Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Fun: League Average Hitters

Today I wanted to talk about a couple concepts and then give you a bunch of examples to back them up. Fun right? Well the topic for the day is league average hitters. 

The word “average” has gotten somewhat of a negative connotation in today’s society. Usually when people say something is “average”, they preface it with a back and forth wiggle of the head, their lips purse and angle downward and as they say “average,” their eyes squint and they use a distinct inflection that really means “it’s not very good.” The problem lies in the fact that nobody strives to be average anymore. Nobody gets excited about being a C student or earning $47,000 a year. The American dream used to be getting a stable job with a good spouse, 2.3 kids, a dog and a white picket fence. Today, if you don’t run your own company by the time you reach 24, have 2 cars, a boat and a house built on a floating island you are a failure. But really, average isn’t such a bad thing. Average means you are better than 50% of the population you are being compared with, and as long as you aren't being compared to crack heads or something, it's ok to be smack dab in the middle.

This is especially true in baseball. Being an average hitter in baseball means you are approximately the 200th best hitter in the world. And yet, people look at a hitter like J.D. Drew, who has been above average or elite every year of his career until this one, and say he sucks. In reality, a hypothetical team with perfectly average hitters and pitchers would be in playoff contention every year.

So before we get into examples of league average hitters, let’s identify how we define a league average hitter. A good catch all measure of hitting that allows us to compare hitters over different eras is OPS+. OPS+ looks at hitters' On Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) compared to the league average (also with a tweak for ballpark effect so you can compare a hitter who plays in a pitcher's park like in San Diego to a hitter who plays in a hitter's park like in Colorado). The number it generates starts with a base of 100, which is exactly league average. So if a batter has an OPS of .800 one season and the league OPS that season averages to .800, they have an OPS+ of 100. If another batter has an OPS that season of .900, they are 12% better than league average so their OPS+ is 112 (100 + 12). If yet another batter has an OPS that season of .700, they are 12% worse than league average so their OPS+ is 88 (100 – 12).

Now you’ll note that I keep saying “that season”. This is because league average OPS is different every season. In 1968 when Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, the league average OPS was .637. In 2001 when Alex Rodriguez hit 52 HR as a shortstop, the league average OPS was .762. Therefore, if you had a .700 OPS in 1968, you would have an OPS+ of 109 and if you had that same OPS of .700 in 2001 you would have an OPS+ of 92.

Ok. Deep breath. If everyone is still with me, let’s take a look at some players who had perfectly average careers with an OPS+ of 100 even. Using my new favorite tool, Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I found 27 players who have a career 100 OPS+ and at least 3000 plate appearances since 1901. Here are some of the highlights:
  • Walt Dropo won the Rookie of the Year Award (the only ROY on this list) in 1950 as a 27 year old playing first base for the Red Sox. This would be by far his best season (OPS+ of 133), but he would hover around league average for the rest of his 12 year career. Dropo is the career leader in home runs for our league average group with 152.
  • Willie McGee, another former Red Sox, holds the distinction as having the longest career (17 years) of anyone on this list, but also is the only player to win an MVP award. In 1985, playing for the Whitey-ball Cardinals, McGee led the league in average, hits and triples to go along with 56 steals on the way to his only MVP award. That season he had a 147 OPS+ while leading the Cardinals to a National League pennant. McGee’s career was different than Dropo’s in that he didn’t remain close to league average throughout, instead having random peaks and valleys. He was also quite funny looking.
  • Yet another former Red Sox from my childhood on the list is Carlos Baerga. Baerga was a hot hitting second baseman for the Indians in the early 90s forming an exciting double play combo with Omar Vizquel. For the first five years of his career, Baerga was an above average hitter and 3 time All Star. Then his hitting started to decline in 1996 and he was shipped off to the New York Mets for potential Hall of Famer Jeff Kent. His hitting would continue to decline and he was out of baseball after the 1999 season. He returned as a part time DH and emotional leader in ’02 with the Red Sox and  in ’03 he had a bit of a comeback with the Diamondbacks, posting a 117 OPS+. He was definitely a guy I always thought would have a better career and was one of the most charismatic players in the game during his time.
  • Doug Mientkiewicz, another former Red Sox, surprisingly appears on the list. I say surprisingly, because Doug was primarily known as a defensive specialist at first by Red Sox nation. Acquired in 2004 in the Nomar Garciaparra trade, Doug would spell Kevin Millar at first in late game situations to protect the lead with his glove. He received the put out from Keith Foulke to clinch the first Red Sox title in 86 years. Doug was a pretty good hitter before he came to Boston and then had a couple average seasons at the close of his career as a part time player. He will be forever memorialized on 2004 Red Sox musical beer bottle openers.
  • The best names on the list: Shanty Hogan and Bip Roberts.
  • Speaking of names, on the list are Garry Maddox (he who covers 1/3 of the Earth) and Elliott Maddox, no relation. They are the only two players with the surname “Maddox” who have enough plate appearances to qualify for this list and they are both on it. No word on if “Maddox” is the most average last name in the world.
  • A guy from my past on the list is Tony Bernazard. The former head of player development for the New York Mets often hung around the Brooklyn Cyclones clubhouse when I worked there and he wasn’t exactly the nicest guy. My own interactions with him pale in comparison, though, to some of the stories that surfaced towards the end of his tenure with the Mets. These include threatening to fire minor league players (you can’t do that), threatening to fight a Double A player, fighting with Francisco Rodriguez and the infamous “Bus Driver Story”. In this story, Bernazard berated a Lakewood Blue Claws clubby after Tony entered the stadium with no credentials. The clubby stopped him to see ID and asked if he was the bus driver and Bernazard lost his mind. Completely average hitter. Completely insane human being.
  • Probably the biggest name on the list is Curt Flood. With a 100 OPS+, a player who hasn’t played in 40 years is probably going to be famous for something more singular like an MVP (McGee) or a cool quote (Garry Maddox). Flood is no different. He had very average seasons early in his career, but Flood recorded a strong peak from his age 29-31 seasons. At the end of the 1969 season, the Cardinals tried to trade Flood and others to the Phillies for Dick Allen and others. Not wanting to leave St. Louis for Philadelphia, Flood refused to report for the trade. After consulting with new player’s union chief Marvin Miller, he sent Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball, a letter asking to be declared a free agent. Kuhn declined the request and Flood took him to court to challenge baseball’s reserve clause. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but Flood eventually lost as the court decided to hold up a 1922 ruling that allowed Major League Baseball the right to act as a monopoly (“Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly and we’re fucking it up!” Ted Turner would later say). Though Kuhn won the battle, he would later lose the war, as they say. Flood’s case resonated throughout the player’s union and just 5 years later, the reserve clause would be broken.
  • Finally, Marlon Byrd, Alex Rios and Aaron Rowand make up the three active players on the list, with a fourth, Garrett Atkins, still looking for work this year. Rowand makes the list due to two break out seasons, including one in a contract year push, balancing his mostly poor production with the bat. Rios is on the list for now almost entirely due to posting a 54 OPS+ to start the year; he has been a solidly above average hitter for most of his career. Byrd was a hot prospect with the Phillies, but after 5 years of below average production he became known as a bust. Since moving to the Rangers in ’07, he has had an OPS+ over 100 every year. Atkins was similarly a top prospect with the Rockies and came out of the gate guns blazing posting an OPS+ of 135 and 136 in ’04 and ’06 respectively. Then in ’08 the wheels came off and he stopped being a useful hitter. If I ran this report a month from now, I would expect all of these hitters save for Atkins to fall off the list.
As you can see, there were some pretty good and notable hitters on this list. Being average is not the same as being a failure. As long as average hitters are properly valued (unlike with Rowand and Rios), they can be very valuable to their teams. A guy like Marlon Byrd was never able to shed the label as a bust and his value has been depressed ever since. This has allowed the Rangers and now the Cubs to squeeze some incredible value out of him. Byrd an average hitter who is being paid like a below average player because it seems like even he doesn't realize how special average can be. To all those C students out there, don't get down on yourself. Being average can be pretty OK.

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