David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Quantifying the Impact of Indians Losing Travis Hafner

Last week, a winter of speculation came to an end as free agent and former Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with the New York Yankees.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The idea of re-signing Hafner had been a polarizing one among Tribe fans, with the debate generally revolving around whether Pronk’s hitting ability made up for his injury history and inability to play the field—whether the opportunity to put his bat in the lineup was worth giving up a spot on the 25-man roster that could otherwise be used on a more multidimensional player. I was in favor of bringing him back but most Cleveland fans seemed to prefer moving on (and apparently so did the Indians).

Before he was off the market, most of the debate was cast in abstract or unquantifiable terms: health risks, versatility, personal opinions of Hafner. But now that the dust has settled, it’s worth exploring a different question: Just how much production are the Indians losing by not bringing Hafner back?

In order to come with a concrete answer, I first looked to the batting order the Indians displayed on the scoreboard in December while wooing Nick Swisher. This might not be how Terry Francona actually fills out the lineup card on Opening Day and it would likely change based on who is DHing, but it’s the most objective lineup projection we’re likely to see until Spring Training heats up.

  1. Michael Brantley
  2. Asdrubal Cabrera
  3. Carlos Santana
  4. Nick Swisher
  5. Mark Reynolds
  6. Jason Kipnis
  7. [Designated Hitter]
  8. Lonnie Chisenhall
  9. Drew Stubbs

Next, I put this batting order and Bill James‘ 2013 projections for each player into Troy Masters’ Lineup Simulator; the order and numbers for the eight starting fielders remained the same for each of the following projections.

Plugging Hafner (and Bill James’ 2013 projections for him) into the lineup at DH, the simulator has this lineup scoring an impressive 749 runs over the course of the season, or 4.63 per game. Take this with a grain of salt because it assumes that Francona would be able to use his best nine players all season long, but that’s 82 more runs than Cleveland scored in 2012 and would have made the Indians the seventh-best offense in baseball last year had they matched it.

What happens now that Hafner is gone? By all accounts, the natural heir to get at-bats in Pronk’s place is Mike Aviles (it’s unlikely that he’ll actually DH much, but he’ll play the field while another infielder gets a quasi-day off). Plugging Aviles’ projected stats in instead, the Tribe projects to score just 728 runs in 2013, and 4.50 per game—i.e., a difference of more than a run every eight games. That might not sound like a lot, but it adds up.

In today’s run environment, it takes about nine or 10 additional runs to swing a team’s projected record by one game, meaning the drop from Hafner’s bat to Aviles’ would cost the Indians two to two-and-a-half wins in 2013 over a full season. That’s about the difference between a league-average player and the average Rule 5 draftee or non-prospect in Triple-A. In other words, subbing Aviles in for Hafner is about equal to replacing Michael Brantley with Ezequiel Carrera. That’s a big deal.

Another suggestion that’s been floated (including here at Wahoo’s on First) is to move Carlos Santana to DH and make Lou Marson the starting catcher. Plugging Marson’s projected production in place of Hafner’s yields an even bigger drop, to 725 runs per season and just 4.48 runs per game. Granted if Marson were made the starting catcher it wouldn’t be for his bat but for his glove (and Santana’s knees), but that’s not a small difference.

This doesn’t account for platoon splits or matchup plays or the various other exogenous variables that could differ based on who’s DHing, but the result is interesting nonetheless: barring an uncharacteristic down year from Hafner (when he’s healthy he’s been a model of consistency for the last four years) or a breakout season from a replacement, even a half season of Pronk would mean at least a win’s worth of extra production from his bat compared to Aviles’ or Marson’s.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that not re-signing him was wrong. Maybe keeping the other eight regulars well rested will make up for effectively trading an everyday player’s production for a minor-leaguer’s, and maybe the extra bench player will translate to enough late-inning rallies to offset the overall net loss of runs. But losing Hafner will have real and tangible implications for the Indians’ lineup, and to dismiss the difference between his production and his replacements’ as insignificant is simply wrong.

Tags: Cleveland Indians Lou Marson Mike Aviles New York Yankees Travis Hafner

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