Uncertain Baseball: On Hosmer and the Upton Brothers
First things first: I spell funny. I was born and raised in San Diego, but you wouldn’t know it from how I spell. It’s just one of those things that has a valid explanation but still doesn’t make any sense, like the Padres being one of three teams to send nachos to an MLB food fest.
With that out of the way, allow me to provide a bit of context to this post. I recently started a blog called Uncertain Baseball. As I explain here, I appreciate analytics and sabermetrics but I’m not that interested in reading about them all the time. I want the Padres to be using every sabermetric tool they have at their disposal, but I’m less excited about reading the work of people who can’t decide whether they are statisticians or writers. As you might infer given the title of my blog, I am far more enamored with the half-truths you can’t find in the numbers, because for as much certainty and truth as there is to be found in baseball’s statistics, it’s the uncertainty that makes us come back every game.
In celebration of the advent of the 2018 season, The Kept Faith has asked me to write something about the uncertainty surrounding the Eric Hosmer signing. Thinking about what, exactly, I wanted to say, I realised that everyone on #PadresTwitter, everyone in the Golden Age Of Padres Podcasts, everyone who professes any sort of fondness for the Friars, everyone who thinks about baseball, period, seems to have a well-defined opinion of the significance of the signing, and what it tells us about the decision making processes of the San Diego Padres’ front office. Some people have been very much in favour of the decision. Perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few others, including every Padres fan’s favourite troll Keith Law, are absolutely convinced that it’s a disaster. (Be warned, that second link directs you to a Gwynntelligence podcast, so don’t click on it unless you are feeling particularly masochistic.)
The more I processed the reality of the signing – the money involved, the term, the structure of the opt-out – the more I realised that, to my way of thinking, we’ve all been focusing on the wrong thing. It’s incredibly easy, tempting even, to look at the Hosmer deal and draw immediate conclusions. The numbers allow us to do this, because we’ve placed a dollar amount on each Win Above Replacement; because we can correlate a player’s career OPS+ to the effect he has on a team’s Win Probability Added; because we can project a player’s future by looking at his past and use that information to arrive at a determination (or some approximation thereof) of how good or how bad a deal his contract is for the team that signs him. But, of course, in drawing an immediate conclusion about Hosmer’s contract we ignore perhaps the most fundamental truth there is: shit happens. Nobody knows how the next five (or eight) years of Eric Hosmer’s career will pan out. This isn’t news; the vast majority of people making arguments both in favor of the Hosmer signing and against it know this, but they either choose to omit it from their proclamations or, just as likely given the nature of baseball fanaticism, they have convinced themselves that the projections contain some inherent truth, and that an explanation for every eventuality, whether positive or negative, can be found in the numbers. And maybe it can be. But maybe it can’t.
The Upton brothers are a perfect example of this. Justin was both a very good Padre and an entirely unremarkable one. Years from now his 4.3 WAR season for the 2015 San Diego Padres will be a mere data point on a generally solid Baseball Reference page, a poor man’s version of Reggie Jackson, Baltimore Oriole. When Justin signed with the Tigers I was neither surprised nor particularly disappointed: the compensatory draft pick was probably of more long-term help to the Padres anyway. Melvin Jr.’s time with the Padres, on the other hand, was both the very definition of mediocrity and also incredibly memorable. (To me, at least.) Here was a player who had literally been forced upon the Padres as part of the Craig Kimbrel trade, a player who defined what it means to have it and lose it. When he was with Atlanta, with that dismal level of performance and that huge contract, we all felt vergüenza ajena every time he stepped up to the plate. The pressure he must have been feeling, consciously or not, would have been absolutely soul-crushing. And then he arrived in San Diego, played roughly every other day, and put up his first positive WAR season in two years. And the next year he was even better! In 97 games with the Pads in 2016 Melvin Jr. posted almost 2 WAR. How can you not root for a guy like that? When he was traded to the Blue Jays just before the deadline I was pretty bummed out. I understood it on an intellectual level, I guess, but damn if I didn’t want to see Melvin Jr. stick around.
But here’s the catch: in just over a full-season’s worth of games, Melvin Jr. was a 3.4 WAR player for San Diego. Despite playing 29 more times, he contributed almost a full win less than his brother did to the Padres. And his career has basically fallen off the table since he left, which means Padre fans were basically watching the last throes of a once-promising major league player’s fight against the dying of the light.
What does this have to do with the Padres signing Eric Hosmer? Well, as I stated before, everyone has an opinion on this signing, and almost all of those opinions hinge on the idea of whether it was a good one or not. Which is fair enough, I suppose; these days that sort of “is it good or is it shit” dichotomy is how almost all sports are written about, spoken about, and thought about. And, in most cases, it’s not enough for something in the sports world to be good, it has to be better than something else. But the Upton brothers’ time as Padres demonstrate, to my mind at least, that that particular distinction is not always so obvious. Statistically, Justin was better for the Padres than his brother. But I took significantly more enjoyment from watching Melvin Jr. overcome, however briefly, the struggles that would eventually end his career. So which one was the better Padre?
Regardless of how you felt about the Hosmer news in the moment, as Padres fans we all want to be able to look back, years from now, and agree that he was a good signing for the team. But how can you possibly quantify with any degree of certainty something so subjective?
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