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May 10, 2013

Overthinking It

The Sub-Replacements

by Ben Lindbergh

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An Effectively Wild listener named Dewitt sent in this suggestion a few days ago:

Listening to Kazmir podcast, heard you guys refer to Josh Hamilton as one of the 10 worst players in MLB this year—which recalled a local talk show last night enumerating all the ways which Uggla and B.J. Upton have been horrible.

Which leads me to this thought for a piece—the 10 (12?) (20?) worst major leaguers, 2013. And, of course, who you guys think has the best chances of returning to form.

I’m not going to do that, exactly, but I’m going to do something similar: the worst positions of 2013. Of course, many of the worst positions of 2013 are manned by the worst players of 2013, which should make Dewitt happy. (Dewitt hates to see people succeed.) Below I’ve listed every position whose occupants have been half a win below replacement level or worse so far this season (half a win below replacement being an arbitrary but convenient cutoff). Things are going to get better at all of these positions, but time won’t heal all of the wounds. Some will require replacements.

American League

Baltimore Orioles, 2B, -0.8 WARP (Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla, Brian Roberts)
This might be the most predictably weak position on the list. The Orioles went into the season with Brian Roberts penciled in as the starter and next to no backup. “Risky” would be a generous way to describe that decision, given that Roberts averaged 38 games from 2010-12. He hit well in spring training and for the first few games of the season, then suffered an injury on what looked like a routine steal attempt. I took the over on the initial report that he’d miss 2-4 weeks. It’s been almost five weeks, but instead of nearing a return, Roberts is now facing hamstring surgery that will cost him an estimated six additional weeks. I’ll take the over again. Buck Showalter says that Roberts "is going to come back and make a contribution to this club this year,” but even if Roberts does return, it’s hard to believe he’ll stay healthy.

In Roberts’ absence, the Orioles have been alternating Flaherty and Casilla, neither of whom hits enough to play every day. The long-term solution is 21-year-old prospect Jonathan Schoop, but he’s hitting .248/.325/.333 in his first season at Norfolk and could use more time at Triple-A. The Chase Utley rumors will swirl, since not making a move would mean settling for sub-replacement play, but Baltimore will be reluctant to part with some of its good young pitching for an impending free agent with durability issues of his own.

New York Yankees, SS, -0.5 WARP (Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, Robinson Cano)
It’s hard to think of a major leaguer with a wider gap between performance and perceived skills than Nunez. In February, Bill Madden wrote that Yogi Berra had spent the winter saying that the Yankees needed to find Nunez 500 at-bats, adding:

There are plenty of scouts and baseball people inside and outside of the organization who love Nunez’s bat and speed and believe he has the tools to be a star.

I’ve heard similar reports, at least about scouts inside the organization. The Nunez the scouts see is nowhere to be found in the numbers. He’s hit .261/.313/.367 in the majors and .273/.319/.357 in Triple-A, he’s stretched as a shortstop and not an asset elsewhere in the infield, and he’s about to turn 26. That’s not a guy you need to make room for; that’s a guy you live with when you lose your starter but hope you don’t have to use for long. Nunez is a rarity in the Yankees’ lineup, in that he’s under 30 and has some speed, but the facts that the sight of him doesn’t remind you of your own mortality and he can steal some bases doesn’t make his skill set much more valuable than it would be to a younger, faster team.

The hope here, of course, is that Derek Jeter will come back after the All-Star break and be what he was last season. The list of 39-or-over-year-olds who’ve spent significant time at shortstop is mostly Hall of Famers—Wagner, Maranville, Appling, Smith, Larkin—but Jeter is a Hall of Famer himself, so he wouldn’t look out of place on that exclusive list. Plus—and I’m not just being snarky here—Jeter had so little range to begin with that if he came back even slower, he might not be that much worse than he was. His main virtue as a shortstop has always been his ability to field the balls hit right at him, and presumably he can still do that. It's hard to lose a step when a step is what you start out with.

Chicago White Sox, 1B, -0.7 WARP (Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Jeff Keppinger)
Chicago White Sox, 2B, -0.5 WARP (Jeff Keppinger, Tyler Greene, Gordon Beckham, Angel Sanchez)
Chicago White Sox, DH, -0.5 WARP (Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Jordan Danks)

The White Sox are the only team with more than one position on this list, let alone three. Only the Marlins have a lower team TAv than Chicago’s .230, and their list of positive performances at the plate begins and ends with Alex Rios, who’s completed a surprising transition from albatross to trade chip.

Since last May, Konerko has hit .249/.316/.400 and Dunn has hit .180/.294/.401. That’s .215/.305/.400 in a combined 1076 plate appearances. Another relevant combined Dunn/Konerko statistic: 70 years of age.

Keppinger was a candidate for regression after a high-BABIP 2012, but not really a candidate for complete collapse, which is closer to what we’ve seen so far. He hasn’t walked in 112 plate appearances (122 if you want to tack on 10 from the end of last season), and he’s had two extra-base hits (both doubles). The lack of walks makes some sense, since pitchers have no fear of pitching Keppinger inside the strike zone. Only Chris Getz has seen a higher percentage of pitches inside the zone than Keppinger’s 58.2 (up about five percentage points since last season). Konerko, by the way, has the fourth-highest zone percentage.

Oddly, Keppinger has a 26 percent line-drive rate, which would be a career high. I watched all of his line-drive outs, and while there were a few at ’em balls, there were more softly hit balls with vaguely line-drive-like trajectories. He’s also striking out more, mostly because he’s been swinging through more breaking stuff outside the zone. It’s going to get better, but it’s probably not going to get good. Gordon Beckham’s return from a fractured hamate bone should improve this three-position vortex of suck slightly, but it’s a sorry state of affairs when you’re hoping for offensive help from a player who’s hit .234/.297/.354 since 2010.

Detroit Tigers, DH, -0.6 WARP (Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, Matt Tuiasosopo)
In January, I included Martinez on our Lineup Card list of Comeback Player of the Year Award candidates, noting that he’d never failed to hit well when healthy. Assuming he’s healthy—and he says he is—this season has been the exception. Martinez has made noises about appearing at catcher, but it’s hard to see how that would help Detroit; he was an asset behind the plate when he was a catcher who hit like a DH, not a DH who hits like a catcher.

Both have low BABIPs, but I’m more prepared to blame bad luck for Martinez’s struggles than I was in Keppinger’s case. A few days ago, ESPN’s Mark Simon tweeted a list of leaders in “hard-hit ball” percentage, as classified by (I believe) BIS. Martinez was fourth from the top. “Hard-hit ball” is the kind of subjective classification that makes Colin Wyers cry, but see for yourself:

That’s just a taste. If the situation persists, the Tigers could call up Nick Castellanos (who’s not hitting) or Avisail Garcia (who is) from Triple-A Toledo and DH Torii Hunter, but we’re still a long way away from that point. I think Martinez will hit.

Seattle Mariners, SS, -1.5 WARP (Brendan Ryan, Robert Andino)
Paul Sporer and I discussed this situation recently. With a low BABIP, Ryan reaches a level of offensive inadequacy that even his spectacular defense can’t salvage, and Andino is a natural second baseman whose bat is just as bad. The M’s probably demoted Ryan from a starting role too quickly, but unlike a lot of clubs on this list, Seattle has options: Carlos Triunfel, who’s hitting .311/.351/.500 at short for Triple-A Tacoma; Nick Franklin, his double-play partner and sometime-shortstop, who’s hitting .344/.468/.522; and Brad Miller, another shortstop who’s holding his own in Jacksonville. The Mariners won’t live with their Ryan/Andino arrangement for long.

National League

Atlanta Braves, CF, -0.8 WARP (B.J. Upton, Jordan Schafer)
We thought this would be one of those situations where putting two brothers together makes both of them better. Maybe it’s actually one of those situations where one brother excels and earns everyone’s adulation and the other brother looks like the less talented sibling and eventually becomes bitter about it. Or maybe it’s just a hot streak juxtaposed with a slump. B.J. Upton, like a lot of hitters on this list, has a very low BABIP, which is the sort of thing you expect to see on a list of the least productive hitters over the first six weeks of the season. He’s also popped up a lot, and when a lot of your balls a play are popups, you shouldn’t expect to have a lot of hits. He swung a lot more often last season than ever before, and there was some suspicion that he was trying to pump up his power numbers before free agency, but he’s stopped swinging so much this year, especially at pitches outside of the strike zone. It’s possible that he’s still overswinging and trying too hard to hit homers, given the popup rate and his reduced contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone. It’s also possible that his timing is off. Either way, the Braves will let him hit his way out of this hole.

Miami Marlins, 1B, -0.5 WARP (Greg Dobbs, Joe Mahoney, Chris Valaika, Casey Kotchman, Miguel Olivo)
It seems sort of silly to single out one weak position on the Marlins, since every position save for right field and center field (where Justin Ruggiano has sustained his impressive power display from last season) has been below replacement. The only hopes here are successful returns from injury for Casey Kotchman and Logan Morrison. Sorry about that depressing sentence. This position will probably continue to be bad.

New York Mets, CF, -0.7 WARP (Collin Cowgill, Jordany Valdespin, Juan Lagares, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Marlon Byrd)
We knew the Mets’ outfield situation was going to be ugly. If anything, it’s been less ugly than expected, thanks to Lucas Duda’s improved power and patience. Cowgill’s demotion means this is probably about to be Valdespin’s job to lose.

Milwaukee Brewers, 2B, -0.8 WARP (Rickie Weeks, Jeff Bianchi)
Last year, Weeks hit .199/.314/.343 in the first half, striking out 100 times in just 297 at-bats. In the second half, he cut his K rate considerably and rebounded to bat .261/.343/.457. History will probably repeat itself.  

Pittsburgh Pirates, SS, -0.7 WARP (Clint Barmes, John McDonald)
Barmes was the worst hitter to get 400 plate appearances in 2012, so it’s not a surprise that he’s at it again. His .216 TAv last season was identical to McDonald’s career TAv, and both players have been worse than ever offensively in the early going. Both are known for good gloves, but at ages 34 and 38, respectively, neither glove is good enough to overcome this kind of impotence at the plate. Pittsburgh has been a buyer at the last couple of deadlines, they’re off to an even better start this year, and there’s no immediate help coming from the farm, so expect the Pirates to be players on what looks like a weak trade market for shortstops.

Bonus bad players, because Dewitt would want to know
The only players in the bottom 10 in BWARP not mentioned above are Luis Cruz, Alex Gonzalez, and David Freese. Freese will be fine, we saw Cruz’s collapse coming, and Gonzalez is another low-BABIP guy with a lousy bat to begin with.

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

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