2010 Orioles Retrospective: Garrett Atkins

Kicking off the individual players portion of the 2010 Orioles Retrospective, we have one of the worst players in the majors from this past season. Before the Orioles signed Garrett Atkins this off-season, I weighed in on the move several times:

From:

Garrett Atkins isn’t a particularly good defender (-4.9 UZR/150 career) and his offense has been sloping downward heavily in recent years: wOBA has gone from .410 to .368 to .337 to .291. I’d take a flier on him for a million bucks, but that’s about it.

To:

Atkins has gone from great (.410 wOBA) to very good (.368) to OK (.337) to bad (.291) with the bat, though that last one is largely the result of a .247 BABIP. His strike-out rate is up a little and his contact rate is falling. I don’t know if the drop in power is partially a fluke, but his HR/FB has been going down quickly as well (13.2% to 10.9% to 9.9% to 7.3%). The current projections for Atkins currently range from around .275/.345/.450 (FanGraphs fans, Bill James) to .258/.329/.410 (CHONE, already taking into account leaving Coors). Splitting the difference-ish (while acknowledging that moving from the NL to the AL is tougher), you get something like .265/.335/.425, which would make Atkins about an average hitter. Defensively Atkins posted a -0.7 UZR/150 at third last year but marks of -8.6 and -14.6 in the two years previous. The Fan Scouting report, which is kind of corroborated by the UZR breakdown, has him as not rangy at all but with OK hands and a fine arm. You’re probably looking at something along the lines of -5 to -7 with the glove next year. Put that together – in, say, 550 PA – and you’ve got a a fairly solid 1.5 Win player (worth ~$6.8 M). Despite my earlier claim that I wouldn’t go much over a million bucks on him – just looking at the trend-line scared me off – Atkins would probably be worth a flyer at $3-4 M. There are a lot of risks there though, so I’m still leery. It might be a situation where teams underrate him due to his recent struggles, or everyone might think that themselves (like what happened with Derek Lowe last year) and the demand drives his price up to where it should be (or more). I’d still look elsewhere for a third-base solution for next season, but there would be worse things than having Atkins at the hot corner in 2010 (like having Ty Wigginton there – in fact, other than a less bad glove, there’s not a ton separating Wiggy and Atkins).

And finally:

Given that the Orioles signed him for one year and $4.5 M ($4 M in 2010 with an $8.5 M option for 2011 and a $0.5 M buyout – plus $0.5 M in PA incentives), I’m less than thrilled with the deal. Before the signing – which I thought would come in at $5 M (which is likely what Atkins will end up receiving) – I said under $4 M would be fine, $4-6 M I could live with but wouldn’t be happy about, and over $6 M would be bad. Well, the O’s came in right in that middle area, where it seems they’ve lived this off-season. The move isn’t terrible, and I think there’s a fair chance that Atkins will be slightly underpaid, but it’s not without downside risk and isn’t a straight bargain.

So, admittedly, I didn’t think signing Atkins to play third was all that bad, and I honestly thought he’d bounce back some offensively. Then – with the signing of Miguel Tejada – it was announced that Atkins would be the team’s first-baseman, and that Andy MacPhail was looking at Atkins as a first-baseman all along.

For his career, Atkins has a -5.0 UZR/150 at third-base and a -6.3 UZR/150 at first. Jeff Zimmerman’s UZR/150 projections for 2010 has Atkins at -7 at third and -3 at first. Since the positional adjustment is +2.5 runs (at third) to -12.5 runs (at first) – a difference of 15 runs in a full season – Atkins would lose about 9-10 runs (~1 Win) off his value. That would make him less than a 1 Win Above Replacement player – closer to 0.5 WAR – which would be worth (in this market) probably only $1-2 M. His contract suddenly looks pretty horrible, and that’s without even thinking about the other better players the Orioles could have gotten instead.

So yeah, none too pleased with Atkins being on the team at the start of the season. He was even part of my four questions post (discussing moves Andy made in the off-season):

(1) Garrett Atkins vs. Ryan Garko The O’s gave Atkins $4.5 M, while Garko is going to get not much more than the league minimum from the Rangers (who picked him up after the M’s released him this week). Question: Who will be better this season? (I’m not even going to get into the issue of value, since I see very little chance Atkins can be worth his contract.) Manner of judging: Offense (min. 300 PA) -wRC+^, using wRC+ versus righties and lefties and weighting appropriately so that neither player had more of a platoon advantage (so that people can’t say that Garko did better because he got to face left-handers more). Defense (min. 50 games) – Better UZR/150^ at first-base.

Answer: N/A

Neither guy got close to 300 PA (Atkins finished with 152 and Garko just 38). Atkins (.256 wOBA) did out-hit Garko (.117), though the latter had a .103 BABIP^. Garko hit .238/.330/.376 in Triple-A (with a .257 BABIP), while Atkins didn’t get picked up anywhere after being released towards the end of June. Despite both guys sucking, Garko was still more valuable (less unvaluable?) with a -0.6 fWAR^ (+0.4 UZR at first) compared to Atkins’ -1.1 fWAR* (and -4.3 UZR at first). Plus Garko was cheaper, and likely would have been cut sooner (or sent to the minors, as he was by Texas).

* That was the fourth worst mark in the AL (position players). Only Brandon Wood, Luis Valbuena, and Casey Kotchman cost their teams more wins, and Luis had a whole rant devoted to him (Valbuena. Valbuena, Valbuena, Valbuena. I’m content to just stick with “Garrett Atkins is terrible.”)

So this was a huge miss by MacPhail. Atkins bat didn’t bounce back at all, his power disappeared (which wasn’t a complete shock), his strike-out rate went way up, and his plate-discipline took a nose-dive. It was all much worse than anyone could have reasonably expected, with the only thing going “according to plan” was poor defense at first and the extra added hit to his value from playing the easier position. Andy said he took a shot on a guy who had shown some ability in the past, but $4.5 M is more money than Russell Branyan got for his .350 wOBA, or Eric Hinske got for his .341 wOBA, or… . That’s generally not the kind of money you spend, hoping a guy regains some lost production. With his price-tag – and having to clear the higher bar at first-base offensively (relative to third) – there was virtually no upside for the Orioles in the deal. There were only various degrees of downside, and they got just about the most extreme one. It can all be explained in one graphic:

Good Process Bad Process
Good Results
Bad Results Garrett Atkins

You want/plan to stay on the left side, and hope to stay on the top. Garrett Atkins was pretty firmly on the bottom-right.