Jason Bay is gone, Scott Hairston’s return – at best – is up in the air and the Mets are extremely unlikely to add a big-time free agent. Which means that all of the stars have aligned for Mike Baxter to be a starting outfielder for the club in 2013.
I think most people are in agreement that Baxter is a solid fourth outfielder and nice pinch-hitting option but hardly a guy you want to count on for 150 starts in a season. So, let’s see if we can talk ourselves into this move. Or at the very least not be disgusted by the thought.
In 2012, Baxter was terrific as a pinch-hitter but far less successful when he was give a shot at regular playing time. Here are his splits:
Starter – .224/.317/.367 in 167 PA
As sub – .438/.545/.625 in 44 PA
It’s almost hard to wrap our heads around how good Baxter was coming off the bench last year. Of course, a .538 BABIP will tend to make the rest of your stats look good. But even dismissing that for a second, Baxter had six doubles in 32 ABs as a sub and had 10 BB in 42 PA – both really, really strong marks.
On the flip side, Baxter had just a .280 BABIP as a starter. That’s far from an awful mark, as most hitters are in the .290-.310 range, but there’s certainly room for improvement there. If we look at Baxter’s batted ball profile, it suggests a player who should post higher than normal BABIPs. By far, the balls most likely to fall in for hits are line drives, at around 70 percent of the time. And ground balls (around .240) are much preferable to fly balls (around .130).
Baxter’s batted ball profile in 2012 was: 24.4% LD, 39.3 % GB and 36.3% FB. Let’s compare that to Lucas Duda, who had a 22.5/35.2/42.3 split and posted a .301 BABIP. And Duda’s BABIP was down 25 points from 2011, when he essentially had the same batted ball profile.
Of course, when we add in Baxter’s tremendous work as a sub, his season BABIP checks in at a robust .331 mark. And he was only able to post a .778 OPS with that elevated balls in play mark. That brings to mind two questions – Is the .331 repeatable and is a .778 OPS acceptable from a corner outfielder?
BABIP is a great stat but it is subject to fluke results just like any other statistic. The old rule of thumb was to take line drive percentage and add .120 to come up with what a player’s BABIP “should” have been. This is indicated by xBABIP. Using this method, Baxter’s xBABIP was .364 last year. A few years back, Chris Dutton and Peter Bendix came up with a more advanced xBABIP calculator, where you input many factors. Entering Baxter’s numbers from 2012, we get him with a .322 xBABIP.
FanGraph’s Jeff Zimmerman came up with an even better xBABIP calculator last year. Unfortunately, I could not get the calculator to work this morning. You can find the info here and if anyone could get it to run and post the numbers for Baxter in the comments, that would be great.
Even without the latest calculator, I feel comfortable thinking that Baxter’s BABIP from last year was not out of line from what we should have expected and it’s not unreasonable to assume he could do it again in 2013.
So, can we live with a .778 OPS from an outfield corner?
There were 29 left fielders last year with at least 400 PA and 12 posted an OPS lower than Baxter’s .778 mark. There were 32 right fielders and 12 of those posted an OPS lower than Baxter’s, including old friend Jeff Francoeur, who had a .665 OPS, which ranked 30th.
Assuming Baxter could duplicate his .778 over an entire season he would be below average, somewhere around the 40th percentile, for a corner outfielder. That’s not good but at the same time it’s not horrible, either. You could certainly do worse and for a stop-gap solution it’s hard to imagine being able to do much better.
Of course, it’s far from a sure thing that Baxter could manage that number. There are certainly doubts given how poorly he did as a starter last year, along with his .287 OPS in 22 PA versus LHP.
Yet at the same time, we’re dealing with a very small sample – just 211 PA. And Baxter also had to come back last year after a serious injury to his collarbone and rib cage suffered after he ran full speed into the outfield fence. Perhaps a healthy Baxter getting regular playing time improves in all areas from what he did a year ago.
We do know that Baxter has a nice line drive swing, he’s patient at the plate (11.8 BB%) and he hits RHP well. And we also know that absent the Mets making a big deal or an unexpected promotion of Matt Den Dekker – that Baxter will begin the year as a starter and likely will double his PA from 2012. So, get used to the idea.