Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | September 14, 2009

Magglio Ordonez, Edwin Jackson, & The World of Misconception

EDIT: 

I wrote this piece prior to the existance of this blog. In order to maintain continuity of my writing and to get as much of it into one place as possible, I added this post at a later date and time stamped it to the date and approximate time that I originally wrote it. This is the reason why it appears before the “introduction” blog entry. It is because this piece actually predates the blog. What follows below is the original entry as written whenever I wrote it.

Heading into the All-Star break this year, ask any Tiger fan about Magglio Ordonez and Edwin Jackson and you would probably get the same reaction from many Tiger fans across the board. While the degrees would be different, the reaction would very likely be the same. Jackson was a savior who dominated the first half of the season, and was the Tigers most consistent — If not best — Starting pitcher in that time. While receiving little run support, Jackson consistently kept the Tigers in games and put them in positions to win at the very least. Between April 28 and July 25 he only failed to go six innings once in a start, and in that time he posted a 6-4 record (and the Tigers a 9-7 record in his starts) in spite of the fact that he had a 2.54 ERA.

Ordonez was a different story. While there were a sizable faction of Tiger fans that were forgiving to him for his post-season heroics of three years ago, most Tiger fans ran the gamut from disappointed, to disgusted, to openly reviling the now-ex slugger. By July 1st, Ordonez was the most impotent regular starting outfielder in the Major Leagues, with an OPS of .663. In fact, he was one of the bottom 15 regular starters at ANY POSITION in the majors at this time, with an ISO of .073 that placed him below players on his own team known for their anemic hitting, such as Gerald Laird (OPS .681, ISO .121 as of 7/1) and Adam Everett (.696/.096 on 7/1). While Ordonez’s power has been declining for pretty much the entirety of his tenure with Detroit (ISO of .218 as a White Sox, .187 during his first four years in Detroit, as well as four 30+ homer seasons in Chicago and none in Detroit) this startling drop in power was combined with an overall inability to make meaningful contact. He still was able to manage a decent walk rate, but in light of his power outage and decline in getting hits, this skill that is often ignored by the average fan in any event was obscured and minimized, rightfully. It appeared that Ordonez was done, and much talk shifted to preventing him from reaching the plate appearances and/or games played kickers that would guarantee his 2010 option to play in Detroit.

Now we have reached September 14th — Two and a half weeks and twenty games remaining in the season — And suddenly the roles have flip-flopped, at least in terms of how each has helped the team. I do wonder if the average fan acknowledges just how good Ordonez has been recently, and how bad Jackson has been though?

Entering the season, I was highly critical of the move that brought Jackson to Detroit from Tampa Bay for Matt Joyce. In the time that has elapsed since, I have taken alot of abuse about that criticism and have at times said that this was potentially the most wrong that I’ve been about anything Tigers related since my extreme opposition to drafting Justin Verlander in 2004. However, I’ve tempered my admissions by saying that the trade involved two young players and that it would take time to fully evaluate both trades. Clearly, Jackson’s contributions during the early half of the season were so great that should the Tigers go on to win a championship in 2009, regardless of what he does in the post-season or in the final two weeks of the season, and regardless of what Joyce does in his career, it will have been a good move for Detroit. For now though, the book is far more open on this deal than most Tiger fans are willing to admit.

My initial criticism of the trade was that the Tigers were trading Joyce, an outfielder with an above average (not great) minor league track record while achieving that track record consistently playing while younger than his league. The season he had at AA at age 22 was not great by any means, but it showed promise for a player that age. While he needed to improve his contact (.257 BA), his 17 home runs and .454 SLG was intriguing. He broke out in 2008, going 270/352/550 with 13 home runs in just 56 games for Toledo. He earned his promotion to Detroit and posted modest overall numbers with VERY promising power numbers, going 252/339/492 with 12 home runs in 277 PAs. All at the age of 23. In addition, Joyce had a reputation within the organization as a character guy and hard worker who would consistently play above his skill level, a tag that was also labeled on the last quality corner outfielder that the Tigers produced, Curtis Granderson (moved to and now miscast as a Center Fielder today). Speaking of Granderson, by the time he was 23 he had only played in 8 major league games and was not particularly impressive in them, and had not advanced beyond AA. This in an organization that was weaker than the one Joyce played for. While his age 23 season in AA was better than anything Matt Joyce has ever done, I’m establishing a point about how I perceive(d) Joyce’s value.

In return for Joyce, the Tigers were receiving Jackson. Jackson was (is) also a young player, though about a year and a half older than Joyce. To that point in his career, he was all promise and little performance. A highly touted prospect for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he made his major league debut at the age of 19 in 2003, and delivered on 22 impressive, control-challenged innings. He would spend parts of the next five seasons in AA, AAA, and the Major Leagues (mostly AAA and the MLB), and wouldn’t be seen pitching effectively again above the AA level until the 2008 season, where he managed a strong first half for the Tampa Bay Rays, before a terrible latter half. The Tigers have and have had more than their fair share of low performance/high upside pitchers in the Dombrowski era (this actually was my big criticism with drafting Verlander as well, though he became high performance when he reached the pros). The list of these guys runs the gamut from Freddy Dolsi, Denny Bautista, Francisco Cruceta, and Steve Colyer among others. In spite of Jackson’s high pedigree and age, he hadn’t completed a full season of impressive work since 2003, when he was 19 years old. There was considerable reason and room for skepticism.

Looking at his 2008 season, it was a huge step up from his previous work, and was definitely his *most* impressive season since 2003, but it was a season mired in luck and streakiness. His “ESPN” numbers were 14-11 with a 4.42 ERA, which made the average fan stand up and question the skepticism. He had a decent record with a good number of wins and a slightly below average ERA. But looking deeper, there was alot not to like about Jackson in 2008, starting with the fact that for a pitcher with such electric stuff who threw so hard, he barely struck anybody out. His K/9 of 5.3 in 2008 put him on par with strikeout kings like Nate Robertson (5.8), Tim Wakefield (5.8), and Jesse Litsch (5.1). Strikeouts aren’t the only way to be effective in the league (two of those three pitchers had effective non-lucky seasons), but when you’re sporting a 95 MPH fastball and poor control, finesse pitching is likely not going to be how you make your salt in the league. And speaking of control, Jackson’s WHIP of 1.51 was the fifth worst of the 40 American League starting pitchers that made it to 162+ innings pitched in 2008. His 3.8 BB/9 was sixth worst. He was seventh worst with an OBP against of .352. His line drive percentage against was 22%, tying him for fourth worst and indicating that opponents were really squaring the ball against him. There was really very little that he did well last season. He had the fortune of pitching in front of the team that had the highest defensive efficiency (.708) and UZR (53.9) in the league last year, and it helped depress his ERA by allowing for his many, many balls in play to be turned into outs where they may not have been with a weaker defense. Worse yet, he disappeared mid-season. By July 9th he was 9-9 with a 3.93 ERA. Opponents were 254/330/385 against him and his WPA on the season was an impressive 0.97. His WHIP was a slightly below average 1.38. Over the remainder of the season, the offense helped him to a better record (9-5), but his performance was abysmal. Opponents were 320/383/527 against him (essentially the entire league was hitting him the way Moises Alou used to hit the entire league in his prime) and his ERA was 5.15. His WHIP was 1.69. And he was left off of the playoff roster.

In spite of there being very little signs of success in Jackson by looking at his performance, he possessed his hard fastball and intriguing breaking pitches and the Tigers dealt for him, and over the first half of the season it paid dividends. Through July 25th (two weeks longer than last season) he was produced some of the best results in all of baseball. The Tigers offense robbed him of a better record (not that a pitcher’s record means much of anything in evaluating his talent), but he was 7-5 with an ERA of 2.59 in this time. His WPA of 2.86 was one of the best in major leagues over this period of time. You know you’re having a great season when your WPA is higher than your ERA. Opponents were 216/283/360 against him, he ditched the high walk rate (2.9 BB/9), and his K/9 of 6.9 was much improved, though still low for a pitcher with his skill set. His WHIP of 1.11 was outstanding. He also helped the Tigers greatly by going deep into games, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start — A huge step up from the 5 2/3 per start that he averaged in 2008. However, Jackson now appears to be mired deep into a second half swoon that is beginning to mirror his 2008 season.

Beginning with his July 31st start at Cleveland, Jackson has again (like 2008) been helped by the Tigers offense to a better record while performing dramatically worse. In this time he’s been 5-1 with an ERA of 4.80. While managing to keep his K-rate and walk rate consistent, opponents are now batting 300/358/509 against him over this stretch, and his WPA is 0.31. That 0.31 is slightly skewed, as he earned 0.53 of it in one start against Baltimore. The other eight starts have seen him post a WPA of -0.22. His WHIP has been an atrocious 1.55. This is bad. Really, really bad. And I don’t really hear Tiger fans talking about how bad he’s been lately very much. Perhaps because his record has improved, and the Tigers are 5-4 overall in those 9 starts, so it doesn’t stand out. Who is the real Edwin Jackson? The one who showed up for the first half of the season in Detroit, or the one who showed up for the second half? I would argue that he is a young player who has still yet to establish a clear level of performance, but that the answer right now would seem to be in the middle. His improvement in the non-luck related performance categories K/9 and BB/9 have been very real and very substantial. He’s widened the gap in his K/BB from 1.40 to 2.34, which is a huge improvement, especially for a pitcher who still is not yet a huge strikeout pitcher (he is exactly league average, in fact).

However, early in the season he was helped out tremendously by luck on balls in play. Entering the July 31st start against Cleveland, Jackson’s BABip was .249, which at the time was fifth lowest in the MLB (not coincidentally, Jarrod Washburn was 4th at .247). This is about 40 points below league average and 70 points below Jackson’s career average entering the season. There was no way that would ever be sustainable, and in the intervening months he has seen that figure rise to .272, which is still about 20 below league average and probably also not a sustainable figure to expect going forward. Of course, in order for the number to rise 23 points so quickly, it required him to post a BABip well over the league average, and so it would appear that he is receiving misfortune where he was getting fortunate before. When the results become consistent and normalize, what we’re probably left with is a pitcher who will consistently post an ERA in the 4 range and give you a chance to win most nights, assuming he doesn’t raise his game any further from his current level of performance. Given his slider and the fourth hardest starting pitcher fastball in the MLB, it stands to reason that he could. However, he is unlikely to become the superstar he was touted to be as a 19 year old and appeared to be at the start of the year if he maintains his current level of performance.

In the interim, Joyce has taken a step back this season, but many Detroit fans may be declaring victory a little too early in terms of the value-for-value analysis. While clearly this move has benefitted Detroit this season tremendously — I cannot imagine where the Tigers would be without Jackson — The perception of the trade being lopsided is premature. Joyce’s season at AAA Durham saw him improve his OBP to a very impressive .373 in 493 PAs, and while his power numbers weren’t quite as prodigious as he showed at Toledo, he posted a still impressive .482 SLG while hitting a modest 16 home runs. He struggled with limited playing time in Tampa, getting into only 11 games and 37 plate appearances, but he still showed big league power and plate patience. His 188/270/500 line reflects a man who only got 6 hits but had 3 home runs and a double, and averaging 3.84 pitches per time up, which is about the MLB average. In all, a 37 PA sample is entirely too small to draw definite conclusions from, but considering that he’s still only 24, he remains a promising player. 2010 will be a big year for his development and if he does not show the ability to take his game to the next level, it will dim his star considerably, but as of now there is still no reason to believe — Based on performance — That he would not be as good of a hitter as Jackson will be as a pitcher. That being said, Jackson elevated his game before Joyce did, and Jackson’s physical tools as it relates to pitching are much greater than Joyce’s physical tools as it relates to hitting. He has considerably more room to grow. Specifically, it is awe-inspiring how a man with the fourth hardest fastball in the game (among starters) can only muster a league-average strikeout rate.

While there are many misconceptions around Jackson — From the lack of recognition of how bad (or unlucky) hes been in the second half, to the failure to recognize his potential limitations, I would suggest that it is not fully appreciated what Magglio Ordonez has contributed to the Tigers in the last two months either. While I would pinpoint July 3rd as Ordonez’s low point with the Tigers this season — The last date that his OPS was as low as .663, he only modestly elevated his game in July, from “atrocious” to “bad”. By July 31st his OPS was still only .685 on the season (258/329/356). It was not really until the home series against Baltimore (8/4) that Ordonez began to step his game up. And has he ever stepped it up since then. From that point forward — A period of time during which he has started 27 games and played in 32 — He has actually batted over .400 (.404). His overall line of 404/474/556 also reflects that he is also walking at a decent rate as well. He continues to display a significant power outage — His ISO of .152 over that time is still 35 points below his level of performance as a Tiger prior to this season and he only has 2 home runs in that time — But he has at least brought himself to a point where he is above being a singles hitter. For comparison sake, American League players who have a season-long ISO of .150-.155 include Dustin Pedroia, Pat Burrell, and David DeJesus. The AL average for 2009 is .161. So Ordonez is right there at least, as being a marginally below average power threat, as opposed to being one of the “weakest” hitters in the league throughout the first few months. It is worth noting that even with his hot month, Ordonez is still 76th of 84 qualified AL players in ISO with .110 overall, ahead of only Ichiro Suzuki, Denard Span, Yuniesky Betancourt, Brendan Harris, Melvin Mora, Orlando Cabrera, Chone Figgins, and Willie Bloomquist.

Still, during THIS SPAN, he has been only slightly below average, and his .474 OBP in that period more than makes up for his decline in power. Clearly Ordonez will not keep up that .474 figure indefinitely — Even in 2007 when he went .434 for the whole season, he only topped .474 in a month once (.500 in the month of June) — But it is fairly reasonable to believe that he can keep it up for the remaining two weeks of the season and potentially into the playoffs, which for now is all that matters. Again, for comparison sake, there are no qualified AL players with a full-season OBP of .474. The league leader is Joe Mauer with .432. While I’m not a huge fan of cherry picking statistics, the fact of the matter is that right now Magglio Ordonez has been playing out of this World for a period of time that has now stretched well beyond a month and into six weeks. While he hasn’t displayed his old power, he’s making up for it by getting alot of hits and a decent amount of walks. Or in other words, not making outs. While I think his resurgence has been acknowledged, I don’t think Detroit Tiger fans have talked enough about exactly HOW great he has been since the start of August. He has raised his overall line to 294/365/404, which certainly is disappointing for his pay rate and not all-star caliber performance, but at least is the line of a respectable major league player with the most important component being well above average (OBP of .365 is 27th in the MLB and 31 points above league average).

It is reasonable to question Ordonez’s role on the 2010 team. He has 8 plate appearances until his option vests, and barring an unfortunate injury, he will get them. And he should. I’m still skeptical that he will provide much value to the 2010 team, and remain of the belief that his start to 2009 and his season-long power outage are harbingers of things to come, especially given his age. I’ve speculated before and continue to wonder now if it would be a good idea for them to release him in the off-season a la Sheffield (who was released in the spring), acknowledge the loss of money, and avoid the minute possibility that the 2011 season could vest due to lack of in-house alternatives in the corner outfield (and lack of pursuit of external alternatives on the Tigers behalf). However, what should not be in question, is the merits of what Ordonez has contributed to the Detroit Tigers in the “dog days” and “pennant race” of this season. He has been one of the most integral pieces (along with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera) of the team’s ability to maintain and widen their lead in the division during the second half of the season. This is something that cannot be understated and should not be. I think he is being overlooked, and I think due to just how horrible he was in the beginning of the season, people are not seeing that he is putting together a season that by its end, will be fairly solid if he plays the last two weeks as he has the prior six.

With two weeks remaining in the season, the Tigers are going to need to hope for more normal luck from Jackson, which would produce results more in line with his talent and more conducive to victory than what they’ve been getting. They’re going to need Ordonez to maintain a high level of performance, even if its a step down from the over-performance that they have received from him in the last six weeks. If they can get these two things, it will go a long way in helping them capture their first divisional title in twenty two years and attempt to win their first championship in twenty-five. It will be exciting to watch.

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