Giants Happy To Take Blue Jays’ Leftovers
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s usually a matter of international cuisine when you observe that one man’s garbage is somebody else’s dinner, but sometimes it works for baseball deals, too. The margins in the wild-card races only seem to be getting more slender as we get deeper into the season. With time getting short, every team that still sees itself in contention is looking to seize any available advantage.
This made it particularly strange when one of the teams in the AL playoff hunt — the Toronto Blue Jays — discarded their designated hitter, Shea Hillenbrand. That situation became cause for happiness in San Francisco, because the Giants turned that same discard into their everyday first baseman. So what gives? Why would one team in the hunt appear to make a move that doesn’t help when it needs all the help it can get to catch up in either the AL East or AL wild-card chase? And how much will this aid the Giants in their push to overtake the Padres in the NL West or the Reds for the NL wild card?
Let’s tackle what this does to the Blue Jays, first from the performance analysis point of view. While they’re losing Hillenbrand, they also were not without alternatives. Hillenbrand was a handy enough reserve at first and third base, but he was behind Lyle Overbay at first and Troy Glaus at third, so his primary responsibility was as the team’s semiregular DH. His status in that job was about to get complicated, not because of his squabbling with GM J.P. Ricciardi or manager John Gibbons, but because once Alexis Rios comes back from the disabled list, somebody was going to lose playing time.
We’ll use one of our own Baseball Prospectus stats in this conversation: Equivalent Average, or EqA. Equivalent Average is a pretty straightforward statistic, measuring total offensive value per out, including baserunning, with corrections for league offensive level, home park, and the opposing team’s pitching, and deliberately calculated to resemble batting averages to give you something familiar with which to compare it.
Among regular DHs, Hillenbrand’s .275 EqA at the time of his release was not one of the league’s best, ranking below game-breaking hitters such as the Indians’ Travis Hafner (.351), Boston’s David Ortiz (.318), Chicago’s Jim Thome (.330), and Oakland’s Frank Thomas (.295), and ranking ahead of only real disasters like Seattle’s Carl Everett (.239) and Minnesota’s Rondell White (.198).
Among his own teammates, Hillenbrand’s problems got worse, because Toronto ranks second in baseball with a .284 EqA, behind only Cleveland. With Rios about to heal up, the Jays are getting back his .310 EqA, and they already have both Reed Johnson (.319) and Frank Catalanotto (.302) to play, as well as everyday center fielder Vernon Wells (.315). Losing Rios also let the Jays give more playing time to Eric Hinske (.284), who not only showed he can play both infield corners (like Hillenbrand), he was also playing in the outfield corners, something Hillenbrand can’t do. Even without Hillenbrand, the Jays had a quality hitter to spare, and all of Hillenbrand’s prospective rivals for at-bats at DH were hitting better than he was.
Now, from the performance analysis standpoint, we can’t say that Hillenbrand’s problems with his team, his manager, or his general manager make any difference in terms of how many runs Toronto does or doesn’t score.That isn’t to say that there won’t be an effect — we simply don’t know what the effect of Hillenbrand’s absence or presence would have on his teammates. When you’re an average hitter for a DH and a source of clubhouse drama, and your employers have reasonably talented alternatives, you learn that drama is something they’ll jettison.
However, for the Giants, Hillenbrand is the instant fix to a season-long problem at first base.This winter, Giants GM Brian Sabean brought in veteran pinch hitter Mark Sweeney as a free agent to complement homegrown prospect Lance Niekro. Notionally a platoon, Niekro couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain, struggling at the plate when he wasn’t on the DL, and Sweeney’s glovework was a source of concern as well. What might have been a low-cost fix for the position ended up becoming an offensive sinkhole. Where all first basemen in baseball are producing an Equivalent Average of .276, and all major league hitters combine for a .260 rate, Giants first basemen posted a cumulative .243 EqA.
How much can Hillenbrand help them in the remainder of a season? As a regular first baseman, if he simply matches his production with the Blue Jays in the first three and a half months, he’ll be producing significantly better than what the Giants were getting. At that rate, the difference should add up to about 10 runs over the remainder of the season, or the equivalent of a full onegame improvement in the standings by the old stathead standby assumption, that 10 runs equals a win.
Finally, there’s a basic question about what Hillenbrand does for a Giants lineup that has Barry Bonds in it. Bonds’s MLB-high .477 on-base average is a tremendous weapon. Hillenbrand is a fine hitter in terms of putting the ball in play with power: The major league average for hits on all plate appearances is 23.6%, but Hillenbrand is producing a hit in 27.9% of his appearances. Put that sort of hitter behind Bonds in the lineup, and you’ve got a much better shot at scoring him.
The downside of that ability is that he also hits into a lot of double-plays, including 15 with the Jays this year.Hillenbrand has hit into a rally-killing deuce a little more than 23% of the time he’s had the chance, higher than any of the Giants’ regulars. For manager Felipe Alou, it’s a high-risk as well as a high-reward addition to his lineup.Nevertheless, considering how little they were getting out of their first basemen, the Giants needed to take that chance.
Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more analysis, visit www.baseballprospectus.com.