When talking about player and prospect evaluation in baseball, something that is discussed a fair amount around these parts, it is virtually inevitable that the term "tools" will come up. The term "tools" relates to the five tools: throwing arm, speed, fielding, hitting for average/contact and hitting for power. Those are probably not the five most important skills a baseball player can have (strike zone judgment is worth quite a bit more than a decent throwing arm in most cases) and they are not all equally valuable, but nevertheless the idea of the "five tools" have become deeply ingrained in the baseball lexicon. At this point, even more sabermetrically minded folks find themselves unconsciously using terminology relating to tools. The idea of the "five tool player" remains an exciting one and we are often trying to determine whether players truly fit this description (something I did not long ago with Mike Trout) or which players have the most impressive individual tools in the league. Billy Hamilton's speed is a prime example of an individual tool that is discussed at great length by baseball analysts.
Today, rather than marveling at the most impressive tools in the league, I thought I would do the opposite. As a result I am launching a five part series entitled "MLB's Worst Tools". In this series I will find the player who exhibits the least ability in each of the five traditional tools, while providing at least some kind of statistical rationale to back up my assertions. As this promises to be a very trivial series, it seemed most appropriate to start the series with the most trivial tool of all: the throwing arm.
In order to find the player with the worst throwing arm I had to first eliminate quite a few players by position. If a player is a big league catcher, shortstop, or third baseman there is no way they have the worst arm in the league. In fact, the more I thought about it the more I realized that the while some players struggle with their throws most of them play positions where throwing with some level of functionality is a major prerequisite. There is only one position where that isn't true: first base. Although the first baseman with the worst arm in the league isn't necessarily the worst thrower in the game, it's a decent bet. The logic isn't perfect, but for the purposes of a series like this it's good enough.
Once I decided to focus on first baseman, the answer came very quickly. After very little careful deliberation, the winner of the worst arm in the league award goes to none other than the poster boy for terrible mega deals: Ryan Howard.
Critiquing Ryan Howard is not a novel concept. Howard is a physical manifestation of the proverbial dead horse to be beaten again and again and again by what tends to be fairly valid criticism. One of the main things that Howard takes heat for is his awful fielding, but his staggering inability to throw a baseball compared to his peers is rarely discussed. In order to demonstrate said inability I examined the only three statistics that describe a first baseman's arm: assists, double plays started and throwing errors. It must be conceded that none of these statistics are individually excellent at measuring what they are supposed to measure, but when we combine them the picture comes into focus.
Since Ryan Howard began as a regular starting first baseman in 2006 there have been 11 first baseman who have averaged at least 1,000 innings in the field per season. The following chart shows Howard's totals in the categories mentioned above and where he ranks among those 11 first baseman:
|Double Plays Turned
On the surface this isn't necessarily meaningful. After all, a sample of 11 isn't that many and someone has to come in last. What's special here is how much worse Howard was than his second worst peer in both double plays turned and throwing errors. If we leave aside his assists for a second (which are bad but not legendarily so) the sortable table below shows the ranking in the other two statistics among aforementioned sample of first basemen:
|Double Plays Started
Howard has almost twice as many throwing errors as anyone else, and more than ten times as many as Mark Teixeira. He's started far fewer double plays than his peers and less than half as many as the leaders in the category. In fact, when it comes to Ryan Howard starting double plays, Brad Johnson of The Hardball Times once said, "One can't help cringing when he throws to second base to start a double play, not knowing whether he's going to complete the throw, airmail it, or plunk the runner." Based on the numbers above, that sounds about right.
The fact of the matter is that Ryan Howard, among his relatively large quantity of defects as a ballplayer, appears to be almost completely unable to throw a baseball. There is no way to definitively prove that he's the worst at it in baseball, but I think there is also strong reason to believe he might be. That's enough to make him the first recipient of the not even remotely official "MLB's Worst Tool Award". He now stands alone in what will soon be an exclusionary club of five. Stay tuned for the next four parts of the series to see who will be joining him.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Nick Ashbourne is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.