Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Curious Case of Alex Liddi

Admittedly, it takes a bit of ‘ego’ to be in the ‘prospect’ business. Every time you write something, someone who reads it just isn’t going to agree, and often times how they choose to express their ‘disagreement’ ranges from the ‘nasty’ to downright ‘vulgar’. So I don’t find it unusual that some of my ‘brethren’ in this business can often times be slow to admit it when they are wrong. You see it is that strength in conviction that goes hand-in-hand with that big ego. Which brings me to Alex Liddi.

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t see his 2009 breakout coming. I promise you that we had Alex Liddi higher than anyone did, entering the season, but we had him rated as the #398 prospect in baseball. He was only #18 in the Mariners’ system. Good ol’ Baseball America didn’t have Liddi in their Top 31 for the Mariners. John Sickles didn’t have him in the Mariners’ Top 33. Kevin Goldstein only listed 15 Mariners…and of course no Liddi. Derrick McKamey in his Minor League Analyst had at least 23 Mariner players rated ahead of him. You get my point—as an industry we blew it on Liddi. Which is why, this off-season, you are finding the experts spending a lot of time either explaining why they missed, or worse yet, trying to convince you why they really weren’t wrong and why Liddi really isn’t that good.

Regular readers of this space, already know that we embraced Liddi in early May, and have already devoted many words to what we think of him. While our overall rankings are still being finalized, Liddi will be one of the top 3 prospects in the Mariners’ system, and is likely going to be among the Top 50 prospects overall. We understand how special, in a historical context, Liddi’s 2009 season was, and while we understand there are still a few things in his swing that will need to be corrected, we believe he has the glove, arm, and footwork to stay at 3B, and a projectable frame that should allow him to eventually hit 25-30 homeruns at the big league level--with a few minor adjustments. So I am not going to fill up space defending why we didn’t have him rated higher coming into the year, nor am I going to foolishly try to convince you that he really isn’t that good. Instead, I am going to provide you the counter arguments to much of what you will hear and read about Liddi this off-season.

The Liddi detractors focus their arguments on two things: 1) He played his home games at Maverick Stadium – High Desert…one of the most hitting friendly environs in all of the minor leagues, and 2) that he posted a .422 BABIP which was .091 points higher than the league average and nearly .100 points higher than what he did in 2008. The theory goes that because his OPS was nearly .300 points higher at home than it was on the road, and that his BABIP will be unsustainable in future seasons, that you witnessed a solid season, but nothing spectacular. Let’s take them in order…

I wish I had a quarter for every time this year that I have heard a reference to Liddi’s play this season and the stadium he plays his game in. I could spend full-time writing about prospects and wouldn’t have to actually ‘earn’ a living. Maverick Stadium in Adelanto, CA was erected in 1991, and has hosted a California League, High Desert, team in every season since. Roughly 550 position players have donned a Maverick uniform during that time. Here are the all-time Maverick Season OPS leaders:

1) Travis Lee, 22yo, 1997 - 1.163
2) Lance Burkhardt, 26yo, 2001 – 1.112
3) Jack Cust, 20yo, 1999 – 1.100
4) Jim Rushford, 27yo, 2001 – 1.075
5) Brad Creese, 20yo, 2000 - 1.061
6) Billy Butler, 19yo, 2005 – 1.054
7) Mike Berry, 25yo, 1996 – 1.039
8) Darryl Clark, 23yo, 2003 – 1.029
9) Mike Stoner, 24yo, 1997 – 1.020
10) Alex Liddi, 20yo, 2009 – 1.001

Most of the players on this list were old for the league and considered a significant defensive liability. When age and defense are factored in, only the seasons’ of Cust and Butler, can reasonably be considered equal to, or better than Liddi’s, and they all played similar schedules.

But, that still isn’t good enough, I want to know what kind of season Liddi had if it weren’t for the effects of High Desert. At Diamond Futures, we always park normalize our data. We calculate Park Factors for every League each season and apply them to the season totals to effectively normalize our data. But admittedly, that is an estimate of the results, so I wanted to go one better for this illustration. So instead of using park factors applied to season totals, I went and took every player in the California League this year and applied park factors on a game by game basis, so that each player appeared as if they played every single game at a League Average site. Here are the Top 20 OPS in the League this year:

1) Grant Desme – 1.029
2) Koby Clemens – 1.022
3) Logan Forsythe – 1.003
4) Thomas Neal – 0.965
5) Scott Van Slyke – 0.955
6) Alex Liddi – 0.951
7) Jonathan Gaston – 0.948
8) Buster Posey – 0.941
9) James Darnell – 0.937
10) Matt Weston – 0.922
11) Trayvon Robinson – 0.904
12) Jason Castro – 0.903
13) Matt Sweeney – 0.899
14) Steve Kleen – 0.896
15) Matt Clark – 0.889
16) Joe Dunigan – 0.869
17) Yusuf Carter – 0.868
18) Tyson Gillies – 0.865
19) James McOwen – 0.859
20) Roger Kieschnick -0.853

Important to note, only Liddi and Tyson Gillies were 20yos on this list. Neal, Robinson and Sweeney were 21yo, and while Liddi ranked 6th, of the five that were ahead of him, Thomas Neal was the next youngest—a full year older than Liddi.

The next thing we hear is that Liddi only posted an Isolated Power of .190 on the road. Followers of that logic would like you to believe—despite no empirical evidence to support it, that only what a player does on the ‘road’ counts. Again, using the park neutral data, here are the Top 15 Players (minimum of 200 ABs) in the California League this year in Isolated Power:

1) Grant Desme - .341
2) Jonathan Gaston - .316
3) Koby Clemens - .277
4) James Darnell - .264
5) Carlos Peguero - .264
6) Matt Weston - .263
7) Scott Van Slyke - .263
8) Michael Bianucci - .256
9) Joe Dunigan - .249
10) Mauro Gomez - .242
11) Matt Clark - .234
12) Brandon Barnes - .232
13) Alex Liddi -.226
14) Roger Kieschnick -.223
15) Thomas Neal - .222

On this list, Liddi is the only 20yo, Neal is the only 21yo, and the next youngest player ahead of Liddi is Carlos Peguero, who is a full 18 months older than Liddi.

Incidentally, here are Liddi’s completely park neutral 2009 stats:
AB – 493
H – 163
2B – 45
3B – 5
HR – 19
BB – 53
SO -121
AVG - .330
OBA - .395
SLG - .556

So let’s go to the BABIP argument. BABIP has become the trendy concept over the last few years. The theory goes something along the lines that since we have demonstrated evidence that pitchers have little control over what happens to a batted ball once contact is made, then it would be reasonable to assume that hitters, likewise, have little control once they make contact. The problem with that logic is that hitters like Matt Kemp, that continually put up higher than league average numbers, effectively provide evidence to diminish the randomness of BABIP. While it may be true that BABIP should be regressed, to some degree, to the mean, Hitters DO, in fact, have considerable more control over where a ball is hit than do pitchers. To illustrate my point, while the California League Average for BABIP was .331 in 2009, the Top 20, park neutral, hitters for average, posted a cumulative BABIP of .370—in other words, better hitters get more hits and the outcome of a batted ball in play is not a random event. Additionally, Liddi ranked behind Koby Clemens and Trayvon Robinson in BABIP, yet not only do we not hear this argument used against them, we instead hear about what a breakout season Robinson had.

“Ahhh!”, You say, “what about the fact that Liddi’s BABIP in 2009 was more than .100 points higher than his 2008 BABIP—a more than 33% gain.” I say “Grasshopper, his park neutral OPS jumped 41%--it would be foolish not to expect his BABIP to make significant gains”. The reality is that the Alex Liddi of 2009 is a significantly better hitter in all aspects of the game than he was in 2008. That is the very definition of 'breakout'. Even his Krate decreased from 24% in 2008, to a much more livable 22% in 2009.

The most compelling part of Liddi’s 2009 season, for me, though, was the resultant League MVP award as a 20yo. Over the last 25 years, only five previous players had won the award as a 20yo: Reid Brignac, Brandon Wood, Josh Barfield, Rocco Baldelli and Roberto Alomar.

When we evaluate a prospect, we essentially are looking at two things: Where is the player currently on the developmental curve and what is his projectability. Where Liddi is, is he just posted one of the two best age-adjusted seasons in the California League. At 6'4 and 175lbs, with decent footwork, a workable swing, and being a 20yo playing against much older competition, his projectability is tremendous and this establishes him as one of the elite prospects in the game.

1 comment:

  1. SO interesting. good job. I'll spend some time with alex talking about that.