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September 27, 2016

Liner Notes

Self-Sabotage Stars

by Bryan Grosnick


I learned when shopping for engagement rings that no diamond (that I could afford, at least) is without flaw. It’s just a matter of digging in and seeing how deep the damage goes. I don’t think it’s too tough to draw a metaphor between that experience and how we should look at other people, and ballplayers are just a subset of that larger group.

Like everyone else, baseball players aren’t perfect–except Mike Trout, I think–and each of them is capable of sabotaging their own value. Some of these flaws crop up in small ways: a hole in the swing, a predilection to hang a slider in hitters’ counts, a lack of simple fielding range. On occasion, we can also find a player whose on-field mistakes or inadequacies border on hamartia, the great flaws of Greek tragedy.

See, one of the great things about sabermetrics is the ability to use the holistic Wins Above Replacement (Player) framework to judge overall value and compare it to others. One of the not-so-great things about sabermetrics is that–thanks to the ease of use and ubiquity of WAR(P)--it can sometimes be the first and last thing we use to judge the quality of a season, without looking at the acts that made up that value.

A look at an overall value number doesn’t tell us everything; a player could be a tremendous offensive, defensive, or pitching contributor, but some other facet of their game might give back enough value to leave them with a fairly pedestrian final WARP. These players, in diminishing their own value, are their own worst enemies. They carry some tragic performance flaw–or maybe a couple–that suck the life out of their stats and transform them from an All-Star-caliber performer to just a good regular, or from a net-positive starter to a replacement-level nobody.

I tried to pick out players in five different categories who exemplified this ability to take one aspect of their game or stat line and turn it into a black hole of value that saps them of just a touch more glory. These are our stars of self-sabotage, our masters of masochism.

Baserunning: J.D. Martinez (-6.5 BRR)

J.D. Martinez probably isn’t the worst baserunner in the game–that distinction belongs to teammate and surname-mate Victor Martinez. This season, V-Mart has been the worst baserunner by BP’s BRR stat and has cost the Tigers 8.6 runs by this metric, but that is behavior we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s least-agile players.

But we’re not here to talk about Martinez, we’re here to talk about Martinez. While it’s a former catcher in V-Mart and a current catcher in Yadier Molina (-7.2 BRR) who "top" the overall trailers, it’s J.D. Martinez who comes in third-worst. The Tigers’ outfielder has cost his team about six-and-a-half runs compared to an average baserunner, an amount that seems distressingly large. In all but the most extreme circumstances, baserunning accounts for just a few runs either on the black or the red side of the ledger. For most players, what they do between the bases just doesn’t add up to all that much value.

But then there’s J.D., one of that few players who legitimately costs his team more than a handful of runs thanks to his flaw. We can start with thefts, the most obvious aspect of baserunning. Martinez is 12-for-22 on stolen base attempts throughout his career, and 1-for-3 in 2016. Given that the break-even rate for stolen bases is somewhere around 70 percent for this year’s Tigers team–back-of-the-napkin math provided via an equation from Bradley Woodrum at FanGraphs–and his priors, it’s probably a terrible idea for him to try to steal a base. Ever.

But that’s not what hurt him this season. Stolen bases are just one component of baserunning, and probably only cost Martinez about one run. Most of his inadequacy comes from an inability to advance on both balls in the air and balls on the ground–or as BP’s metrics call them, Air Advancement Runs (AAR) and Ground Advancement Runs (GAR). Being unable to advance on a ball in play is a tremendous way to cost your team runs on the sly. Getting thrown out at home on a routine grounder–like he does below against the Angels–doesn’t help his team at all.

In that same game, Martinez would go 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI, so it can be hard to fault such a dynamic hitter too much. But no matter how good of a hitter you are, the little things can add up to suck the wind out of a season. Despite his terrific .307 True Average, the Tigers slugger has only earned 1.6 WARP on the season. Though his unfortunate defensive metrics (-10.0 FRAA) have cost him a bit more overall value, that bad baserunning has cost him substantially as well. An average fielder and baserunner with Martinez’s offensive ability would be worth more than three wins–instead he’s a barely-average overall contributor despite his lumber.

Catcher Framing: J.T. Realmuto (-13.4 Framing Runs)

The Marlins’ young backstop has quietly had a breakout season. Long a top catching prospect, Realmuto’s bat now looks like a legitimate weapon, with his hit and power tools creating a .348 on-base percentage and .437 slugging percentage. Those marks would look very nice at any position, let alone catcher. The former infielder also possesses a wicked arm and is just playing his age-25 season, so in theory he’s everything one could want from a backstop.

If this were 2011, the internet baseball cognoscenti might just be falling all over themselves to anoint him one of the top backstops in the game. It’s not 2011. It’s 2016, and we know now just how much effect the art of pitch framing can add to a catcher’s defensive value. And when it comes to presenting pitches, Realmuto is really bad. Among all catchersRealmuto has cost his team the fourth-most runs by framing–13.4 in the red–despite his rocket arm and efficient bat.

BP’s WARP metric has him earning 3.4 wins above a replacement player over the course of this excellent season. That’s great. But if he were just an average framer, Realmuto would be worth something in the neighborhood of five wins–a season very comparable to that of Jonathan Lucroy or Wilson Ramos, and comfortably in the top 30 in terms of overall position player value.

Unclutch: Michael Saunders (-1.51 WPA)

Sometimes WARP tells the story of a player’s overall value, but not the context in which that value was earned. There are other ways we can figure that out: runs and RBI are the more traditional metrics, but things like Win Probability Added and RE24 are the modern analyst’s weapons of choice. WPA is an especially interesting tool, allowing us to add up how much a player affected his team’s chances of winning in each game. When we add that number up over the course of a season, we get a number that indicates how many wins above (or below) average that player might have been worth, from a contextual standpoint.

As you might imagine, the hitters who have low WPA marks are typically bad hitters, and the ones with high WPA marks are the best hitters in the game. (Defense is ignored in position-player WPA.) The list of lowest WPAs in baseball this year is a who’s who of disappointments and offensive zeroes: per FanGraphs, Gerardo Parra and his anemic season lead baseball with -2.82 WPA, while Jason Heyward (-2.59) and James McCann (-2.47) are right behind him on the laggardboard.

However, in the bottom-25 of WPA, one name sticks out: Michael Saunders. Saunders–who has had something of a breakout season once finally healthy and ensconced in the Blue Jays' outfield–has a -1.51 WPA despite hitting for a healthy .278 True Average. Captain Canada has been decidedly above-average as a hitter overall, but the timing of his successes and failures hasn’t really helped the Jays win their games.

Strangely, it’s not even as if Saunders has one or two colossal, WPA-negative games that dramatically shifted his season totals. He has simply had more games than not where he affected his team negatively thanks to the context in which he hit. Sometimes you can’t just get the timing to work out. In one sense, Saunders has had a great overall year, but couldn’t figure out how to make his numbers drive his team’s success. In another sense, he earned an All-Star appearance and had his best overall season juuust in time to hit free agency this offseason. Your mileage may vary.

The Automatic Out: Wei-Yin Chen (.000/.000/.000)

Jake Arrieta of the Cubs has a .266 True Average in 68 plate appearances, which allows him to add almost a win to his already-impressive WARP total from pitching skill. And we hear about the hitting skill of guys like Madison Bumgarner, Adam Wainwright, and Noah Syndergaard all the time. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s Wei-Yin Chen of the Marlins.

Chen celebrated his first year in the National League by posting the worst possible batting line over his 47 plate appearances: .000/.000/.000. His OPS is .000. His True Average is .010. There isn’t really a way to tilt this piece in Chen’s favor at all, no silver lining to this cloud. Or is there? Despite all appearances, there’s still hope here. On July 5, Chen went through 10 Steven Matz pitches in his attempt to grind out his first MLB hit.

As terrible as Chen is with the bat–and as much as he’s cost himself in terms of value–he’s not giving up.

The Pitcher Who’s Terrible At Everything (Other Than Pitching): Tom Koehler (-0.65 BWARP)

Man, oh man, is Tom Koehler his own worst enemy this season. Sure, he wasn’t the worst hitter among pitchers on his team (remember, Wei-Yin Chen exists!), but he's posted an unfortunate .120 on-base percentage and .100 slugging percentage. He's nailed five singles, but struck out 26 times in 54 plate appearances, and his .091 True Average was even-for-a-pitcher bad–the 10th-worst in baseball among pitchers with 30 or more plate appearances.

But Koehler shows up here because he's also a poor-fielding pitcher. Let me rephrase that: the worst-fielding pitcher. By BP’s FRAA metric, Koehler is worth -4.3 runs as a fielder, which is bad news. I mean, it’s not the end of the world, but it is one of the 250 worst fielding seasons by a pitcher since 1950 per that metric, and only four pitchers have had worse fielding seasons since 2011. Oh, and before you start complaining about small sample sizes, Koehler had the second-worst FRAA mark among pitchers in his 2014 season, and the 19th-worst FRAA last year. He’s not a good fielder.

The tragedy here, if there is one, is that Koehler’s contributions as a starting pitcher might be equally outweighed by his inadequacies on the other side of the ball. This year, Koehler has earned 0.76 WARP as a pitcher, and cost himself -0.65 WARP as hitter and fielder. Sure, there are huge error bars in WARP, and any pitcher who can throw more than 170 innings has value beyond the raw-value numbers–you simply can’t find and rely on full-time starting pitchers “off the rack” like you can at other positions.

But in this case, you can see how Tom Koehler’s work-a-day, competent starting pitching is almost completely undone by Tom Koehler’s awful, bad, no-good offense and defense. His 4.97 DRA is serviceable, if not average. His 4.02 ERA and ability to throw every fifth day is an asset 20-25 teams wish they could call on. But he undoes himself, and his team, by giving back every ounce of value on the other side. The end result is a ballplayer who fits neatly in the “replacement-player” mold, when everything we see on the mound tells us that he’s (slightly) better than that.

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

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