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Replacement Level Players, Playoff Teams

The Milwaukee Brewers’ “all in” offseason, during which they traded a good chunk of young talent (including some of their best prospects like Brett Lawrie and Jake Odorizzi) to dramatically improve their pitching staff, seems to be working. New Brewers Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke are dominating so far (although it hasn’t shown in Greinke’s ERA), and Milwaukee is currently in first place in the National League Central. However, as part of the price for acquiring Greinke from the Royals, the Brewers had to take on shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. Betancourt has somehow been even worse than the Brewers might have expected (perhaps he’s the victim of a curse), and is at -0.5 WAR so far. Betancourt isn’t hitting, and he has only exacerbated the Brewers problems in the field. The Brewers are in the divisional lead, as mentioned, but some might doubt whether the Brewers can make the playoffs with Betancourt playing like, well, Betancourt. What does history tell us about replacement level players and playoff teams?

Pretty much every team is going to have some players on their team who end up below replacement level for the season. All teams have to utilize AAA fill-ins at some point, have players who are at the end of their careers and “crash,” or players who have their season cut short with injury while they are in a massive slump, and so on. That’s not what we are concerned with, though. We want players (sticking with hitters for the purposes of this post) who have a significant role during the regular season. Let’s (somewhawt arbitrarily) say that 500 plate appearances is the baseline for playing a “significant role.”

From 2002-2010, 1315 players have received 500 or more plate appearances in a season. Of those, only 59 have ended the season at or below replacement level. This is not surprising. Even if teams don’t use WAR or something similar, they can see when a player is having an awful year, and will usually bench or demote a player who is performing at below replacement level long before they reach 500 plate appearances. Indeed, players often rarely get the chances to regress to the mean, but that’s another topic. What is really surprising is that there are 59 player-seasons of 500 or more plate appearances that ended at or below replacement level (and how many of them involve Kansas City Royals shortstops). Of those 59, 10 were on teams that made the playoffs that season. While some of them played very little or weren’t on the playoff roster, once a team gets to the playoffs, anything can happen. The question is whether a team can make the playoffs with one of their regulars (here meaning a player with 500 or more plate appearances during the regular season) putting on a sub-replacement level performance during the regular season. It has happened 12 times since 2002, so let’s see who the players were, from “best” to worst.

Luis Rivas, 2B, -0.1 WAR over 521 plate appearances for the 2003 Minnesota Twins. Just another season for the Twins — won the Central, and lost to the Yankees in the playoffs. This doesn’t really prove anything, of course, Rivas was horrible, but I’m sure that was more than offset by Ron Gardenhire‘s awesome management skills, which not only prompted him to hit Rivas second 56 times during the regular season, but also every game of the Divisional Series against New York.

Carl Everett, (mostly) DH, -0.1 WAR over 547 plate appearances for the AL Central and 2005 World Champion White Sox. Everett may be a dinosaur in 2011, but he isn’t extinct. Kenny Williams is trying to figure out a way to trade for him as I type this.

Jonny Gomes, left fielder, -0.1 WAR over 571 plate appearances for the NL Central Champion Reds in 2010. Gomes has his uses, but playing in the field isn’t one of them. The Reds still managed to win the division despite his dreadful defense (-17.7 UZR) that put him just below the replacement level.

Mark Kotsay, CF, -0.2 WAR over 558 plate appearances for the 2006 AL West Champion As. Kotsay had been good, underrated player for San Diego and Oakland in the first part of this decade, but in 2006 he totally lost it and it never came back. The Brewers are just lucky that, in addition to Betancourt, they aren’t giving playing time to a guy like Kotsay.

Jason Kubel, OF/DH, -0.2 WAR over 582 plate appearances for the 2010 AL Central Champion Twins. Gardy Time!

Garret Anderson, LF, -0.2 WAR over 603 plate appearances for the 2005 AL West Champion Angels. Remember when Garret Anderson was called “Mr. Underrated” which meant he was actually being overrated, but then that made him underrated? All that noise overshadowed what a terrible contract the Angels gave him.

Stephen Drew, SS, -0.3 WAR over 619 plate appearances for the 2007 NL West Champion Diamondbacks. Drew had a great season in 2010, and is on his way to matching it in 2011. Back in 2007, though, he was a shortstop who couldn’t hit, field, or run the bases… and yet Arizona still made the NLCS.

Terrence Long, OF, -0.3 WAR over 522 plate appearances for the 2003 AL West Champion As. That Billy Beane is a genius… I wonder who is playing Long in the Moneyball movie?

Vinny Castilla, 3B, -0.8 WAR over 578 plate appearances for the 2002 NL East Champion Braves. I’d make fun of this acquisition, but while the 34-year-old Castilla was awful for this team, he actually bounced back nicely (2.9 WAR) for them in 2003.

Melky Cabrera, OF, -1.0 WAR over 509 plate appearances for the 2010 Wild Card Braves. I liked Melky before the 2010 season, but he crashed in every possible way. Regression happens, though, and he’s having a nice “bounce back” season so far in Kansas City. But in 2010… let’s put it this way, when your team makes a desparation trade to replace you with Rick Ankiel… Hey, they still made the playoffs.

Adam LaRoche, 1B, -1.2 WAR over 502 plate appearances for the 2005 NL East Champion Braves. Yikes. The Bravest Way to Make the Playoffs, I guess. LaRoche has a decent defensive reputation now, but the defensive metrics hated him in 2005, and it’s not like he exactly lit it up with the bat or on the basepaths, either. He improved to consistently “blah” in the coming seasons.

Bernie Williams, CF, -2.2 WAR over 546 plate appearances for the 2005 AL East Champion Yankees. I’m not sure what is most hilarious: that the Yankees kept starting Bernie in center despite him being obviously unable to handle the position for years, that the Yankees brought Bernie back in 2005 although he’d been washed up since 2003, that they brought him back again in 2006 and gave him another 462 plate appearances, or that they managed to win the division both seasons anyway. A sad end to an otherwise distinguished career.

If 2005 Bernie Williams doesn’t show that a team (albeit an otherwise loaded one with a horrible defense) can make the playoffs despite his “contributions,” I’m not sure what would. Heck, three teams did it in 2010 alone. The Brewers probably should replace Betancourt. But history shows that, if they have to, they can make the playoffs without doing so.