As Marlins fans, we might have to eventually accept the harshest of truths. This truth may be harsher than the fact that the team is once again trading away talent, harsher than the fact that Chris Coghlan is may still be seen as a left fielder, and harsher perhaps than even the possibility that the Marlins will have to reload a great pitching staff once again in a few years.
This truth, my friends, is that Emilio Bonifacio may see some significant playing time next season.
Oh, the horror!
However, even though I was “that guy,” the one who railed against Bonifacio day and night in this space until we finally acquired Nick Johnson and benched his speedy behind for the rest of the year (mostly), I do not want to be unfair to him. Boni will be 25 years old next season, so he still has some growth and projection in him, even though his skillset is limited. So today, I’m going to play a game, the purpose of which is to figure out what Bonifacio can do to make himself an adequate player for next season. Let’s try to build a better Bonifacio!
Like I said earlier, Bonifacio’s offensive skillset is very limited. Basically, he has speed as his prime tool, and he does not seem to have much else. Still, there is one thing about this tool that makes me think he can improve from last year. The first step in building a better Bonifacio is…
Bump up the BABIP!
This season, Bonifacio’s BABIP was .314 (I included Bonifacio’s home run, since it was an inside-the-park homer). For most players, I would say that is within the range of normal. But for a player with his kind of exceptional speed, I have to believe he can be better than that. With Boni’s speed alone, we could expect a player with a BABIP of at least .330 consistently, barring luck on either side. Among players with a speed score of greater than 7 this season, Bonifacio’s BABIP was second to last, only ahead of Elvis Andrus and slightly behind Shane Victorino. If I pare the data down further, splitting it by “slap hitter” status (defined just now by me as players with a speed score of at least 6 and an ISO of less than .120), you see that Bonifacio still ranks on the low end of that scale.
Using the xBABIP calculator provided by the Hardball Times, I plugged in Bonifacio’s batted ball data as given by FanGraphs and got an expected BABIP of .347. Personally, I believe that is a bit high, but just plugging that in instead of his .314 from this season yields a vastly improved batting line. A .347 BABIP would add 12 hits to Bonifacio’s total. If all of them were singles, that would transform his batting line into .278/.327/.308. That would put his wOBA in the .298 range, a .020 improvement from his .277 line this season. That calculates to a 14-run difference in value for this season, were it to have happened.
Like I said, I expect that BABIP to be a bit lower in actuality, but the point stands. I believe that Bonifacio is due for some better luck with balls in play next year. The question will be how often he puts it in play, which brings me to my next point.
Swing less and make more contact!
It seems like an easy thing to say, but speedy slap hitters can’t do what they do without making more contact. This season, Bonifacio made just about league average contact with the ball on the year. For most players, that would not be an issue; the Marlins had three other players making about average contact this season. But for a player like Bonifacio, who provides no power, contact is extremely important. Now, this may be the domain of the hitting coach to deal with; I could not begin to say how a player can improve on contact. Last season, former hitting coach Jim Presley said he noted some mechanical problems with Bonifacio, along with an issue of Bonifacio swinging at too many high pitches.
Part of the way he can make more contact is if he improves his plate discipline, but I won’t hold my breath for that. I’ve mentioned before that the only way for hitters with Bonifacio’s skillset to become viable major league hitters is to walk a lot more. I suspect Boni’s discipline will improve a bit more with age, but I won’t expect much change for next year. Bill James’ projections have Bonifacio at a walk rate of 6.9%, and CHONE has him at 7.1%, both right around this season’s average.
My suggestion to improve his discipline? Swing less! Punchless players like Luis Castillo, Marco Scutaro, and Chone Figgins have been making a living hitting by simply swinging less. If you take more pitches, regardless of whether they are strikes or balls, you are bound to walk more often because pitchers still need to mix up locations in and out of the zone. Of course, players like Castillo and Figgins have high contact rates, so Boni would have to improve in that area, but it is worth a shot and may keep Bonifacio from striking out so often.
Steal smart, or don’t steal at all!
Yesterday I pointed out that Bonifacio was worth 4.5 runs on the basepaths if you did not include his steal attempts. This stems from that observation. Bonifacio is fast enough that on almost any hit, he will stretch an extra base without much effort. It is his sole tool. The issue he had last year was that he was not being smart on the bases when it came to stealing. He broke even on steal success, but was picked off a staggering eight times.
I’m sure the new coaching staff will work with him on stealing to make sure that he does not hurt the team with his running. I’m certain that they will focus on pickoff prevention and reading a pitcher’s moves to first base. I am not in the realm of determining how to do that. But what I can advise is that Bonifacio needs to either be more selective or more successful (this is where the coaching and his natural talent should kick in). If Bonifacio got on base more often, as I suspect he will with an expected increase in BABIP, he would be in line for more opportunities to do his “helmet falling off while running hard” thing around the bases, even if he hits closer to the bottom of the order as he should. All Boni would have to do is to maintain a neutral rating on stealing, and he could easily be worth six to eight runs over a full season on non-stealing baserunning. That would severely mitigate his hampered offensive arsenal.
However, if he keeps running himself off the bases with pickoffs and/or failed steal attempts, he won’t get to stretch from first to third on routine singles and provide significant value with his only tool.
A model for him
I present to you Elvis Andrus, a player who displayed very little power in the minors and had a lot of speed. The two are very similar players offensively, though Andrus may be developing more power (he is, after all just 21 years old). Both hitters put it on the ground a lot, both use their speed to try and beat out bunts and infield hits, and both lack significant power. Andrus had an even lower BABIP, drew six more walks in 32 more PA, and displayed more power on his way to a .267/.329/.373 batting line and a .322 wOBA. Outside of the slugging, the line is very similar to something Boni can achieve.
An improvement in his BABIP and a few more pitches looked at could easily put Boni near that OBP. Even without an improvement on slugging, a line of .270/.325/.300 yields a .295 wOBA. Over 600 PA, that would be an awful 17 runs below average. However, if he can rack up something like seven runs on baserunning, a combination of being on base more often and getting more playing time, that minimizes the damage to a more manageable -8 runs.
His value would then come down to defense. I’ve discussed this before, but I believe he can actually be an adequate defender just based on his speed. Ultimately, I think Bonifacio would be better suited in the outfield, but sticking him anywhere in that area would be severely limiting the team’s offensive options. Leaving him at third base, we could looking at a player who is a -5 defender at third (earlier in the year, I projected Boni based on his minor league numbers to be a -5 defender at second, so I don’t feel uncomfortable with this label).
At 600 PA and 155 defensive games, that comes out to 9.4 runs above replacement, or 0.9 WAR. And that was one of the best cases for Bonifacio. Hey, I tried. He may still be awful.