Braves: Chances of Jake Lamb returning to his All-Star form

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As MLB.com’s Mark Bowman first reported, with details of the deal confirmed by The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman on Sunday, the Braves bolstered their bench for the 2021 season by signing lefty-hitting corner infielder Jake Lamb to a major league contract. Recently-claimed outfielder Travis Demeritte was outrighted to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room for the team’s latest addition. 

With the combination of Austin Riley, Johan Camargo, as well as non-roster invitees Jason Kipnis and Ehire Adrianza, it appears Atlanta is prepared to — like they are with the bullpen — go through several different options in the hopes that something works out. Although, at this point, the general feeling is that the hot corner is still Riley’s position to lose. 

But if you’ve heard of Lamb before and are familiar with his time as a member of the Diamondbacks, there are reasons to feel optimistic about Sunday’s signing. 

Now entering his age-30 season, Lamb isn’t too far removed from a stretch of above-average play in the majors, at least offensively. From 2015-17 — all while with Arizona — Lamb averaged 136 games per year while hitting .252, to go with 22 home runs and 77 RBI; that’s all good for a 108 OPS+ at the plate. Defensively, Lamb started just fine with 13 Defensive Runs Saved (per FanGraphs) in 782 innings at third base in 2015. However, on paper, his glove evidently took a drastic step back the next pair of seasons, falling to -5 and -9 DRS, respectively, in 2016 and ’17. Despite the drop in D, Lamb still earned his first All-Star bid in the latter of those three seasons, posting a career-high 2.5 fWAR.

But then everything unraveled… and quite quickly.

After playing in just four games to begin the 2018 season, Lamb hurt himself in an April game versus the Dodgers, missing a month with a shoulder sprain. After coming back in mid-May, Lamb re-injured the shoulder in a game against the Cubs, and that was it… season over. All-in-all, Lamb played in 56 games but hit just .222 with six homers in ’18.

Heading into 2019, the expectations were high. Lamb’s shoulder surgery from the year prior had been a success, and the D’Backs were hoping for a strong return. But bad luck on the health front bit him again as Lamb strained his quad on April 5th. Initially, he was expected to miss six weeks; however, Lamb didn’t come back until the end of June. In the meantime, Eduardo Escobar shined at third base, and by season’s end, had totaled 144 games while hitting .269 with 35 home runs. And with the late-blooming Christian Walker breaking out as Arizona’s first baseman, Lamb had nowhere to play anymore. After somehow surviving the 2019-20 offseason, the D’Backs had no choice but to DFA Lamb in early September of 2020 after he only managed a .116 AVG through just 18 games. It’s incredible just how sharp he had declined. 

Following that 108 OPS+ mentioned above from 2015-17, Lamb turned in a combined 74 OPS+ from 2018-20 with Arizona. Surprisingly just days later, the Athletics signed Lamb. And even more surprising, he wound up finishing the 2020 campaign strong with a 143 OPS+ in the season’s final 13 games. 

 

Reasons for optimism 

Despite him falling from a 2-2.5 WAR player to essentially replacement level, Lamb’s batted-ball profile has remained relatively the same. In his 2017 season (his All-Star year), he posted a 9.3% barrel-rate and 88.2 MPH average exit velocity. His last two seasons have been about the same, with 8.2% and 7.9% barrel-rates in 2019 and ’20, respectively, as well as exit-velocities of 90.7 and 90.2 MPH. Holding a similar barrel-rate and exit-velocity while posting worse numbers makes some sense when accounting for the fact that Lamb’s BABIP has also been roughly 60 points below his career average in each of these last couple seasons. Some bad batted-ball luck has certainly played a role. 

Plus, Lamb’s plate discipline doesn’t quite reflect the approach of a player on the decline. His walk-rate fell dramatically last season (to 8.1%), but it had some room to drop, coming off a career-high 14.2% in 2019. And his K rate (25.3%) in 2020 matched his career mark. 

 

Reasons for doubt

The most glaring concern, of course, is Lamb’s ability to stay healthy going forward. Having only played in 165 games combined since the start of 2018 suggests it’s highly unlikely Lamb can get through an entire season unscathed. 

Then, there’s the performance level over those last 165 games… which is far from ideal. After tallying 6.3 fWAR overall from 2015-17, Lamb has been worth just 0.1 WAR combined in these last three seasons. There’s no doubt the aforementioned injuries and poor BABIP luck played a part, but there are also some actual performance-based issues to consider as well.

Other than in 2019, when he hit .304 versus southpaws (granted, in only 28 PA), Lamb has never successfully hit left-handed pitching as he wields a .169 AVG against that particular flavor, compared to his .257 career AVG versus righties. Even during his All-Star 2017 campaign, Lamb hit lefties at just a .144 clip and managed only five homers (out of 30 overall that year). So even in a best-case scenario featuring a healthy and solid Lamb in 2021, he’s going to require a platoon partner.

Also, at this point, I don’t believe he’s any better than Riley defensively at third base, at least not enough to make a difference.

 

The projections

Lamb’s 2021 ZiPS projection is an improvement from what he showed last season, though that doesn’t offer much to be excited about. The system pegs him for 0.4 fWAR in 101 games while finishing with a .211 AVG and 12 home runs. Steamer is a bit kinder with 0.6 WAR in 87 games, with a .223 AVG and 14 homers.

Of course, all of this under the assumption that Lamb stays healthy. Surprisingly he did earn a big-league contract, so he’ll open the season on the Braves roster, but Lamb will still need to perform well enough this spring to receive at-bats over Riley, who seems to have a better floor at this point. Regardless, signing the lefty-hitting Lamb was smart as it gives Atlanta a decent competition at the hot corner.

Cheap players with a history of All-Star-like production are always good to bet on, especially when it comes to a thin position such as third base for the Braves. It’s probably unlikely that Lamb becomes the 2019 version of Josh Donaldson. However, if he can push Riley while also providing the team with a viable left-handed bat off the bench throughout the season, it’ll certainly go down as a successful signing. 

Photo: Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire

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