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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Better Know a Red #20 - Ken Griffey Jr.

As part of our ongoing promotional efforts to help him earn a starting spot in the All-Star Game, and as part 20 of our 27-part series, Better Know a Red, we profile the true star of the Cincinnati Reds, George Kenneth Griffey, Junior. Griffey, the son of Big Red Machine star Ken Griffey Sr., was the first overall selection in the 1987 amateur draft out of Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He ripped up low-A ball in Bellingham his first half-season in the Seattle Mariners system, and continued that success in high-A San Bernardino and AA-Vermont in his second year. He was awarded the starting centerfield job with Seattle in 1989, and by 1990 at only 20 years old, Griffey had come into his own. He hit 0.300/0.366/0.481 that year and just got better the following years, in what is certain to be a Hall of Fame career. He has hit over 40 home runs in a season 7 separate times and driven in over 100 runs 8 times, including doing both for 5 consecutive years from 1996 to 2000. On June 19th, Griffey tied Mike Schmidt for 11th place on the all-time home run list. Next on the list is Reggie Jackson at 563, which Griffey is likely to reach by season's end.

The Reds acquired Griffey in a massive deal prior to the 2000 season, sending Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez, and Jake Meyer to Seattle in exchange for The Kid. Griffey promptly signed to a long-term extension that was considered well below market value, with much of the money deferred to subsequent years, all but guaranteeing him the opportunity to play centerfield for his home town team for the rest of his career. The first year was a smashing success--Griffey slugged 40 home runs and drive in 118 in 2000--but in 2001 was hobbled by the first in a long series of leg injuries that have marked his time with the Reds.

Griffey never was legitimately healthy again until the start of last season. Nevertheless, he proved that his bat is still a potent weapon. Despite a miserable April and missing the most of September with a minor injury, Griffey hit 0.301/0.369/0.576 and slugged 35 homers in 491 at-bats, leading the best offense in the league. This year, the Reds are praying he can stay healthy and continue his offensive excellence as they try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

Historical Stats (for explanations of the statistics used here, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet):
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR SB/% OBP SLG OPS PrOPS GPA EqA VORP
1989/SEA 505 6.1 11.5 31.6 16/70% 0.329 0.420 0.748 --- 0.253 --- 22.1
1990/SEA 666 8.2 10.6 30.3 16/59% 0.366 0.481 0.847 --- 0.285 --- 42.0
1991/SEA 629 7.7 8.9 28.6 18/75% 0.399 0.527 0.926 --- 0.311 --- 67.8
1992/SEA 617 9.2 14.0 22.9 10/67% 0.361 0.535 0.896 --- 0.296 --- 54.0
1993/SEA 691 7.6 7.2 15.4 17/65% 0.408 0.617 1.025 --- 0.338 --- 86.4
1994/SEA 493 6.8 8.8 12.3 11/79% 0.402 0.674 1.076 --- 0.349 --- 71.3
1995/SEA 314 5.9 6.0 18.5 4/67% 0.379 0.481 0.860 --- 0.291 --- 20.5
1996/SEA 637 6.1 8.2 13.0 16/94% 0.392 0.628 1.020 --- 0.333 --- 78.7
1997/SEA 704 5.8 9.3 12.6 15/79% 0.382 0.646 1.028 --- 0.334 --- 90.0
1998/SEA 720 6.0 9.5 12.9 20/80% 0.365 0.611 0.977 --- 0.317 --- 76.1
1999/SEA 706 6.5 7.8 14.7 24/77% 0.384 0.576 0.960 --- 0.317 --- 64.8
2000/CIN 631 5.4 6.7 15.8 6/60% 0.387 0.556 0.942 --- 0.313 --- 47.0
2001/CIN 416 5.8 9.5 18.9 2/100% 0.365 0.533 0.898 --- 0.298 --- 33.8
2002/CIN 232 5.9 8.3 29.0 1/33% 0.358 0.426 0.784 --- 0.268 --- 6.4
2003/CIN 200 4.5 7.4 15.4 1/100% 0.370 0.566 0.936 --- 0.308 0.301 16.3
2004/CIN 348 5.2 7.9 17.4 1/100% 0.351 0.513 0.864 0.913 0.286 0.285 22.1
2005/CIN 555 6.0 10.3 15.9 0/0% 0.369 0.576 0.946 0.964 0.310 0.309 52.3
While I typically only examine a player's most recent 3 years, I wanted to be able to compare last year's success to that of his peak numbers, so I included his entire Major League career. In his prime, Griffey was a guy who hit for high average, maintained a superb on base percentage via a good walk rate, and hit home runs at a ridiculous rate. In 1994, '97, and '98, he hit home runs more often than every 13 plate appearances, and has achieved a 0.900+ OPS 10 separate seasons, including four in which he topped 1.000. Truly, a special player.

The story since his arrival in Cincinnati, unfortunately, has been one of disappointment thanks to a series of leg injuries that prevented him from appearing in even half of the Reds' games from 2001-2004. Last year, 2005, was the first time he had managed to remain "healthy" for most of the season since 2000. And 2005 was a great year. After an April in which he struggled terribly (0.244/0.315/0.366), Griffey caught fire and steadily improved throughout the season, culminating in an amazing August in which he hit 0.355/0.397/0.682, slugging 10 home runs in 107 AB's. Griffey proved that he is still among the most dangerous hitters in the game.

'03-'05 Splits:
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR OBP SLG OPS GPA
vs Left 383 5.0 8.9 19.2 0.339 0.494 0.833 0.276
vs Right 581 5.9 8.8 14.9 0.387 0.589 0.976 0.322
Home 483 6.2 8.1 15.6 0.402 0.593 0.995 0.329
Away 610 4.8 9.4 16.5 0.339 0.525 0.864 0.284
Griffey remains a dangerous hitter against lefthanders, but not nearly to the extent that he is against righties. This has been the one "fault" you could draw about him throughout most of his career, although when he has great years he does tend to hit lefties better. Last year was a good example: he hit lefties to an 0.890 OPS, while he hit righties well enough for a 0.974 OPS. Most players show a platoon split--what separates Griffey is that he can remain effective against lefthanders, removing any temptation to pinch-hit for them in key situations.

Like most long-ball hitters, Griffey has enjoyed hitting in Great American Ballpark. Like his lefty/right split, however, the difference between these two splits was smaller last year, indicating that his resurgence was not due to his home park: he had a 0.902 OPS away from home, while sporting a 0.990 OPS at GABP last year.

Fielding:

Range Arm
Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays/yr) Dial ZR (runs/yr) Gassko (runs/yr) D*G (runs/yr) Pinto (runs/27ot) Davenport (runs/yr) DewanHold (% held) Walsh (runs)
CF 2003 MLB 356 -23 --- --- --- --- -15 -8.6 ---
CF 2004 MLB 657 -51 --- --- --- --- -6 2.7 ---
CF 2005 MLB 1066 -34 -28 -29 -28 -2.3 -22 3.7 -0.1
And now for the bad news. While Griffey's bat speed and ability to hit the longball remains strong, his ability in the field is now a far cry from what it once was. Despite his protests to the contrary, as well as the claims of play-by-play announcers everywhere, the 10-time gold glove winner's leg problems have destroyed his previous outstanding range. Every single fielding statistic I routinely reference is agreement on this point. Last year, Griffey placed 33rd of 35 in John Dewan's fielding system (only Preston Wilson and Bernie Williams were worse), second-to-last according to David Pinto's system (only Jose Cruz was worse), and dead last in baseball according to David Gassko's fielding system.

When I watch Griffey play, I see a guy who still gets good reads on balls. He takes good routes to the ball, plays the ball off the hop or the wall very well, makes smart decisions, and can make the diving, dramatic catch with the best of them. But he just can't close ground like he used to. It's a shame, but it's very damaging to the ballclub's defense. The Reds would be very well served in Griffey moved to left field, putting Dunn at first and either Freel, Denorfia, or Kearns in center. In left field, Griffey could probably become a defensive asset once again, rather than a liability. But that's ultimately going to have to be Griffey's idea, and his comments with the media earlier this season indicated that he's not ready to accept his loss of skill in the outfield just yet.

2006 Season Projections:
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP
PECOTA75 504 5.60 8.54 16.26 1/50% 0.376 0.564 0.940 0.310 0.307 45.5
PECOTA 515 5.60 8.58 17.17 1/50% 0.367 0.541 0.908 0.300 0.299 34.9
PECOTA25 423 5.57 9.00 20.14 1/50% 0.347 0.487 0.834 0.278 0.278 21.2
ZiPS 451 5.64 9.40 16.11 0/0% 0.359 0.548 0.907 0.299 --- ---
Both PECOTA and ZiPS project something of a decline for the 36-year old centerfielder, though it's not a dramatic decline--both expect he'll slug his way to a ~0.900 OPS and a ~0.300 GPA. A good-case scenario PECOTA projection indicates he'll approximately repeat his numbers last year. I think it's reasonable to expect Griffey's short and beautiful swing will continue to remain productive for at least the next few seasons.

So far this season, Griffey has yet to really get it going. After a spectacular showing in the World Baseball Classic (0.524/0.583/1.048 w/ 3 HR's in 21 AB's), he missed most of April with a mild though nagging leg injury. He returned to hit only 0.253/0.286/0.481 in May, although he did show enough late-inning heroics that netted him my May Impact Hitter of the Month award. Signs in June are positive--through June 28, Griffey was hitting 0.264/0.330/0.540 for the month--but he's still not the same Junior we saw in the second half last season. All signs are that he is healthy, so I fully expect that we'll see a return to form in the second half.

As Griffey's career winds down over the next several years, I think most Reds fans will look back on his time with the Reds and be glad to be able to call him our own. It has been frustrating to watch injuries prevent him from achieving all he could. But even so, when all is said and done, Griffey will still be recognized as one of the best to ever play the game--a genuine first-ballot Hall of Famer. I find it hard to be disappointed by that. Moreover, Griffey will be remembered as one of the kindest, most charismatic, and easy to love individuals that our sport has ever seen.

And best of all, Baseball fans can take heart that he's not done yet. He still has a lot of game in him. Let's enjoy it.