Be Careful What You Wish For

It’s always a mistake listening to Chicago sports radio, and the other day was a particularly bad day for it. Two separate shows on the Score were debating the “controversy” over who should be starting, Derrek Lee or Micah Hoffpauir. Lee, you see, is old and busted. Micah is the new hotness. And by “new hotness,” I mean, “is slightly younger than Derrek Lee, but has more career spring training at-bats than real ones because nobody thinks highly of him as a player.”

The mistake Lee made was having one of the best seasons I can remember from a Cub in 2005. He hit .335/.418/.662. Those numbers aren’t just way better than his career numbers, they’re way better than anyone’s career numbers. Lee put up another good season in 2007 after recovering from his 2006 broken wrist. His power numbers were a little down, but he still did well above his career average. Then, last year, he got hot at the start of the season, and then tailed off. Check out his monthly lines:

April: .364/.437/.682
May:  .234/.269/.411 
June: .283/.371/.404
July: .292/.339/.442 
August: .301/.411/.376 
September: .274/.344/.440 

The truth is, those numbers aren’t that bad in most of those months. Lee’s power definitely evaporated after his ridiculous start. And his May, crippled in part by an awful batting average on balls in play, was bad. But his OPS was in the high 700s in June, July, August, and September. When he wasn’t hitting for power he was getting on base, and when he wasn’t getting on base quite as well he was hitting more doubles. In the end, he finished pretty middle-of-the pack for a first baseman. And he did so while playing through what he later admitted was a fairly bad neck injury. Maybe he should have rested and tried to heal it, but he didn’t, and he still put up passable numbers while playing hurt.

Then there’s Micah Hoffpauir. Hoffpauir has 80 major-league PAs. In those PAs he hit .342/.400/.534, with two home runs. Which sounds great until you consider a few things:

1) 69 of those at-bats were versus right-handed pitching. There are more righties than lefties in the league, but not by that much.

2) That .342 average is on account of 25 career hits.

3) Five of those hits were in one game. 

4) That includes both home runs.

5) An error by Hoffpauir cost the Cubs a run in that game, and they ultimately lost the game by one run.

And that’s the real problem. Hoffpauir might be an alright major-league hitter. But he can’t play the field at all. The only position he can play without being a total disaster is first base. And at first he’s still bad, just not as bad as he would be anywhere else. Derrek Lee is overrated in the field, but he’s not really giving anything back to the other team with his glove, either. So for Hoffpauir to be a better choice than Lee, he’d need to actually outhit him, not just match him.

The projections don’t think Hoffpauir can do it. They’re basing this on his 80 major-league PAs and his minor-league career, so they’re taking into account the fact that he killed pitching in Iowa last year. All of these projections are for wOBA:

messinwiththehoff

It’s not like there’s any disagreement there. Every one of the projection systems thinks Lee will hit better than Hoffpauir. If you convert wOBA into runs, the widest margin is CHONE’s, which thinks that Lee is worth about 19 runs more with the bat than Hoffpauir over the course of 700 PAs. The closest margin, from ZiPS, puts Lee at about 5 runs better than Hoffpauir. Lee is at least 5 runs better than Hoffpauir with the glove. So you can reasonably project that a team with Derrek Lee as its first baseman would win one to three more games than a team with Hoffpauir as its first baseman.

There are plenty of arguments to have about Lee. You can argue that his power’s gone, that he isn’t suited to hit third in the lineup, that the Cubs ought to be looking for someone else to play first base. But please don’t argue that a guy who couldn’t make it out of AAA until he was 28 is better than Derrek Lee.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Frankly, I’ve seen no evidence that there’s a replacement-level 1B out there that’s going to be better than Lee over the next several (three or more) years. If his power goes, it goes. But even with that, I’m not sure he won’t be Wade Boggs-ing it for a while.

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