September 16, 2010
Looking for the Iconic Replacement Player
Replacement level is something of a slippery concept. Of course, once you’ve gotten a grasp of its meaning and import, it’s not hard to hold on; I suspect that most people reading this article would defend the utility of replacement level to the death, at least until things got violent. Still, one suspects that holdouts might cotton to the concept more quickly if it employed a familiar baseline; the rather abstract nature of the term “replacement level” has been known to provoke a few scoffs from the anti-intellectual set.
Of course, given the elusive nature of “average” in baseball, replacement level better suits the sport for evaluative purposes. As Joe Posnanski wrote recently, “You could pick a really HIGH baseline—you could make your stat read Wins Below Willie Mays (WBWM) or Value Under Albert Pujols (VUAB). But that wouldn’t be much fun to do and would probably tell us more about Willie Mays and Albert Pujols than the players themselves.”
Still, putting a face and a name to the somewhat amorphous idea of the replacement player might be instructive as well as amusing. Perhaps personifying replacement level would make it more palatable to late adopters; it could be that the concept is simply waiting for its Mario Mendoza to come along and offer up his name for a chance at ignoble fame (though Mendoza himself fell too far below replacement to fit this bill). However, players who embody replacement level are out there; as Posnanski suggested, “The stat could easily be WAM—Wins Above McEwing.”
Poz was referring, of course, to “Super” Joe McEwing, who accumulated 1,963 plate appearances over the course of nine major-league seasons, and according to Sean Smith’s implementation of WAR at Baseball Reference, accumulated exactly 0.0 wins above replacement for his trouble (WARP gives him credit for -0.4, while FanGraphs thinks more highly of his efforts, crediting him with a whopping 2.7 WAR). McEwing certainly matches the description, but can we do any better?
There’s a case to be made that the prototypical replacement player shouldn’t have actually spent much time, well, playing. Plenty of replacement players quite literally serve as replacements, called up, traded for, or granted more a prominent roles in the wake of an injury to a more capable athlete. When the incumbent returns, the replacement player crawls back to whichever minor-league park he labored in before being granted his moment in the sun, and rarely, if ever, resurfaces.
But that’s no fun. The replacement players who capture a certain kind of imagination are those who prove capable of an unlikely longevity—the players who year after year perform no better than a host of equally available (and after some time has elapsed, less expensive) alternatives, but nonetheless continue to get the call, mainly by virtue of having answered one previously. With that in mind, I asked Rob McQuown to send me a list of players who satisfied the following conditions: the ideal candidate would have accumulated a minimum of 800 plate appearances over a span of at least five seasons, never exceeding WARP 1.0 in any single season, and finishing his career with 0 +/- 2 WARP (since all win value statistics contain some intrinsic measurement error, we needn’t put too fine a point on it).
A total of 236 players answered the personal ad Rob posted in our database, ranging from Chippy McGarr, who came into this world on the day that Stonewall Jackson left it after sustaining mortal wounds at the Battle of Chancellorsville, to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who made his major-league debut all of three years ago. McEwing placed only 30th on the list, in terms of career plate appearances. Just as Hall of Fame voters evaluate each candidate’s peak value and career value, assessing whether a retired great was transcendent enough over a limited span or consistently valuable enough over a long enough period to merit enshrinement among the best of all time, I incorporated each candidate for replacement-level poster boy’s lack of peak value and lack of career value. There are no fading stars or developing rookies destined for greatness on this list; these guys were never much good, but they got the opportunity to stay bad at the highest level for quite some time (“Career Length” denotes the number of years that elapsed between a player’s rookie season and swan song):
With all due respect to the major-league service of the likes of McGarr, Harry Blake, and John O’Brien, 19th-century replacement players aren’t likely to capture the 21st-century imagination, Steven Goldman aside. Lee Stevens makes a competitive case, leading the pack in plate appearances, but it seems somehow unsporting to settle on a player who was, for a period of at least a few seasons, a starter. Of course, he didn’t deserve to be; like many a player on this list, Stevens’ staying power owed a debt to mismanagement, as the turn-of-the-century Rangers and Expos failed to realize that 20 homers does not necessarily a valuable first baseman make. Let’s take a look at the leading candidates whose final seasons in the majors came no earlier than 1990:
Sveum is a competitive candidate: the man hit .236/.298/.378 over the course of 12 seasons, though perhaps I’m biased as a result of my toxic exposure to his late-career play during my formative years. Each of us remembers the visceral experience of watching our first replacement player (even if we wouldn’t have thought of him in such terms at the time); though subsequent replacement players may eclipse the initial one’s transgressions, the frustration of watching the first never fades, and in certain cases, one may find it necessary to start a website to exorcise the lingering psychological wounds.
Abraham Nunez has the advantage of coming closest to zeroing out; that has to count for something, sizeable error bars aside. Like Sveum, Denny Hocking also endured for 12 seasons, manning seven different positions for portions of at least seven of them, while putting up a .251/.310/.344 line during a historically offensive era. Daryle Ward deserves credit for never succeeding in posting a league-average OPS in any season in which he received more than 150 plate appearances, despite spending all of his time at offense-first positions. Herm Winningham has an ironic surname in his favor. Beyond that, most of the names blend into a bland sea of mediocrity, though each has his special failures to recommend him.
All of this deliberation may soon prove academic, thanks to one particular name on the list. Only 32, currently enjoying his best offensive season (which, as I probably don’t have to tell you, isn’t saying much), and recently traded to a contending team, where he’ll provide the same ability to play nearly every position adequately while hitting not a lick (.264/.316/.337 career, with a grand total of 13 round trippers) that he’s offered to each of his previous employers, Bloomquist could vault over Winningham by the end of this season, and take aim at the next couple of names above him in 2011.
Only once (last season) has Bloomquist managed to garner more than 300 plate appearances, and with good reason; he semi-famously managed only a single extra-base hit (a double) in 192 plate appearances with Seattle in 2008. With the Reds stretched thin, Bloomquist has been called upon to do what he does best, though he doesn’t do even that very well: replace someone else. Making a career out of filling in for others isn’t glamorous, but it’s not bad work if you can get it, and major league GMs have thus far decreed that Bloomquist can. A player of Bloomquist’s talents can’t expect many accolades while active, but when the book on his career is closed, Bloomquist may be the best living, breathing example of a replacement-level player we can offer up to the unconverted. Wins Above Bloomquist, anyone?