Chris Denorfia: Secretly Kind of Good?

Chris-Denorfia

It was just one game, but it summed up a half-season’s worth of frustration in a tidy, infuriating little package. Eighty-five pitches were thrown against the Mariners in their game against the Indians on July 30 — 69 strikes, 16 balls — and Seattle tallied exactly zero runs and just three hits, bending over to Cleveland in a game that lasted two hours but felt like a lifetime.

It felt like the nadir of an all-too-familiar streak of offensive ineptitude; it made me feel like something, ANYTHING, needed to be done to fix this goddamn offense. Something splashy, something that felt like a move of significance. And, as if the stars had aligned to satiate my impatience, the performance came the night before the trading deadline. Trading Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson was that splashy move. Trading Abraham Almonte for Chris Denorfia was not.

As I noted in the July 31 Email Exchange, the very name “Chris Denorfia” seems to be a signifier for “scrub.” It’s an unassuming name, and Denorfia, at first glance, is a very unassuming player. He was racking up significant playing time in AAA as late as 2009, at age 28. When you’re spending years that should, in theory, be your prime as an average player for the Sacramento River Cats, it’s likely a sign your major league career isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But a trade from Oakland to San Diego, rather than killing his offense, actually revived Denorfia’s career; in 2010, his first true year in the majors (his previous high in plate appearances was 120), Denorfia posted a 113 wRC+ with average defense as a corner outfielder. A quad-A player was suddenly a valuable commodity. He’s hit every year since then, until this year — and that’s why I’d like to posit this move is, quite sneakily, one of the better moves made over this trade deadline, and one that could significantly improve the Mariners’ chances going forward.

An important thing to realize, as I noted in that July 31 Email Exchange and alluded to earlier in this post, is the context within which this move was made. I won’t spend too much time addressing it, but the Mariners outfield has been a nuclear wasteland this season. Cumulatively, Seattle outfielders carry the league’s worst wRC+, checking in at a 78, 22% below league average. Michael Saunders’s injury hasn’t helped matters, but the lack of depth stuck out like a cold sore from Opening Day. Contenders rarely grant roster spots to sub-replacement-level players, let alone start three of them at the same time, but that’s pretty much what the Mariners were doing for not-insignificant stretches of the year.

It’s too much to say the Mariners needed to trade for an outfielder — because the goal of trades are to make a team better, not necessarily improve a specific facet of it — but it was by far the easiest place to upgrade. Stefen Romero, James Jones, and Endy Chavez have all been among the worst players in the MLB this season. By simply acquiring a +1- to +1.5-win player, they’re be making substantial upgrades. Compare that to, say, the catcher position, where you’d need a +3-win player to make the same degree of upgrade. One-win players, obviously, come much cheaper than 3-win players, and Denorfia fits that first mold pretty closely. At least, this year, he does.

There’s an argument for Denorfia being pretty damn underrated, and not at all someone who ought to be perceived as a 1-win player. His 107 wRC+ since the 2010 season equals the marks of Nick Markakis, Carl Crawford, and Alfonso Soriano over the same time span, and his defense eclipses all three of these players, who’ve achieved widespread public regard in the recent past.

It’s kind of obvious why no one knows who Denorfia is (let alone considers him any good): the letters on his old uniform. Nobody gives a shit about the Padres. They’re the Mariners’ soul mates (and bitter rivals), playing in a giant park with boring players and fading out of playoff conversations by Memorial Day. I consider myself something beyond a diehard baseball fan, but I can’t name four players in the Padres’ starting lineup.

The Mariners and Padres share another obvious similarity: their enormous ballparks. Petco suppresses counting stats like crazy, fooling a casual fan into thinking some players are just terrible hitters. Thankfully, wRC+ does the dirty work for us, but one can understand why Denorfia’s .275/.332./.399 since the start of the 2010 doesn’t exactly get people all hot and heavy.

Truth is, though, Denorfia’s earned the benefit of the doubt to this point in his career. Many will view this year as the norm, but I think it ought to be viewed as the aberration.

When assessing the flukiness of a player’s year-to-date performance, there’s two primary places we usually look. The first, and most common, is simply looking at the player’s BABIP. Denorfia’s 2014 BABIP — .295 — is a good 21 points below his career average of .316. It’s not some catastrophic difference, but it’s enough of one to make a difference of some significance. According to DIPS theory, Denorfia’s been some degree of unlucky, in terms of how many of the balls he’s made contact with have dropped for hits, torpedoing his batting average and OBP. We can expect both to rise going forward.

There’s a more glaring indicator here, though, that Denorfia’s performance this year is a fluky one, and that’s his HR/FB rate. This is the other measure of flukiness; generally, a HR/FB rate well below or well above career norms indicates the hitter has been either unlucky or lucky in the amount of fly balls flying over the fence. This year, Denorfia’s HR/FB rate is nearly five times lower than his career average, at 2.3% against a career average of 10.1%. Unless turning 34 suddenly sapped all of his strength, it stands to say that Denorfia’s slugging percentage has been destroyed by a few more fly balls falling just short of the fence than usual.

Yeah, there’s a chance that age has hit Denorfia like Solange hit Jay-Z (ugh). But that would be a REALLY sharp decline. Chances are, Denorfia’s been a good deal of unlucky this year. It’s not like he’s been declining every year; he’s one year removed from a career-season that approached all-star levels of productivity. If he can find even 90% of his career productivity from the plate, the Mariners might have just stumbled upon a surprisingly valuable contributor for virtually nothing. My bet’s on the fact that they just did.

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