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February 24, 2011

Overthinking It

The Worst of the Best

by Ben Lindbergh

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Earlier this week, Astros right fielder Hunter Pence won a precedent-setting arbitration case against his career-long club, earning a record $6.9 million award as a second-time-eligible position player. On the face of it, Pence’s payout might not seem surprising: the 27-year-old netted an All-Star nod in 2009, and offers an alluring combination of power and speed, having hit exactly 25 home runs to go along with at least 10 steals in each of the past three seasons.

The problem with Pence is that he’s at best a complementary player in a good lineup. Most clubs would be happy to have him audition for a supporting role, but he would be miscast as the leading man in a championship-caliber production. Any reference to Pence as a “star right fielder” owes more to the memory of his fluky 2007 debut and the conspicuous flaws of his talent-deprived teammates than his own on-field exploits. From 2008-10, NL right fielders as a group produced a .266/.341/.443 triple-slash line, comparable to Pence’s .278/.330/.466 performance, although the Astro’s unremarkable offense was bolstered by above-average work in the field and on the bases.

The sum of Pence’s contributions makes him something more than a forgettable face in the crowd, but he’s hardly the stuff general managers’ dreams are made of, especially in light of his rapidly escalating price tag. Unfortunately for the Astros, PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ signature projection system), pegs Pence as the 2011 team’s presumptive MVP. That’s more an indictment of the Astros than an endorsement of Pence, because even the worst teams have to have a best player, and making the marquee at Minute Maid pays considerably better than starring for your local beer-league squad. But who are the worst of baseball’s best players, and what can they tell us about their teams’ chances of success?

For reference, here’s the list of 2010’s “worst best” players—in other words, the worst players to qualify as the class of a 25-man roster, as judged by Wins Above Replacement Player.

Rank

Name

Team

WARP

1

Billy Butler

Royals

3.2

2

Geovany Soto

Cubs

3.5

3

Andrew McCutchen

Pirates

3.5

4

Adam Jones

Orioles

3.8

5T

Ryan Zimmerman

Nationals

4.3

5T

Stephen Drew

D'backs

4.3

PECOTA expects the following five to take their places as the game's “worst best” players this season:

1. Kila Ka’aihue, Royals, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.6
The Royals may have an impressive wave of talent cresting on the horizon, but their immediate major-league future remains bleak. Kila has been a sabermetric cause célèbre since he destroyed Triple-A pitching in 2008, and he got up to his old tricks in Omaha last season before being summoned to Kansas City. After an anemic August, he finished with a .261/.367/.511 September/October line that may have been more reflective of his abilities, although the hefty Hawaiian hits so few doubles that his value will hinge on how often he clears the fences. PECOTA is drinking the Kila Kool-Aid, forecasting a useful .262/.387/.473 line, but that’s not the sort of contribution that would come close to pacing a competitive team. Homegrown Royals Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are projected to finish hot on Kila’s heels.

2. Matt Wieters, Orioles, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.7
Baltimore had hoped to see better things out of Wieters by now, but even if the highly touted catcher doesn’t pick this season to break out, the Orioles could do far worse than an above-league-average bat at a position largely populated by defense-first players. PECOTA sees Luke Scott and off-season import Mark Reynolds as Wieters’ primary competition for the dubious honor of leading the charge for a likely cellar-dweller.

3-Tie. Dallas Braden, Athletics, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.8
PECOTA doesn’t think much of Oakland’s offense, calling for starters Braden, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Cahill to lead the team’s attack. A projected 3.57 ERA in 128 innings is a far cry from perfection, but the A’s would be thrilled if the southpaw could sustain his 2010 gains.

3-Tie. Hunter Pence, Astros, Projected 2011 WARP: 2.8
The spread of WARP is compressed in projections as compared to real life, so the numbers in this list may appear somewhat conservative. Pence has exceeded that WARP total in each of the past two seasons and may well do so again, but he’s a long shot to post the kind of season that merits a reputation as a franchise player. PECOTA figures Clint Barmes and Wandy Rodriguez for the main obstacles in the way of his being the best of a bad lot.

5-Tie. Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks, Projected 2011 WARP: 3.0
PECOTA may be slightly over-enthused about Hudson’s sterling small-sample work after leaving Chicago last season, but even after accounting for substantial BABIP regression, the system expects a 3.80 ERA in 139 innings out of the young righty, which could be enough to edge Stephen Drew and Ian Kennedy for the top spot on the Astros’ honor roll, barring a resurgent season from Justin Upton.

5-Tie. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates, Projected 2011 WARP: 3.0
Alvarez will be topping Pittsburgh’s WARP leaderboard for years to come, but he’s unlikely to remain this low on the league-wide list for much longer. The 24-year-old lefty sports a powerful swing tailored to PNC Park, where he hit 12 of his 16 home runs last season in approximately half a season. The incipient slugger’s .306/.355/.577 September/October line hints at future fireworks, but PECOTA doesn’t think he can harness his full potential without additional seasoning, projecting a modest .255/.331/.460 line with 25 taters. That still might be enough to trump Andrew McCutchen’s contributions to a Pirates club that’s about to embark on its 19th consecutive losing season regardless of either player’s best efforts.

With the worst of the best of 2011 out of the way, let’s take a look at the lowest WARP scores to top a major-league roster since 1950:

Rank

Name

Year

Team

WARP

1

Connie Ryan

1951

Reds

1.6

2T

Craig Counsell

1998

Marlins

2.0

2T

Johnny Lewis

1965

Mets

2.0

2T

Ron Hunt

1964

Mets

2.0

5

Vic Wertz

1952

Tigers

2.2

6T

Art Mahaffey

1961

Phillies

2.3

6T

Dave Revering

1979

A's

2.3

8T

Roger Craig

1963

Mets

2.4

8T

Von Hayes

1988

Phillies

2.4

8T

Chuck Diering

1955

Orioles

2.4

8T

Vic Wertz

1953

Browns

2.4

8T

Hank Arft

1951

Browns

2.4

8T

Jeff Weaver

2002

Tigers

2.4

Ryan put together the most underwhelming team-leading campaign of the past 60-plus years, totaling under two WARP at second base for a 68-86 Reds club that actually led this loss-prone list in winning percentage. He was out of the league three years later. Most of these players have long since retired, but the table’s two active members seem unlikely candidates to have topped a 25-man roster—there’s no better illustration of the magnitude of former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga’s post-parade firesale than the fact that Craig Counsell was the defending champs’ most productive player.

The abysmal records of the clubs on the list above offer some insight, but what can we say in a more systematic sense about teams that are forced to get their thrills from players like Pence?

WARP of Best Player

Number of Teams

Winning Percentage

<=3

39

.369

3-4

179

.435

4-5

263

.473

5-6

362

.506

6-7

306

.517

7-9

199

.533

8-9

109

.543

Since 1950, 39 teams have been forced to content themselves with leading players in the neighborhood of Pence’s projected performance. Bereft of a single transcendent talent, those teams have floundered to the tune of a .369 winning percentage, which would make the Astros overachievers if their best player performs as poorly as advertised and they still manage to reach the .420 mark for which we’ve forecasted them this season. The presence of at least one elite asset tends to be associated with far happier outcomes, as the rosier records near the bottom of the table suggest. That may be of small comfort to the Astros, who can’t conjure a player better than Pence from their barren farm system, but at least it gives them something to aim for.

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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:  Firesale,  Hunter Pence,  Managers Of The Year

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