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old-computerYou can’t argue that Junior Lake hasn’t been a pleasant surprise this year for the Cubs and for Cubs fans. He’s exciting, energetic, athletic, and he’s produced since he was called up in mid-July.

Let nothing in any analysis or scouting report take that away.

But the scouting reports did caution us that Lake’s performance was as likely to be erratic as it was to be encouraging. His gifts and ability are obvious, and the performance thus far is great: .317/.349/.475 line, with a 125 OPS+. His strikeout rate is manageable, even if not where you’d like to see it (22.4%). His line drive percentage (20.5%) is just a touch over league average (20%). But there are a few warts: He’s walking at just 3.7%, a rate you’d like to see increase. And his IsoP of .158 is a little lower than you’d want out of a corner outfielder.

Still, all in all, it’s positive. But … and you know where I’m going with this whenever discussing surprising success and a small sample size (107 PA) … Lake’s BABIP is an unsustainably high .384. Although he’s generally been on the higher end throughout his career, his prior rates suggest something in the .330, .340 range is more reasonable.

As we look ahead to the composition of the Cubs’ roster in 2014, and opine on whether Lake should be locked in as a starter in left field, it’s fair to wonder: if his BABIP were something a little more sustainable right now, what would his line look like? And, after viewing that line, would we be as excited about the prospect of Lake entering 2014 as the presumed starter?

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is designed to measure the rate at which a player’s batted balls fall in for a hit. That rate, although prone to variations from year to year (based largely on luck), tends to normalize for players over the course of their career, and is helpful in pointing out unsustainable performances (to the upside or downside). There is no magic bullet here, but it’s a tool in the tool belt.

So, let’s take a look at what happens to Lake’s .317/.349/.475 line if his BABIP were, say, .335 rather than .384.

Lake’s .384 BABIP is calculated by subtracting homers from hits, and dividing by at bats minus Ks minus homers plus sacrifice flies. 32-4 / 101-24-4+0 = .384.

To get to a .335 BABIP, we’ll take away some of those hits – think of them as bloops that are caught or tough grounders on which a guy makes a play. The denominator remains 73, but we’ll shrink hits to 28, making the calculation 28-4/73. That gives us a BABIP of .329. It’s not quite .335, but these are very small numbers we’re working with, and we can only get so close.*

*SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT! The small sample size issue extends in both directions. On the one hand, I’m explaining that Lake’s nice line so far is something we shouldn’t read too much into, since he’s going to see regression in his BABIP over time. On the other hand, I’m playing with the numbers to make a point, and I’m talking about four hits. That’s it. Four. Take all of this with a grain of salt.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume that the four hits that Lake just lost were all singles (although lucky doubles and triples do happen, lucky singles are far more common). With those four singles poofed out of existence, let’s recalculate his numbers …

Batting average is now: 28/101, or .277.

On-base percentage is now: 28+4 (BB) +1 (HBP) / 107 (PA) – 1 (sacrifice), or .311.

Slugging is now: 20 (1B) + 2×4 (2B) +3×0 (3B) +4×4 (HR) / 101 AB , or .436.

So, if Lake’s BABIP were .329 to this point – a more sustainable figure – his line would be just .277/.311/.436. That tells a pretty different story when it comes to a starting left fielder, yes?

But, when considering Lake as a possible quality option in left field for 2014, let’s not stop the analysis there. After all, batting isn’t everything a guy does.

For me, the crux of whether Lake can provide sufficient value going forward to justify holding down the left field starting job will be whether his physical ability translates into an above-average – or better – defensive left fielder. Based on his minor league numbers and the expectations for his offensive regression in the bigs, I still tend to doubt that the bat, alone, can carry left field for Lake. But his base running figures to be a potential plus, and if he emerges as a quality defensive left fielder (he’s just now learning the position, so it is very possible), I could be on board with him taking over as the presumed near-term starter in left field, without feeling like he’s merely the “cost-effective” option out there.

How much value can a player add defensively in left field, though? Players out that way get only so many chances in the field, and most guys just catch the balls that come to them, hit the cut-off man, and generally hold steady. Can an elite defensive left fielder actually make much of a difference in the W/L column?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to those questions, but I did take a quick look at the “good” defensive left fielders from the last couple of years to get an idea of how much left fielder defense can contribute to a player’s overall WAR.

Arguably the gold standard in left field defense (sorry: you have just been smacked by a lame Gold Glove joke), Alex Gordon has netted a dWAR of 1.3 (2011) and 1.9 (2012) (both per Baseball Reference). Martin Prado was excellent in (mostly) left field for the Braves last year, and he put up a 1.7 dWAR. Desmond Jennings was very good in left field for the Rays last year (again, mostly left field), and added 0.5 dWAR. And then one close to our own hearts, Alfonso Soriano was worth … well, negative dWAR in 2011 and 2012 (I guess BR didn’t agree with FanGraphs on Soriano those years – defensive statistics, man, they’re constantly under evaluation, but this is the best we can do right now).

So, if you are an elite defensive left fielder, it looks like you could plausibly add a win or so to your WAR total. The median WAR for full-time left fielders in 2012 was right around 3.5, meaning that, even if Lake becomes an elite fielder in left field, he’s still going to have to put up 2.5 WAR between his bat and his legs to be a quality option as a starter in left field. What kind of line would that require? Well, this is some real back-of-the-napkin stuff, but, thanks to Wahoo’s on First’s handy WAR calculator, it looks like something in the .275/.345/.450 range (with neutral defense and baserunning) would be right around 2.5 WAR.*

*Keep in mind, although performing at this level would put Lake right around the average mark for full-time left fielders, it would make him something a fair bit better than average – that group of full-time left fielders is necessarily skewed to the upside, because it includes only the guys good enough to grab most of the starts in left field for their team.

Can Lake pull all of that off? Sure. Is it likely? I’m not sure I can say that it is, considering the above BABIP exercise, and the fact that his minor league line is .271/.322/.411 over more than 2400 plate appearances. Guys tend not to dramatically improve upon their minor league numbers in the bigs. Lake looks like he projects a line that would play well in center field, but not in left.

That said, none of this is designed to convince you that Lake cannot be a useful player for the Cubs in 2014, even as the starter in left field. It is only to say that it is unlikely that he will, overall, be a better than average player in left field.

He could, if nothing else, be an exciting and cost-controlled player in left field. The composition of the roster around him will determine whether that’s viewed as a good thing, or an insufficient thing.

  • Jon

    Starling Marte is a good comparison, IMO. I’d take that.

  • Fly

    No

  • Matt

    I am more interested to see if he can handle CF full time. His game fits better as a CF than full time LF. Anyone think that he gets a shot there?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      I’m not sure whether he’s going to get a look, depending on what the Cubs decide to do there in the offseason (could see them making a run at Ellsbury, could see them bringing back DeJesus, could see them getting a placeholder in the hopes that Almora is ready by mid-2015 (which is aggressive)). Very tough to say.

      But we do know that, with DeJesus and Lake both here, DeJesus is getting the center field starts right now.

      • Justin

        I would love to see Lake in CF. I really don’t like DeJesus in Center at all. He seems out of his element there. Can’t they just flip the two? I think that if Lake can be a good centerfielder that changes this whole discussion, and he has serious value. I know Lake doesn;t have much experience in the outfield at all, but it seems to be a good time to give him some in CF.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          If Lake could be an average to above average defensive CF, then, yes, the discussion changes entirely. The fact that the Cubs aren’t playing Lake in center now, when DeJesus could easily slide to left, is telling to me. Either the Cubs are trying to make it easy on Lake right now, or they simply don’t think he can handle CF long term.

          • Justin

            Yeah, I am sure the Cubs think having him play LF is enough at this point in his development. But I really don’t see DeJesus as the starting CF next year. At least i hope he’s not. Lake is so athletic I would love to see him make some mistakes, spectacular plays, and just learn in CF over the next month and half. That’s just me..

          • Mr. B. Patient

            Or, they don’t want Lake to learn CF at the big league level.

            • http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/653cc0c5f0eded621ab13b4f631de7da.png Cizzle

              Odd, because that’s where he played when he was first called up (and DDJ was on the DL).

  • Kevin F.

    Lake hah.s been Kingman-esque in LF. Made a snazzy catch last week only because he ran a bad route, has looked clueless at least a half dozen times. And the offensive game is going to be a work in progress to say the least, once they find the couple holes that are in his approach.

    • gocatsgo2003

      You mean… kind of like we should expect out of a guy whose 23 games in the outfield for the Cubs and 6 for the Iowa Cubs this year are THE ONLY 29 GAMES HE HAS EVER PLAYED IN THE OUTFIELD AS A PROFESSIONAL?

      • http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/653cc0c5f0eded621ab13b4f631de7da.png Cizzle

        I got ripped apart when I made the same point by people who argued that he played OF in the Fall League and DSL. I still feel it’s a valid point.

  • Joe

    His range plays well in the outfield. His bat plays very well in the infield.

  • Jon

    Lake has to get alot better on the base paths though…

    • Jon

      I’ll put it like this, Lake is good enough to keep the seat warm till Soler is ready…

    • Cubbie Blues

      [img]http://i.imgur.com/TRvsgh0.png[/img]

  • jh03

    Sorry Brett, off topic… but I thought it applied to discussions that have been going on here lately. Here is what Dough Thorburn said about the Cubs extending Shark:

    “I would, and I would extend him soon (preferably while he is taking his lumps, might save them a few shekels, but they know his talent). It’s tough to put a #1 ceiling on anybody, but he already shows #2 skills for weeks at a time with his now-skills. A rare combination of elite velo with plus off-speed stuff, Samardzija also has the mechanical baseline to foretell greatness, but his struggles with timing have doomed his last 6 weeks or so. But the Cubs can afford to watch him go through the growing pains now. Signing him long-term could also increase his value on the trade market if the Cubs are able to strike a reasonable deal. “

    • jh03

      Doug* I’m struggling today.

  • Oswego Chris

    Brett is back with a vengeance with all of these posts today!

  • Oswego Chris

    I am only assuming the Cubs do not see him as a 3B

  • Tremendous Slouch

    I think the fact that he IS cost controlled is the tipping point (in the short term)… If he can manage to have even just a slightly better than average impact in LF, the dollars saved (and in turn added back into the roster presumably) should be factored… I’m by no means a stats geek, but I think there should be some measure of weighting in a cost controlled player in this sort of an analysis…

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      That absolutely matters: the problem is, there are only so many positions on the diamond. And one of the easiest ones to get an above-average bat is left field. Settling for cheap and average-ish in left field might be a bad thing, no matter how cheap the cheap is.

      That was where I was trying to go with the “the composition of the rest matters in how valuable Lake is” thing.

      • Tremendous Slouch

        Point definitely taken on the LF aspect… I’d like to think management would be able allocate that revenue toward adding a big bat at another non traditional spot on the diamond (Robinson Cano?? LOL… I know I know)… But I’m on board with the overall scope of the argument…

        Just saying there are other factors that don’t necesarrily net out in stats alone… :)

        • Rich H

          Just remember that Cano allows guys like Gardner to play all over the outfield and not cost the Yanks anything if he is in a power position.

      • Mr. B. Patient

        I have a couple of questions.
        1). What is an above-average bat for left field?
        2). If these bats were so easy to find, why don’t more teams have them? (Of all the ‘qualifying’ players in LF. only 8 have an OPS of .750 or higher).

  • Bilbo161

    Only thing about the analysis is that we are only looking at statistics from his first cup of coffee. He should be able to improve with experience, so the answer in my mind is definitely yes he can! But will he? Another question altogether.

  • sleepy

    BABIP seems a little bit of a meh stat to my admittedly non advanced baseball statistical mind. A little dribbler to the pitcher is a BIP as is a screaming line drive down the line. The former will almost always be an out and the latter a hit. It’s not a matter of luck. So if a guy has a good BABIP there is at least a chance that he’s earned it via hitting hard hit balls and line drives as opposed to weak ground balls.

    Don’t good hitters usually have a higher BABIP than poor hitters?

  • Jim Kress

    I’m probably missing something here, but he was a SS in the minors, why isn’t he at least being tried at 3B or 2B? I mean I know we are a bit thin on productive OF’s, but still. Imagine his line as a 2B. That would be quite nice!

  • Noah

    I think a .330 to .340 BABIP is high. BABIPs drop a lot from the minors to the Majors. I think expecting anyone to be above a .320 BABIP until they show that for a couple of seasons is high.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      That reinforces the point.

      (And I skewed his BABIP quite a bit below his MiLB total of .347.)

  • SenorCub

    It’s been a good experience for Lake. While he brings excitement, he should not be considered for a possible F/T 2014. I would find that incredibly disappointing. He should be sent back to the minors and continue to work on his defense, plate discipline, etc. He is not the solution for 2014, none on the current roster should be considered a realistic 2014 option. DeJesus is solid but not at CF, we need more production out of all RF, CF, LF.

  • Jon

    I do hope we sign Nelson Cruz and his big bag of steroids to play LF next year though.

  • MichaelD

    3.5 WAR seems a little high for an average/median. If you got 3.5 WAR from each of your starting position players, you would be in the neighborhood of at least 73 wins even with replacement level pitching. This result is using 45 wins as replacement level, and I think bWAR uses a higher baseline level than fWAR (~45 wins). The Cubs have had a grand total of three position players reach the 3.5 bWAR mark since 2010 (Castro and Barney last year; Castillo this year). I would be perfectly happy to pencil in Lake if I project on a 2 win contribution, assuming that a better option does not present itself.

  • jt

    Is BAbip well thought out?
    A simple example would be the fly balls Wade Boggs hit 15 feet of the ground against the Green Monster. They were not HR’s. Were they in fact “defense dependent”.
    *
    I just did a Google and followed some to the links from Fangraphs page.
    These guys seem to still be asking themselves questions
    *
    Doc writes as to BAbip but he also refers to a hitters red and blue zones within the K zone. How does BAbip correlate with the many pitchers tendency to attack these zones.
    *
    Castillo batting at the bottom of the order had a BAbip of almost 0.450 in his first 85 PA’s this year. For May and June this dropped to just below 0.300. But July and August he has earned a 0.390. His BB rate in April was non-existent. In May/June it was 5.6%. His July/August BB rate is close to 20%. Seems both the pitchers and Castillo have evolved in how they attack these red/blue zones.
    What happens when Castillo starts trying to elevate the ball to take advantage of his power? What will that do to his BAbip?
    *
    The idea behind DIPs is great. I’m not sure the application behind the concept has yet to have fully matured.

  • Mr. B. Patient

    At this point, it’is impossible to know what Junior Lake will give us long term. I think he has already exceeded our expectations. How many of us, when fantasizing about our 2014 or 2015 starting lineups, had Junior Lake on them? I’m betting under 1% of us. He has likely (he has plenty of time to regress) earned a spot on next years roster.

    I’m just watching, enjoying, and hoping.

    • cub2014

      I saw Lake as a super utility guy, unless he can
      play centerfield for the next few years or his
      power really takes off. I still see him as a super
      utility guy. Play all OF positions 3B-SS-2B, baserunner,
      defensive replacement. They should train him
      for emergency catcher. He has the arm.

  • http://bleachernation.com ramy 16

    Brett. .indians released Mark Reynolds. .do the Cubs bite??

    • Jon

      I do! That .303 WOBA combined with the likelihood that he is the worst defensive second baseman in MLB history is getting me hard!

  • FastBall

    You can change his numbers around all you want. He is playing pretty good baseball for the Cubs. He has intangibles that he brings. Like he can bunt for a hit and has done so effectively. This forces defenses to think and shorten up. He is fast as hell which causes problems for defenses and makes him more multi-dimensional. Just last week or late week before there were all kinds of arguments being made over how Logan Watkins might produce better at the MLB level than at AAA. I guess if somebody wants to analyze every last thing a kid does with stats its okay. But I don’t like changing his actual numbers to make a case. Not being picky here. Just not in favor of that. I don’t care about the sample size. Whenever it is deemed he has had a normal sample size analyze away on the kid. I like watching him play baseabll.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      He is indeed fun to watch. But the purpose of this exercise is to project what he’s most likely to do in the future based on what we know about how certain statistics normalize. I have no beef with you not being into that kind of analysis, but that’s why the numbers are “changed.” That’s the whole point.

  • Craig

    Great analysis… it really helps to put things in perspective. Some fans get overly excited or bummed about a players performance, especially when it’s a small sample size. It’s great to see how advanced stats help project these performances, even if they are small sample sizes… it helps keep things in check.

    Thanks Brett!

  • jh03

    On a follow up question about Shark, this is what Doug said:

    Samardzija has been struggling to hit targets due to his issues with timing, a fine-grained element that comes down to hundredths of a second. Fixing it can take a matter of minutes or a span of months, depending on the player, but the fix is often fleeting as pitchers can lose their timing within an inning only to get it back again. Timing is simultaneously the most important and the most difficult mechanical element to perfect.

    When a pitcher consistently struggles with timing, it tends to boil down to two elements that are intertwined: A) the pitcher’s momentum from leg lift through foot strike, and B) the timing of trunk rotation, relative to foot strike. If a pitcher is too quick into foot strike, then the trigger of trunk rotation (and thus the arm) will be late in relation. In Samardzija’s case, it looks like his momentum is the key factor in his timing issues, including his initiation of momentum as well as his gear-change at maximum leg lift. So he has some work to do to get right, but it could happen quickly.

  • Kramden

    We use these statistics to paint a picture, but statistically…. How reliable are these statistics in hindsight? What’s their overall track record? 30%? 40%? 50%? More? Less?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If it were possible to calculate how successful predictive analyses like this one are, I’m guessing even the best ones – in the aggregate – are very accurate only 10 to 20% of the time, if you measure success as pegging a guy’s future batting line, for example.

      But if all you’re looking for is a directional sense, it’s probably more like 70% to 80%, if that makes sense.

      • Kramden

        Wouldn’t one tend to follow the other?

  • FastBall

    Unless he is going to be someone who can stick on next years roster we should pass. We are reaching the point in the season where we need to call up a few guys. We should DFA Cody Ransom. He sucks all over the place.

    • gocatsgo2003

      I’ll play… Ransom has a 122 OPS+ and a 1.2 WAR in 166 PAs, though all 1.2 WAR come from his oWAR. Nobody will confuse Cody for a gold glover, but he hasn’t exactly been embarrassing himself out there.

  • http://waittilnextyear.net Nate Corbitt

    Could Lake be the Cubs’ version of Ben Zobrist – a guy that gets at bats every day, but could play somewhere different in every start?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If he becomes a utility type, that’s definitely the dream scenario. Some folks don’t think he can adequately handle many of the defensive positions, however.

      • gocatsgo2003

        I know this is getting far into the gray areas here, but what is “adequate?” As in “we can throw him in for a spot start at 2B” or “he could start at 2B for a couple weeks to cover a guy going on the DL”? Somewhere in between?

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          For me, a guy isn’t “utility-capable” at a particular position unless he could fill in without doing more harm than good for a couple weeks, if absolutely need be.

          At other positions, you’re just an emergency guy.

          • gocatsgo2003

            Makes sense. Seems to me that we would/will have to see what Lake can do at the MLB-level at some of the infield positions before we can REALLY make that decision. Anyone know if he is taking grounders during pre-game or otherwise in addition to his work in the OF?

  • boomindanny

    i am not without my qualms regarding junior, but it seems like, ever since he arrived in the bigs, he has been met with nothing but unfounded questions and expectations of the worst. i understand he has a track record and that his BABIP is unsustainable, but he also has unquestioned athleticism that could be molded more appropriately by MLB coaches and the influence of professionals (not that they don’t exist in aaa). in my opinion, he’s cheap, athletic, young and versatile; combine this with the fact that our team is rebuilding, and i think, at the very least, you are left with a fun experiment to monitor as the year comes to a close.

    i <3 this blog, brett. thanks for all you do.

    • Mr. B. Patient

      I wonder if the analysis for Lake would be different if he was a Theo guy.

      • Cubbie Blues

        I, for one, would not look at him any differently. I would still e happy with the performance so far, but would be waiting for his stats to fall back to earth and understand te small sample size we are looking at.

        • Mr. B. Patient

          Yes, we need to wait to see where Lake’s numbers stabilize to, but I still think the fact he is a Hendry find puts him under more scrutiny. (for some people).
          I am not saying the player is Junior Lake, but most successful teams get good production from an unexpected source. Kind of a luck thing. The Cubs definitely need that.

          • Cubbie Blues

            They most certainly do and I hope Lake does turn into a super utility type. That is much more than I would have said before last summer.

          • hansman1982

            I don’t think it’s Hendry/Epstein bias for most of us. The core issue is the types of players these guys like and try to acquire.

            For Epstein the norm was Rizzo. He values a batter that has a good batting eye. Hendry didn’t value batting eye and stocked up on the Castro types. Most of the guys at the top of the all-time great list perform more like Rizzo.

            Seriously, look at the all-time greats and you will see it chock full of guys who had BB rates above 10%. A good batting eye will make up for a lot of deficiencies.

      • boomindanny

        clap clap clap

        • Cubbie Blues

          They have medication for that. /s

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

        My analysis would be the same.

  • swaz46

    Speaking of Lake, he’s in the Cubs’ homegrown team, produced by Dominic Lanza at itsallaboutthemoney.net. I’m warning you: if you go there and look what an all-homegrown Cubs team would currently look like, prepare to be ill.

    http://itsaboutthemoney.net/archives/2013/08/12/the-all-homegrown-mlb/

    • http://waittilnextyear.net Nate Corbitt

      Al Alburquerque – not to be confused with his cousin, Steve Nebraska.

    • gocatsgo2003

      While true, I suspect this team will look quite different in two or three years’ time, depending on the cut-off of “homegrown.”

  • http://Bleachernation Lou Brock

    No mention of Sweeney in this discussion of who plays OF for Cubs in 2014. I think Sweeney plays a better CF than DeJesus and certainly has more power. If we keep them all for next year then Lake should be given some time at third as well. If not he should be given every chance to play LF full time. Right now we have 3 options at third for next year , a platoon of Valbuena/Murphy or possibly Olt – a long shot as it stands now.
    In Brett’s evaluation he really did not factor in Lakes’ bunting ability. This should help him with his BABIP to some extent while most players do not exhibit this part of their offensive arsenal.
    If 5 OF’s kept for next year Schierholtz, Sweeney, Lake, DeJesus, Gillespie would make sense.

    • marc

      realistically there are only 4-5 positions that can be improved by opening day not accounting for improvement from Rizzo and Castro who are locks to be here. lake, Sweeney, Gillespie, ddj and Nate is not really a playoff caliber outfield unless we add McCann and cano level bats to the infield. I doubt we see either of them on the cubs. so as I see it that makes lf the easiest spot to upgrade through free agency with Beltran elsbury or choo type guys. (with ddj sliding over in a couple of scenarios). so while lake could offer replacement level performance at the league minimum-ish j would be disappointed if he is anything more than our 4th or 5th outfielder.

      my preference being Beltran on a 2 year deal and lake getting starts to spell him a couple times a week. I don’t think Beltran will be attached to a pick either

  • gutshot5820

    Brett, give a guy a break. I’m one of the most vocal critic of some the moves the Cubs have made recently, but you are throwing out all kinds of numbers at Lake as if that is what is going to forecast/define him as a ball player.

    Even Theo, whom everyone worships around here, has recently said that Lake has just recently fully grown into his body and that was part of the problem with his development. Lake has been improving at just about every level and as Theo said, he has a lot of growth and development to go before he becomes a complete ballplayer.

    It’s waaaay too early to be using statistics such as BABIP to forecast his future contributions. Lake is just starting to realizer his potential. Let’s talk in two years and if he does not continue to improve, then we can use advanced statistics to determine what he is or isn’t.

    • Cubman23

      It’s not way too early to be suspect of a BABIP that is 50 points higher than he’s had against worse competition. In fact, I’d say that it would be foolish to not count on a regression here. The FO wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t look at these numbers and plan accordingly.

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