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The Five Average-est Position Players of 2012

It has been a fun and exciting week of awards and the debates around them. Now it is time to get serious. We have just finished celebrating the best players of the 2012 season, whether or not one agrees with those officially recognized as such. Snarky jerks (present writer very much included) have had fun at the expense of the worst. Only one task remains: acknowledging those in the middle, the most average position players of 2012. One might think this is no big deal. I disagree. Isn’t the bulls-eye right in the middle of the target?

This award has been given for long enough that I guess we can call it a tradition. We can find how close a player is to average by subtracting the replacement runs from his runs above replacement (Wins Above Replacement prior to being converted to wins), which leaves just hitting, baserunning, fielding, and positional adjustment for each player. That number is the player’s total runs above or below average, so the absolute value of that number gives us his distance from average. (I do not do this for pitchers because the way that pitcher value is calculated makes it less amenable to a simple treatment.)

Obviously, if one does not buy into one or more of the components involved, this does not really work. One should not take this too seriously — once one converts to “absolute” runs, we have pretty much made the transition to a junk stat, anyway. This is just supposed to be a fun exercise to take a quick look at the different ways being average might manifest itself.

Only players who qualified for the batting title in 2012 are eligible. Before getting to the middle, here are five who just missed the cut: Shin-Soo Choo, Freddie Freeman, Yonder Alonso, Chris Davis, and Curtis Granderson.

Now for the top/middle five. The number of parentheses is the absolute runs the player is from average. Yes, going to two decimal places is pretty ridiculous, but again, this is just a fun little junk stat, and it also shows just how clsoe the race to mediocrity was this year.

5. Mike Aviles (1.40). In 2011, the always-streaky Aviles slumped crazily for the Royals, and with Alcides Escobar on board, Dayton Moore went to his traditional move: selling late and low. Aviles actually hit pretty well for the Red Sox to end 2011, and when Boston traded playoff-hero-to-be Marco Scutaro, Aviles slipped into a stopgap starter spot at shortstop.

While he started 2012 hot with the bat, he streaked down pretty quickly after that. Aviles is a hacker with an allergy to walks, and while his contact skills are good, they are not elite. When the power is not there, that does not add up to much with the bat when the hits are not falling in. Despite a dreadful year with the stick (74 wRC+), Aviles again showed that he could play decently at shortstop. Although Royals fans probably remember Aviles getting picked off in ridiculous fashion more than once, he is actually above-average when it comes to taking the extra base. This year, it all added up to average production. Aviles is no “mistake free” Chris Getz, though.

4. Jason Kubel (0.76). As one would expect, the move out of Minnesota’s cavernous home field to the National League and the Diamondbacks’ hitter’s paradise jump-started Kubel’s bat. In one way, Kubel’s bat got worse — in particular, his ability to make contact seemed to fall apart, as reflected in a strikeout rate over 26 percent. However, when he did make contact, he crushed the ball (.253 ISO, 30 home runs). A 115 wRC+ seems low for a player with 30 home runs, but that is sort of how Kubel’s year went. At least according to UZR, he was not as bad as one might expect in the field, which allowed him to be pretty much an average player for the Diamondbacks. Not bad for the money. I suppose if Kubel was any better, Kevin Towers would have already traded him for a middle reliever.

3. Garrett Jones (0.75). Jones’ raw 2012 hitting numbers made him look a bit like Kubel without the walks. After slumping through May, Jones crushed the ball for most of the rest of the year, and finished with 27 home runs. He was not much of a fielder at either first or in the outfield, nor did he draw any comparisons to Secretariat. Still, power is power, and the Pirates could have used a few more “only average” players to surround Andrew McCutchen.

2. Paul Konerko (0.12). One less-frequently discussed aspect of the Chicago’s contract with Adam Dunn is that it prevents Konerko from sliding over to the designated hitter slot full-time, which is probably what he should do. His glove is pretty poor at first base. Of course, even a DH has to run the bases, another thing that hurts his value.

It is too bad, since, as a hitter, many would agree that Konerko has one of the best approaches in the game. He manages to combine a good eye with better-than-average contact, and even with his power declining (.188 ISO, down from .272 in 2010 and .217 in 2011), he hit very well this year: .298/.367/.486 (131 wRC+). Konerko is underrated as a hitter, but his poor glove and base running limit his value, and as seen in his utterly average 2012 overall numbers.

Drum roll, please.

1. Kendrys Morales (0.07). Talk about a close race, just .05 runs! I really do not know what all the Trout-Cabrera stuff was about when this award was up for grabs (also, the NL MVP was a much more interesting). Morales had his first full year free of injury in 2012, and his role going into the season was ambiguous. First base was taken by some free agent whose name I can’t remember, and designated hitter was (at the time) mostly meant to be for Mark Trumbo if he did not manage to play third.

However, once Trumbo found his way to the outfield with Alberto Callaspo staying at third, Morales became the primary DH. A .273/.320/.467 line may not seem great for a designated hitter, but it is a sign of the run-environment times (as well as the Angels’ very pitcher-friendly park) that it still ended up being well above average at 118 wRC+. Morales is not the most patient hitter, as he swings away while not making contact all that frequently. However, he hits for enough power to make his overall offensive production pretty good. Add in a little bit of fielding (he is actually a pretty good first baseman when he gets to play there) and his not-great base running, and one gets the most average player in baseball. That is not bad at all for a player who made around $3 million in 2012. Congratulations on winning the last big off-season award of the season, Mr. Morales.