Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Worst Team of the Century

Note: After putting this list together, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference both changed their replacement level calculations, so that they now match. Of course, this also means that these numbers no longer match what is available on either website.While the exact WAR values have changed, these players are still the worst at their positions since the year 2000.

My previous post on Jose Iglesias, where I discovered that Neifi Perez had the worst year out of any player in the last 20 years has inspired me to put together the worst lineup possible, going back to 2000. For all positions, I used a minimum of 400 plate appearances, but this only affected a couple of the players. Generally speaking, if you're at the most negative extreme of production, you needed a lot of at bats to do it.

Catcher - Michael Barrett, Expos, 2001, -0.8 WAR
Catcher actually does fairly well compared to the other positions, perhaps because few catchers get to 400 plate appearances if they are terrible and the fact that most teams carry two or three that they use in a regular rotation. In 2001, 24 year old Michael Barrett put up a .250/.289/.367 line for the now defunct Montreal Expos. While this was only slightly worse than the positional average, he also gave back 13 runs on defense. Despite posting a -1.7 and -0.8 WAR in consecutive years, Barrett continued to develop and became a solid catcher for the Cubs, averaging 2.8 WAR for the Cubs in 2004-2006. Unfortunately, Barrett suffered a concussion in 2007 with the Padres, followed by another one and broken facial bones on a foul tip in 2008. These, and a shoulder injury, effectively ended his career as a major leaguer.

1B - Aubrey Huff, Orioles and Tigers, 2009, -1.8 WAR
Coming in to 2009, Aubrey Huff was arguably one of the more underrated hitters in baseball. Toiling away on poor Baltimore and Tampa Bay teams, Huff had two four win seasons and another 3.3 win season. Fresh off a 32 home run, 4.0 WAR season in 2008, Huff fell apart. In the year 2009 the ERA of the pitcher was about to dawn, but first basemen were still real first basemen, corner outfielders were still real corner outfielders, and small, furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were still real small, furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. Huff's strikeout and walk rates stayed the same, but his BABIP dropped 50 points and his isolated power dropped 100 points. Not a winning combination. Huff managed to bounce back in 2010, putting up the best season of his career and was the best hitter on the World Champion the Giants. Huff turned his career year into one last lucrative contract, resigning with the Giants for two years and $22 million, but was a below replacement player in both 2011 and 2012.

2B - Mike Lansing, Rockies and Red Sox, 2000, -1.5 WAR
Our first Red Sox player on the list. In 1997, Lansing was a 4 win player, but followed up that season with a 0.4 WAR season in 1998 and an injury plagued 0.0 WAR season in 1999. Unfortunately, things got worse in 2000 with more playing time. Lansing struggled with the Rockies and was traded to the Red Sox and put up a combined .240/.292/.365 line in a highly charged offensive era. Lansing was an average defender, but his terrible batting line led to his terrible overall performance. For whatever reason, the Red Sox kept him on in 2001, giving him 382 plate appearances and allowing him to put up another negative WAR season. Lansing attempted a comeback with the Indians in 2002, but it was derailed by a back injury in the minors.

3B - Pedro Feliz, Astros and Cardinals, 2010, -1.9 WAR
Feliz was a solid second division starter throughout most of his career for the Giants and the Phillies, before signing a one year, $4 million deal with the Houston Astros. A common recipe for appearing on this list, Feliz has a good glove and not much of a bat. In 2010, Feliz' defense got markedly worse, being below average for the first time in his career, while also putting up his worst hitting season. His typically low walk rate dropped to an abysmal 3%, while he was also unlucky on balls in play, with only a .228 BABIP. After hitting for a .554 OPS for the Astros in the first half of the season, he was traded for cash, a low level prospect, and the right not to have to pay him any more to the Cardinals. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, he managed a .482 OPS in 120 at bats. Feliz signed a minor league deal with the Royals in 2011, but didn't make it out of spring training.

SS - Neifi Perez, Royals, 2002, -2.9 WAR
Neifi Perez is the proud owner of the worst overall WAR of the last 20 years. Perez never had an above average season with the bat, but solid defense and playing a middle infield position was enough for him to post seasons where he was above replacement. Unfortunately, that all went to hell in 2002, his first full season with the Royals following a midseason trade in which the Royals shipped out Jermaine Dye. Perez had his worst full season with the bat, having career lows in average, OBP, slugging, isolated power, and was an astounding 61% worse than average and coupled it with a glove that was -13 runs. Perez was hurt by a low average on balls in play, but he really wasn't helping himself, either. Perez managed to play for five more years and managed to recover in 2003 to put up a 1.1 WAR for the Giants.

RF - Brennan Boesch, Tigers, 2012,  -1.3 WAR
Brennan Boesch appeared to be on the verge of a breakout coming in to 2012. In part time play he put up 16 home runs and contributed 1.7 WAR for the Tigers, and was expected to be the Tigers starting right fielder. Full time play did not work out well for Boesch, as he stumbled badly putting up a .240/.286/.372 line. His walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate rose, and his power dropped. To top it all off, Boesch was worth -12 runs in the field. Boesch will have a chance to rebound in a more friendly environment in new Yankee Stadium. As a left handed pull hitter (10 of his 12 home runs were hit to right field), Boesch should benefit from the short porch in right, much like Ichiro did in his half a season in New York.

CF - Bernie Williams, Yankees, 2005, -2.2 WAR
Following the 2006 season I remember the Yankees not resigning Bernie Williams, and I wondered how that happened. He was Bernie Williams! Their best center fielder since Mickey Mantle. Well, now that I know the numbers a bit better, it makes a lot more sense, Bernie Williams just wasn't Bernie Williams any longer.  From 1995 to 2002 Bernie Williams was the best and most consistent center fielder in baseball, averaging 5.1 WAR per season, and only once dropping below 4.9 WAR (4.2 in 1996). By the tail end of that stretch his glove didn't really play in center any longer, but his well above average bat still did. In 2003 and 2004 Williams put up slightly above average hitting numbers, but was barely above replacement thanks to his poor defense. In 2005, it all fell apart, though. His play in center field cost the Yankees 29.3 runs, and hit offensive line was below average too. He hit .249/.321/.367 when the league average hitter was hitting .264/.330/.419. Williams "bounced back" in 2006 to a -1.2 WAR, but most of that was through fielding that was bad, instead of historically bad. After the Yankees showed no interest in resigning Williams, he retired from baseball at the age of 38.

LF - Raul Ibanez, Phillies, 2011, -1.3 WAR
In December 2008 the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a three year, $30 million contract that was universally derided by analysts. After all, Ibanez was about to turn 37 and had been an ok, but not great outfielder for the Mariners. Ibanez responded to the deal by putting up the best season of his career, setting career highs in home runs (34) and slugging percentage. Unfortunately for the Phillies and Ibanez, multi-year deals are not evaluated on their first year alone. Ibanez returned to his more normal production in in 2010,  and fell of a cliff in 2011, in part thanks to a massive decline in his walk rate, and terrible fielding, as measured by UZR. It was awfully bad timing for Ibanez, who was hitting the free agent market again. He landed as a bench bat on the Yankees and made good use of platoon splits, the short porch in right field, and avoiding wearing a glove as much as humanly possible to bounce back to a 1.1 WAR season. Ibanez is now a Mariner, after signing a one year, $2.75 deal, but will likely find Safeco Field much less forgiving.

DH - Adam Dunn, White Sox, 2011, -3.0 WAR
From 2004 to 2010 Adam Dunn was as consistent a power source you could possibly imagine. In fact, he hit exactly 40 home runs from 2005 to 2008, then followed that up with consecutive years with 38 home runs. He was a three true outcomes player - lots of walks, strike outs, and home runs. When the White Sox signed him to a four year, $56 million deal they thought they were getting that consistent power and shifting him to first base and designated hitter from the outfield would minimize remove most unfortunate side effects of him playing the field (-128 runs of fielding "value" for his career). Unfortunately for the White Sox, Dunn went from a three true outcome player to a two true outcome player. His strikeout rate skyrocketed to a career high 35.7% , his isolated power (slugging minus batting average) dropped from an elite .276 to .118. Dunn fell just short of qualifying for the batting title in 2011, but his .118 ISO would have ranked 121st, out of 145 qualifiers and behind such power hitters as Coco Crisp, Yunel Escobar, and Erik Aybar. Despite his spectuacularly bad season, Dunn bounced back in 2012, hitting 41 home runs. The power was nice, but his average was still .204. Despite the return to form home run wise, Dunn's strikeout rate lingered in the mid-30s. If that rate climbs at all, Dunn could return to being a non-factor offensively, even if he hits 40 home runs.

All told, this team provides a combined -15 WAR. Since we'd expect a replacement level team to have a .320 win percentage, or 52 wins over the course of a season (per Baseball Reference), this team would expect to win 37 games, good for a 22.8% win percentage. While this team would be worse than the 1962 Mets, the worst team in the modern era, they would escape the ignominy of being the worst team ever as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders won an astounding 13% of their games (20-134).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just how badly would Jose Iglesias have to hit in order to be below average?

With Stephen Drew slow to return from a concussion and without a clear time table, as if often the case with concussions, just ask Justin Morneau, the Red Sox are considering Jose Iglesias at short to begin the season. It all depends on his contribution with the other aspects of his game, so let's see if we can get some rough estimates there. A quick reminder - I'll be discussing value in terms of runs here, but at the end we'll discuss it in terms of wins. The quick and dirty conversion from runs to wins, whether they're runs saved defensively or runs scored offensively, is one win equals 10 runs.

Everyone considers Iglesias the best defender in the minors, and the advanced metrics for his career put him at saving an astounding 41 runs over the course of a full season. Granted, these metrics take much longer than one month to stabilize and this would have put Iglesias as twice as good a defender as anyone else in baseball, but the advanced metrics support the assertion that Iglesias is an elite defender. Last year the best defenders saved just over 20 runs, and since 1950 40 different shortstops have had seasons where they saved 20 or more runs, led by Mark Belanger's 1975 when he saved 33 runs. Given Iglesias' defensive pedigree and universal defensive acclaim, I think 20 runs over the course of a full season is reasonable, and this could be a fairly conservative estimate.

Iglesias is fairly fast, but does not have blazing speed. He seems to have good base running instincts, but does not run very often (12 SB, 3 CS in 400 PA in AAA last year, 75% success rate for his career in the minors). As far as comparables, Rafael Furcal (the current version, not the 46 steal version from 2005) who stole 12 bases and was caught 4 times seems like a good fit. In 2012, Furcal was worth 2.5 runs on the bases. This value includes other aspects of base running, such as advancing on hits, but for simplicity's sake, we'll pick our comparable using stolen base numbers.

Finally, we get to the last numbers on the positive side of the ledger. First of all, Fangraphs defines "replacement level" as -20 runs per 600 plate appearances, so we get to add 20 runs to Iglesias' total. Also, shortstop is an extremely thin position. It has been said over and over again, but the golden age of shortstops is long past us. The average shortstop hit .256/.310/.375 in 2012, so the bar is rather low for Iglesias. That level of league wide production puts the positional adjustment at 7 runs. This means that just by playing shortstop, Iglesias get a bonus of 7 runs over a position like third base, where hitters were about league average, or even more for a position like first base or a corner outfield spot where hitters are penalized for their position, given the expectation that they hit above league average just to be average for their position. So, just for playing shortstop in the majors, Iglesias gets +27 runs to his overall numbers.

So up to this point, we have Jose Iglesias being a 50 run, or five win player, in 2012 if he can just manage to have no negative value as a hitter. For example, Alcides Escobar's 2012 batting line of .293/.331/.390 was worth exactly zero point zero runs. Unfortunately, Iglesias is extremely unlikely to match that kind of production, having hit only .266/.318/.306 in AAA last year. But, in order to have positive value for the Red Sox, he'd only need to be better than -50 runs. According to Fangraph's calculations, Drew Stubbs (-20) was the worst hitter in the league last year. Negative thirty runs is awfully hard to come by, but a nice comparable might be Cezar Izturis' 2010*. Given 500 plate appearances, Izturis hit an incredible .230/.277/.268. Those numbers actually match Igelsias' AAA numbers nicely, adjusting them to the better competition in the majors (.229/.272/.263). Iglesias does have youth on his side, though. He is only 23 and has plenty of room to grow, and this spring training he has six extra base hits in 46 at bats, compared to 11 in 353 at bats in AAA last year.

* The worst batting line of the last 20 years comes courtesy of the Royals, who rolled out Neifi Perez's .236/.260/.303 line for almost 600 plate appearances, good for a mind boggling -42 runs. Sadly, his fielding wasn't doing him any favors either, at -13 runs. This all led to Perez putting up the worst season in the last 20 years at 2.9 wins BELOW replacement and negative eight million dollars worth of performance , and after he was the centerpiece the Royals received after trading away Jermaine Dye to get him. Somehow the Royals managed to foist him and his $4 million salary off on the Giants, where he rebounded to a 1.1 win season, thanks in large part to a return to form defensively.

Overall, this analysis backs up the general assertions that if the Red Sox put Iglesias in the lineup right now, he'd be a two win player. Whether or not that will stunt his development as a hitter or if his failings on offense will affect his focus on defense is an entirely different set of questions. Concussions are tricky injuries and Drew's may linger over the course of the season; if that does happen, the Red Sox may be in the tricky position of balancing using the best shortstop they have on the roster at the expense allowing that player to continue to develop in the minor leagues.