MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 05: Carlos Lee #45 of the Miami Marlins squares up this pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on July 05, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Yesterday, Carlos Lee's debut as a Miami Marlins went swimmingly well, as he went two-for-four with a double and a crucial late single that helped deliver an insurance run to the Marlins. Marlins fans are likely familiar with the name Carlos Lee, but do we know who we are really getting? I mean, yes, he has a cool nickname in "El Caballo." A long time ago, he was a premier slugger. But what type of player are we getting now, with Lee well into his final contract year and years removed from being an elite hitte in the American League? It is worth investigating what to expect from El Caballo for the rest of the season.
What Remains the Same
There are still a number of things that Carlos Lee still does now that he did a long time ago. For one, we know that Lee is well-known for being a guy who never strikes out or walks.
You can see that he has improved in terms of cutting down on strikeouts since the start of his career, and that is obviously good to see. It is often said that as a player gets older, his patience tends to go up and he takes more pitches as a result of his bat slowing down. It usually results in more walks and strikeouts, but that just has not been the case for Lee. Even though he too has become more selective with his swings over the last three seasons, his contact rates have not suffered.
Lee has improved in making contact each of the last two seasons, and that likely has something to do with a decreased swing rate on pitches outside of the zone. In 2010, he swung at 33 percent of the pitches he saw out of the zone; this year, that is down to 23 percent. His overall swing rate is down, likely due to perhaps a slower bat, but that slower bat sure has not affected his contact. His in-zone contact has not fallen, so clearly he can still put bat to the ball and put the ball in play. This is a major improvement in Lee's approach at the plate and it is likely to improve his ability to stay at this level of production. There is a reason he is still has a .290 batting average and .338 OBP in 2012 after a career mark of .286 and .339 respectively, and it has a lot to do with his game shifting to accommodate a loss of physical skills.
That is the positive notion that has not changed. On the negative side, Lee is still a downside on the defensive end. He was once a terrible left fielder, and he was terrible for years; defensive statistics had him anywhere between 21 and 65 runs worse than average as a left fielder since the start of his career. At his best, he was a passable left fielder, but by 2011, he lost all capability to play the position, and Houston moved into the infield. There was good news on that front, as the defensive stats said he had a Gold Glove year at the position, but this year results have been more tepid. In addition, Houston fans did not think highly of his defense last year despite the numbers, so our best guess is that he is perhaps just average at the position.
Lee is also one of the worst baserunners in baseball, despite yesterday's heads-up play to score a run on a bloop single. According to FanGraphs, Lee has cost an average of six runs per season over the last three years on non-basestealing baserunning plays.
Loss of Power
Much of what Carlos Lee does at the plate, on the bases, and in the field remain the same. There is basically one area of Lee's game that has suffered since his effective seasons in Chicago, Milwaukee, and early in Houston: his power.
The power drop in the last three years is extremely obvious. Lee is banging out fewer extra bases per hit and has a lower ISO than his career marks. It is likely that the problem is primarily in home runs, as you can see that his HR/FB rate dropped significantly in the last three seasons and seems to be on the decline. His rate of doubles and triples per contacted ball is actually about the same as his career mark; over the last three years, 6.7 percent of contacted balls hit by Lee have gone for doubles or triples, compared to 7.0 percent for his career. The drop is primarily in home runs, as only 3.5 percent of those balls in play have gone for homers since 2010, compared to 5.1 percent career.
So Lee has lost home runs primarily over the last three seasons, and it is highly unlikely that a move to Marlins Park will resolve that. Lee is moving from Minute Maid Park and its infamous short-field Crawford Boxes to the more spacious Marlins Park and its more distant Clevelander bar. As of last season, Minute Maid Park had a regressed park factor for home runs of 1.04, meaning it generally allowed four percent more homers than the average park. So far this season, Marlins Park has allowed a decently below-average home run rate, meaning we can expect Lee to lose even more homers.
Carlos Lee has hit .266/.320/.428 (.324 wOBA) over the last three seasons, and right now he is hitting .290/.338/.416 (.327 wOBA). The ZiPS projection system says that he will hit about the same, as it expects a .280/.330/.436 (.329 wOBA) line going forward. All of these lines sound completely correct, and all of those would be maybe five or six percent better than the league average. We would generally expect more offense from first basemen, but first basemen this season are hitting a surprisingly similar .252/.327/.432 (.327 wOBA) this year, so we may get some league average performance from Lee based on this season. Indeed, the league average wOBA this year is at .316, so that means that Lee could hit almost three runs better than average in 300 PA going forward.
If you combine that with league average defense and maybe three runs below average in baserunning, then you get a projection of 0.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That is a very paltry return for the Marlins, but it was to be expected given the fact that Lee has not been impressive over the last three years and still has problems in the field and on the bases. If Gaby Sanchez was indeed so bad that he would have cost another half a win below a Quad-A scrub first baseman for the rest of the year, then picking up Lee was an upgrade of one win. This move only impacts the team if Sanchez was indeed quite horrible at his current talent level. Otherwise, you are talking about a minor upgrade.