On Power, Potential, & Why I Would Rather Have Justin Upton Than Elvis Andrus

"Excellent value" will be inherently less for Andrus than it will be for Upton, and you can chalk me up as someone who believes in Justin Upton's ability to once again provide excellent value to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

As I sit down to write this, I don't have a well-planned progression for this post to take. I have a starting point and an end point, and pretty much no idea how I want to bridge the gap. Yes, this means that despite my apparent ramblings in most of my work, I do in fact have a well-planned progression for my posts. I just can't stop the words from coming out...

However, I've finally gotten settled into my new residence in Chicago, and found the opportunity to look over the team's season. What struck me - enough to attempt to write what I hope is a coherent post - as I was going through the roster on a player-by-player basis is how clear the divide in value is between those who have power with the bat, and those who lack power with the bat. The question I want to ask with this post is simple: in an era where the online community seems obsessed with on-base percentage, have the scales tipped too far? Has the ability to club 25 home runs somehow become under-appreciated by the blogging masses?

Stats accurate through games of September 20.

In the scouting community, the raw power tool has long been called the "money tool", and it's easy to see why. When the common blogger (like me) thinks back to the free agent markets of fifteen years ago, we conjure up images of George Steinbrenner snickering to himself about how much he can pay to secure the services of Jason Giambi's bomb-swatting bat. We think of how "chicks dig the long-ball", and of being captivated by hometown heroes like Luis Gonzalez and his smooth, easy home-run swing. We imagine teams searching far-and-wide for that next great home run hitter that was needed to compete with everyone else's big boppers. Home runs were valued like diamonds, and home run hitters were valued like magic diamond-farting idols.

But oh, how the times have changed. While this has almost certainly been heavily exaggerated in the post-Moneyball blogosphere, I think it is correct to say that the home run has been devalued relative to other aspects of performance over the last ten years. The on-base percentage hitter is all the rage, and the home run has gone from a majestic diamond to a number to be plugged into a wOBA calculation - another ~1.7 runs of value above an out (the coefficient changes, but stays relatively close to that number). This, to me, begs the question: is that how power should be valued? Did power go from being overvalued to being undervalued over the last decade?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to dispute the validity of the wOBA formula - the process through which the formula was derived is ingenious in its simplicity (read Tango/Dolphin/Lichtman's The Book if you want to know for yourself), and I'm 100% on-board with its conclusions, so long as the context of the results (and the statistic) is understood. What I'm trying to dispute is whether or not it is fully appreciated how important home run power is to be a star player.

Let's take things on a wide scale to better exhibit the role that power plays on stardom. Using a cutoff point of .150 for player ISO among qualifying MLB position players (per FanGraphs) as a not-totally-arbitrary separation point (that I will explain later on) between those with power and those without, let's take a look at Fangraphs' WAR leaders:

ISO <= .150

Total qualifying players: 51

6+ fWAR (1): Michael Bourn (6.0).

5-5.9 fWAR (1): Martin Prado (5.0).

4-4.9 fWAR (3): Joe Mauer (4.6), Torii Hunter (4.4), Elvis Andrus (4.0).

3-3.9 fWAR (9): Denard Span (3.5), Derek Jeter (3.5), A.J. Ellis (3.5), Desmond Jennings (3.4), Neil Walker (3.3), Erick Aybar (3.2), Cameron Maybin (3.0), Omar Infante (3.0), Jhonny Peralta (3.0).

Percent of TQP with >= 3 fWAR: 27.5%

1.5-2.9 fWAR: 24 players

ISO > .150

Total qualifying players: 93

6+ fWAR (10): Mike Trout (9.2), Andrew McCutchen (7.5), Ryan Braun (7.5), David Wright (7.2), Buster Posey (7.2), Chase Headley (6.8), Miguel Cabrera (6.8), Yadier Molina (6.4), Robinson Cano (6.3), Jason Heyward (6.2). Lowest ISO of this group: Wright, .182.

5-5.9 fWAR (7): Aramis Ramirez (5.9), Adrian Beltre (5.9), Giancarlo Stanton (5.3), Austin Jackson (5.1), Ben Zobrist (5.0), Aaron Hill (5.0), Matt Holliday (5.0). Lowest ISO of this group: Jackson, .177.

4-4.9 fWAR (15): Alex Gordon (4.9), Jimmy Rollins (4.9), Josh Hamilton (4.9), Miguel Montero (4.8), Ian Desmond (4.8), Melky Cabrera (4.6), Jose Reyes (4.4), Ryan Zimmerman (4.4), Prince Fielder (4.4), Angel Pagan (4.3), Josh Reddick (4.2), Edwin Encarnacion (4.2), Adam Jones (4.1), Alex Rios (4.1), Bryce Harper (4.0). Lowest ISO of this group: Reyes, .151 (FWIW, next-lowest is Cabrera at .170).

3-3.9 fWAR: 24 players.

Percent of TQP with >= 3 fWAR: 60.2%

1.5-2.9 fWAR: 31 players.

I know what you're all thinking: "Dan, you dolt, thanks for teaching us that hitting for power is a good thing. How enlightening of you. /sarcasm". But it bears mentioning that this isn't just a random sampling of all players in the league, this is only players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. As such, even the players that don't hit for power in this group are skilled enough in all other facets of the game to merit everyday playing time. Yet the 27th percentile of players who excel enough in all other facets of the game except for power are roughly equivalent to the 60th percentile of players who demonstrate an ISO above this .150 ISO threshold.

What message would I glean from this data? Simply this: if you don't have at least average raw power, you need to be absolutely flawless in all other aspects of the game to succeed, never mind attain stardom. Even the best player in the first category, Michael Bourn, is riding a 21.3 UZR on his way to a 6 fWAR season - replace that figure with the more likely indicator of his true talent level, his career center field UZR/150 of 10.6, and he joins Prado as a five-win player. If, on the other hand, you have excellent raw power, you can be an immensely flawed player in other aspects of the game and be an extremely useful player, as many of those in the 60th percentile group are.

Just take Jason Kubel as an example of this: so-so batting average of .253, very slightly above-average OBP of .327, acceptable, yet below-average defense in left field, and poor baserunning... yet 29 bombs and a .257 ISO translate to a player who is worth about two wins above replacement level on FanGraphs in part-time action (Kubel has played in 132 games, has entered a game as a pinch-hitter nine times, and has been replaced defensively in a game he started 15 times - all according to his B-R Game Log). A player's ability to tap into his raw power can single-handedly create a valuable regular player, even if the player's other tools are average or lacking. While OBP has become the blogosphere's darling statistic, the reality still might be that it plays second-fiddle to the value of plus in-game power.

*tl;dr*

What this all boils down to is a matter of potential. If you have an athlete with immense physical strength and raw power, yet flaws littered across other aspects of their game, then you have a player with immense potential. Things like a player's hitting approach and ability to tap into their natural gifts can develop and improve as the player ages, leading to significant improvement. However, if you have a player who is sharp in nearly every aspect of the game except for hitting for power, and lacks raw power to tap into, then you have a player who lacks elite potential. Even if every possible aspect of that player's game is perfected, there is a glass ceiling that cannot be broken without that power to tap into.

Here's where I find this relevant to the Arizona Diamondbacks: the internet rumors of Justin Upton being dealt to the Rangers for a package built around Elvis Andrus. First, let me now explain why I chose a .150 ISO as my cutoff point. To begin, Upton's incredible September line of .313/.348/.594 has resulted in his ISO rising to .151 on the season. In a year in which I believe his power was sapped for some time by his thumb injury, I feel that the only way Upton sees his ISO dip below this .150 mark in 2013 (and beyond) is due to yet another unforeseeable injury. In short, with the information I have, I am supremely confident that Upton will ISO nowhere near (comfortably above) .150 in 2013.

On the other hand, Andrus' ISO in 2012 is currently at .096, substantially higher than his career .079 mark. Year-by-year, Andrus has posted full-season ISO marks of .106, .036, .082, and .096 in his career at ages 20, 21, 22, and 23, respectively. His career HR/FB is 3.7%, and his career flyball percentage is 20.8% (57.7% groundballs in his career). Even if Andrus adds a significant amount of bulk - which would probably be detrimental given his need for lateral agility on defense - converting that into in-game power would require a complete makeover of his hitting approach and swing. Call me pessimistic, but I am similarly confident that Andrus will ISO nowhere near (comfortably below) .150 in 2013.

What this means to me is simple. Based on the leaderboards referenced above, Upton's power will afford him far more margin for error in other aspects of his game than Andrus will have, while also offering Upton the potential to have value that Andrus won't be capable of having.

After all, two-win 2012 Justin Upton only trails six-win 2011 Justin Upton by 11 points of batting average and 16 points of on-base percentage (though adjust for games played and defensive metric volatility, and the difference is likely around two-and-a-half wins, not four wins). The 100-point difference in slugging percentage is what has caused Upton's value to drop so precipitously. What's all the more encouraging about speculating on Upton's power revival is that it's not all speculation. As mentioned above, Upton is hitting an absurd .313/.348/.594 in September, with four doubles, a triple, and four home runs (already his highest single-month total of the season) in just 16 games. That's 18 extra bases in 16 games of action, another figure that is already Upton's highest single-month total of the season [Update: at time of publishing, Upton is hitting .312/.365/.558 in 19 games, with another double over his last three games, and 19 extra bases in those 19 September games].

That's the kind of month from the heart of the lineup that only a slugger can have, the kind of month that can carry a team, and the kind of month I look forward to Justin Upton having a lot more of in 2013 in Sedona Red. It's not that I think Elvis Andrus isn't an exciting, valuable player - after all, he has offered excellent value at a premium position thus far in his career. Rather, it's that "excellent value" will be inherently less for Andrus than it will be for Upton, and you can chalk me up as someone who believes in Justin Upton's ability to once again provide excellent value to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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