By The Numbers: Eric Patterson

Going into the 2009 season, Eric Patterson had found considerable success in the minor leagues, but had never been able to duplicate that success at the major league level. The utilityman had a big September for the Oakland A's to break that trend. Nathaniel Stoltz weighs in on what can be expected of Patterson in 2010 and what role he could play in the A's regular line-up.

Entering 2009, Eric Patterson was something of an enigma.

He had hit .311/.358/.484 with 50 steals in less than two full years in Triple-A, yet had floundered at a .196/.277/.254 clip with 10 steals in 50 major league games.

The level of competition may be greater in MLB than Triple-A, but it shouldn't be enough to turn an MVP-caliber hitter into someone not worthy of a roster spot. Being a statistically minded analyst, I attributed Patterson's big league struggles to small sample size and some short-term adjustment issues, believing that his skills would shine through once he relaxed and was given a defined role in the majors. Many others thought it was going to be a career-long struggle for Patterson, citing an inability to hit fastballs, a long swing and defensive awkwardness as the cause of his major league trouble.

We get into this "small sample size or skill issue" debate quite a bit in the analysis community when a strong minor league performer struggles in the majors; however, the athletic Patterson and his broad skill set don't constitute the typical "Quad-A" player. These players are usually one-dimensional sluggers like Jack Cust. That's not to say "I told you so!" on Patterson. My line of thought certainly has been incorrect with a Quad-A player before (Joe Thurston's poor 2009 is a great example; I thought he could hit .280 in the majors).

However, it's true that plenty of players have struggled early in their big league careers before catching fire. Chase Utley hit .239/.322/.373 in 43 2003 games, and he was about to turn 25 at the time; now he's the best second baseman in baseball (in my opinion). Astros center fielder Michael Bourn was perhaps the worst starting position player in MLB in 2008 (.229/.288/.300), but he became a very valuable player in 2009. Pirates outfielder Garrett Jones hit .208/.262/.338 in 31 games with Minnesota in 2007, and he was already 26 at the time. Two years later, the minor league slugger resurfaced in Pittsburgh and became one of the most feared sluggers in the NL Central.

It's silly to completely write someone off with less than 100 MLB games under their belt, particularly if that player has a strong minor league track record. Denied a big league shot for much of the season, Patterson had a huge 2009 at Triple-A Sacramento, hitting .307/.376/.494 with a whopping 43 steals while seeing time all over the diamond. Patterson was occasionally recalled to the A's as a 25th man option during the season, seeing one game of action in April (1-for-4) and another in May (0-for-4), struggling in a brief spurt of action following the Matt Holliday trade in July (4-for-19 with a double, no walks, and eight strikeouts). Other than some brief bench action (1-for-6 in five games) in the majors, Patterson spent most of August back in Sacramento.

He returned in September a completely different player. Handed a semi-regular left field job, Patterson went 17-for-47 with three doubles, a triple, a home run, 13 walks, nine strikeouts and four stolen bases. He hit a whopping .362/.492/.489 for the month. Patterson finished his 2009 MLB season with a .287/.373/.394 line, and also contributed six steals in 39 games.

Of course, 39 games in 2009 aren't any larger of a sample than the 50 poor games he played in the majors prior to last year, but they make a lot more sense next to his Triple-A numbers. A player who hits at an All-Star level in Triple-A can reasonably be expected to at least be average in the majors, at least until they prove otherwise with extensive major league failure. It's pretty easy to guess at what could have caused Patterson trouble very early in his career. He's had to deal with shifting between second base and all three outfield positions, he's never been given a starting role (until September 2009, when he started playing well), and he's constantly been in danger of being shipped back to the minors.

Coming off the bench is very difficult. Coming off the bench when your job is on the line with just an at-bat or two has to be mentally stressful. Multiple observers noted that Patterson had trouble with fastballs in the majors. But could Patterson really be that bad at hitting fastballs? After all, most pitchers throw their heaters at least 60% of the time, and Triple-A pitchers often have less developed repertoires, so they lean on the pitch even more heavily than MLB hurlers. For Patterson to have attained such great Triple-A success, he must have hit fastballs at a decent clip.

According to fangraphs.com's Pitch Type Linear Weights, Patterson struggled with curves and sliders far more than fastballs in 2008, although he was very poor with fastballs as well. In 2009, the numbers did back the fans up: Patterson came in above-average against every pitch except fastballs, although he did show some improvement there as well (-1.48 runs below average per 100 fastballs in 2008; -0.96 in 2009).

Is Patterson going to keep hitting .362/.492/.489? No way. But I think it reasonable to say he can hit in the .265-.295 range, with a good amount of walks and some gap power. I would imagine that if he was to get a regular role in the majors in 2010, he'd hit something like .280/.350/.410, chipping in 30 or more steals as well. In short, Patterson's a solid player. Not a star, but definitely solid.

With that established, where does he fit on the 2010 Oakland Athletics? With Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney looking like the starting outfield, Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham in the running for fourth outfielder, and Jack Cust recently re-signed to occupy the DH slot, what do the A's do with Patterson?

I've got a solution. Play him at third base.

It's the A's weakest position in terms of depth. Eric Chavez and Dallas McPherson were out nearly all of 2009 due to injuries, and should be kept to DH or first base duty and only spot work at third. Jake Fox's defense at third base leaves much to be desired. Adrian Cardenas needs at least a few more months in Sacramento before he's big league ready.

Why not Patterson? He played third down the stretch at Sacramento and acquitted himself well for a player just learning the position: TotalZone numbers said he was average at the position with Sacramento. Patterson is very athletic, and may succeed better at a position that is based more on reaction than route-running, an area which he struggled at while playing second base and the outfield.

Patterson could play third against right-handed pitchers, and the A's could work Jake Fox's bat into the lineup against lefties. If Mark Ellis or an outfielder needed a day off, Patterson could also play there, much like Chone Figgins used to do with the Angels: play third usually, but slide somewhere else when needed. Patterson is considered an above-average corner outfielder, and a below-average but playable second baseman/center fielder.

If he can sustain his OBP above .350, Patterson would also make sense as a leadoff man against right-handed pitchers, given his ability to draw walks and wreak havoc on the bases. His 9/13 K/BB ratio last September showed signs he was ready for such a role, as he exhibited excellent control of the strike zone. Patterson may seem like a square peg in a round hole, but with third base wide open and the hurdle of big league success cleared, it seems like a match made in heaven to me.

To read more from Nathaniel, visit his blog at The Bleacher Report.


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