What was a rumor as early as last week gained steam yesterday afternoon and was finally completed very late yesterday, pending the required physical per ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. We know that Andrew Friedman loves to do work in January, but potentially making two moves official in the same week is a breakneck pace for him after a December that seemed like it was 57 days long.
Let's assume that passing the physical is as routine as accepting a four-pitch intentional walk and look at why the Rays were interested in acquiring a player that will be playing for his sixth major league team in eight seasons of professional baseball.
On the surface, Keppinger is a bat-first player with a well-earned reputation as a contact hitter and someone that hits left-handed pitching well. As a full-time player in 2008 with Cincinnati and 2010 with Houston, Keppinger was the toughest player to strike out in the National League. In 2008, he struck out once every 19.1 at bats and in 2010, he led the league with a 14.3 total. He is at his best when hitting lefties as he has struck out in just four percent of his 660 plate appearances against them in his career.
This is also a player that has hit well in certain situations. Keppinger has hit .283/.360/.392 with runners in scoring position in 547 plate appearances in his career. He has spent a majority of his career hitting in the second spot in his lineup, and it is easy to envision hit and run opportunities for him against left-handed pitching given his high-contact abilities and talents in controlling the bat. In 1490 plate appearances hitting in that spot of the lineup, he has but 95 strikeouts.
The bat-first term is used loosely because that terminology is usually mentioned when talking about guys like Jack Cust, back when he could actually hit of course. Keppinger is your prototypical high-contact hitter that sprays the ball around the yard but rarely puts one one in the bleachers. It is also said that he lacks as much power at the plate as he does range in the field. Fangraphs shows his UZR/150 scores as -3.5 at second base in 2315 innings, -12.1 at shortstop in 1397 innings, and -4.2 at third base in 761 innings of play. Baseball Prospectus grades Keppinger as nearly three field runs below average for his career. The 2012 Bill James Handbooks is no less kinder to Keppinger as it states Keppinger costs his team 12 runs on defense last season with his play at second base and 21 runs over the past three seasons. Those totals were the worst and the second worst for each category.
He has spent an overwhelming majority of his career at those three positions while playing just 73 innings at first base or the outfield, so any talk of using Keppinger in platoon situations with Matt Joyce or Carlos Pena may be a bit premature until we hear how the team plans on utilizing him. Then again, about the only thing we can rule out with Joe Maddon is that Keppinger is not likely to catch in 2012, but anything else is on the table.
Coming off a season in which the Rays' bench had defensive talents such as Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson, this is a step in a different direction that Friedman has hinted at a few times this off-season. Most recently, he was quoted in the Luke Scott conference call as saying:
"We obviously value defense a lot, but there's times where enough offense trips that line and makes it something that makes sense for the team."
What kind of trip across the line does Keppinger add to the equation? For that, we cite two of the brains in our community - Sandy Kazmir & Whelk. As Sandy put it in his piece over at the Rays Way the other day:
According to The Book, you can't merely look at how a player has performed against same-handed and opposite-handed pitchers because, for the most part, you're dealing with small samples relative to what you need to feel confident predicting what a batter will do in these situations. Regression allows us to look at what a player has actually done while also factoring in what an average batter has done in similar situations to get a much better idea of how that batter will perform going forward. ... One caveat is that with players with obscenely small plate appearance numbers, you're going to find that players are so heavily regressed that it tells us more about the average player than the one we're concerned with.
Last night, Whelk shared with the community the spreadsheet he developed to help everyone do exactly what Sandy described in his piece. Using that spreadsheet, we see the following regressed projections for the middle infielders that Keppinger now joins, assuming all of them survive the required clearing of a 40 man roster spot once Keppinger is added.
As fans, we have become accustomed to Sean Rodriguez and his ability to handle left-handed pitching, so seeing that he and Keppinger share a similar regressed wOBA in that split is comforting. Consider that the entirety of major league baseball had a wOBA of .317 against left-handed pitching putting both Rodriguez and Keppinger well above that figure while Johnson and Brignac come in well below that figure.
Keppinger was forced into full-time duty on less talented teams by less conventional managers in the past. He now gets to play for a manager who recognizes the strengths of platooning players. He is also coming to a team that diligently works to have their defenders in the best possible position to make a defensive play based on the historical batted ball data of that hitter. At a minimum, this roster move crosses that imaginative line between defensive and offensive needs for the team and perhaps some of the defensive strategery that the Rays employ can help soften any of Keppinger's detrimental effects to the team defense.