I was reading an article at fangraphs.com about how bad Chone Figgins was during his three-year hitch with the Mariners, and it got me thinking. I wondered if Chone Figgins was as bad as Adam Dunn was in 2011. Nope. Okay, I thought, has anyone ever been that bad? Sure enough, several players have forced their fans to endure worse seasons than Dunn inflicted on the White Sox faithful, and Jerry Royster was the worst.
Jerry Royster was a young infielder looking for an opportunity to play in the early ’70s. He came up through the Dodgers organization but, just as they were about to peak, he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves. Finally, Royster got his shot.
He was decent in his first year as a starter when he was 23, walking and striking out at almost identical rates, but one problem was that he played 3B and had virtually no power. An ISO of .056 isn’t good enough at the hot corner, especially when the big gun at the time was Mike Schmidt. During the 3+ years before 1976, 3B Darrell Evans hit 89 home runs for the Braves; Royster hit 40 HR in 1428 career games.
His audition was good enough for him to become the Braves’ main utility guy after it became clear that he wasn’t going to cut it at 3B in 1977. That’s when things got bad, historically bad. According to baseball-reference.com, Jerry Royster’s –4.1 WAR in 1977 is the worst mark ever. Fangraphs.com pegs him at –3.4 WAR for ’77. The interesting thing is that, aside from ’77, Royster’s WAR numbers were pretty much what you’d expect from a replacement-level player (–0.6 to 2.0 over the next 12 seasons).
WAR (What is it good for…?)
Most of you know that WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. WAR is a single, catchall statistic used to measure a player’s overall ability and value. Fangraphs measures this value by adding together relevant statistics for offense (wRAA), defense (UZR), and base running (UBR). Baseball-reference.com uses a different formula, giving a slightly different value. A replacement level player, as Royster became after his first full season, will typically have a WAR between 0 and 2.0. The top 15-20 players in the game will be worth 6.0 WAR and higher. Contrary to Edwin Starr, this WAR is good for something.
But what’s all this negative WAR stuff? Simply put, some players are so bad that the team is actually giving away runs by playing them. Put another way, it would be better to put a replacement-level (AAA or AAAA) player in the game. One of the worst players in recent years is Delmon Young. Delmon Young’s career high WAR is 1.7 (’10). The other 5+ years of his unspectacular career total –0.9 WAR. A team would be wise to replace Delmon Young with someone like Mike McCoy. McCoy’s a career .190 hitter who’s worth 0.6 WAR.
That leads me to the next part of our look at negative WAR: what does a negative WAR season look like? Delmon Young typically puts up decent—not good, but decent—Triple Crown stats. An average season, projected to 162 games, would look something like this:
Not bad, huh? That’s 52 extra base hits, a .284 average, and 89 ribbies every year. SEA would give their eyeteeth to have that kind of production from a LF or DH. The problem is that this season from this player produces negative WAR more often than not. Another problem is that we tend to look at a player’s so-called Triple Crown stats and evaluate their talent level and impact accordingly. That’s why we wind up in deep discussions about Trout and Cabrera. WAR evaluates a player on the basis of his offense, defense, and base running. The latter two facets of a players’ game aren’t found in a box score.
Typically fewer than 10 players finish a season with negative WAR. Some players, like Delmon and Jeff Francoeur, are a threat to finish there every year. These players score poorly across the board, or score so poorly in two categories (usually defense and base running, where the stats are admittedly less precise), that any useful offensive contribution is simply overwhelmed.
Other players, like Adam Dunn in 2011, have one bad season. Dunn scores very well offensively, partly because he creates a lot of runs (wRC+) and is average on the base paths. His defense is terrible but he’s a full-time DH, so it’s less of a factor.
The lowest WAR values over the past decade belong to Adam Dunn (-3.0, 2011), Bernie Williams (-2.2, 2005), and Yuniesky Betancourt (-2.1, 2009). Where could we put them on a spectrum of full-time major league players?
Pigeon-Holing Recent Negative WAR Players
Bernie Williams was at the tail end of a productive, title-filled career. His offense was very good and his base running was just about league average, but he was one of the worst defensive OF of his generation. His defensive scores for the last 11 of his 16-year career totaled –149.4. His average score on defense in those years was –13.6; league average is zero. It’s hard to believe that the NYY won as often as they did with such a poor defensive CF, but win they did. Having several other superstars and terrific team depth helps hide some shortcomings.
A recent addition to this category is Michael Young of the Texas Rangers. During his career Young has been poor defensively, but is a very good base runner and has a wide variety of offensive skills that play well in The Ballpark in Arlington. He’s a good teammate, who is a versatile, above-average ballplayer at the tail end of a good career. Yet he was worth –1.4 WAR in 2012. Big deal, you say. Who cares, you say? Well, the game and a half that TEX lost by playing Michael Young looms large when you consider that OAK won the division by one game. Perhaps not having to play BAL in the wild card play-in game gives the AL playoffs an entirely different look, but I digress…
We’ve already mentioned Dunn’s case: it was one very bad season. Mike Lowell fits this category. He was unspectacular on defense (slightly above-average) and a poor base runner (below average every year but two) who had career lows on offense pretty much across the board in ’05 (0.5 WAR) at a crucial time in his career (he was 31). Because of the timing of his bad year, the Marlins were happy to send him to Boston in the Josh Beckett/Hanley Ramirez deal.
Lowell rebounded to contribute meaningfully during the balance of his career with the Red Sox, which included a title in 2007, but they always seemed to be on the verge of dealing him if the right opportunity arose.
Yuniesky Betancourt is different story altogether. He’s a poor defender, a slightly below average base runner, and poor offensively but he’s not historically bad in any criteria. He has two other things going for him as well: he plays a premium position (949 games at SS; 63 games at 2B/3B), and he has a little pop in his bat (38 doubles in ’07; 16 HR in ’10). One would think that it’s bad strategy to play a poor defender at a key defensive position, but that tricky little supply-demand principle applies here.
It’s in this category that we would put players like Delmon Young and Jeff Francoeur: year after year, they score poorly in each criterion. They don’t add very much to the team for which they play, and even their ‘good years’ put them only slightly above a replacement player.
Typically, though, a breakout season like Delmon Young’s 2010 season with the Twins makes people think that players like him are valuable. They aren’t. Delmon’s Triple Crown numbers that year were 21/112/.298 and his OPS was .826. Pretty good, right? Not really. His fielding (-10.0) and base running (-3.6) were so bad that Fangraphs has him at 1.7 WAR for the season. You want your team to sell high on these players.
Since Delmon finished 10th in MVP voting that year, there must be something inherently wrong with WAR as a meaningful evaluator of a player’s performance, right? Well, that’s one interpretation. If you want to go that route, you need to ask yourself when was the last time that a player was considered to be a strong MVP candidate on the basis of defense/base running.
The truth is that those criteria are rarely considered very seriously, otherwise players like Bill Mazeroski, Ozzie Smith, Marty Marion, and Tim Raines would have received much greater consideration. Only one player in ML history has won an MVP based almost exclusively on one of those criteria (Marty Marion), yet base running and defense are valuable. That’s why they’re included in WAR calculations. Rickey Henderson probably added 5 years to his career because of his base running.
Do you want to know something funny? In 1976, the year before Jerry Royster’s historic campaign, the Braves called up a young shortstop. His name was Pat Rockett and he wasn’t very good: he was worth –0.1 WAR in ’76 and –2.6 WAR in ’77. He was well on his way to the worst mark of all-time in ’78 when the Braves showed that they learned from Royster, and scrubbed Rockett’s mission after 55 games. He was worth –3.0 WAR in those 55 games, and –5.7 WAR in his 152-game career.