Almost every team has a problem position — you know, that spot where one season a hot prospect is starting (and failing), the next season it’s a washed-up vet, then some random Triple-A player — and the team can never get out of that cycle.
Maybe your favorite club has one, like left field for the Seattle Mariners. This one goes way back. Ken Griffey Jr. patrolled center field 11 seasons for the Mariners and played next to nine different regular left fielders, including Pee Wee Briley, Jeffrey Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, Eric Anthony, Jose Cruz Jr. and Brian “The Fast One” Hunter. The Mariners have had problems filling the position in recent years as well. Norichika Aoki was supposed to be the answer last season, wasn’t the answer, and now they’re hoping Jarrod Dyson is the answer, although even that is a short-term fix as he’s an impending free agent.
So let’s see if Seattle’s left fielders have been as awful as Mariners fans believe, and who has had it even worse over the past decade.
Thanks to the invaluable Baseball-Reference.com, finding a way to examine this was relatively simple. For each MLB season, the site includes a position-by-position table of Wins Above Average. Wins Above Average are similar to Wins Above Replacement, just scaled to an average player instead of replacement level.
Note how Baseball-Reference calculates the value for each position:
- Sabermetric stats like WAR and Wins Above Average are computed at the team/position level by prorating the players’ team-season totals by time played at the position, so they may not represent exactly what the player did at that position, but rather it assumes they were equally valued at each position. Fielding Runs is based on actual time at the position.
This means that if a player split his time between two positions and hit .275 overall, he’s valued as a .275 hitter at each position, even if he hit .300 at one and .250 at another. This doesn’t have any major impact on the results of this study.
The Weakest Positions
Let the lineup of dishonor begin! Our top 10 weakest positions since 2007 based on wins above average (or, in this, wins below average) from the bad to the very, very bad:
10. Kansas City Royals SS: minus-13.0 WAA
Starters: Tony Pena (2 seasons), Yuniesky Betancourt (2), Alcides Escobar (6)
This one stands out because it has been relatively stable. Pena and Betancourt were awful, but the surprise is the low rating with Escobar. But his career OBP with the Royals is .297, with just 26 home runs over six seasons, so he’s pretty much an offensive zero, and the defensive metrics rate him as only average.
9. Chicago White Sox LF: minus-13.2 WAA
Starters: Rob Mackowiak, Carlos Quentin (2), Juan Pierre (2), Dayan Viciedo (2), Alejandro De Aza, Melky Cabrera (2)
The rating is this bad even though Quentin finished fifth in the MVP voting with a 5.3-WAR season in 2008. It has been a string of mostly bad defenders and low-OBP hitters with only moderate power. Cabrera is still around for 2017, although general manager Rick Hahn would happily dump him on somebody for a warm carton of milk and some of that special sand you put on the infield dirt when it rains.
Starters: Dioner Navarro (3), John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach, Jose Molina (3), Rene Rivera, Curt Casali
If you want to argue this rating is unfair because it’s not properly measuring catcher defense such as pitch framing, OK, but there’s no denying the offensive ineptitude, especially in recent seasons. Overall since 2007, Tampa Bay catchers are hitting .222/.287/.342.
7. New York Mets C: minus-14.2 WAA
Starters: Paul Lo Duca, Brian Schneider, Omir Santos, Rod Barajas, Josh Thole (2), John Buck, Travis d’Arnaud (2), Kevin Plawecki
Well, that’s certainly a mishmash of past-their-prime veterans and career backups given a chance to start. Mets catchers haven’t hit much better than Tampa’s group: (.240/.301/.361), and none of these guys was known for their defensive reputations. Once again, they’ll count on d’Arnaud to remain healthy and maybe hit like he did in 2015.
6. Chicago White Sox 2B: minus-14.7 WAA
Starters: Tadahito Iguchi, Alexei Ramirez, Chris Getz, Gordon Beckham (5), Carlos Sanchez, Brett Lawrie
Man, the White Sox gave Beckham opportunity after opportunity to find himself, but in those five seasons he hit .241/.300/.361 and wasn’t anything special on defense. Remember, as well, that the ballpark formerly known as U.S. Cellular Field has been a good home run park, further deflating the value of those power numbers.
5. Texas Rangers 1B: minus-15.1 WAA
Starters: Mark Teixeira, Chris Davis (2), Justin Smoak, Mitch Moreland (3), Prince Fielder, Moreland (2)
Some big names, but this mostly is about the long leash the Rangers kept extending on Moreland. His career OPS-plus is 100, which is league average, but a league-average hitter at first base isn’t a good thing. Davis had a terrible season in 2009, and 2014 was a merry-go-round of 11 different starters after Fielder was injured.
4. Minnesota Twins LF: minus-15.7 WAA
Starters: Jason Kubel, Delmon Young (4), Josh Willingham (3), Eddie Rosario, Robbie Grossman
Yes, Young was that bad. Twins left fielders produced a mediocre .321 OBP over the decade, but much of this rating is about terrible defense: A combined minus-101 defensive runs saved. Kubel, Young and Willingham were really DHs masquerading as left fielders, and Grossman rated an unbelievable minus-21 DRS in just 635 innings last year, which is why Rosario may be back out there this year despite his poor OBP skills.
3. Seattle Mariners C: minus-17.0 WAA
Starters: Kenji Johjima (2), Rob Johnson (2), Miguel Olivo (2), Mike Zunino (3), Chris Iannetta
The lethal double dosage of bad hitters and bad defense! Mariners catchers have hit just .223 with a .281 OBP. Zunino performed better last season after some time in the minors, and he’s at least a solid defender. And while Mariners left fielders just missed being in our top-10 worst positions, don’t worry, Mariners fans, we’re not done with you.
2. Seattle Mariners 1B: minus-19.2 WAA
Starters: Richie Sexson (2), Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman, Justin Smoak (4), Logan Morrison, Adam Lind
This encompasses the decline phase of Sexson’s career, a good year from Branyan in 2009 (31 home runs, .520 slugging), the year Kotchman hit .210, the agonizing run of Smoak’s warning-track power, the year Morrison hit .225 with a .302 OBP and then Lind’s .286 OBP last season. Where have you gone, John Olerud?
1. Miami Marlins 1B: minus-22.5 WAA
Starters: Mike Jacobs (2), Jorge Cantu, Gaby Sanchez (2), Carlos Lee, Logan Morrison, Garrett Jones, Justin Bour (2)
Well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at those names and see that this ranking isn’t a surprise. It does show how teams can be fooled by first-base production. Marlins first basemen have averaged 21 home runs and 86 RBIs, but with a lowly .738 OPS. The MLB averages for first basemen since 2007 are 25 and 91, but with a .797 OPS. Basically, Marlins first basemen have hit like second basemen and fielded like DHs. In related news, the Marlins haven’t made the playoffs since 2003.
Worst position for each team
Just because a team’s weakest position doesn’t make the worst of the worst, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an area coming up short. Let’s go division by division to see where each franchise has produced least over the past 10 seasons:
Orioles LF: -10.0
Red Sox C: -5.3
Yankees RF -5.8
Rays C: -13.6
Blue Jays LF: -12.8
White Sox 2B: -14.7
Indians 1B: -10.5
Tigers RF: -6.7
Royals SS: -13.0
Twins LF: -15.7
Astros LF: -11.6
Angels LF: -7.0
A’s DH: -8.1
Mariners 1B: -19.2
Rangers 1B: -15.1
Braves LF: -8.0
Marlins 1B: -22.5
Mets C: -14.2
Phillies 1B: -14.8
Nationals LF: -14.2
Cubs RF: -8.3
Reds LF: -8.7
Brewers 3B: -5.1
Pirates 1B: -12.0
Cardinals 2B: -0.9
Diamondbacks LF: -7.5
Rockies 1B: -8.2
Dodgers LF: -5.9
Padres SS: -12.0
Giants 2B: -10.5
You may note all the left field positions here. I think a possible explanation could be that position adjustment used in the value metrics is penalizing left fielders too much — that the models haven’t properly adjusted for the decline in offense in left field in recent years. Dave Cameron wrote about this decline in an ESPN Insider piece a few weeks ago. He went back to 2002 and looked at offense from left field:
- weighted runs created plus or wRC+ is an index metric, meaning that it is centered so that 100 is always average, and every point away from that indicates a percentage point above or below the average hitter at all positions for those years. For the first three years of this graph, the line is flat, noting that hitters put up a 113 wRC+ when they were playing left field. From that, we could say that left fielders were, on average, 13 percent better than average hitters in those years. From 2005 through 2010, there was a slight decrease, but left fielders were still comfortably above-average hitters. The trend continued down, though, with a huge dip in 2011, before reaching a 15-year low of 97 wRC+ last year, meaning that left fielders hit 3 percent worse than an average major league hitter overall.
As Dave pointed out, one reason for the offensive decline is teams are playing better defensive left fielders. Another reason, however, is that left field has kind of become a dumping ground for talent, the position teams are mostly likely to punt.
Left field has been the least “stable” position each season. It follows that it has been the weakest position for many teams.
Positions with the most turnover
Unfortunately, no team scored a perfect 10 in our quest to identify baseball’s revolving doors. We did have 11 positions, however, that had nine different primary starters in 10 seasons:
Tampa Bay Rays DH: Greg Norton, Cliff Floyd, Pat Burrell, Willy Aybar, Johnny Damon, Luke Scott (2), David DeJesus, John Jaso, Steve Pearce
Detroit Tigers LF: Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames, Ryan Raburn (2), Brennan Boesch, Quintin Berry, Andy Dirks, Rajai Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton
Seattle Mariners LF: Raul Ibanez (2), Wladimir Balentien, Michael Saunders, Carlos Peguero, Casper Wells, Ibanez, Dustin Ackley, Seth Smith, Nori Aoki (Ibanez is counted twice since he left the organization and then returned)
Seattle Mariners DH: Jose Vidro (2), Ken Griffey Jr., Russell Branyan, Jack Cust, Jesus Montero, Kendrys Morales, Corey Hart, Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz
Oakland Athletics 3B: Eric Chavez, Jack Hannahan, Adam Kennedy, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Scott Sizemore, Brandon Inge, Josh Donaldson (2), Brett Lawrie, Ryon Healy
Oakland Athletics LF: Shannon Stewart, Jack Cust, Matt Holliday, Gabe Gross, Josh Willingham, Seth Smith, Yoenis Cespedes (2), Sam Fuld, Khris Davis
Washington Nationals CF: Nook Logan, Lastings Milledge, Willie Harris, Nyjer Morgan, Rick Ankiel, Bryce Harper, Denard Span (2), Michael Taylor, Ben Revere
Philadelphia Phillies RF: Shane Victorino, Geoff Jenkins, Jayson Werth (2), Ben Francisco, Hunter Pence, John Mayberry, Marlon Byrd, Jeff Francoeur, Peter Bourjos
Los Angeles Dodgers LF: Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre, Manny Ramirez, Reed Johnson, Tony Gwynn Jr., Shane Victorino, Carl Crawford (2), Scott Van Slyke, Howie Kendrick
San Francisco Giants LF: Barry Bonds, Fred Lewis (2), Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Melky Cabrera, Andres Torres, Mike Morse, Nori Aoki, Angel Pagan
Coming next — Part 2: The strongest positions!