Baseball fans are fickle folks. Especially in Toronto. Fan favourites like John McDonald and Tie Domi come and go and it has been noted that sports fans in the T.Dot love their grinders who make the most of somewhat limited talents and abilities (I’m also talking about you, JYD).
So is this love affair with Munenori Kawasaki any different? He plays baseball exactly the same way as McDonald, but with a couple of exceptions. Kawasaki has more offensive upside but McDonald is a far better defender.
Let’s look at some of the stats to compare the fan-favourite, light-hitting backup infielders.
This season, in 185 plate appearances, Kawasaki has put up far better numbers than he did in 115 last year with Seattle. With a .225/.337/.325 triple slash line,* Kawasaki’s OPS is .662 which translates to 18 percent below the major league average (an OPS+ of 82). This number is not really bad considering that we didn’t expect too much from him. Particularly excellent is his BB/K ratio of 24/23, meaning that he actually walked one more time than he has struck out, allowing him to have productive at bats even when he doesn’t get a hit.
According to Baseball Reference, he has a 1.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). I’ve written about replacement level and WAR way back on the old site when I discussed the 2012 Blue Jays pitching staff. Since Kawasaki was expected to be a replacement level player himself, this is a huge bonus for 1/3 of a season that he was playing. Fangraphs is a little less generous with WAR, giving Kawasaki a 0.8 WAR — again, any positive number here is good.
John McDonald, in his BEST year of 2012 in Arizona had a .681 OPS (81 OPS+) and had a 1.0 rWAR (Baseball Reference WAR) in 213 plate appearances, mostly earned through his defense. Fangraphs gave him a 0.4 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR), again, mostly due to his defense. So if you’re a lover of defense, Jonny Mac’s performance was heaven to watch, but if you want a guy who can be a contributor on offense while giving you decent defense, you’d want Munenori on your team. McDonald, incidentally, is back with Cleveland and hasn’t played much this year and could be on his career’s last legs (at least playing-wise).
So why am I asking if Kawasaki will be missed? Well, as Dirk Hayhurst has written (and said), Reyes’s floor is higher than Kawasaki’s ceiling. In fact, Hayhurst is more emphatic than that. He writes: “Kawasaki’s 110 per cent threshold just happens to be the basement level of production for Jose Reyes. In fact, if Reyes turned in the numbers that Kawasaki has posted, we’d call him a thief and want him skinned alive for robbing the franchise.”
Since his third season in the majors (and his first full season) at the age of 22 in which he put up an 81 OPS+ — almost identical to Kawasaki’s this year — Jose Reyes has put up AT LEAST a 101 OPS+ and 102 wRC+** EVERY YEAR. Even in his injury shortened 2009 season in which he had only 166 plate appearances, Reyes had a 0.9 rWAR and 0.8 fWAR. And that’s his “basement” of production. With marginally better defense, better speed, better power, better ability to hit for average and get on base, Jose Reyes will give the club much more than Kawasaki and still add the contagious enthusiasm (albeit without as much Muppet-like appeal).
I’ll close by posing an analogy to the way in which we should miss Munenori.*** Kawasaki is like an ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend) with whom you’ve had some great times and enjoyable moments. Jose Reyes is the more fulfilling relationship that you’re currently in and you can see it lasting for several years. I won’t push this analogy too far (it’ll get pretty messy), but let’s remember Kawasaki with that warm, positive glow of relationships past. It was just what we needed while it lasted, but we’re back to better things.
* The first number is batting average, second is on-base percentage and the third is slugging percentage.
** wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus — a method of measuring the runs created by a player against the league average.
*** Jose Reyes just made a beautiful running catch of a soft line drive just as I wrote that last line.