For those of us who enjoyed the sabermetrics arguments of the early 2000’s, there’s something about the start of a new season without two of the old school sabermetrics world’s most polarizing figures: Adam Dunn and Derek Jeter.
For Adam Dunn, many disdained him for his low batting average in the early stages of his career while his proponents pointed out his consistent power and on-base percentage. In the later years of his career, though, many could agree that even his power couldn’t make up for his cumulative deficiencies in nearly every other aspect of his game.
For Jeter, few failed to recognize that he was a superstar-level player. At the same time, while many developing defensive metrics indicated he wasn’t nearly as good with the glove as his signature moments seemed to indicate, those who were critical Jeter’s defense perhaps piled on a bit much and failed to admit he was still an automatic first ballot Hall of Famer.
That being said, both players clearly were in the decline phase of their career for their last few seasons. While Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is not a perfect statistic, it is a handy tool to have to evaluate a player’s worth over the course of a few seasons. Over the last six seasons of Dunn’s career, he posted a WAR (via Baseball Reference) of 0.6 (brought down in large part due to his -2.9 WAR in 2011). Over the last six seasons of Jeter’s career, he posted a WAR of 11.1, thanks in large part to his 6.5 WAR in 2009.
While Jeter clearly did not decline as much towards the end of his career as Dunn (and in fact Jeter’s WAR of 11.1 from age 35 to 40 ranks as the 80th highest of all time among position players), Dunn was of very little value towards the end of his career. There are a number of reasons why teams continue giving playing time to players of relatively little value, including a lack of other options, disregard for statistics like WAR (it’s not perfect, after all), wanting to give players an extended amount of time to break out of a slump, or a lack of wanting to admit a high priced contract was a complete failure, among others.
For the last ten six year time frames (i.e. starting with 2000-2005 and ending with 2009-2014), the following players received at least 3,000 total plate appearances and posted the lowest Wins Above Replacement (thanks as always to the Baseball Reference Play Index):
Dunn actually is listed twice on this list, as the last seven years of his career (2008 to 2014) weren’t all that great, according to WAR. (Incidentally he also appears in 11th on this list with 1.6 WAR from 2006 to 2011, and 16th on this list with 2.7 WAR from 2007 to 20012 – not shown.)
This list is full of players who essentially have one skill, and don’t do a whole lot else right. Dunn, Delmon Young, and Jeff Francoeur were all known as players who could hit the ball a long way but couldn’t do a whole lot else right. (Young would appear twice on this list as he accumulated 0.4 WAR from 2009 to 2014 but received so few plate appearances in 2014 he didn’t have 3,000 PA total over that time frame.) On the flip side, players like Tony Womack and Yuniesky Betancourt weren’t expected to produce a whole lot of offense but were largely kept in the lineups for their defense, and more advanced defensive metrics weren’t kind to their abilities (or lack thereof) with the glove.
Now that the 2015 season is underway, who are some of the players who could join this rather undesirable list above? The players below shows the lowest WAR for all players with 2,500 or more plate appearances from 2010 to 2014:
The players highlighted in blue are those still active, as Dunn, Michael Young, Alfonso Soriano, and Derek Jeter have all retired. Of those competing to get on the first list:
- It would be a bit surprising if Garrett Jones racks up 366 plate appearances with the Yankees this year, but at the same time he’s another Mark Teixeira injury away from doing so (else the Yankees try Alex Rodriguez there).
- Given that the Phillies’ chances of competing this year or moving Ryan Howard’s contract are about the same (which is to say, next to nothing), Howard can expect to get close to 500 plate appearances this year without being very productive.
- Mark Reynolds likely won’t get 300 plate appearances with the Cardinals this year, but never say never.
- Gordon Beckham, Rickie Weeks, and Melvin Upton would all need to get significant playing time while performing horribly to lower their WAR enough to reach that top list, but if any of the players have a chance of doing so it’s Upton. It would require an injury to one of the other outfielders the Padres traded for in the offseason, but not completely outside of the realm of possibilities.
One more point on Dunn – he wasn’t just hovering around replacement level for the last few years of his career, as in his last ten seasons from 2005 to 2014 he posted just 5.9 WAR total. Of all players who reached at least 5,000 plate appearances total in the last ten years of his career, that ranks seventh worst of all time: