January 4, 2017
The McEwing Score
Every baseball fan has some pet thing they enjoy more than seems sane–a player, a play, a stadium, an event–and every baseball writer worth their salt has several idiosyncratic “beats” that they cover. On a recent episode of Effectively Wild, Sam Miller mentioned one of his: players who make their big-league debut with unadjusted stats that are better than any of their previous minor-league seasons. (The player in question was A’s third baseman Ryon Healy, but I see you, Robert Gsellman.) For Jonah Keri, that beat might be Tim Raines’ Hall of Fame candidacy or the Expos, and hey, sometimes you create a book out of your beat.
One of my beats–and one I share with plenty of other writers–results from my love of players playing “out of position.” I’m fascinated with utility players, those guys often marginalized to the back of the bench or the fringes of the 40-man roster. As part of my exploration of sabermetrics, I’ve tinkered on and off with how best to quantify the value brought to the table by a player capable of playing multiple positions ... and playing them well. And as part of that process, an intermediate step was my quest to turn positional flexibility into a number that represents a player’s use at multiple positions. Thus, the McEwing Score.
McEwing Score–McE for short–is a representation of a player’s positional flexibility over the course of a regular season, turned into a number between 20 and 101. Named after fondly-remembered multi-positionalist (and current White Sox third base coach) Joe McEwing, McE is a simple count-and-add metric. It’s fun, but not all that deep, rather like a kiddie pool or a Reel Big Fish album.
First, we identify how many times a player fielded a position over a season. If they entered two games or more they qualify at that position. The idea is to eliminate single-game emergency situations where the manager has no choice or garbage-time blowoffs or ego-massage sessions that a player requests. Those things are way fun–as seen below–but this is a quick-and-dirty way to strip them from this metric.
So which positions should count for McEwing Score? Almost all of them, but there are two caveats. The first is for pitchers; position players pitching are wonderful, but they’re not included in McEwing Score. These events are fun, rare, and deserve their own focus. Besides, how many position players actually get into two or more games per season as a pitcher?*
In addition, right field and left field are combined in this metric. Yes, they are separate positions, and yes, you can make a compelling argument that right field is a slightly tougher and more valuable defensive position. But nearly anyone who can play one of the two can play the other. If you play in two or more games at either or both positions–even if you only play one game in left and one in right–then you count as a RF/LF in McEwing Score.
If a player earns his two or more games at one or more of the seven qualifying positions–C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, CF, and RF/LF–then they get a certain number of points for the season. These points are based on the traditional positional adjustment values used in most of the Wins Above Replacement Player metrics developed by Tom Tango. Some positions are much more valuable than others and McE reflects that; players earn the most points for playing catcher, and the least for playing first base. Here’s a handy table:
If you play two positions, you get a minimum score of 20 as your McE. (Congratulations, Brandon Belt!) The maximum score anyone can achieve is a 101–that requires a fielder to show up at all seven positions two or more times during a single season. To give you some idea of what kind of feat that is, it has only happened once in baseball history. Shane Halter of the Tigers did it in Y2K and you're more likely to see a 20-strikeout game than you are a season in which someone achieves the Ultimate McEwing Score.
Let’s quickly run through an example calculation, and then we’ll get on to the good stuff. Behold Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield, who went from non-prospect to major leaguer in 2016. Merrifield spent most of his time at second base (65 games), but also filled in at left field (13 games), third base (five games), right field (four games), and first base (one game). Since there was only one game at first Merrifield gets no credit for that position, and left field and right field only count for one set of points. So we count his time at second base (+15 points), the outfield corners (+11 points), and third base (+15 points). His total McEwing Score for the season is a very respectable 41, which puts him in something like a four-way tie for 80th place in 2016. That’s great, but hardly a league leader. Sorry, Whit.
The King Is Dead, Long Live the King(s)
If you’ve happened to follow my McEwing Score pieces in the past, you’ll know that the previous two years have been dominated by the mop-topped utility man in Massachusetts: former All-Star Brock Holt of the Red Sox. I’ve been tabulating McE going back to the 2010 season, and only four players had achieved the high score of 82 in that period: Brock Holt, Kristopher Negron, Brent Lillibridge, and Sean Rodriguez. Holt was notable in that he was the only player to get a score that high twice–he was the leader back-to-back in 2014 and 2015.* But in 2016, Holt’s McE was a more-pedestrian 58–he qualified at four positions instead of his usual six.
*Holt didn't hold the lead himself in 2015, as he tied with former Red Kris Negron. Negron toiled at Triple-A for the Cubs during 2016 without appearing in the majors.
The score of 82 used to be a rare and beautiful thing, but in 2016 three players earned a score that high: Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez, Detroit’s Andrew Romine, and Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez. That’s right, much like King Richard the Lionhearted returning from the Third Crusade*, Rodriguez has returned to his rightful place atop the McE leaderboards after a prolonged (five-year) absence.
*Rodriguez’s Crusade, in this metaphor, is obviously against Gatorade buckets, not Saladin.
I like to try to parse the positional data when we have a tie at the top of the chart to determine which player truly had the most-utility season. I do this in a couple of different ways: I look at whose games were spread out the most–rather than spending most of their games at one position and just a few at others, I like players with an even distribution–as well as players who played the most difficult positions most often.
By those standards, Hernan Perez falls behind the other two 82-ers; He only played three games at shortstop, and his work was heavily weighted to third base and the outfield corners. I’d nudge Rodriguez ahead of Andrew Romine, as he spent more than 20 games at first base, the outfield corners, second base, and shortstop. However, there's a third mitigating factor: Romine pitched. On June 18, Romine took the hill against the Royals, faced four batters, and now has a career ERA of 0.00. Getting Cheslor Cuthbert and Christian Colon to ground out may not be a big deal to most, but I think it indicates just enough extra versatility go give Romine a very slight edge in my personal versatility power rankings for 2016.
The Best of the Rest
Any McEwing Score of 67 or higher is cause for some level of celebration–it means that a player qualified at five or more positions and it’s the cutoff for me to flag a guy as one of the season's true utility players. This past year there were 13 players with scores of 67 or higher, which is two fewer than in 2015 but still a relatively high number compared to the beginning of the decade.
The four players who scored a 73 were Atlanta’s Chase d’Arnaud, Cleveland’s Michael Martinez, Seattle’s Sean O’Malley, and Los Angeles’ Enrique Hernandez. Martinez is the only one on this list who’s a true repeat offender, as he tied for the McE title back in 2011 and was runner-up in 2012. Rounding out the rest of the leaderboard were the 67s: Ryan Goins (Toronto), Tyler Saladino (Chicago AL), Javier Baez (Chicago NL), Jurickson Profar (Texas), Marwin Gonzalez (Houston), and Daniel Descalso (Colorado).
Goins gets extra credit for pitching, while Gonzalez and Profar get extra credit for playing 10 or more games at all five positions. Javier Baez gets extra credit for being the best overall player of the bunch and for his World Series ring.
Here’s one of the most interesting things about McEwing Score: it’s almost impossible to “jump the line” and earn a higher McE than a player who qualified at more positions than you. Only in extremely rare cases can a player who qualifies at three positions outscore a player who qualifies at four positions, but that exact feat happened this season. In order to jump the line you usually have to qualify as both a catcher and a shortstop, which has only happened in 43 seasons since the start of the 20th century. Cookie Rojas did it a couple of times, Shane Halter, Michael Barrett, and Scott Sheldon did it at the close of the previous millennium, and now Colorado’s Tony Wolters gets to add his name to the list.
Wolters earned a McEwing Score of 51, as he qualified with 59 games at catcher, seven at second base, and three at shortstop. That number outstrips the score of 50 that many corner-and-more utility men earn at four positions*. For example, Howie Kendrick earned a score of 50 for playing first base, second base, third base, and the outfield corners. Given how well Wolters caught for the Rockies, it seems unlikely that he’ll see another season with such flexibility, but who knows?
What We Have Here Is A Failure of Imagination(?)
One thing I like to look at is which teams used the most high-scoring players and which teams used the fewest. Last season was interesting in that the Mariners only used four multi-position players, the smallest number since the 2012 Reds. When you consider that just using an outfielder in both center field and one of the two corners qualifies, it’s shocking to think that a team would only have four in a season. The four from the Mariners were Nori Aoki, Mike Freeman, Sean O’Malley, and Luis Sardinas, and two of those are on new teams for 2017.
I’m not sure that the Mariners really did have a failure of imagination, but rather their infielders did a nice job of staying healthy. The acquisitions of Danny Valencia (McE 35) and Taylor Motter (McE 58) could bump their versatility up a bit as well. Valencia was part of the A's team with the most McE-earning players; Oakland had 14 with McEs of 20 or higher. Perhaps not so strangely, they were a team without one extreme high-scorer, as their qualifying players only filled three or fewer positions. Maybe they could benefit from one super-sub instead of several multi-position players taking up a 40-man spot, but the A's tend to cycle through lots of players seeing if any of them pull a Ryon Healy-esque breakout*.
*And that brings us full circle. Two Ryon Healy references in one column! That’s probably a Baseball Prospectus record.
So that’s that. You can find your own McE fun facts by examining my spreadsheet with all of the past seven years of data. It’s a simple little metric, a “stat” that’s not all that useful, but could eventually be a quantifiable building block for something bigger in the future. There are options. Would there be value in weighting the points for each position by number of games played at each position? Can we find a way to weight it based on defensive performance or pro scouting information? Perhaps, and I’d certainly welcome ideas in that vein. For now, it’s a fun little toy that allows us to highlight the utility guys who don’t always get enough shine, despite their willingness to be deployed in a variety of situations. Rock on, Andrew Romine.