Monday, June 09, 2008

Billy Ashley was not a bad major league hitter

Andrew Grant, you have been warned.

I'm really tired of people repeating that conventional wisdom as if it were truth. Ashley hit .233/.307/.409 in 683 PA, implying that he was -5 runs per full season's playing time. Ashley didn't see regular playing time, faced a lot of relievers, and managed to hit .275/.333/.520 in his 331 PA against lefties. So we have a hitter who was only slightly below average with just one season's worth of PA.


Ashley's career numbers include some pretty awful hitting in 1992 and 1993, Ashley's age 21 and 22 season. Ashley didn't have a monster year in the minors until 1994, when he turned 24 a month before the strike. (In fact, while Ashley may have been very hyped at some point, Ashley really did not show much power in the minors until he hit AA at age 21. He was again fairly impressive the next season in Albuquerque, but he didn't really learn how to take a walk until his 1994 season at Albuquerque).

His numbers with the Dodgers from 1994 on are .227/.312/.411 (-1 run) in 518 PA. Throw in his scorching call-up for Boston (24 AB, 3 HR, 3 2B) and you get a post-93 total of .230/.313/.430 in 544 PA, which league/park adjusted is +2 runs. Perhaps he should be debited for poor situational hitting or something? Well, Fangraphs has him at -1.09 WPA, -.52 REW, and +.45 WPA/LI. That's obviously not a compelling case given the size of the sample and his usage. Further, beyond the sample being small, we *KNOW* that it was a qualitatively poor sample - lots of pinch hitting, irregular playing time, etc., and each of these carries a pretty considerable penalty. His breakdown of PA was 27.2% 1st time against SP, 23.9% 2nd time, 15.8% 3rd plus time, and 34.0% against relievers. What if he had been given Eric Karros' playing time? As the cleanup hitter from 1995-1997, Karros faced 23.0%, 22.5%, 22.7%, and 31.8%, respectively. If Ashley had been given Karros' PA, he would have put up much better numbers. Karros faced a pitcher for the first time in a game less than 54% of the time, but Ashley did it over 61% - what if that extra 7% had been PA against pitchers for the third plus time, when he hit .299/.372/.545 from 1994-8?

Why in the world would you give up on someone who was a strong minor league hitter because of this major league performance? He did not establish himself as a *good* major league hitter, but he clearly was not horribly overmatched or "eaten alive." Simply put, his hitting skills were not appreciated because of the way he made his outs and his ratio of hits to at bats, and that forced him out of the major leagues before he could prove that he was a qualified major league hitter. In terms of his actual results, they are disappointing but the sample has severe problems both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Billy Ashley may have been overhyped, but that is of significance only to those with an interest in hype. Maybe he was not truly good enough to be an average every day player, but that all depends on his defense. As a hitter, I think he was clearly good enough to be at least a fringe regular, and he was DEFINITELY good enough that he should have been a platoon partner ("lefty-masher") in the big leagues for a pretty long time. Teams were foolish on Ashley, and I'm gonna stick to my Roger Daltrey not-getting-fooled-again guns on any player who gets compared to Ashley.

I don't have the research on college players who strike out a lot, so I'm not really going to weigh in on Russell. I don't know much about him, so anything here is speculation based off the 4 videos I've seen and his college stats. It is really annoying to me that a) he is being compared to a lot of players who are just cherry-picked as high HR, high K failures instead of being compared to players without a selection bias and b) he is being compared to players whose value was diminished by poor defense as if it is a given that his defensive skills are on the same level. He gets a lot of comparisons to Branyan and (from Dodgers fans exclusively, as far as I can tell) Billy Ashley. Sure, as a hitter, he has a similar approach based on the results. But those hitters both were drafted out of high school (Ashley a 3rd round pick, Branyan in the 7th). Is this really a reasonable comparison? No, it's people drawing up the scenario of what it will look like when Russell fails. And the reason why players like Branyan and Ashley had a hard time getting past the K-stigma (and the BA-stigma variant) and SSS-stigma (small sample size) was because they had little defensive value. Well, Andrew compares him to Ashley even as he had just linked to a scouting report that implies Russell will be about an average defender in right field. Plus, Andrew derisively suggests that his ceiling is Jack Cust - WTF? A player's ceiling is hitting like Cust and being an average RF defender, and you're not excited about that? I simply do not get it. That is a high ceiling for anybody, and you have to get lucky to get that kind of play out of the average tenth pick in the draft, much less a third rounder. That's not to say that Russell will reach that ceiling, but how can anybody consider it less than a really high and exciting ceiling? Was there any corner outfielder in the draft with a higher ceiling than Russell if his ceiling is indeed Cust + average defense?

Kyle Russell obviously hasn't shown that he can make the transition to professional baseball, let alone the major leagues. His approach is based on waiting for the ball to get pretty deep in the zone, so obviously if he does not improve he won't cut it against major league players. Well, that is the point of player development - to develop a player with talent into a major leaguer. I don't know if Russell has what it takes or not, but his performance record at college simply does not lend itself to disparaging his abilities. Russell has been a dominant hitter at the college level. That dominance is being disparaged because it was a certain kind of dominance, a high-K kind of dominance. It is ridiculous to mix arguments about how projectable his particular skills are to the major league with an assessment that TTO college hitters cannot progress upwardly. Some can and some can't. A strikeout is not a scathing indictment that proves hitter failure. To be a good power hitter, you must strike out more often because a) you should generally be more selective and b) it is harder to make contact as you are swinging hard. Someone who is struck out by a lot of college pitchers is, with no other info available, not impressive. But someone who is willing to get some strike outs here and there in order to be able to draw a lot of walks and hit a lot of home runs? That is a different story, and we should read the whole book before we put a picture of Billy Ashley on its cover. And even if Billy Ashley is on the cover, it's still a book that demands rapt attention, because Ashley was not who Dodger fans decided he was.

If you tell me a player's hitting will be 70% Ashley and 30% Cust, then I'm salivating at the mouth. If he can play a solid RF, then I'm sold.

Heck, Russell himself seems to know a lot more about the value of these sorts of comparisons:
PING!: As a tall, thin and strong left-handed outfielder, you’ve grown comparisons to Shawn Green. Additionally your game has been compared to Adam Dunn with better defense. Do you feel those comparisons are accurate or would you say a different resemblance is more fitting?

RUSSELL: Those comparisons are flattering to hear considering both those players have been very successful at the major league level. I feel though that I am just trying to be like Kyle Russell. I have had many players that I have looked up to my whole life, but I can’t say I am totally identical like Shawn Green or Adam Dun. Every individual has their own ‘style’.

Now, I'm going to go ahead and say I'd be pretty excited about getting Russell regardless of who drafted him. But if you tell me he was drafted in the 3rd round by Logan White? I mean, if Logan White signs off on giving him a 3rd round pick... that is not merely pretty exciting. I am stunned that Dodgers fans who worship at White's altar are acting as if this was a disappointing pick.


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