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August 8, 2012

Punk Hits

The Worst of the Best

by Ian Miller

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Baseball Prospectus’ True Average report is endlessly fascinating. Matt Kemp’s .376 TAv is absurd, and Mike Trout, the just-turned-21-year-old rookie superstar, is right behind him with a gaudy .370. And how about David Ortiz in fifth place with a .342! Who saw that coming? The top of the list is an amazing mixture of quotidian greatness (Votto) and fantastic surprises (Jaso??).

But I’m equally fascinated by the bottom of the list. Change the pulldown to the right of TAv from DESC to ASC, set the min. PA to “200,” and hit View Data. (Alternately, you can just click here. At the top of that list are the very worst hitters in Major League Baseball. Just like with baseball’s best hitters, the bottom-dwellers run the gamut from “duh” (Yuniesky Betancourt at 25th-worst) to “huh?” (Ryan Raburn, worst in the majors).

I’m not so interested in the Yuni’s and Freddy Galviseses of the world; we know those guys are lousy hitters (although the Royals front office may have just recently received the memo). The list is full of catchers and middle-infielders, as you’d expect. But what about the guys who don’t belong there? The inverse John Jaso-types? Can these guys be explained? Probably not, but we can at least point and laugh. And if we’re not careful, we just might learn something. 

No. 1. Ryan Raburn, .176 TAv
Raburn has managed to rack up 214 plate appearances as a (not-so-)super-utility type for a contending Detroit ballclub. That eye-popping .176 TAv comprises a .172 batting average, a .225 OBP, and a .258 SLG. Whereas Raburn has a history and a reputation as a lefty-killer, in 2012 he’s been equally awful vs. RHP and LHP. His 2012 TAv is 80 points off his career mark of .259, and if you remove his dismal 2012, it might make be closer to 90 points. “Downright awful” doesn’t begin to describe it. He is, by True Average, the worst hitter in major league baseball this year (among at-least-semi-regular position players). But it might not even be his fault.

According to Joshua Worn of Walkoff Woodward, Jim Leyland shares at least some of the blame. “[Raburn’s] never been an everyday player, but the Tigers had no real solution at second base. Jim Leyland decided to ignore his platoon advantage and threw him out there every single day for the first two months of the season. He started playing every day against right-handed pitching and the result is obvious. He never had a chance.”

Raburn was placed on the disabled list on August 5 (retroactive to August 1) with a right thumb sprain. Has that been hampering his hitting? Well, unless he injured it in spring training, then no: he hit under .150 from the season opener through the end of May. This sounds to me like a classic phantom injury to game the roster rules.

BP has Raburn’s WARP at -1.9 for the season, and the Tigers are a game and a half behind the White Sox in the Central. Of course WARP doesn’t work like this, but it makes ya wonder where Detroit would be if they had even a replacement-level guy make those 214 plate appearances instead of Raburn.

No. 5. Justin Smoak, .201 TAv
Speaking of thumb injuries, Justin Smoak! Speaking of mysteries, Justin Smoak!

His presence near the bottom of this list shouldn’t come as a total shock—he’s struggled at the plate ever since his promotion in 2010. (Did his fast-track to the big leagues do irreparable harm to his development? Probably! Maybe! No one knows!) The power scouts saw coming into the 2008 draft has yet to materialize, but the patience had been there: last year Smoak posted a .323 OBP to bolster his anemic .234 AVG.

But this year both AVG and OBP have gone in the tank, and Smoak is currently sporting a .189/.253/.320 line in 375 PA. He’s also got the worst RARP in the majors at a whopping (or is it minuscule?) -23.4. That was enough to get him sent down to Triple-A Tacoma a few weeks back, where he’s put up a more Smoakian .256/.396/.372 in fewer than 50 at-bats.

The Mariners haven’t given up on Smoak, but neither does he bear any resemblance to the player they thought they were getting when they dealt Cliff Lee to the Rangers. Can he be fixed? One industry source I talked to said Smoak’s bat is slow, and he just can’t catch up to big-league fastballs. His PitchFX Hitter Profile card agrees: if you stay away from the middle of the zone with hard stuff, he’s unlikely to hurt you. (He’s not much better against breaking stuff, either: he’ll punish a hanging curve, but is defenseless against breaking balls down in the zone.)

Should he give up switch-hitting and focus on hitting from just the left side? Maybe! Should he just stop sucking and start hitting like we all know he can? I vote yes!

No. 10. Nyjer Morgan, .214 TAv
I’m not gonna mince words here: I love Nyjer Morgan. If I were a Brewers fan or a Brewers player, I might feel very differently. But from afar, I love him! In a sport full of downright boring players, this alter-ego-having, cat-owning, hockey-playing, Sh*t Black Guys Do-ing character isn’t just a breath of fresh air—he’s a zeppelin-full.

Also, he’s also been the 10th-worst hitter in the major leagues this year, and all the viral videos in the world won’t change that.

But again, from afar, I managed to get this impression that Morgan was a pretty good player. He’s a spark plug guy, stealing bases, making things happen, and giving memorable post-game interviews. But it turns out—wait for it​—that he’s one of the very worst players on television.

Last year, Morgan put up a respectable .266 TAv, but in 2010, that number was .235. His career average (including this year) is .252, so he’s about 40 points off his career pace, which is not nearly as precipitous a drop-off as the other two guys we’ve discussed.

But Morgan is the only one of the three players discussed who is still getting regular playing time with the big-league club, despite being arguably the fifth-best outfielder on the team, and the third-best option in center (behind Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki). A platoon isn’t a viable option for Morgan either, as Morgan hits RHP far better than lefties, while all the outfielders ahead of him hit right-handed pitching well.

So what to do with Mr. Morgan, then? The emergence of Aoki as a viable big leaguer has made Morgan expendable in Milwaukee. He’s eligible for arbitration next year, his age-31 season, and he’s proven to be, well, a challenging player to have around. Were I a GM, I’d think twice before signing him coming off a good year, but coming off the worst year of his career? Even I, admitted fan, would pass.

Errata and Caveats
Morgan, Smoak, and Raburn have been atrocious at the plate this year. This is not open for debate. But when talking about being terrible at baseball, context is important. Here are some things to consider:

  • Only 263 players have made at least 200 plate appearances in the majors so far in 2012
  • Only 910 players have made even one plate appearance in the majors in 2012
  • These guys -- among the worst hitters in all of major league baseball -- are among the best baseball players in the world, facing the best pitchers in the world. They’re better at baseball than you (probably) or I (certainly) could ever dream of being.

I didn’t always understand this. But reading King Kaufman’s paean to Neifi Perez a couple of years ago really hammered this home. Perez was nearly universally reviled; he was as frustrating and inept a player as I can remember watching. But, as Kaufman says,

The worst player in the major leagues is a hell of a ballplayer. The worst player in the history of the major leagues, whoever he was, was a hell of a ballplayer. Neifi Pérez was a hell of a ballplayer.

That may be no consolation to the fan who watches her team struggle, but the worst guy on that team is playing the game at its very highest level. Yes, even the Astros. It’s important for us to keep this in perspective, as people who love baseball, and just as people.

And that Ryan Raburn is a hell of a ballplayer.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Justin Smoak,  Ryan Raburn,  Nyjer Morgan

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