he also had a 1.8 oWAR (offensive wins above replacement), the fourth-highest mark on the team behind David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Scott Hairston.  Wright and Tejada were the only players on the team to have an oWAR and dWAR above zero.  Tejada's 1.9 WAR (wins above replacement) was second-best on the team to Wright.

Ruben Tejada might have finished the year with a relatively low number of extra-base hits and committed the second-most errors on the team.  But his intangibles were among the best of all the players on the roster.  He did the little things to help the team win, both on the field and at the plate.  In essence, he did what Paul Lo Duca was doing for the Mets in his two years with the team.  Just like Lo Duca was a key contributor to the Mets without the fanfare afforded to Mike Piazza, Tejada is doing the same for the current Mets model.

A player's value cannot always be recorded quantitatively.  Sometimes it's those at-bats or defensive plays that go unrecorded in the boxscore that help determine whether a player is an asset or a detriment to his team.  Ruben Tejada is and will be one of the Mets' biggest assets in 2013 and beyond.  The numbers don't have to say it for his team to know it.

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