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Can Ryan Roberts Continue His Unprecedented Success?

The general theme of fellow SnakePit author kishi's Ryan Roberts Report Card post was clear: nobody expected Roberts to succeed prior to 2011, but the 30-year-old journeyman nonetheless was one of the most valuable third basemen in all of baseball. With a 107 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR, and - as noted in the Report Card - a .360/.417/.581 line in "high-leverage" situations, Roberts provided immense value to the club at just the right moments, providing an easy, effective fix to the hole provided by the unexpected struggles of Melvin Mora and the oft-injured state of Geoff Blum, players who were expected to fill the third-base gap during a rebuilding 2011 season.

However, it's now 2012, and the D-backs have a much different mindset than they did a year ago. No longer is the team hoping to simply utilize a stop-gap solution at third while hoping to rebuild after a poor year - these are the defending NL West Champions, poised to defend their division title. Needless to say, the expectations are higher, and with Roberts currently penciled in at third base on an everyday basis, he'll be called upon to continue performing at a high level in 2012. This, naturally, gives us reason to take a deeper look at Roberts' emergence. Unprecedented as Roberts' 2011 breakout was, have there been any other instances of a player emerging as an everyday contributor out-of-the-blue at age 30? How have they fared the following season?

The first job to tackle with this research is singling out a set of players whose careers resembled Roberts' in their 20's. That is, to find a set of players who received as little playing time during their 20's as Roberts did during his 20's, so that we can then search within that group to find a subset of unexpected age-30 breakouts. As usual, the heavenly database of Baseball-Reference again comes through in the clutch. Here are the parameters of our first Play Index search:

- Expansion Era (1961-Present)

- Careers from ages 20-29

- 50% of career games played at either second base or third base

- PA total 100 or greater, and PA total less than 500

As the link above shows, this gives us a total of 172 hits, though the list is far from perfect. For instance, these parameters fail to filter out young players just emerging on the scene - names like Brett Lawrie, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, and Dustin Ackley, each of whom debuted in the big leagues in 2011 and all of whom have yet to turn 25, appear on the list. Thankfully, what comes next naturally removed all unwanted or unhelpful inputs in the set, as I used the saved set of 172 hits from what I labeled the "Age 20-29 2B/3B 'Journeymen'" report, and ran a second Play Index search for the age-30 seasons of all players within the previous 172-player set, and sorted the results by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement metric, rWAR.

This naturally cancels out any rising young players like the aforementioned former-prospects who have yet to reach age-30, and gives us a subset of just 29 players (from the initial 172) who made an appearance in the major leagues during their age-30 campaign. Further, of those 29 players, 22 posted rWAR figures below 0.5 in their age-30 seasons, so let's go ahead and throw them out of the reported sample (fun trivia: a couple of the names to get thrown out here are actually recognizable, including former D-backs third base coach Chip Hale and former A's/Brewers manager Ken Macha).

What's left is seven players to make legitimate contributions to MLB clubs in their age-30 seasons after years of toiling as minor-league soldiers (including another pair of recognizable names for NL West fans and/or those who saw the recent Moneyball movie). Seven players out of 172, for those wondering, is a mere 4.07% of the initial Play Index group (though, of course, some of that initial 172 will fall off the list as they age and gain more plate appearances in the big leagues throughout their 20's).

Top Age-30 Producers (min. 0.5 rWAR):

Frank Menechino 3.7 2001 Oakland 139 578 .242 .369 .374 12 .132
Ryan Roberts 3.4 2011 Arizona 143 555 .249 .341 .427 19 .178
Joe Inglett 2.4 2008 Toronto 109 385 .297 .355 .407 3 .110
Art Howe 2.4 1977 Houston 125 463 .264 .336 .412 8 .148
Ike Brown 1.1 1972 Detroit 51 101 .250 .376 .357 2 .107
Jamey Carroll 0.9 2004 Montreal 102 218 .289 .378 .372 0 .083
Jeff Manto 0.8 1995 Baltimore 89 254 .256 .325 .492 17 .236

How's that for an odd collection of baseball names? If you look only for players with >3 rWAR in their age-30 season, Roberts then becomes one of two players out of a field of 172, putting him in the top 1.16% of age-30 producers of the initial group. Still, odd or not, this list nonetheless provides us some precedent for Roberts' stellar 2011 campaign. This table, of course, leads to the obvious follow-up question: what happened at age 31?

Age-31 Production of Top Age-30 Producers:

Frank Menechino -0.3 2002 Oakland 38 154 .205 .312 .326 3 .121
Ryan Roberts -- 2012 Arizona -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Joe Inglett -0.2 2009 Toronto 36 99 .281 .347 .348 0 .067
Art Howe 2.7 1978 Houston 119 461 .293 .343 .436 7 .143
Ike Brown 0.1 1973 Detroit 42 91 .289 .407 .382 1 .093
Jamey Carroll 0.8 2005 Washington 113 358 .251 .333 .284 0 .033
Jeff Manto -0.3 1996 Boston/Seattle 43 120 .196 .317 .363 3 .167

Sadly, this is the table that no D-backs fan wanted to read. However, let's see if we can't dig a bit deeper to see if we can find a way to put this data into a context that will allow for more sound conclusions.

Frank Menechino

Menechino's a fascinating story, taking one of the most tedious paths through the minor leagues I've ever seen - hope you don't mind a bit of a detour here. The lowest OBP Menechino posted during his 20's in the minor leagues at any given stop was .391 - and he hit for solid power to boot - yet after five years in the White Sox's system, he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft. The A's and the Sandy Alderson/Billy Beane regime scooped him up, and after having him spend all of 1998 at Triple-A Edmonton (hitting .278/.403/.423 in 106 games) and most of 1999 at Triple-A Vancouver (hitting .309/.403/.497 in 130 games), he played 66 games for the A's in 2000, hitting .255/.345/.455. The following year, at age-30, Menechino was an on-base machine, cementing his place in the A's everyday lineup and even having a Sports Illustrated story written about him.

Menechino's age-31 season, however, was a massive drop back to earth from Menechino's breakout age-30 campaign. Menechino limped to a .205/.312/.326 line in 38 games to begin the year, and eventually found himself back at Triple-A Sacramento. What caused the decline? For starters, Menechino saw his BABIP fall from .277 in 2001 to .245 in 2002, but he also didn't help himself much, seeing his walk rate fall by 0.7%, his strikeout rate rise by 4.0%, and his ISO fall by .011. His peripherals largely recovered over the following years, but Menechino's struggles lingered long enough for him to be dealt by the A's to Toronto, where he experienced a brief career renaissance before fizzling out entirely.

Joe Inglett

Inglett wasn't left to wallow in the minors for quite as long as Menechino before being brought up to the Show, debuting with Cleveland in 2006 at age-28 after a similarly-slow ascension through the minors with phenomenal on-base percentages - though not on Menechino's level. However, while Inglett received a substantial amount of playing time in '06 for Cleveland, he didn't do much with it, hitting just .284/.332/.383. That lack of production was enough for Cleveland to send Inglett to Triple-A for the 2007 season, and Inglett struggled mightily there. Inglett's next opportunity came in 2008 with Toronto, where he mostly manned second base. He was also occasionally miscast as a corner outfielder, which ate into his value, but his 107 wRC+ that season was phenomenal for a middle infielder.

However, the following year, 2009. was far from kind to Inglett, as he was granted just 99 plate appearances before being sent back to the minor leagues. The biggest culprit was Inglett's strikeout rate, which jumped an alarming 10.0% to 21.2% in those 99 PA's, and the crumbling of his ISO, which fell to .067. Before long, Inglett was back in the minors, never to recover the 11.2% strikeout rate of his age-30 campaign, and never to keep more than a bench role in the big leagues for the rest of his career.

Art Howe

In his 20's, Howe spent five years spent mostly at Triple-A - four good, one atrocious, with the bad year appearing to significantly derail his ascension to the major leagues - as well as parts of three mediocre seasons in the majors from ages 27-29. However, Howe finally was able to establish himself as a big-league regular in 1977, playing mostly second base for the Astros with a few appearances at shortstop and third base sprinkled in. Howe's .264/.336/.412 line doesn't look particularly remarkable in today's run-producing environment, but it was good for a 107 wRC+ in the 70's, plenty good for an up-the-middle player and, oddly enough, exactly identical to Roberts' 2011 wRC+ mark.

Then, something funny happened in 1978: Howe got better. Howe's strikeout rate dipped below 10%, and he hit an impressive .293/.343/.436 for Houston, good for a 123 wRC+ and 13.7 batting runs above average. For a bit of context, Howe's 123 wRC+ as a second baseman would have only ranked behind Dustin Pedroia (134), Robinson Cano (133), Ben Zobrist (131), Ian Kinsler (128), and Rickie Weeks (127) among qualifying 2011 second basemen. Among qualifying 2011 third baseman, that 123 mark would have only trailed Evan Longoria (134), Adrian Beltre (134), Aramis Ramirez (133), Michael Young (127), and Kevin Youkilis (126). In short, if Roberts somehow makes a similar jump in 2012, he'll likely go from being very good to being a star.

Ike Brown

Brown seems to have slipped through one of the overlooked cracks in the filters, as he was primarily a second baseman/third baseman for his occasional bits of playing time during his 20's, which kept him in the initial search group, but was mostly relegated to corner outfield work by the time he hit 30. This makes him a bit of a suspicious comparison for Roberts, who does not have a corner outfielder profile. Brown could hit, but had a fairly significant platoon split and became something of a one-trick pony against right-handed pitching, with low averages and power outputs supported by a lot of walks. Brown was heavily protected from right-handed pitching, with just 174 career plate appearances against righties, compared to 470 career plate appearances versus southpaws. This further sullies any comparison to Roberts, for while Roberts also has a significant platoon split, Arizona hopes that he can be an everyday player in 2012.

Jamey Carroll

Carroll, like the many glove-heavy, power-light middle infielders in the minor leagues, had a hard time finding an opportunity in the big leagues in spite of some solid on-base numbers because of questions of how well it would translate. He finally got the opportunity with the atrocious Expos clubs of the early-2000's, and managed to reach base enough to make his quality middle-infield glove playable on a regular basis. With that opportunity, Carroll managed to make a career of being annoying to get out and playing solid defense at several difficult positions, and even netted himself a two-year, $6.75MM contract from the Twins this off-season. However, that's not to say things have always gone his way: while Carroll has stuck, he did see his wRC+ drop from 99 at age-30 to a mere 70 at age-31. Carroll was able to fall back on the value of his glove to stick in the big leagues, but whether Roberts could weather a similar drop in offensive value is a tough question to answer.

Jeff Manto

Manto reached the major leagues during his age-25 season, but after spending all of his age-27, age-28, and age-29 seasons in the minors, he re-emerged with the Orioles 1995 as a 30-year-old. He obliterated the ball for the Orioles in 89 games of action, hitting a phenomenal .256/.325/.492, but apparently didn't leave a strong enough impression on the club, as he was sold to the Yomiura Giants the following off-season. He made his way back to the states as a 31-year-old, but couldn't keep up his prolific power hitting over long stretches again and never found a solid role. Manto made three stops in the bigs in 1996, starting in Boston, getting dealt to the Mariners, then getting re-claimed by Boston off of waivers, but finished the year with a line of .196/.317/.363. That poor performance might be explained simply toils of being uprooted so many times in one year, but nonetheless, Santo was never given another significant chunk of playing time in the big leagues.

So what have we learned from these cases? Well, for one, the odds are once again stacked pretty heavily against Roberts. The case of Menechino shows that a player can truly tailspin from being a three-and-a-half-win player to below replacement level in an instant. However, history does not provide a death sentence for Roberts, and the presence of Howe as a comparable shows that there is merit in continuing to place merit in Roberts in spite of his seemingly out-of-nowhere productivity.

I want to shift course a bit now, and take a closer look at Roberts himself. What kind of patterns in his 2011 production can we see, and what do they tell us about what he might be able to contribute to the club in 2012?

First, let's take a look at one of the bigger concerns pointed out in the recent Report Card post regarding Roberts' future - his month-to-month splits in 2011. Here's a chart of Roberts' 2011 month-by-month plate appearance totals, walk rate, strikeout rate, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, isolated power, BABIP (I hesitate to list BABIP because it so often is over-analyzed, but for the sake of full disclosure, I left it in), weighted on-base average, and weighted runs created-plus:

Mar/Apr (75) 14.7% 14.7% .413 .594 .281 .313 .433 172
May (100) 16.0% 17.0% .364 .366 .122 .281 .333 104
June (110) 5.5% 19.1% .266 .386 .168 .244 .284 70
July (78) 11.5% 16.7% .359 .507 .232 .275 .363 125
August (112) 16.1% 16.1% .384 .398 .140 .301 .355 119
Sep/Oct (80) 7.5% 22.5% .266 .370 .164 .245 .279 67

The concerns centered around Roberts' unrepeatable, remarkable March and April stretch are fair - I find a scenario in which Roberts again posts a wRC+ of 172 over the opening month of the year incredibly hard to believe. However, we also need to be looking at the flip side of this. Will Roberts again go through slumps as severe as his June and September/October stretches? It doesn't seem as if the league "figured him out" as the year went on, because he was plenty successful in July and August, but yet the June and September/October stretches are absolutely horrendous.

Roberts may in fact see his numbers dip significantly in 2012, but I don't think it's because he's destined to not be able to repeat his most successful stretch from March/April while what happened over the rest of the year will be sustained. 75 plate appearances of 172 wRC+ is unsustainable, but so is a combined 190 plate appearances of 69 wRC+ production. In fact, if you take the weighted average of those two extreme samples, you get a combined wRC+ of 98 over 265 plate appearances, a mark that is significantly below his average 2011 production. In other words, as extremely hot as Roberts may have been early in the year, his cold streaks in June and September/October were far more severe. If anything, Roberts' 2011 month-to-month splits tell me that he's not destined for a disastrous 2012, as the extremes of volatility seemed to, in fact, go against him in 2011.

To switch gears with the rest of this post, I'd like to move on to how Arizona might choose to do - or what it might have already done - to protect itself in the event that Roberts experiences significant attrition. I'll center this discussion around Roberts' platoon splits. To put it succinctly, they're enormous. Here's a look at the same statistical categories as above, but looking into how he fared vs. right-handers as opposed to how he fared against southpaws:

vs. RHP (396) 10.4% 19.4% .320 .404 .166 .271 .319 94
vs. LHP (195) 15.7% 13.2% .392 .489 .211 .286 .385 140

The difference is that significant. Against right-handed pitching, Ryan Roberts was the offensive equivalent of 2011 Drew Stubbs, a toolsy but thus far average center fielder who had an exceedingly mediocre year at the plate in 2011. Against left-handed pitching, Ryan Roberts was the offensive equivalent of 2011 Justin Upton, who was tied with Alex Avila for the 19th-best wRC+ in all of baseball.

Here's what I consider to be the message we can glean from this table: even if Ryan Roberts sees his offensive performance regress to the point where he isn't an everyday player, the odds are strong that he'll still be awfully good against left-handed pitching. This brings me to my next question: what options are available to Arizona in the event that they need to platoon Roberts with someone more capable of dealing with right-handed pitching?

As it stands now, it seems that there are two candidates on the big-league roster (Ryan Wheeler remains a possibility, too) for a potential platoon with Roberts in 2012, should it become necessary: Geoff Blum and Stephen Drew. Blum's career 80 wRC+ against right-handed pitching would only make him a viable option in the event that Roberts truly collapses against right-handers, and doesn't offer room for much creativity.

Drew, on the other hand, offers a much more interesting series of scenarios. After all, Drew's status for 2012 is every bit as much in question as Roberts', as we're left to simply wait and see if Drew will be capable of manning shortstop again after his severe ankle injury. Further, Drew does have a notable platoon split in his career, with a 101 career wRC+ against right-handed pitching and an 81 career wRC+ against left-handed pitching. If the team is concerned about whether or not Drew can handle a full season's worth of starts at shortstop, the occasional day at third base covering for Roberts against a tough right-hander could allow them to get top value out of both Drew and Roberts.

After all of this manipulation, data gathering, comparable collecting, and context seeking, what do we know? Well, we know that Roberts' emergence and stellar production in 2011 came in spite of the odds being heavily stacked against him, and that the odds don't a lot better from here on out. Aside from that, though, we don't have any solid conclusion as to what to expect from Roberts in 2012, as a small sample of historical comparables has offered a wide variety of subsequent results. So, it seems that all we can do is answer the title question of this post. Can Roberts continue his unprecedented success? Yes, he can, but relying on him to do so probably isn't a safe choice without taking special care to cover his biggest weaknesses. That's an unsatisfying answer, to be sure, but when the price-tag is a mere $2.0125MM for someone as genuinely likable as Roberts, I imagine it becomes a bit more palatable for D-backs fans.