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Monday, June 19, 2006

Better Know a Red #19 - Rich Aurilia

After a month-long delay (babies...), I'm pleased to release the next installment of our, 27 part series (thanks Dave Williams & Rick White), Better Know a Red. Today we turn our attention to 34-year old veteran Reds infielder, Rich Aurilia. Aurilia was a 24th-round selection by the Texas Rangers in the 1992 amateur draft out of St. John's University, New York, New York. As a side-note, St. John's alumni also includes former Reds John Franco, Frank Viola, and C. J. Nitkowski.

He played well his first two years as a professional, but struggled in AA-Tulsa and ended up being dealt with Desi Wilson for John Burkett prior to the 1995 season. He quickly rediscovered his stroke and soared through AA and AAA to make his major league debut with the Giants that season at age 23. Three years later, he began a six-year run as the Giants' starting shortstop, which included one of the best offensive seasons by any shortstop not named Alex Rodriguez, hitting 0.324/0.369/0.572 w/ 37 home runs and 97 RBI's in 2001. His production dropped off quickly after that season, however, and he was allowed to leave as a free agent following the 2003 season. His 2004 season with the Mariners and Padres showed even poorer offensive production, and he ended up signing for only $600,000 with the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 2005 season -- a far cry from the 6+ million salary he was sporting with the Giants.

Much to the outrage of many in the blogosphere, Aurilia won the starting shortstop job out of spring training in '05, but then got hurt a month into the season and lost the job thanks to a brilliant month at the plate by Felipe Lopez in his stead. From that point on, Aurilia served as a spot-starter around the infield, getting most of his starts at second base. Even so, Rich ended up having one of the best four seasons of his career. He re-signed with the Reds in the offseason and currently plays a valuable role as a solid offensive and defensive infielder who can play at all four infield positions.

For additional biographical information, please see Rich Aurilia's profile in Red Hot Mama's human league.

Historical Statistics (for explanations of the statistics used in this profile, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet):
2003/SFN 545 6.6 15.1 41.9 2/50% 0.325 0.410 0.735 --- 0.249 0.254 19.0
2004/SEA 286 6.7 13.0 71.5 1/100% 0.304 0.337 0.641 0.701 0.221 0.237 -0.8
2004/SDN 157 5.6 10.5 78.5 0/0% 0.331 0.384 0.715 0.723 0.245 0.254 1.4
2005/CIN 467 7.0 12.6 33.4 2/100% 0.338 0.444 0.782 0.794 0.263 0.269 20.6
The dramatic surge in Aurilia's offensive performance last year is most striking in the resurgence of his power. In 2004 he was downright anemic at the plate, but he rediscovered his stroke last year and managed an 0.444 slugging percentage. This also corresponded to an increase in his contact rate (higher batting average and lower strikeout rate), although his walk rate remained constant. Low walk rates and a relatively low OBP has been the main downfall of Aurilia's game throughout his career--the only time he topped a 0.340 OBP was his career season in '01. Nevertheless, as a middle-infielder, Aurilia's season was good for 20 runs above replacement level last year, which is a heck of a return on a $600,000 salary.

Today I'm debuting the use of a new stat with Aurilia's entry, PrOPS, which is the brainchild of J.C. Bradbury at The Hardball Times (see his article in this year's Hardball Times Annual, as well as this article online). PrOPS is simply the regression-predicted OPS of a hitter based on the batted-ball types (ground balls, fly balls, line drives, strikeouts, walks, etc) of the hitter. One can think of it as analogous to defense-independent pitching stats, in that it removes the effects of bad luck and variation in fielding success against a hitter. This is particularly important when examining hitters who have had unusually bad or good seasons. For example, Rich Aurilia's miserable 2004 season appears to be at least in part due to some bad luck, as his Seattle 0.641 OPS was much lower than his (still rather bad) 0.701 PrOPS. Furthermore, his improvement in 2005 seems to be based on honestly getting better, as his OPS and PrOPS were very close. As we'll see, however, Great American Ballpark may have played a role in his resurgence last year.

'03 to '05 Splits:
vs Left 414 7.8 10.9 27.6 0.341 0.458 0.799 0.268
vs Right 614 6.1 12.8 47.2 0.324 0.397 0.721 0.245
Home 726 7.2 13.2 36.3 0.350 0.457 0.807 0.272
Away 720 6.1 13.1 55.4 0.306 0.349 0.655 0.225
Aurilia has traditionally been a far better hitter vs. lefties, with lower strikeout rates, higher walk rates, and much higher HR-rates. Such a skew is not uncommon for a right-hander, though it's not always to such an extreme. Given Felipe Lopez's rather severe struggles against left-handers, one could make the argument for platooning them. :)

More surprising is Aurilia's home/away splits over the last three years, especially because he has called four different ballparks "home" during that time. Looking at the individual years, this was driven primarily in 2003 and 2005, when he dominated at home and struggled on the road. Last year, in particular, Aurilia had an 0.380 OBP and 0.561 SLG (0.941 OPS) at home, but only a 0.296 OBP and 0.325 SLG (0.621 OPS) on the road. Therefore, a big part of his apparent resurgence last year appears to be strongly related to hitting in GABP. Aurilia isn't a severe flyball hitter (25% fly ball : 31% ground ball ratio), so it's a bit surprising that GABP had this big of an effect on him. I'm guessing some of this is due to small-sample size issues, but it could also explain why Aurilia had so much trouble finding alternative employment last offseason.

Fielding Statistics:
Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays/yr) Dial ZR (runs/yr) Pinto (runs/27ot) Davenport (runs/yr) DP% (+/-)
2B 2005 MLB 547 -2 6.2 .11
7 0
SS 2003 MLB 1064 --- --- --- -4 ---
SS 2004 MLB 47 --- --- --- -6 ---
SS 2005 MLB 238 0 -12.7 --- -6 -11

Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays/yr) Dial ZR (runs/yr) Pinto (runs/27ot) Davenport (runs/yr) Bunt (+/-score)
3B 2004 MLB 232 --- --- --- -17 ---
3B 2005 MLB 129.3 -41.8 1 --- --- 51
Aurilia has a reputation, at least from what you hear from the Reds, as being a superb defender. The numbers don't quite back this up. At second a short, Aurilia looks to be an average to slightly below average defender. I wouldn't be afraid to run him out there, but he's not going to save you a lot of runs out there. The alternative at shortstop, Felipe Lopez, also has defensive troubles at times, although the Fielding Bible rated both as exactly average last year.

On the other hand, in his somewhat limited playing time at third base over the past two years, Aurilia has been well below average. We often hear about Edwin Encarnacion's defensive struggles at the hot corner, but we always hear how great Aurilia is there by comparison. These data indicate that Aurilia is a very poor alternative defensively. Just today while I was typing this (6/17/06), I saw Aurilia miss a fairly easy ground ball down the line off Paul Konerko's bat. While Encarnacion makes errors at an alarming rate at this early date in his career, he has excellent range that makes up for this. In contrast, I can't begin to justify putting Aurilia there on a regular basis. Granted, he could and should improve, but at this point the numbers indicate that Freel is a much better option at the hot corner when EdE needs a rest.

2006 Season Projections:
PECOTA75 417 6.62 11.91 34.75 2/67% 0.343 0.441 0.784 0.265 0.266 20.2
PECOTA 399 6.65 12.47 39.90 2/67% 0.328 0.408 0.736 0.250 0.251 10.2
PECOTA25 338 6.76 13.52 56.33 2/67% 0.304 0.359 0.663 0.227 0.227 0.4
ZiPS 467 6.49 13.34 42.45 1/50% 0.317 0.396 0.713 0.242 --- ---
Given that he is now 34 and is coming off a resurgent year, it's not surprising that the projections predict a decline. According to PECOTA, a good-case season for Aurilia is one that roughly matches his season last year. A bad-case season is something more on par with his miserable 2004 season. In all likelihood, it'll be something more in the middle.

So far this season, Aurilia has shown very impressive power for an infielder, hitting 0.258/0.313/0.497 (0.810 OPS) in semiregular appearances. Aurilia's playing time has surprisingly been mostly at first base, a position he played for only three innings prior to season's start. The emergence of Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion as solid offensive players, as well as Lopez's continued excellence at shortstop, has shut down the rest of the infield to him. Nevertheless, Jerry Narron has managed to find starts for Aurilia at least 3-4 times per week, and he's generally been a solid if unspectacular performer.