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Community Projection: Richie Sexson

The fourteenth in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)

I don't like when topics overlap between sites on the same day, but Sexson's up next in the CP series and I don't have anything better to write about, so away we go. (I'll try to keep this one shorter than usual, but then I tell a lot of lies.)

LL Community: .266/.374/.540 (n=20)
PECOTA: .268/.375/.528
Bill James Handbook: .260/.357/.521
ZiPS: .264/.373/.533
Marcel: .262/.359/.517

Actual: .264/.338/.504

Miss. Everybody nailed the average, and Marcel sort of got the power, but the drop in walks caught each forecasting system off guard. Which isn't a surprise, because that's an unusual trend for any player, nevermind a slugging first baseman in his 30's, and it's not something you'd ever expect. Chalk another one up for the triumph of human unpredictability over gut feelings and computer algorithms.

Mind you, early in the season our projections looked considerably worse. Sexson began his year immersed in a godawful slump, making out after out and tag-teaming with Adrian Beltre to make sure the lineup never produced any runs. Sexson's April was his worst individual month since Yahoo! started tracking splits in 2001, and his May was even worse; his batting average stood at a dismal .202 as late as June 14th. Fans who were convinced that he'd shake himself out of it began to waver in their faith, as the guy just looked completely and utterly clueless at the plate.

...then he shook himself out of it. After teasing everyone with two homers in three games, Sexson flipped out in San Diego with yours truly in attendance, going 5-5 with a double and a pair of bombs in what was clearly the game of his life. From June 17th through the rest of the year, Sexson hit .309/.383/.602, approximating an unstoppable dynamo who played a significant role in undoing all the damage he'd dealt to the Mariners' dreams of contention in the early going. It wasn't enough to push the team over the hump (by a long shot), but it went a long way towards restoring everyone's confidence in his bat. With the pitching staff sure to get most of the attention this winter, the prospect of relying on Sexson's power to score runs in 2007 isn't nearly as terrifying now as it was six months ago.

Which brings us to the unavoidable question: what kind of performance can we expect out of Sexson next year? His overall numbers were down in 2006, but that was entirely due to a slow start, and he finished the season as productive as ever. What's that supposed to imply? Seems confusing.

At this point, it's probably worth pointing out that Sexson's always been a better second-half hitter. Look at the splits - his OPS has historically jumped 127 points after the ASB. Clearly he doesn't have an established disparity as wide as the one he had this past season, but it's still a huge difference that that at least somewhat explains what was going on with him. He's a warm weather hitter. A slow start and a hot finish are just part of what makes Richie Sexson who he is.

By looking at Sexson's age and his drop in productivity, it would be easy to call him a player in decline and leave it at that. I should know, I've already done it. And now I disagree with myself. Upon closer inspection, the difference between his 2005 and 2006 seasons is the exact opposite of what you'd expect; he walked less, he struck out less, and he hit for less power. This isn't like Raul Ibanez, who's missing one statistical indication of the aging process - Sexson's missing all of them. The usual ones, anyway. It's possible that he's just taking a more unique path towards retirement, but now I'm more inclined than ever to believe that 2006 was simply a down year. He may very well be in the midst of a decline (and it's hard to see him ever being better than he was in 2005), but unlike many others, Sexson's isn't a one-way street. Next season I expect him to be a better hitter.

So what happened to him in April, anyway? It wasn't a league adjustment or Safeco getting into his head, since he'd already been here a year. There were never any reports of an injury, illness, or personal problems. It was, in a word, befuddling. Here's my guess: faced with his worst slump of the century and a bunch of well-hit balls that weren't finding holes, Sexson got frustrated and - partly on his own, partly due to encouragement from the coaching staff - tried to swing himself out of it. His walks went in the tubes, his strikeouts skyrocketed, and he was just a genuinely awful hitter. You can't keep someone like Sexson down forever, though, so as a few more hits started falling in he got more comfortable and returned to his usual profile. The overall damage was done, but by the end of the year Sexson was pretty much the same player he's always been. That's all speculation on my part, but it seems to fit.

Barring another weirdass cold streak to start the year, I'm looking for Sexson to boost his OBP back up at least 10 points in 2007, and his slugging 15-20. That's not '05 Richie Sexson, but it's a solid power bat in the middle of the lineup, a rare right-handed hitter who doesn't flame out in Safeco (Sexson's home/road HR/FB% shows minimal park effect). Although there's a whole group of better first basemen, it's not like Sexson's bad or anything, and there's nothing wrong with second-tier players as long as they're producing.

The problem, of course, is that Sexson's getting paid like one of the best players at his position, which he isn't. However, I'm not here to argue about his contract; I've done that enough times in the past, and I already linked Dave's most recent piece at the start of this post. Given the opportunity I'd gladly trade Sexson away without a second thought and try to put that money towards a better player, but if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen, and Sexson's salary isn't what's going to keep the Mariners from winning in 2007. They're wasting more on worse (and will probably continue to do so as they address their pitching deficiencies this winter), and it doesn't make sense to cancel the cable just so you can afford to leave the lights on all day long. The Mariners can only come out ahead after trading Sexson if they make sure not to do anything stupid with the money they save.