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To Puig or not to Puig… That is (One) Question

‘Twas the day after Christmas and social media was swirling with rumors of
the White Sox targeting an additional outfielder. A few days later, Rick Hahn stated publicly that the team had room for additions, forcing fans to continue to dream big. Though some have reported the club is instead targeting bullpen help, signing an outfielder remains possible, appears logical, and rings beneficial, warranting further exploration. This following analysis[1]helps answer two questions: (1) should the White Sox sign an outfielder and (2)if so, which one?

(1) Should the White Sox Sign an Outfielder?

Yes, a right fielder.

As currently constructed, the South Siders enter the 2020 season with their best chance, in recent memory, to win the AL Central. Per projections, the Sox are chasing approximately 3.5 fWAR (“WAR”) and 3.5 wins:

AL Central Projections 
Team Projected Total fWAR Projected Actual Wins
Indians 41.5 89
Twins 40.6 88.2
White Sox 38 85.5[2]

Of all positions, right field has the lowest projected WAR:

Position Projected WAR
Catcher 5.1
3B 4.0
LF 2.8
CF 2.7
1B 2.2
SS 2.1
DH 2.1
2B 1.9
RF 1.9

At first, glance, the projected 1.9 WAR from RF represents a huge upgrade for a position that produced -.6 WAR last year.  However, a deeper dive into the metrics, reveals a more telling story and real potential for improvement– a large chunk of the improved WAR comes at the expense of valuable production from CF:

Right Field Projections
Name PA WAR
Nomar Mazara 525 1.5
Luis Robert 105 0.4
Leury Garcia 63 0.0
Eloy Jimenez 7 0.0
Total 700 1.9
Center Field Projections  
Name PA WAR
Luis Robert 511 2.7
Adam Engel 154 0.0
Luis Alexander Basabe 7 0.0
Leury Garcia 28 0.0
Total 700 2.7

Shifting Robert* to RF for 105 plate appearances likely represents current roster optimization and supports improved production from RF.   However, CF production will likely suffer significantly.  While Robert is away, the mice in CF will play… at much lower levels.

*Note there will be more to come soon on Robert’s record-breaking extension of 6 years/$50MM, ensuring he will break camp with the big league club.

Which begs the question, can the Sox upgrade RF, without sacrificing production from CF?  The following benefit analysis, synthesizing “advanced” (overall net WAR) and “standard” metrics demonstrates that it is:

Advanced Metric Benefit Analysis
Free Agent Projected WAR RF WAR Overall Net WAR* Total Wins  
Marcell Ozuna 3.2 + 1.3 +1.7 >2
Yasiel Puig 2.1 + .2 +.6 >1
Nick Castellanos 1.6 – .3 +.1 0

*Note, ” Overall Net Benefit” WAR is greater than “RF” WAR because Luis Robert’s expected production in RF is added back to expected Production in CF.

Advanced analytics support that either Ozuna or Puig as the regular RF  would help bring the White Sox closer to the top of the AL Central– increasing  projected WAR for RF and the team overall.  The advanced analytics case is not as strong for Castellanos (any added value from him results solely from Robert returning to CF).  That said, Castellanos’ low WAR projection results from his  poor defensive rating.[3]  It is worth noting that he is expected to provide significantly more offensive value than the current RF setup ( 9.7 batting WAR; 3.6 batting WAR respectively).

Analysis of standard projections — slash line (batting
average/on base percentage/slugging) and home runs[4]— further illustrates all three potential additions would improve the team offensively:

Standard Metrics Projections Impact Analysis
Player BA/OBP/SLG Home Runs
RF (sans Robert) .257/.316/.459 27
Marcell Ozuna .276/.344/.503 33
Yasiel Puig .268/.336/.481 28
Nick Castellanos .275/.331/.490 26

When compared to current RF projections, each potential free agent is expected to have a higher batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. In addition, Ozuna should offer much improved pop.  Castellanos and Puig’s dongage can be considered a wash with current RF expectations. However, Robert’s increased at-bats in CF, with either aboard, will lead to more bombs from the CF position and the overall team.

Ozuna jumps off the page as the obvious choice.  However,  he is probably the least likely when considering outside factors (e.g., willingness to relegate Mazara to back-up duties and the expected  financial commitment)[5].

The idea of not adding the best player because of money will surely frustrate some, but it probably should not. This is arguably the Sox’ best off-season because they seem to have improved the on-field product to  potentially contend this year, without handcuffing themselves financially in the near or long term.

They have reserved long-term/expensive contracts for elite players (Grandal) or pressing needs in high demand (Keuchel).  There are doubts as to whether Ozuna meets either criteria.  He is a tier below Grandal when considering position. In addition, the supply of pretty good free agent RFs remains high, unlike the supply of pretty good SPs at the time of the Keuchel signing.

Passing on Ozuna to add a RF, who improves the team (admittedly to a lesser degree), but requires less financial commitment  maintains the team’s ability go hard after soon-to-be available consensus elite talents (Mookie Betts and George Springer come to mine immediately).  Last year, chalk this thought up as a laughable excuse, but it’s now much harder to question the Sox’ willingness to spend. So to keep future options open, it makes sense to pursue the other available upgrades, likely requiring less  sacrifice of financial flexibility, discussed below:

(2) Which One?

Yasiel Puig, 1 year/$18MM [6]. As detailed below, Puig adds depth and flexibility needed to make the team better now, gives the front of office another year to evaluate current players while still competing, and will not prevent the Sox from addressing any lingering issues with the best-possible solutions.

Mazara struggles mightily against left-handed pitching.  Both standard and advanced metrics painfully illustrate why almost every bit of his six feet four inches of potential remains untapped.  He becomes much more valuable simply by not playing at all… against left-handed pitching. A right fielder with  moderate success against south paws seems like the logical solution.  The following further highlights Mazara’s struggles and looks to Puig or Castellanos for answers through analysis of standard and advanced lefty/righty career splits [7] :

Career Splits– Standard Analytics
Player LH Pitching RH Pitching
PAs BA/OBP/SLG Home Runs PAs BA/OBP/SLG Home Runs
Mazara 574 .231/.272/.361 15 1615 .271/.337/.462 64
Castellanos 848 .306/.358/.532 26 2798 .268/.316/.453 82
Puig 934 .255/.343/.419 28 2442 .285/.350/.495 102
  Career Splits– Advanced Analytics
Player LH Pitching RH Pitching
PAs WRAA[8] PAs WRAA[8]
Mazara 574 -21.6 1615 26.8
Castellanos 848 41 2442 26.1
Puig 934 9.6 2798 89.4

Yes, Mazara’s numbers against left-handers are that bad;  though his 15 career home runs showcases his oft-referenced potential, leaving a glimmer of hope… I guess.  The advanced metrics really kick him while he’s down–  -21.6 WRAA [8]is just pitiful, and there is no sign of imminent turn-around as he posted -6 WRAA last year.

Now, turning to Castellanos and Puig as possible platoon-mates–  both are right-handed bats, which by default means sign ’em up, right?  Well… kind of. Both fair far better against south paws than Mazara (which is really all that is needed), but only Castellanos’ truly fulfills the righty/lefty matchup prophecy.

A straight Platoon of Castellanos/Mazara makes perfect sense — Mazara has hit righties well– demonstrably better than Castellanos. Conversely, Castellanos has rocked left handed pitching during his career while Mazara has pebbled it.  That said, to justify the financial commitment Castellanos will likely command as a 27-year-old “name” on the open market, the Sox will need to get him more at bats.

A few problems of note:

First, Castellanos has not been good enough against right-handers to warrant the theft of invaluable at bats from the young talent occupying potential positions of opportunity (i.e., Eloy in LF and Moncada in RF).

Next, DH appears locked-down with the addition of Edwin Encarnacion and the assumed preservation plan for Grandal and Abreu.

Finally, Mazara has performed  better against righties in his career, making it difficult to justify sitting him regularly in favor of Castellanos in these scenarios. There do not appear to be enough at bats to justify a long-term commitment to Castellanos[9].

Though Puig’s numbers tell an opposite tale making him a better overall fit, but a lesser straight platoon option.  As both standard and advanced splits above demonstrate, signing Puig just to face left-handers, would not optimize his value.  However, his ability to crush right-handers opens up doors to additional at bats which were closed to Castellanos.

His stronger track record against right-handed pitching justifies a 50/50 split in right field with Mazara.  This helps maximize RF production, while also giving Mazara sufficient opportunity to force the issue (worst case– hedges against the risk of total failure of experiment NOMAR). In addition, Puig’s skill set allows strategic resting of Jimenez against tough right-handers, while improving left field defense. And for  the pretty bow wrapping this all up–  Puig is expected to cost less than Castellanos.

[1] For consistency purposes, all statistics were sourced from Fangraphs.  When possible, Depth Chart projections were used, as the primary objective of the post is to determine what the Sox should do.

[2] 1-2 win increase for Encarnacion based on twitter commentary from @DevanFink of Fangraphs.

[3] Mazara is projected at -6.5 defensive WAR and Castellanos is projected at -15.0 WAR

[4] Homeruns are included due to their true outcome nature. RBIs were intentionally omitted as they are highly dependent on factors
outside hitters’ control (e.g., opportunities, speed of base runner).

[5] Ozuna’s MLBTR Projected Salary: 3 years/$45MM; Fangraphs Projected Salary: 4 years/$70MM

[6] Puig’s MLBTR Projected Salary: 1 year/$8MM; Fangraphs Projected Salary: 3 years/$39MM

[7] Historical stats are used for lefty/righty split analytics, because these projections are not readily available.

[8] WRAA, is the primary statistic used to calculate the hitting component of a player’s wins above replacement. Please note that WRAA is adjusted based on park factor, to calculate batted runs which is used to calculate fWAR.

[9] Castellanos’ MLBTR Projected Salary: 4 years/$58MM; Fangraphs Projected Salary: 4 years/$56MM




2 Comments

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  1. Great post! thats alotta data. Impressive. This settles it for me, Puig is it. I really like that you Included the idea that a short term deal allows them the flexibility to go after Bettis or another longterm RF solution next season while still competing this year.
    Now about that 2nd base WAR projection is that with Madrigal? Starting? Thanks great first post.
    Bob – South Side Sox

  2. thanks. Here is a breakdown of 2B projections per fangraphs (depth charts):

    Madrigal 469 PAs – 1.6 WAR (generally conservative on rookies so these are pretty solid expectations)

    L Garcia – 196 PAs – .3 WAR

    Mendick – 35 PAs – .1 WAR

    It is also worth noting that with the recent acquisition of Donaldson, Twins added 5.0 WAR ~ 4 actual wins– this was a big impact move and goes to show you can maximize value without addressing what appears to be a glaring weakness (sp). One transaction — 4 additional wins of separation.

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