Examining the Precedent Set by Colby Rasmus Accepting a QO

Scout Adam McInturff provides Baseball Essential with a ‘pro style’ write-up and player comparison analysis of Colby Rasmus, who became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer Thursday when he agreed to a one-year, 15.8 million dollar deal with the Astros. Check back for more of Adam’s Qualifying Offer analysis throughout the weekend, exclusively here at Baseball Essential.

Early Thursday evening, it was reported Colby Rasmus of the Astros would be the first MLB player to ever accept a team’s qualifying offer. The QO system was put into place by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed into effect beginning in 2012.

There have now been over 30 players to receive qualifying offers over the course of four offseasons, so Rasmus’ accepting this year’s qualifying offer total—15.8 million for just the 2016 season—isn’t insignificant. I wanted to compare certain aspects of Rasmus’ game to various player groupings to determine his value—then after defining his value, examine it in terms of it being the now-set precedent of what teams should expect in players likely to accept qualifying offers.

Was Rasmus destined be the first qualifying-offer-accepted player because he was worse than other players like him that had been offered QOs before? Or has he been somewhat unlucky, only forced into delaying the signing of a multi-year deal because of a strong outfield free-agent class—not anything more deficient about his game than other outfielders who passed on QOs between 2012 and today?

Admittedly, I used more offensive lenses to compare Rasmus to other QO-offered hitters than baserunning or defensive measures. For defense, I just factored in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and I solely used stolen bases to gauge baserunning. I used Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to try and indirectly incorporate both baserunning and defense, though WAR also clearly reflects offensive contributions as well. I broke down the ways I measured qualifying-offered hitters’ offensive outputs into two basic categories: general/value hitting stats, and batted ball rates, but I won’t use the batted ball metrics in this article (see my article this weekend for those).Using those tools to get a feel for Rasmus, we can break him down offensively, defensively (DRS and WAR, to some degree) and stolen base contributions.

Now that Rasmus has accepted the qualifying offer, both teams and agents will use him as a benchmark for ‘the type of player’ that ‘is a candidate’ to accept one. Baseball’s ever-developing financial marketplace is one of comparison and imitation; Rasmus accepting the QO sets a statistical precedent regarding what type of player production should be expected to agree to qualifying offers.

Rasmus enters his one-year agreement with Houston with exactly seven seasons of service time, but will play his eighth MLB season at the age of 29 because he debuted at the early age of 22. Seven years of service time means he’s been through free agency once before, and indeed, he signed a one-year, 8 million dollar deal with Houston for 2015 last off-season, Rasmus’ first as a free agent. Prior to 2014, the former top prospect had been with the Cardinals (2009-2011) and Blue Jays (2011-2014).

Rasmus was touted as a prospect for both power and speed, and while he has indeed made good on those things—he has four 20-homer seasons and nearly-.200 ISO for his career while playing all three outfield spots—his large swing-and-miss propensity has killed his averages and stopped him from being the potential superstar some predicted after being a first round pick in 2005.

While he hasn’t become a star, Rasmus has become at least a predictable contributor who finds his way to around the same offensive numbers every year, with a free-swinging, pull-power oriented approach. In his good years, Rasmus has consistently been between a three and four win player per season, peaking at 5.1 WAR in a 2013 season where he missed 44 games between oblique injuries and a facial injury. Issues with health, on-field focus, and the aforementioned consistency of his hit tool have led to peaks and valleys that have lasted full seasons—‘good’ years like 2009 (2.7 fWAR), 2010 (4.0 fWAR), 2013 (5.1 fWAR), and 2015 (2.8 fWAR) are muddied by seasons like Rasmus’ 2011, 2012, and 2014. In those three ‘bad’ years combined, Rasmus totaled less WAR (2.3) altogether than he did in any of his ‘good’ seasons individually.

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Rasmus is a player who has performed like a surefire multi-year extension candidate some seasons—a borderline all-star with a power and speed toolset, breathed in the same sentence as Adam Jones and Mike Trout after 2013—while also posting numerous seasons of production more often seen from bench players. While he’s absolutely given teams reason to feel comfortable paying him significant average annual values (AAVs) over numerous years of a deal during the highs of his career, he’s almost shown the same level of likelihood to regress.

Last season’s 2.8 fWAR and career-high 25 homeruns convinced the Astros reason to offer Rasmus a qualifying offer, and as a result he will now forever be lumped in with the elite group of hitters that teams have so far been willing to risk 14-16 million for one year of service—those being position players that have been given qualifying offers by their clubs since 2012.

When evaluating players with numerous years of service time at the MLB level for free agency, trades, or arbitration-based decisions, teams and agents often use a ‘three year’ benchmark to evaluate performance. In this case, that’s 2013-2015. Rasmus has totaled 1,319 plate appearances over 359 games the last three seasons.

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Since 2013, Rasmus has been among MLB’s top 15 or so outfielders, somewhat quietly. This three-year span includes his career best 2013, a 2014 to forget, and last season’s 2.8 fWAR campaign. When compared to all of the 37 other centerfielders with over 1000 plate appearances, he’s been overall one of the best (11th of 38 in 2013-2015 fWAR)—and even better considering he has less plate appearances than many of the centerfielders who rate ahead of him in overall WAR during that time (7th of 38 in WAR/500 plate appearances).

Though he’s played mostly centerfield throughout his career and since 2013, Rasmus showed some valuable versatility by seeing fairly even time between the corners as well as playing some center for the Astros in 2015. He’s also nearing the age of 30, when players generally move off of center-diamond positions. Considering both of those factors, I viewed Rasmus as more than just a centerfielder, especially given his offense. I think he would have been valued like this by the market as well, had he opted to test it.

Regardless of their position within the outfield (LF, CF, RF), eleven other outfielders besides Rasmus have had within 1300 and 1401 plate appearances between 2013 and 2015, like Rasmus’ 1319:

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There are lots of different types of toolsets on the list above, from the offensive minded (Ethier, Puig, Carlos Gonzalez, Seth Smith, Ryan Braun), to plus defenders who generate value with the glove at a premium position (Lagares, Leonys Martin).

Then there is Colby Rasmus.

To Rasmus’ credit, of the other outfielders with similar plate appearance totals and wRC+ as him since 2013, none have been as defensively valuable as Rasmus while providing that level of above-average offense:

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While Rasmus’ offensive output has lumped him in with corner players known more for their bats, simply by being able to play centerfield he’s more defensively valuable—and that’s why you see Rasmus higher in overall fWAR than ‘bigger names’ since 2013 like Ryan Braun, Andre Ethier, and Carlos Gonzalez. Rasmus isn’t even a ‘good’ defender in center, he just isn’t a bad one either. Hitting like Seth Smith and playing average MLB-caliber defense in centerfield—when Colby Rasmus is billed that way—is a nice-sounding asset.

However, before we get too carried away, we have to remember this is Colby Rasmus. This is a guy who has disappeared in numerous seasons for a variety of reasons, and a player who is extremely one-dimensional offensively. Maybe this year more than ever, I saw a player with one swing geared to do one thing, and an approach that never shortened up. I saw more than ‘just a couple’ home runs Rasmus hit this year where he fell down 0-2 in the count—looking baffled on off-speed pitches the first two strikes of the at-bat—and then took the same hell-hack he takes early in counts down 0-2, guessing right on a fastball, and hooking a pull homerun into the right-field seats. Most of Rasmus’ home runs were solo shots.

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The table above puts some numbers behind what I’m saying. Despite being the most valuable defender in a group (1300-1401 PAs with at least 117 wRC+) of some of baseball’s highest-profile outfielders like Puig, CarGo, and Braun, Rasmus abhorrently lead the group in strikeouts. Between 2013-2015, he struck out in 7% more plate appearances than the next guy in this group—Carlos Gonzalez—and nearly double the amount Andre Ethier struck out (Ethier’s 17.7% was the lowest K% of the group between 2013 and 2015).

In the table above, Rasmus is also among the lowest in walk percentage over the last two seasons, and by a significant margin, the lowest in batting average as well. He’s the next-to-last in steals—despite being the only player who can play centerfield—better only than Seth Smith. It’s strange that while Rasmus has had the athletic ability to play a premium defensive position not badly, he hasn’t chosen or been given the ‘green light’ to run much on the bases. There’s a chance he doesn’t have the chance to—his swing and approach were so power happy this year, I’m not sure he’s even on first enough to get tons of chances to put his speed to use.

Rasmus has rode an unusual stat line into being among baseball’s better outfielders: a centerfielder with solid-average defense who doesn’t steal bases or hit for average, while producing like the type of three-true-outcomes power hitter usually seen only on a corner.

Rasmus’ .228 ISO from a centerfielder with more than 1,000 plate appearances these last three years is higher than all CFs this side of Mike Trout. His over 31% strikeout rate is also next-to-worst, behind only Drew Stubbs (a guy who was straight up released this past season). That’s an unusual confluence of statistical polarities.

So what good is all of this comparison? Here is the point.

Once we break it down using the measures and player groupings I mentioned in this piece, Colby Rasmus—and teams looking to pinpoint what types of hitters will accept qualifying offers—MIGHT have set a few potential precedents by accepting Houston’s QO:

-Hitters that might accept QOs have unusual blips in their year-to-year production (Rasmus’ down 2014 between 2013 and 2015, or his lost years wedged in between successful fWAR outputs).

-Hitters that might accept QOs are younger than many six-year free agent eligibles (Rasmus’ 22-year-old debut means that he will have played at least eight seasons before the age of 30), likely meaning they’re more willing to take a one-year gamble because they have more years ahead than free agents in their early-to-mid-30s.

-Hitters that might accept QOs are more likely to be statistically polarizing players that generate lots of mixed opinions across the league. Rasmus is a great example of a very ‘feast or famine’ player that comes in a defensively versatile, athletic package. That’s essentially the Astros mold though, and teams basing offensive decisions on the most cutting edge statistics and hit f/X data (like Houston) are sure to be larger fans of a player like Rasmus than say, the Royals, who do everything offensively Rasmus doesn’t. By being such a polarizing player in his offensive outputs and overall approach, Rasmus will endear himself more than average to some teams, while really turning others away. All this does is lessen anyone’s market of potential suitors, and paired with the fact this year’s outfield class has no shortage of talent, I think the perfect storm was created for Rasmus—and maybe players in the future in similar situations—to accept a qualifying offer.

Rasmus effectively sets the standard that players likely to accept a qualifying offers are younger and come with some level of volatility. In short, they’re ‘good not great’ types of players that have some hole or large question mark that precludes them from being ‘safe’ enough to be a likely recipient of deals upwards of four years or 100mm total.

As such, while I understand Rasmus accepting the qualifying offer, I don’t think it will ultimately yield the type of mega-deal his camp might be hoping this ‘pillow year’ provides in 2017, when the free agent outfield market isn’t as elite as it is at the top this year.

Here are all the comparable outfielders to Rasmus who have been offered a QO since 2012, sorted by WAR the year prior to the offseason they received the qualifying offer:

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While the Granderson deal seems a little lofty when you view the QO outfielder group this way, it might be the Rasmus camp’s best comparable to get him a four-year deal. I still think he gets a heftier two or three year deal, because there are just too many things that could foreseeably impact his offensive consistency.

Rasmus isn’t the player that some of these guys were the year they were offered QOs on the list above. And on the list of all outfielders with 1300-1401 at bats and at least 117 wRC+ (like Rasmus), his holes in terms of his strikeouts and lack of average paired with just average walk rates simply have made his ‘hit tool’ too inconsistent over the years to be lumped in with big money bats on that list like Carlos Gonzalez or Ryan Braun.

After a disappointing 2014, Rasmus effectively sought out a ‘QO-lite’—signing a one-year ‘pillow contract’ with Houston for a little more than half of what a qualifying offer is for 8mm. He’s now officially taken a QO a year later, and doubled his AAV from last season. After 2016, I forsee him increasing his overall salary and finally getting a multi-year deal—I just would expect it to be of the ‘middle-tier’ variety than the type of financial commitment that costs a team over 100mm or more than four seasons.

Check back for my article this weekend comparing Rasmus’ profile to just players who have been offered a qualifying offer since 2012. I’ll break down offensive stats in more detail, profile some basic hit f/X trends about hitters who have received qualifying offers, and likely spend at least two or three pages too long talking about Colby Rasmus…Thanks for reading, everyone.

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