Yeah, Marco Scutaro, whose 500/.533/.607 line in the National League Championship Series would have been enough to thrust him into the spotlight even if he had not endured a brutal breakup slide by Matt Holliday in Game One. As a tribute to Scutaro’s performance, here are a few relevant thoughts on a spectacularly normal Major League regular.
No Whiff Discipline
As was noted many times on Twitter and elsewhere following Monday night’s game, of the 43 pitches Scutaro swung at in the Championship Series, he only failed to make contact with two of them. This is par for the course for Scutaro, as Jeff Sullivan has written about at FanGraphs more than once this season.
Actually, way back in October of 2011 some other guy invented a junk stat that showed Scutaro to be one of the peskiest hitters in baseball, that is, a hitter whose rate of contact is one of the best in the league relative to how often he actually swings. I am not sure what the technical, baseball-insider’s definition of “pesky hitter” is, but a hitter who seemingly just sits there, waiting for a pitch, but then almost always makes contact when he does swing, making strikeouts very difficult… well that seems like that would be annoying to me.
The importance of plate discipline has been frequently discussed, not just in the obvious sense that strikeouts are bad and walks are good, but as the basis for good hitting in general. There are players who succeed without it, Josh Hamilton being a prominent recent example. However, for other players, like Ben Zobrist or Jose Bautista, having a good plate approach as a basis seems to have been vital to their eventual breakouts.
But Scutaro does not fit that mold, either. His power never blew up, topping out with a .144 ISO back in 2005 with the Oakland Athletics. Unlike Zobrist or Bautista, he’s not actually an offensive force. Scutaro has only been an above-average hitter over two full seasons, in 2009 with a 112 wRC+ and again, in 2011 with a 111 wRC+. For his career, he’s a 95 wRC+.
While Bautista’s initial plate discipline enabled him to become a superstar, Scutaro’s plate approach is what has enabled him to simply remain a useful Major League regular into his mid-30s. Given that he has little power and unexceptional speed, without his approach he might have simply ended up as a league-minimum utility man or been out of the majors by now. For Scutaro, plate discipline is a matter of Major League survival rather than Major League stardom.
One last note on Scutaro’s plate discipline: since reaching its height in 2009, when he walked more than he struck out, Scutaro’s approach has taken a strange turn. Like Derek Jeter, he seems to be aging improperly. As a hitter moves through his thirties, we generally expect his walks and strikeouts to increase. Since 2009, Scutaro’s have decreased each season. What does this mean for Scutaro’s future? I don’t know, but it’s weird.
Marco Scutaro is 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Matt Holliday is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. Has anyone mentioned this?
A common mistake is to project times that are important to oneself personally onto history more generally. I might be doing that here. That said: back in 2008, I was moving from being a baseball fan who was interested in sabermetrics (understood as OBP, OPS, reading Rob Neyer and sometimes Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times) to a more intense involvement — I broadened my blog reading, read The Book, learned about linear weights, wOBA, and so on.
I first started “blogging” after the 2008 season. One should remember that this was before advanced fielding metrics were widely available, for better or worse. One had to either subscribe to Bill James online or wait to see what MGL would tell us. WAR calculations were done by gleaning those metrics, then usually calculating linear weights oneself. The metrics at Baseball Prospectus were in poor repair at the time, and neither FanGraphs nor Baseball Reference were carrying WAR.
In the off-season, bringing up WAR in a team blog thread (outside from the Book Blog) about what free agents were worth was still seen as kind of weird, as one was estimating things using Marcels, self-calculated wOBA , and whatever defensive metrics one could find. That stuff was not really available. It was during this off-season, when FanGraphs finally implemented wOBA (although it had already been available at Stat Corner), and then, even more amazingly, UZR, and thus WAR.
Whatever its limitations, at the time it was a very big deal.
That little history lesson aside, some of the more widely-discussed free agents of the 2008-2009 off-season were Mark Ellis and Orlando Hudson. Way back then, it seemed to the WAR-oriented crowd that these were two interesting free agents to watch, as they were middle infielders with reputations for good gloves. This was back in the day when fielding was considerd to be the New Inefficiency. Ellis, in particular, was considered to be underrated.
When the Athletics signed Ellis to an extremely team friendly deal without testing free agency, there was a howl of protest. Didn’t he know what he was potentially giving up? When Hudson ended up having to take a one-year deal with the Dodgers, didn’t that just show how Type A free agency could screw a guy over?
I’m not trying to embarrass anyone (least of all myself) with this little nostalgia trip. It may all seem rather silly now, but back then people had their reasons for their opinions. What’s interesting to me is that at the same time Ellis and Hudson were the toast to many of us, Marco Scutaro was coming off his first full season as a starter, having just come to Toronto.
He wasn’t a free agent, and he was older than either of them, so the comparison isn’t exact, but this all is just a roundabout way of asking if, back in 2008, would anyone have imagined that by 2012 Marco Scutaro would still be considered not only a starter, but more desirable of a player than either Ellis (who, to be fair, actually had a decent bounce-back season in 2012 after a horrible 2011) or Hudson?
Macro Scutaro. So Money … ball
The last time the Giants went to the World Series, as you may remember, they ended up winning it. During the celebration, of their executives reportedly said “So much for Moneyball.” The Giants apparently felt like they represented the Old School approach as opposed to the computerized approach represented by Michael Lewis’ version of the early-00s Oakland teams. I mean, hey, the 2010 Giants were built by drafting good pitchers and picking up players off of the scrap heap, which sounds totally different than the 2002 As.
Anyway, this isn’t the millionth post about what Moneyball was and was not about. It is a post (sort of) about Marco Scutaro. Yes, he is a former Athletics player, by way of Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the Mets. However, given what I imagine the demographics of this blog’s readership to be, it’s worth at least mentioning that Scutaro may never really have gotten a chance to be a full-time player if it wasn’t for one-time Billy Beane sideman, Moneyball character, and erstwhile Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J. P. Ricciardi.
I don’t know if it was Ricciardi who specifically targeted Scutaro during the 2007-2008 off-season, but it was on his watch. Nor am I here to make a general defense or attack on Riccardi’s time with the Blue Jays. Like every general manager, however the balance added up at the end, he had a mix of good and bad transactions. This was a good one.
The Jays essentially traded nothing for Scutaro, but it wasn’t as though he was believed to be an incredible prize. Going into 2008, Scutaro was a 32-year-old utility player who had gotten a fair bit of playing time in Oakland, but mostly filling in at various positions to rest players to or fill in for their injuries. He was not especially impressive on defense, and outside of a 98 wRC+ in 2006, he had never come close to being a league-average hitter. Yet Ricciardi not only traded for him, but bought out his last two years of arbitration. It wasn’t much money (less than $3 million guaranteed), but it was a strange thing to do for a utility infielder in his early thirties.
Maybe it was luck, but Ricciardi and his people at least thought they saw something, and, it turns out, they did. In 2008, Scutaro did not hit much better than usual, but most metrics had him as an above average defender at second, third, and (mostly) shortstop. He would regress back to average, but in 2008, he at least showed that his glove was acceptable there. In 2009, the Jays left him at shortstop, where he held his own. More importantly for Scutaro’s future, his plate discipline peaked that year (as discussed above), and was the main reason he ended up with a 112 wRC+ and a 4.5 fWAR.
Scutaro then left the Blue Jays for Boston after that season, and although 2009 was an aberration, it did confirm the evidence from 2008 that he was a legitimate regular, and he has been an average or above-average player ever since. In a fitting bit of serendipity, J.P. Ricciardi also left the Blue Jays after 2009, although that was less “free.” Whatever else one wants to say of the Riccardi Years in Toronto, Scutaro will always remain an excellent find.
Context Is Everything
Congratulations to Michael Cuddyer on out-hitting his former teammate, NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro during the regular season, 102 wRC+ to 99 wRC+. Well done, Dan O’Dowd.