Looking over at Fangraphs, I was surprised to see that Ryan Sweeney has reached 3.6 wins above replacement. That places Sweeney a full win and a half above a league average player. Considering that the sentiment around AN often declares Sweeney as a 4th OFer, rather than I starter, I wanted to delve into the reasons why that may be the case and try to project him moving forward.
The first and most obvious reason that Ryan Sweeney is underrated is due to defense. An era of offensive explosion and new statistics that more accurately explained and valued the way runs are and were produced created an overvaluing of offense over what was considered statistically immeasurable defense in relation to offense. Now we have a contracting run environment, which makes the marginal run and thus run prevention more valuable that goes along with new and better ways of measuring defense that puts in nearly on par with offensive contributions to the game. Defense is also hard to see in a vacuum. Jeter's patented jump throw makes New York partisans and infrequent observers of our great game conclude that he is a excellent defensive player, while a more informed observer will glean from statistics or more diverse observation that Jeter's lack of range requires a seemingly great play to make what others get to easily.
I think Sweeney may suffer from the exact opposite. Sweeney has extremely long strides which makes it harder to see the ground he makes up because he doesn't look like he is running that hard. His range has been rated as excellent by UZR with a 3.9 range rating in center and an outstanding 10.7 range rating in right field. To give proper context in how good that is, UZR's range component is a counting rather than a rate stat, which means that the more plays one makes the better nominal value is. Therefore the fact that Sweeney has only spent 577 innings in RF and still leads the league (just ahead of Ichiro and JD Drew) in UZR's Range Runs component.
The other thing that I find interesting and could be coincidental is that there is an about -10 FRAA difference between Sweeney's defensive production at CF compared to RF per 150, which is what the difference is suppose to be. That would seem to suggest that if his defensive production in the corner or center is being overly influenced by luck that his numbers at both positions are being influenced at nearly the same rate. Since the range increase is uniform it makes sense that Sweeney after a full year in the bigs is taking better routes and has increased his value defensively.
Furthermore, the UZR numbers from this year give question to the accuracy of some of last years numbers especially in regard to his arm runs rating. Sweeney had a -3.6 runs runs in center field accounting for the vast majority of the negative runs he contributed from center field. Considering that RFers have the most emphasis placed on their arm to prevent first to third advancement on the longest throw from the outfield, it makes no sense that being judged against stronger throwers on the whole Sweeney faired about ten runs better. Therefore, last year's arm numbers wreak of small sample size issues. It is however likely that this year's Arm numbers are more reasonable for both CF and for RF.
Therefore, when projecting forward Sweeney it seems reasonable to expect contribute 1 WAR worth of runs at either position considering position and defense (7.5 FRAA with 2.5 positional in CF or 17.5 with a -7.5 positional). There of course are problems with this projection, it relies on UZR numbers being consistent which is not always the case. When building WAR projections with defensive numbers the precision is less than that of the hitting component. That is why I have discounted the UZR data about 5 runs/150 so that the estimate is more conservative. When combined with replacement runs, Sweeney is a very reasonable 3 WAR player if he exhibits league average offense.
What are the chances that he exhibits league average offense? Sweeney has a .322 career wOBA which is below league average. However, that number is dragged down by his year 21 and year 22 seasons with the Chicago White Soxs, who rushed him severely up to the big leagues. His numbers in his Oakland seasons have been league average or better. This year Sweeney has hit for a wOBA of .332 against a .329 league average. Those numbers aren't park adjusted making them even more impressive and worth 3 batting runs above average. Last year Sweeney put up a wOBA of .328 which was league average. The question in can these numbers be replicated going forward, because if they stay consistent or improve, Sweeney is a very valuable player.
Studies have shown that xBABIP calculation correlates the best year to year for batters, though that stat uses a lot of not readily available. Therefore I plugged in Sweeney's numbers into the qxBABIP formula which correlates second best. The qxBABIP (quick expected batting average on balls in play) calculator at Hard Ball Times believes that Sweeney has a higher than expected BABIP. However the HBT qxBABIP calculator uses SBs as an approximation of speed, and Sweeney has not run much this year and when he has he has not been very successful. Though Sweeney has not stolen many bases or run much he still has good speed which would provide the expectation that he would out preform that version of qxBABIP. The qxBABIP of .317 would seem to suggest regression moving forward which is mitigated by speed not captured by the model and the fact that this years BABIP is not a significant departure from his career norms.
Sweeney has long been knocked for his failure to exhibit the prototypical power of a corner Ofer or the gaudy OBP that makes up for it. Can we expect that moving forward? Expecting Sweeney to maintain a .350 OBP seems reasonable since he has carried one for the last two years and this years improvement in batting average is coupled with Sweeney's lowest walk rate since 2006, and both are likely to regress. Sweeney's power is likely to improve as well since he is just 24 years old a hitters prime is generally considered to be age 26-31. This year Sweeney's ISOP has improved by .018 from his 2008 and looking at his time in AAA there is certainly room for improvement toward his AAA numbers. In 2006 Sweeney had a .158 ISOP and in 2007 Sweeney posted a .128 ISOp. If Sweeney continues to improve his MLB ISO towards those AAA numbers he would be a valuable player. If Sweeney holds a .285 batting average moving forward, with a .130 ISO and a .065 ISOd, those are the components of a .285/.350/.415 line or an approximately .337 wOBA. With this years .329 league average wOBA that computes to 4 wRAA (batting runs above average from wOBA without being park adjusted like BRAA). Lets say that park adjustment ads an additional BRAA to equal 5.
Essentially when you combine 5 BRAA, 10 fielding and positional runs, with 20 runs for replacement level, Sweeney even with a UZR regression, BA regression, and slight improvement in walk rate and ISO is a 3.5 WAR player, which qualifies as a playoff level starter. Even with more regression A penny saved is a penny earned and Sweeney gets a bad rap because it is hard to see his defensive value while his offensive value is just average. Moving forward it is clear that Ryan Sweeney is likely to be an excellent player.