Tanaka who? The true big news out of Japanese baseball players tonight is the re-signing of Munenori Kawasaki by the Jays to a minor league deal. This is great news for Toronto as Kawasaki was definitely a fan favorite, and there’s really no downside to a deal like this. I suspect Kawasaki turned down more money from Japan to stay with the Jays because he sees a possibility that he could actually compete for the starting job at 2B this season.
So I’ll interrupt my series of who else is available on the 2B market for some thoughts on the Jays current situation at 2B. If they do end up standing pat, should Kawasaki get serious consideration for the starting job?
Kawasaki became known for his personality, but he was also respected as a solid defender at both 2B and SS, and as a guy who knows how to take a walk and get on base.
All of these things are true. Kawasaki draws walks at a better rate than the league average. He did this in Japan quite well too, so this is unlikely to be a fluke. He did play good defense according to the advanced metrics, and he even added some speed on the basepaths, swiping 7 in limited playing time last year. Where Kawasaki is lacking is in batting average and power.
Kawasaki hit just .229 last year in half a season, with a SLG of .308 (lower than his OBP of .326). Now, I’m not one to care much for batting average, but as much as I like OBP as a stat better than batting average, hits are better than walks. And with a poor batting average and without much natural power, your SLG is bound to be quite low also. This low OPS despite a decent OBP is why Kawasaki’s wRC+ this past year was only 78, making him a well below league average hitter.
But is he bound to hit for poor average forever? I’d venture to say not. Kawasaki has an excellent eye. He only swings and misses at 4.1% of pitches he sees, which is excellent and well above the league average. His contact% hovers around 90%, which is also great, and he strikes out less than the league average as well. In other words, he’s a classic contact hitter who doesn’t strike out often and knows how to draw a walk, but has poor power and a bit of speed.
Hitters with that skill-set, like Denard Span, for example, typically see their batting averages in the .270-.300 range, in my experience. Although it’s cliche to blame low batting averages on BABIP, and usually an oversimplification, in this case I think it actually makes a lot of sense. Kawasaki’s BABIP was only .269 last season, well below the league’s norm. But, his LD% was 21.3% (above average), and his GB% was 58% (also above average). Hitters with decent speed who hit lots of line drives and ground balls should expect BABIPs above the league average, not below them.
With this in mind, I really wouldn’t think it crazy to predict a BABIP in the .300-.320 range for Kawasaki in 2014. A jump that significant in BABIP could easily bump up his batting avg from .230 to at least the .250-.260 range. If he can keep up his walk rate, which I don’t see why he shouldn’t, he could find himself with an OBP north of .330.
His power will likely regress a bit, as his .079 ISO from 2013 was much better than what he’s done in the past. However, even an ISO of .050-.060 (still among the worst in the league) would give him a SLG around .310-.320, for an OPS in the .625-.660 range.
I’m being conservative here with the numbers, arguing basically that his regression in power will counterbalanced by his positive regression in BABIP. Overall, his OPS could remain the same next year, or rise a bit. But if he does reach the high end of my range, a .660 OPS from him could get his wRC+ up closer to the 85-90 range. Still well below average, but definitely passable, and something that combined with good defense and solid baserunning could make an overall average to slightly below average starter.
Thinking his overall WAR could approach 2.0 might seem like wishful thinking, but I actually don’t think it’s that crazy. And even if I”m being overly optimistic, a WAR of 1.0 seems likely to be his floor, and maybe we can just split this down the middle and say a WAR of 1.5 is certainly within reach if he plays full-time in 2014. For a guy who will probably end up making less than $2M, that’s actually quite a good return.
And that’s only looking at the numbers. But Kawasaki might have extra value on top of his numbers. Here we turn to the intangibles. Now, intangibles is somewhat of a hot-button issue among sabermetricians. Intangibles have been historically overvalued by most of the sports world, and in some ways Sabermetrics was a movement that pushed back against that.
What honest sabermetricians will tell you, however, is that there is certainly no proof that intangibles don’t matter. In fact, most of them will tell you that intangibles likely do matter. The only thing is, them being intangibles and all, is that we have no way of quantifying their value. But our acknowledgement of our inability to evaluate how valuable things are shouldn’t be confused with the argument that intangibles have no value.
And when it comes to intangibles, there are few who can do more for a clubhouse than Kawasaki. Even several of the players last season praised the energy and positivity that he brought to the clubhouse. The question, of course, is does that make a difference, and if it does how much of a difference is it.
Now, I have little doubt that attitude makes a difference. When teams fall out of the race, it at least seems that they don’t make the same efforts that they would were they still in the race. Some players might, but some players don’t. They may still try their best during games, but they may spend less time preparing, less time watching video, less time working with coaches on changing their approach, or less time studying opposing pitchers and hitters.
Of course, I have no way of knowing any of this, but it just seems to be the case with certain players. Colby Rasmus, for one, admitted in 2011 to just wanting to finish out the season and have a break. After going through a rough year and playing for a Jays team that was well out of things, it certainly seemed that he wasn’t exactly looking to make innovations to his batting stance to improve his September numbers.
On the other end, it’s only natural to assume that when teams are in the thick of the race, adrenalin runs higher and there is more motivation to spend every waking moment studying the video and your opposition. The adrenalin rush may be less important in baseball than it is in other sports where pure bursts of physical energy can directly lead to positive results. In baseball, you still need the focus to hit the ball or throw the ball, and extra energy may not be all that helpful. But still, whether it’s in-game energy, off-day studying, or simply just positive “clubhouse chemistry”, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think that teams playing well likely play closer to their potential than teams that are losing.
I still haven’t answered my question, though. Because the issue here is whether one player, one Kawasaki, can make a difference. Generally, if a team is winning, they already have positive energy and don’t need a boost from anyone. If a team is losing, they sure could use a boost, but in that scenario it might be too little too late to change the direction of a season anyways. And to me, this is really the conundrum of how to evaluate the intangibles in someone like Kawasaki. Even if he does make a difference in the clubhouse, is that difference actually relevant? Can it actually do anything to change the direction of a season?
The answer to the question, of course, is that I don’t know, and nobody really does. But still, if you can have a guy on your team that can provide 1.5 WAR as a starter and also add some intangibles that may or may not make a difference, and you can get him on the cheap, that’s a pretty nifty player to have on your team. And if my analysis here is correct, he might just be the front-runner for the Jays starting 2B job if no further additions are made. And if he’s not, well… maybe he should be.