Matt Tuiasosopo: Difference Maker

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The story is pretty widely known. Matt Tuiasosopo didn’t have a job this winter and e-mailed GM’s who he thought might have interest. Dave Dombrowski took the chance.The Tigers needed a right-handed hitting outfielder to use with Andy Dirks in LF and to come off the bench when the team needed a power bat. It’s paying off.

Tuiasosopo had never had any success in the major leagues. In parts of 3 seasons, the last of which was 2010, he had accumulated 210 PA. In those plate appearances he posted an unimpressive .176/.234/.306 stat line which produced a 48 wRC+ (what’s wRC+?). In total, his career wins above replacement (what’s WAR?) was -1.1. That’s a small sample and you can’t make too much of it, but Tuiasosopo paced out to about -3.0 WAR over a full season based on his career numbers.

Let’s just say 2013 has been different. While Tuiasosopo had some occasional offensive success in the minors it looked liked the 27 year old was never going to have a steady big league job. After four months of 2013, he’s at least earned himself a spot on someone’s big league bench next season.

If you assume there are 255 starting spots in the show (9 spots per AL club, 8 per NL club) then the 255 position players with the most plate appearances are the starters and the rest are bench guys. Obviously injuries throw a wrench into the clean cut off, but I’m just using it as a jumping off point, so we can be a little loose about it.

Among the remaining 527 players to grab a PA this season, Tuiasosopo ranks 15th in WAR at 1.2. He’s been one of the best 15 backup players in the major leagues this season despite no success in his career and zero MLB at bats in the two previous seasons. If you actually look at the list of players in the sample, the two guys at the top are Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, so we probably shouldn’t count them because they’re basically superstars. Jose Reyes is ahead of Tuiasosopo. So is Wil Myers.

I told you the cutoff line wasn’t perfect, but the point is pretty clear. Tuiasosopo is one of baseball’s most valuable bench players in baseball this season.

He has just 129 PA this year, so let’s see what happens when we look at players with 150 PA or fewer in 2013. Among players with 150 PA or fewer in 2013, Matt Tuiasosopo ranks 3rd in WAR. He’s the 3rd best player in the game (with some margin of error) who averages fewer than 1.5 PA per team game.

I point this out because we spend a lot of time focusing on star players who carry teams, but I’m a big believer in the value of the backups. Individual bench players can’t change their team’s fortune overall, but the overall bench is very important. The ability to fill in for injured players and to give stars a day off is very important. If each of your bench players can give you 1.0 WAR, you’re looking at 4-5 wins above what you could get from a bad bench. If you can get 2+ wins (a starter’s floor) out of a couple bench guys, you’re looking at something pretty special.

There are a finite number of at bats during a season and it’s critical that you get the most out of each. The difference between Tuiasosopo and a AAA player has already been 1.2 wins and could easily find its way to 2 by the time the season is over. What’s great about that is that he looked exactly like one of those replacement level players entering the season.

Dombrowski and his staff saw something in Tui that made him give the guy a shot and the coaches saw enough to bring him north after Spring Training. In those 129 PA, Tuiasosopo has hit .299/.419/.561 with a .424 wOBA (what’s wOBA?) and 171 wRC+. He’s walking 15% of the time he comes to the plate.

I know you can’t just extrapolate it out, but he’s playing at a 6.0 WAR pace. That’s one heck of a weak half of a platoon.

Now Tuiasosopo won’t continue to hit like this because he’s basically hitting like Mike Trout, but he’s already added more value than you could have expected at the start of the year. He’s already done it, even if he never takes another swing. If you set the minimum at 100 PA for 2013, only 6 players have a better overall offensive rate using wRC+. It’s an impressive list.

Rank Name Team PA wRC+
1 Hanley Ramirez Dodgers 196 205
2 Miguel Cabrera Tigers 452 202
3 Jeff Baker Rangers 106 183
4 Chris Davis Orioles 444 180
5 Yasiel Puig Dodgers 212 180
6 Mike Trout Angels 485 171
7 Matt Tuiasosopo Tigers 129 171

Among players who have come to the plate 100 or more times, only Ramirez, Cabrera, Baker (!), Davis, Puig, and Trout have been better. Surely he’d regress if given a full season of reps, but it’s amazing nonetheless. He’s given the Tigers so much value for almost no cost.

The big moves make headlines. Signing Sanchez and Hunter, extending Verlander, trading for others along the way. But Matt Tuiasosopo has been a very important piece for the 2013 Tigers even if it’s in a limited role. I don’t think we give enough credit to role players in MLB, so that’s really all this is.

Earlier this year I penned this love letter to Don Kelly (my favorite player), but other than that, you don’t see big features written about guys who spend more time on the pines than on the grass. But we do that here at New English D. We love these guys. They play an important role and can sometimes be the difference.

Matt Tuiasosopo is having a heck of a season at the plate and if you’re willing to accept the small sample as indicative of what has already happened even if it isn’t predicitve, he’s one of the best players in the game who fill his role. He’s one of the best hitters with at least 100 PA and one of the most valuable guys to have fewer than 150. He’s not Miguel Cabrera, but the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th spots on the position player side of your lineup card matter and deserve more attention.

Nice job, Dave and Jim. But really, nice job, Matt.

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2 responses

  1. Tui is a good example of a bench player used well by Leyland. Jim seems to have no interest in trying to squeeze too much out of him.

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