BY RYAN MILOWICKI
The month following the end of baseball season is usually reserved for the recognition of superlatives. Beginning with the presentation of baseball awards and culminating with the unveiling of the Hall of Fame ballot, this past month has been about honoring the best in the game.
This project bears no such motivation.
When I saw names like Freddy Sanchez and Orlando Cabrera on this year’s ballot, I began wondering, who is the most “average” player in baseball today? I thought this would be a simple enough question to research, but I quickly learned that I needed to properly define and evaluate the multiple meanings of the word “average.”
The wonderful community of sabermetricians has created a beautiful statistic called Wins Above Average (WAA) that serves as a crucial first step in this endeavor. Unlike its more famous big brother, WAR (Wins Above Replacement), WAA compares major leaguers to their peers, not the mythical “replacement player.” Scoring 0.0 in WAR means that you’re a bad player who can easily be replaced with a minor leaguer, while scoring 0.0 on WAA means roughly that you are an average MLB-caliber player. For the purposes of this project, WAA is going to be our initial guide.
As is the case with any statistical study, sample size is key. To ensure that all the players I studied have accrued enough playing time to merit observation, I limited my research to active players who have appeared in at least 400 career games. For simplicity’s sake, I limited my search to position players, since sabermetrics work a little bit different for pitchers. These constraints narrowed down my starting pool to just north of 250 active major leaguers.
I then sorted all of these players according to their career totals in WAA. Unsurprisingly, A-Rod (76.0) and Albert Pujols (68.2) are at the top, and Jeff Francoeur (-11.9) is at the bottom (as Jon Bois expertly recounted). In theory, the player whose career WAA is closest to absolute zero should be the “most average player.” In this case, the player whose career WAA is exactly 0.0 is outfielder Jay Bruce.
Jay Bruce is the most average MLB player in the game today.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? It shouldn’t, because Jay Bruce has had his fair share of excellent seasons, most notably his slew of 30+ HR, 95+ RBI seasons with the Reds early in his career. However, Bruce has also had a number of equally disappointing seasons in his nine-year career. As fate would have it, these two types of Jay Bruce campaigns have essentially cancelled out, leaving his WAA at a perfect 0.0.
Such varied season-by-season inputs don’t exactly click with the type of player we’re seeking. Surely a player good enough to finish in the Top 10 of MVP voting twice does not suddenly become an “average” player thanks to a couple awful seasons.
It’s clear that the simple mean definition of average is not enough for our baseball purposes. However, we will still harvest some of the career WAA data. Moving on to the next round of scrutiny are the 58 active major leaguers whose career WAA is between -2.0 and 2.0 (including Bruce).
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CONSISTENCY
To put Jay Bruce’s plight into more statistical context, his WAA in 2013 was an impressive 3.2, good for second on the Reds behind only Joey Votto. Yet the very next year, he recorded a career low with a -2.9 WAA, the worst total on the Reds.
Such wild extremes in Jay Bruce’s career gives his career WAA a high standard deviation, a fact masked by his too-perfect-to-be-true overall totals. To start working through this problem, I took a look at the season-by-season totals of each of the 58 finalists to see whose yearly totals were the least random.
I ranked all 58 players in accordance with the overall variance of their year-by-year WAA, with the least scattered players ranking the highest. As expected, Jay Bruce fell to 57th under this scrutiny. The only player ranked lower than Bruce? That honor (?) belongs to shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who slipped to a career-low -4.0 WAA this season after reaching as high as 3.3 in his time with the White Sox.
Were I to end my research with this metric, the title of “most average player” would belong to Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias, immediately followed by Matt Adams, Travis Ishikawa, Shane Robinson, and Eric Sogard. In his five major league seasons, Iglesias has yet to surpass 0.6 in seasonal WAA, but has never fallen below -0.1. This creates a very consistent body of work which grants him the win here.
However, the individual components that comprise value-related statistics like WAA and WAR are have the capability to cancel themselves out in a similar fashion to the aforementioned Jay Bruce debunking.
Players like Jose Iglesias are known as good fielders but pedestrian hitters. So in effect, their above-average fielding metrics cancel out their near-bottom hitting ability to give them the semblance of being a completely “average” MLB player.
In order to level the playing field and remove the final source of “happy accident” imbalance, I dove further into the components that make up WAA.
There are four main areas in play here: runs created from offense, runs created from baserunning, runs created from defense, and the reward/penalty associated with defensive position. The first three are self-explanatory, but the final category is slightly less intuitive. In simplest terms, the average corner outfielder or first baseman is expected to generate offense, so those players must generate more runs to elevate themselves above average. As such, their score in this statistic is typically negative, while positions with lower offensive mandates (catcher, middle infielders) receive a positive bump (i.e. less offense is needed to be above-average for their positition).
With those same 58 finalists, I proceeded to rank them according to their variance among those 4 WAA components. As before, the lowest variance resulted in the highest rankings. Clubhouse leader Jose Iglesias fell to 20th in these rankings, due to the high disparity between his glove and bat.
The winner of “most average” by this metric was Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, whose career totals in all four WAA components were within just 9 runs of each other. Poor Alexei Ramirez ranked near the bottom in this list as well, surpassed only by Kurt Suzuki, Kendrys Morales, Nick Swisher, and Juan Uribe.
Armed with two ranking systems which shook out very differently, I decided to make them work together to create my final rankings. By my utopic definition of “average,” I am looking for a player who shows consistency season-to-season (like Iglesias) while doing so with a balanced assortment of skills (in the vein of Ozuna).
Comparing the two sets of rankings, I averaged each player’s positions together to create one final ranking. As such, a high ranking on one of the two lists is not good enough to make my final cut. For what it’s worth, Jose Iglesias finished 7th in my final rankings, and Ozuna finished 18th.
Before revealing the five players who have earned the honor of “most average” players in today’s MLB, I just want to give a shoutout to Alexei Ramirez. Of the 58 players whose career WAA fall within my boundaries of average, Ramirez sported by far the most erratic statistics. In addition to having the widest gap between his best and worst WAA seasons, he also had one of the five biggest disparities between his offensive and defensive skills. Stay unique, Alexei. Never change.
AND THE WINNERS ARE…
5. Andres Blanco
One of the longest-tenured players that isn’t a household name, Blanco made his major league debut with the Royals in 2004. A situational player for the majority of his career, Blanco registered career highs in games played, home runs, and RBI in his last two seasons with the Phillies. His career slash line of .264/.317/.388 is far from awe-inspiring, but par for the course for a utility infielder.
Career WAA: -1.1
Season-to-season variance ranking: 9th
Tool set variance ranking: 10th
4. Travis Ishikawa
Best known for his walkoff home run that won the 2014 NLCS for the Giants, Ishikawa floundered in AAA throughout 2016 but has been a prototypical platoon first baseman since making his MLB debut in 2006. He had the lowest career WAA of all players I studied, but his better-than-average glove kept him afloat.
Career WAA: -2.0
Season-to-season variance ranking: 3rd
Tool set variance ranking: 15th
3. Marwin Gonzalez
The first placing player to be an everyday starter, Gonzalez recently finished his fifth season with the Astros. His positional bonus/penalty was offset by his recent switch from the left side of the infield to first base, aiding in his high ranking here. However, should he remain at first base in future seasons, the balance will begin to turn against him unless his power numbers increase beyond 12-15 homers a year.
Career WAA: -0.7
Season-to-season variance ranking: 7th
Tool set variance ranking: 11th
2. Lonnie Chisenhall
Similar to Gonzalez, Lonnie Chisenhall benefited from a recent position switch after finding a new home in right field halfway through the 2015 season. The cornerstone in Chisenhall’s “most average” campaign was his impressive balance of skills, trailing only Ozuna, Stephen Vogt, and Scooter Gennett in that ranking. In his six year career, Chisenhall has lost just 8 runs of generated offense to the average, compared to +5 in fielding and +4 in baserunning. This parity makes Chisenhall the only of these five players to register their best ranking in the tool set category, as well as the only listed player with a positive career WAA.
Career WAA: 0.6
Season-to-season variance ranking: 12th
Tool set variance ranking: 4th
1. Matt Adams
I for one was quite surprised to see a full-time first baseman top these rankings. The positional penalty associated with first base is the highest of any, but Adams‘ season-to-season consistency is what puts him over the top. In his five seasons with the Cardinals, he has never strayed further than four-tenths of a win from absolute zero. As Albert Pujols’ replacement in St. Louis, his power numbers have been fair, not great, but his batting average has occasionally placed near the top of his position (especially in 2013 and 2014).
If it sounds like I’m stretching to find superlatives for a middling player, that’s exactly my intent, because by my metrics, Matt Adams is the most middling player in today’s MLB.
Career WAA: -0.4
Season-to-season variance ranking: 2nd
Tool set variance ranking: 12th
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in 12 days for the beginning of my countdown of the 101 Biggest Hits of 2016!