Good Teams and Bad Players

Something you’ll notice in the positional power rankings is that the Marlins project to be terrible. That’s bad, because they’re supposed to be worthwhile fun, but it’s also okay, because no one’s entertaining playoff hopes in Miami. Things only really matter when you’re playing for something. The situation is a little more worrisome elsewhere. The Blue Jays still don’t have a real second baseman, and they’d sure like to play in October. (This October!) Meanwhile, the Tigers had a shortstop they liked, but then he fractured both his legs, and they’ll have to resume liking him in 2015. For the time being, the Tigers don’t have a real shortstop, and they’d sure like to play in October. They’re also a lot more likely to get there than Toronto is, but, anyway.

My expectation remains that the Jays will go and get themselves some help, instead of sticking with Ryan Goins. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers made at least a minor move, to improve on whatever they think they’re going to do right now. Thinking about Toronto and Detroit, though, got me thinking about successful teams who’ve played a lot of particularly bad position players. Now, Goins projects to be replacement-level, and the same could be said of the Tigers’ shortstop stopgaps, so this isn’t directly pertinent, but then, the worst regulars are the most likely to be the terrible regulars. Have past teams succeeded with terrible regulars?

As usual, I was most interested in extremes. Who’s been the worst position player on a quality ballclub? I decided to search between 1969 – 2013, because I don’t like to go back further than that. I also set an arbitrary minimum of 90 team wins, or a 90-win equivalent winning percentage in the event of a truncated schedule. Then it was simply a matter of sorting by WAR, in ascending order. That’s raw WAR, rather than WAR over a common denominator, because raw WAR includes an important playing-time component.

First things first — in case, for whatever reason, you were skeptical that WAR is measuring anything, here’s a table for you, with players that I looked at split into ten groups:

Group Avg. WAR Avg. Win% Avg. Wins
1 8.0 0.549 88.2
2 6.4 0.539 86.4
3 5.4 0.533 85.9
4 4.4 0.524 83.8
5 3.4 0.517 82.4
6 2.4 0.510 81.4
7 1.4 0.500 79.4
8 0.4 0.497 78.9
9 -0.4 0.485 77.3
10 -1.4 0.459 73.3

The groups are in descending order of average WAR. There’s a clear relationship between player WAR and team winning percentage, with the most valuable players ending up on the most successful teams. It’s almost as if one can lead to the other. The numbers don’t work out perfectly, in that the teams aren’t identical outside of the players being measured, but that’s to be expected, because good and bad players aren’t distributed evenly. Anyway, this isn’t the main point.

Again, my lower bound for good teams was 90 wins, or a 90-win equivalent. Over the window examined, good teams had 77 individual position-player seasons worth -1 WAR or worse. There were four individual position-player seasons worth -2 WAR or worse. As it happens, for the very worst season, we have a tie. At -2.3 WAR, we find Bernie Williams, of the 2005 New York Yankees. And also at -2.3 WAR, we find Tony Womack, of the…2005 New York Yankees.

The 2005 New York Yankees won 95 games.

Since 1969, there hasn’t been a single individual pitcher-season worth worse than -2.2 WAR. In 2005, Williams and Womack tied for the worst WAR in all of baseball. Basically, the 2005 Yankees were a good team, a division-winning team, and they also happened to feature two of the worst individual player-seasons in recent baseball history, at least according to the data we have here at FanGraphs.

Not coincidentally, the 2005 Yankees had the worst outfield UZR over the UZR era, spanning 2002 – 2013. At -96, they easily cleared the second-worst, which were the 2004 Yankees. The 2002 Yankees, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Yankees are also all in the bottom 20. Either something is very, very seriously wrong with UZR, or those Yankees teams had outfield disasters, at least half of the time.

Williams, you’ll remember, was allowed to keep playing center field, even though in 2005 he was 36 years old. I found a video clip on Yankees.com.

clip1183.gif.opt

Womack began at second base before yielding to rookie Robinson Cano. He ended up getting regular outfield innings for the first time since 1999. In 2005, he was 35. By the way, to whatever extent you think this might’ve been surprising, over the previous two years Williams had been worth 0.3 WAR. Womack was coming off a decent year in St. Louis, but the year before that he’d been worth -1.5 WAR and he didn’t have a long track record of being successful.

You don’t need a whole 2005 retrospective. Williams was an awful defender whose offense was 15% below the league average. Womack was a bad defender whose offense was 53% below the league average. Womack eventually stopped playing, but Williams remained a Yankee for 2006. I found some neat excerpts. From February 2005:

[Kenny] Lofton feels he was treated poorly with the Yankees since Torre wasn’t going to sit a veteran like Bernie Williams. Originally, the plan had Williams DHing with Lofton playing center.

“That was the plan, but that’s not close to what happened,” Lofton said.

For the Phillies in 2005, Lofton was a four-win center fielder.

From April 2005:

Yanks say Womack was offseason steal

One week into the season, the Yankees are crowing about Tony Womack. Manager Joe Torre said Womack gives the team something it hasn’t had since Chuck Knoblauch: a player with strong base-stealing capabilities.

“He gives us that dimension we can really utilize in this league,” Torre said. “You can hit him ninth and he doesn’t lose that aggressiveness.”

From June 2005:

Williams Is Attracting Attention in Center, but for the Wrong Reasons

When Ramon Castro lofted a fly ball to center field in the ninth inning of yesterday’s game between the Yankees and the Mets at Yankee Stadium, many fans probably wanted to cover their eyes. For the second consecutive day, Bernie Williams was having a dismal time on defense. He made the putout on that play, but no ball hit to center seems like a sure thing for the Yankees these days.

And from a book excerpt published in May 2011:

The GM could not risk destroying the manager-captain relationship before it ever had a chance. Besides, Cashman had held a few conversations with Torre about moving Jeter to center field as far back as 2005, when the Yankees were dissatisfied with the aging Bernie Williams and Tony Womack.

To some extent, the Yankees were aware of some of their problems. To some extent, the Yankees were also in denial. Which you can make some sense of, given that those same Yankees won 95 games, given that they had monsters like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera and so on. A good team might have the most to gain from improving in problem spots. A good team might also be reluctant to shake up a good team.

The larger point: just as it’s possible for a team to struggle despite having a superstar, it’s possible for a team to succeed despite having a disaster or two. Individual players can’t bring down whole teams, and the 2005 Yankees won 95 games despite having two of the worst player performances we’ve seen in decades. So maybe this is some consolation to worried Blue Jays and Tigers fans, who aren’t sure exactly what’s going on at second base and shortstop, respectively. Even in the worst of worst-case scenarios, the teams can be okay. Any team could be okay, despite a big problem. The team just needs to not have many more problems. The best way to go might be having talent everywhere, but it’s not the only way to go. There’s a difference between what’s not recommended and what’s not possible.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


43 Responses to “Good Teams and Bad Players”

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  1. tz says:

    2005 was a perfect year for ARod to have his last great season.

    And Womack, wow! He had this kind of year despite going 27 for 32 in stolen base attempts.

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  2. rusty says:

    Another what-if — would Kenny Lofton have received more (deserved) consideration for the HoF if he’d put up a 4-win season or two in NY?

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    • Spit Ball says:

      No, he put up 4 WAR years in 2003 and 2005. In 2004 with the Yankees he had negative fielding numbers and a wRC+ of 96.

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  3. triple_r says:

    There’s a more recent (and in the case of the Tigers, more relevant) example: the 2013 Cardinals and Pete Kozma. He was exactly replacement-level for a team that won 97 games and the pennant — it doesn’t get much more “good teams and bad players” than that.

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  4. Joe R says:

    Looking back on it, it may have made sense for the Yankees to move Jeter to CF. As much as his defense at SS has been panned, he is/was still a passable one for a long time; surely he’d at least be an average CF with some practice.

    Either way, Torre was in a rough spot in 2005. He had a monster in A-Rod, a few very good/ASG caliber ones in Jeter, Giambi, Matsui, Sheffield, and Posada, and even got a decent contribution from Tino Martinez and Robby Cano. But after that? It was brutal. Who could the Yankees have given more playing time to? Rey Sanchez was done, Tony Womack was terrible, Ruben Sierra was a DH that couldn’t hit anymore, Bubba Crosby was Bubba Crosby. I think it was more a failure on Cashman’s part to provide any decent help in the reserves, in case one of his starters conbusted.

    And you didn’t need UZR to know that Bernie Williams was struggling in the field. Two years of slightly-above-average hitting w/ his glove should have screamed “fourth OF”, and the Yankees should’ve brought in someone else. To be fair to Cashman, though, who really was out there? Imagine how good that team could’ve been with a little more depth.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Beltran was a Free Agent leading to 2005 and, from what I recall, he was willing to take a lower contract to play for the Yankees instead of the Mets. Granted, he had a down year in 2005, but it was still 4+ wins ahead of Bernie.

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      • Joe R says:

        That is true. But even the Yankees can’t just throw megacontracts at everyone, and their payroll was already $80M higher than the 2nd place team (Boston). Hindsight is 20/20, though, and we know now that even if the Yankees had to pay him what the Mets paid, he would’ve been worth it.

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        • electric says:

          Hindsight is indeed 20/20 but, if i remember correctly, the entire baseball universe that ofseason had Beltran tabbed to play Cf in the bronx

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    • JimNYC says:

      Not sure if you were a Yankee fan at the time, but there was a HUGE backlash against Cashman for trying to marginalize Bernie Williams — Bernie was a fan favorite, part of the core of the teams that won four WS in five years, and the fans got furious with any attempt to say that Bernie wasn’t still a superstar or that Bernie should be benched.

      I still distinctly remember, in the 2006-2007 offseason, when Bernie hadn’t been re-signed, and somebody asked Cashman about it. Cashman said “I’ve got bigger concerns at the moment than who’s going to be the 25th man on the roster,” and a bunch of people called for Cashman to be fired for being so disrespectful to Bernie Williams. There was a lot of resentment towards the front office for how they treated him.

      You have to remember that the Yankees’ massive revenues don’t just come out of thin air; they come out of a loyal (and wealthy) fan base that’s willing to spend a lot of money on the team. Sometimes, not alienating the fan base is more valuable than making sure that bad players don’t get playing time.

      To give a perfect example — let’s say that, by June, Derek Jeter is playing his usually lousy defense and hitting .240/.300/.320. From a statistical perspective, you could say “hey, we can get that offensive line out of Brendan Ryan, and he’ll play fantastic defense!” Do you honestly think that there’ll be one iota of thought on Girardi’s or Cashman’s part towards benching Jeter and playing Ryan? Seriously?

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      • Richie says:

        Thank you for including the local perspective of the time. I find posts like this one really informative. And like your last paragraph, too. :-)

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      • RC says:

        ” Sometimes, not alienating the fan base is more valuable than making sure that bad players don’t get playing time.”

        No, its not.

        Because it leads to what the Yankees are now – a team that spends $200M and doesn’t make the playoffs. That destroys revenue.

        Fans get over stars leaving. They don’t get over non-competitive teams, especially when they’re expensive.

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      • Ryan says:

        good luck getting .240/.300/.320 out of Brendan Ryan.

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      • MrMan says:

        I could not agree less.

        Yankees fans want one thing which is a winner. If the team is winning they won’t care that Bernie is sitting on the bench of Jeter isn’t playing SS.

        Making dumb decisions because you’re scared of the fan’s reaction is the blueprint of the coward.

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    • RC says:

      “. As much as his defense at SS has been panned, he is/was still a passable one for a long time; surely he’d at least be an average CF with some practice.”

      I just can’t see it. The knock on Jeter has always been his range. Range is the single most important factor for a CF. I can’t see him being anything but terrible.

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      • Richie says:

        Disagree on the detail, agree on the broader point. I thought the knock on Jeter was his arm, because of which he had to play a shallow shortstop. Thus didn’t get to balls.

        As to the broader point, yeah, being ‘athletic’ and playing outfield are two separate things. The Brewers way back tried to make a centerfielder out of Molitor, a better athlete than Jeter, and he was awful. Just couldn’t track fly balls. Yount did make the switch, mind you. But it’s nowhere near as simple ‘he run fast, make good outfielder’.

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        • AC of DC says:

          There have been flaws all throughout his defensive game, but at the root of it has been limited capacity to reach ground balls, especially glove-side, for which a lot of the rest of the issues are the precipitates of compensatory practices (see the 2005 Bill James article, defensive stats, fan ratings).

          He always seemed to have a knack for tracking those weak flies over his head; they simply represent such a tiny percentage of the plays demanded of a shortstop that it didn’t help him. Maybe such a talent could have served him in CF, where he wouldn’t have to be reaching down into the dirt. Who knows?

          I do vividly recall that 2005 season — that thundering offense and that lumbering, hideous defense. In the DS, the Angels took extra bases on them like you run in a beer-league softball game.

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      • Jon L. says:

        Jeter when he had his legs was always superb at chasing after pop-ups and short flies. He seemed to have an outfielder’s knack for tracking the ball in the air while running at full speed. It’s hard to know whether this would have fully translated into the outfield, but if it did, that ability, plus a little footspeed, is about 95% of being a good outfielder.

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  5. BJ Upton says:

    Oh, I thought this post was about me.

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  6. Eric R says:

    Pretty interesting, IMO, how stable team wins are for the rest of the roster.

    Take out that best player and replace him with a replacement level player:

    Group 1 80 wins
    Group 2 80 wins
    Group 3 81 wins
    Group 4 79 wins
    Group 5 79 wins
    Group 6 79 wins
    Group 7 78 wins
    Group 8 79 wins
    Group 9 78 wins
    Group 10 75 wins

    Outside of group 10, there is very little difference between a group 9 and group 1 team outside of that one great player?

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  7. Spit Ball says:

    I’m a little confused at the AVG WAR column. Is that the Average WAR of a random group of players who played on each averaged team?

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  8. walt526 says:

    Wow Womack 2005 has unbelievably bad UZR/150 at all three outfield positions. Overall, he’s -32 UZR/150 in just over 500 innings. That’s Adam Dunn-level incompetence. WTF was Torre thinking?

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    • electric says:

      Based on how Torre admittedly felt about those 03-07 squads, he was probably thinking something like, “how in the hell did we 95 games?”

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  9. Dirck says:

    In 2002 in a dynasty points league ,a friend of mine traded Pudge Rodriguez for Bernie Williams straight up . I told him he was an idiot and we had a big argument about it . He still won’t admit he was wrong (yankee fan ) .

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  10. Ben says:

    Great article, but I was hoping to see a list of the worst 25 seasons…

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  11. DNA+ says:

    So, we have a statistic (UZR) that has so much error in it that this site claims you need three years worth of data to be meaningful. You then look for players that are huge outliers in a statistic (WAR) for which this error-ridden statistic is a major component. You then identify two players that are huge WAR outliers largely because of their UZR. Both these players happen to be on the same team. That team was a great team, despite having two of both of the “worst” players you could find on good teams. Why would anyone believe these numbers as if they are not primarily just measurement error?

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    • ned says:

      He mentioned why. Randy, Sheffield, ARod (8.8 WAR), Giambi, Posada, Jeter, Matsui. AND he also made sure to bring up the past years poor performance of Williams and Womack, just to reiterate that this wasn’t a ‘measurement error’. He even added his GIF and he added articles from the time period referencing Williams terrible play that year.

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      • DNA+ says:

        No one is saying that Williams or Womack played well. I’m a Yankees fan and I remember the season quite well. I’m just pointing out the fact that statistical outliers for statistics for which much of the observed variance is actually measurement error (UZR) are very unlikely to be interesting on individual cases.

        Were Bernie or Womack good players in 2005? No. Were they actually the two worst players on good teams? That is highly doubtful.

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        • Jason B says:

          Well sure. How do you define “worst”, but by some all-encompassing metric like WAR? And how do you define “good” team? There’s plenty of wiggle room to say that maybe they weren’t THE two very worst players on a “good” team.

          But there is ample, ample evidence to show they were awful.

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        • DNA+ says:

          I will agree that there is evidence that Womack was awful since he hit 53% worse than average. However, Bernie hit 15% worse than average. The only support for Bernie being awful is from the UZR numbers which are largely meaningless given the sample.

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    • John C says:

      When you look at what the rest of the team did, it’s pretty clear that it’s not “measurement error.” The rest of the 2005 Yankee team was terrific. If they had just had average players instead of Williams and Womack, they would have won at least 100 games. They had six everyday players of 3.8 bWAR or better, and A-Rod was at 9.4 (the WAR on this site doesn’t like them as much, though). Their pitching was only slightly below league average in spite of the horrendous defense behind them.

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  12. Jason B says:

    Next up: bad teams and good players!

    Case study: Stanton + Fernandez + a whole lot of dreck. Your 2014 Florida Marlins!

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