When the Mets traded for Collin Cowgill it seemed to be a nice stroke by Sandy Alderson, as it gave Terry Collins a player to platoon in center field with Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Cowgill had a .784 OPS against LHP while Nieuwenhuis had a .740 OPS versus RHP. While it wasn’t going to make fans forget Carlos Beltran, it would be an improvement over the .711 OPS the Mets got out of CF in 2012.
But, have we been selling Cowgill short, deeming him worthwhile as only the short side of a platoon?
It certainly seems that way, as Cowgill has put up a .333/.397/.614 line in 63 PA this Spring, presumably against a mixture of righty and lefty pitchers. Of course, here’s where most people will point out that you cannot trust numbers posted in Florida against inferior pitching and in tiny sample sizes. That’s certainly a very valid point but one that we should not limit to applying to Spring Training games.
Cowgill has displayed a huge split in the majors, posting a .784 OPS against LHP and a .514 OPS versus RHP. Yet that ugly number against righties has occurred in all of 121 PA, spread over two seasons. Should we be so quick to deem Cowgill unable to hit righties in the majors?
Unfortunately, splits at the minor league level are not as easily collected as they are in the majors. Minor League Central is the best free source available and they only have numbers for the past two seasons. In that time, Cowgill has 542 PA versus RHP and has an .855 OPS compared to an .866 OPS in 207 PA against LHP.
We would expect his OPS to fall going from the Pacific Coast League to the majors but would we really expect his OPS against righties to drop 341 points, as it has in his limited time in the show? What’s more reliable, his Triple-A OPS in 542 PA or his MLB OPS in 121 PA?
Neither one of these are samples as big as we would like in order to make a definitive answer. According to FanGraphs, “Batters don’t have their platoon splits stabilize until at least 1,000 plate appearances against each hand (around 2,000 for right-handed batters).” In other words, despite his poor performance to date, it’s still way too early to declare that Cowgill is nothing more than a platoon player.
Generally, righties do not have as big of a platoon split as lefties do. Last year in MLB, RHB posted a .704 OPS against righty pitchers and a .748 OPS against lefties Meanwhile lefties in the majors enjoyed a 106-point edge when they held the platoon advantage, over twice as great as righties.
Of course individuals can certainly have huge splits. You have to go all the way back to last year’s team to find a player on the Mets who batted righty with a greater than expected platoon advantage in Scott Hairston. Last year Hairston had a 128-point OPS edge when he had the platoon advantage.
Let’s assume for a second that Cowgill’s lifetime MLB OPS versus LHP of .784 is his true talent level and what we expect he would hit against them in 2013. At what point would his OPS against RHP have to be in order to make him an everyday player? Last year, MLB center fielders had an average of a .748 OPS.
If Cowgill had a normal – with normal defined as the 2012 MLB split for RHP – platoon rate, he would post a .740 OPS versus righties. Last year, RHB David Wright faced a RHP 69.4% of the time. If Cowgill faced the same percentage of righties and lefties that Wright did, we would expect him to post a .753 OPS in this scenario. We would expect an average center fielder.
Of course there are a lot of assumptions in that scenario and any one of them being off could seriously affect our calculations. Yet if the alternative is a platoon with Nieuwenhuis, isn’t it worthwhile for the Mets to see if Cowgill can match his minor league splits over a full season in the majors?
Recall that Nieuwenhuis when last seen in the majors was completely overwhelmed by the pitching he was facing. Even with Collins using him only *with* the platoon advantage, Nieuwenhuis had a .561 OPS over his final 119 PA, with a 34.5 K%. Then factor in that in Grapefruit League action in 2013, Nieuwenhuis has a .303 OPS with a 32.3 K% in 31 PA.
Nieuwenhuis had the great fortune of coming to the majors and initially doing quite well. When your first impression is a good one, you can last a long time in the majors. For lack of a better phrase, we will call this the Justin Turner effect.
But despite Nieuwenhuis’ .816 OPS in his first 129 PA – thanks to a .440 BABIP!!! – there’s little reason to think that he will be a productive player in the larger half of a platoon. What Nieuwenhuis did when he was first called up was be the beneficiary of an unsustainable hot streak. We saw what happened when regression hit and it simply was neither pretty nor major league caliber.
At this point in time, there’s little reason to expect Nieuwenhuis to consistently hit major league pitching, especially when he’s striking out over 30 percent of the time. When you factor in that scouts have always considered him stretched defensively in center field, it’s hard to make a case for him to see significant playing time in April. Yet Nieuwenhuis is still young enough to improve and he would be better served going to Triple-A, getting experience and playing every day.
Meanwhile, Cowgill has displayed the ability to hit RHP in the minors and his sample size in the majors is too small to draw any definitive conclusions. On top of all that, the other viable remaining option in center field for the Mets is off the table with Matt Den Dekker suffering an injured wrist.
It may very well be that Cowgill ends up platooning in center field with converted infielder Jordany Valdespin, who himself has had an extremely productive run in Grapefruit League action. But given Valdespin’s free-swinging ways and his inability to post a decent OBP without a high AVG, it would appear to be a mistake to give him 400 PA and expect consistent production.
Once you consider all of the options, the choice becomes apparent. The Mets should make Cowgill their starting center fielder, perhaps to be spotted with the occasional start by Valdespin, especially against flame throwing RHP. Valdespin made his name by taking some hard-throwing closers deep with pinch-hit HR. Perhaps he could replicate that magic with spot starts against the Stephen Strasburg and Jeff Samardzija types.
Ultimately, the Mets should use the 2013 season to see if Cowgill can hack it as a full-time player. The only way they can know for sure is by giving him consistent ABs versus RHP. The stars have aligned where it’s actually the best option for the team, too. Collins and the Mets should see if a starting outfielder has fallen into their laps.
What a great trade it would be if the Mets got a starting CF for your run-of-the-mill C-level prospect in Jefry Marte. While Marte is not without some promise, he was a corner infielder with very little chance to make an impact for the Mets. It’s always nice when you can trade your excess to help meet a need, especially minor league depth for major league help.