The Atlanta Braves released Melky Cabrera two days ago, after he had finished the season as the worst player in baseball, with -1.2 WAR. Among players who played enough to qualify, he was one of six with negative WAR this year, along with Carlos Lee (-0.8), Adam Lind (-0.3), Cesar Izturis (-0.3), Skip Schumaker (-0.2), and Johnny Gomes (-0.1). That’s about standard: there were five players with a negative WAR in 2009, seven in 2008, seven in 2007, and seven in 2006. Only one player had a negative WAR in more than one year, Jermaine Dye, whose lead glove produced -0.4 WAR in 2009 and -0.8 WAR in 2007.
Otherwise, though, appearances on the negative WAR list tend to be brief rather than protracted — though you still don’t hear the phrase “replacement player” escape Jon Miller’s lips very often, very few players can hang on in the majors when they’re performing below replacement level. Most of the players at the bottom of the barrel are fringy guys who tend to be around zero, give or take a win, like Mark Teahen, Jeff Francoeur and pre-2010 Delmon Young, but some of the players on the list are surprising: baseball’s second-worst position player in 2009 was its 17th-best position player in 2010, Aubrey Huff. Baseball’s second-worst position player in 2007 (above only Dye) was 23rd-best in 2009, Jason Bay.
Though there are usually a handful of position players with a negative WAR in any given year, that isn’t always the case with pitchers. This year, there wasn’t a single one, and from 2006-2009, there were only six total. (There weren’t any Jason Bays in the bunch, either. The “best” pitcher in the bunch is Jason Marquis, who posted a -0.7 WAR in 2006, then received a $21 million contract two months after the season ended, but that may have been more a reflection of Jim Hendry’s spending priorities than Marquis’s star power.)
Having a negative WAR, of course, can be a leading indicator of the end to come. Of the fourteen position players with a negative WAR in 2006 and 2007, six were out of the majors in 2010: Jermaine Dye, Ray Durham, Craig Biggio, Angel Berroa, Preston Wilson, and Shawn Green. And Jason Kendall’s career surely isn’t long for the world. We can do a similar analysis of the 18 players with a negative WAR from 2008-2010, and predict that within the next four years we’ll see the disappearances of Garret Anderson, Jose Guillen, and Carlos Lee, and very possibly Yuniesky Betancourt, Emilio Bonifacio, and Melky Cabrera himself.
Replacement level is an awfully low bar to clear, and being the worst player in baseball is not something that is easy to recover from. Whether or not WAR is a mainstream stat, the underlying truth that it measures is plainly reflected by the careers of the players who post a negative WAR. If Melky can’t clean up his act in a hurry, he’ll soon be out of baseball.