Sunday, March 21, 2010

Room for Improvement: Jhonny Peralta

Okay, this is it.

There are few players who have represented more points along the Fan Emotion Continuum than Jhonny Peralta. In his Age 23 season, Jhonny Peralta posted one of the best seasons EVER for a shortstop aged 24 or under, hitting .292/.366/.520 with 24 homers and playing adequate defense as a young shortstop. The next season, he collapsed to a .257/.323/.385 line with 13 homers and looked a lot less like a cornerstone player. Over the next two seasons, his SLG went back up in significant chunks ("He's getting better!"), but last season, collapsed ("He's turned into a newt!") to a career-low (discounting his Age 21 and 22 seasons, as they had fewer than 300 PA each) .375; his AVG of .254 and OBP of .316 were also the worst in his five years as a regular.

Put this all together, and Peralta's VORP of 3.7 last season was, by definition, barely above Replacement Level. That's awful. Now, I don't know if the Replacement Level is calibrated properly, because I have seen some godawful middle infielders come in as "replacements:" Mike Rouse, Tony Graffanino, Jorge Velandia, Josh Barfield ... Great Scott, there have been some batless wonders come through Cleveland in the past five years. I shudder to think what this team would do with a regular shortstop who hit the astounding .119/.200/.134 Rouse put up, only over 600 plate appearances.

It is one thing to give a 24-year-old a chance to prove a bad season was a temporary dip, a fluke, a gork whose importance can be minimized as part of the development process.

For Jhonny Peralta, this is it.

I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of being in the minority of telling people that this guy is valuable, that he's going to put it all together, that he is young enough to still improve significantly, that he's a net asset as an inexpensive young infielder with above-average pop for his position.

2010 is it. Do it. Now.

Of course, Jhonny Peralta isn't the regular shortstop any more. He has made the long-anticipated move to the hot corner, where he actually did a pretty good job playing nearly every day at a position he hadn't played with any frequency for over five years. Oddly enough, he actually hit better as a third baseman than he had as a shortstop, but this is mostly a reflection of a poor .570 OPS April in which he struck out in nearly one-third of his ABs (25 in 76). And he would have hit even better still than the .259/.322/.388 he ended up posting as a 3B if not for a truly horrific September in which he hit .183/.239/.240. In neither bad month did Peralta hit a home run.

Now, I'm not necessarily focusing exclusively on home runs as a measure for Jhonny Peralta. He shouldn't be swinging for the fences all the time, and actually seems to be at his most productive when he drives pitches on the outer half of the plate to right-center, where he has significant power, if more the "gap doubles" variety. Still, he can hit the ball out either way. And although I know it's the effect rather than the cause, it gives you some insight to consider that in 2005, 2007, and 2008, Peralta posted very good OPS's in the .800 range while hitting over 20 home runs, whereas 2006 and 2009 were awful seasons and featured 13 and 11 home runs respectively.

Does this mean that Jhonny Peralta has to hit 20 bombs to be an effective player? That's thinking backwards, really: the more sensible way to think of this is to say that when Jhonny Peralta is an effective offensive player, he will hit 20 home runs as a result.

It's actually fairly astonishing to look at the consistency of the numbers:

23 2005 504 147 35 4 24 82 78 128 58
24 2006 569 146 28 3 13 84 68 152 56
25 2007 574 155 27 1 21 87 72 146 61
26 2008 605 167 42 4 23 104 89 126 48
27 2009 582 148 35 1 11 57 83 134 51

I mean, that's pretty weird for a player with so much variation in his OPS. His hit rate doesn't change much. His K rate wasn't out of line. He didn't draw a lot of walks, but he drew the same numbers he has pretty much every year. No, virtually all the variation in Peralta's value from season to season comes from his extra-base hits: in his two best seasons, he had over 60 XBH with 20+ homers. In his two worst, he's more in the 45 range with 12 HR. It's not as simple as "trading this for that," but ... it is pretty simple. Peralta generally hits 100 singles, walks about 50 times, and strikes out in the 130-140 range. It's whether he hits the ball HARD that tells you whether you're going to get an .800-OPS net asset or a .700-OPS waste of plate appearances.

What can we reasonably expect from Peralta in 2010? Well, for one thing, he is the Opening Day third baseman. No more mystery, no more looking over his shoulder: he is the third baseman, and that is where he will play. Sure, I expect he'll play some short this season, but we're talking about 10-15 games here, not 40+. Peralta has always been the player least affected by the situation (or, in fact, the planet he is on), and was one of the few offensive players to consistently produce throughout the 2007 playoff, but still, I have to think that stability is preferable to Not Stability.

PECOTA is usually a bit of a curve-smoother, but it has Peralta pegged for a 17.9 VORP season with a .269/.337/.416 line. That would, in a sense, be about the worst thing for the Indians, in that if Peralta hit significantly worse he could be jettisoned with no real regret (he has a $7M option for 2011) and if he hit significantly better we'd all be fine exercising the option and moving on to more important decisions. A .416 SLG is right around that "null zone" where you can't tell if Peralta's really going to be good or not. Not coincidentally, PECOTA pegs Peralta for 17 HR, precisely in the middle of his average "awful" season (2006, 2009) and his average "good" one (2005, 2007, 2008).

I think Peralta's got a little more in him than that, and I'm looking for Jhonny to slug at least .430 (.450+ would be more valuable, obviously, and not entirely unreasonable) and hit those 20 bombs that would make him an asset. I'm a little surprised that that "slash line" from Peralta would yield a 17.9 VORP, especially at 3B, but I'll take BP's word for it. In any event, I had him estimated to a rounder 20 VORP for 2010, and I'll claim that it is reasonable to expect a 16-point improvement in VORP from Jhonny Peralta.

Do it.

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