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What is Hernan’s Value?

Hernan Perez looks like an unremarkable ballplayer on the surface. Among Brewers positional players, Baseball Prospectus ranks him in a tie for 8th most valuable WARP (1.1) along with catcher Manny Pina. Compared to left fielders, which is Perez’s majority position in large part due to Ryan Braun’s nagging injuries throughout 2017, the superutility’s Total Average (TAv) of .257 is below median (represented by Jon Jay). His Fielding Runs Above Average looks quite nice, but may be more representative of his whirlwind tour of the diamond than as his prowess in his (listed) primary position. If you like the basic batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging line, Perez’s .263 / .296 / .441 certainly does not leap off the page, save for a note that the batting average is relatively solid and the slugging carries the bulk of the line for Perez. If anything, Perez’s calling card beyond his positional flexibility is his combination of stolen bases and home runs, which once again make him one of the best power/speed players in the game during the 2017 campaign. But even that argument fades as one views Perez’s positions played, as listed by Baseball Reference for dramatic effect where everything to the left of the slash equals more than 10 fielding games played:

Hernan Perez Milwaukee Positions
2015 54/36
2016 594/8367
2017 7598/46

In laymen’s terms, that 2017 line means Perez has played at least 10 games in left field, third base, right field, and center field. He’s also played second base and shortstop.

President Doug Melvin was already on the right track with Perez when his Brewers employed the ex-Tigers depth option as an infield utility player. Already evident in 2015 was Perez’s ability to play around the diamond. That role expanded in a large way under David Stearns’s roster construction, as Perez had a chance to sub for an injured Domingo Santana in right field while also playing more traditional positions of third base and second base (traditional for his experience and profile). As I profiled prior to the season, Perez’s /8367 trip around the diamond made him extremely special, one of eleven expansion era players to work two games each at 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, and RF while also playing regularly enough to hit 300+ plate appearances and well enough to reach a 90+ OPS+. Stated simply, almost no one does what Perez does. An updated Baseball Reference Play Index search for Perez’s 2017 positions shows that the trend continues…only the Dodgers’ age-25 Enrique Hernandez matches Perez’s collection of 10+ games at LF, 3B, RF, and CF. This suggests that even in an era of respect for defensive flexibility within the game, it’s still relatively difficult to find players to serve this role.

There should be clear reason for this fact: just as the expansion of short relief has not entirely erased the starting pitching role or morphed it into a motley set of piggyback assignments, there remains significant value for landing a regular at a set fielding position. Witness Ryan Braun, obviously, but also Travis Shaw or Domingo Santana for the Brewers. What’s even more expressive of this value is the fact that Keon Broxton received continuous playing time in center field despite a performance that was not demonstrably better than that of Perez, which should suggest that the value of finding an everyday position player who sticks is significant enough to wage 326 plate appearances on a player oscillating between fiery power-speedster and fringe replacement option.

Perez’s value, then, comes from another aspect of the game. Indeed, if one views Perez as an ultimate bench profile, which is what a scouting report would probably unemotionally hand down to the superutility option, his skills begin to shine. Here, .257 TAv is quite good, and 3.1 FRAA is almost astonishing. In terms of strategy, Perez has played 22 games with appearances at two or more defensive positions, and another four games as a pinch hitter who stays in the game at a fielding position (PH-LF, PH-3B, and PH-2B, which again seems unheard of in terms of bench flexibility). Stated simply, Perez may not be valuable as an everyday option, where perhaps his 15.9 percent strikeout and 4.7 walk rate profile may diminish his ability to stick at any single position. His value is that of tactical advantage to Manager Craig Counsell, who knows in nearly every mid-to-late game decision event that he has an option better than a “standard” bench player that can play anywhere on the diamond.

Consider a brief table investigating the number of players across baseball with fewer than 50 games played thus far at Hernan Perez’s 2017 positions:

Part-Time Players Number Median Tav Median FRAA
LF 30 0.222 -0.20
3B 26 0.207 -0.10
RF 24 0.206 -0.15
CF 27 0.220 -0.45
2B 21 0.210 -0.05
SS 15 0.248 -0.05

That’s 143 players employed by MLB teams that work at the margins of the roster, perhaps as pinch hitters, bench defensive depth, injury call-ups, cups of coffee, you name it. Judging median offensive production, these players sport TAv generally between .210 and .220 as an aggregate median. MLB teams average approximately five of these players per team, which should reflect just how short MLB benches truly are in terms of talent (and evidence what “replacement theory” actually looks like in practice). Brewers fans complaining about Nick Franklin’s playing time could use this table to understand why the Brewers may have been attempting to unlock some production in the short term, and also play him at four positions (LF, RF, 2B, and SS); had the Brewers unlocked another Perez, Counsell would have exponentially expanded his tactical value options. This should also underscore why Jonathan Villar and his .229 TAv continues to receive playing time; he’s worlds better than a replacement second baseman.

In a weird way, Perez is a replacement player. Perhaps the replacement player, insofar as he contorts everyday value and bench value into something that can no longer be recognized. Consider the production above from players with fewer than 50 games thus far, and how Perez would compare to such players coming off the Brewers bench. Basically, each time Counsell needs to add another positional substitution into the game, Perez’s flexibility ensures that Counsell can rearrange the field how he pleases; for double switches or pinch hitting moves, Counsell also has a much better option than the typical MLB bench player. These benefits cascade with each additional position that Perez can play, ensuring that the Brewers have better depth options than most of their opponents at each step in the game. Perez delays the passage of the game from starters to replacements.

So Hernan Perez poses perhaps the best possible trap for baseball analysts: He is not valuable in the traditional sense of the term. It is not clear that the Brewers could play Perez at one set position on a daily basis and extract strong production from his profile; it’s not clear that he has stunning tools that drive a clearly better than average future ceiling. At the same time, this should not be viewed as a knock against the superutility option, who is finding notable MLB value in a role that is nearly impossible to replicate by the league (which is evidenced by the lack of similar profiles around the MLB). This should lead to a challenge for Brewers fans and analysts, a challenge not to draw any essential conclusions about Perez based on his sustained MLB role between 2016 and 2017. These successful years are not some audition for a larger role, since the role is already set. This is not some value play to create a trade opportunity where the Brewers “sell high” with a trade involving Perez. One could even suggest that this type of role may not be sustainable, although the frequency of injuries and the slog of playing 162 games should leave plenty of superutility opportunities over the next few years. Here Perez serves as some odd trend bucking maverick, a player that does not have any role in a traditional sense, but whose role itself is opportunity presented by baseball’s marathon.


 

Photo credit: Bill Streicher, USAToday Sports Images

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