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Tampa Bay Rays' Sam Fuld unlikely to keep up production, might play defense well enough to compensate

In only 12 games, Sam Fuld has catapulted himself into the realm of legends.

There is no doubt that Fuld has been the Rays' early season offensive MVP. He is tops on the Rays in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.568), and his OPS (on-base plus slugging, a measure of a batter's total offensive contributions) was 18th best in the majors through Friday.

This is an odd start for Fuld, who has never produced numbers like this at any level of the majors or minors. Fuld spent the majority of the past two seasons bouncing between Triple A and the majors, and his numbers in Triple A over this time were a mediocre .277/.370/.404 — an underwhelming performance from a 28-year-old player repeating Triple A multiple times.

Considering his fast start, is Fuld talented enough to be given a full-time starting role with the Rays?

His recent performance would suggest so, but hot streaks are notoriously fickle — here one day, gone the next — and going into the season, most people pegged Fuld as a career backup outfielder.

So let's evaluate Fuld's four main weapons: his contact skills, batting eye, speed and defense.

Although Fuld has an Albert Pujols-like slugging percentage, over his career he has always been a slap hitter with a good batting eye. His batting average in Triple A was in the .270-.280 range, and he kept it there by refusing to swing at pitches outside the zone and making contact on 90 percent of the pitches he swung at.

Fuld also walked in 10-15 percent of his plate appearances, allowing him to reach base 38 percent of the time — well above the league average. The most valuable thing a hitter can do is avoid making outs at the plate, and Fuld has been above average at this skill during his career. His power numbers will always be low, but in the majors this season, we can expect him to hit around .270 while walking at a high rate.

Once on base, Fuld is one of the Rays' most dangerous base­runners. He has already stolen seven bases this season in nine attempts, and various advanced metrics rank Fuld as one of the top baserunners in the majors so far. Fuld is aggressive and will take an extra base at any opportunity, even if it means hustling himself out of hitting for the cycle.

But these offensive skills still make Fuld a fringe player in the majors. He is 29, in his physical prime but unlikely to see dramatic improvement in his performance in the coming years. Fuld's lack of power makes him an odd fit in left or rightfield, two positions normally reserved for sluggers.

But anyone who has watched Fuld play can attest that his strongest skill, by far, is his defense. Fuld is a walking highlight film, and his diving, Superman-esque catch in Chicago last weekend is an early nominee for the best catch of the season.

Preventing runs on defense is just as valuable as contributing runs on offense; the question is, just how good is Fuld defensively? If he is another Carl Crawford, his defense would more than compensate for his weak bat. But if Fuld is merely slightly above average, he would be better suited for a bench role than a regular lineup spot.

Advanced defensive metrics have made impressive strides in recent years, but they are unreliable for players without at least one full season in the majors.

Instead, we have to turn to scouting to determine Fuld's defensive talent level. As Jason Collette from Baseball Prospectus pointed out recently, Fuld covered at least 100 feet to make his diving catch in Chicago, and he did it in only 4.6 seconds — an impressive feat. Fuld appears to take direct routes to balls and have an above-average arm.

Whether or not Sam Fuld deserves an everyday spot depends entirely on how highly the Rays rate his defense. As Bradley Woodrum, an analyst at the website FanGraphs.com, says:

"Can the Rays still contend will Fuld in left? Certainly. He may not be a long-term solution (and with Desmond Jennings incubating in Triple A, the Rays don't need him for the long term), but he can certainly tow his end."

And right now, any reason to keep The Legend in the lineup sounds good to me.

Steve Slowinski is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.

Tampa Bay Rays' Sam Fuld unlikely to keep up production, might play defense well enough to compensate 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 8:13pm]
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