Clash of the Titans: Mitch Maier vs. Gregor Blanco

Earlier this week, I wrote up a very preliminary preview for 2011 that allowed me to project the opening day roster.

One of the roster decisions in front of me was the choice between organizational stalwart Mitch Maier and former Brave Gregor Blanco for one of the outfield bench spots (I have to assume either Melky Cabrera or Lorenzo Cain start in center). One of our readers asked me why I prefer Mitch over Blanco and at the time, I really had no strong basis for the decision.

I like to joke that it’s because I have a franchise on MVP 2005 for PlayStation 2 where I’d updated the minor league system to reflect minor league prospects and major league transactions (Mark Teahen has won the MVP award twice, by the way).  On that game, Maier had developed from a fourth outfielder to unseating David DeJesus in the starting lineup. Not really a good basis to keep  a guy off the real Royals roster though, huh? In the interest of fairness, I took a look at the two players to determine if there is a clear winner in this race.

With Mitch Maier, the Royals have a generally speedy outfielder with good range who produced at the plate right around league average.  He doesn’t strike out too much, walks at an above-average rate but doesn’t display a lot of power.  He’s shown good health as a major leaguer, so he’s not a risk to keep dropping out of the lineup.

With Gregor Blanco, the Royals have a generally speedy outfielder with good range who produced at the plate right around league average.  He doesn’t strike out too much, walks at an above-average rate but doesn’t display a lot of power.  He’s shown good health as a major leaguer, so he’s not a risk to keep dropping out of the lineup.

Okay, so it’s not very easy to tell the two apart.

Blanco walks more (12.8% to 9.5%), but Maier has more pop in his bat.  Blanco’s a better base stealer (74% success rate vs. 66%) but Maier has a less pronounced platoon split.  Maier has a career .663/.721 split against righties/lefties.  Blanco’s splits .713/584 (oddly, Maier has a higher slugging percentage against lefties).

Defensively, Blanco is regarded to have better range, while Maier has a better arm. According to Fangraphs, Maier has a better UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) per 150 games than Blanco – at least in center field.  Their numbers have Maier at 2.9 runs below average as a career outfielder per 150 games, but 1.4 below in center for his career.  In 2010, he improved to be 4.6 runs better than average in UZR.  Blanco’s a -1.2 UZR/150 outfielder for his career and 3.0 runs below in center by that rating.  In 2010, between two teams, he was 2.9 runs better than average.

Bill James, on the other hand, rates Blanco as the better fielder – but still not great.  In 2010, Blanco had a +/- rating of -3 overall.  The Bill James measurement counts a plus for a play made that an average fielder would not have made and a minus for a play that should have been made by an average fielder but wasn’t.  Blanco made three less plays than average (though was +6 in center for the Braves).  By the same measurement, Maier was -12 plays worse than average and didn’t have a positive in any outfield position in 2010.  The result of those made or missed plays show Maier as saving five runs less than average and Blanco at a net of minus one run.

Bill James also measures baserunning in his annual handbook and for 2010, Blanco added seven bases above what an average run would have contributed.  Maier was -3 bases.

If Maier is in Ned Yost‘s office right now, pleading his case for the roster spot, here’s what he should be pointing out:

  • If you’re looking to fill a spot for an everyday player, Maier’s lack of a platoon split benefits him, and that his OPS is better against lefties only means there’s less need to mess with the lineup against a left-handed starter.
  • The defensive metrics are a basic push.  Blanco’s probably a little better, but not to the extent that it takes Mitch out of the running.  In fact, Mitch’s arm and improvements could make him just as valuable an asset as Blanco would be.
  • Maier probably walks enough to be a leadoff batter if necessary for the Royals, but if he batted lower in the lineup, he’s among the least likely to ground into a double play (in 82 plate appearances with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, Maier grounded into just three double plays – Blanco had 5 GIDP in 38 PA)
  • Maier has occasional pop, and while it may only project to a ceiling of 15 homers in a full season (best case), that’s more than Blanco might have over a ten year span.
  • Blanco may have more speed, but Maier’s not exactly Cecil Fielder either.

Gregor Blanco, on the other hand, should make his case with these points:

  • Kansas City’s pitching staff will probably have the ball put in play a lot.  If you’re going to put someone in the field, it should be someone like Blanco who can cover a lot of ground with his legs.
  • Sure, Maier walks above league average, but Blanco still has him whipped by more than 3% in walkrate.  He’s the prototypical leadoff hitter – speed, patience and a keen batting eye.
  • Blanco was successful in 10 of his 12 stolen base attempts once joining the Royals.  He can turn a walk into a double if given the green light.  I’m sure Billy Butler would appreciate a runner on second who can score on a single with ease.
  • Blanco posted an even 100 OPS+ as opposed to Maier’s 94.  That’s 6% below average, despite the edge in slugging percentage.  Blanco has him edged for their careers with an 85 OPS+ to Maier’s 84.  (Small victories)

According to Baseball-Reference, Blanco rates out as a precise 0.0 WAR player.  He’s exactly replacement level and making the league minimum.  Fangraphs has him as a 1.9 WAR player.

Maier is 1.6 wins better than a replacement level player for his career according to B-R but just 0.7 WAR by Fangraphs measurements.

The main consideration then, is how this player is going to be used.  It’s almost a certainty that Melky Cabrera will end up starting in center field, like it or not.  Lorenzo Cain could still start the year in Omaha, leaving spots for both Blanco and Maier (though it’d be weird to have two left-handed backup center fielders with little to modest power and solid to strong walkrates on the bench).  I’m pretty sure one of them will be shipped out in one way or the other just due to the lack of necessity for two of the same kind of player on the roster.

So here’s my final judgment:  If Lorenzo Cain starts the year in Triple A, Maier is a better option as a full-season outfielder, due to his consistency year to year, his solid walkrate, occasional power and mostly his even platoon splits.  He could spell any of the outfielders three times a week and get a fair number of at bats during the year at average to maybe-slightly-almost-just-barely above average production.

Should Cain make the opening day roster, as a righty, he might be paired with Blanco in a partial platoon situation with Cain getting most of the starts, but Blanco getting a fair share of time against righties.  For what it’s worth, Blanco was 4 for 5 as a pinch hitter last year, though that’s such a small sample size, you can’t draw much from it.  His speed and base stealing prowess make him a better fit as a fourth outfielder/pinch runner/late inning replacement anyway (though the walkrate is for real and tempting in the leadoff spot).

If pressed right now, though, I’d go with my gut.  Maier looks like a ballplayer, or at least more so than Blanco.  I know that’s a shaky basis to make a decision, but baseball executives still do it despite a trove of statistical data to point them in every direction other than “the eye test”.  With most every other aspect being equal or at least close, I think it’s a fair bet to give Maier the advantage.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Gregor Blanco Kansas City Royals KC Lorenzo Cain Melky Cabrera Mitch Maier MLB Ned Yost Royals

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