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February 24, 2011
The Worst of the Best
Earlier this week, Astros right fielder Hunter Pence won a precedent-setting arbitration case against his career-long club, earning a record $6.9 million award as a second-time-eligible position player. On the face of it, Pence’s payout might not seem surprising: the 27-year-old netted an All-Star nod in 2009, and offers an alluring combination of power and speed, having hit exactly 25 home runs to go along with at least 10 steals in each of the past three seasons.
The problem with Pence is that he’s at best a complementary player in a good lineup. Most clubs would be happy to have him audition for a supporting role, but he would be miscast as the leading man in a championship-caliber production. Any reference to Pence as a “star right fielder” owes more to the memory of his fluky 2007 debut and the conspicuous flaws of his talent-deprived teammates than his own on-field exploits. From 2008-10, NL right fielders as a group produced a .266/.341/.443 triple-slash line, comparable to Pence’s .278/.330/.466 performance, although the Astro’s unremarkable offense was bolstered by above-average work in the field and on the bases.
The sum of Pence’s contributions makes him something more than a forgettable face in the crowd, but he’s hardly the stuff general managers’ dreams are made of, especially in light of his rapidly escalating price tag. Unfortunately for the Astros, PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ signature projection system), pegs Pence as the 2011 team’s presumptive MVP. That’s more an indictment of the Astros than an endorsement of Pence, because even the worst teams have to have a best player, and making the marquee at Minute Maid pays considerably better than starring for your local beer-league squad. But who are the worst of baseball’s best players, and what can they tell us about their teams’ chances of success?
For reference, here’s the list of 2010’s “worst best” players—in other words, the worst players to qualify as the class of a 25-man roster, as judged by Wins Above Replacement Player.
PECOTA expects the following five to take their places as the game's “worst best” players this season:
1. Kila Ka’aihue, Royals, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.6
2. Matt Wieters, Orioles, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.7
3-Tie. Dallas Braden, Athletics, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.8
3-Tie. Hunter Pence, Astros, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.8
5-Tie. Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks, Projected 2011 WARP: 3.0
5-Tie. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates, Projected 2011 WARP: 3.0
With the worst of the best of 2011 out of the way, let’s take a look at the lowest WARP scores to top a major-league roster since 1950:
Ryan put together the most underwhelming team-leading campaign of the past 60-plus years, totaling under two WARP at second base for a 68-86 Reds club that actually led this loss-prone list in winning percentage. He was out of the league three years later. Most of these players have long since retired, but the table’s two active members seem unlikely candidates to have topped a 25-man roster—there’s no better illustration of the magnitude of former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga’s post-parade firesale than the fact that Craig Counsell was the defending champs’ most productive player.
The abysmal records of the clubs on the list above offer some insight, but what can we say in a more systematic sense about teams that are forced to get their thrills from players like Pence?
Since 1950, 39 teams have been forced to content themselves with leading players in the neighborhood of Pence’s projected performance. Bereft of a single transcendent talent, those teams have floundered to the tune of a .369 winning percentage, which would make the Astros overachievers if their best player performs as poorly as advertised and they still manage to reach the .420 mark for which we’ve forecasted them this season. The presence of at least one elite asset tends to be associated with far happier outcomes, as the rosier records near the bottom of the table suggest. That may be of small comfort to the Astros, who can’t conjure a player better than Pence from their barren farm system, but at least it gives them something to aim for.
Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.