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Jimmy Rollins: Out Maker or Party Starter?

Number crunchers call him an “out maker.” But that’s not keeping J-Roll from helping the Philadelphia Phillies become an offensive powerhouse.

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It’s baseball’s newest insult, along the lines of being labeled “one-dimensional” or having “warning track power.”

The Out Maker.

Baseball followers have grown to the idea that “not making outs” at the plate is the most effective mindset for creating runs, winning games, and judging a batter’s true offensive worth. Actually, sabermetricians have been preaching the theory for years. It just took Michael Lewis’ Moneyball to get it mainstream. Getting on base any which way, which places a high value on drawing a walk, is the key to sustaining a rally and increasing the probability of scoring.

Those who don’t comply are branded as “out makers.” In some circles, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Omar Moreno is king of the out makers for holding the record for most offensive outs made* in a season (560 in 1980) along with two other top-ten finishes. I personally think someone like shortstop Ed Brinkman is more worthy of this dubious title. At least Moreno walked 81 times one year, had 196 hits in another, and possessed all kinds of worldly speed. Brinkman, on the other hand, brought absolutely zilch to the table offensively. In 15 seasons, he batted .224 with an on-base percentage (OBP) of .280 and a slugging percentage (SLG) of .300—and he was even caught stealing 35 times out of 65 attempts. This guy gave away outs on offense like they were hot dogs at Dollar Dog Night. But he was also a deluxe out maker at shortstop, which is how he hung around long enough to accumulate 6,640 plate appearances.

For years, fans and experts have been harping that Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins makes too many outs. Even winning league MVP in 2007 and a World Championship in 2008 couldn’t calm his detractors. Though he has cut down on his excessive strikeout totals from his first three seasons, the charges against him are all too familiar: He doesn’t get on base enough. He doesn’t work a count. He doesn’t bunt and use his speed. And when he goes into a funk, he gets into “drunken Samurai” mode, slicing and dicing at pitches until the base hits start to fall instead of being more selective.

The “problem” with Jimmy is that he’s not following the stereotype. Undersized at 5’8″ and blessed with blazing speed, the switch-hitting, offensive-minded shortstop has been atop the Phillies batting order for nine years now shouldering the damning title of “leadoff hitter,” a role critics expect him to fill in a certain way. If you listen long enough to their gripes about his shortcomings, you might come away thinking that Jimmy Rollins just doesn’t do his job very well.

He was viewed as a “flawed” MVP in 2007, despite embodying the very definition of what an MVP winner is supposed to be about. He led the Phillies to their first post-season trip in 14 years by winning his first Gold Glove at shortstop and throwing up a dizzying explosion of offensive production: 139 runs scored, 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, and 41 steals out of 47 attempts. One of the arguments was that Jimmy’s lustful EBH line of 38-20-30 isn’t as impressive if you consider the plate appearances it took to accumulate them—778—a major league record. Yet, Sunny Jim Bottomley in 1928 is the only other time a player cracked 30-20-30 in a season. The team of baseball thinkers at Baseball Prospectus used their own smorgasbord of statistical benchmarks and ranked Rollins sixth in that ’07 MVP race, hammering the point that his .344 OBP wasn’t even close to those of the other candidates.

After a dismal .229 first half in 2009, Rollins rebounded nicely during the second half to help get the Phillies to their third-consecutive playoffs. But that didn’t stop online discussion groups from shouting “out maker” after Jimmy recorded his sixth 500-out season of his career. One SABR member went as far as to observe that Rollins had “the equivalent of a hitless season,” slyly noting that Rollins made more outs than the minimum number of plate appearances required to claim a batting title, 502. Just like that, the positive notes to J-Roll’s 2009 season—100 runs scored, 43 doubles, 21 home runs, and 31 stolen bases in 39 attempts—were tossed aside like last week’s leftovers.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Rollins still ain’t gettin’ the respect.

There’s more. In their 2009 Baseball Playoff Preview, The Sporting News graded the leadoff hitters of the eight playoff-bound teams and squashed J-Roll at the bottom of the barrel, saying “he is capable of greatness, but his on-base percentage this season (.296) was anemic and he led the majors in outs made.”

Rollins does make a ton of outs. The reasons are fairly obvious. He leads off and comes to play every day, so he accumulates an inordinate number of plate appearances. And, of course, he avoids walks like an eight-year-old would broccoli. But is this degrading label of “out maker” really justified for this talented and valuable shortstop?

Taken individually, a walk is not nearly as good as a hit. A walk sets up the potential to score a run, but you still have three bases to go before you cross the plate. A walk doesn’t advance baserunners except if first base is already occupied. Base hits, especially those that go for extra bases, are more of an immediate impact on scoring runs; they are more effective in chasing runs home, and standing on second or third after a double or triple is much closer to home than being on first after a walk.

But there is context to when it pays to walk, especially at the top of the order. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin chew through real and simulated baseball data to support the theory that walks are very important to leadoff hitters. They also mention that leadoff hitters and home runs aren’t such a great combination, if it means sacrificing selectivity. Why is this? The leadoff hitter will, more often than any other hitter in the lineup, bat with nobody on base and bat with nobody out, because they are most often leading off the inning or following the lineup’s weakest hitters. Walks are valued in those situations because with nobody out, there is time to get that runner to score—where “time” is measured in outs.

We know J-Roll likes to jack a ball out on occasion; it’s part of his arsenal. Unfortunately, home runs are valued least in the leadoff position than any other lineup spot, as The Book states, again because the odds are nobody will be on base. Not that if a home run occurs, the Phillies should send Rollins back to the plate to try again. But if a leadoff hitter sacrifices a bevy of walks trying to launch a rare four-bagger, that’s just not good team play.

So according to baseball theory, Rollins is a mismatch for batting leadoff on at least two counts. But the guy must be doing something right. Because if he doesn’t stop doing what he’s doing, he just might play his way right into the Hall of Fame.

Rollins will turn 31 the day after Thanksgiving. At the pace he’s been going, he’ll carve out a delicious set of lifetime statistics by the time he’s through that will one day place him among the most productive middle-infielders ever.

Check out his total bases. Rollins is on pace to accumulate more TBs than every Philadelphia Phillie in history, even “the greatest third baseman who ever played,” Mike Schmidt, who is currently the Phillies career leader by far (Schmidt: 4,404, Delahanty: 3,230). With 2,607 total bases entering the 2010 season, Rollins could eclipse Schmidt in 2016 by averaging 257 TBs a year over the next seven years (he has averaged 287 TBs per full season so far).

Let’s project a few other numbers. Let’s assume that over the next five seasons, Rollins will put up stats that reflect his average production over the past five seasons. We’ll throw an aging factor into the mix and knock that production down to 85% over those five seasons. We do this because Rollins is already past a ballplayer’s typical peak age of 27, a number Bill James and numerous researchers have come up with in separate studies. Next, we’ll degrade that same production to 65% between ages 36 and 37, and then 50% between 38 and 40. We’ll call it a career at 40. It’s a conservative look, considering that many stars—including Schmidt, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth—produced to their norm through age 37. We’re not using any trends here, so we’re not going to postulate that J-Roll’s ’08 and ’09 seasons are indicative of some type of early career decline.

Jimmy’s projected lifetime totals then become:

The Projected Career Totals for Jimmy Rollins

(2000–2019)

Statistic

Career Total

All-Time Rank

H

2,928

35

R

1,730

22

2B

635

10

3B

171

25

HR

286

141

TB

4,761

27

RBI

1,138

169

SB

602

18

It will all depend on J-Roll’s longevity, but you have to admit that this is a historically impressive suite of numbers for an elite-fielding shortstop. Let’s round-down these accumulating numbers to even more conservative totals for our “projected” Rollins:

2,800 hits, 1,500 runs, 500 doubles, 125 triples, 250 home runs, 400 stolen bases

Trivia question time. What players in baseball history have reached all of these numbers for their career?

Answer: No one.

Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker lacked the homers (they had 117 each), although they did play half their careers during the Dead Ball Era. Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, and Paul Molitor fell short on the triples. Honus Wagner was 34 hits shy. Several other no-names (Ruth, Mays, Musial, Yount, Brett, Hornsby, and Simmons) didn’t have the steals.

If you’re surprised that Rollins has been doing all this before your very eyes, you are probably still numb from the way his approach at the plate has been knocked almost as much as Michael Vick’s character. It’s that darn OBP. How could someone so guilty still be so good? Is OBP overrated in his case?

I don’t disagree with the beauty of how OBP, along with SLG, capture a player’s overall offensive contribution neatly using two easy-to-calculate numbers. That’s why the stat OPS (OBP+SLG) was created. But it makes you wonder whether somewhere along this line of judging a player’s overall value, that Rollins is somehow getting screwed. This “out maker” stuff has the slightly negative connotation that a player has been fairly useless with the bat in his hands. This same school of thought has labeled Pete Rose as one of the most over-rated players in history—a mighty hard sell for many fans who watched Rose pull his teams to championships while collecting 4,256 hits along the way.

In theory, maybe J-Roll does belong in the sixth spot of the batting order, where it’s not as important to get on base, and his extra-base tendencies are better utilized behind the stronger middle portion of the Phillies lineup. Then again, maybe in a lineup as potent as the Phillies—they led the National League in runs, HRs, and SLG in ’09—which position Rollins bats in isn’t all that important.

But something appears to be working with J-Roll at the top. Many Phillie players are quick to admit that “as Jimmy goes, so do we.” There are numbers that seem to back up this claim. In 2009, the Phillies scored 36% more runs per inning when Rollins led off an inning—regardless of whether he reached base—than if any other Phillie led off. The number jumps to 180% if Rollins got on base in that scenario. No other primary leadoff hitter in the National League matched this type of influence on his team’s run-scoring success in ’09. So apparently, even in a “down” year for him, as Jimmy goes, so do the Phils.

But as with matches, we have to be careful with statistics or else we can get burned. Thinking this through a little more, I realized that when Rollins leads off an inning, Victorino, Utley, and Howard are sure to follow, whether Jimmy gets on or not. Any statistic that gauges a team’s success based on when Rollins leads off is as much a reflection of the Phillies’ heart of their order as it is of Rollins. It might seem that Rollins makes the Phillies go, but there are mutual forces involved here. How his teammates perform behind him significantly impacts his apparent effectiveness as a leadoff hitter.

For now, let’s just say Rollins and his teammates need each other. We’re not quite sure who needs whom more, but the combination has been dynamite. Ever since the Phillies started building the team around Rollins starting back in his All-star rookie season in 2001, the team has climbed the mountain of success, culminating with their title in 2008. The Phillies are not only looking strong in defending their title this fall, they are young enough to compete for the championship with the same nucleus for the next few years. It’s hard to argue against the perception that through it all Rollins has been the straw that stirs the drink, the glue that holds the pieces together—whatever irreplaceable agent you can think of—in this entire Philly operation.

When you consider his sterling defense at a demanding position in the field, Rollins is the total package. With that gun on his shoulder, his quickness, and consistency with the glove, J-Roll could be the best fielding shortstop the Phillies ever had. Having seen Larry Bowa play during the 1970s, I thought I’d never say that. Before you start thinking that a third consecutive Gold Glove is in the bag for Rollins this year, keep in mind that he batted just .250 with a .296 OBP. Yeah, yeah, the Gold Glove is supposed to be just for defense, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how they vote. Watch for Troy Tulowitzki to give Rollins a battle for the award after coming back strong with the bat this year.

Sabermetrics helps us see things in baseball we normally can’t see. It tells us that Jimmy Rollins is a bad choice for a leadoff man. But that shouldn’t distract us from appreciating J-Roll’s overall game as an exciting conglomerate of laser line-drives, lightning on the basepaths, and a shut-down defense that is very valuable to the Philadelphia Phillies. He and the Phillies have already picked up ample hardware for their trophy cases—and they just might be heading toward even bigger and more rewarding days.

- JDC

*Offensive Outs Made = (AB–H)+GIDP+SF+SH+CS  (baseball-reference.com)

THE SOURCES

  • Fagan, Ryan. “Strong arms…and bats and gloves,” The Sporting News, October 12, 2009
  • Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, W.W. Norton and Company, 2004
  • Sheehan, Joe. “Prospectus Today: NL MVP,” www.BaseballProspectus.com, November 20, 2007
  • Tango, Tom M., Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Potomac Books, 2007
  • www.baseball-reference.com
  • www.billjamesonline.com

3 comments to Jimmy Rollins: Out Maker or Party Starter?

  • There are some great points in this article. I feel that the Hall ignores the great fielders. His combination of stopping runs defensively and creating runs offensively has produced an elite player in Jimmy Rollins. So what if you have a big player that walks a lot and can’t run. When Jimmy gets on there is a great chance he will score.
    I always felt Jimmy would be a great #5 hitter. He puts the ball in play a lot and he could really use his speed where Howard and Utley aren’t following him. But over the last couple years when he leads off and is going strong, the Phils have been unstoppable.

  • Vince P

    Love the depth of stats and all the 1920 references. Jim Bottomley? There’s a guy I never heard of. I never understood all the debate over the 2007 MVP, those numbers were sick and they don’t even take into consideration the fielding prowess. From a fan perspective, I do get agitated with many of his “quick swings”. He rarely sees enough pitches which I happen to think is very important in most situations. Many times, and this is just observation, not sabremathmaticmetricsystem, when he “jumps” at the first pitch he tends to hit a weak fly ball. When he sees pitches or has a “good” at-bat, he tends to rope line drives and hard ground balls that find open space. Still, the Phils need him to be successful.

  • Thank you for the very insightful comments. This is just another classic means of enjoying baseball—debating it. Rich, I think you nailed the issues. I encourage all baseball fans to take the time and check out an old-time player they’ve never heard before, like a Jim Bottomley. Did you know he is a Hall of Famer and holds the record for most RBIs in a game, with 12, tied with Mark Whiten? I agree with you Vince, that Rollins does seem to send an unusual number of harmless balls into the air that get you wanting him to pound the ball “down” (Gary Matthews voice) and use that speed. You’re like “well that was a wasted at bat.” But in a sense, I think we’ve got to come to grips with, and maybe this is the most important point of all, that this is part of the formula that makes Jimmy Rollins who he is. Gotta put up with those lazy fly balls.

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