Evaluating Santanetti's Christmas Presents

Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and Joe Thatcher weren’t the gifts that you wanted under the tree this Christmas. I don’t know what your wish list included, but you probably weren’t going to get it, because Santanetti simply can’t go out and buy those things for you.

The Indians don’t shop at Nordstrom. They shop at Nordstrom Rack. The Indians aren’t buying Michael Kors handbags at his company store. They’re buying last year’s model from TJ Maxx. The Indians aren’t going to drive a Lexus into your driveway with a giant red bow draped over it. You’re getting a reasonable mid-size car with a good safety rating and a several thousand miles. It’s the nature of the beast in this market and expecting anything more is nothing more than a way to set oneself up for disappointment.

While these “gifts” aren’t going to ring the bell like a Salvation Army collector hopped up on crystal meth, that doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed. My EHC colleague Michael Hattery did a great job summarizing the Mike Napoli signing and what it means to the team. In adding to those sentiments, the Indians are doing what they always do and, some would argue, what they do best.

Napoli is coming off of a down year. Is it due to BABIP variance or is it the aging curve? As Hatttery explained, Napoli’s rate of hard contact took a bit of a tumble last season. Hard contact often means good things for BABIP. Outside of the small sample size of 2006, Napoli posted the lowest line drive rate of his career. It’s worth noting, however, that Napoli has never really been a line drive hitter. He’s a guy that generates a ton of loft and will hit a lot of balls in the air.

Is it a bat speed issue for the 34-year-old? It could be. Napoli posted the highest contact rate on pitches in the zone of his career, but had the worst season of his career against fastballs. Per PITCHf/x data, Napoli was 13 runs below average offensively against four-seam and unclassified fastballs. Among 176 batters with at least 450 plate appearances, Napoli ranked 174th in production against four-seam/unclassified fastballs. What do we make of this? It’s hard to say. He did post the lowest SLG of his career, so that could be an issue. He also had a .268 BABIP, which was a big departure from the .307 BABIP of his career.

Are there red flags with Napoli? Of course there are. If there weren’t any red flags, he wouldn’t have fallen to a small-market team for the maximum price of $10 million. This past season was the first of Napoli’s career in which he was below league average offensively with a 98 wRC+. Steamer projections are not bullish on his power, showing Napoli with a sub-.400 SLG for the first time in his career.

One underrated element of Napoli’s game is his patience at the plate. Napoli actually rated better than Carlos Santana in pitches per plate appearance. Napoli saw 4.35 pitches per PA and Santana saw 4.34. Among hitters with at least 450 plate appearances last season, the Indians have the third and fifth-most patient hitters from last season. There’s value in that.

The notoriously risk-averse Indians are taking an affordable risk in Napoli. If he bounces back and becomes a 2.4-win player, like he was in 2014, he’s a brilliant gamble. If he hovers in the 0.7-win range like he did last season, he provides somewhere around $5.5 million in value. That would be disappointing and it would probably be the floor for Napoli, depending on what you think of the Steamer projections. If he’s in-between, the Indians should break even or net some value on this signing.

There’s also Rajai Davis, a player that has a particular set of skills that the Indians need right now. The unfortunate thing for the Indians is that they likely had a plan in place for this offseason, but the late October announcement that Michael Brantley needed surgery stopped everything in its tracks. The focus shifted from upgrading center field and third base to upgrading the outfield as a whole. With high-priced talent like Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, and Justin Upton commanding large sums of money, the Indians went the Big Lots route and scooped up guys like Collin Cowgill, Robbie Grossman, Shane Robinson, and Joey Butler.

Davis is a step above those guys, akin to something you could find for a reasonable price this holiday season at Target. Like a Target brand Room Essentials item. It’s got a certain level of quality, though nobody is going to walk into your apartment or home and be like, “I love that table!” Davis is a useful, practical piece that makes a lot of sense for the Indians. He doesn’t excel at playing any outfield position, but he’s capable of playing all three. He has good offensive value on the short side of the platoon against left-handed pitching, but he’s not “unplayably bad” against same-side pitching. He can run a little, he has a moderate amount of pop, and, once again, is coming off of a season with some statistical anomalies.

Davis’s strikeout rate hopped from 15.2 percent to 20.5 percent. As another mid-30s hitter, some may take this as a sign of some bat speed issues. But, if you look deeper, Davis made a similar amount of contact to his career numbers and actually made more contact on pitches in the zone than in past seasons. He also chased pitches outside the zone with the lowest frequency of his career, save for his 2006 season with 17 plate appearances. This bump in strikeouts truly does appear to be an anomaly. An increase in balls in play should bump Davis’s batting average into the .265-.270 range, despite the rather low Steamer projection of .241. The Steamer projection also negates his platoon value by giving him 553 plate appearances, which would be significantly more than any of the past five seasons.

One of the things that gets lost on Indians fans is the ability to be average both offensively and defensively. Rajai Davis is one of those players. He’s not spectacular in any facet of the game, but being consistently average produces net value. As a player with a 101 wRC+, three defensive runs saved, and an 8.2 UZR/150, Davis was a 1.8-win player per Fangraphs last season. That’s equivalent to a $14.2 million player. The Indians are paying him a base of $5.25 million with incentives. Even with the possibility of an aging curve, Davis should still net surplus value, even if the incentives are met.

Shifting gears to the bullpen, the Indians added Joe Thatcher to the mix. Thatcher sports the 15th-highest strikeout percentage against left-handed batters since 2009 with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Thatcher throws left-handed and fills a need as a second lefty behind Kyle Crockett in the Indians bullpen. Thatcher was signed to a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite, which means that the Indians are not on the hook for any consequential money if he fails to make the roster. If he makes it, given the cost of bullpen arms in free agency, $1 million will be a steal. Remember that former punching bag Tony Sipp just got three years, $18 million to occupy Thatcher’s old role in Houston.

Why was Thatcher available? There are probably a number of reasons. One of them is that his walk rate against same-side batters spiked in a big way last season. Thatcher owned an 18/1 K/BB rate against left-handed batters in 2014. It was 19/10 in 2015. Walking 10 of the 64 batters you are supposed to retire isn’t a good look. But, for the Indians, this is how you find value. You take a player with significant past success in a role and look for him to return to said success with some tweaks and some variance.

Public perception of these moves is unquestionably low. Go look at the @Indians Twitter mentions or, God forbid, the Facebook comments on the SportsTime Ohio or Indians pages. Unfortunately, outside of earth-shattering moves, the Indians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t in the court of public opinion. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see why these moves make sense, but it takes enough effort that the average fan will dismiss all of these additions because these are players perceived to be “over the hill” “washed up” mid-30s veterans.

The truth is, the Indians have probably added somewhere between 2.5 and three wins with these moves. Napoli will represent a defensive upgrade to Carlos Santana at first base and will also be a key cog in the middle of the lineup. Davis is versatile and is clearly a better player than Jerry Sands and some of the others in the mix for outfield reps. Thatcher is a risk-free gamble to improve a bullpen that had a need for a second lefty. Furthermore, proven Major Leaguers like Napoli and Davis mitigate the need for fringe players like Sands, Cowgill, and Butler. And, the Indians designated Chris Johnson for assignment, which is very clearly addition by subtraction. As Nick Wheatley-Schaller noted, the move ADDED 0.7 fWAR to the Indians depth chart at Fangraphs.

Smart spending is the only option this offseason. Most fans don’t realize this, but the Indians are going to have a nine-figure payroll in the very near future. They had payroll flexibility this offseason, but that luxury dries up in a hurry in the coming years. Per Baseball-Reference, the Indians are projected to have a 2017 payroll of $87.8 million. By 2020, that number is projected out to $122.1 million. This is with projected arbitration costs for players like Danny Salazar, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, and others. This doesn’t even take into account the possibility of buying up arb and free agent years for guys like Salazar and Lindor.

All in all, these moves make sense, they fit the financial landscape of the team, and they improved the ballclub. These tidings didn’t bring a whole lot of joy, but I’m certainly more comfortable with the composition of the team than I was before.
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