The following two players put up these numbers during their time as Florida Marlins through 2010 (numbers courtesy of Baseball-Reference). The numbers involved are runs above average components of Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement (rWAR). Can you guess which one is which?
*Batting runs include runs involved with avoiding double plays and reaching on error
Knowing that the two players involved were Chris Coghlan and Cameron Maybin, it should be obvious that Player 1 is Coghlan and Player 2 is Maybin. What should not be obvious via from an initial look is the slight difference between the two players; according to rWAR, Coghlan rated as only one win better than Maybin through the 2010 season. This is especially interesting when you consider the following additional numbers.
What do these numbers mean? It essentially said that the Marlins got only one more win above replacement out of Coghlan, but that win almost entirely tied to playing time and not performance. When you take a look at both players, they produced WAR at very similar rates; through 2010, Coghlan averaged 1.9 WAR per 600 PA, while Maybin averaged 2.1 WAR per that same time period. It’s worth noting also that FanGraphs’ WAR shows a similar difference primarily based on replacement runs and playing time, not performance.
This comparison does make you ponder one question: why were the Marlins so willing to trade Maybin and so willing to dub Coghlan the center fielder of the future when both players apparently were similar?
The RoY Effect
Clearly part of the reason why the Marlins preferred Coghlan over Maybin is the fact that Coghlan had done something before, whereas Maybin had been largely unproven over parts of three seasons. The biggest reason why the Fish were so patient with Coghlan was that his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2009 was still fresh in their minds. Neither player distinguished himself from the other during their early season slumps.
Even among those two awful numbers, Maybin was performing slightly better than Coghlan. Yet another week passed and it was Maybin who was demoted. Coghlan had had a .520/.571/.800 start to his June, a torrid start to what would end up being a torrid month for him before an average July and the knee injury put him out for the rest of the season.
If the Marlins were planning on demoting one of the two players, it would be understandable that the guy on the hot streak would continue on in the majors. But part of the reason why the Fish were likely patient enough to watch Coghlan struggle so much was that they saw him hit so well the season before. This is totally understandable; in certain situations, you have to go with the known quantity, even if you know (as I and many other Marlins fans knew) that Coghlan could not maintain the ridiculous pace he put up in late 2009.
Defense and other intangible effects
One of the other reasons why the Marlins ignored the production of Maybin was that his work was far more intangible. Both players were decent on the basepaths, but Maybin clearly outshined Coghlan with his aggressive playstyle. Whenever he was on base and Hanley Ramirez or another one of the middle-of-the-lineup players got a base hit, you almost could feel that Maybin was going to stretch his advancement out to third base with his speed. Coghlan’s play on the bases was more subtle, but still visible, as prior to this season he had proven himself to be a pretty smart baserunner.
Perhaps the biggest “intangible” (not easily visible by statistics) that Maybin had over Coghlan was his defense. The Fans thought otherwise about Maybin’s defensive play, but I think the majority of us would agree that Cameron Maybin was a significant defensive upgrade over Chris Coghlan. TotalZone had him as a +4 run defender in his time in Florida, whereas Coghlan was rated as a -3 defender before 2011. Keep in mind that not only did Maybin rate better as a defender, but he did so at a more difficult and valuable position.
Why, then, did the Marlins still give up on Maybin and hold such confidence in Coghlan? Well, it is clear that the Marlins brass in the front office have great faith in Coghlan’s ability to adapt defensively based on his on-the-fly work in left field. The stats and the eyes of many casual observers saw a player who slowly improving but still had much to learn about playing the outfield, while looking at Maybin would easily tell the story of a player who had the tools to be a great defender but did not yet have the instincts to do so. The Marlins perhaps did not consider the extent of the gap between the two defenders to start with, but were confident that Coghlan could close said gap quickly. Many others disagreed, especially given that Coghlan was coming off a knee injury.
The most obvious aspect of the difference between the two was their hitting, and in particular the major problem Maybin had with strikeouts. That was perhaps the most visible aspect of his game, and it may have been a strong indicator for the Marlins of future problems at the plate. This may have ultimately been the best reason for the Marlins to give up on Maybin, as his strikeout problems are significant enough that they may keep him from ever being an effective player in the majors. His alarming strikeout rate, combined with his average at best power and walk rates, make him too dependent on balls in play to be consistently successful in the majors.
Coghlan, on the other hand, displyed the sort of strong skillset that a power-light player had to show. He had a relatively low strikeout rate combined with a solid walk rate to go along with his unsustainable BABIP. If you had to choose a plate approach, it would be his. Unfortunately, that walk rate has dropped as a result of an ever-increasing swing rate, something that has marginalized his ability to get on base.
Not gloom and doom yet
Before you start thinking that I am insinuating that Coghlan is done as a major leaguer, take a look at these numbers.
Right now, it’s clear Coghlan has a simple problem with BABIP. Sure, it could appear as if he “fixed” the issue in the minors, but it’s much more likely that he simply is experiencing a slump and will regress in due time. A lot can happen even within 300 PA, and Coghlan probably just needs his luck to go up. The only negative peripheral is his declining walk rate, but everything else can be solidly explained by the fact that he just isn’t getting singles like he used to. He may yet turn out just fine, but the Marlins may ultimately never get the player they thought they had after his Rookie of the Year season.