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Is Rios really underrated? (Why defense matters)

Aug 11, 2009, 3:31 PM EDT

This morning part of my analysis of the Blue Jays’ decision to dump Alex Rios’ contract on the White Sox included referring to him as “an underrated outfielder in his prime.” That statement drew quite a few e-mails, comments, and tweets from people who disagreed, some very strongly, so let’s examine things a bit further.
Most of the anti-Rios sentiment came from people focusing on his offensive production, which is admittedly far from jaw-dropping. He’s a career .285/.335/.451 hitter who’s batting just .264/.317/.427 this season, and many comments boiled down to “they’re paying $60 million for a guy with a .750 OPS?!” The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores Rios’ tremendous defensive value and strong baserunning.
According to Ultimate Zone Rating, per 150 games Rios’ defense has been worth 14 runs more than an average right fielder and 12 runs more than an average center fielder, although the center-field numbers are derived from a relatively small sample of playing time. He’s also stolen 68 bases at an 82-percent success rate during the past three seasons, along with being a very good baserunner in general.
His offense is indeed nothing special, but .285/.335/.451 is hardly poor production from right field or center field and when combined with a glove that’s 10-15 runs better than average and another handful of runs on the bases it equals a very good all-around player. Add it all up and during the past four seasons Rios has been worth 35-40 runs more than a replacement-level outfielder per 600 plate appearances.
Rios hasn’t lived up to his usual standards so far this year, but last season he was worth 55 runs above replacement level, which ranked third among AL outfielders behind only Grady Sizemore and Nick Markakis. Two seasons ago he was worth 47 runs above replacement level, which ranked fifth among AL outfielders behind Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, and Ichiro Suzuki.
Rios offers average offense with outstanding defense, but for various reasons it’s a lot easier for most people to recognize value in someone who puts up strong numbers at the plate while playing poor defense. For instance, my friend Howard Sinker of the Minneapolis Star Tribune compares Rios to Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who will make $8.5 million in 2010 and $10.5 million in 2011.
Cuddyer has an edge offensively, but the difference isn’t anywhere close to as huge as the advantage Rios holds defensively. Over the past four seasons Cuddyer has been 15 runs above average offensively per 600 plate appearances, compared to 10 runs for Rios. However, during that same time Cuddyer has been five runs below average defensively per 600 plate appearances, compared to 10 runs above average for Rios.
In other words, Cuddyer is +15 offensively and -5 defensively. Rios is +10 offensively and +10 defensively. Cuddyer appears better if you focus strictly on hitting, but at the end of the day a run is a run regardless of what facet of the game it comes from and their overall values relative to “average” are +10 for Cuddyer and +20 for Rios. Similar comparisons can be made to good-bat, poor-glove outfielders across both leagues.
Defense matters, even if it’s not as easy to measure and analyze as offense, and Rios is an elite defensive outfielder. Assuming that he bounces back to his previous norms offensively–and at 28 years old he should–Rios is among the best all-around outfielders in baseball. Focusing on his OPS doesn’t even begin to tell the story, which is why he’s “an underrated outfielder in his prime.”

  1. Nutsy - Aug 11, 2009 at 4:29 PM

    Damn, Gleeman, great work again. I wish I could explain it half as well as you just did. The guys in my office just don’t get it. The White Sox are clear favorites for the AL Central now, in my opinion.
    Anyways, awesome work, as always. This is right up there with your Winter Meetings comparison of the Bellagio’s toilet paper to the paper-thin interest in Delmon Young. Thank you for making my day better.

  2. Bill - Aug 11, 2009 at 4:38 PM

    My friend, may I suggest that you’re the type of baseball analyst who looks at statistics and can’t see anything but numbers.
    I’ve watched Rios play for six years. He strikes me as a guy with a very low baseball IQ. He rarely hustles out of the batter’s box. He is complacent to the point of being indifferent. He appears to take instruction poorly. He makes the same mistakes over and over. He is often MIA at clutch-time.
    No one quibbles with his athleticism, and his defence is generally above average, although he’s prone to stupid mistakes and often shies anyway from the truly difficult catch (if, for example, there’s a wall involved).
    I think most Jays fans had had their fill of the guy, and the big argument is whether Ricciardi (now there’s a mediocre talent) could have made a better arrangement in moving Rios. But most fans also understand that it’s the Vernon Wells’ albatross contract that forced Toronto’s hand on Rios.
    Cheers.

  3. Eamon Portico - Aug 11, 2009 at 4:40 PM

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this article, and I think one can attribute the negative response to your original article to the impact of fantasy baseball on the casual fan. Not too many fantasy leagues take into account fielding or baserunning (beyond NSB that is). As such, most fans restrict their thinking to how trades/acquisitions would help a fantasy team, and not a team slogging day-in and day-out for 162 games a year. It’s the same reason why I can’t stand when people say Varitek sucks as a catcher or when Philly fans complained about Pedro Feliz’s career .250 average not being enough of an improvement over Nunez and Helms. It’s all about perception, and for better or worse FBB has skewed that.

  4. Leo - Aug 11, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    I couldn’t agree with more with Bill in his analysis. Rios should be a top tier outfielder but is just a mediocre one. His number have never been up to expectations. He is not a clutch player and it looks to me that he is indifferent to his potential. If you compare Rios production to Bobby Abreu and the fact that his contract is cheaper you’ll get the point.
    I understand why the White Sox are taking Rios, since they will not offer a contract to Dye, but believe me Rios, will not be the answer unless this guy gets his head in the game. My take is that he doesnt care about baseball or winning, but was given such an talent that was able to reach this level. It happens but doesn’t win you games.

  5. Ryan - Aug 11, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    Rios is NOT A GOOD BASERUNNER. He runs the bases quickly, not well. He makes a boneheaded base running error every week. Being fast doesn’t mean you are a good base runner.
    This coming from a Jays fan who hates the move, and actually like Rios.

  6. BigJay - Aug 11, 2009 at 5:06 PM

    “A good baserunner in general” he is not.
    I watch 90% of all Jays games, and he was one of the worst baserunners on the roster excluding the pitchers.
    Sure he can steal bags, but that is only a small part of baserunning. The guy just does not have the mental makeup. I’ve seen him make base running blunders quite a few times. There are times when it seems like he is just caught day dreaming.
    His defense is also overrated. You can tell me the numbers don’t lie, but I cannot think of any great plays he has made in the field over the last couple years. Sure, he has a great arm, i’ll give him that. And he has plus-range but the thing is, he rarely uses his range. He gives up on plays way too early and is afraid of the wall.
    White Sox fans will see this all in due time.
    On the bright side, it does look like his bat is starting to wake up a bit.

  7. richiel1 - Aug 11, 2009 at 5:10 PM

    I understand the newly understood value of defense in the SABR world, and it certainly is important. But sometimes you just have to take a step back and look at the big picture.
    1) Everyone (including this article) admits defense is very hard to quantify. How can it be explained that Rios’ UZR is negative this year if he is so good? You can’t say “His previous UZR’s prove he’s a great outfielder. This year’s UZR is a fluke/abberation.” I just can’t buy into a notoriously unreliable stat like UZR as the main reason a player is worth 60 million dollars.
    2) His offense has been declining clearly for several years now. His OPS has gone from .865 to .852 to .798 to .744 this year. No OPS isn’t the be all end all, but how long can you keep saying “he’s in his prime! he will definitely reverse his 3.5 year trends and get better offensively again!” Sometimes players don’t follow usual career paths, and his career could very well have peaked in his mid 20s.
    So in the end you are claiming Rios one of the best outfielders in the game based on notoriously unreliable defensive stats (while even ignoring his negative defensive value this year based on the same stat you use claiming his worth), and his ‘above average’ offense, which a blind man could see has been declining for 3 years in a row and is currently sitting at Scott Podsednick (the man he’ll replace) like levels.
    Would I be willing to risk about $60 mill that he reverses a 3 year trend, reverts back to his career year offensive levels from back in 2006 and doesn’t continue on his downward career path? Probably not, especially when I couldn’t see him getting more than $30 million on the market right now.

  8. Martin Gregory - Aug 11, 2009 at 5:11 PM

    I was surprised to see this, having just looked at Rios’ fielding stats and thinking they were middle of the pack. I was looking at 2009, and you’re looking at his other years.
    In the past he has been a pretty good fielder. However, this year his UZR is a mediocre -0.7, his UZR/150 is a mediocre -1.3, and this RngR is down to -3.6. What would explain this fairly significant dropoff during his prime, considering the fact that he hasn’t been injured or anything?
    As a Blue Jays fans, I have to agree with what was said above by Bill. He comes off as a lazy prima donna, seems to constantly pull up short of bloopers and line drives, avoids walls or does not know where they are, and seems to have a poor work ethic in general. He signed his contract at the beginning of the 2008 season, so that wouldn’t really explain his fielding dropoff, unless the money he’s gotten has gone to his head, which is not surprising.
    In the end, the White Sox could have a decent RF/CF if they can successfully motivate him. But as a Blue Jays fan, I hated watching him, and losing him ‘for nothing’ doesn’t bother me at all.
    Do you have any ideas as to why his dropoff is so significant this year in fielding?

  9. Henry - Aug 11, 2009 at 6:57 PM

    Great stuff Aaron!
    I would agree with the people who accuse Rios of not playing hard and acting indifferent. Watching him play this year, I see the same things.
    However, this type of “indifference” gets exacerbated when a prima-donna like Rios plays for a non-contender.
    Look for Rios to show some new fire, now that his performance actually means something! (Like how he played before he signed the big contract.)

  10. Sky Kalkman - Aug 11, 2009 at 7:41 PM

    Good stuff, Aaron. One problem people unfamiliar with stats like UZR have is putting “15 runs” in context. On the OPS scale, 10 runs is about .050 points of OPS. So 15 runs is .075 points of OPS. So instead of just being a career .785 OPS hitter, he’s just as valuable as a .860 OPS hitter in a corner outfield spot.

  11. Bill 2 - Aug 11, 2009 at 11:31 PM

    I,m a Blue Jay fan living in Ontario who has seen Rios playing several times in person. Although I was very high on him a few years ago, I’m now quite soul on him. I think that people are overly kind to him concerning his defense. I’ve seen him drop fly balls; he often make poor throws and there is a general sloppiness about his fielding. Your comment about his low Baseball IQ is very appropriate. I think it is his defensive short-coming that is the real reason that he has to go. He could easily bounce back offensively next year but I think that he has proven that he will never be a great outfielder. I’ m not at all disagreeing with your comments. I just think that you were being too kind. I also agree that dumping Vernon Wells would also help move the team forward, but I realize that’s going to be a very difficult task.

  12. big_chizzi - Aug 12, 2009 at 12:39 AM

    you have clearly never watched rios play defense the guy is brutal, ya he runs fast and has a good arm, but i dont think i’ve ever seen him successfully layout for a ball or make a grab against the wall, but i have seen him bobble a somewhat routine catch at fenway and then knock the ball out for a homerun while trying to catch it with his barehand. bottom line i am a jays fan and i am thrilled to see this guy leave for nothing because he is nothing.

  13. Gussie Wussy - Aug 12, 2009 at 1:23 AM

    Who cares about defense? Keep that crap off of fantasy sites.

  14. scott - Aug 12, 2009 at 4:05 AM

    We can toss around all our fancy-ass stats all we want, but in the end the only debate that really matters is: As it stands right this instant, is this a good baseball move by the Chi Sox?
    Well, newsflash, from a die-hard Cub fan, even: Kenny Williams is a damn-good GM. The laundry list of players that he’s straight up stolen is nearly criminal, so the track record is there. A couple more reasons why, despite the Jays fans parting words for their once-hyped megaprospect, I think this is a great move:
    Those who’ve watched him have a problem with his effort. First off, do you think Ozzie will have any of that? Second, has the guy ever had *anything* to play for out in the AL east? A taste of a pennant race can absolutely revive and boost a players’ performance. Prime example- Jason Bay last year, off the top of my head.
    And Bay is really apropos here because the White Sox also get 10 years younger at the position *next* year if they decide to let Dye go. Just as Boston did with the Manny-Bay deal.
    You could argue that Rios has 5-tool talent, and is coming to a hitters’ park. He’s coming to a town and team and manager that would love to have him, and I’m not sure any of those things were true for him north of the border.

  15. moor coors - Aug 12, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    I have watched over 60 Blue jay games this year. At no time have I heard Rios and wall in the same sentence. Ball after ball will drop for base hits on the track. When was the last time you saw Rios on a fielding hi-lite. Secondly …it is rumored that this guy has a good arm! He does, the problem is, he never hits the cut off. Again and again he will throw from right field to the catcher and 1 in 10 times he will nail his man at the plate, but 10 out of 10 times the runner will move to second.
    His base running skills are a joke! Time and time again he will fail to tag on fly balls. He even cost the Jays a walk off win when he failed to tag on 3rd base in the 9th inning.
    His value drops after 7 innings when the game is on the line. All his battings stats drop to 5th outfielders status. He is the fuse that is going to light up Ozzie.
    He is worth maybe 5M per year….Blue Jays just traded Rios for over 30,000,000!

  16. tdot - Aug 12, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    you are obviously not from Toronto and don’t watch a lot of Jays games (for that I don’t blame you). But to argue that Rios is a “very good baserunner in general” is garbage. He’s terrible on the bases. He simply isn’t very smart. He isn’t aware of outs when on base, doesn’t hussle. Ask anyone who actually watches the Jays play and they will tell you he was a terrible baserunner. Most are glad he’s gone. He lacked any emotion. Wasn’t a clutch hitter. etc

  17. wobatus - Aug 12, 2009 at 9:44 AM

    Except that OPS is a much more reliable stat than uzr and the “runs” added or subtracted thereby.

  18. Greg - Aug 12, 2009 at 12:24 PM

    Bill – I too am a big Jays fan and watch the vast majority of their games. You are dead on with your observation and I couldn’t agree more. I note several other comments agree with your position as well and I’m absolutely thrilled he was picked up on waivers for nothing. Unfortunately this may go down as one of JP’s most shrewd moves even if perhaps Rogers helped tip his hand in forcing a salary reduction.

  19. r_m_l - Aug 12, 2009 at 3:12 PM

    Rios has the best arm of anyone I can remember. I saw him throw out Melvin Mora — no slouch — by a full step from RF. The catcher actually missed the tag but the throw beat Mora so badly that the ump called him out anyway. I raved about that play to my friends. Back then — I think it was around 2005 — Rios didn’t have much of a bat at all. His bat got better, by a lot.
    Rios may not be a top 10 OF, but he’s definitely well above average, and that is due to his glove, arm and speed.

  20. HOTROD - Aug 13, 2009 at 4:45 PM

    I REMEMBER WHEN BASEBALL WAS ABOUT WINNINING, ALL YOUR HEAR IS ABOUT IS THE 300 DIFFERENT STATS SOME MATHMATICIAN CAME UP WITH.
    WHO CARE’S, PLAYER PLAY THE GAME NOT STATS OR COMPUTER PROGRAMS.
    MAYBE WE DON’T NEED COACHES JUST BY A COMPUTER AND HIRE STATS GUY.

  21. CBlakeWork - Aug 14, 2009 at 4:35 PM

    Just a note on comparing Rios to Cuddyer. The comparison of the last 4 years (2005-2008) stated in the article isn’t necessarily valid, as Cuddyer spend most of 2008 injured and spent 2005 as a utility player playing mostly Third Base, but also Second, First, and RF.
    Take out 2005 & 2008 and I would guess Cuddyer’s numbers would be above average, plus he has a good arm for RF. No Gold Glove, but not Manny Ramirez either.

  22. Mike Kage - Aug 15, 2009 at 3:05 AM

    When i think of Rios i think of a ball hit by Prince Fielder to right field where Rios was standing that just sat on the warning track as Fielder rounded the bases for an inside the park homerun. Yes Fielder made it around the bases before Rios decided to pick up the ball and throw it in, one word incredible. It just seems it takes him longer than the average person to process things. I’m not so sure if that can be changed, but hopefully if your a white sox fan it can.

  23. Kurt - Aug 17, 2009 at 4:33 AM

    One thing I remember about watching Rios play(especially since 08) is he can’t really play balls well in the corner and that led to a ton of triples and runners making it from first to home. He also very rarely used his arm although sometimes when he did he had an absolute hose.
    As far as baserunning he was a very good base stealer,but only an ok base runner who got doubled off more then the average runner and didn’t take the extra base at third as often as he probably could/should.
    One more thing about Rios is that he has a really good average with risp and 2 out and 2 strikes, I can’t remember the number itself but it was impressive.He also isnt very good with the bases loaded.

  24. Kurt - Aug 17, 2009 at 4:36 AM

    Haha I never checked but the post above mine is the perfect example of Rios’ ability at playing balls in the corners/off the wall.

  25. Stoeten - Aug 24, 2009 at 1:37 AM

    I was going to comment here on the same thing that a lot of Jays fans have pointed out: that, while fast, and while stealing at a good percentage, I certainly wouldn’t call Rios a “good baserunner” having watched him for all these years. However, a ton of these Jays fans also have it WAY wrong on his defence. You don’t measure defence by how many times a guy has to dive for a ball or how many times he goes crashing into a wall. Eric Hinske dove full out for balls all the time– was he a good defensive outfielder? The thing about Rios is, he’s got such great speed that he gets to balls standing up that a guy like Hinske has to dive for. He’s also got a fantastic arm– and while yes, he does appear to sleepwalk on the occasional play, the good FAR outweighs the bad. A very talented defensive OF, probably better suited for centre– which mitigates whatever is happening to his offensive production. And that’s not to say that I didn’t like the move the Jays made here– I keep telling people, even if you consider Rios’ contract a bargain when you factor in his age, his D and the likelihood of a bounce back offensively, the Jays, with their payroll constraints, need more, and better, bargains than him. And they absolutely couldn’t run the risk of Rios turning into dead weight similar to Wells– $20-million a year invested in one stiff is bad enough, over $30-million tied up in two would have been devastating.

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