Consider the following numbers:
|Player, First 2 seasons||PA||AVG||OBP||SLG||wOBA||wRC+||fWAR|
On the surface, this comparison between Gaby Sanchez and former 2006 era Marlins stalwart Dan Uggla looks like much. The batting numbers certainly are similar, but when you look at wRC+, which compared against the league average, show that Sanchez has been a superior hitter thus far in his career. And because of the current disparity in playing time, Sanchez lags behind Uggla’s FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) total. The two players also play different positions, further muddying the comparison.
But the fact that they play different positions is considered by WAR, and we can normalize the issue with different playing time by taking a rate of their performance in their first two seasons in terms of WAR / 600 PA.
Sanchez: 2.94 WAR / 600 PA
Uggla: 3.06 WAR / 600 PA
The decimals are there for posterity, but are essentially irrelevant. These two players performed at very similar rates in their first two or so seasons in the league. And consider that both players were also 26 years old when they broke into the league, and you may get a glimpse of how the Marlins will treat Sanchez throughout the course of his Fish career.
Remembering the Uggla course
Of course, Uggla had his ups and downs during his Marlins career, and the timing of those ups and downs played a big hand in how the Marlins approached Uggla as his career unfolded. Remember, he was a Rookie of the Year contender in 2006 before losing the award to teammate Hanley Ramirez. He then followed that season up with a “disappointing” sophomore campaign that was actually pretty similar to his rookie season, with power compensating for a lack of contact.
His third year, however, was crucial to the development of the team’s relationship with him. He had an All-Star caliber season, culminating in a .260/.360/.514 slash line and a 4.6 fWAR season leading right into his first arbitration award. That arbitration award cost the Marlins a good deal of money and put Uggla on track to earn a good deal of cash during arbitration regardless of his performance. At that point, the Fish would have been wise to either cut him a deal that committed to him for his arbitration years and one free agent season in return for a slight discount on arbitration salaries. The other option was to go with a year-to-year route, observing his player performance as he grew into his age-30 season and either see if a trade at some point could net a return or let him walk in his final team controlled season. Of course, the Fish chose the latter and eventually traded Uggla before his final team controllled season.
This approach is understandable for a player of Uggla’s age and caliber. The team had team control seasons that lasted through the typical player peak of age 27 or 28. The team control took them through an age-31 season, which would probably begin to show some decline in the player’s skill. In addition, Uggla was a Three True Outcomes type of player, and as some studies have shown, those sorts of players are more inclined to precipitous falls in offensive skill as they age. On top of that, there were always concerns about Uggla’s defense at second base. It was understandable that the Fish would go with a year-to-year approach with Uggla given these parameters.
The course of Gaby Sanchez
Will Gaby Sanchez’s course follow the same vein? Well, Sanchez profiles similarly in terms of his age and career output so far compared to Uggla, but he has characteristics that he does not share with Uggla. Sanchez’s peripherals do not match that of an “old-player skills” approach; Sanchez’s career strikeout rate is at 15.6 percent, which is below the two-year average of 18.5 percent. His game has always been predicated on a strong approach at the plate and good contact, leading to more walks (as he has shown this season) and fewer strikeouts. Furthermore, Sanchez’s value is not heavily tied to power either. In fact, overall he is a much more balanced hitter than Uggla was, though that could still change.
Obviously, Sanchez is not a second baseman either, which does have some effect. As Dave Cameron points out here, there is a perception that second baseman are often inferior players overall because they are usually hitters who are in between positions offensively and defensively. Then again, one can imagine the same argument with Sanchez, as the knock on him as a prospect was always that he was a player not good enough defensively to play outside of first base but not strong enough of a hitter to play first base regularly. Right now, he has proven the naysayers wrong, but it could very well be that, if and when his decline begins, it will be far more noticeable that he is ineffective at first base. Remember, he was initially drafted as a catcher but was moved to third base and then first base as it became obvious that he was not athletic enough to handle the first two positions.
As a comparison point, I took a look at all first baseman since 1990 with at least 1000 PA that had accumulated an OPS+ between 100 and 130 in their age 26-31 seasons. These 24 players include guys of little use like Ryan Garko and Ben Broussard to legitimate All-Stars like John Olerud and Paul Konerko. Their average as a group was an OPS+ of 115.81, pretty representative of Sanchez’s 116 so far in his career. On average, these players totaled 1.98 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) per 600 PA. I then looked at the same group of players in their age 32 to 35 seasons and saw that they averaged 1.63 rWAR per 600 PA, a drop of around one third of a win per season. This suggests that Sanchez may have a decent chance of keeping his performance if he remains in the big leagues. The same group of players saw a drop in OPS+ to 109.22.
Many of you might know that I am interested in the idea of trading Sanchez in the near future in order to open a spot at first base for Logan Morrison, who so far has been atrocious as expected in left field. This idea that Sanchez may see an early decline like the one Uggla may be experiencing right now is part of the reason why. Players who get to the big leagues this late are ripe for the arbitration process; teams can control their best seasons at cheaper costs and let them go as they get expensive and worse. For the Marlins’ case, it may be wise to heed this plan more quickly than they did with Uggla because of the presence of the younger Morrison struggling in the outfield.
At the same time, there is an argument that keeping Sanchez, a native Miamian with a true connection to Latin American culture, would be beneficial for the long haul given the Marlins’ move to the new stadium and official switchover to the “Miami Marlins” in 2012. Having a true Miami-born player as part of the core of a team looking to establish itself in the local culture might be helpful for the ball club, even if it is a temporary move. In addition, the way the Marlins handled Uggla was ultimately worthwhile, as the team eked out all of the value they could from the second baseman; why not use that with Sanchez? Ultimately, I’m not sure what the answer is, but my thought is that Sanchez is likely to see a visible decline as we enter his later team control years, and if the Marlins want to be proactive about securing their first base future, they should consider at least consider a different pathway for Sanchez than they did for Uggla despite their similarities.