I am a little bit late to the party, but the big news of the week for the Chicago Cubs is clearly the signing of David DeJesus and his Chicago suburb-dwelling, Twitter-happy wife to a two-year $10 million with a club option for a third ($6.5 million club option. $1.5 million of the base deal accounts for a $1.5 million buyout). As expected, the first signing of the Epstein-Hoyer Era was met with microscopic analysis, and to some degree, skepticism. No, he’s not Cuban. He didn’t cost a posting fee. He isn’t legally named or nicknamed “Prince.” On one hand, the signing brings some of us to the nostalgic yesteryear of 2010 when DeJesus was a coveted commodity as a steady on-base guy with reasonable speed and good defense. The pragmatists of today, conversely, look at his ugly slash line last season in Oakland (.240/.323/.376) and wonder what exactly the Cubs front office sees in this guy.
Like most hitters in Oakland, DeJesus didn’t hit very well last season. Maybe it’s the Coliseum. Maybe it's the weight of the elephant on their shoulders. Maybe they just miss Barry Zito’s Chi. The fact is, putting on the Green and Gold creates a strict dichotomy of pitching heaven and hitting purgatory. The A’s acquired DeJesus to provide their lineup with a spark at the top. Instead he turned in a .240/.323/.376 slash line and found himself losing playing time. It came to a point during the season that Hideki Matsui (a perennial DH candidate for his defense at this point of his career) started to receive playing time in the outfield at the expense of DeJesus. Despite this platoon, DeJesus still appeared in 131 games last year. At first blush, this doesn’t bode well for Cubs fans expecting an upgrade, or for that matter, an equivalent of Kosuke Fukudome in right field in 2012. In fact, it looks like the Cubs got a platoon outfielder with below-average power on the wrong side of thirty with a lingering thumb injury. Right?
Well, Cubs fans, I am here to tell you this: the David DeJesus signing will be looked at down the road as one of the better value signings of this offseason for the Cubs. I’ll even go so far as to predict that he will exceed Kosuke’s offensive production from the past few seasons while providing above average defense in Right Field. Time to get dirty with some knowledge.
Nobody (Messes) with DeJesus… Except Lefties?
When a player has such a sharp decline the culprit tends to be one of two things: (1) skill degradation; or, (2) the guy is just plain unlucky. Sometimes it is a combination of both. It doesn’t appear that DeJesus is suffering from skill degradation. His walk rate (8.9%) is one of the highest of his career. His power (.136 ISO) is about on par with his career power rate (.137 ISO). His strikeout rate (17%) was exceptionally high in 2011 (in 2009 and 2010 he had K% of 13.9% and 11.9%, respectively). Despite this increase in strikeout rate, his plate discipline was above the league average. Thus, it doesn't appear that the dropoff in production is the result of skill deterioration as DeJesus is pretty much within reasonable range of his career averages.
That leads me to the second part: the luck component. Contrary to his .316 career BABIP, DeJesus had a BABIP of .274 last year. While this likely points to DeJesus hitting a rough patch in the luck department, it doesn't tell the full story. The picture becomes clearer when you begin to look at his splits against righties and lefties. Take a look at the following:
wRC+, vs. RHP
wRC+, vs. LHP
Sweet DeJesus! One of those things sticks out like a sore thumb. In 2011, DeJesus fell off the face of the earth against left-handed pitching. While his run creation stayed fairly steady against RHP, wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) in 2011 shows that DeJesus created 75% fewer runs than the league average against left-handed pitching. This is pretty far off from his production the two seasons prior where he was around the league average at creating runs against left-handed pitching.
What is the explanation for this? In 2011, DeJesus saw his groundball to flyball ratio drop to 1.15, well below his career average of 1.40. But despite hitting fly balls with more frequency, DeJesus had a career-high 22.7% line drive rate against the bane of his 2011 season: left-handed pitching. Line drives usually mean solid contact. This brings us back to BABIP, this time looking at the splits. In 2011, DeJesus had a BABIP of .220 against LHP. This is a far cry from his career .302 BABIP against LHP. What does this all mean? The good news is it appears that last years struggles against left-handed pitching may be an anomaly: despite making what appears to be solid contact based on the line-drive rate, DeJesus was hitting into outs. This is best described as bad luck. On the other hand, some of it may be attributed to the residual effects of the thumb injury he suffered in 2010. Regardless, recent history suggests that DeJesus hits lefties well and will resume that trend in 2012. Even if he doesn’t, he is relatively cheap and can be platooned to the point that his shortcomings are mitigated. It is a win-win situation for the Cubs.
The Inevitable Kosuke Comparison
Since the Great Kosuke Trade of 2011, Bleacher Bums have been yearning for the day when it was acceptable to wear Kamikaze headbands and display an “acceptable” level of racism towards Japanese culture (See, e.g. most Fukudome merchandise sold outside Wrigley). While most fans in the bleachers will now be fixated on the better half of DeJesus (see Alex’s post below!), Cubs fans should also recognize that David is the better half of a Kosuke/DeJesus comparison.
Despite defending his offensive prowess in the section above, DeJesus does a lot of things average on the offensive end. As a matter of fact, over the past 3 years his .334 wOBA is 5% above average. But the real value for DeJesus comes from his above average baserunning and defense. Despite having the worst offensive season of his career in 2011, DeJesus still managed to be a 2.2 WAR player in right field. Compare that to Kosuke last season (-0.2 WAR) and DeJesus is a clear improvement even in a down season such as 2011. It gets even better when you realize that the Cubs are going to pay DeJesus $8.5 million ($10 million if you include the buyout) for two seasons. Kosuke made $14.5 million last year alone. Thus, DeJesus not only fills the hole in right field but he improves the team’s overall production for much smaller price tag.
While you still have to play the games, David DeJesus projects to be a good-to-great value signing for the Cubs front office. Even if you base your expectations on his career-worst 2011 season (which I demonstrated should likely be an anomaly), DeJesus projects to have a floor of a 2.2 WAR player in right field. Moreover, to sweeten the deal he provides the Cubs with (theoretically at worst) a 2.2 WAR player at a below-market contract. Even if DeJesus’ struggles with lefties carry over from 2011 and he only reaches his floor (if that), he is still at a price point where mitigating his struggles by placing him in a platoon is acceptable. Regardless, it still remains quite likely that DeJesus will improve offensively in 2012 (Bill James projects a .271/.349/.399 slash line). While it lacks the sex appeal of making a huge splash with the first move of the offseason, the signing of David DeJesus has the feeling of being a very shrewd move by the front office to address the one of the deficiencies of the 2011 ballclub.