May 10, 2009

Free Carlos Gomez! (And Why Defense Matters)

Carlos Gomez was in the lineup yesterday for just the fourth time in 17 games, as Ron Gardenhire has decided that Delmon Young in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Michael Cuddyer in right field is his preferred outfield alignment. Gardenhire has shown that he figures to start Span and Cuddyer nearly every game, so he's basically chosen Young over Gomez as the "other" starting outfielder. There are two problems with his decision, one of which is short term and one of which is long term.

For most fans and far too many media members, benching Gomez for Young looks like an easy move. After all, Gomez is batting .218 and Young is batting .288. Easy call, right? Actually, no. Young's batting average is incredibly empty, as 21 of his 23 hits have been singles and he's drawn four walks in 87 plate appearances. Yes, the fact that he's "hitting" .288 looks good at first glance, but his .333 on-base percentage and .338 slugging percentage are an awful combination for a corner outfielder.

Gomez has been even worse offensively, hitting just .218/.259/.327 in 58 plate appearances, but unlike Young his value goes far beyond his production at the plate. Gomez is one of the elite defensive center fielders in baseball, saving the Twins a tremendous number of runs with his glove. His presence in center field also means that Span slides over to left field, where he's also one of the elite defenders in the game.

Young is a better hitter than Gomez right now, but the gap isn't anywhere close to as big as their batting averages suggest and pales in comparison to the gap defensively. Last year Young hit .290/.336/.405 and Gomez hit .258/.296/.360. This season Young is at .288/.333/.338 and Gomez is at .218/.259/.327. In both cases the difference is about 80 points of OPS and even that figure is inflated by not accounting for Young's propensity to ground into double plays or Gomez's superior speed on the bases.

Based strictly on their production offensively as members of the Twins, Young has been about 15 runs better than Gomez per 600 plate appearances. In some circumstances a 15-run gap offensively would be a lot, but not here. According to Ultimate Zone Rating as a duo Gomez in center field and Span in left field (or right field) has been 30-35 runs above average per 150 games. Meanwhile, as a duo Span in center field and Young in left field has been 45-50 runs below average per 150 games.

The latter total is inflated by Span's unsustainably horrible numbers in limited action as a center fielder, but even if you ignore them to give him credit for being exactly average in center field--which at this point is far from a safe assumption--the Young-Span alignment is 40-50 runs worse than the Span-Gomez alignment. In other words, by benching Gomez for Young the Twins are gaining 15 runs offensively and losing 40-50 runs defensively. All of which is why focusing on their batting averages is silly.

In the short term benching Gomez for Young is costing the Twins a significant number of runs, but the move could have even costlier ramifications long term. Gomez is six months from his 24th birthday and has great athletic ability, world-class speed, and little idea what he's doing at the plate. While with the Mets he was rushed through the minor leagues, playing at Double-A as a 20-year-old and debuting in the majors as a 21-year-old after all of 36 games at Triple-A.

Gomez was rushed through the normal development process for a prospect, getting promoted to the majors far sooner than his minor-league performance warranted and then sticking in the big leagues at least in part because he was the centerpiece of a franchise-altering trade. Certainly none of that has helped him mature as a player, but compounding those mistakes by now relegating him to the bench makes even less sense.

Young was born just a few months before Gomez in 1985 and also would benefit from regular playing time, which certainly makes juggling outfielders difficult for Gardenhire. However, even before planting Gomez on the bench Gardenhire found playing time for Young by starting him against all left-handers and some right-handers. Young started nine of the first 15 games, totaling 35 plate appearances. On the other hand, Gomez has four starts and 18 total plate appearances during the past 17 games.

For all his faults Gomez is a significantly more valuable all-around player than Young right now, but by focusing on batting averages and paying zero attention to advanced defensive metrics the Twins have a difficult time wrapping their heads around that. However, even if you're convinced that Young is the superior player right now and benching Gomez doesn't hurt the team in the short term, why in the world would you want your incredibly raw 23-year-old center fielder getting one or two starts per week?

If the Twins aren't going to play Gomez, they ought to at least let him continue to develop at Triple-A. By benching him for Young and keeping him in the majors to make a start every 4-5 games, they're hurting the team in both the short and long term. With his great defense Gomez would become an incredibly valuable all-around player simply by developing into a mediocre, slightly below-average hitter. With his horrible defense Young would need to develop into a great hitter just to have the same type of value.

It's certainly clear which scenario I'd bet on, but more importantly there's no reason for the Twins to take an either-or approach yet. Given their fly ball-heavy pitching staff using a Span-Gomez-Cuddyer outfield with Jason Kubel or Young at designated hitter depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher remains the best alignment on most days, but if the Twins can't or won't recognize that then at least let Gomez play regularly at Rochester without wasting his development and service time.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at

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