How Can You Trust A Player Like Alex Rios?

Alex Rios and I have a bit of a close, personal relationship.

By that, of course, I mean he has absolutely no idea who I am, but I have some tangential connection to him as a fan-turned-wannabe-analyst.

That connection comes from Rios being the first prospect I was ever enamored with. As a Toronto Blue Jays fan, Rios’ 2003 – a .924 OPS with 11 home runs and 11 steals in 127 games at Double-A – was something to get excited about, and was really the first time I found myself keeping tabs on the minor leagues with regularity.

And from there, frustration.

That’s because Rios has been one of, if not the most inconsistent player in baseball during his tenure.

He had wRC+s of 87 as a rookie and 82 as a sophomore and then broke out in 2006, posting a three-year run of 118, 122 and 110. It appeared Rios had settled in as an above-average hitter, with defense and baserunning pushing him into five-win territory.

And so came the seven-year, $70 million contract extension in 2008, one that saw Rios almost immediately fall off a cliff as a hitter and get salary-dumped via a waiver claim. From there, the ups-and-downs continued, with Jon Roegele of Beyond the Box Score finding last year that Rios’ wRC+ swings made him one of the most volatile everyday players in baseball history.

Naturally, Rios followed this up with an inconsistent 2013 season that saw him unloaded once again, this time with at least some consideration (Leury Garcia) being returned.

How wildly has Rios’ performance swung in his career? Check out his month-by-month wRC+ graph:
rios monthly

Of course, we care far more about his fantasy production than his actual production on these pages, and as long as you didn’t sell low on Rios mid-summer, you walked away happy this year. Rios finished seventh in outfielder value, thanks in large part to a career-high 42 stolen bases.

The concern is whether he can repeat a top-10 season for a third year in a row (he was fifth in outfielder value in 2012). His history would say he won’t, but we need to dive in further.

2004 87 2 97 1 15 0.286
2005 82 0.9 63 10 14 0.262
2006 118 3.5 30 17 15 0.302
2007 122 5 13 24 17 0.297
2008 110 5.4 17 15 32 0.291
2009 77 0 46 17 24 0.247
2010 109 3.4 8 21 34 0.284
2011 60 -1.1 74 13 11 0.227
2012 126 4.2 5 25 23 0.304
2013 103 3.1 7 18 42 0.278

It’s certainly possible Rios has “figured it out” the past two years, with his BABIP returning back north of .300 and a permanent green-light on the basepaths accompanying the 20-homer power that’s always been there. His line drive rate has been back above 21 percent for two years and he hits only a slightly-above-average rate of fly balls, speaking to his BABIP potential. His infield fly ball rate has slowly decreased back to league-average levels, too.

His discipline profile also improved in 2013, with his walk rate bouncing back to 6.2 percent after two seasons of a sub-five mark. This still isn’t good, and his strikeout rate, while below average, climbed to 16.3 percent.

However, most of his discipline profile moved in the right direction – Rios was more selective at the plate, swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone while still maintain a strong in-zone contact rate. His drop on O-Contact, from excellent to merely above-average, is of some concern but that’s mitigated if he continues to swing at fewer pitches out there. His swinging strike rate stayed well-below-average, too.

O-Swing O-Contact Z-Swing Z-Contact Swing Contact SwStr
LG avg 30.8 67 65 87.5 46.2 80 9
Rios 2011 32.1 76.7 62.6 92.5 46.5 86.7 6
Rios 2012 33.6 75.1 61.6 93.9 47 86.9 6.1
Rios 2013 28.8 69.7 60 92.7 43.9 84.9 6.5

You could even argue Rios was a bit too selective, given that he saw far more pitches in the zone than an average player for the third straight year. Rios found himself in 336 0-1 counts, 20th most of all players, and had just a .691 OPS when falling behind 0-1. He was in 281 1-0 counts with an .811 OPS afterwards, too, while hitting the first pitch just 45 times (.889 OPS).

Still, it’s hard to argue with an improved walk rate and fewer swings out of the zone, especially for a high-contact hitter.

Here’s one more area of concern – Rios pulls the ball a lot and struggles to hit for power the opposite field. He hit 65 percent of his pulled balls on the ground, making it no surprise he’s been among the league leaders in double play balls for several years despite having good speed. This is the one area holding his BABIP back from being a near-guaranteed .300, as he’s largely shift-able.

That’s an issue that he’s worked around for years and still had success, but teams may get more aggressive against him, limiting his ability to reach base on ground balls.

For fantasy purposes, you really just have to cross your fingers and hope he doesn’t get worse out of nowhere for little reason – he’s had basically this exact profile before, and fallen off.

In 2014, he’ll get to play his home games in Arlington, and the Rangers led the league in stolen base attempts last year. He’s going to have every opportunity to be a top-10 fantasy outfielder once again. (Arlington is friendly for singles, doubles, triples, BABIP and strikeouts but slightly less friendly for right-handed homers, though Rios actually hit more home runs on the road than in The Cell in 2013.)

Basically, if you were to just look at Rios’ 2012 and 2013, this is an exciting fantasy asset. But, like Francisco Liriano on the pitcher side of things, it’s really a case of “fool me once…”

Steamer projects a .269-16-22 and significant drops in runs and RBI (a bit curious given that he’s moving to a better lineup). If that line comes to fruition, he’s a lot closer to the mid-20s than the low teens, but based on his career to date it seems far more likely he’ll be top-10 or barely ownable.

Alex Rios is the man without a 50th percentile projection.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Rios will never be BIG TIME.