One of the things about baseball, and really any sport, that is most important to fans is celebrating truly outstanding performances by players and teams. To that end this very blog has turned out a borderline insane volume of content about Mike Trout. I do not mean that as a criticism, I'm guilty of it myself. Trout is fascinating in virtually every way, especially statistically. The fact of the matter is that an article about Mike Trout is an article that is giving the people what they want, and more than anything else a writer's job is to bestow upon the reader something that they will enjoy. All of that being said, sometimes it's worth taking a break from the extraordinarily good things in baseball, like Mr. Trout, to examine things that fall on the other end of the spectrum.
Toronto Blue Jays fans have dozens of reasons to be upset about the 2013 season. More things went wrong for that team than one possibly could have imagined, let alone predicted. However, among the mountains and injuries and soul crushing disappointments there was one very special disappointment that stood above the rest, not for its importance, but for its magnitude. That very special disappointment goes by the name of Maicer Izturis.
Last season Maicer Izturis was terrible. In fact, he was the most terrible. According to FanGraphs he was the very worst player in baseball with a -2.1 WAR. At the plate he stunned Blue Jays fans by combining the ability to hit for no power with absolutely no patience and very little BABIP luck on the way to a putrid 63 wRC+. In the field he logged over 150 innings at second base, shortstop, and third base managing a UZR/150 rating of -20 or less at each position. Perhaps the only thing holding Izturis back from having a historically awful season was merciful restraints on his playing time. Although his 399 plate appearances were far, far too many for a player producing at such an appalling rate, it could have been worse.
Going into 2014, the Blue Jays still have Izturis under contract and while he will be expected to be better by default there isn't a great degree of optimism that he can return to being a useful player, or even a replacement level one. The situation got me thinking about what happens to players who post the league's worst WAR the next year. Do they bounce back? Are they given a similar amount of playing time despite their horrible showing? Or are they chased from the major league entirely? It would be an exaggeration to say that these questions needed answers, but I decided to pursue them nonetheless. In order to find said answers I researched the last 20 players to be worst in the league by WAR and then looked at what they did the next season. The results are in the chart below:
|Next Season Plate Appearances
|Next Year WAR
|Astros & Cardinals
|Mariners and Royals
|Pirates and Devil Rays
The results are not entirely surprising. The average league leader in negative WAR over the last 20 seasons has posted a -2.3 mark and has followed that up the next season with a 0.2 WAR. Additionally, players with league-worst WAR numbers have gotten 116 fewer plate appearances the next season on average. In a couple of cases the players are out of baseball the next year but a simple reduction in playing time was a more common result. In six cases the players actually got more playing time after posting their awful seasons.
One thing that skews the results slightly is the fact that it takes quite a few plate appearances for a player to accumulate a league-high negative WAR. As a result a reduction in PA the next year might simply be regression to the mean, or more specifically a player returning to a smaller role for which they are better suited.
Bad in 2014
Bad in 2014
Something worth taking away from this table is that it's not the same guys popping up again and again. It's not as if there is an exclusive fraternity of incredibly awful players who pass the MLB worst player award (there is absolutely no doubt that such an award would be named after Yuniesky Betancourt) between them with regularity. Instead, we are looking at 20 different isolated seasons that went horribly wrong. A lot of the players listed above have been useful players at one time or another during their careers. After all, most guys make it to the major leagues due to some kind of utility on the baseball diamond. Maicer Izturis for instance has traditionally been a handy utility player/injury fill-in and he may well be again. The league's worst player is usually an approximately replacement level player who saw his season go horribly sideways for whatever reason. The next year he tends to return to being a viable baseball player that isn't a cripplingly poor use of a roster spot. Players who are incredibly bad at baseball don't just stick around and continue to be that awful. Baseball teams are run by fairly intelligent human beings who would catch on to something like that.
The best known exception is the case of Yuniesky Betancourt, but that remains a mystery for another day. Betancourt is almost equally interesting Mike Trout as his antithesis in the game, a player demonstrating absolutely no skills that relate to winning baseball games. That being said, at the end of the day even Yuniesky Betancourt has only won the hypothetical award bearing his name a single time. Perhaps Maicer Izturis can break through as the only two-time MLB-worst player in recent memory, but even the most pessimistic Blue Jays fans shouldn't be betting on it.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Nick Ashbourne is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.