Dipping into the mailbag, today let’s field a question from reader A.E.:

A friend of mine, a die hard Cubs fan who thinks Neifi
is a good player (yeah I know), recently asked me to do a snapshot of this year and compare Neifi’s numbers to Carlos

I found some interesting results when comparing Beltran’s numbers vs. the league average for center field and Perez’s vs. the league average among shortstops…

Overall League Average

.267/.328/.412 NP (-.002/-.040/-.032) CB (+.006/.003/+.034)

NL Average Shortstops

.257/.308/.370 NP (+.008/-.020/+.010)

NL Average Center Fielders

.270/.339/.435 CB (+.001/-.014/+.011)

Obviously Beltran is a far superior player when comparing them head-to-head. However look at the numbers vs. the league average at their
respective positions…nearly identical. I think that says more about
the quality of shortstops in the NL this year than it does about Perez (Cristian Guzman?) Anyways that leads me to my
question, which I think might make for a good column. Exactly how bad
are they? Are we possibly watching the worst group of SS’s ever?

Thanks for the question, A.E. BP’s League
Positional Batting Averages
report confirms that NL shortstops are
hitting terribly: .257/.307/.370 through Tuesday for an OPS of .677. In 1969, that wouldn’t be all that bad, but despite the well-publicized drop in home-run rates this year, we’re still in the midst of one of the games greater offensive eras. Thus, to fairly compare the current crop of NL shortstops to their historical brethren, we must adjust for the overall quality of the league.

The easiest way to do this is OPS+ or simply the OPS of the position or player in question as a ratio of the league average. So far this season, the average NL OPS is .740, meaning NL shortstops have an OPS+ of 91.5. That means they’re 8.5% worse than an average NL hitter, which as positional averages go, is pretty bad.

But before we get into historical context, let’s see how this bunch
fares under a different microscope. Rather than OPS+, we can use Marginal Lineup Value Rate (MLVr), a metric developed by Keith Woolner and David Tate. MLVr uses a player’s AVG, OBP, and SLG and estimates how many runs per game a player would add if he were inserting into a league-average lineup. MLVr is therefore adjusted for the quality of the league and provides a more applicable estimate of the value of a player, expressed in runs. Turning our attention back to the 2005 NL shortstops, they are by far the worst position in the NL when it comes to batting, posting an MLVr of -0.0937, effectively costing their team a run every 11 games, or about 15 runs on the season more than a league-average hitter. The next worst positions are, as expected, catcher (-.0757) followed humorously by NL DHs (-.0421). Good thing MLB decided to use the DH in all interleague games starting in 2006.

Turning our attention to historical precedent now, how do this year’s
group of shortstops compare to grand history of the position. To find
out, let’s take a look at the worst 25 seasons by NL SS’s since 1901 as
ranked by MLVr:

Year Lg Pos AVG  OBP SLG  MLVr
---- -- --- ---  --- ---  ----
1928 NL SS .252 .318 .338 -.1491
1973 NL SS .238 .295 .303 -.1456
1977 NL SS .250 .299 .334 -.1390
1929 NL SS .276 .337 .370 -.1369
1971 NL SS .236 .294 .295 -.1336
1944 NL SS .237 .296 .308 -.1328
1970 NL SS .247 .313 .319 -.1301
1975 NL SS .242 .303 .312 -.1212
1987 NL SS .246 .307 .348 -.1197
1969 NL SS .236 .303 .301 -.1196
1984 NL SS .240 .295 .313 -.1184
1967 NL SS .236 .294 .299 -.1096
1972 NL SS .236 .300 .301 -.1096
1968 NL SS .229 .280 .279 -.1083
2000 NL SS .256 .325 .383 -.1068
1974 NL SS .248 .306 .312 -.1064
1980 NL SS .252 .300 .323 -.1044
1981 NL SS .245 .300 .311 -.1024
1965 NL SS .242 .298 .310 -.1023
1986 NL SS .244 .307 .329 -.0940
2005 NL SS .257 .307 .370 -.0937
1961 NL SS .255 .317 .353 -.0912
1999 NL SS .265 .331 .381 -.0909
1945 NL SS .253 .310 .328 -.0905
1912 NL SS .258 .316 .342 -.0866

Not even close. The shortstops in 1928 and 1973 set the bar of
failure much too high (or low) for even this battered bunch to top. Check out these two groups. First, the group from 1928:

                          Actual        Translated
Player            Team  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
----------------- ---- -------------  -------------
Dave Bancroft      BRO .247/.326/.303 .225/.309/.313
Woody English      CHN .299/.343/.375 .277/.326/.387
Doc Farrell        BSN .215/.263/.271 .198/.251/.278
Hod Ford           CIN .241/.308/.291 .222/.293/.304
Travis Jackson     NYN .270/.339/.436 .239/.314/.457
Rabbit Maranville  SLN .240/.310/.342 .209/.282/.356
Heinie Sand        PHI .211/.310/.277 .171/.276/.274
Glenn Wright       PIT .310/.343/.457 .273/.310/.468

Things may be tough in the NL this year, but ’28 was in another
world–four of eight starters slugging .303 or worse and again four of
eight with an OBP .310 or less. In the right-most columns are the
players’ Translated Batting Statistics, an adjustment that removes park, league, and season biases from a players stats, allowing us to fairly compare players from different eras and parks. (You can see players’ Translated Statistics on all Davenport Translations Cards here at BP. For example, here’s Rabbit
Maranville’s card
.) Because 1928 was a year with higher offensive
averages than a typical season, all of the players above see their stats decline.

Let’s check out the group from 1973:

                           Actual       Translated
Player            Team  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
----------------- ----  -------------  -------------
Larry Bowa         PHI .211/.252/.249 .220/.260/.269
Darrel Chaney      CIN .181/.267/.220 .203/.289/.253
Dave Concepcion    CIN .287/.327/.433 .296/.339/.490
Tim Foli           MON .240/.284/.277 .250/.293/.297
Bud Harrelson      NYN .258/.348/.309 .274/.360/.341
Don Kessinger      CHN .262/.327/.310 .264/.328/.323
Dal Maxvill        PIT .189/.261/.235 .206/.275/.273
Roger Metzger      HOU .250/.299/.322 .263/.312/.358
Marty Perez        ATL .250/.316/.347 .246/.315/.372
Bill Russell       LAN .265/.301/.337 .282/.319/.379
Chris Speier       SFN .249/.332/.356 .251/.333/.385
Derrel Thomas      SDN .238/.299/.260 .261/.320/.292
Mike Tyson         SLN .243/.279/.299 .257/.293/.330

Note that in this case nearly every player’s numbers go up as a
result of the run suppressing environments of the late 60s and
early 70s. As we saw above with the rankings by MLVr, this group comes
out just behind the crew from ’28. But looking at those translated
numbers, it looks like only Dave Concepcion is keeping
them out of the cellar–and he split time with Darrel
that year.

Does this year’s group have a chance to catch up if they suddenly
take a turn for the worse? It’s highly unlikely for several reasons.
First, teams are likely to bench those players who are performing the
worst. Guzman has been so bad that the Nationals look like they’re not
going to attempt to continue to justify his contract by playing him and
instead are trying to coax Barry Larkin out of retirement to take his spot, or trade for Julio Lugo or a similar upgrade. Second, several NL shortstops have been performing respectably this year, most notably Felipe Lopez, who was hitting .295/.346/.509 through Tuesday. When the Rockies lost Clint Barmes (.323/.365/.507) for the season and replaced him with Desi Relaford (.227/.306/.324), things certainly didn’t get better for NL shortstops, but Lopez and the Brewers’ Bill Hall have shown enough power to keep things from getting historically out of hand.

So to answer your question, A.E., no, we’re not watching one of the
worst groups of shortstops ever. The rise of mashers like Cal Ripken Jr., Larkin, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Miguel Tejada, can’t erase the position’s history as one of baseball’s most forgiving when it comes to a player’s skill with a bat. As such, the annals of MLB are filled with seasons with almost comically inept batters spending their days on the left side of the
infield and the bottom of the lineup. None of this makes Neifi Perez a
good player even by comparison–that .280 OBP only beats out Guzman and
the Pirates’ Jack Wilson among NL shortstops with at least 200 PA. But luckily for his employment status, Perez has long played a position that cares about hitting about as much as Ozzie Guillen cares about his Pythagenport record. Which is to say, not at all.

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