A free agent payday awaits, if only he could hit lefties
By Christopher Heun
A strained hamstring will keep new outfielder Jay Payton out of the opening day lineup in Minnesota against the reigning Cy Young winner, Johan Santana. Could this be an omen for Corey Patterson?
Patterson, who will get to start in center field because of the injury, needs to prove that he can handle left-handed pitchers after hitting just .207 against them in 2006. This will be an important season for him. A free agent next year, his chance for a big payday depends on how decisively he can shed the tag of a part-time player.
That seems to be what the Orioles have concluded about him. A big reason they signed Payton this winter was for his right-handed bat that could spell Patterson against southpaws. Now that Payton has been injured before the season even starts, Patterson has one last shot to play everyday, even if it’s only for a short period.
Next winter, the Orioles, along with a bunch of other clubs, will be asking themselves: how good is Patterson? Is he the player who hit .276 last year with a .757 OPS (slightly below league average)? Or is he the power threat who slugged .511 in 329 at-bats in 2003? The No. 3 pick in the 1998 draft, Patterson has always drawn raves for his physical tools, but he’s never managed to put it all together on the field.
Some seasons he’s been truly awful. The lesser Corey Patterson, the one who played his way out of Chicago in 2005, hit a measly .215 with an OPS of .602 – probably the worst hitter in the major leagues that season.
His defense and speed have never been questioned. He stole a career high 45 bases last year while flashing an outstanding glove in center field. Chris Dial at Baseball Think Factory, posting defensive stats that ranked the Orioles centerfielder as the best in the American League in 2006, wrote that Patterson is “climbing the charts as one of the top defensive CFs over the last 20 years.”
Patterson is a lifetime .229 hitter vs. lefties (and .266 vs. righties). Subtract his wasted at-bats against southpaws and last year he hit .301 with a .826 OPS in 342 at-bats. Not bad. Pair it with a right-handed hitter who can hold his own (for comparison’s sake, Payton posted an .817 OPS vs. lefties in 2006), and you’ve got a decent platoon. Not quite Roenicke-Lowenstein, but nothing to sneeze at, either.
Of course, Patterson insists he should play every day and points out that he actually hit better against lefties than righties in 2004; an adequate .819 OPS. "It's all about repetition; the more you do it, the better you get at it,” he told the Associated Press recently. His splits weren’t dramatically different in 2003 but overall, his career stats show a clear weakness against southpaws.
Should he put together a decent 2007 with the bat, Patterson could be in for a fat contract next winter given the deals handed out this off-season to some other center fielders of dubious skill.
Two of the most egregious: the Angels gave Gary Matthews Jr. $50 million over five years after a career year in which Matthew hit .313 with 19 homers and a .866 OPS. The Dodgers, meanwhile, handed Juan Pierre $44 million for five years after Pierre hit .326 with three homers (and 45 steals while getting caught 24 times) and a .781 OPS.
At this rate, Patterson will get at least 8 million per year as long as he can sign his own name.
Based on the OPS+ stat on baseball-reference.com, (which rates players’ on-base percentage plus slugging percentage compared to the league average) Matthews, Pierre and Patterson are all below average hitters for their careers.
Career OPS+ (100 is average)
Last year was the only season Pierre put up an OPS+ greater than 100; it was 107. Patterson has managed it just once, too, in 2003 (.116). If Patterson could manage to get on base just a little bit more frequently than in the past, he might be able to convince Dodgers GM Ned Coletti to give him $10 million a year.
One thing Patterson, at 27, has in his favor is his age. He’s five years younger than Matthews and 2 years Pierre’s junior.
Patterson has another (admittedly convoluted) connection to Matthews. Not Gary Jr., but his dad. When the elder Matthews, known as “Sarge,“ played for the Phillies, (he was a member of the 1983 team that lost in the World Series to the O’s), one of his
teammates, Gary Maddox, earned the nickname, “The Secretary of Defense,” for his glove work in the outfield.
Phillies announcer Harry Kalas used to say, "Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Garry Maddox."
The same could be true of Corey Patterson.