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June 17, 2010

Overthinking It

The Carlos Guillen Club

by Ben Lindbergh

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You may not have noticed (in fact, it would be rather odd if you had), but Carlos Guillen became the only active member of an exclusive club a week ago today. It happened at the very instant that Alex Rios swung through a 2-2 offering from Max Scherzer to end the bottom of the sixth inning in the Tigers’ 3-0 loss to the White Sox on June 10. ESPN didn’t interrupt its regularly scheduled programming to bring you live coverage, the scoreboard at U.S. Cellular didn’t flash a congratulatory message while Guillen doffed his cap and took a victory lap around the warning track, and the moment didn’t crack the headlines in the following day’s papers.

However, with that out recorded, Guillen completed his 200th career defensive inning at second base. In and of itself, that milestone is unremarkable, but it assumes a little added luster in light of the fact that second base is the fifth position at which Guillen has surpassed that innings threshold, which struck me as an unusual accomplishment for someone who’s no slouch with the lumber, and not known as a glove man. Guillen happens to have blown by the 30-WARP barrier last season, which gives us a second convenient, arbitrary cutoff to work with. Only 423 position players since 1900 have accrued 30 career WARP, so Guillen would be breathing fairly rarified air from that qualification alone, but the subset of players with 30-plus WARP who have also spent at least 200 innings at a minimum of five positions has to be far more exclusive, right? Funny you should ask. Without further ado, I give you the Carlos Guillen Club (positions played are listed in descending innings order):

Name

Career WARP

Number of Positions

Positions (min. 200 innings)

Hank Aaron

154.4

5

RF, CF, LF, 1B, 2B

Pete Rose

88.7

6

1B, LF, 2B, 3B, RF, CF

Johnny Bench

84.7

5

C, 3B, 1B, RF, LF

Paul Molitor

75.6

5

3B, 2B, 1B, SS, CF

Tony Phillips

55.3

6

2B, LF, 3B, SS, RF, CF

Davey Lopes

52.0

5

2B, CF, LF, RF, 3B

Andy Van Slyke

5.30

5

CF, RF, 1B, 3B, LF

Pedro Guerrero

47.8

5

1B, 3B, RF, LF, CF

Dale Murphy

45.3

5

CF, RF, 1B, LF, C

Bill Russell

37.5

5

SS, RF, CF, 2B, LF

Howard Johnson

31.7

5

3B, SS, CF, LF, RF

Carlos Guillen

31.7

5

SS, 3B, 1B, LF, 2B

Don Money

30.2

5

3B, 2B, SS, 1B, LF

This is likely the first and last time that a group comprising four Hall of Famers has (or will) ever come to be christened for Carlos Guillen, but I’m sticking to my guns. Each member of the club followed a different path to induction; Steven Goldman could tell you their stories off the top of his head better than I could after hours of research, but a few general patterns stand out. Before we mention anyone’s individual path to positional versatility, let’s look at what sort of value each player provided, through slightly more granular means than overall WARP. The following bar chart juxtaposes each player’s career batting runs above average and career fielding runs above average (both unadjusted for position, and ordered by offensive value), the two primary components of Sean Smith’s implementation of historical WAR:

It’s safe to say that most of these guys weren’t known, or employed, for their gloves; in fact, the “average” Guillen Club member’s unadjusted defensive value (displayed at the top) was essentially neutral (1.5 runs). Bill Russell was the only inductee to accrue more value with the glove than with the bat; in fact, six of the 13 qualified as below-average fielders.

Because most of these players weren’t natural glove men, their defensive versatility was in some cases a result of special circumstances, and in others, simply a measure of last resort. In 1955, the Milwaukee Braves found themselves without a second baseman (Danny O’Connell didn’t count); as it happened, they did have an outfielder named Hank Aaron, who had played some infield in the minors. As a stopgap solution, Hammerin’ Hank spent 236 1/3 innings at second that season (78 percent of the time he would ever spend at the keystone in the majors); in 1957, the Braves acquired a more lasting solution in Red Schoendienst. If not for that temporary vacancy and the pressing need it created, Aaron would have maxed out at four positions (by our working definition), and never would have added membership in the Carlos Guillen Club to his long list of achievements. Most established players of the sort likely to amass 30-plus WARP never find themselves placed in similar situations, and as a result, never receive the honor of admission to this select company.

In some cases, induction into the Carlos Guillen Club simply stems from longevity, coupled with a decline in fielding skill that outpaces a decline in batting skill, necessitating repeated positional concessions to age. In Pete Rose’s case, perhaps, that sort of longevity joined forces with a megalomaniacal pursuit of personal milestones, goading him into hanging on by any means necessary. In other cases, the bat is willing but the body is not, even before an advanced age is attained. Paul Molitor and Johnny Bench, among others, shifted in search of positions that could keep Hall of Fame bats healthy and in the lineup.

The position that Howard Johnson and Pedro Guerrero could play has yet to be created, but the two never stopped looking for it; first base might have seemed a natural fit for Guerrero from the start, but Steve Garvey stood in the way. As a whole, members of this group also spent parts of 18 seasons DHing, but Guerrero was a National League lifer, and Johnson left the American League after his age-23 season, never to return. Dale Murphy came up as a catcher, but a combination of throwing jitters and excessive size for the position forced him to move elsewhere. Tony Phillips routinely spent time at six or more positions per season for the duration of his career; one glance at his “Standard Fielding” section at Baseball-Reference is enough to knock even the most stalwart spreadsheet jockey’s spectacles askew.

Guillen himself has gone the Aaron route. With Scott Sizemore struggling at second for the Tigers, and Brennan Boesch entrenched in left, Jim Leyland looked to the guy who came up as a second-sacker to step in, even though he hasn’t manned the position since 1999. Out of such seemingly inconsequential decisions are appropriately inconsequential articles born.

On the surface, the Guillen Club might seem like little more than a statistical curiosity (and the answer to an extremely unlikely trivia question), and to some degree, it is. That said, because of its members’ unusual attributes, we can make use of it to explore and reaffirm our deeply-held beliefs concerning meatier subjects, such as the defensive spectrum and player aging. The defensive spectrum, originally introduced by Bill James, was conceived as a visual representation of the degrees of difficulty associated with each of baseball’s defensive positions. As you read from left to right on the line below, the demands of the listed positions become increasingly steep, and the pool of players capable of meeting those demands shrinks:

1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS – C

As players age and their physical skills erode, we expect them to move from right to left on the defensive spectrum; a move in the opposite direction would force them to tackle an even greater physical challenge, despite being less physically capable of meeting it. As Tommy Bennett observes, the typical progression evokes Haeckel’s recapitulation theory, only in reverse (and only if you believe that shortstops are, in a certain sense, more highly evolved than first basemen; as a visual aid, imagine this image, with John Kruk inserted somewhere to the left of the rightmost figure labeled). Since the Guillen Clubbers moved about the field so freely, I thought it might be interesting to investigate whether they, too, conform to our defensive expectations.

In order to do that, I assigned a numeric value to each position on the spectrum in increasing order of difficulty, with 1B corresponding to “1” and catcher corresponding to “8.” Then I found the average numeric value of all of the positions played by each of these players at each age level, weighted by innings; the seasonal ages for this group ranged from 19 (the age at which Johnny Bench debuted) to 45 (the age at which Pete Rose finally, mercifully retired to embark upon his gambling career). While this isn’t necessarily a true reflection of fielding talent (it tells us what positions players were deemed capable of playing, but not how they actually acquitted themselves), it’s a handy proxy, and likely a good indication of underlying ability. I also plotted the same group’s average WARP by age level, and added trend lines (linear for positional difficulty, polynomial for WARP). Let’s see how closely their positional progressions adhered to the defensive spectrum model:

As the Guillen Club members aged, they slid down the defensive spectrum, all the way from 8 (representing Bench’s rookie season at catcher) to 1 (representing Rose’s final two seasons, spent exclusively at first base). In a graph of this sort, we would expect to see defense peak in the early-to-mid-twenties before declining with age. In our Guillen Club sample, the degree of defensive difficulty peaks at 21 (excluding the Bench-only year) in a small sample, and 24 in a relatively large one, before plateauing for most of the rest of the 20s, and declining slowly but steadily after age 30.

WARP-wise, we’d expect to see a gradual rise until the mid-to-late 20s (whether 26, 27, 28, or 29 is a matter of some debate), a transient peak period, and a gradual decline thereafter. In our sample, WARP peaks at 27, and more or less hits the skids at 31. Given that we’re dealing with a small group of players, and a biased one at that (the fact that these players were selectively sampled for their lofty career value and defensive wanderlust means that they’re not representative of the major-league population as a whole), we might not have expected this graph to mirror our preconceptions so closely, but in this case, reality conforms quite closely to theory. The members of the Carlos Guillen Club may be outliers in some senses, but in other respects, they’re just like the rest of us—if by “us,” you mean “other major leaguers,” that is. 

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

Related Content:  Defensive Spectrum,  The Who,  Visual

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