Nats Shouldn't Pigeonhole Church

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 7, 2006; 2:00 PM

Statistics can lie. But they can also point in a sensible direction to avoid making a bad decision. In particular, baseball teams should look at the fractional-season stats of young players over a couple of years and project that production over 600 at bats to see what they might already be holding in their hands. If the Nationals follow that advice, they will think twice, and maybe three times, before they decide where Ryan Church fits, or doesn't fit, in their off-season plans.

In his two roller coaster seasons with the Nats over 424 at bats, Church has a higher on-base average (.360 to .357) and a higher slugging percentage (.481 to .480) than probable Rookie of the Year Ryan Zimmerman has in his two years. Pro-rated over the same 583 at bats that the 21-year-old Zimmerman has had as a Nat, Church would have 23 homers, 80 runs, 95 RBI, 68 extra base hits, 78 walks, 12-for-16 on stolen bases and a .276 batting average compared to Zimmerman's 18 homers, 77 runs, 99 RBI, 70 extra base hits, 57 walks, 9-for-16 on steals and a .295 average in his two seasons. (Zimmerman is helped slightly in these two-year comparisons because he hit .397 in 20 games late in '05.)

Yet Church, 27, has been sent back to the minors in disgrace, nagged for his flaws publicly, jerked in and out of the lineup, played at all three outfield positions and, in the latest slap in the face, told that he will ride the bench the rest of this season so that speedster Nook Logan can get a fair chance to win the Nats centerfield job. For comparison, Logan has 473 at-bats in his big league career with an ugly OPS of .654 compared to Church's excellent mark of .841 as a Nat. Logan (31 career steals) is much faster and covers more ground in centerfield -- a key factor in spacious RFK -- while Church, who is naturally suited to left or rightfield, not centerfield, has a better arm.

Stats are only partial truths at best. Nobody seriously compares Church to Zimmerman for offensive potential. At 21, Zimmerman will probably get even better. At 27, Church may not. Church also strikes out at a vast rate -- more whiffs than hits (132 to 128). That equals "can be pitched to," meaning top pitchers may dominate him in late-and-close situations. However, stark stats that contradict conventional wisdom, like Church duplicating Zimmerman's numbers, shouldn't be ignored quickly.

If the Twins had done such homework, they'd never have released David Ortiz after '02. What were they thinking? In two previous seasons as a platoon player, Ortiz had 38 homers and 123 RBI in 715 at bats. Per 600 at bats, that's 32 homers and 103 RBI. Ortiz became even better in Boston. But Minnesota should have known: Ortiz ability was already in plain view.

Another Washington team, the Wizards, made a similar blunder. In two seasons here, part-time center Ben Wallace played only 2,355 minutes but was enormously productive -- per minute. The Wizards didn't notice what they had. Based on his Wizard stats, if Wallace got to play 34.5 minutes a game, he would average 10.4 rebounds, 2.38 blocks, 1.63 steals, 7.0 points and shoot .551 from the floor. Once the Pistons got Wallace on the cheap in a trade and gave him 34.5 minutes, he averaged 13.2 rebounds, 2.33 blocks, 1.34 steals, 6.4 points and .490 from the floor in his first full season. Right on the numbers.

Church won't be an impact player like Wallace in the NBA. The league's book on Church is that, in crucial situations, you can get him out "soft away." It's a nice theory, backed by all Church's strikeouts. Every time Church chases a curve in the dirt, the Nats cringe. But they tend to forget the hanging slop that he sometimes hits. With men in scoring position this season, Church is hitting .293 to .308 for the clutch Zimmerman. Aware of his weakness, Church will play winter ball at the team's suggestion in Mexico, the league where he'll face the highest percentage of breaking ball pitchers.

However, his status for next season is shaky. Austin Kearns, 26, is a fixture in rightfield. If Alfonso Soriano returns, leftfield is off limits, too and Church, who really doesn't belong in center, would be a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter, at best. Only if Soriano leaves would there be a sudden need for a player exactly like Church. There isn't a worldwide conspiracy against Church, though he must feel like there is at times. At mid-season '05, he was a candidate for Rookie of the Year. Now, he plays behind a Nook, has been sent back to the bushes and is headed to Mexico.

Despite all this, Church should remember: The geeks are watching. Somebody will notice that another Ryan on the Nats has, in 424 at-bats, exactly duplicated Zimmerman's per at-bat production in 583. If he maintains his current tough-out-the-hard-times attitude and improves this winter, Church is going to end up playing regularly in somebody's outfield soon.

This winter, any team that wants to steal a hidden gets-no-respect hitter should put Ryan Church on its shopping list. However, considering the mistakes of the Twins and Wizards, maybe the team that ought to appreciate Church should be the Nationals.

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