So there I was, minding my own business in the taxi line at the train station, flipping through the Twitter to catch up on some Angels news, when along I came upon this otherwise unremarkable piece by Mark Saxon wondering if the team should bench Bobby Abreu for significant stretches this year. I was skimming through to see if there was anything new there, when I did a double-take on this section:
From 1998 to 2009, only nine major-league regulars had a .400 on-base percentage, and only one did it with more than 100 steals (you guessed it).
But things began to unravel for Abreu last year. He batted .255 and his on-base slumped to .352. He had his lowest full-season OPS (.787) ever. He also showed signs of slowing down on the bases (we won't even talk about his outfield play, since he'll mostly DH now). He got caught on the bases nearly 30 percent of the times he tried to steal.
There was something overly familiar about this argument. Sure enough, when I got home and in front of a computer, I figured out what it was: MLB Trade Rumors' Mike Axisa had made the exact same points one week before:
From 1998 through 2009, just nine players in baseball posted an on-base percentage of at least .400 (min. 6,000 PA), and only one did it with more than 100 total steals. That would be Bobby Abreu. [...]
But in 2010, at age 36, the roof started to cave in. Abreu hit .255/.352/.435 overall, his lowest full season OPS ever. Although he still stole 24 bases, he was caught ten times for a 70.5% success rate, well below his 75.8% success rate from '98-'09.
Bold stuff there to indicate exact language matches.
Any fair reading of the two sections screams out, at minimum, some pretty crass appropriation. "[T]he roof started to cave in" becomes "things began to unravel," "70.5% success rate" becomes "he got caught on the bases nearly 30 percent of the times he tried to steal," and so on.
There is no link at Saxon's piece to the source material, which renders some of his statements peculiar. Having elided the "(min. 6,000 PA)" requirement, he just states flatly that "only nine major-league regulars had a .400 on-base percentage" from 1998-2009, even though that would surely be news to Barry Bonds (.496 in 5203 PAs), Jeff Bagwell (.406 in 5021), John Olerud (.400 in 4744) and others. Why does Albert Pujols get listed as one of Saxon's "nine major-league regulars" while Bonds does not? Because Pujols had a mere 879 more plate appearances over the time period, and because Saxon was using parameters he didn't mention, lifted from a piece he didn't credit.
All that is bad enough, if minor on the scale of things. But what really gets my goat is not Saxon, from whom I don't expect much, but the MLBTR guys, from whom I do. Put bluntly, they should really know better than to assert that "the roof started to cave in" on Abreu's offense last year. Why? Because smart people not only avoid helping themselves to other people's original work, they also avoid jumping to conclusions about statistics without adjusting for context. And in this case, the most important piece of context is that the American League last year had its lowest runs per game, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage since 1992 (OBP, in fact, was the lowest it's been since 1990). Yes, this was Abreu's "lowest full season OPS ever," as both Saxon and Axisa put it, but it was also the lowest league OPS he'd ever played in.
So what happens when you adjust for this sharply different context? Nothing caves nor unravels, not remotely. Here is Bobby's OPS+ (that is, OPS adjusted for context) and offensive Wins Above Replacement (which does the same) over the past four years, along with where he ranked in those categories in the American League:
YEAR OPS+ rank oWAR rank
2007: 113 (37th) 3.2 (33rd)
2008: 120 (24th) 3.5 (26th)
2009: 118 (28th) 3.1 (28th)
2010: 116 (26th) 3.0 (28th)
Note the utter absence of trend lines. Yes, Abreu's batting average was down last year, but his isolated power was his highest since 2005, and he was also one of the unluckiest hitters in all of baseball. So not only was Saxon's argument borrowed, it was wrong.
As for the root question -- "Should the Angels use Bobby Abreu sparingly?" -- my answer is this: Only if they want to lose more games in 2011 for the sake of avoiding paying $9 million in 2012 to a player they could (assuming he continues to hit) easily trade at any time. Mike Trout isn't ready, there are other injury risks at the corner OF spots and 1B, and Mark Trumbo will likely never hit in his best year as good as Abreu in his worst. Deliberately sitting Bobby down in favor of inferior hitters just to save some chump change is just the kind of thing that a sportswriter would dream up. Chances of it happening: Slim, none, and fat.