Positional Black Holes

June 25, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Chicago White Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis (20) throws the ball to first base to get out Minnesota Twins catcher Dew Butera (not pictured) in the seventh inning at Target Field. The Twins won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

"There is an inexorable place in the cosmos where time and space converge. A place beyond man's vision, but not his reach. 'Tis the most mysterious and awesome point in the universe-- where the here and now may be forever. It is unavoidable, moving through space, swallowing everything in its path... "

--The Black Hole (1979)

The Chicago White Sox headed in to the 2012 season with every intention of using homegrown prospect Brent Morel as their everyday third basemen. Morel complicated this commitment almost immediately by hitting for a dreadful .426 OPS through April in over 80 plate appearances. When Robin Ventura remained steadfast and insisted Morel was to remain the team's third basemen, the 25 year-old repaid his manager's brazen gesture of confidence with an even lower .408 OPS in May.

Desperate to stop the bleeding, the South-siders acquired Orlando Hudson in late May, but the veteran journeyman could only muster a .526 OPS through June. The organization even turned to a pair of utility men in Brent Lillibridge and Eduardo Escobar to man their troubled hot-corner, but neither 'The Bridge' (635 OPS in his 31 PA) nor Escobar (.635 OPS in his 31 PA) were able to restore any dignity to the position.

This type of situation is baseball's version of a Black Hole. It's a phenomenon that occurs when managers throw player after player at a position and the situation seems to just get worse and worse. Everything that drifts near it just gets sucked into the event singularity until it becomes so dense that ultimately nothing can escape its terrifying darkness.

Unless, of course, you find a way to acquire Kevin Youkilis for a song.

Since joining the White Sox, Youkilis has hit .252/ .371/ .504, which filters out to a .363 wOBA and 6.8 wRAA in 176 PA. By providing a semblance of positive value where there was once nothing but an unyielding prison of light, Youkilis has helped to guide the White Sox to the top of the AL Central where they currently lead the Detroit Tigers by 2 games. How convenient is it, then, that I found this picture of The Greek God of Walks himself, heroically piloting a space-age shuttle craft out of a black hole and narrowly escaping the certain doom that lies within it?

If we want to get an idea of how often these Black Holes occur in baseball, we first need to define the phenomenon. Obviously, the overall production of the position needs to be terribly below average-- at least -20 wRAA. And secondly, the failure needs to be collaborative, say, where no single player receives more than 200 PA at the position all season long. To jog our memories, here's a glance at the worst cases of Positional Black Holes in the past ten years:

POSITIONAL BLACK HOLES SINCE 2002

# Team Lg Year Pos PA wRAA* maxPA Players Used
1 BAL A 2008 SS 565 -43.22 159 6
2 NYM N 2003 CF 642 -39.13 166 8
3 SEA A 2005 C 561 -37.55 157 7
4 TEX A 2002 CF 633 -33.82 184 9
5 SEA A 2009 LF 643 -33.33 148 7
6 LAD N 2005 LF 647 -32.71 184 7
7 ARI N 2004 C 611 -31.73 184 6
8 MON N 2003 3B 676 -28.47 197 5
9 BAL A 2005 DH 631 -27.98 163 13
10 BAL A 2004 DH 661 -27.4 147 15

O's fans will certainly remember #1. Their insufferable shortstop situation in 2008 was particularly brutal offensively-- even for a premium defensive position. The rest of us need to remember that the city of Baltimore to that point had very much grown accustomed to all-star shortstops as the home of Cal Ripken for two decades and Miguel Tejada for the 4 seasons immediately prior to 2008.

In classic Black Hole form, six players contributed to the massively dense wRAA debt that year with five of the offenders contributing at least 80 PA's to the problem. Juan Castro and his .233 wOBA ultimately got the lion's share of the at-bats that season, but he was acquired via trade only after Brendan Fahey failed to bail out a struggling Freddie Bynum, who failed to bail out a struggling Alex Cintron, who failed to bail out a struggling Luis Hernandez, who barely won the job out of spring training.

2008 SS BALTIMORE

Team Year Batter Pos PA wOBA* wRAA*
BAL 2008 Freddie Bynum 6 117 0.198 -12.56
BAL 2008 Juan Castro 6 159 0.233 -12.53
BAL 2008 Alex Cintron 6 112 0.283 -4.21
BAL 2008 Brandon Fahey 6 89 0.223 -7.74
BAL 2008 Luis Hernandez 6 82 0.25 -5.29
BAL 2008 Eider Torres 6 6 0.149 -0.89

Things really didn't get much better when Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino were brought in for 2009 (29.2 wRAA) and 2010 (36.1 wRAA). It wasn't until the arrival of the handsome J.J. Hardy in 2011 that Baltimore shortstops finally found themselves with a positive wRAA once again.

Similarly, the New York Mets' centerfield in 2003 was also a sizable collection of offensively-handicapped light-absorbers. Timo Perez (166 PA), Jeff Duncan (159), Tsuyoshi Shinjo (99), Jeremy Burnitz (78), Roger Cedeno (64), and Raul Gonzalez (49) all contributed to a cause that ultimately netted the team a disastrous -39 wRAA. Fortunately, Mike Cameron was brought in to stop the bleeding for the 2004 season and then, of course, Carlos Beltran for 2005.

Things got especially interesting for Texas centerfielders in 2002 when only two players, Carl Everett (.247 wOBA) and Ruben Rivera (.277 wOBA), saw more than 100 PA at the position. Texas would eventually try nine separate players in center that season, but only Todd Hollandsworth contributed anything close to resembling decent production with a .342 wOBA in his 62 PA.

Seattle tried a bit of everything in their left field in 2009, and the end result is probably my favorite eclectic mix of ineffective ballplayers that I've seen in quite awhile: Milton Bradley, Ronny Cedeno, Bill Hall, Endy Chavez, Ryan Langerhans, Michael Saunders, Wladimir Balentien and even The Kid Ken Griffey jr in that awkward twilight phase of his career.

Jamey Carroll, believe it or not, was a rookie at one point and in that season he was given the plurality of PA's at third base for the now defunct Montreal Expos. He inherited the role after Fernando Tatis ran up a -12.6 wRAA deficit from the beginning of the season until June. After manager Frank Robinson grew tired of Jamey's .302 wOBA, he handed duties over to a 38 year-old Todd Zeile, who was very much at the end of his career. Ziele finished the year strong for the Expos, posting league-average production in just over 120 plate appearances and most certainly helped to lower the 2003 Expos on this very dubious top-ten list.

Perhaps none of this was wilder than the situation in Baltimore in 2004 and 2005, however, where management experimented with 22 different players at DH and not a one of them hit well enough to see more than 165 PA at the position. The two worst offenders for the 2005 season were none other than Rafael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa who combined for a -11.3 wRAA in over 200 PA. But Jay Gibbons, Luis Lopez, B.J. Surhoff, Dave Newhan, Javy Lopez, and even Brian Roberts, all contributed mightily to the darkness during that two-year span as well.

On Monday I'll expand the search back until 1950 to find the greatest black holes in the retrosheet era.

*All wOBA and wRAA positional splits exclude SB/CS. All data includes post-season.

Follow @JDGentile on twitter and he'll give you a dollar.

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