The U Files Case # 27: The Decline of the Infield

No, I'm not talking about the infield grass maintained by Pete Flynn. It's still lovely. I'm talking about the players that manned the infield positions for the New York Mets the last few years. In 1999 the group John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, and Robin Ventura made the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Best Infield Ever?" In the years since, the infield has remained the strength of the Mets, but last year it was the strength of a team that struggled to score 700 runs.

In 2003, the Mets infield will have no players in common with the 1999 unit. Two players will be held over from 2002, namely first baseman Mo Vaughn and second baseman Roberto Alomar. Both were acquired in the madness of the winter of 2001 in an attempt to repair a unit that went 82-80, which in fact had a projected record of 73-89 based on runs scored and allowed. Both were considered failures in 2003. Alomar was given a contract extension while Vaughn was ordered to lose weight following the season. In fact, Vaughn was not as much of a disappointment as people think.

Mo Vaughn made a name for himself in Boston, where he was a scourge on American League pitching from 1993 through 1998. As a free agent, he signed with the Anaheim Angels before the 1999 season. There he was plagued by injuries from his very first game as an Angel, when he hurt his ankle tripping over the dugout steps. He was an above average hitter in 1999 and 2000, and missed all of 2001 before he was traded to the Mets for pitcher Kevin Appier. For the Mets, his season of 26 home runs and 72 RBI is seen as a disappointment.

In fact, as stat geeks such as myself can't help but remind the rest of the world, RBI are not a great way to evaluate a hitter. The number 72 is big enough to imply he got more or less full playing time, but looking up his at bat total is quite easy. He had 487 AB, a little less than a full season, after missing time with a broken wrist. A season of 72 RBI implies decent but not great power, but checking his SLG is quite easy. Vaughn slugged .456 in 2002, which was, in fact, below expectations. Finally, a factor enters into RBI that the batter does not control: the number of RBI opportunities presented to him. In fact Vaughn had 131 AB with runners in scoring position.

A quick trip to clears up the issue. Vaughn posted OPS+ of 118 and 115 for the Angels, and 116 for the Mets. OPS+ is a measure that compares OPS to the league average. In fact Vaughn put up bigger OBP and SLG numbers for the Angels, but they play in a better park for hitters than the Mets. Edison Field out on the left coast played close to neutral for the years Vaughn was an Angel, posting batting park factors of 100 and 102. 100 is exactly average and 102 slightly favors hitters. Shea Stadium put up batting park factors of 95 and 93, which strongly disfavor batters.

OBP and SLG can be translated to a different park using park factors. In doing so, you use half the park factor as a way of regressing to the mean, if you're using one year park factors. If the factor is 2 points higher than 100, you use the factor 101. If a park factor is seven points below 100, you use a factor 3.5 points below 100 (96.5). First, you translate the numbers from the park you're coming from to a neutral park. Then, you translate the numbers from the neutral park to where you're going. Applying this method to Vaughn's 1999 and 2000 stats, you get this: 1999 OBP .349 SLG .495, 2000 OBP .349, SLG .476. For the Mets, Vaughn's numbers were: OBP .349 and SLG .456.

It is a curious fact that Vaughn's adjusted OBP has been exactly the same for the last three years: .349. His SLG has fallen in increments of 20 points, from .495 to .476 to .456. So, it seems his power does seem to have been slipping. It shall be enlightening to see if Vaughn's offseason effort will bear fruit. Still, Vaughn wasn't a disappointment of the magnitude the media would have you believe. A conservative projection for 2003 puts Vaughn at around a .350 OBP and a .460 SLG.

Our good pal Robbie, on the other hand, was quite the massive disappointment. A man with a career OPS+ of 119, who hadn't had a below average season since 1990, posted an OPS+ of 91. He otherwise endeared himself to New York by making contract demands, sulking, and generally not being a positive force in the clubhouse, for whatever that's worth.

The reason Vaughn came so far under the expectations of many is that their expectations of Vaughn were unfair. The season he had was in fact not all that different than the seasons he had with the Angels. He has noticed a 40 point dropoff in SLG over three years. Vaughn has complied with the Mets demand that he lose weight, and he hopes to regain some lost power. Alomar delivered a performance that falls below any rational expectations. He has come to the point where his skills have begun to erode, however he should have more left in the tank than seasons of 90 percent baseball. Regression to the mean insists he should have a better season by some degree.

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