Dae-Ho Lee and Roberto Petagine
I should wait and post this on February 22nd, but if I keep trying to find the time to post, I’ll just miss it and go another month without providing any baseballing opinions. So: *nearly* ten years ago today, on February 22nd, 2006, the M’s made a low-key minor league signing of a guy who’d just been released by the Red Sox organization. Roberto Petagine got a sip of coffee with Boston in 2005, appearing in 18 games, but spent most of the year demolishing the International League for Pawtucket: an OBP of .452, and a SLG% of .635. Sure, he was 34, but though few knew his name, this wasn’t exactly a shock.
Between 1999 and 2004, Petagine was one of Japanese Baseball’s elite. The Venezuelan signed with Yakult, and in his first season in Japan led both the Central and Pacific leagues in HRs, OBP, SLG% and OPS. Ichiro was 25 that year, and easily led the Pacific League with an OBP of .412. Petagine’s was .469. Hideki Matsui hit 42 HRs and slugged .631, but Petagine hit 44 and slugged .677. Petagine was the only player to exceed 100 walks. You get the picture. There were some great domestic and imported players, but Petagine was, generally speaking, the most dominant offensive force for the next few years. In his first year with Yomiuri in 2003, Petagine missed 40 games (in a 140-game season), so he didn’t take the HR crown, but still posted the best OPS and OBP in the league. Petagine led with a .457 mark, while Kosuke Fukudome came in 2nd all the way back at .401. He slumped a bit – for him- the next year, losing the OBP crown to Greg LaRocca, and putting up an OPS of only .970. Still, the guy who signed a minor league deal with Boston that offseason was nearly as big a star as Matsui had been – and of course it was Petagine that Yomiuri turned to in 2003 when Matsui left to join the Yankees.
For those of us who had some cursory knowledge of the NPB then, this was no ordinary minor league signing. This was an undervalued talent, and one that could clearly help an M’s team that was coming off two straight poor offensive seasons. Even the skeptics had to acknowledge this was a high-upside, zero-downside move. Still, there were warning signs: where was Petagine going to play? The M’s 1B was a surprisingly effective Richie Sexson, coming off a 2005 that saw him hit 39 bombs and post a 144 wRC+. DH had been a problem, but the M’s appeared to have solved that by signing switch-hitter Carl Everett. Behind him was corner OF/Util lefty Matt Lawton. If he was going to play, he could spell Sexson every now and again or beat out Lawton and hit dingers.
As it happened, not even the lack of production from his would-be competitors would ensure Petagine got a real shot in the bigs. Carl Everett was horrific, Lawton was worse, and Petagine was planted firmly on the bench, used sporadically as a pinch hitter. This, combined with the M’s odd just-sort-of-hanging-around form of contention led to two of the worst trades of the Bavasi era, which is saying something. Off went teenage SS Asdrubal Cabrera for right-handed Petagine-replacing DH Eduardo Perez*, while Shin-Soo Choo followed Cabrera to Cleveland in exchange for lefty DH Ben Broussard. Petagine was finally released in late August, having had 2 plate appearances since June 29th. The M’s, you’ll be shocked to hear, did not make the playoffs. Petagine never appeared in the majors again.
After sitting out 2007, Petagine came back in 2008 at the age of 37. He started in Mexico, knocked the crap out of the ball, and then moved to the Korean league, where he posted an insanely high OBP yet again. The following year, 2009, saw Petagine put up another monster year for the LG Twins: a slash line of .332/.468/.575 and yet another OBP crown at the age of 38. The KBO was an insane offensive environment that year – as it has been most years – but Petagine still stood out. A young Jung-Ho Kang hit 23 HRs that year and posted an .857 OPS, while 26 year old 1B Dae-Ho Lee hit 28 HRs and topped .900. Petagine’s OPS was 1.043, of course. After that, Petagine played one final half-season in Japan before calling it a career. Meanwhile, Lee improved dramatically in the next few seasons, culminating in a dominant 2011 that saw him win a batting title.
Lee then moved to Japan, right in the midst of the NPB’s extraordinary shift in run environment. In Lee’s first year in Japan, 2012, the average Pacific League team scored 3.37 runs per game; in the Central League it was 3.14(!). The 2010 Mariners are the worst offensive ballclub in decades, and they scored 3.2 runs per game. The NPB in 2012 was pitcher-friendly, is what I’m getting at. Lee’s OPS was 2nd best in the Pacific League, and the 1B out-homered Wily Mo Pena. The following year, scoring was up dramatically – around 4 runs per game over both years (this was the year of Wlad Balentien’s single-season HR record, and a scandal involving a “juiced” ball), and Lee again posted excellent – though not in Petagine’s class – numbers.
But it’s hard to compare Lee and Petagine directly given this volatility in NPB’s run environment. In Petagine’s first year, NPB pitchers gave up 0.9 HRs per 9 innings, and teams scored about 4.4-4.5 runs/game. In 2012, the HR rate was just 0.5, but rebounded all the way to 0.9 again just a year later. Scoring came roaring back as well, with Central League scoring exceeding 4.2 runs/game in 2014, before collapsing again to 3.4 in 2015. Just to get confusing, Pacific League scoring *didn’t* spike in 2014, but also didn’t collapse in 2015. The M’s obviously have the tools and experience to make sense of this run environment and Dae Ho Lee’s place within it; I’m going to offer a shrug and just hope he can help.
However you control for the league, Lee seems like a solid hitter, albeit one in his decline phase, which isn’t really a shock considering his age (he’ll turn 34 this season). I think, broadly speaking, that Petagine may have been the superior hitter, but Lee has a better chance to play and contribute, considering the M’s primary 1B is a lefty with serious platoon split problems. Moreover, his competition as the right-sided platoon guy is not covered in glory: Jesus Montero’s history is, uh, checkered, and Gaby Sanchez is coming off a poor 2014 in Pittsburgh, and an equally bad 2015 in the same league Lee’s coming from. Dae-Ho Lee hit 31 HRs, and was named the Japan Series MVP. Sanchez hit .226/.328/.392 for last-place Rakuten. There’s a path to a roster spot, and a path to meaningful at-bats for Lee.
But a path isn’t the same thing as a job, and an opportunity isn’t the same thing as a fair shot. I was legitimately excited about Petagine 10 years ago, and it’s easy to laugh that off as the optimism of the stat-sheet scout. But Petagine had 32 plate appearances for the M’s in 31 games, so even the optimists can bring out the old college socialist bromide: Petagine didn’t fail, Petagine was never actually attempted!** I don’t know what to think anymore. I loved Balentien, but he got more of a shot and did less with it before going to Japan and hitting like Babe Ruth. Dae-Ho Lee was solid for many years in the NPB, but with his K% creeping up as inexorably as his age, he may not make enough contact to really help. That said, check out his Davenport translated batting line: .266/.327/.426. It’s not gaudy, but it’d help.
I have no doubt that if you’d run Petagine’s translations back in 2006, they’d have said he’d do even better (just checked, and yes, it’s true). Ultimately, Petagine never really got a shot to prove those forecasts wrong. Whether it was a long-looking swing, his age, the outlay to bring in Everett, or the then-prevalent assumption that *anyone* could roll out of bed and hit 30 HRs in Japan, Petagine never played. I like Dae-Ho Lee, and I sincerely hope John McGrath is right that we’ll look back on this move as a big one. Lee may adjust easily to the big leagues, but before he can worry about adjusting to new pitchers, parks and a new baseball, he’s going to have to win over a manager the way Petagine couldn’t.
* Perez himself was an NPB veteran, spending part of 2001 with Hanshin. Perez got in about 50 games and washed out, hitting .222 with little power.
** We sabermetric fans often wrestle with two mutually exclusive ideas, and deploy either one as needed when praising our Tampa Bay overlords. First, small samples don’t mean much. Second, smart teams move quickly to correct deficiencies, and don’t let them fester for years like Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley. How can you “move quickly” if you don’t have a large sample size? I don’t know, ask
Billy Beane Andrew Friedman.