It is a dreadfully gloomy Friday here in New York, which means that whatever creative juices I have are simply not flowing right now. But I did want to start crossing things off my “to write about” list, and given the straightforward nature of this post, it seemed like a great place to start.
I am going to create a team of silent killers. You might think this sounds like the hackneyed premise of a John Woo movie, but you would be mistaken. When I say silent killers, I’m referring to baseball players who have consistently offered mediocre production over the course of the season. This is not a list of the worst players in baseball. The worst players in baseball are so bad that they don’t play much, so while their poor play hurts a team on a rate basis, the aggregate effect isn’t huge because they play so little. Instead, this is a list of players on competitive teams whose poor performances over hundreds of plate appearances have cost their teams those marginal wins that are so important in the standings.
If this concept sounds familiar to you, it’s because I’m blatantly ripping off Baseball Prospectus’ “Replacement-Level Killers” idea. I repeat: It’s a gloomy Friday, and this is all I’ve got.
C: Miguel Olivo, Rockies (427 PAs, .269/.315/.449)
If I were identifying the worst catcher in baseball, I would probably be writing about Jason Kendall here (.297 SLG ? Seriously?). But Kendall’s performance wasn’t the difference between a playoff spot or going home. Olivo’s wasn’t totally either, but his impotence certainly hurt the Rockies in the second half of the season. After hitting a sensational .325/.377/.548 before the All-Star break, Olivo quickly regressed to his very, very mediocre mean, hitting .193/.225/.313 in the second half. Over 427 plate appearances, Olivo has provided below-average offense (92 OPS+) for a contending team with the young, cost-controlled, and talented Chris Iannetta patiently waiting for manager Jim Tracy to come to his senses. It’s not Olivo’s fault that Tracy keeps playing him, but it is Olivo’s fault that he can’t hit.
1B: Todd Helton, Rockies (464 PAs, .259/.364/.372)
I promise that I’m done with the Rockies after this, but Helton’s play really crippled them in 2010. He started off fairly well, getting on base 37% of the time (albeit with zero power) in March, April, and May. June and July saw his OBP and SLG fall off a cliff, although they rebounded in August and September. No matter the distribution, a .259/.364/.372 line at first base is a huge competitive disadvantage, particularly in a pennant race. In May, I wrote that Helton’s OBP would keep him an acceptable starter until his power came back around. That didn’t happen. I was wrong.
2B: Skip Schumaker, Cardinals (520 PAs, .266/.330/.340)
Aaron Hill and David Eckstein are also fine candidates for this spot. But it’s tough to say that Hill’s Blue Jays were ever really contenders, and Eckstein has 42 fewer PAs than Schumaker. Although Schumaker’s offensive performance is horrid even by the meager standards of the position, the icing on the cake is his defense. You may find this hard to believe, but even though he’s a small, white, middle-infielder named “Skip,” his defense is terrible. Single-season defensive statistics can be misleading, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Schumaker has a negative total zone rating for all four positions he’s played in his career.
3B: Pablo Sandoval, Giants (607 PAs, .267/.323/.410)
Sandoval was fantastic in 2009, hitting .330/.387/.556 in 633 PAs. While his OBP drop can be largely explained by going from good luck on balls in play (in 2009) to back luck (in 2010), his sudden lack of power is pretty jarring. It would be foolish to blame only his physique for his poor play, but I do think it’s fair to say that 24-year-olds with his body type don’t have long and successful careers in MLB without a serious commitment to conditioning.
SS: Elvis Andrus, Rangers (660 PAs, .264/.341/.299)
Our first American Leaguer, Andrus second season in MLB has been fairly miserable. He was rushed to the majors last season and played brilliant enough defense that his offensive woes (.267/.329/.373) could be overlooked. Two things have changed this season. Whatever power he had – and it wasn’t much at all – has completely vanished. He has no home runs and just 14 doubles, an astonishing figure for someone with his speed who plays in Seattle and Oakland’s cavernous ballparks nearly 20 times a year. Also, depending on whether or not you believe defensive statistics, his glovework has slipped to slightly below-average this season. He can’t afford to let that continue, because his bat simply won’t play anywhere on the diamond without excellent defense.
OF: Literally everyone in the Twins’ outfield
You think I’m kidding. Take a moment to look at Denard Span’s, Delmon Young’s, Jason Kubel’s, and Michael Cuddyer’s numbers in 2010.
- In 2008 and 2009, Span was the OBP machine that the Twins desperately needed after years of slaptastic and punchless (but gritty and pesky!) hitters atop their lineup. From a quick glance at the underlying numbers, it looks like he’s suffering from equal parts bad luck and loss of skill, but a .267/.335/.353 line in 693 PAs isn’t very good no matter how you slice it.
- Young is, admittedly, the least terrible of this quartet. But if you look beyond the .489 SLG and 110 RBI, you’ll find that, aside from a fabulous July, he’s still basically the same hitter as he was when he was being labeled a “bust.” He’s still incredibly impatient and a disaster on defense. I urge you to look at his career UZR in the outfield, because it is truly impressive.
- Kubel is a former righty-masher who has stopped mashing righties. He has no defensive value, no speed, and it’s looking more and more like his 2009 season was a fluke. That’s 573 PAs down the drain.
- Cuddyer has transitioned to more of a 1B/OF/DH type, but he still has 68 appearances in the outfield and a dreadful (.272/.337/.418) batting line. Like Kubel and Young, Cuddyer is a statue in the outfield and provides little but the occasional home run.
Honestly, after looking at these numbers, I have no idea how the Twins led the AL Central in runs scored this season.
DH: Adam Lind, Blue Jays (606 PAs, .237/.287/.420)
A designated hitter that doesn’t hit. Fascinating. Just like with Jason Kubel, we must consider the possibility that Lind’s roaring success in 2009 (.305/.370/.562) was the outlier and not a new plateau.
P: A.J. Burnett, Yankees (180.2 IP, 5.33 ERA)
With all the squawking about him here in New York, it’s wrong to call him a “silent” killer. But technicalities aside, he has been brutal this season. His strikeouts are down, his home runs allowed are up, and opposing baserunners run wild on him. I’ve always been a Burnett defender, because it struck me as silly that people were expecting him – are STILL expecting him – to pitch like an ace when he’s only done so twice in his career. I’ve consistently said that if you look at his career numbers and expect that level of performance (you know, like we do with every other player in sports), his inconsistency is much easier to swallow. Well, he’s pitched worse than a fifth starter in 2010, and that is worth plenty of criticism.