Over the history of the game, managers and general managers have made moves to replace current starters for bench players who have performed well. Most players that consistently perform above replacement level for a long period of time get a chance to start full-time, but for some reason some just don't. We'll be taking a look at the best players who never got that chance.
There have been 2186 players that had at least 1000 career PA through the 2012 season without ever having a "qualifying" season which amounts to 3.1 PA per team game. Two-hundred and twenty-six of those players were able to amass 5 or more fWAR in their careers, and 50 were able to reach 10 fWAR. There are a couple positions that come up the most, so I'll break down the best in each of those spots.
As one would expect, catchers make up the majority of the top of the list, due to the physical demand of playing the position. Thirty-five of the top 45 guys spent at least half their career games behind the plate. The top 5 also spent most of their career behind the plate, led by Rick Dempsey's 27.7 fWAR. He nearly gets the boot from this list, falling only 4 PA short of a qualifying season in 1978. He also has the most career PA on the list at 5,407, a product of 18 seasons of 100+ PA. He walked over 10% in his career, but his main value came on defense, throwing out 40% of baserunners and compiling a +72 TotalZone rating. Like many of the catchers on the list, he was the main starter for a good portion of his career, but his bat was never good enough to DH or stick at another position so he continually fell short of the threshold.
Andy Seminick, Ernie Whitt, Chief Meyers, and Don Slaught are the others in the top 5, all worth 21-24 wins. Meyers had about 1,000 less PA than the others, so his WAR/PA rate is one of the best on the list. Some more recent catchers on this list are Carlos Ruiz, Damian Miller, Sandy Alomar Jr., and David Ross.
A sometimes-forgotten measure of a pitcher's value is on the offensive side. Aside from the converted players, no pitchers in the modern era have ever had a qualified season. The best hitting pitcher of all-time is Red Ruffing, who provided over 13 fWAR at the plate in his career. Wes Ferrell was actually a league-average hitter in the offensive-friendly 1930's, while George Uhle and Red Lucas also managed to amass 10 fWAR.
A few greats, along with one of the greatest, just finish shy of that mark. Walter Johnson was more than just possibly the best pitcher in history, as he posted a 74 wRC+ in his career, and his best two seasons were at age 37 and 39. A couple of 1950's Indians teammates come up next, with Bob Lemon and Early Wynn showing some two-way skill to help a very good Cleveland era.
This is the type of player I was really looking for, a hitter who could play a position every day, but didn't. On top of this list, just over 20 WAR, is corner outfielder Bernie Carbo. While known for his appearance as much as his performance, his .387 OBP in the 1970's was overlooked by his many employers. The biggest reason for his lack of PAs was a pretty severe platoon split, a drop of over 250 points on his OPS vs. lefties.
Gary Roenicke, the brother of Brewers manager Ron, was victimized by the worship of batting average, as his .247 AVG hid his .351 OBP and .434 SLG. The outfielder could also save some runs on defense, making him an 18-fWAR player in 3,200 PA. The best infielder on the list is longtime Blue Jays' third baseman Rance Mulliniks. He was average defensively, and his offense was essentially average, aside from a good walk rate. He was also another heavily-platooned player, struggling against LHP.
The other two players above 15 WAR were highly-specialized players in their career. Cliff Johnson was signed as a catcher, but played some first before becoming a journeyman DH. His 126 wRC+ is high on this list of players, but his .258 AVG hid that production. Manny Mota was a pinch-hitting extraordinaire, holding the record for career pinch hits until Lenny Harris surpassed Mota's 141 hits. He was a contact-oriented hitter without the ability to play a premium defensive position, the main reason he never started full-time.
The three current non-catchers without a chance to play full-time before this year are Maicer Izturis, Brendan Ryan, and Will Venable. Ryan hasn't hit a lick, which has persuaded teams to try to find a better bat to play SS, though his defense usually warrants starting. Venable has big platoon splits, but he is still young and has a chance to get off this list this season. Izturis is finally getting his chance to play regularly this season and is failing miserably, posting a well-below-replacement level season, but he has been a very valuable utility player in his career.
- Are there any other young players you can see finding their way on this list in the near future?
- Do you think any of the players listed above would have been more valuable playing on an everyday basis?
Lee Trocinski is a writer for Beyond the Boxscore. You can follow Lee on Twitter @LeeTrocinski
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