Player comparisons are fun. It's part of talking baseball with our friends: Who do you like better? Who should you take in your fantasy draft? Would you trade this guy for that guy? Here are a couple of comparisons to consider.
Player A is Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, still highly regarded enough that Grantland's Jonah Keri recently called him the 32nd-most valuable trade asset in baseball. Player B is Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, a less heralded prospect who outhit Moustakas -- not to mention former North Carolina teammate Dustin Ackley -- in his first full season in the majors.
In fact, the more you dig into the numbers you realize how much better Seager was than Moustakas at the plate. Seager had to play half his games in the Safeco Field dungeon. He hit just .223 with five home runs there, but hit .293 with 15 home runs on the road, pushing his slugging percentage over .500. Moustakas, meanwhile, hit .279/.333/.461 at home, but just .205/.260/.364 on the road. After a good first half, he also faded in the second half. Seager had slightly better walk and strikeout rates. In looking at wRC+ from Fangraphs, a stat that is park-adjusted, we see Seager was better. In terms of runs created, he was about eight runs better than an average hitter while Moustakas was nine runs worse.
The difference in perception between the two comes from their prospect pedigree. Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and heralded as a star after hitting 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010 (sound familiar, Royals and Rays fans?). Seager was a third-round pick the same year the Mariners drafted Ackley second overall. Seager was viewed as a utility guy coming up through the minors but all he's done is hit and then added surprising power in 2012.
Moustakas does have advantages on his side: He rated as an excellent fielder this past season, pushing his Baseball-Reference WAR ahead of Seager's. Importantly, he's also a year younger, and as Bill James showed long ago, the difference in career length between two players with the same stats but one being a year younger can be significant. Still, Seager keeps exceeding expectations and with the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco, I like his chances to put up even bigger numbers in 2013.
Watching Seager, he may not look like a star hitter in uniform (his legs are short and he wears the baggy pants, making him looking short and squat), but he hits the ball hard (35 doubles as well). Look, Moustakas may yet live up to his prospect hype; Seager may have already maxed out. But right now I don't see a lot that separates the two.
Player A is a guy who goes high in any fantasy draft, an All-Star signed to a long-term contract that will eventually pay him $20 million in one season. Player B is a guy who finally broke though in 2012 after several years bouncing back and forth and not producing at the big league level. Player A is Carlos Gonzalez; Player B is another Mariner, Michael Saunders.
Obviously, the raw batting lines here are much different -- a .303 hitter (.299 career) versus a guy who hit .247. But we must again must dig into park effects. Not surprisingly, CarGo has generated monster numbers at Coors Field, and pedestrian numbers on the road: In 2012, .368/.437/.609 versus .234/.301/.405. In his career, he's hit .353 at Coors, .258 on the road. Saunders, like most of his Mariners teammates, hit much better on the road -- .262/.324/.469 versus .229 at home. In considering park effects, you have to remember that a run created in Safeco is more valuable than a run created at Coors, since games are lower scoring. It leads to a question that we can't fully answer: What would Gonzalez hit if he played for the Mariners and what would Saunders hit if he played for the Rockies?
It's possible that Gonzalez is suffering from the "Coors effect" -- that something happens to Rockies hitters once they hit the road, and that, like Matt Holliday, he'd hit just fine if he played for another team. Holliday, however, did receive a sizable advantage from Coors, hitting .358 there compared to .294 everywhere else. And he hit much better on the road with the Rockies than Gonzalez has -- .301 in his big 2007 season, for example.
The other factor in comparing Gonzalez to Saunders is defense. Gonzalez won his second Gold Glove Award in 2012, and that's one where the sabermetric analysis splits widely from the managers and coaches who vote on that award. Baseball Info Solutions rated Gonzalez as -13 runs in left field in 2012, after being a positive defender in 2010 and 2011. Saunders spent most of the season in center field, but he also rated poorly via Defensive Runs Saved at -12. In the end, Saunders' positional advantage as a center fielder, and the park effects of hitting in Safeco that make their offense closer than it appears, gives him the edge in Baseball-Reference WAR. (Gonzalez does have the edge in FanGraphs WAR at 2.7 to 2.3.)
I'm not saying Saunders is the better player; 2012 was Gonzalez's worst year since his 2010 breakout campaign. And Saunders, despite just establishing himself, is only a year younger, so he probably doesn't have a lot of growth left in his game. I'd like to see Saunders improve his strikeout/walk ratio a bit before I declare him a sure thing, but like Seager, he could be a big surprise in 2013 if Safeco plays a little more fair. Again, this comparison is to point out a matter of perception; Gonzalez is viewed as a superstar; but Saunders, at the least, is clearly an underrated asset.
Check back later today for two more comparisons. And I promise they won't involve any Mariners.