July 7, 2011
Among the many oddities of the pre-sabermetric period—or at least the time before sabermetrics went mainstream—is replacement-level shortstop Gary DiSarcina’s 12-year career, most of which he spent as a starter. That’s not to say that teams no longer make mistakes in a more enlightened era—they do, and plenty of them—but one wonders whether DiSarcina would have enjoyed the long leash he did had his every on-field failure been scrutinized by an army of online (and front-office) observers wielding advanced statistics.
Of course, it wasn’t as if more simplistic stats built DiSarcina into a Joe Carter-like false idol–one didn’t need to see his career .225 TAv and negative FRAA to know that he wasn’t among the game’s leading lights. Still, something kept him employed, year after year and out after out. Few players spend the entirety of a lengthy career with the same team, and those who do tend to be marketable stars, men whose fates gradually become intertwined with those of their franchises through sustained mutual success. DiSarcina was not one of those men, but he was a career Angel in spite of all efforts to play his way out of a job.
After his first four seasons, DiSarcina found himself 2.1 WARP in the hole; in his lone season as an average major-league player, 1995, he was named to the All-Star team, as if the voters had graded on a curve, taking his meager talent level into account when appraising his play. DiSarcina didn’t leave much of a legacy—he’s one of the only players I’ve seen with a blank Baseball-Reference Bullpen page, something even Enrique Wilson can’t claim—though he is still employed by the Angels (who must believe he’s a better assistant to the GM than he was a shortstop).
However, one aspect of DiSarcina’s play did survive the passage of time, culminating in an enduring Baseball Prospectus tradition: the DiSar Awards. To quote Joe Sheehan, who introduced the DiSars in 2000:
Since Joe first began drawing attention to each season’s most impatient players, back in the days before Moneyball put the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Scott Hatteberg on the map, the walk’s image has gotten a makeover. Batters aren’t necessarily walking more, but those who do wield the walk as a weapon are more often celebrated for their patience than condemned for their lack of aggressiveness, at least among a sizeable portion of the baseball-watching public. Still, plenty of free swingers have survived the end of the walk’s ouster as an inefficiency.
It’s been over two years since Joe last wrote about the DiSars, so let’s go over the ground rules. Intentional walks don’t count—players have to earn their own way out of DiSar contention. Pitchers are excluded, since they aren’t encouraged or expected to exhibit an intelligent plate approach. Finally, the winner of the DiSar Award takes home (figuratively speaking) a pair of Golden Crutches, in recognition of his inability to walk to first base unassisted.
Before we get to this year’s contenders for the Golden Crutches, let’s recap. Even though the award bears his name, DiSarcina didn’t actually set the standard for walkless streaks to start a season. That dubious distinction goes to Oakland’s Rob Picciolo, who went 260 at-bats without a walk to start the 1980 campaign. Mariano Duncan earned all-time NL honors with a virtuoso 215-at-bat walkless performance in 1995. (Duncan actually went walkless from June 19, 1994, to August 8, 1995, taking a stroll in just 3.5 percent of his plate appearances over those two seasons. In 1996, he walked in only 2.2 percent of his plate appearances, but he also hit .340, which made his impatience a good deal more palatable.)
Here are all of each league’s winners—if you can call them that—since the dawn of the DiSars:
Winning a DiSar isn’t a death sentence, as a number of players have gone on to greater productivity after making a prohibitively impatient start to a season. Still, the fact that Jeff Francoeur is the only player whose name appears twice on this list should tell you something about the caliber of most hitters who refrain from walking for such extended stretches.
Let’s take a look at this year’s leaders in the clubhouse:
It’s fitting that Guerrero is finally in a position to claim his own Golden Crutches, since the gimpy ex-outfielder has appeared to need a pair for years. Vlad has long been known for his willingness to lunge at any offering, but in his days as an offensive force, his appetite for bad-ball swinging was somewhat curtailed by pitchers’ unwillingness to throw him anything he could drive. Now that he’s no longer much of a hitter and his opponents aren’t afraid to come in, he’s even more loathe to let a pitch go by. It took Guerrero until May 3 to draw his first free pass, though he’s added 10 more since then.
Morel walked four times in 70 plate appearances last season, but he’s drawn only three free passes in 213 PA in 2011. Aybar is keeping DiSarcina’s lineage alive, and Loney has added being patient to a long list of things he can’t do at the plate. That Jose Lopez has yet to win one of these is perhaps the most shocking aspect of this exercise.
Even though we’ve reached the midpoint of the season, Guerrero and Morel aren’t yet safe at the top of the leaderboard; as a number of past come-from-behind DiSar victories attest, it’s not too late for an injured player or just-promoted prospect to hack his way to history. Francoeur’s DiSar-winning 2005 season, for one, didn’t get underway until six years ago today. (How are you celebrating the anniversary?) Here are the players with the longest active streaks this season:
What say you, readers? Can we fit Guerrero and Morel for their Golden Crutches now, or does the second half hold more hacking in store from someone who has yet to make his presence felt?
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.