Once again, it’s crunch time around the MLB spring camps. Rosters must shrink to 25 men by opening day, and although injuries can change things at the last minute, front offices are whittling the numbers down every day. Some players have options, some others have opt outs. Eventually, the game of musical chairs will end, and some players will be left without anywhere to sit.
Up until a week or so ago, Ryan Goins looked like he was madly circling the chair with the “Infield Bench” sign hung off the back. He could do this because Devon Travis was restricted to stretching and BP, still nursing a bone bruise from offseason knee surgery. Now that Travis is able to get up and participate in this metaphorical party game, Goins is much further from a chair being his on opening day, as Darwin Barney has a pretty solid claim to it. Of course, Goins is now out of options after parts of four seasons with the big club, and that means he will hit the waiver wire before he can grab a seat in Buffalo. All this has stirred up the nostalgia of the Ryan Goins fans out there in Jays nation.
I’m not sure where this nostalgia comes from, since his most successful time in the big leagues has been a month where he practically stopped swinging the bat, (for reference I speak of August 2015- .314/.442/.443 with 22hits, 16K/16BB), and we haven’t seen anything like it since. His .228 OBP in 2016 doesn’t make me nostalgic, it makes me nauseous. Maybe nostalgia stems from the fact that he’s a career Blue Jay, which counts for something in some people’s minds. Those nice folks will also often point to Ryan Goins glove as the thing you have to love and remember and love about him.
And that got me to thinking…. what can we learn about Ryan Goins glove before he is cast out into the swells of the waiver wire ocean? There are a lot of fielding metrics out there, and I’ve learned that they are all mystifying and nearly useless in small samples. Luckily, I’m not overly concerned here with how much ‘value’ in terms of ‘wins’ Ryan Goins or Darwin Barney is providing here. The question I’m curious about is whether there are enough opportunities in a season for there to be a love affair with Goins defense.
Of course, its not just a glove, it’s the arms, torso and legs attached to it that a great fielder make. Let us compare the record of the three bodies that might occupy second base for the Jays in 2017 and see how often they might make difference that we will remember.
I’m using Inside Edge data from FanGraphs. It uses info from their scouts to divide plays into buckets ranging from impossible – (0% of times the play is completed when the ball is hit in similar circumstances) to Routine (90-100% of times the play is made). If a player makes the 40-60% catergory play around 50% of the time, he’s been average. If he makes it 80% of the time, he’s been extremely effective. In the Inside edge data, we get a percentage and, also very impotantly, a raw count of plays made. This is exactly what I want to know. Sure, anyone can make an impossible play, but if it really is just once in a whole season, is it worth waiting around for?
Let’s start with Devon Travis, the presumptive starter at second base. I’m going to use career numbers, just to keep this simple, unless otherwise noted. Travis has 1369.2 innings at second, which is like a very busy full time season’s worth of plays (1458 innings available in a season with only 9 inning games). He makes 98.3% of the Routine plays, 67% in the Likely (60-90) bucket, 53.3% in the Even (40-60) bucket, 25% in the Unlikely (10-40) bucket and has never made a Remote or Impossible play. If you look at those numbers, Travis has been an almost prototypically average fielder. He’s in the middle of all the ranges for all the more common types of play, and he’s never pulled of a miracle in the field.
Now we look at Darwin Barney, who has three full seasons (4601 innings) of work at second, and was able to stick at second base in the NL based on the quality of his defense. He’s at 98.9% routine, 85.9% Likely, 61% Even, 33% Unlikely, 7.3% Remote, and has also never done the Impossible. The numbers bear out Barney’s reputation. He is much higher in the bracket (except in the Routine category) than Travis, and he even breaks out of the range on “Even” plays (by 1%). He’s much more adept at getting those plays made when the difficulty goes up. It’s important though, to realize that even though Darwin has made 7.33% of the Remote plays he’s faced in his career, it might not have made much impact on the team’s season. That 7.33% represents three total plays in the bucket, or about one made per season.
Which leads us to Ryan Goins, and the impact of his glove on the defense. He’s logged 1486.1 innings at second base, a shade more than a full season, and his percentages, from Likely on down, are 97.9%, 87.5%, 85%, 28.6%, 13% and, of course, 0%. Goins is well ahead of Barney in Even and Remote quality plays made, but otherwise lines up about the same in the other categories. Again, the 13% of Remote plays made represents exactly three of these very difficult plays completed over his whole career. I know you probably remember two of them, or even all three. What happens though, if we put Ryan Goins into Devon Travis’s shoes for a whole season.
Of course, this is a deeply flawed exercise. Humour me. We’re going to give Ryan Goins credit for his rate of success, but on all the opportunities Devon Travis has had.
So, in our hypothetical full season, Ryan Goins could make an extra dozen outs in the field for the Blue Jays. Which sounds like the Jays are giving up something real, maybe 12 out of 500 outs. Of course, we can never be sure it isn’t going to be more or less than that. When we look at 12 opportunities in a year, that’s not very many at all. What really brings it into focus though, is what happens when you give a bat to the two men above. If the ability to make outs in the field is at issue, then the ability to avoid making them at the plate should also be considered, for fairness.
Baseball reference has a handy “Per 162 games” stat line. Travis sports a .301/.342/.469 line for his career, and that translates into 206 times on base in a full season of play. Ryan Goins .224/.270/.325 pales in comparison, it means 131 times on base in the same number of games. Ryan Goins gain of 12 plays on defense come at a cost of 75 on offense.
But, you say, Goins isn’t competing with Travis, he’s competing with Barney! Yes. He is doing that. And I didn’t want to go there, but you clearly brought that up. This next part is your fault. I’m going to give Darwin Barney a chance to step into Devon Travis’s shoes. I do hope he doesn’t get any blisters.
So, yeah, defensively, it doesn’t look like you could be sure one of these is a definitively better glove man. Which means that, in order to justify his presence on the roster, Goins would have to be a definitively better hitter than Darwin Barney. Barney’s career line is .249/.297/.343, and he averages 161 times on base every 162 games. He reaches 30 more times, on average, than Goins.
So, in conclusion, Ryan Goins can do this:
But he can’t even manage enough of it to make an impact like this:
Yes, I know he’s always been in blue, but saying goodbye to Ryan Goins, if it comes to that, is a door closing while another one opens. Behind that door is a second baseman who can put himself of base five or six times for every opponent Goins can keep off the bases.
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