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Marlon Byrd or Darin Ruf?

The Phillies signed a very reasonable deal yesterday with Marlon Byrd. But did they get anything they didn't already have?

Round those bases Darin!
Round those bases Darin!

On the surface, the 2 year, $16 million contract for Marlon Byrd seems quite reasonable.  The Phillies bought themselves a right-handed bat to fit within their lefty-heavy lineup.  They did so at a reasonable cost and without handcuffing the franchise for too many years.

But the more I think about this move, the more I don't see the point for two reasons.  First, Byrd is not a difference maker.  Sure, if you think he'll improve upon his age 35 breakout season where he compiled a 4.1 fWAR for the Mets and Pirates, then yes, he can be a difference maker.  Any team would be happy to get a 4 to 5 WAR player.  The Phillies in particular desperately need one of those on offense, as their offense last year featured Chase Utley at 3.9 and then no one else above 1.6.

However, given that Byrd's 4.1 WAR has to be seen as fluky and that Byrd is going to be 36 and 37 for this contract, it's much more reasonable to think that he's going to be a 1 to 2 WAR/year player over the life of his contract.  At $8 million per year, that's not at all overpaying, but it's going to do very little to improve the Phillies over the course of the next two years.  The team needs a lot more than that, and the outfield spot was one place they might have gotten it.

Which brings me to my second point.  The Phillies already have a 1 to 2 WAR/year right fielder.  His name is Darin Ruf.  Last year, Ruf was at 0.1 WAR, so my assessment of him at 1 to 2 is generous, but it allows for full-time play and improvement as he learns the league.

Think it's insane to compare Marlon Byrd to Darin Ruf?  Let's look at what they both did last year:

Marlon Byrd 579 0.291 0.336 0.511 0.353 0.220
Darin Ruf 293 0.247 0.348 0.458 0.324 0.211

The big difference between the two is batting average, something that Byrd beat Ruf in thanks to his higher BABIP.  Nonetheless, Ruf still got on base more (thanks to much more patience  - 11.3% walk rate compared to 5.4%) and had a very similar isolated power percentage.  Given more luck with BABIP for Ruf or a regression for Byrd, the two would have very similar numbers in average and slugging, though Ruf's OBP would put Byrd's to shame.

But what about defense?  Ruf was a disaster in right field, garnering a -12.9 from Fangraphs, which was among the worst in baseball for a right fielder.  But Marlon Byrd was no Willie Mays.  He clocked in at -3.7 on the Fangraphs scale, which is by definition below average as a fielder.  For right fielders, it ranks him right in the middle.

The problem with Byrd though is that he's on the downside of the aging curve, and it's not going well for him with his fielding.  His Fangraphs fielding numbers over the past 4 years have shown a pretty clear trajectory:  12.2, 4.0, 0.4, -3.7.  The picture those numbers paint is obvious: as Byrd is getting older, his fielding is getting worse.  We can certainly hope it improves in his age 36 and 37 seasons, but that would be hoping against reason.  Chances are his defense is going to become Ruf-ian in the next two years.

On the other hand, Ruf is young and learning a new position.  It would be ridiculous to think he'd ever become the fielder Byrd once was, but Ruf certainly might improve with more experience.  The only advanced projection available for him right now shows him doing just that, with a -10.1 rating over twice the playing time.  In contrast, Byrd is projected to fall to -6.2 in less playing time.

What about those projections overall?  The projections Fangraphs has right now are the Steamer projections.  Here's what they show for Byrd and Ruf next year:

Marlon Byrd 439 0.256 0.307 0.413 0.314 0.156 -6.2 0.6
Darin Ruf 565 0.250 0.324 0.424 0.328 0.174 -10.1 1.1

So much of these projections have to be about age and BABIP regression (for Byrd).  In the age department, next year Ruf is going to be 27 while Byrd is going to be 36.  In baseball, that makes a world of difference, especially comparing a guy who is coming off a career year with a guy who will be playing his second year of major league ball.

Which brings me to their last comparison.  In Ruf, the Phillies would have been likely to get Byrd-like performance . . . for about 1/16th of the price of Marlon Byrd.  That $7.5 million difference could go a long way to improving the team in other ways.

To put it bluntly, yesterday the Phillies signed a guy who is going to make a very small difference in 2014 and 2015 even though they already had a very similar guy on the roster for an iota of the price.

That doesn't sound like smart baseball management at all.

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