Brian Sabean

Mike Fontenot vs. Jeff Keppinger: not a tough decision

Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants are peddling this “we’re too poor” story this off-season as hard as they can — when they aren’t busy helping the Warriors move in next door — and now the franchise is at an impasse. Who do they spend their valuable utility-infielder cash on, Jeff Keppinger or Mike Fontenot?

Yes, it’s come to this. Welcome to the frigid stove league, and please buy a panda hat and $9.75 Anchor Steam before taking your seat.

Keppinger and Fontenot are only two months apart in age, so let’s look a little deeper to see why the Giants might choose either player.

2011 Stats

Keppinger (99 games, 400 PA): .277/.300/.377, 6 HR, 0 SB, 85 wRC+, -5.8 UZR, 0.4 fWAR

Fontenot (85 games, 252 PA): .227/.304/.377, 4 HR, 5 SB, 87 wRC+, 0.6 UZR, 1.0 fWAR

Career Stats

Keppinger (586 games, 2,287 PA): .281/.332/.388, 32 HR, 11 SB, 91 wRC+, -20.0 UZR, 5.3 fWAR

Fontenot (535 games, 1,481 PA):  .263/.332/.406, 26 HR, 17 SB, 91 wRC+, 0.8 UZR, 5.2 fWAR

Why the Giants would rather sign Keppinger

  1. Higher career batting average than Fontenot, with a huge advantage in that category in 2011.
  2. Keppinger hits right-handed, and the Giants are short on righty infielders (although for some reason they seem to think Emmanuel Burriss is worth keeping around in 2012, even though he doesn’t do anything particularly well).
  3. Fontenot (18.9%) strikes out three times more often than Keppinger (6.3%). As a result, Keppinger puts the ball in play (PTBIP – hey, I think I just made up a “stat”!) more often than Fontenot. PTBIP is a trait Bruce Bochy has mentioned that he prizes in the past, in particular when explaining why he continually put Orlando Cabrera out there, even though he wasn’t producing at the plate and his defensive skills had fully eroded by the time Sabean finally got his hands on him.

Why the Giants would rather sign Fontenot

  1. Fontenot is much faster than Keppinger, who has a hard time getting to infield fly rule popups.
  2. With Freddy Sanchez presumably healed and starting next season, the Giants need someone who can handle a reserve role. Fontenot has come in as a reserve in 25% of the games he’s played in, while Keppinger’s only come in off the bench 11% of the time. That’s not necessarily the measure of a good player, but we’re not even sure at this point how happy Keppinger would be if the Giants kept him around to back up Sanchez.
  3. Fontenot can play three infield positions. Some think Keppinger can play shortstop. That’s absolutely false, seeing how at second base he displayed the range of a Giants ball dude.
  4. Fontenot has a higher career walk rate (9.0%) than Keppinger (6.8%).
  5. Fontenot’s bat has shown more power throughout his career (.143 isolated power) than Keppinger’s (.108 ISO).
  6. Fontenot (who made $1MM in 2011), would be cheaper than Keppinger, who made $2.3MM.
  7. Since Keppinger always puts the ball in play but can barely run down the line, he’s a GIDP machine compared to Fontenot.

The whole “5-tool guy” conversation usually centers on outfielders, but in comparing these two the only advantage Keppinger has is hitting for average. Arm strength/accuracy? Probably a wash.

However, Fontenot’s faster, he has more power and while he isn’t exactly a Gold Glove candidate, he’s a better and more versatile fielder than Keppinger.

If the Giants non-tender Fontenot and keep Keppinger, it wouldn’t be of such great consequence to label the decision a complete disaster, but it would be frustrating. Keppinger and his nearly energy-free style embodied everything that was so deflating about watching the Giants during the second half of the 2011 season. Choosing Keppinger would show that the Giants are willing to pay for skills (batting average and the ability to make contact) that show an antiquated way of thinking.

Plus — and this is hardly scientific, but here goes — I watched a lot of Giants batting practice over the last two months of the season, both up close and from the press box in those lonely hours before the game when the only people in there were me, Ray Ratto and a couple people I didn’t know. If you wanted to know why the Giants couldn’t score runs in 2011, all you had to do was check out BP. Pathetic. Home runs were few and far between. Hell, loud contact was a rarity.

Whenever the opposing team would step into the cage, it was like the volume got turned up. WHACK! There’s another one clanging around in the bleachers. WHACK! Whoa, that one went 10 rows above the last one! One of the most entertaining (yet saddest) moments of the season was when these traveling softball guys came in for a pregame home run derby and made the park look like the whiffle ball field by the giant Coke Bottle. I know those softball barnstormers are total behemoths facing soft-pitch, but the spectacle they provided drove home how tame Giants batting practice was all season.

One of the guys who took the most consistently impressive BP sessions in August and September was Fontenot, believe it or not. Line drives off the brick wall with regularity. Along with his decidedly more upbeat presence and physical tools that defy his short stature, I really hope the Giants decide to keep Fontenot and let the “luxury item” walk. In an offseason where good news has been lacking, this would be a welcome — albeit minor — victory.

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