Jonesing for some (Ryan) Church's (defense)

The recent non-tender list provided us with a slew of candidates whose incumbent teams were not interested in reacquiring via the arbitration process. Usually, these players are non-tendered for a good reason, primarily because they are not good enough to earn the salary from arbitration in the free agent market. Teams will often release players and attempt to resign them at more team-friendly values.

Of course, others are simply misvalued by their teams, and that is where the bargains can be found. This is perfect for a club like the Marlins, who need all the bargains they can get. With the departure of Ross Gload (enjoy, Philadelphia!), a spot just opened on the bench, and one player in particular caught my eye is Ryan Church, formerly of the Atlanta Braves. Church fits the team’s bill quite nicely, and I wanted to quickly go into why the Marlins should pursue him.

Ryan Church has not had regular playing time for quite some time, though he almost broke the 400 PA mark this season. However, there is an argument to be made that he should have maintained regular playing time since 2006. In 2006, Church posted a .383 wOBA in 230 PA, en route to a starting job in 2007 for the Washington Nationals. That season, he did not disappoint either, putting a .351 wOBA in 530 PA, worth 11 runs above average after the park adjustment. He was then traded over to the New York Mets as part of the deal for Lastings Milledge, but he never received a ton of playing time due to a concussion he suffered early in the season. Since then, he’s been more or less a part time player.

Here’s an example of how teams have evaluated the value of Church since 2007. Just this past season, he was dealt from New York to Atlanta for Jeff Francoeur. Yes, the replacement level Jeff Francoeur. The Jeff Francoeur that, over the last two seasons, has been worth -1.2 WAR. That guy.

Clearly teams are not seeing Church’s value. To some extent, that may be justified. This past season, Church’s power underwent a precipitous decline, from a .160 adjusted ISO in 2008 to a .111 ISO in 2009. Church maintained the batting average clip that he has had the last four seasons, once again batting in the .270’s region, but his walks went down (from 8.4% to 6.7% UIBB%). Overall, Church’s batting line ended at a meager .273/.338/.384, worth three runs below average in his playing time.

Of course, while these offensive problems cannot be fully dismissed, Church can supplement a struggle offensively with consistently good defensive play. Church has played one season’s worth of defensive games in right field and has proven to be more than good, with a UZR/150 of 14.2. He’s played a bit less than a full season in left and center field and has more than held his own, posting a UZR/150 of 5.7 and 3.7 runs at left and center respectively. The Fans tend to agree as well. In 2006 and 2007, the Nationals fans ranked Church as a slightly below average center and left fielder, but in 2008 Church was ranked at 68 on a 100 scale as a right fielder by Mets fans. This trend continued this season, as Church was rated around 3.6 on a 5 scale, among the company of players like Austin Kearns, Nelson Cruz, and Rocco Baldelli among right fielders.

For the Marlins, the things of importance for evaluating Church would be his platoon splits, as his acquisition could allow the team to move Chris Coghlan down to second base and play Church/Brett Carroll at the either left or right field. Well, Church for his career holds an .813 OPS against righties and a career OPS split of .113. The average split for lefty batters versus lefties and righies was .067 last season, and a three-year weighted average of the split was .076. Doing a quick weighing of Church’s last three OPS splits, you actually get an expected OPS split of .112, similar to last year. If we utilize Church well as a platoon partner, he can certainly produce against righties.

On to the projections. For offense, I’ll defer to the better placed projection systems for their knowledge rather than using my own. The Fans and Bill James both seem to agree on around a .333 wOBA for Church, making him worth somewhere between zero and two runs above average offensively. CHONE, who has been the most accurate system of the last few seasons (by a bit), is more pessimistic at -4 runs in 416 PA. This translates to a .318 wOBA. I’d be willing to take the average and go with a .328 wOBA (weighing James, CHONE, and the Fans equally). At my suggested 432 PA of platoon playing time, that comes out to about one run below average.

On defense, I did my own projections and compared them to two others. CHONE has his TotalZone projection for Church at exactly average, but I would say that it’s likely +1 in 150 games. Friend of the Maniac Steve Sommer has done his own projections with proper weighting and incorporating the FSR as well, and has a UZR/150 projected at 4.6 runs. I myself have Church at 8.3 runs, but I regress less than those sources. I think Steve’s middle ground is exactly the average of the three, so we can go with that projection. At that rate, Church would rack up 3.5 runs above average defensively. Tally that up and you get:

-0.7 wRAA + 3.5 defense + -5.3 pos. adj. (corner OF) + 14.4 replacement adj. = 11.9 Runs Above Average, or 1.2 WAR

Same sort of deal as the other two players I projected at similar playing time. The Marlins have a slew of decent lefty outfielders who can hit and replace Chris Coghlan in the corners. He can safely move to the infield. Church provides bonus insurance in case of injury to the primary outfielders as well, as he’s very capable at each outfield position. And, like Endy Chavez and Eric Hinske, Church can likely be had on the cheap. Do it now, Marlins. There’s a lot of these players available; please, please sign one of them for this role.

Tags: Miami Marlins Ryan Church

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