Colby Rasmus: One of MLB’s Great Centre Fielders
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
When Colby Rasmus was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays from the St. Louis Cardinals in a blockbuster trade on July 27, 2011, there were mixed emotions in Toronto regarding the deal. On the one hand, he was (and arguably still is) just a few years removed from being a blue-chip, five-tool prospect with power and plus defense. On the other, there was the much-publicized family feud with then-Cards manager Tony La Russa, the seemingly lethargic attitude at bat, in the field and in media interviews (a reputation unaided by his laid back, southern drawl), the strikeouts, and most of all: the unshakeable stigma of not living up to his foretold potential.
The overwhelming consensus as the deal was struck and following it as well was one of relative indifference, and with good reason. After coming over from St. Louis in 2011 he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in a 35-game stint with the Blue Jays (.173/.201/.316). His slash line from last year (.223/.289/.400) seemed to be building on 2011 and the mounting strikeouts failed to endear him to a disgruntled Blue Jays fan base hungry for something to cheer about. With his average at .225 on April 28, this year looked to be more of the same. It has become increasingly clear however, that something has changed this season. Before being sidelined by an oblique injury, Colby was putting together an impressive season—despite receiving next to no credit for it. He hadn’t missed a step since coming off the DL either, homering in each of the four games after returning, becoming just the 10th different Blue Jay to do so. Unfortunately, it lasted just six games as Rasmus was sidelined by an errant Anthony Gose warm-up throw to the face.
Let’s start with the traditional measures: a .276 average, 22 home runs, and 66 RBI to go along with an .840 OPS in 118 games. He is now one of only four Blue Jay centre fielders all-time to hit 20 bombs in back-to-back seasons (the others are Vernon Wells, Jose Cruz Jr., and Lloyd Moseby). He will finish up one off his career high of 23 home runs set last season and 9 off his best mark of 75 RBI also set last year. These totals would obviously be higher as well had Rasmus not missed a month due to an oblique strain and even more time because of his facial injury. As of September 19 (before going down for a second time and after missing a month), he was near the top of many major statistical categories for AL centre fielders: second in home runs (22), slugging (.507), and OPS (.845); third with 66 driven in and 4th with 49 extra base hits. Last year, Colby went 24.2 plate appearances in between home runs and this season he was at 20.8, which practically equates him with Baltimore star Adam Jones (Jones went deep every 20.9 plate appearances). Colby’s 2013 home run prowess on average per game as a centre fielder is also superior to the likes of Carlos Gomez, Mike Trout, Shin-Soo Choo, and Andrew McCutchen. He went deep every 6.6 games in 2012 and every 5.4 on average this year. Even with the time he’s missed, only Jones, McCutchen, Trout, and Gomez have driven in more runs as a centre fielder in Major League Baseball. Rasmus’s .840 OPS is surpassed only by Trout, McCutchen and Choo. Those are impressive stats and equally impressive company to be grouped with.
Even given the aforementioned statistical information, there are always those who will refuse to qualify a player’s worth and contribution without the use of sabermetrics and so in fairness this aspect must be investigated as well. I cannot pretend I understand the drawn out calculations though I understand what the numbers mean. I will be firstly using Baseball-Reference’s WAR data summarized by ESPN. Colby Rasmus has a wins above replacement of 4.8, fifth best of any centre fielder in baseball. Simply put, the number is great and to put it in perspective, he trails just Trout, Gomez, McCutchen and Jacoby Ellsbury in this regard. He is ahead of players considered league-wide to be great, or at least above-average: Adam Jones, Shin-Soo Choo, Austin Jackson, Desmond Jennings, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp (in limited time), Michael Bourn, Denard Span, and Curtis Granderson (in limited time, and might be over the hump, I know) to name a few prominent ones. FanGraphs also puts Rasmus at 4.8 WAR, and according to their rating system both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs would qualify him as an All-Star (a player with 4-5 WAR is deemed All-Star-worthy).
As we have seen, Rasmus obviously brings quite a bit to the table offensively, but what about defensively? What if I were to suggest that he has a better defensive WAR and range factor than Mike Trout? Or that there are only three players with over 100 starts in centre (Leonys Martin, Ellsbury, and Gomez) that have a greater dWAR than Rasmus? And only three with a better range factor? These are all in fact true statements. He sits at 1.6 dWAR compared to -0.8 for Trout and has a 2.77 range factor compared to Trout’s 2.61 mark. Obviously Trout’s oWAR (10.1) and WAR (9.2) are off-the-charts good and this is not an attempt to bolster Colby Rasmus at the expense of Mike Trout. But a point needs to be made, so bear with me. Mike Trout’s dWAR was 2.2 last year in 108 starts in centre and as aforementioned, it is -0.8 this year in 106 starts. His range factor was 2.7 last year and 2.61 this season. He had 268 total chances in 886 innings in 2012. In 2013, he had only 273 in 937 full innings in centre field. He is less valuable defensively to the Angels, has apparently less range, and has gotten to fewer balls.
2013 Mike Trout vs. Colby Rasmus
However, a crucial point remains: Trout made a name for himself (and rightfully so) last year as an elite defensive player to complement his superb offensive skills. His reputation as a defensive wizard has stuck with him into this season—there has not been any mention about any defensive regression. Instead he is heralded as a possible MVP candidate despite the fact the Angels will miss the postseason as they did last year. And just as Trout’s reputation as an above-average fielder has outlasted his ability (only up until the end of 2013), the opposite has been true for Rasmus. His status as an underachieving strikeout machine has overshadowed his amazing progression as an all-around player. Consider the power, the average, runs driven in, and OPS combined with the much-improved wins above replacement numbers (overall, offensive, and defensive). His overall WAR of 4.8 is a career high by over one full win (3.6 in 2010), defensively he has improved every season since 2010 and now sits at 1.6. Offensively he is at 3.5 wins above replacement and has improved by at least two runs every year in that category since becoming a Blue Jay.
Colby Rasmus as a Blue Jay
I think it is safe to say that he has become more of a well-rounded player but more importantly, he is on an upward trajectory. Conversely, take the highly-coveted, soon-to-be free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who at age 30 is seemingly regressing defensively (a career-worst -1.9 dWAR both this and last year). His offensive numbers are impressive, don’t get me wrong, but it remains to be seen how much longer he can be an effective outfielder. A .424 on base percentage with 20+ homers is nice, but Baseball-Reference reveals that his WAR (4.0) is still lower than Rasmus’s (4.8) with the latter seemingly on an upswing. I do think Choo is good, but it is all but certain that he will be overpaid and consequently Colby Rasmus will look like a far better option.
I believed I have put forth at least a half-decent argument that Colby Rasmus is extremely valuable and even elite. I argue that his numbers on average rival the best in the game at his position and that he should get a little more credit for his impressive body of work. Some would point out that perhaps I have not examined his numbers from all possible perspectives, which I plan to do now using various data presented by FanGraphs. A comparison of this season with his 2011 and 2012 campaigns reveal ominous similarities. He struck out 29.5% of the time in 2013, which is actually up from 23.8% last year, and walked an insignificant 0.6% of the time more often (he still only walks 8.1% of the time). His BB/K ratio is also down to 0.27 from 0.32 in 2012 and 0.43 in 2011. He swung at 29.3% of pitches out of the zone in 2013 compared to 31.8% last year, and while perhaps showing a bit more patience, the number from this season equals his career average exactly. He has swung at basically the same amount of pitches inside the zone this year and last, and 2013’s mark of 67.2% is slightly off his career average of 70.6%. As for the balls he made contact with: while the percentage of pitches he made contact with inside the zone is almost exactly the same as 2012, the pitches he made contact with outside the strike zone was at 55.4% from 62.2% last season. So is he simply getting lucky by swinging and missing more often, thereby not making weak outs and having a shot at the next pitch? There may be some truth to that considering (as we have seen) that he swings at almost the same amount of pitches out of the zone as last year. On the other hand, he did strike out more in 2013 than 2012, which may discount the luck idea. The main bullet point here is that there does not seem to be much deviation from this year and the two preceding it and that there must be another explanation to help explain his success.
Based on these findings, one might think Rasmus would have had a similar year in 2013 to 2012 and 2011. But the numbers do not corroborate this as we have clearly seen. So what is different? BABIP. Rasmus has the worrisome distinction of having an unusually high batting average on balls put in play. BABIP can have a profound effect on a player’s batting average and a player with an unusually high or low BABIP will likely regress back to their career rate the following season. Proponents of sabermetrics will also convey that a very high BABIP may suggest that a player is having a fluky season. As for Rasmus, his batting average on balls in play was .356 this season compared to .259 last year and .267 in 2011. During his breakout 2010 campaign, it was .354. These are not small discrepancies. He hit .276 both this year and in 2010 and .223 and .225 last year and 2011, respectively. There is a definite link and it seems to have to do with BABIP. He has averaged .298 over his career in that department, which is considered normal.
So for the most part, he has been either well above or below it throughout his five years in the big leagues. Is he just having an especially good year? We won’t know until next season if he will regress but there are a few reasons to think he will be fine. His 2010 and 2013 numbers are more of what people expect than the years in between based on his ability. Maybe a .356 batting average on balls in play isn’t outrageously high and maybe 2012 was the fluky year. This season Rasmus hit a greater percentage of balls in play for line drives (22.0%) than ever before in his career (average: 19.5%). Also, more of his fly balls left the yard this season (13.2% last year and 17.3% this season). So maybe he is hitting the ball harder, and a few extra fly balls are hanging up just long enough to clear the fence. Although, ESPN’s Home Run Tracker considers just three of his home runs to have “Just Enough” distance while the other 19 were no doubters or had cleared the wall by “Plenty”. Another interesting point is that Mike Trout’s batting average on balls in play over the last two years is .379. Will he be able to keep that up? It is as much a question for Trout as it is for Rasmus.
This analysis of course not definitive but it merely is alternative to the fluke theory. It is possible that Rasmus can repeat his stellar 2013 season. One thing is clear though: this year, he was up there with the best centre fielders in the business. This was shown using traditional measures as well as new-age sabermetrics. He was near the top in most significant offensive and defensive categories and had he not been hurt he would have set career-highs and perhaps received a little more (and well-deserved) credit. He flew under the radar and it’s unfortunate that he is not appreciated as he should be. If he has a good 2014, I believe he will finally shake the lackadaisical, under-achieving, strikeout machine stigma and instead be seen as a quietly confident, budding star with an ability to hit for average and power to go along with graceful and effortless defense.