Some team really should take a chance to give Scott Van Slyke a starting OF job next season. Frankly, I’d find it almost sinful if some team does not go for it.
(Granted, the Dodgers may still use the off-season to relieve their outfield logjam, so maybe Van Slyke works his way into the Dodgers’ own starting lineup. But I’ll suppose for now that that does not happen.)
First, a summary of his career performance:
The 134 wRC+ certainly is impressive. And while he obviously did it only over a limited sample, if he were a full-time player, that would have ranked 24th in 2014; just behind Hanley Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Jose Altuve. Alternatively, among all players with 450+ PA from 2012-2014, Van Slyke’s wRC+ also ranks 24th.
So he certainly has been good in-sample. But what should you expect going forward?
There seem to be three key questions:
(1) Can he hit righties well enough?
(2) What is his true talent BABIP?
(3) What is his true talent ISO?
On the first point, Van Slyke’s career-to-date statline has certainly benefited from heavy use against left-handers. In his career, he’s had slightly over half of his plate appearances against lefties — with a punishing 151 wRC+ — and a more pedestrian 116 wRC+ versus righties. Taking those numbers at face value, for now, even if you re-weighted his plate appearances to be 70% against righties and 30% against lefties, that still comes out to 126.5, aka plenty good. At least in-sample, that’s not that different from Josh Donaldson, who mashes lefties and is comparatively average against righties. And I’m sure most teams would be elated to have Josh Donaldson.
The next question, then, is whether his career-to-date .323 BABIP is his true-talent BABIP. There are some plausible reasons to think “no.” Steamer projects him for .295 BABIP next season, and at least this 2012 version of an xBABIP calculator puts him more in the .270 territory.
I’m somewhat more optimistic on his BABIP, though. His minor league BABIPs were good, after all: .404 over a full season in AA, and .354 and .437 across two half-seasons in AAA. And ZiPS had him projected for .310 BABIP for 2014, and after a .394 actual showing, it will most likely be higher next season.
For simplicity’s sake, suppose you take everything else about Van Slyke’s career-to-date batting as given (BB and K rates, ISO, etc.), and just do the BABIP adjustment. (This is not entirely realistic, but again, simplicity.) What do his stats look like for different BABIP values? You get:
Even on the low end, that’s still a useful player. And even lowering everything by .050 for the platoon adjustment,* even the worst-case scenario is about a league-average LF, which this season posted a .720 OPS. And the more optimistic scenarios put him above average.
* – Remember that 126.5 wRC+ computed earlier? This would be about a .341 wOBA, which is .020 lower than his unadjusted wOBA. .020 wOBA is approximately equal to .050 OPS.
Then the last question is: has he also overachieved on ISO in-sample? Here, I’m a little more convinced that he may have. His minor league ISOs were not much higher than his Major League career-to-date mark (.215), and you see that Steamer has him projected for just .165 ISO next year. It’s also possible Steamer is stingy, as ZiPS had him projected for .170 ISO in 2014, and this will only increase after his actual 2014 performance. But even supposing that increases to something like .182, it still suggests Van Slyke’s true-talent ISO is lower than what he’s shown so far.
Suppose we somewhat conservatively assume Van Slyke’s true talent BABIP is .300, and again take BB and K rates as given, but this time do an ISO adjustment. What would his career-to-date stats look like? You get:
(assuming .300 true-talent BABIP; no platoon adjustment)
Or, if you want a full table that allows BABIP and ISO to vary simultaneously, you get:
(OPS value in cells; no platoon adjustment)
|BABIP||.170 ISO||.180 ISO||.190 ISO||.200 ISO||.210 ISO|
Especially after factoring in some platoon adjustment, you see that there definitely are scenarios where Van Slyke could be below a league-average corner OF, despite his promising performance to date. But these require that he has overachieved in either BABIP or ISO, or both; neither of which is given. Even using the seemingly conservative Steamer projection for Van Slyke’s 2015 performance, he projects for something like 2 WAR over a full season, which is good enough to start. And meanwhile there are many scenarios where he could be better than that. (In-sample he’s been 4.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances!)
Of course the Dodgers know this as well. Even so, I can’t imagine the price to acquire Van Slyke would be that high, and with the upside, it sounds totally reasonable for teams like Cincinnati, Seattle, or the White Sox, who didn’t get nearly enough production from their outfield last year.
Sam is an Oakland A's fan and economist who received his Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 2017.