New York Mets Reason for Optimism: thy name is Cowgill

By: Brian Mangan

Brian explains why there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about newly-acquired Met, Collin Cowgill.

Much has been written this offseason, and rightly so, about the weakness of the projected New York Mets outfield corps.  Currently penciled in to start are Lucas Duda, in left field, a platoon of Collin Cowgill and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field, and a platoon of Mike Baxter and Marlon Byrd in right field.

Unless you are a die-hard baseball fan or have been following the Mets intently over the last few years, I am sure your reaction is – “who the heck are those guys?”

However, I believe there is reason to be optimistic about some of the players that the Mets have brought in to compete for jobs this Spring Training.  None of them will challenge for a batting title, and by all means, the unit projects to be below-average.  However, there is reason to hope.

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Collin Cowgill

Before getting into the players themselves, two notes.  First, the Mets outfield stands to be much better simply because two of the worst offenders from last year, Jason Bay and Andres Torres, have been removed from the mix.  Both players, Bay in particular, were worse than any of the nameless Mets above are projected to be.  Their absence, on its own, constitutes an improvement.

Second, the offensive environment in major league baseball is not quite what it used to be.  In fact, the average National League batter only had a “slash line”, which is batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, of .255/.318/.400 last season.  The American leaguer was barely better, at .255/.320/.411.  And yes, that includes first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders.  It is a far cry from what we were used to seeing in the 90’s and 2000’s, when the average player hit .275/.347/.439 (the American League average in 1999).  That’s an incredible dropoff in a decade, and it influences the way we all look at statistics.

Therefore, in order to be considered adequate with the bat, our Mets outfield corps has to meet a much lower bar than one might realize.  Without further adieu, I will present the projections for each of the above-mentioned players.  All of these numbers are courtesy of fangraphs.com, and I promise not to get too deep into the numbers.

Lucas Duda – .248/.333/.418  (-11 defense) = 0.6 WAR
Kirk Nieuwenhuis – .236/.302/.385 (+1 defense) = 0.5 WAR
Collin Cowgill – .247/.309/.363 (0 defense) = 1.2 WAR
Marlon Byrd – .256/.304/.372 (0 defense) = 0.7 WAR
Mike Baxter – .248/.331/.384 (-2 defense) = 0.5 WAR

[A few notes on the statistics.  Again, the above “slash line” is batting average / on-base percentage / slugging percentage.  The defensive #’s are approximations of their value based on data on batted balls and collected by a company known as Baseball Info Solutions, that charts every single ball hit.

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement, and is a shorthand way of assigning value to the combination of everything that a player can do on the field, including batting, fielding, and baserunning.  A WAR of 0 is considered “replacement level”, and essentially useless and can be replaced by an average player in Triple-A.  A good starter typically posts a WAR between 2-4, an All-Star typically around 4-6, and an MVP caliber season is typically 6+ WAR.  All you need to know about WAR for now, is that each of these players are only projected to be slightly above replacement level.]

A few things immediately stand out from the above list.  First, all of these players are projected for POSITIVE WAR values, meaning that they would all be expected to provide value above a theoretical “replacement player” (more on that in the footnotes).  Secondly, although Duda is projected to be by far the best hitter, his cartoonishly bad defense hinders him to the point that he is almost useless.

So why the optimism?  COLLIN COWGILL.Image

Cowgill is young, athletic, can run the bases, can play defense, and he can hit enough to stick in the big leagues.  He provides value in enough areas that he will, at worst, be useful, and on top of that I believe he has the opportunity to exceed expectations at the plate.

It was not long ago that Cowgill was a fifth-round draft pick from a major university (Kentucky) who returned from injury to post impressive numbers in the minor leagues.  However, regardless of the statistics he’s posted, he has always been lightly regarded due to his small stature, standing only 5’9” and weighing approximately 190 lbs.

Despite his size (or lack thereof), Cowgill has hit and played great defense no matter what level he has played at.  In college he posted an OPS of 1023 [OPS is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage].  In Single A, in 2009, he batted .277/.373/.445. With an on base percentage nearly 100 points higher than his batting average, he showed a great ability to draw walks and find other ways to get on base.  At the time, Baseball America rated Collin Cowgill as the Arizona Diamondbacks #9 prospect, stating that he had “surprising power” and “great bad speed.”  He was compared at the time to Aaron Rowand and Cody Ross, with Baseball America concluding that he projected as a fourth outfielder on a contender, providing “righthanded pop and constant energy.”

In Double A, the next year, he posted a nearly identical line, except he also added 25 steals.  John Sickels praised his “all around skills,” although he ranked him only #15 in the Diamondbacks’ system.  Baseball America continued to keep track of him, noting in June 2010 that although Cowgill had had injury problems, “when he has played, he’s been good, showing good power for a little guy.”  Promoted to Triple A in 2011, Cowgill took his game to another level, batting .354/.430/.554 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Regardless of what you think of his size, or his age compared to his level (he did not break into the big leagues until his age 25 season), he has made adjustments and continued to hit.  Although he struggled last year between Oakland and their Triple A affiliate, it was truly the first time that Cowgill had struggled at the plate.  Even so, Cowgill posted a .654 OPS and played good defense, nudging his contribution into the positive.

I believe that Cowgill can meet or exceed the forecast which you’ll find for him on fangraphs.com.  In fact, the fans who have posted projections on the site agree with me, suggesting that Cowgill will hit .266/.335/.382 with +2 defense.  Even if he falls slightly short of those numbers – numbers which are by no means a stretch for a player who routinely posted on-base percentages of .370 or higher – he would be an asset due to his defense and his speed.  I think that Cowgill will hit slightly better than that, in the neighborhood of .265/.350/.360.

Major league pitchers have a way of exploiting weaknesses that pitchers in Double A and Triple A cannot.  This is why we see prospects flame out at the major league level where they were able, by sheer will, or talent, or athleticism, able to overcome their flaw in the minors.  However certain aspects of a player’s game are unaffected by a jump between levels, such as speed and defense, and to a certain lesser extent, plate discipline.

Cowgill’s walk rate in the minor leagues was always above average (11%, 11%, 10%, 11%) and was almost to that level last year as well.  Therefore, a nudge back to 10%, even without forecasting an improvement in his hitting, would give Cowgill a useful on-base percentage.

As far as his slugging, it is true that he may be limited by his size.  He slugged only .317 in Oakland last season and, although it was a departure from high slugging %’s in the minor leagues, he was never expected to hit for much power in the Majors.  However, if he can get his slugging % even part of the way back to where it was in the Minors, he’ll be fine.

In sum, all of this is enough for Cowgill to take the reins in center field and run with them (all of the foregoing has ignored the fact that, at the moment, Cowgill is dominating in Spring Training, batting .450 and leading the Mets in OPS).

A look around the Major Leagues shows that a slightly older prospect, even if unheralded, can be an enormous asset to a team.  The Giants’ Gregor Blanco became an important piece of a World Series winning team last year by batting .244/.333/.344, stealing 26 bases, and playing +10 defense.  The Mets discovered a gem in Angel Pagan, 27 years old at the time, who was athletic but completely unproven Ben Revere, David Eckstein, Jarrod Dyson, Rajai Davis, Reed Johnson, Cliff Pennington, Marco Scutaro, Darwin Barney … the Majors are littered with players who were never as highly regarded as Cowgill.  Even Chase Utley didn’t play a full season in the Majors until he was 26.  Jason Kipnis, presently regarded as a top 5 second baseman, is only 5’11” and did not establish himself in the Majors until age 25.

For these reasons, I am optimistic that Cowgill will seize the center field job.  If Duda can return to form at the plate and not embarrass himself in the field, that’s 2/3 of an outfield producing positive value.  Then, it would require only one of Mike Baxter (who is quite similar to Cowgill in his general usefulness) or Marlon Byrd (only recently removed from productive seasons) to produce adequately to fill out the corps.

I think Sandy Alderson did a great job scooping up a player when his value is at its nadir.  I believe that as the season wears on, Mets fans will all be asking for #moreCowgill.

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Image courtesy of the7line.com

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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City and is a life-long, die-hard Mets fan.