Minimum Acceptable Offense

On Sunday, in Peter Gammons’ latest blog post, he talked about how baseball is falling back in love with defense. You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been beating the defense-is-undervalued drum for a while here, so it’s nice to see some mainstream recognition that glovework is still a significant part of a position players value.

In the post, Gammons talks about the Whitey Herzog Cardinals, the ones who had Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke. Remember, that St. Louis team in 1985 started Vince Coleman in left field, even though he hit one home run and slugged .335 that season. They went with a speed-and-defense outfield, eschewing power outside of Jack Clark. Is that where we’re headed once again?

In short, I don’t think so. The concept of what the acceptable level of offense from a position player is has dramatically shifted over the last 20 years. In 1979, Alfredo Griffin claimed the starting SS job for the Toronto Blue Jays, and he would essentially have a full-time job through 1991. In his career, he racked up 7,330 plate appearances despite a .268 wOBA. His career wRAA is -286.7, or -24 runs per 600 PA. In 1990, the Dodgers gave him 502 plate appearances in which he posted a .227 wOBA, good for a -35.7 wRAA on the season.

Griffin’s not the only example of guys who were absolutely terrible hitters racking up substantial playing time. Ozzie Guillen got 7,133 PA and accumulated -282 wRAA. Tim Foli – 6,573 PA, -242 wRAA. Everyone knew these guys couldn’t hit, but they played anyway.

In the 1990s, however, that shifted. Yes, we still saw players like Rey Ordonez make the majors, but he lasted just 3,407 plate appearances before teams decideed that his defense didn’t make up for his lack of offense. Rey Sanchez is almost exactly the same level of hitter as Griffin (-23.5 wRAA per 600 PA), but managed just over 5,000 career PA, and was only handed a regular everyday job by one organization, who fixed their error after two and a half years.

Likewise, Neifi Perez has managed just over 5,000 career PA while producing at a level similar to Foli. Royce Clayton is the worst modern hitter to rack up 8,000+ PA, and he’s “only” -15 wRAA per 600 PA. Quite simply, the acceptable baseline level of offense has gone up, and probably correctly so.

While it’s great to see teams valuing defense more and more, I don’t think we’re heading back to Whitey Herzog‘s baseball. After the over-emphasis on defense in the 1970s and 1980s, and the over-emphasis of offense in the 1990s and 2000s, we might actually be headed towards middle ground.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

4 Responses to “Minimum Acceptable Offense”

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  1. shortbus says:

    I don’t think it’s just a matter of teams valuing defense more. Now that we’re in the post-PED era (hopefully), rational GM’s should expect production to drop amongst players who project to play premium defensive positions. Those are exactly the kinds of players who would have been strongly motivated to use PED’s in the past. By the same token, shouldn’t teams value baserunning speed more in a era in which players hit for less power? I would assume that a stolen base would be more valuable if the guys hitting behind the runner are less like to hit a homer or a double.

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    • philosofool says:

      This seems like an awful lot of speculation about the relationship between PEDs and performance to me. I don’t really want to argue about it since I think our evidence about PEDs and baseball is pretty limited. I’d just recommend more caution about coming to conclusions about the past and future relationships between PEDs and baseball.

      However, on your other point: base stealing is more valuable in low slugging environments. (One of the biggest mistakes in baseball management is putting the fastest runner in front of sluggers. You don’t need to be fast when the guy behind you hits it out of the park.) However, the total change in the value of base stealing isn’t likely to change a lot.

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  2. rwildernessr says:

    Can there really be a true “middle ground”? In regards to value? Isn’t the nature of baseball economics one that drives the dollar value of one aspect of the game down in response to that aspect having been previously undervalued?

    I guess the whole concept of WAR stats is to evaluate players as a whole package rather than compartmentally, but I have a hard time imagining a world where all skill sets are appropriately valued.

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    • philosofool says:

      Once you learn to evaluate all performance in terms of wins, you have the middle ground. However, WAR is evaluates players relative to a neutral environment. A particular team is not necessarily a neutral environment; particular teams can have particular needs. For example, a team with bad pitching benefits more from fielding defense than a team with great pitching. WAR is an excellent proxy for understanding the particular run scoring/run prevention environment a particular team has, but it’s not perfect.

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