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The Cameron Maybin Experiment

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There’s nowhere to go but up for left field in L.A., but how far up will Cameron Maybin take the Halos?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I struggled for a while thinking of the best topic for this post.

Do I want to write about Mike Trout, and how he’s the Best Baseball Man out there? Perhaps I can write a post extolling Andrelton Simmons and his superb defense? I could always trash the Albert Pujols contract, or even get mad at Kole Calhoun for not pushing his way to Seattle via trade.

But all of those players are well-known to Mariners faithful, and the rest of the lineup is pretty nondescript - which is to say, bad. Just three players (Trout, Calhoun, and Simmons) are projected for at least 2.0 fWAR, and only one player is projected to have a wRC+ of more than 115.

So instead, I decided to focus on the worst projected starter, a new acquisition who actually represents a significant upgrade over the Angels’ production from the same position a year ago: Cameron Maybin.

And though Steamer only has Maybin as worth 0.8 fWAR in 2017 (though ZiPS is a bit more optimistic, at 1.1 WAR), this is a far cry from his 2.0 fWAR in just 94 games last season. Which should we believe? Is Maybin actually going to be an effective left fielder for the Angels? Or will he just be the latest contributor to the only thing worse than L.A. traffic, left field in Angels Stadium?

First, let’s look at the production in left field for the Angels over the last few years. Bonus points to anyone who guesses which seasons include Mike Trout in the numbers!

Anaheim has been desperate for anything resembling a competent left fielder as of late - I mean, that wRC+ of 61 in 2015 is absolutely pitiful (last in MLB by a considerable margin), and 2016 isn’t much better (fourth-worst). So adding a player projected to hit close to league average seems like a win-win, right?

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For those of you who have read John’s excellent Jean Segura piece from earlier today, you might be noticing a trend. Both Segura and Maybin are one-time studs who struggled the last few years before enjoying a bounceback season last year. Both were traded to teams desperate for success at their respective positions. And both likely over-performed in 2016.

Maybin’s success, however, seems much less likely to repeat. For starters, Maybin clearly had an immense run of luck last year, with a sky-high .383 BABIP more than sixty points higher than his career mark. Though his walk rate went up, he wasn’t making all that much more contact - in fact, the graph below shows that he has an almost identical whiff/swing ratio as in years past.

This is, admittedly, just a two-year sample, but you can see that his batted-ball speed didn’t improve from his typical-Maybin 2015 year to his best-Maybin 2016.

In fact, the biggest difference only reinforces that he got a bit luckier. Check out the pitches he saw in 2015 vs. the pitches he saw in 2016:

Sorry for the inundation of pictures/charts, but I think they really get the point across. You can tell here that he saw many more pitches up in the middle of the zone, and fewer around the edges, especially at the top - not coincidentally, where he’s always had a higher whiff rate (when compared to the other areas of the strike zone).

My theory, therefore, is that pitchers basically screwed up in 2016. They gave him too many pitches in the middle of the zone and not enough that he’s historically flailed at. Given that adjustment, and given a bit less luck, I expect Maybin’s numbers to come crashing back down.

And all this belies the other question marks surrounding Maybin. Let’s start with his defense. He’s been below-average the last few years, but not horribly so, and he put up pretty good numbers early on in his career.

But those numbers have all come in center field, with the exception of precisely 10 games in 2007, his first year in the bigs (at the tender age of 20!), and with Mike Trout in center the Angels are asking Maybin to shift to LF. Now, most people will tell you that it’s easier to play left than center, and as a former outfielder, I agree: There’s less ground to cover and the throws are much shorter. Maybin will have to adjust his instincts, however, as he’s no longer the captain of the outfield, and he’s seeing the ball from a completely different angle and with different spin off the bat.

In addition, Maybin has some significant injury concerns. He missed a month and a half last year with a broken left wrist, and in fact he’s played in over 100 games just three times in his major league career. Can Maybin handle playing everyday, especially now that he’s in his 30s?

Angels GM Billy Eppler gave up a middling prospect, Victor Alcantara, to acquire Maybin, who’s only under contract for 2017. This was certainly not a huge risk by the Angels. On the other hand, based on what I’ve seen, I also don’t think there’s huge reward available here - which is a sentence true of much of the Angels’ lineup.

Where does that leave the Angels? Given the grim outlook on much of the lineup, and the question marks surrounding many of their top pitchers, they likely need production from somewhere - and they’re trusting this oft-injured, fluky, 30-year-old to play a position he’s barely ever played in his major league career, and to play it well.

Yeah. Good luck with that.