Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: Pronkness Eludes Him

I’ll admit it: the brief hiatus on the discussions between Paul Cousineau and me has been entirely my fault.  First there were the holidays, then a brief trip to warmer climes, then hunkering down at the jobby job, and all of a sudden, it’s been a month since Paul and I flooded each others’ inbox with Indians-related banter.

Well, we’re back, suckas.  This time, we wonder about Travis Hafner.  Not only what he isn’t–2006 seems so long ago now–but what he is.  We talk about cost, playing time, alternatives and solutions.  As always, we solve the world’s problems one roster spot at a time.  Enjoy.

PAUL: While much of the focus for 2011 (rightfully) involves many of the young Tribe players and how their development is going to establish how long this “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” is going to take to either come to fruition or crap out, the elephant still sitting right in the middle of the lobby at Carnegie and Ontario is the man that will take up nearly 30% of the Tribe’s payroll in 2011, one Travis Hafner.

Since most have written off Hafner as a lost cause, I think it’s worth mentioning that his .824 OPS was the 2nd highest on the team last year and he finished with the 6th highest OPS in the AL for DH.  While both of those rankings feel like a “Miss Congeniality” sash, particularly for a player that will earn $13M in 2011, it’s not as if Hafner is a completely useless player, particularly against RHP as he posted an .863 OPS against RHP in 2010.

That being said, the fact that he remained somewhat effective in 2010 is tempered by two very stark realities facing the Indians going forward in that Hafner only played in 118 games in 2010, in what perhaps is the best way to utilize him by resting him periodically because of the “chronic shoulder fatigue”, and that he posted a .706 OPS vs. LHP last year.

Given the limitations that exist with Hafner, and realizing that trading Hafner (as a DH) and his contract is a different animal than moving Vern Wells, what is the best course of action for the Indians to take with The Artist Formerly Known As Pronk (TAFKAP) in 2010?

JON: As Omar would say, “Indeeeeeed.”

First, let’s think about those numbers and ranks for Travis Hafner that you mentioned.  Being an average AL DH is one thing.  Being paid like one of the better ones means something else–especially for a club like the Indians.

One of the statistics that I bandy about when evaluating players is WAR, or wins above replacement. Last season, Hafner posted a 1.9 WAR according to fangraphs and a 2.6 WAR on baseball-reference.  Let’s average them to say that he was worth about 2.25 more wins than a minor league DH could have been–making the Indians a 69-win team rather than a 66 or 67 win team without him.  Considering that on the open market, teams pay about $4.75 million per win added, that means that Hafner was worth…almost exactly $11 million in 2010.  Whoda thunk it?

So, on the one hand, I think it’s fair to say that the Indians didn’t get totally worked on the deal.  But on the other hand, the Indians–as a rule–cannot afford to pay players what they are worth.  Especially not when we are trying to 70 wins and not 90.  Two wins just aren’t that valuable to the Indians when the rest of the team is pathetic.  This in itself, makes a $13 million commitment for the next two seasons regrettable at best.

But as you say, we are where we are–left wondering how best to manage TAFKAP.  To me, the answer is simple.  As you say, he’s impotent at best against LHP.  Since about 80% of the pitching that we’ll face in 2011 will be of the right-handed variety, I suggest we platoon Pronk with either Shelley Duncan (.857 OPS against LHP in 2010) or Austin Kearns (.798 career OPS against LHP).  Platooning him solves two problems: his weak shoulder is given a rest and his poor numbers against lefties are replaced with something resembling production.

I know it’s terrible to waste a quarter of our payroll devoted to a platoon DH, but considering the alternatives, I don’t see any other way.

PAUL: Boy, looking at how Duncan is basically taking up a roster spot to be a defensively-limited RH bat and how Kearns’ career OPS vs. LHP (.798) isn’t that much of an improvement over that of Hafner (.706) in 2010 and how Kearns’ OPS vs. LHP last year (.740) was even lower, it sure makes you wish that the Indians would have killed two birds with one stone this off-season and added a 4th OF that crushes LHP and could serve that dual purpose while taking up one roster spot.

But…they didn’t and what you see is what you’re going to get on the Indians’ roster and the use of Duncan and Kearns certainly seems to give Hafner his requisite days off and improves the team (albeit incrementally with Kearns) against LHP. Obviously a platoon is in order but tThat being said, maybe another solution exists where the Indians wouldn’t have to take up two roster spots to “protect” Hafner against LHP, give him his days off and give days off to an offensive player that is likely to be more productive than TAFKAP who will also need some extra rest during the season to boot – Carlos Santana.

If we’re going off of the assumption that Santana needs to spend some time away from the tools of ignorance, and the Indians have already asserted that Santana will see some time at 1B, how about allowing Santana to move to 1B (with LaPorta slotting to DH) or straight to DH when Hafner needs a day off or when the team is facing a LHP?

In Santana’s place behind the dish would go one Louis Glenn Marson…

Cue the hair pulling for the suggestion that Tofu Lou should play any role on this team, right?

Perhaps, but let’s acknowledge the fact that Marson has career OPS vs. LHP of .727 (and against RHP it is .562 on his career) with his 2010 OPS vs. LHP (.759) actually besting that of Kearns last year. That’s not going to make anyone necessarily fear Marson against LHP and the sample sizes are small (he’s only had 91 PA vs. LHP in his career, 79 of which came last year), but if Marson can carve a niche out as a player that gives Santana a break from the wear-and-tear of catching AND the Indians can make those days coincide with Hafner’s needed off days, they can manage their roster a little better and protect two of their most valuable (well, one of the most valuable…the other the most expensive) assets.

Given that Hafner is still guaranteed money through next season, perhaps it could become a long-term arrangement until the Indians say goodbye to TAFKAP after the 2012 season…or, in light of the Wells-to-Anaheim news, could it be before?

JON: Now you’re thinking!  Santana is probably one of the better options we have against any sort of pitcher the opponent may throw out there.  The only concern there is whether he might actually need a real day off to keep his surgically repaired knee fresh.

(And before we get too far, let me say this: I was shocked that Vernon Wells was traded, but that shock wouldn’t approach the jaw-dragging paralysis that would set in for me if the Indians could unload Travis Hafner’s contract on someone.)

I think some of this conversation hints at a larger point that we’ve discussed before: the Indians have a dearth of right handed hitting options, period.  Even Santana’s numbers as a righty aren’t terrific.  While we are required by baseball-writing law to mention small sample sizes, we can at least note that his .146/.311/.271 line against LHP leaves something to be desired, right?  I mean, that’s worse than Mike Redmond!  I don’t have his minor league splits handy, and I assume they’re not quite that crummy.  Still, it doesn’t appear that he’s the same Axe Man against LHP.

Meaning, at least to me, that we’re back to where we began this series: wondering if Matt LaPorta can hit.  At least we’re not considering Casey-freakin-Kotchman to platoon with him.  Sheesh.

To me,  the DH difficulties will pale in comparison to the LaPorta issue.  No matter what Hafner does, he won’t justify his contract.  That is, as they say, a “sunk cost”: we’ve committed another $26 million to a left handed hitter who can’t play in the field, can’t be in the lineup everyday, and can’t hit LHP.  And, like I say, that’s not close to our biggest problem.  Oh, to be an Indians fan!

  • Reggie Ruckus

    What makes Pronk’s plight troubling to me is that the Indians don’t have anyone in the farm system who could come up and replace him. Sometimes I think its best for the Dolans just to pay Pronk off and open up a roster spot but then I see what we have and no one is ready. I was hoping Jordan Brown would get a shot and that never happened.

    I think Wedge and Shapiro mismanaged LaPorta. The kid should have been playing every day but he was Brandon Phillips’d and shuffled to the minors. Now he seems clueless at the plate and very fragile. He’s 26 and the Tribe is going to need to decide if Santana shouldn’t become a fulltime first baseman.

    Lou Marson? Well he makes me yearn for the good ol’ days of Einar Diaz behind the plate.

    On the bright side, Kipnis and the Chiz are coming soon and our days of watching Nix will be past us. Let’s hope when they do they stay healthy and are utilized correctly by Acta.

  • Tommy

    So if there are 4 available bench spots, and 2 are going to Kearns and a backup catcher, that leaves one for the utility infielder and one for Duncan.

    I hear the argument about wanting to get a 4th OF, LHP masher all in one roster spot, but even if we did, eliminating the need for Duncan, what exactly would we do with that extra spot? Throw another utility infielder in there? A pinch-running specialist maybe for all those close and crucial games we’ll be playing?

    I don’t know what my fascination with Duncan is exactly, but I will be disappointed if he isn’t on the roster on Opening Day. I think his right-handed power bat is very valuable off the bench for this team, and even though he’s older, it still feels to me like there may be some untapped potential there, if nothing else, just because he came from the Yankee system where it makes sense to me that he would have never been given a real chance. His puzzle piece also definitely seems to fit very well with Hafner’s right now.

    I think a bench of Kearns, Marson, Duncan, Hannahan is very valuable and versatile with many different matchup options, especially when you consider that almost every single one of our projected starters can be considered a multi-positional guy.

  • OmegaKing

    Reggie – our days of Nix likely won’t be behind us at that point – Nix may end up being another “right-handed bat with some pop” we love to keep around. Plus he has a “utility infielder” multiplier on top of that. We LOVE utility guys.

  • The DiaTriber

    Kotchman to the Rays on a Minor-League deal…meltdown avoided.

  • Matt S

    While I doubt he starts the season in this role, I think Jared Goedert could end up getting some time at DH as the season progresses. That being said, I think I like the Santana->1B, LaPorta-> DH suggestion better.

    As we know, injuries ultimately are going to play a factor here. I think that if either Grady or Hafner get hurt, Kearns slots into an everyday role, and you can see Goedert or Nick Weglarz getting an opportunity to earn everyday or platoon at-bats.

  • mgbode

    “Santana is probably one of the better options we have against any sort of pitcher the opponent may throw out there”

    cmon man, be more bold than that. “probably” “one of the better”

  • Jon

    Jeez mgbode, did you look at his splits? I was scared going that far.

  • Charles

    Jon, you’re talking about 48 ABs in his first go-round against legitimate LHP. His walk rate was still excellent, and he still showed a bit of power. The issue was that his BABIP was .167. There is just no way we can take that line and use it to predict anything.

  • Jon

    I agree Charles. That’s why I mentioned the small sample size. But you don’t get to pick parts from the 48 ABs that you like–like walk-rate and power–but give no credence to the things you don’t like–like the OBP and AVG. That’s not how small sample sizes work.

    What I do want to find are his MiLB splits. Anybody have those?

  • Charles

    The OBP is low only because of the BABIP. That’s the only thing driving his weak line against LHP. And you can parse the data differently. The number of PAs when we can expect the walk-rate to normalize is not the same as the number for BABIP. Also, the walk-rate, and not the BABIP, falls in line with the overarching career norms. It’s perfectly rational to not just point out the small sample size, but where exactly in the sample we’re seeing issues.

    Also, is no longer fully functional, but you can access the data in Excel. It looks like Santana had an over .800 OPS against LHP in AAA, and about 1.000 in AA in 2009

  • Jon

    @ Charles:

    Thanks for those numbers! And you’re absolutely right: it looks like he’s done fine against LHP in the minors. I downloaded all the historical splits from the site, and can now use them in the future. Awesome.

  • pjbnyc

    Interesting stuff. I’m kind of excited about the Indians this year, though, statistically, logically, it doesn’t make that much sense. They need a first baseman, a second baseman, and a third baseman, and they need a rookie catcher to rebound from a knee injury. Maybe Hafner regains his stroke, maybe Sizemore comes back strong, maybe Brantley stays hot. Lots to hope for. That’s the fun part.

  • Robert

    I know no one will admit this, is it possible that Hafner was on steroids during his heyday and has been off them the last few years? I have noticed that his arms are alot smaller than they were in 2006.

  • Charles

    Robert – I guess it’s possible, but he would have had to have evaded testing since November 2003, so its incredibly unlikely.Also, even if how you see his arms wasn’t chock-full of confirmation bias, they likely culprit for smaller arms would be that debilitating shoulder injury. And of course, there’s that whole problem with the steroid accusations that never gets brought up, as many skinny guys like Alex Sanchez, and not-quite-in-the-best-shape guys like Rafael Betancourt are just as likely to have taken steroids as the big name sluggers.