Monday, January 4, 2010

What Can Giants Fans Expect from Eugenio Velez in 2010?

With Mark Derosa now a member of the Giants, Jason Bay a Met, and Matt Holliday more likely than not being on a team that isn't the San Francisco Giants, the possibility of Eugenio Velez starting in left field on Opening Day in 2010 seems to be a very strong possibility.

Therefore, that begs Giants fans to ask the question: is Velez worthy of being the starting left fielder for the Giants in 2010?

First off, Giants fans, bloggers and even beat writers have been critical of the prospect of Velez starting next season. After all, the facts say a lot: Velez got off to a putrid start (.194 batting average, .438 OPS in 23 games in 23 games last season during the first half before he was demoted to Fresno), and while he picked up in the second half, his stats certainly weren't mind blowing, or even really above average.

What was Velez's stat line in the second half of last year? A .277 batting average, a .747 OPS and 10 stolen bases.

Are those stats awful? No, but they aren't great, and they certainly aren't worthy of a guy who is expected to bat leadoff for the Giants either.

To make matters worse, Velez's advanced stats make him even less satiable to Giants fans in terms of him batting leadoff or even starting. He had 0.29 BB/K ratio (Bill James only expects that ratio to improve by ten points next year) and the fact that he had a tendency to swing at bad pitches (he swung at 27.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone last year) is not a characteristic of a leadoff hitter at the Major League level.

To make matters worse, Velez has two horrible tendencies when it comes to baserunning: he doesn't have very good instincts when it comes to stealing bases (as evidenced by his two-to-one stolen base to caught stealing ratio), and he is incredibly bad in terms of getting out of the box from the right side of the plate.

Seriously, watch Velez bat right handed, and watch him get out of the box. His feet shuffle, and it take probably a good two to three seconds for him to really get going. That is ridiculous. Now, I would be okay (well...tolerate is a better word) if he was a good switch hitter. However, his .200 batting average, and .503 OPS last year as a switch hitter shows that him batting from the right side of the plate is practically worthless. From the right side, he doesn't offer power (he has zero career home runs from the right side of the plate), he doesn't hit well for average, and he kills his one solid quality while batting switch hitter: his speed.

So, is all lost with Velez? Not quite. You cannot ignore a couple things as a Giants fan. For starters, Velez did show improvement last season in the second half. He showed better plate patience, and did show some pop (he hit five home runs last year, while he hit only one home run at the Major League level in his two years prior to 2009). And, while this goes unnoticed, Velez is actually a pretty decent defender. He can play all three outfield positions (though left and center should be more focused than right) and he can play second base. Furthermore, his UZR/150 as a left fielder was actually very good at 46.1. What does this mean (since UZR/150 is one of those "ridiculous stats" of sabermetricians)? This number shows that Velez has tremendous range and instinct in left field. If you don't buy the saber numbers, then just recall his plays. Who was the guy making diving plays and cutting off balls down the line in left field? Chances are it wasn't Fred Lewis (and I like Freddie, okay?)

There is a lot to not like about Velez. He is an impatient hitter, doesn't make the most out of his speed at times, and is older than we would like to think (he's 27, will be 28 next May). That being said, if Velez can do a few things, then I think him starting in left field won't be as bad as Giants fans would like to think.

Here's what Velez needs to do:

1.) Continue his progress in terms of plate patience: While he was not great statistically by any measure, he certainly looked more comfortable at the plate, and spit on pitches he usually swung at in 2007, 2008 and in the first half of 2009. I don't expect Velez to be leading the Giants in walks and have an OBP in the .370-.380 range. However, if he can be a .340-.350 guy, I think that will be good enough due to his speed. In my mind, he's capable of being Juan Pierre with more pop, or a poor man's Willie Tavares in Colorado or Houston (not Cincinatti where his career has blown up quicker than Hiroshima getting atom bombed by the Enola Gay).

2.) Become a better base stealer: He has speed. He may be the fastest guy going from first to third. That being said, he needs to know how to steal second when he gets on. With Randy Winn gone, and Emmanuel Burriss most likely going to start next year in Fresno, this team will be devoid of base stealers other than Andres Torres. If Velez wants to silence critics, he needs to improve his instincts when it comes to swiping second.

3.) Stop being a switch hitter: He stinks at the right side. That is certain. So, if he stinks, why continue? There is no shame in it. JT Snow quit playing around as a switch hitter and he became a better hitter. Velez should follow JT's example.

So there it is. If Velez can do those three things, then I think he can be a decent, perhaps surprising option for the Giants next season in left field. Do I secretly hope the Giants find a better option? Maybe. Do I secretly hope Fred Lewis can get some love and get off to a good start? Sure.

But right now, it's Velez in left, and instead of looking at this like the world found out about the meteor in the beginning of "Armageddon," I'll try to take a more optimistic (or at least hopeful) outlook.

Let's hope I don't kill myself come May if Velez gets designated for assignment.

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