Good Teams and Bad Players

Something you’ll notice in the positional power rankings is that the Marlins project to be terrible. That’s bad, because they’re supposed to be worthwhile fun, but it’s also okay, because no one’s entertaining playoff hopes in Miami. Things only really matter when you’re playing for something. The situation is a little more worrisome elsewhere. The Blue Jays still don’t have a real second baseman, and they’d sure like to play in October. (This October!) Meanwhile, the Tigers had a shortstop they liked, but then he fractured both his legs, and they’ll have to resume liking him in 2015. For the time being, the Tigers don’t have a real shortstop, and they’d sure like to play in October. They’re also a lot more likely to get there than Toronto is, but, anyway.

My expectation remains that the Jays will go and get themselves some help, instead of sticking with Ryan Goins. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers made at least a minor move, to improve on whatever they think they’re going to do right now. Thinking about Toronto and Detroit, though, got me thinking about successful teams who’ve played a lot of particularly bad position players. Now, Goins projects to be replacement-level, and the same could be said of the Tigers’ shortstop stopgaps, so this isn’t directly pertinent, but then, the worst regulars are the most likely to be the terrible regulars. Have past teams succeeded with terrible regulars?

As usual, I was most interested in extremes. Who’s been the worst position player on a quality ballclub? I decided to search between 1969 – 2013, because I don’t like to go back further than that. I also set an arbitrary minimum of 90 team wins, or a 90-win equivalent winning percentage in the event of a truncated schedule. Then it was simply a matter of sorting by WAR, in ascending order. That’s raw WAR, rather than WAR over a common denominator, because raw WAR includes an important playing-time component.

First things first — in case, for whatever reason, you were skeptical that WAR is measuring anything, here’s a table for you, with players that I looked at split into ten groups:

Group Avg. WAR Avg. Win% Avg. Wins
1 8.0 0.549 88.2
2 6.4 0.539 86.4
3 5.4 0.533 85.9
4 4.4 0.524 83.8
5 3.4 0.517 82.4
6 2.4 0.510 81.4
7 1.4 0.500 79.4
8 0.4 0.497 78.9
9 -0.4 0.485 77.3
10 -1.4 0.459 73.3

The groups are in descending order of average WAR. There’s a clear relationship between player WAR and team winning percentage, with the most valuable players ending up on the most successful teams. It’s almost as if one can lead to the other. The numbers don’t work out perfectly, in that the teams aren’t identical outside of the players being measured, but that’s to be expected, because good and bad players aren’t distributed evenly. Anyway, this isn’t the main point.

Again, my lower bound for good teams was 90 wins, or a 90-win equivalent. Over the window examined, good teams had 77 individual position-player seasons worth -1 WAR or worse. There were four individual position-player seasons worth -2 WAR or worse. As it happens, for the very worst season, we have a tie. At -2.3 WAR, we find Bernie Williams, of the 2005 New York Yankees. And also at -2.3 WAR, we find Tony Womack, of the…2005 New York Yankees.

The 2005 New York Yankees won 95 games.

Since 1969, there hasn’t been a single individual pitcher-season worth worse than -2.2 WAR. In 2005, Williams and Womack tied for the worst WAR in all of baseball. Basically, the 2005 Yankees were a good team, a division-winning team, and they also happened to feature two of the worst individual player-seasons in recent baseball history, at least according to the data we have here at FanGraphs.

Not coincidentally, the 2005 Yankees had the worst outfield UZR over the UZR era, spanning 2002 – 2013. At -96, they easily cleared the second-worst, which were the 2004 Yankees. The 2002 Yankees, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Yankees are also all in the bottom 20. Either something is very, very seriously wrong with UZR, or those Yankees teams had outfield disasters, at least half of the time.

Williams, you’ll remember, was allowed to keep playing center field, even though in 2005 he was 36 years old. I found a video clip on Yankees.com.

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Womack began at second base before yielding to rookie Robinson Cano. He ended up getting regular outfield innings for the first time since 1999. In 2005, he was 35. By the way, to whatever extent you think this might’ve been surprising, over the previous two years Williams had been worth 0.3 WAR. Womack was coming off a decent year in St. Louis, but the year before that he’d been worth -1.5 WAR and he didn’t have a long track record of being successful.

You don’t need a whole 2005 retrospective. Williams was an awful defender whose offense was 15% below the league average. Womack was a bad defender whose offense was 53% below the league average. Womack eventually stopped playing, but Williams remained a Yankee for 2006. I found some neat excerpts. From February 2005:

[Kenny] Lofton feels he was treated poorly with the Yankees since Torre wasn’t going to sit a veteran like Bernie Williams. Originally, the plan had Williams DHing with Lofton playing center.

“That was the plan, but that’s not close to what happened,” Lofton said.

For the Phillies in 2005, Lofton was a four-win center fielder.

From April 2005:

Yanks say Womack was offseason steal

One week into the season, the Yankees are crowing about Tony Womack. Manager Joe Torre said Womack gives the team something it hasn’t had since Chuck Knoblauch: a player with strong base-stealing capabilities.

“He gives us that dimension we can really utilize in this league,” Torre said. “You can hit him ninth and he doesn’t lose that aggressiveness.”

From June 2005:

Williams Is Attracting Attention in Center, but for the Wrong Reasons

When Ramon Castro lofted a fly ball to center field in the ninth inning of yesterday’s game between the Yankees and the Mets at Yankee Stadium, many fans probably wanted to cover their eyes. For the second consecutive day, Bernie Williams was having a dismal time on defense. He made the putout on that play, but no ball hit to center seems like a sure thing for the Yankees these days.

And from a book excerpt published in May 2011:

The GM could not risk destroying the manager-captain relationship before it ever had a chance. Besides, Cashman had held a few conversations with Torre about moving Jeter to center field as far back as 2005, when the Yankees were dissatisfied with the aging Bernie Williams and Tony Womack.

To some extent, the Yankees were aware of some of their problems. To some extent, the Yankees were also in denial. Which you can make some sense of, given that those same Yankees won 95 games, given that they had monsters like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera and so on. A good team might have the most to gain from improving in problem spots. A good team might also be reluctant to shake up a good team.

The larger point: just as it’s possible for a team to struggle despite having a superstar, it’s possible for a team to succeed despite having a disaster or two. Individual players can’t bring down whole teams, and the 2005 Yankees won 95 games despite having two of the worst player performances we’ve seen in decades. So maybe this is some consolation to worried Blue Jays and Tigers fans, who aren’t sure exactly what’s going on at second base and shortstop, respectively. Even in the worst of worst-case scenarios, the teams can be okay. Any team could be okay, despite a big problem. The team just needs to not have many more problems. The best way to go might be having talent everywhere, but it’s not the only way to go. There’s a difference between what’s not recommended and what’s not possible.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.



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tz
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tz

2005 was a perfect year for ARod to have his last great season.

And Womack, wow! He had this kind of year despite going 27 for 32 in stolen base attempts.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter

You don’t think his ~10WAR 2007 was great?

tz
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tz

Oops missed that. My bad.

Phillies' Front Office
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Phillies' Front Office

I legitimately thought Tony Womack had a ~10 War 2007 for about 5 seconds.

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