“What about Mike Aviles?”
That was a question seriously posed by a follower of the Cleveland Indians Twitter account after this tweet:
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) February 22, 2015
The second reply was “Don’t forget aviles” [sic]
— Nick Butcher (@n_butch15) February 22, 2015
Why shouldn’t we forget Mike Aviles? August Fagerstrom, one of my favorite Indians writers, captured Aviles perfectly in his Fangraphs+ profile of the Tribesman. Fagerstrom wrote:
“Mike Aviles is a super-utility man with an 80-grade personality. Aviles’s bat used to be nice for a utility man, but four consecutive seasons of declining power combined with a nonexistent walk rate makes him pretty useless at the plate.”
I’m a sabermetrician, but I’m not a black and white guy when it comes to players like Aviles, or recently retired Jason Giambi. These veterans do have value that cannot be quantified by statistics. It’d be better to see them in a coaching capacity rather than on the field, but it is what it is and it will always be that way. Good guy teammates earn roster spots solely because of what they mean to the camaraderie and morale of the team.
Mike Aviles is a bad offensive player and that’s not a new development. He’s been at least 15 percent below league average in each of the last four seasons. He’s also carried negative defensive value in three of the last four seasons. He has not lived up to the $3.5M price tag the Indians will pay him this season since 2012 with the Red Sox. In fact, he’s actually been worth negative $300,000 to the Indians over his two seasons with the club according to Fangraphs’s player value calculations.
The nice thing about this season is that the Indians should be in a better position from a depth standpoint and that should keep Aviles off the field. With Zach Walters, a myriad of fourth and fifth outfielder choices like Tyler Holt, David Murphy, and Ryan Raburn, Aviles should not make anywhere near 400 plate appearances this season.
Nevertheless, Aviles is a replacement-level or worse player whose value is solely tied into his personality. It was a foregone conclusion that the Indians were going to pick up Aviles’s option. The oblique injury suffered by Jason Kipnis forced Aviles into the starting role at second base, where he actually did a pretty good job. The most frustrating thing about Aviles’s 2014 performance is that Terry Francona completely misused the little value that Aviles has in the lineup. Again, injury necessitated some of this, but these are things that should never happen. Let’s run down the ways that Francona misused Aviles in 2014:
- Batting second – This is enough to make my head explode. Aviles had 90 plate appearances (out of 374) batting second. His slash line: .171/.209/.244/.453. Not only is this an unforgivable sin, but Aviles hit second in 55 of those plate appearances against a right-handed pitcher. Aviles started 20 games batting second. The Indians were 10-10 in those games and scored three runs or less in 10 of the 20 games.
- Facing right-handed pitchers – Mike Aviles has a career slash of .265/.290/.380/.671 for a OPS+ of 94 against righties. He has a .277/.316/.418/.733 against lefties for a 112 OPS+. Aviles had 74 more plate appearances against righties last season. As you would expect, his splits were ugly. He hit .239/.264/.332/.596 against righties and .259/.286/.360/.645 against lefties, which wasn’t good, but at least it’s bordering on tolerable.
- Playing the outfield – Video attached
A manager’s job is to put each individual player in the best position to succeed. Aviles was awful last season, but Francona didn’t give him much of a chance either. In fairness to Francona, Aviles pinch hit 12 times and nine of them were against left-handed pitchers. He was 1-for-12 overall and the lone hit came against Tony Sipp. So, what about Mike Aviles? Does being a good teammate and the ability to play three infield positions at roughly a league average rate defensively constitute a roster spot? Apparently it does. Jason Giambi commandeered a roster spot for nearly all of 2013 before the Indians kept him on as a disabled list player-coach in 2014. On one hand, that speaks to the great versatility of the roster. On another hand, it’s a little disconcerting that replacement-level players are kept around for their off-the-field performance when tangible upgrades are out there. There’s another element to this:
White Sox GM Rick Hahn says in that Q&A that he estimates about 20% of current analytics is proprietary and not visible to public. — Eno Sarris (@enosarris) February 18, 2015
Could there be some hidden analytics to quantify the improved performance of players based on the tutelage of their peers? It seems like that would be difficult to calculate, but one would imagine that it has to be a consideration when the Indians make a business decision like they did with Aviles’s option. In theory, Aviles would only need to be worth about 0.6 wins to validate his contract amount. Does his likelihood of getting to that loose benchmark include analytics that are not publicly available?
Even though it’s hard for me to wrap my head around a way to quantify something like that, it would hardly be a surprise. Buzzwords and phrases like “veteran presence” and “experience” are commonplace in all sports. Could there be some mathematical evidence to support that it helps? Or could part of Aviles’s implied value be in what he does to help other players improve?
There’s a lot that the baseball community does not know about statistics, player valuations, and front offices. We don’t have all of the data. The amount of data available to the public is light years better than it has been in the past, but the stuff that is not public knowledge has to be some incredibly in-depth stuff. Things that we couldn’t even imagine. Things that front offices hold very close to the vest.
The Indians often get negative comments on social media because of their tendency to sign veteran players to minor league deals with Spring Training invitations as depth options. In general, these players don’t help the Major League ballclub once camp breaks and they are there to help young players and fill in on those dog days of Spring Training to get some plate appearances. Every team does this, though it does seem like the Indians do it more than other clubs. The hope, of course, is to catch lightning in a bottle and grab a guy that has some production left.
More often than not, however, these players are released or never merit serious consideration for a roster spot. What we don’t know is the impact that they leave on younger players. Remember the 91-game tenure of Orlando Cabrera back in 2011? He was an awful hitter and a poor defender, but he seemed to inject some life into that team and supposedly told Asdrubal Cabrera to take one selfish swing per at bat to try and hit a ball out. Asdrubal hit 25 home runs that season, setting a career high that he has not come close to since.
Was Asdrubal’s power spike merely coincidence or did Orlando’s mentoring actually lead to a change? There’s no way of knowing and you can make your own inferences. However, the way that sabermetrically-inclined front offices like the Indians look to veteran players when they know their projected contributions on the field should raise some eyebrows.
Small-market teams are always looking for value wherever they can find it. Perhaps they’re finding it in ways that we cannot see. Perhaps I’m connecting dots that don’t exist to try and stick up for the organization for defying my preconceived notions about whether or not Aviles can live up to the price of his final contract year with the Indians. There’s a part of me, however, that wonders if there’s truly a mathematical method to the madness.