On a Cardinals team struggling to find traction in a mediocre division, Colby Rasmus has become the vogue mid-summer discussion topic (again) as the July 31st trade deadline looms. In case you hadn’t yet reached your fill of P-D articles, sports talk radio shows, and blog posts on the subject, I thought I’d throw my two cents in the bucket as well.
In 2010, Colby was the most valuable offensive center fielder (.366 wOBA) in the league not named Carlos Gonzalez or Josh Hamilton. In 2011, he’s ranked the fourteenth most valuable offensive center fielder (.324 wOBA) in the league between the likes of Michael Brantley and Peter Bourjos. Forget the league. Rasmus is only the fourth most valuable offensive center fielder in the division behind McCutchen, Bourn, and Stubbs.
A player’s trending walk and strikeout rates can indicate whether or not someone is taking steps forward in their career. Not only has Colby maintained his walk rate (11.5%), but he’s also cut down on strikeouts by seven percent (20.3%). Surprisingly, this hasn’t coincided with improvement for Colby. Instead, his production has declined precipitously in the past two months to the extent that he’s yielded playing time to Jon Jay. So what happened? First, let’s take a look at Colby’s plate approach.
Not much there. Almost everything seems to be within normal rates including how often he swings at pitches outside (28.3%) and inside (72.1%) of the strike zone; he’s also seeing about the same amount of strikes (43.3%). It’s slightly intriguing that he’s maintained his contact percentage inside of the strike zone (86.6%) but has made contact on pitches outside of it (62.8%) six percent more often than last season. Presumably, one would make weaker contact on pitches outside of the strike zone than inside of it.
What about his batted ball data?
Pretty steady from year to year. Sure, he’s generating a slightly higher percentage of groundballs and fewer fly balls, but the difference isn’t significant enough to explain away his struggles. On July 18th at VEB, BGH disputed the false notion of choosing between Rasmus or Jay. I tend to agree with his assertion that Colby’s BABIP (.286) should improve – especially considering his speed – but his drastic increase in infield fly balls (13.9%) has been overlooked. At first glance, you’d expect Colby to discover some good fortune in the second half based on his unlucky-ish BABIP and HR/FB rates, but surely these are colored by the amount of balls in the air that never leave the infield dirt.
This makes me wonder if those pitches he’s making contact with out of the zone are above the letters on his uniform. Maybe he’s chasing too many upstairs offerings and that’s why he’s hitting so many pop flies. Well, that’s not the case according to Joe Lefkowitz’s pitch F/X tool:
In fact, Colby seems to have quite the opposite struggle. He’s demonstrated an ability to lay off of pitches too high, but he’s waved at quite a few below his knees. Most of his fly balls and pop-ups have occurred within the confines of the strike zone. It’s difficult to identify all of the yellow spots on this graph, but many of the fly balls and pop-ups appear to have been generated by change-ups. Take a look at FanGraphs’ pitch type values and you’ll see that Colby used to fare well against this off-speed pitch (but not others). Not so much in 2011.
Where does this leave us? Maybe Colby will benefit from slightly better luck on balls in play… but probably not if he fails to fix the kink in his swing causing him to pop up so many pitches, particularly change-ups. But what if he doesn’t fix the hitch in his swing? Well, according to StatCorner’s wOBAr (adjusts for current batted ball rates and home park effects), Colby should have moderately better results going forward (.332 wOBAr).
But let’s not kid ourselves, saber friends. However quick we are to point towards bad luck causing Colby’s 2011 struggles, let us be even swifter to acknowledge that at least part of 2010′s success was luck. After all, his 2010 BABIP (.354) was luckier than his .286 BABIP in 2011 has been unlucky (most players’ BABIP hovers around .300).
And while we’re at it, let’s not overlook his disappointing outfield play. In 2009, Colby displayed all of the defensive promise we’d heard about throughout his time in the minors, and it didn’t matter which metric you referred to for proof. According to Total Zone, he was worth 17 runs above average. Oh, you fancy UZR? He was worth 10.2 runs that year. Since that time, Colby’s supposedly defensive prowess has not been realized on the field. In 2010, he either cost the team 11 or 6.7 runs depending on your source (Total Zone and UZR, respectively). He’s already cost the team just as many runs defensively in 2011 despite having logged 300 fewer innings in the outfield.
With that said, chatter in/around St. Louis has reached an unacceptably absurd level. Just in the past week or so, I’ve heard talking heads on a local radio show refer to Colby as a fourth outfielder. Then they proceeded to talk about the possibility of sending Rasmus, Boggs, and a lower-level pitcher to San Diego for Heath Bell, a pitcher the Cardinals would only have until the end of 2011. On the same radio station, Andy Van Slyke doubted that Rasmus had very much trade value. And when I expressed disappointment on Twitter about his diminished playing time, I received an immediate tweet that read: “Rasmus is terrible.”
None of this evidence suggests that Colby Rasmus is an unskilled baseball player. Have people forgotten that he hasn’t even turned 25-years-old yet? Because that doesn’t happen until August. No, what we have is a player mired in an indisputable slump, a guy who’s still years away from his (expected) peak seasons, and still in the process of defining the type of impact that he will have on a roster. And he’s extremely cheap, which is not insignificant given the Cardinals’ interest in locking up Albert Pujols long term. Given his offensive upside and bargain price, Rasmus can still add value to the Cardinals even if his defense dictates that he cannot stay in center field long term.
Am I starting to wonder if Colby Rasmus will fail to live up to all of the hype? Yes. Am I ready to give up on him? Absolutely not. The Cardinals have every reason to wait out the development of Colby Rasmus, much like the Tampa Bay Rays have waited out the development of B.J. Upton. No, he never became the star everyone thought he would after swatting 7 HRs in the 2008 postseason, but he’s proven to be a quality cog in their organizational success. And they still have the opportunity to trade him three years later, at least according to the latest rumors.
It’s not that the Cardinals shouldn’t trade Rasmus under any circumstances. It’s just that their financial obligation towards him is so small that he doesn’t have to perform at an all-star level in order for him to be valuable in terms of cost-efficient roster management. If the Cardinals can acquire other young cost-controlled players in return for Colby, then a trade might make sense. Otherwise, I hope he stays put.