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Monday, February 12, 2007

Nunez v. Helms 

As I’ve noted, in broken record fashion in the past, the Phillies had a terrific defensive but horrifically offensively challenged third baseman the last several years with David Bell. Now, after three and a half years, the David Bell era is over and the Phillies move ahead with Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms as their prospective third base duo. The Phillies seem set to have Helms as the starter and back him up with Nunez, though I suspect that Nunez will get a lot of playing time in 2007.

Both right-handed hitters, Helms and Nunez have a few similarities. Both were used as utility infielders in 2007 by their respective teams. Nunez played 74 games at third, pinch-hit 41 times and played second and short a half-dozen times each. Helms pinch-hit 52 times, played 89 games at first base and another 24 at third for the Florida Marlins.

Here is how Bell, Nunez and Helms fared playing third in 2007:

Field Pct. / Range Factor
Bell: .945 / 2.78
Nunez: .959 / 2.66
Helms: .938 / 2.86

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
Fielding Percentage: (Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors). How often the player successfully handled the ball.
Range Factor: (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays.
Gross Productive Average (GPA): (1.8 * .OBP + .SLG) / 4 = .GPA. Invented by The Hardball Times Aaron Gleeman, GPA measures a players production by weighing his ability to get on base and hit with power. This is my preferred all-around stat.
Isolated Power (ISO): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage. Power at the plate.
Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). If you use ESPN’s version be advised that it is pitifully is out-of-date, however. James adjusted RC after the 2004 season ended.
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.

Take some of Helms numbers in context: after all, he played a fraction (94 & 1/3) of the innings that Bell (781 & 1/3) and Nunez (632) did. Still, it suggests that he’ll play alright at third. Nunez is an individual whose reputation rests squarely on his ability to field the ball. The Pirates and Cardinals, his two previous teams, did not sign him for his ability to hit the ball. He’s the ultimate utility infielder. I suspect that his performance at third in 2007 was rather poor, and that even here Helms will be either an upgrade or simply no worse.

Helms will be a massive upgrade over Nunez offensively. There really is no good way to dress up Nunez offensive output. It is horrible. Let’s start with the raw stats. Nunex hit .211 with two home runs and 32 RBI in 322 At-Bats. Look a little deeper into the numbers and the picture is actually worse: Nunez GPA was just .205 in 2006. .205!!!! His On-Base Percentage was .303 and his slugging percentage was a mind-bogglingly awful .273. Nunez Isolated Power at the plate was just .062 … He had just 14 extra-base hits in those 322 At-Bats. Nunez contribution to the Phillies offense was pretty much nil. He had 27 Runs Created in 2006, and if you break that down by how many Outs he made, then you discover that he scored 1.98 per 27 outs. An entire team of Abraham Nunez’s would scored basically 2 runs a game, or 321 over the course of a season. The Phillies actually scored 865.

In fact, it is a minor miracle that the Phillies led the N.L. in runs scored with Nunez playing in half of their games. To be a successful offense with that anchor on the team? They are doing something very right.

One interesting fact I discovered: Jason Weitzel of the excellent Beerleaguer argued that Nunez addition helped the Phillies lineup by putting someone with speed in and removing the slow-footed David Bell, who grounded into a lot of double plays. Nunez, in contrast, with his speed, avoided hitting into double plays and benefited the Phillies offense. Initially I thought that this argument had merit: Bell had ground into 11 double plays in 324 At-Bats in 2006 with the Phillies, while Nunez hit into 7. Then I discovered this stunning gem of a stat: in 2006, of the balls put into play by David Bell, 44% were grounders. Of the balls that Nunez put into play, 62% were ground balls.

I firmly believe that Nunez was extraordinarily lucky that he did not ground into more double plays in 2007. In reality, he ought to be absurdly prone to hitting into the 6-4-3 double play. Maybe Nunez’s speed and base-running skills enabled him to avoid the 6-4-3 (Bill James did rate Nunez a good base-runner at +3, while Wes Helms was a -4), but I doubt it. Based on Helms batted ball stats I think the Phillies can rest easy: just 38% of Helms batted balls were grounders (the league average was 44%, by the way), and he hit line-drives 26% of the time.

I think the Phillies offense will operate much, much smoother in 2007 with the addition of Wes Helms to the Phillies lineup. I am looking forward to seeing the overall improvement that the team will show thanks to their third base upgrade.

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