Is Colby Rasmus Still in Need of a Platoon Partner?

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When Colby Rasmus was acquired from the Cardinals for spare parts just before the 2011 Trade Deadline, the Blue Jays were envisioning that Rasmus would turn into a long-term solution in centre field. . They had dealt then longest-tenured Blue Jay Vernon Wells to the Angels the previous winter after he had gone from being an All-Star calibre player to being a mediocre one with one of the worst contracts in baseball history attached to his name. As a result, the Blue Jays employed six centre fielders over the first four months of the 2011 season, with only three of those receiving more than 100 innings at the position.

Hoping for some stability, the Blue Jays took advantage of a toxic situation in St. Louis and acquired former four-win player (2010) Colby Rasmus for little cost. Rasmus and manager Tony La Russa had allegedly feuded for the bulk of Rasmus’ tenure as a Cardinal and the situation of them in the same clubhouse had simply become untenable. After being acquired, Rasmus’ first two months in Toronto were disastrous. Nursing a wrist injury, Rasmus flailed to a .173/.201/.306 triple slash line in 140 PA, good for a .225 wOBA and a 33 wRC+. In 2012, his first full season in a Toronto uniform, was a tale of two seasons.  He posted a 119 wRC+ prior to the All-Star break compared to a 37 wRC+ afterwards – a mark that was at least partially the result of playing through groin discomfort. However, given that Rasmus was due to make $4.675 M in his second year of arbitration and likely upwards of $6 M as a third-year arbitration player, the 2013 season became a critical juncture in Rasmus’ future with the club.

Thankfully, Rasmus had career resurgence this past year, with several marked improvements. He showed gains on defense both in metrics (career-high 11.2 UZR) and by visual analysis, particularly in terms of going back on balls (14.6 range runs above average). His power showed major progression as he posted a .225 ISO, besting his .222 mark from his four-win 2010. He also improved his batted ball profile, by setting career highs in line drive, fly ball rates, and had a HR/FB of 17.3%, another career high. The home run rate will likely regress somewhat, but only four of his homers were considered to be “just enough” and only one “lucky”, while seven of Rasmus’ homers were considered “no doubt” by ESPN’s Home Run Tracker (formal definitions of the classifications can be found here). This change in profile and home run distribution is indicative of harder, better quality contact resulting in increased batted ball distance. However, his most encouraging improvement may have been his performance against left-handed pitching. Rasmus, owner of a 76 career wRC+ against southpaws (and two years of sharp year-over-year decline in this area (122 wRC+/88/51)), posted a 92 wRC+ (.310 wOBA) against them this year. Sustainability of the gain in platoon performance may be the ultimate deciding factor in his long-term future with the club, as the price he will command for his services beyond 2014 will likely be far higher than what the Blue Jays would be willing (or able) to spend on a player that requires a near-strict platoon, especially given the back-loaded natures of the contracts of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and (to a lesser extent) R.A. Dickey.

Unfortunately, plate discipline numbers paint a more disturbing picture. Despite swinging at fewer pitches than ever before (45.0%), he swung and missed at a career-high 11.5% rate (per pitch) compared to a career mark of 10.9%. This also led to a career-high whiff-per-swing rate as Rasmus came up empty on 25.6% of swings he took on the year. While these numbers represent his total body of 2013 work, the tables below represent his outcome distribution against lefties by pitch type, first for 2013 and then for his career. Click on the charts to enlarge.

Colby  Rasmus Pitch Outcomes Standard 2013

Colby  Rasmus Pitch Outcomes Standard Career

Colby  Rasmus Pitch Outcomes 2013

Colby  Rasmus Pitch Outcomes Career

Rasmus was more aggressive than his career norms (vs. LHP) on four-seam fastballs, curves and cutters this year, while being more patient with sinking fastballs, sliders and changeups. Rasmus’ whiff rate dropped on sliders and curves, while increasing against everything else. He more than doubled his line drive rate on curveballs, while having modest gains on four-seam fastballs and remaining static otherwise, with the exception of his inability to generate a line drive off a cutter in 2013, which given the sample of cutters in play (n = 11) is simply an oddity of statistical noise.

This is a data set that after careful review tends favourably toward future success for Rasmus against lefties, since it is the left-handed breaking balls that typically give left-handed hitters the most trouble. There may be cause for concern that in seeking non-fastball pitch recognition; he may be delaying his swing somewhat – leaving him susceptible to a lower velocity of fastballs than others. Of course, this is data-based conjecture without any visual support and may be borne out of cynicism, but it is something to watch.

The overall takeaway message here is a highly positive one. Rasmus may need to be spelled on occasion against lefties with elite fastballs and thus will be a candidate for removal against late-game LOOGY types, however there is no evidence that he needs a true platoon, or even a moderate one. The primary implication for the Blue Jays roster is that with Rajai Davis likely pursuing a starting job elsewhere, Kevin Pillar should have a lead on Anthony Gose for the fourth outfield spot, given he is being a right-handed bat that can play centre. Furthermore, Gose struggled mightily at times last year even in Triple-A and could likely use another year of full-time play in Buffalo. Pillar would also be free to use as the right-handed side of a platoon with Lind, although this arrangement is non-ideal offensively. Given the Blue Jays ongoing penchant for carrying 13 pitchers, Rasmus’ progress would ensure that it would be Lind being platooned instead of him in all but the rarest of cases. Going back to 12 pitchers would allow Pillar to serve as a defensive replacement for Cabrera and the occasional replacement for Rasmus, while allowing the acquisition of a platoon partner for Lind where offense is the only concern as Encarnacion could play first base in those games.

Picture courtesy of johnathan.mastrella via Flickr.