Retirement announcements are seldom surprising, because even from the outside it’s pretty simple to tell when a player has outlived his utility. Willie Bloomquist is 38, now, and after spending the offseason making up his mind, he tweeted the following last Friday:
— Willie Bloomquist (@williebloom) March 11, 2016
Bloomquist is hanging them up, which means Bloomquist articles on analytical websites must also hang them up. In a way it’s amazing Bloomquist achieved such Internet fame in the first place, being a career reserve, but his name meant a little something over the years, and here, for one last time, I want to talk about what Willie Bloomquist was.
Bloomquist was a prospect. He was drafted in the third round out of a major program, and for a couple years Baseball America ranked him in the Mariners’ organizational top-10. You could argue that said as much about the Mariners as it said about Bloomquist, but he was always supposed to be a major-leaguer. The same isn’t true of most players within the professional ranks.
Bloomquist was versatile. Both versatile and enduring, really. He’s one of just six players in major-league history to play at least 40 games at first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field, center field, and right field. It’s not like he’s in the company of Hall-of-Famers — we’re talking about names like Denny Hocking and Possum Whitted. But lots of players come up and play all over the field. Very few of them last as long as Bloomquist did.
Bloomquist was a punching bag. He became something of an Internet punchline, and this significantly boosted his name recognition. I’ve played my own role in this, but he’s been drawing mockery going back a decade and a half. I don’t think it was ever personal, and you certainly couldn’t blame Bloomquist for the times he expressed a desire to play more often. Everyone on a major-league bench wants to play more often. But Bloomquist was identified early on for not being good, and his emergence was simultaneous with the rise of analytical snark. So he became a popular target. It wasn’t all fair, but, that’s the Internet.
Bloomquist was just about replacement-level. To the credit of those who were initially critical, Bloomquist never “put it all together.” By our numbers, he was worth a total of one win above replacement. By the numbers at Baseball-Reference, he was worth a total of two wins above replacement. He can’t be considered the model of a replacement-level player, simply because of how often he played. The duration of Bloomquist’s career indicates he was always considered of major-league quality. But rare is the player who plays so often, without accruing at least a handful of WAR. This one pulled it off.
Bloomquist was hard to pin down. That is, while he was never outstanding, and while he played the same brand of baseball for his whole career, there’s a lesson in there about how numbers can bounce around. Numbers change, approaches change, results change, and players can still stay the same. Willie Bloomquist was always Willie Bloomquist, but each of the following is true of individual seasons:
- Bloomquist was strikeout-prone, once whiffing in a quarter of his trips to the plate.
- Bloomquist was a contact hitter, having whiffed just once per 14 opportunities.
- Bloomquist was an on-base machine, walking 13% of the time.
- Bloomquist was aggressive, walking barely 2% of the time.
- Bloomquist was dangerous on the bases, ranking in the top-20 in stolen-base value.
- Bloomquist was differently dangerous on the bases, ranking second-worst in stolen-base value.
- Bloomquist was a worm-killer, with a grounder rate over 60%.
- Bloomquist was an air-ball machine, with a grounder rate near to 40%.
- Bloomquist was potent, putting up the same hard-hit rate as Buster Posey.
- Bloomquist was weak, posting a lower hard-hit rate than Adam Everett.
Bloomquist was all over the map, a function of both changing approaches and irregular playing time. These things can happen over smaller samples. Season OBPs ranged from .283 to .377. Season wRC+ figures ranged from 62 to 101. Season WAR values ranged from -0.8 to +0.7. He always hovered right around zero. No matter what else was different, the WAR was close to what it was always close to.
Yet, there’s one last thing: Bloomquist was clutch. This doesn’t always go over well, and it’s not like Bloomquist turned into Derek Jeter with the game on the line. But you know that we have a Clutch statistic, that measures offensive contributions while folding in context and win expectancy and the like. Bloomquist finished with bad offensive numbers, but by Win Probability Added, he was more valuable than you would’ve expected. The Clutch rating credits him with about six extra wins, with Bloomquist’s least-productive offense mostly having come in low-leverage plate appearances. Those, as you understand, are the plate appearances that matter the least.
Since 2002, when Bloomquist debuted, 467 players have batted at least 2,000 times. (Bloomquist batted more than 3,000 times.) Looking at all the players, if you sort by WAR per 600 plate appearances, Bloomquist ranks 447th. However, if you sort by Clutch per 600 plate appearances, Bloomquist ranks…first. First, out of everybody. Which means, of the hits Bloomquist was responsible for, he did a pretty good job of timing them. For the record, we have this information going back to 1974. Bloomquist ranks second over that span in Clutch/600, out of 1,184.
As a quick little workaround, we can add Clutch to WAR to try to get closer to actual value, context included. It’s not perfect, but it’s functional, and now we take Bloomquist from 1 career WAR to a little more than 7 career “adjusted” WAR. By the regular number, Bloomquist never had a single season worth at least 1 WAR. If you fold in Clutch, he managed five such seasons. Notably, Bloomquist’s career WAR/600 shoots from 0.2 to 1.4. At 1.4, we also find one Jay Bruce. Also Cameron Maybin and Mike Moustakas. Just below 1.4, we find Adam Dunn, David Murphy, and Russell Branyan. On talent, Bloomquist probably wasn’t better than these players. But less valuable? I don’t think he was less valuable. Not when you really dig in.
Whether this shows skill or luck, I don’t know. The answer is probably both. It doesn’t matter much, because we’re not trying to predict the future; Bloomquist’s career has officially come to a close. Over that career, Bloomquist officially showed some pretty good timing with his offense, which resulted in his having been more valuable than his regular numbers would indicate. It doesn’t mean Willie Bloomquist was good, by the standard set by his major-league peers. But now that the numbers are fixed, one might say that Willie Bloomquist turned out underrated. Not bad for a punching bag.
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