Were we wrong about Nyjer Morgan?

Or, “How I learned to stop worrying and love defensive metrics.”

Before the 2009 season began, I wrote a post at FanHouse about how I thought that UZR becoming widely available at FanGraphs was going to change the way baseball players were evaluated. As much as I’d like to crow about being right about that, I also spent a big chunk of the off-season disparaging the Pirates’ choice to start Nyjer Morgan in left field in 2009. Which means that even if I was able to recognize a good thing when I saw it, I clearly had some things to learn about the application.

What makes Nyjer Morgan’s season so interesting is that there are several layers of debate and discussion that have surrounded him this year, to the point that he hasn’t been a Pirate for more than two months and we’re still talking about him. First we wondered if he was worth playing at all, then whether he could support a corner outfield spot, and finally, whether the Pirates made a good trade for him or not.

Like any series of questions, they can be answered with varying degrees of difficulty. The first one is the easiest; Morgan very easily proved that he’s a very good defensive outfielder and because of that, he earned a spot on the field. Because we don’t really have defensive counting stats that are as easy to keep track of like RBIs and home runs and batting average, it’s easy to forget that a run saved with the glove is as good as one created with the bat.

Morgan’s great defense in left field also opened up a whole different line of discussion for Pirate fans. Just how important is it to have a good defensive left fielder in PNC Park? Both subjectively and objectively, Morgan made a huge difference in left field compared to Jason Bay’s play in front of the Notch, something that’s still partially visible in the huge reduction in runs allowed by the Pirates’ pitching staff in 2009. How much offense is worth sacrificing for better defense at that specific position? Frankly, that’s still not an easy question to answer.

The part of Morgan’s season that complicates the answer to the second question (is his defense good enough to play in a corner outfield spot?) and the third question (was the Pirates’ trade of him a smart move?) is how good his season in the field was. His UZR/150 was 28.1. That’s nearly ten runs better than Franklin Gutierez, who’s the second best outfielder. That, I see as a big red flag. It’s not that Morgan wasn’t that good this year; I trust the numbers that UZR puts out as much as anything else. I’m interested to see how he grades out on PMR and +/-, but it’s clear that Morgan was great with the glove in the field this year. The reason that I see it as a red flag is because the gap between him and the rest of the league makes me think it’s highly unlikely he replicates that number in the future. Look at how Jack Wilson’s UZR/150 varies from year to year. Perhaps more importantly, look at Wilson’s WAR. Good defensive seasons don’t always equate to extremely valuable years the way they have for Morgan this year. For similar players at the same position, look at how the UZR/150 Juan Pierre and Willy Taveras vary from year to year.

It’s important to remember that UZR isn’t a predictive stat; it quantifies what happens on the field. Just like players can have career year at the plate, they have them in the field too. Morgan, I think, managed to have both a career year at the plate and a career year in the field at the same time. That’s not to demean his season; he had a great year. With 4.9 Wins Above Replacement, he’s in rare company with some of the most valuable players in the league. Morgan had a great season in 2009, but I haven’t been terribly interested in 2009 results since it became clear at some point in 2008 that 2009 wouldn’t be a competitive season.

And so we enter the trade. If we accept that it’s possible that Morgan will lose about 10 runs both at the plate (I haven’t discussed Morgan’s offense much here, but again look at players like Pierre, Taveras, Michael Bourn, etc. and you can see that their offensive production varies widely with their batting average and of players in the speedy, batting average-based category, only Ichiro has really had any sustained success recently and he’s turned that style of play into an art form) and in the field in 2010, he goes from a 5-win player to a 3-win player. That, in my gut, feels about right for Morgan’s value over the next few seasons. That’s still good; right now Erick Aybar, Lance Berkman, Johnny Damon, Adam Lind, Brandon Phillips, and Asdrubal Cabrera are three-win players. Still, that drops his value significantly enough that the trade discussion becomes a much more interesting one, especially given that he’s a left fielder in Pittsburgh because of the presence of Andrew McCutchen.

That leaves us with Lastings Milledge, who’s a bundle of interesting questions all to himself. What I think Milledge represents, though, is a compromise between the Jason Bay-style left fielder and the Nyjer Morgan-style left fielder. His glove isn’t as good as Morgan’s was this year, but he’s shown that he’s more than athletic enough to handle the big left center gap at PNC and he’s provided a nice compliment to McCutchen out in the field, from what I’ve seen. And while he may not have the power of Jason Bay, he’s hit very well with the Pirates since a slow start and shown that he could be a nice option at the top of an order. In short, he could combine some of the strong points of both players without their shortcomings.

What’s interesting about Morgan is that the lesson to be learned here, that defense is an important point of evaluation for any player and that it’s almost always an undervalued asset in 2009, is one that was actually taught by the Pirates’ front office. They took a guy that seemed to be almost worthless as a player to the eye of a less than casual observer (me and many other Pirate fans), got good production out of him on a daily basis, and then traded him off in the middle of his career year for a much younger player with an impressive ceiling. Was I wrong about Nyjer Morgan? Sure I was. But Neal Huntington and Dan Fox had him pegged all along, and that’s what’s most important.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.