You Cannot Replace Past Performance
One of the most common questions I get asked is why won’t the Mariners bring up Nick Franklin to play shortstop, considering how poorly Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino are hitting right now. This seems to be the primary question Mariners fans are asking every writer, as Larry Stone also tackled this subject yesterday, noting that the Mariners SS tandem is hitting worse this season than the average NL pitcher. As Stone notes, even if Nick Franklin were the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, the upgrade from his offense over what the Mariners have gotten would more than outweigh the drop-off in glove work.
But here’s the thing – when you exchange one player for another, you are not replacing what they’ve already done, but you’re replacing what they’re going to do in the future. It’s one thing to note that Ryan/Andino have hit like pitchers in the first six weeks of the season, but that’s not the future baseline you work from. No matter how down you are on these two, there’s no reason to think that they’re going to keep hitting this poorly.
Ryan is truly one of the worst hitters in baseball, but that’s been true of him for basically his whole career, and he’s had extended slumps not that different from the one he’s in right now. For instance, from June 25th to September 20th of 2008, he hit .145/.244/.171 over 86 plate appearances, then had a few good games right before the season ended and followed up the second half collapse with the best offensive year of his career in 2009. From June 6th to July 22nd in 2010, he hit .141/.196/.192 over 111 plate appearances and nearly lost his job as the Cardinals everyday shortstop. They stuck with him, though, and he hit .266/.307/.320 over his final 219 PAs during the rest of the year.
Hitters as bad as Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino are going to have long stretches where they look totally helpless at the plate. They’re scraping the absolute minimum acceptable offensive line for a Major League player, so when we watch them hit and then watch other big league hitters actually do some damage, it can be easy to suggest that Ryan (and Andino) will never hit any better than they are right now, because of their total lack of offensive skills.
The reality is that terrible hitters can underperform too, so right now, Ryan and Andino are underperforming even their own low level of expectations. And it won’t last.
What you actually want to compare Franklin against is what you’d get from Ryan and Andino in the future, not what they’ve done in the first month and a half in the season. You’re replacing future production, not past performance. And while Ryan and Andino are terrible hitters, they are terrible hitters who should be expected to hit better in the future than they have so far.
You can see daily updated forecasts for every player on the Mariners roster at the new FanGraphs Depth Chart page. From now through the end of the season, the forecasts call for Robert Andino to post a .269 wOBA, while Brendan Ryan posts a .258 wOBA. Those numbers suck, but Nick Franklin’s forecast wOBA is .298, a 30-40 point improvement, not the 100-150 point improvement you’d get if you ran the calculation versus past performance.
The easiest way to translate wOBA into runs produced is that two points of wOBA equals one run per 600 plate appearances. So, 30-40 points would be 15-20 offensive runs over the course of a full season. We have less than a full season remaining, so now, the gap is more along the lines of 10-15 runs.
Do you really think it’s unlikely that a guy who scouts think belongs at second base really can’t be 10-15 runs worse with the glove a guy who is among the best defensive shortstops in baseball? Even if we think Ryan has declined some defensively, or is taking his offensive issues into the field with him, you’re looking at a guy who is probably at least still above average, so conservatively, you could call him +3 to +5 runs over the rest of the year. Do you really not think Nick Franklin might be a -10 shortstop over four months? Do you remember Yuniesky Betancourt?
I know it’s frustrating to watch Ryan and Andino make outs, and having a complete offensive black hole at the bottom of the line-up is the kind of thing that makes you think that anything would be better than the status quo. But, in this case, I think the Mariners have made the correct evaluation . Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino aren’t this bad at the plate, and the offensive gap between their current tandem going forward — the only time period that matters — and what Franklin would provide in the future isn’t nearly as large as you might think.
If the Mariners had a time machine and could go back to Opening Day, then yeah, they should use it to swap out Franklin for Ryan or Andino, and the upgrade they’d get from making that move would be substantial because of how bad the veterans have been. But that’s not how things work, of course, and no change now can undo what has already happened. You can only evaluate what you expect to happen going forward and put the players you expect to perform the best in the future on the field. Right now, the reality is that the future offensive production gap won’t be nearly so large as the current one, and given the defensive difference, there’s not really a huge upgrade to be made by making the switch.