Analyzing Market Inefficiencies: Players Below Replacement Level

Sky's Note: I'm psyched to introduce another new BtB writer, Jack Moore.  He's a Brewers fan, but we'll deal with that if he continues to write awesome articles like this one and the one below. Be nice to the new guy, and feel free to drop him a tweet at @jh_moore. Ok, enough linkage, read this:

Every year, there are at least a few players that make us scratch our head and say, "Wait, he's still in the Major Leagues?"  These are players that are consistently at or below replacement level and yet continue to receive playing time and even occasionally receive contracts above the minimum in lieu of freely available talent.  These consistently poor decisions made by front offices across the country beg the question - what are these players doing to earn roster spots?  Let's take a look at four categories of players that have performed below replacement level over the past 3 calendar years, with a minimum of 500 plate appearances.

Category 1: One-Tool Sluggers

These guys are good at one thing, and one thing only: hitting home runs.  This is the kind of market inefficiency that may be on its way out with the prevalence of defense among front offices now.  Included in this category are 8 of the 23 players who have been below replacement level over the last 3 calendar years with at least 500 plate appearances.

Player Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Wins ISO (career) ISO (last3) difference UZR+PosAdj POS NOTES
Marcus Thames 0.5 -12.3 21.5 -11.9 -0.2 0.256 0.252 0.004 -24.2 COF 43 HR in 646 PA
Richie Sexson -11.0 -18.9 27.3 -16.9 -1.9 0.246 0.198 0.048 -35.8 1B 33 HR in 818 PA
Jonny Gomes 0.0 -16.3 19.4 -14.1 -1.1 0.219 0.193 0.026 -30.4 COF 25 HR in 586 PA
Jeff Baker -11.8 -1.8 17.2 -6.7 -0.3  0.201 0.152 0.049 -8.5 ALL 16 HR in 516 PA
Wily Mo Pena -18.3 -2.8 17.4 -7.6 -1.1 0.194 0.146 0.048 -10.4 COF 15 HR in 523 PA
Brad Wilkerson -12.9 -4.0 23.3 -12.2 -0.6 0.193 0.180 0.013 -16.2 ALL OF 24 HR in 698 PA
Craig Monroe -26.4 -6.1 22.2 -11.5 -2.1 0.191 0.179 0.012 -17.6 COF 23 HR in 668 PA
David Dellucci -12.5 -7.2 20.6 -12.6 -1.1 0.180 0.148 0.032 -19.8 COF 15 HR in 619 PA

 

Fantasy players value players like these because they can straight up clobber the baseball out of the ballpark.  Looking at other skills necessary to be a major leaguer, however, these seven just come up short.  None of these seven play a premium position (Baker did play 76 games at 2B and 3B combined, but never stuck anywhere), and where they do end up fielding they are well below average with the glove.   Only Jonny Gomes flashed any legitimate amount of speed on the bases (20 SB to 5 CS).  Even with the bat, despite the high power numbers, only two of the seven grade out as average, as their on-base skills simply are not at a major league level.   This group overall, for the 2007 and 2008 seasons, got on-base at a .299 clip and had a staggering K/BB ratio of 2.98.  Combining poor fielding with the inability to reach base make these players unplayable despite their great power.

 

Category 2: Aging Veterans

These guys are all at least 30 years old and experiencing a definitely decline in ability with their age.  Many of these players not only played well in their 20s but some were even stars (the most notable player on this list, Nomar Garciaparra, put up 41.5 WAR between 1997 and 2003). Instead of focusing on ISO, I'd like to focus on Speed Score with this group.

Player Age Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Wins Spd(career) Spd(last3) difference UZR+PosAdj POS NOTES
Nomar Garciaparra 35 -8.6 -13.0 23.3 -4.5 -0.3 5.90 2.23 3.67 -17.5 1B/3B 41.5 WAR 1997-2003
Mike Sweeney 35 -8.5 0.5 16.9 -14.0 -0.5 3.50 1.46 2.04 -13.5 1B 13.6 WAR 2000-2002
Jose Vidro 34 -5.4 -3.9 31.8 -23.1 -0.1 3.20 1.85 1.35 -27 DH 8.0 WAR 2002-2003
Mark Kotsay 33 -18.8 -5.7 22.1 1.0 -0.1 4.80 2.85 1.95 -4.7 CF 12.0 WAR 2002-2004
Frank Catalanotto 35 0.2 -10.8 21.8 -13.1 -0.2 5.00 3.85 1.15 -23.9 1B 3.9 WAR in 2001
Dave Roberts 36 -8.9 -10.1 19.1 -1.9 -0.2 8.60 7.55 1.05 -12 CF/LF 3 seasons above 2.0 WAR
Corey Patterson 30 -36.0 1.1 29.8 4.1 -0.1 7.20 6.50 0.70 5.2 CF 4.9 WAR in 2004
Gary Matthews Jr. 34 -14.9 -28.6 38.8 -4.0 -0.9 5.60 5.09 0.51 -32.6 ALL OF 9.5 WAR 2004-2006

 

For the most part, this group of players were, at some point in their careers, plus defenders playing at premium positions.  Most notably, Roberts was pushed out of CF, Garciaparra lost the ability to play SS, and Vidro was moved from 2B to DH.  Similar to the sluggers, the biggest reason these players are below replacement is because of their minimal defensive values, whether it's because they can't play their positions any more (Roberts is +37 runs career by TotalZone, and had a -7 year in 2007) or simpy don't have the bat for the position any more (Sweeney's +0.5 UZR pales when shown next to a -14.0 positional adjustment).  Patterson is the anomaly here, as his defensive value including position is a quite respectable +5.2, but his bat died in 2008, posting a ridiculous -26.6 wRAA.  An interesting thing to note here is the decline in speed score.  Every single one of these players showed a decline of at least .50 with an average decrease of 1.55.  A decline of 1.55 is certainly concerning if not alarming in a stat with a range of 0-10, and it likely explains why these players are no longer assets on defense. 

Category 3: AAAA Players

This group just plain does not fit on any major league roster.  Still, they seem to find work filling benches or even occasionally starting for the lowest of the low.  As a fan, if you have to see one of these players getting consistent at bats, you know your team is in trouble.  These players excel at nothing, and really never have.

Player Age Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Wins UZR+PosAdj POS NOTES
Jose Castillo 29 -27.1 -4.5 22.8 3.7 -0.5 -0.8 2B/3B -1.2 career WAR
Ross Gload 33 -15.4 3.2 27.9 -18.9 -0.3 -15.7 1B -1.2 career WAR
Chris Burke 29 -23.1 1.9 20.7 -0.7 -0.1 1.2 ALL 1.9 career WAR

I really have explanation as to why Ross Gload has ever been on a major league roster.  He's a light hitting, average fielding first baseman, which probably has never been in demand.  Jose Castillo plays a decent enough 3B but has no bat to back it up.  These two players have not only been terrible recently, but have made an entire career out of it.  Chris Burke's career, on the other hand, may be salvageable.  He does have a positive career WAR, and it is possible that he was simply being used incorrectly.  As an outfielder, he has a career UZR/150 of 0.1, but at 2B his UZR/150 is 7.2.  With 2B being more valuable than the COF spots that Burke had spent so much time in, it's possible that Burke could become a 1 win player going forward.

Category 4: Hot Prospects

Occasionally, a prospect gets rushed to the big leagues by virtue of injuries or shortages at the ML level or simply an overzealous front office.  These three players all have received hype in some way, shape, or form, and were supposed to play like major leaguers at a very young age.  Unfortunately for their fans and their front offices, they have not performed to any major leaguer's standards, much less that of a first round pick.

Player Batting Fielding Replacement Positional Wins ISO (career) UZR+PosAdj POS NOTES
Josh Fields -14.5 -15.6 20.4 0.7 -0.9 0.187 -14.9 3B 18th pick in 2004
Delmon Young -12.3 -29.8 46.6 -14.4 -1.0 0.117 -44.2 COF 1st pick in 2003
Alexi Casilla -27.1 -4.1 24.4 2.8 -0.4 0.069 -1.3 2B Signed out of DR in 2003 at age 19

This group is probably the most unique of them all, each showing different ways to produce at a below-replacement level.  Casilla has the glove to potentially be an average player right now, and Young's bat could play at a tougher position.  Fields shows the worst of both worlds, showing no indication of major league talent except for the ability to hit for power.  These players were likely rushed to the majors too quickly, but who knows if any amount of minor league time could correct their problems.  Another problem for these GMs is that these players are too talented to just get rid of, and may clog up roster spots on these teams for years to come. 

Finally, let's take a look at the salaries these players received.

Player Wins Salary (2007+2008) Over Minimum Player Wins Salary (2007+2008) Over Minimum
Jeff Baker -0.3 0.8 0 Frank Catalanotto -0.2 7.5 6.7
Josh Fields -0.9 0.8 0 Craig Monroe -2.1 7.6 6.8
Alexi Casilla -0.4 0.8 0 David Dellucci -1.1 7.6 6.8
Chris Burke -0.1 1.4 0.6 Brad Wilkerson -0.6 8.3 7.5
Marcus Thames -0.2 1.7 0.9 Mike Sweeney -0.5 11.5 10.7
Jonny Gomes -1.1 1.7 0.9 Dave Roberts -0.2 11.5 10.7
Ross Gload -0.3 1.9 1.1 Mark Kotsay -0.1 15 14.2
Jose Castillo -0.5 2.6 1.8 Gary Matthews Jr. -0.9 15.8 15
Delmon Young -1.0 2.7 1.9 Jose Vidro -0.1 16 15.2
Wily Mo Pena -1.1 3.2 2.4 Nomar Garciaparra -0.3 18 17.2
Chad Tracy -0.1 7 6.2 Richie Sexson -1.9 31 30.2
Corey Patterson -0.1 7.3 6.5 Average -0.61 7.9 7.1
--
--
--
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TOTAL -14.03 181.7

163.3

Between these 23 players, teams have wasted 163.3 million dollars giving them roster spots.  Between Jose Videro and Richie Sexson alone, the Mariners wasted 45.4 million dollars in 2007 and 2008.  Even a larger market team like Seattle can't handle inexcusable contracts like those two.  These are the kind of mistakes that kill small and middle market teams.  As the economy worsens, it'll certainly be interesting to see if these inefficiencies remain or if different types of below replacement players surface.

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