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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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ScottyB

Can you produce the full list of 2010 best players? that would be interesting to see

Feb 24, 2011 10:35 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

I don't know how this will display, but let's try it. Here they are, in ascending WARP order:

TEAM WARP Name
KCA 3.2 Billy Butler
CHN 3.5 Geovany Soto
PIT 3.5 Andrew McCutchen
BAL 3.8 Adam Jones
WAS 4.3 Ryan Zimmerman
ARI 4.3 Stephen Drew
OAK 4.4 Cliff Pennington
HOU 4.4 Brett Myers
ATL 4.7 Brian McCann
LAN 4.8 Clayton Kershaw
CLE 4.8 Shin-Soo Choo
ANA 5.2 Jered Weaver
NYN 5.2 David Wright
SEA 5.4 Felix Hernandez
MIL 5.6 Ryan Braun
MIN 5.7 Joe Mauer
CHA 5.7 Alexei Ramirez
TOR 5.9 Jose Bautista
SDN 5.9 Adrian Gonzalez
NYA 6.0 Robinson Cano
FLO 6.4 Josh Johnson
SFN 6.4 Aubrey Huff
COL 6.4 Ubaldo Jimenez
DET 7.0 Miguel Cabrera
CIN 7.1 Joey Votto
TBA 7.2 Evan Longoria
TEX 7.6 Josh Hamilton
BOS 7.6 Adrian Beltre
PHI 8.1 Roy Halladay
SLN 8.5 Albert Pujols

Feb 24, 2011 10:42 AM
 
MichavdB

Wow, the Yanks didn't crack the top 10 in that list.

Feb 24, 2011 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Yeah, Cano's # looks a bit low comparatively, but really, no one else on the Yanks had a "spectacular" year.

Feb 24, 2011 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Nice work ... would be interesting to know if the players in the 1950-present list made their league's respective ALL-STAR team as their club's lone rep in that particular season.

Feb 24, 2011 10:52 AM
rating: 1
 
Pat Folz

I'm curious about repeat "winners"... how many people (if any) have been on the Worst-Best Player top 5 in multiple years? Did anyone do it for two different teams? What's the lowest combined WARP for a player who was his team's best player in two different years?

This would be a fun spreadsheet to play with! :)

Feb 24, 2011 12:33 PM
rating: 1
 
sethwick23

Well, if you look at the all-time list, Vic Wertz is on there twice, in consecutive years, for two different teams (!).

And then the next year, he hit the ball that Willie Mays ran down for The Catch. What a great baseball trivia answer this guy is.

Feb 25, 2011 08:30 AM
rating: 1
 
dkeenan80

These numbers don't match the numbers other places on the site. For example Andrew McCutchen is listed at 6.1 WARP on hit PECOTA card. That is a pretty big difference.

Feb 24, 2011 13:16 PM
rating: 1
 
marctacoma

Yeah, I'm seeing pretty big leads for Butler over Ka'aihue and Anderson over Braden.
Where are these WARP figures listed, Ben? I assume they're park adjusted or PT adjusted, whereas the ones on the PECOTA forecasts aren't?

Feb 24, 2011 13:40 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

These are "new" WARP, which is what's used in the annual and in this season's PECOTAs (and which will soon be used exclusively). We'll have historical "new" WARP values on the site before long--since I had to use new WARP for the 2011 guys, I wanted to avoid crossing streams, WARP-wise, by mixing different versions in the article.

Feb 24, 2011 14:05 PM
 
marctacoma

So there's a new WARP that doesn't correspond to the one listed in the PECOTA file? Is it a new WARP or a new PECOTA projection?

I'm just trying to think of what would change the projections so dramatically from the PECOTA we got earlier. Can't be playing time (I don't think), as Braden already has an advantage over Anderson there, and Ka'aihue's initial projection already had well over 500 PAs (and a 1.2 WARP). How does Ka'aihue go from 1.2 to 2.6?

Feb 24, 2011 15:22 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Oh, I see what you're asking, marctacoma (I think dkeenan was referring to historical WARP). The difference in the projected WARPs is that the ones used in this article drew upon the depth charts--the PECOTA spreadsheet put Kila at 1B, where a poor FRAA dragged him down, whereas the depth charts had him at DH, where it didn't.

Feb 24, 2011 15:30 PM
 
marctacoma

I appreciate the response, but I'm still struggling to understand the magnitude of the change, esp. if the only thing that changed was the position. If he's a DH, he saves the huge fRAA penalty, but he's got a positional penalty to deal with. And again, we're talking about going from 1.2 as a (crappy) 1B to 2.6 as a DH. How does that happen? That simply can't be all due to a poor fRAA projection at 1b.

Feb 24, 2011 21:58 PM
rating: 0
 
dkeenan80

Yes I was referring to the historical WARP. I know Colin has been making some improvements to WARP but it surprised me that it would be such a big difference - McCutchen had a drop of 2.6 WARP during this iteration. I think it goes to show there is a lot of uncertainty in these numbers and we should be careful in comparing players using just one number such as WARP.

Feb 25, 2011 08:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Keep in mind that this isn't a minor revision--if you've kept up with Colin's articles, we're talking about incorporating a new fielding stat(albeit with an old name), a tweaked replacement level and TAv, baserunning (which wasn't included before), and more. So yes, we've made fairly sweeping changes to the stat, but we're confident that we're moving the needle in the right direction.

Feb 25, 2011 10:55 AM
 
tbwhite
(361)

These numbers don't make any intuitive sense.

Billy Butler posted a 3.2 WARP last year for the Royals, but Kila is projected to be the Royals best player this year with a 2.6 WARP. That means Butler is projected to drop below 2.6 WARP ? Really ?

Adam Jones had a 3.8 WARP last year, but is projected less than a 2.7 WARP this year(since Wieters is projected #1 for the O's at 2.7) ?

Stephen Drew is projected to drop from 4.3 WARP to less than 3 WARP ?

Andrew McCutchen is projected to fall from 3.5 to under 3 ?

Feb 24, 2011 13:44 PM
rating: 1
 
Nathan

I also don't understand why Pecota is so pessimistic about Butler in 2011. But then, if a statistical system always agreed with our intuition, there wouldn't be much use in a statistical system, would there?

I would also point out that Joakim Soria posted a 6.0 WARP last year, per his Pecota card, but is somehow projected for 1.5 this year.

Feb 25, 2011 01:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

You'll find that new WARP isn't quite so sanguine about the value of closers--open up to the Royals chapter in Baseball Prospectus 2011, and you'll see Soria's 2010 WARP at 2.3. Coming soon to a website near you...

Feb 25, 2011 02:06 AM
 
tbwhite
(361)

Butler has a career .285 TAv in over 2,000 PA's, he is still young, certainly not in the decline phase of his career, even if you wanted to argue there wasn't much room left for growth, and we're supposed to believe that he's going to post a .272 TAv in 2011 ?

Can someone please address some of the issues/concerns that have been raised about PECOTA ? Someone promised to look into the Longoria projection weeks ago but nothing happened. Colin was going to write something about the comparables, but that hasn't happened either. I don't think it is unfair to say that the projections for Butler and Longoria are unintuitive, and if the answer is regression towards the mean, doesn't it seem a bit overdone if two of the best young hitters of their generation are projected to post the worst seasons of their career(or close to it) merely because of regression towards the mean ?

Feb 25, 2011 07:32 AM
rating: 0
 
everettcase

I have a hard time believing a MINIMUM of 24 players were better than Ryan Zimmerman last year, and that's only assuming he was better than every team ahead of the Nationals' second-best player as well. Fangraphs had Zimmerman as the 4th best WAR last season. What's with the massive discrepancy?

Feb 25, 2011 10:38 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

FRAA didn't like his defense. (I'm not sure why, but maybe Colin could tell you.)

Feb 25, 2011 11:17 AM
 
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