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Great Lakes Royals


January 30, 2010 8:43 PM

Rick Ankiel vs. Mark Teahen: A value analysis

The Royals' decision to spend their last little bit of available cash on former Cardinals' pitcher/outfielder/flake Rick Ankiel could hardly be described as an inspired decision.  It was, on the contrary, kept well under wraps by all parties involved. 

In the case of Ankiel's agent Scott Boras, that's particularly surprising.  But I digress.

Dayton Moore's continued decisions to spend all of his money up to his spending limit each of the last two offseasons, especially on a team that probably won't be competitive in either reasons remain perplexing, but for a moment, I will throw out some of the more logical options regarding the team's budget and just look at two players in an either/or type vacuum.

The question here is would the Royals have a better chance to win more games in 2010 with Rick Ankiel, or with Mark Teahen in the lineup?  Chris Gets and Josh Fields will not factor into this analysis, despite being acquired for Teahen.  Teahen's ability to play in the infield, however, will factor in because that versatility is something that was traded along with Teahen.  Ankiel might offer more value as a pitcher than Teahen (...maybe), but for the purposes stated here, Ankiel will be considered in Center and Right field while Teahen will be considered as a Right Fielder and a Third Baseman.

Offensive Value

One thing that seems really obvious to a Royals fan right now is that Teahen's offensive value peaked after he came back up from the minors in 2006, and has steadily declined each season since.  The power surge in 06 proved to be fleeting, but Mark Teahen has developed a whole bunch of offensive issues since then that have nothing to do with power.  His slash stats in Kansas City since 2006:

2006 - 290/357/517
2007 - 285/353/410
2008 - 255/313/402
2009 - 271/325/408

Teahen's 2008 BABIP does jump off the page at you as being well below his career expectation, but digging a little deeper suggests that--while unlikely in 2008--Teahen really started to become a bad-ball chaser in 2009.  In his first three years as a Royal, Teahen walked 8.1, 9.1, and 9.0% of the time.  In the last two years, he's walked 7.4, and 6.5% of the time. 

Teahen has never in his career been a good contact hitter relative to league average, so he needs to be able to draw walks or hit for power to be valuable.  But in 2009, Teahen was far less selective than he had been over his career swinging at a career high % of both balls in the zone, and balls out of the zone.  The explanation could be as simple as Teahen not taking to the coaching of Kevin Seitzer, but in any case, you look at the 271/325/408 line, and if you assume that Teahen doesn't change anything, that seems about as optimistic as possible for his offense this next year.  I think two or three runs below average is a reasonable projection for his offense this year.

Royals fans used to think of Teahen as one of their better on base guys, but given the evidence of the past two years, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the Royals lost an on-base guy in Teahen.  The major offensive skill that you lost with Teahen is a component of OBP, the ability to hit for average.  He's a career .269 hitter with a career .330 OBP, but the OBP has been failing him in recent years because of the declining walk rate.  The ability to hit for average is still there.

Rick Ankiel never had that ability to hit for average. Career-wise, he's a .250 hitter, 20 points lower than Teahen, and because Ankiel has very legitimate power that pitchers have to concern themselves with, his walk rate seems more likely to improve than Teahen's does.  Teahen may be the better "for-average" hitter, but at a "true" level as roughly a .320 OBP, Ankiel's career .311 and potentially improving doesn't look so terrible.

Ankiel is a true free-swinger.  My analysis to this point might have been critical of Teahen's "selective" tendencies, but Ankiel seems to lack any refined sense of the strike zone as a hitter.  He's not an awful bad-ball chaser, but he does seem to swing at any pitch thrown in the strike zone (77% compared to league average 65% according to Fangraphs).  His contact rates are Teahen-esque (below average). 

Where Ankiel seemingly has an advantage over Teahen is that he only sees about 45% of his pitches in the strike zone compared to 51% (career) for Teahen.  This allows him to walk at a very similar rate despite not actually having a comparable sense of the strike zone.  I think you can attribute the difference to his power numbers, and his ability to hit a fastball over 95 MPH.

Ultimately though, the trade off is that Ankiel strikes out a lot, doesn't quite walk at a league average rate, and hits a lot of fly balls, which lowers his ability to get on base via the batted ball.  A .250 hitter with a .315 on base percentage are pretty much what you have in Rick Ankiel offensively.  The wild card is the power.

To be a valuable offensive player, Ankiel needs to slug at least at a .470 clip.  He averaged .515 SLUG as a Cardinal in 2007 and 2008, but due in large part to injury (and probably some natural decline), slugged only .387 in 2009.  I think the projection systems are being very hard on Ankiel's power based on an injury plagued year.  I don't think you're going to get 25 homers out of him, but 17-20 is reasonable in a full season, and that would put my expectation for his slugging percentage between .460 and .490.  Considering everything, he's seems like a league average hitter, or maybe a run above league average.  This is roughly three runs more valuable than Mark Teahen at this point in their careers, offensively.

Some of that offensive gap is closed by Teahen's superior baserunning ability, but not all of it.  We can say safely that a 28 year old Mark Teahen and a 31 year old Rick Ankiel are very, very close in offensive value, and if anyone has an edge, it's Ankiel.

Right Field Defense

Looking at a metric such as UZR is most helpful if we compare the two players in the context of the same position, so I have separated Right Field defense from total defensive value.  In the end, the Royals are expected to start the season with Ankiel in center, and the White Sox are expected to put Teahen at third base so this might be completely moot.  I will discuss that more in a second.

Problem is, there's not a whole lot of data on Ankiel as a Right Fielder, so I'm going to combine his UZR from left field to increase the sample size.  The aggregate offers about one half-season of data, to small to pull any conclusions from, but enough to compare to Teahen's career as a right fielder.

Ankiel is known for having a rocket arm from the outfield, but his advantage over Teahen is more in his range and ability to get to balls.  It's actually Teahen who has been more productive with his outfield arm over the years, compiling 24 outfield assists to Ankiel's 12.  Ankiel's range and athleticism as a corner outfielder make him the better right field defender.  This is debatable, though, if you put a significantly different value on an arm in RF, vs. the same arm in LF or CF.

Defense higher on the spectrum

Once you look at the primary positioning of these two players on the defensive spectrum left of corner outfield, it's clear that Ankiel deserves the slight edge in defense.  Both Teahen and Ankiel can "handle" another position, (Teahen - 3B, Ankiel - CF), neither is a particularly good defensive player there.

In defense of Teahen, his ability to become a good third baseman has been severely hampered by the way the Royals abruptly made him an outfielder and gave him no additional reps at third base for about two seasons.  Back in 2006, Teahen was a valuable defender.  Like his offensive ability, that player doesn't really exist anymore.  Teahen will cost you about a win a season at 3B, defensively.  That's not a whole lot different than what Ankiel will cost you in Center field over a whole year.

There is a less-quantifiable difference with that though, and it's that Ankiel is much less likely to get 150 starts in center (as opposed to RF) as Teahen is to get 150 games at 3B (as opposed to RF).

Ultimately, these players can offer you better than replacement performance at secondary positions, but since this analysis only considers the Royals, Ankiel has a slight advantage on defense due to the presence of Alex Gordon at 3B.  Again, Teahen's ability to be an above average late-inning 1B closes the gap ever so slightly, especially since no one has to deal with Ross Gload's antics anymore.

Conclusion

Ankiel is a slightly better offensive player than Teahen, and a slightly better defensive player.  Teahen has the far more interesting Twitter account, and has always been a particularly enjoyable player to root for.  If the Royals had been considering offering a contract extension to Mark Teahen, his age advantage could have pushed him over the top in this analysis because, really, there's not a whole lot of difference between them.

Power is the largest difference, followed by the fact that one has the range to stand out there in Center at an above-Bloomquist level, and the other can stand at third at a very near-Bloomquist level on the increasingly important scrappy, utility player defensive comparison scale.

But, and this is what I was referring to in defense of the Teahen-to-Sox trade of this November, the Royals saved some money on Teahen, and opted to re-invest it into a player that easily replaces a player in the line-up, a player that the Royals might have screwed up beyond repair anyway.

From this perspective, the Ankiel deal makes a lot of sense for the Royals.

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