A Quick Note About Josh Willingham
Over the last 12 hours or so, two different people – Nick Camino, a beat writer for the Indians, and Jim Bowden, former GM and current ESPN analyst – have reported that the Mariners are among the finalists for Josh Willingham. Bowden even put the same “front runner” tag on the team that he applied to his Prince Fielder rumor from Dallas, which should probably call into question how much you buy into these reports, as the M’s clearly aren’t going to end up with both players. Signing Willingham would be an alternative to signing Fielder, so I don’t really see how the team could actually be front runners for both at the same time.
But, let’s focus on Willingham for a second. He’s certainly a good hitter, as his wRC+ of 128 over the last three years ties him with David Ortiz and Justin Upton for the 35th best mark in baseball over since 2009. Other players with similar offensive performances over this stretch of time include Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, and Victor Martinez, so Willingham has clearly provided a level of offense that puts him in pretty good company. These aren’t the very best of the best at the plate, but they’re all quality hitters, and Willingham has performed at their standard.
However, I just don’t see him being a particularly good fit for the Mariners. While Willingham owns a pretty solid resume, it’s almost certain that his best days are behind him. He turns 33 in February, and given that he is the owner of a skillset that generally doesn’t age all that well, the question of how much longer he’ll be a productive big league hitter is a legitimate one. In fact, the effects of aging appear to already be setting in on Willingham.
From 2005 to 2010, Willingham posted a walk rate of 11.6% and a strikeout rate of 19.7%. Last year, he posted a walk rate of 9.9% and a strikeout rate of 26.6%. His power remained steady, so he’s probably not headed for a cliff-dive next year, but the significant uptick in whiffs has to be a concern, and it’s supported by a corresponding drop in his contact rate. He didn’t just rung up a lot by bad umpiring – his strikeout rate jumped because he had trouble putting the bat on the ball with the same regularity that he had shown in previous years.
If the deterioration in contact abilities holds, Willingham will have to be a monster when he does hit the ball in order to sustain his value at the plate. And, well, we probably don’t have to talk too much about the odds of success in Safeco Field for an extreme flyball right-handed pull power hitter. Willingham’s skillset is the one most harmed by the park the Mariners play in, as 105 of his career 132 home runs have been to left field, and he’s basically useless when he hits the ball the other way.
It’s not just how many home runs Safeco might take away from him either – among qualified hitters last year, only three players hit the ball in the air more often than Willingham: Alfonso Soriano, Chris Young, and Vernon Wells. Even when he’s not launching the ball over the wall, Willingham is putting the ball in the air with great frequency, and he needs a decent amount of those balls to fall in for base hits. There is perhaps no park in baseball where it is harder to get a fly ball to left field to land for a base hit than the one the Mariners play half their games in.
This isn’t to say that the team should entirely avoid right-handed hitters, or that every fly ball RH bat should instantly be eliminated from consideration. However, if you’re buying a 33-year-old DH on the free agent market, you better know that the bat is going to play in Safeco, and with Willingham, there are plenty of reasons to think it very well may not. If the park does to him what it’s done to so many similar hitters before him, he’d basically be a replacement level player for half of the team’s games, and there’s virtually no way he’d hit well enough on the road to justify a salary earned through free agency.
If the Mariners wanted to add an aging DH to their line-up, they should have gone after David Ortiz or step into the race for Carlos Beltran. There are decent arguments to be made in favor of going with a shorter contract to an older player in order to improve the offense this winter, but Willingham is the wrong target. There are a lot better ways for the franchise to spend money than to spend it on Willingham hoping that he’s the exception who can overcome both the park and Father Time.