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AO 06-02: Carlos Baerga

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Baerga? Clutch? No sweat.

Subject: Carlos Baerga (a/k/a "Cheeseburglar," "Carlito's Way," "Piston Legs")
Position: Pinch-hitter, veteran leader, cheerleader, in theory 1B/3B/2B
2005 Statistics: .253/.318/.335; 2 HR, 19 RBI, 7 BB, 17 SO
Status: Filed for free agency (see here for MLB transactions calendar)
Short Summary: Coming off a poor 2004 season as a pinch-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Carlos Baerga signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals and was invited to spring training. Baerga batted only .229 during the spring and was reassigned to the minor league camp; however, when back-up infielder Wil Cordero injured his knee, Baerga was called up and spent the rest of the season on the Nats' active roster. Baerga mostly served as a late-inning pinch-hitter, but he also saw action at first, third, and---most surprisingly---second base. Baerga enjoyed a strong first half, batting .270 overall (.316 in May and .348 in June), but slumped toward the end of the season, as his playing time declined. Although Baerga appeared to chafe at manager Frank Robinson's late-season clubhouse prohibitions, the consensus of those covering the team was that Baerga provided positive and steady leadership.

Questions Presented:

[1] Baerga, the Nationals' primary pinch-hitter, batted .341 in so-called "close and late" situations; does this statistic demonstrate that the fifteen-year veteran is a "clutch hitter"?
[2] Even accounting for Baerga's limitations, should the Nationals re-sign him for the 2006 season?

"CLOSE AND LATE" SUCCESS

Depending on one's hardball worldview, the contemporary baseball scene is either informed or saturated by specialized statistical measures. One such measure is "close and late," which is defined as those situations in which: a team has a one-run lead, is tied or has the tying run on base, at bat or on deck - in the seventh inning or later.

Carlos Baerga hit tremendously well in "close and late" situations in 2005; whereas the 2005 National League average in such seasons, according to Baseball Direct (which uses STATS Inc.'s information), was a pedestrian .253, Baerga batted .341 in 41 "close and late" at-bats.

Baerga's success in "close and late" situations likely comes as little surprise to the observant fan of the Nationals, as Baerga delivered a number of key safeties in the late innings. In addition, the numbers appear consistent with Baerga's performance in similar situations in recent years; in fact, in the years 2002-04, Baerga hit .317 in "close and late" situations.

The question of whether Baerga's enhanced performance in "close and late" situations---usually considered, roughly at least, the hallmark of "clutch" spots---folds into the larger question of whether "clutch hitting," as an identifiable phenomenon inherent in particular players' skills and character, exists at all. Although a generalization, it can be said that one's perspective concerning this broader question tends to separate those baseball fans who align with either the "traditionalist" and "sabermetric" factions. For instance, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, an avowed sabermetric outlet, framed the issue of "clutch hitting" in the following manner:

The concept of "clutch" is one of the clearest dividing lines between traditional coverage of baseball and what you'll find here at Baseball Prospectus. . . .

Clutch performances exist, to be sure; you can't watch a day of baseball without seeing a well-timed hit, a big defensive play or a key strikeout that pushes a team towards victory. The biggest moments in baseball history are almost all examples of players doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. Those moments make the game great and the players responsible for them deserve credit, and even adulation, for their heroics.

[However,o]ver the course of a game, a month, a season or a career, there is virtually no evidence that any player or group of players possesses an ability to outperform his established level of ability in clutch situations, however defined.

At least in the four years of 2002-05 [note: Baerga's "close and late" statistics before 2002 are currently not at the writer's disposal], Baerga has outhit his career .291 batting average by about thirty points. While this comparison might serve to rebut Sheehan's third paragraph quoted above, Sheehan's article stresses the importance of a "large enough sample."

According to MLB.com's statistics [note: ESPN.com assigns Baerga with 15 additional "close and late" at-bats and a lower batting average in such situations], as noted previously, Baerga had 41 "close and late" at-bats in 2005. In such a small number of times to the plate, ancillary factors---including, but not limited to, luck---likely render the conclusion that the player possesses a true "clutch nature" unreliable. Other ancillary factors, as David Grabiner identified a decade ago, likely speak more to broader considerations and skills than clutch ability:

[Mariano Duncan, one of the players studied and superficially a "clutch hitter" over the course of Grabiner's study,] is a right-handed hitter (formerly a switch-hitter who couldn't hit lefty) with a 200-point platoon split in OPS.  If he is due up to the plate 80 times in the late innings of close games, which might normally be 48 times against righties and 32 times against lefties, then he would gain 20 points if he leaves for a pinch-hitter twelve times against righties and pinch-hits four times against lefties.

And this is only one factor which affects clutch ability but has nothing to do with bearing down in the clutch.  Boggs, McGriff, and Strawberry
have 5 of the 14 worst choking numbers.  All three are excellent left-handed hitters with large platoon differentials; this makes them
vulnerable to spot lefties, because they do not leave for pinch-hitters.

Other possible factors include an ability to hit one-pitch fastballers, who are often relief aces; an ability to hit the same pitcher better
when you see him for the third or fourth time in a game; and difficulty seeing the ball in twilight.

Two possible factors to explore in Baerga's case are the platoon differential and spot relievers. Baerga, a switch-hitter, holds the theoretical platoon advantage in all situations; except for ninth inning situations (usually against closers in ninth inning "close and late" spots), Baerga's "clutch and late" situations likely included occasions against spot relievers. In six "close and late" at-bats against lefthanders, Baerga went three-for-six.

This analysis does not intend to support or refute the notion that Baerga is a "clutch hitter." At the very least, not enough information is at this writer's disposal for a more definitive conclusion. However, it is offered that Baerga's six at-bats versus lefthanders in "close and late" situations demonstrate the difficulty with assigning "clutch" status to his character, as opposed to one season's performance---or, more broadly, his 2002-05 performance in such situations. It is likely that most of the six at-bats were against so-called Lefty One Out Guys ("LOOGYs"), who specialize in retiring lefthanded batters. These pitchers tend not to sport overpowering arsenals, and instead tend to survive by deception.

Baerga, a veteran switch-hitter, is well-equipped to confront a LOOGY. He is a solid contact hitter with enough experience to spot deception; plus, with the ability to hit from the right side, Baerga is able to thwart the LOOGY's situational advantage. To the extent that Baerga faced LOOGYs in those six at-bats, if one were to substitute those times at bat with confrontations versus pitchers with better "stuff" (e.g., starting pitchers or closers), it is likely (luck excepted) that Baerga does not hit .500 in those limited at-bats. Furthermore, as a switch-hitter, Baerga is also available to face righthanded spot relievers (e.g., middle relievers and set-up men), with the platoon advantage.

Thus, it is offered that Baerga is, at the least, well-equipped to tackle "close and late" situations---especially those in the seventh and eighth innings. Whether this evinces "clutch ability" or "situational advantages" is probably unimportant. To the extent that an evaluation is necessary, though, it is offered that it is not out of the question Baerga "elevates his game" in clutch spots, but the evidence supporting this conclusion is neither significant nor able to be isolated.

BAERGA AND 2006

Whether or not Baerga is a true "clutch hitter," it is apparent that, as a veteran switch-hitter, he offers some utility to the team as a bench player/switch-hitter.However, a big league team's bench is limited by Major League Baseball's rule restricting roster size to twenty-five players; in contemporary baseball, what is more, a team usually carries eleven or twelve pitchers. Thus, Baerga must be considered either the thirteenth or fourteenth most valuable position player at the disposal of the Washington Nationals in order to justify a roster spot.

The following analysis attempts to resolve whether Baerga should claim an active roster spot:

Starting position players: Spots 1-8
Back-up catcher: Spot 9
Back-up outfielders: Spots 10-11
Back-up infielders: Spots 12-14

This break-down assumes an eleven-man pitching staff. During 2005, the Nationals employed, at various points of the season, anywhere from a ten- to twelve-man pitching staff.

Nationals' management will (or should) recall last season's middle infield squeeze. Baerga himself was forced to start a handful of games at second base because a) Cristian Guzman struggled and was injured for a short spell; b) utility man Jamey Carroll had to replace Guzman periodically; c) starting second baseman Jose Vidro was injured for a significant stretch; and d) projected back-up infielder Henry Mateo's right shoulder never healed. Thus, Junior Spivey was acquired to substitute for Vidro (until Spviey himself was injured), but Baerga ostensibly filled the void for a short time.

Spivey likely will not be back. Last year's starting third baseman, Vinny Castilla, was recently traded. Last season's back-up first- and third-baseman, Wil Cordero, was released at mid-season. An opportunity does exist for Baerga to come back (he is presently a free agent), but his defensive limitations make this an uncertainty.

The following players are prospective back-up infielders:

Damian Jackson
Jamey Carroll
Brendan Harris
Rick Short
Bernie Castro
Carlos Baerga

Jackson, signed to be the utility infielder, also has experience in the outfield; thus, he provides extra value in "expanding" the roster, as it is unlikely the Nats will ever feel the need to carry more than two back-up outfielders---and perhaps only one.

Carroll, who is arbitration-eligible, is still a desirable player, not only because he is versatile and can get on-base, but also because he provides insurance against a repeat of the infielder shortage. Vidro is still vulnerable to injury, and Guzman is still vulnerable to ineffectiveness. Having both Jackson and Carroll on the active roster ensures both a replacement and a ready utility infielder.

Following Castilla's trade, Harris---a "perpetual prospect"---stands a better chance of making the team as a back-up infielder, filling the spot Cordero could not last season and Castilla was apparently unwilling to in the upcoming season. Harris also represents insurance, should top prospect Ryan Zimmerman stumble as a rookie third baseman. In addition, as noted by the Nationals Farm Authority, Harris has been playing shortstop in the Arizona Fall League. Thus, it is possible that Harris is being groomed to replace Carroll, should the latter become too expensive in arbitration. (However, it should be noted that Carroll is likely a better shortstop than Jackson, and in fact would be the best back-up shortstop among the current options.)

Short, an accomplished minor league hitter, in a sense provides the same utility as Harris (back-up at first and third), though he cannot play shortstop and reportedly is not a polished second baseman. Given that outfielders Brad Wilkerson, Ryan Church, and Terrmel Sledge are all lefthanded hitters (though it is likely that at least one will not be a Nat come April), the team could use a potent righty bat, like Short's.

Finally, Castro, a speedy second baseman, is a long-shot to make the team---though he does provide two skills that the Nats lacked dearly last season: fleet feet and an ability to reach base.

Among these players, Jackson is likely the only one assured of a roster spot; reportedly, he signed a major league contract when the Nats picked him up last week. However, as noted, Jackson's ability to play shortstop is at least questionable. Thus, the Nats would be prudent to settle with Carroll on a contract for 2006. Castro is likely destined for Triple-A. That leaves Harris, Short, and Baerga as possibilities.

Harris seems to have the inside track, and this is a positive development for the Nationals. He is versatile and, though he had a down year in 2005, he hits well for a back-up infielder. While it would be a luxury to have a switch-hitting (veteran-leader) infielder like Baerga, the Nats probably cannot afford such a luxury unless they were to go with a ten-man pitching staff---which is unrealistic as a long-term proposition. Furthermore, Baerga is not the type of player who can easily be optioned to the minors. As last season---when the Nats lost pitchers Claudio Vargas and Sunny Kim---demonstrated, roster flexibility is a necessary asset for an organization like the Nats, who lack depth.

And, so the logic goes, a necessity takes priority over a luxury.