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Monday, December 31, 2012
More fun with player comparisons

By David Schoenfield

We did two earlier. Let's try another one.

Player A is a regarded as a star player, a slick-fielding second baseman who has won three Gold Glove Awards, has power and finished 13th in the MVP voting in 2012. Player B is a young player with holes in his game, most notably the low batting average and high strikeout rate. Player A, as you probably figured out, is Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds; Player B is Danny Espinosa of the Washington Nationals.

Phillips is the better player, but the comparison shows how the two are much closer in value than the widely held public perception and how focusing on negatives can obscure a player's contributions. Phillips hits for a decent average -- .281 in 2012, right at the .280 mark he's held steady at since becoming Cincinnati's starting second baseman in 2006 -- and puts the ball in play. With Espinosa, it's easy to focus on all the strikeouts -- he led the National League with 189.

But offensively, the two are similar in value; Espinosa just contributes in different ways. He walks more than Phillips, gets hit by a few more pitches and grounds into fewer double plays. Espinosa stole a few more bases (20 to 15) but Phillips is a better baserunner. Overall, we estimate that Phillips created about 77 runs in 2012 and Espinosa about 76 (in a few more plate appearances). Phillips, however, derived a power advantage from his home park -- 15 of his 18 home runs came in Cincinnati (14 of 18 in 2011). Put Phillips in a more neutral context and his home run total likely takes a dip.

Defensively, Phillips had +11 Defensive Runs Saved, Espinosa +4.

Who do I like in 2013? Phillips had a noticeable drop in his walk rate -- the lowest since joining the Reds -- and that's a concern. A drop in walk rate could indicate a player cheating to speed up his bat. He's entering his age-32 season, so it's not only a minor concern, but something to watch early in the season. Espinosa enters his third season and the strikeout rate is an issue. It actually worsened from his rookie season and if he doesn't learn to put a few more balls in play, the strikeouts will prevent from other becoming a star player.

But he's a good player right now, just one of many reasons the Nationals won the most games in the majors in 2012.