It seems like one hot item that is going to be flying off shelves this holiday season is right-handed power for MLB benches. I am absolutely positive that Ryan Raburn will get a major league deal and that he will break camp with some big league club for 2013 season – I’m just not sure where.
Part of me imagines that Ryan Raburn – unless he was guaranteed to at least reproduce his disappointing 2011 offensive numbers – can’t possibly be worth $2 million plus. Therefore – since paying him that can’t happen – Dombrowski must be stringing him along or trying to get him to accept a pay cut, right? While that seems very plausible and very sensible, it doesn’t really sound like Dave Dombrowski (like having a bastard son doesn’t sound like Ned Stark – Game of Thrones fans know what I’m talking about). Guys that are not a part of the Tigers plans tend to get notified quickly – like Will Rhymes last year and Don Kelly this year. If they say they’re going to offer somebody a contract – and nobody can believe they would do such a ridiculous thing (Delmon Young) and assume some kind of shadowy scheme – they’re going to offer him a contract.
Given that Raburn has not been given the boot – and would fill a hole (which he himself created) if he could return to form – I’m going with the assumption that Raburn will be offered a contract by November 30 (whether this is a great idea or not). Is there any hope that he could produce next year?
I imagine most of you out there are appalled at the very thought of seeing Raburn in uniform next season. He was, after all, not the most popular player even when he was hitting. Assuming that this does happen – though the Tigers could possibly decide to go another way – let me try to soften the blow. The first thing that you have to remember (and I believe I brought this up during the great Inge debate last offseason) is that you aren’t going to find any complete players to fill reserve roles – everybody has flaws. You get a lot of guys that just can’t hit and a lot of guys that just can’t field and most of those guys have embarrassing L-R splits. The pool is thin enough that if you can’t field particularly well or hit particularly well there may still be a job for you – since you hit better than the gloves and field better than the bats.
The aggregate Raburn we see in his career averages is actually a fantastic bench option and a player that a lot of mediocre teams would be willing to settle for as a starting corner outfielder. A .256/.311/.430 slash line with slightly above average outfield defense (+1.6 UZR/150) is better than a lot of teams get. Think of him as Delmon Young with the D included. The problem – of course – is that his 2012 was so spectacularly, ridiculously bad that expecting him to match his career averages seems like pie in the sky optimism. If Raburn could bounce back to those career numbers, he wouldn’t just be worth holding onto – he’d be a good value. If he can’t? He was 1.5 wins below replacement level last year despite only getting 1/3 of a seasons worth of plate appearances. He could easily do that kind of damage again.
There are some statistical reasons for hope… first, Raburn’s strikeout and walk rates didn’t go crazy. He didn’t start swinging at more pitches out of the zone or fewer pitches in the zone – though it sometimes felt that way watching him. His swinging strike rate was not elevated and his contact rate was almost exactly at his career average. The whole of the problem came on outcomes on balls in play – he wasn’t hitting anything where he wanted to, as far as he wanted to or with the trajectory that he wanted either. Raburn had an extremely low BABIP in 2012 of .224 and an extremely low HR/FB rate of 1.5%.
The question then is – is there any hope that those numbers will bounce back? And I think there is a lot of hope. Especially in small samples those numbers can be skewed by luck and the sorts of non-repeatable, non-explainable physical and mental circumstances that lead to slumps. I have heard it said that when Raburn was optioned to AAA he didn’t hit there either – but that isn’t really fair. He didn’t demolish AAA pitching like he did on his short trips in ’08, ’09 and ’10 but an .801 OPS is loads better than what he had been doing in the majors. He also hit 4 home runs down there in only 15 games.
It’s also true that many spectacularly bad seasons are followed by returns to adequacy. [And that many are not] It isn’t all that easy to find examples of guys that fit all the criteria: an otherwise decent hitter who produced a tremendous pile of stink in one season and then got a chance to redeem himself the following season. Three of last year’s worst (decent) hitters were Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Chone Figgins. For Dunn the problem was (primarily) a big dip in HR/FB in 2011 – it rebounded in 2012 and he became a productive hitter again. For Rios and Figgins the problem was (primarily) a big dip in BABIP in 2011 – Rios rebounded in a big way in 2012, Figgins rebounded all the way back up to .242 and remained way below replacement level.
If those guys don’t seem like great fits – since all were something approaching stars at some point and Raburn never has been – most other comparables are worse: guys with no real prior track record and guys who were only in the lineup due to their gloves. Guys like Brandon Wood or Tony Pena or Jeff Mathis. We also have guys like former Tiger Randall Simon or Wily Mo Pena who had a bit of a track record but never really got another shot after their pile of stink (which for Simon happened in 2004 and for Pena in 2008).
Now, those could be perfect comparables for Raburn: if he doesn’t show more in Spring Training than he did this September he isn’t going to get a shot in 2013 any more than Wily Mo Pena did in 2009. There are other examples of guys who got shots and made something of it after seasons similar to Raburns. Jermaine Dye had a truly awful 2003 (in his 8th big league season) then snapped back to form – offensively – for the next 6 years. A lot of people counted Andruw Jones out after his abysmal 2008 with the Dodgers – but he has continued on as a very productive part time player. I guess the best way to frame this is that guys can have awful seasons without being either completely washed up or generally talentless hacks. But… those two archetypes do make up the majority of seasons on par with Raburn 2012.