A below-replacement player should be worth nothing to a major league baseball team. Sure, he's not actually worthless to the organization; a club's minor league teams couldn't function without many organizational players. There's no direct value that a player with a below-replacement talent level can offer a major league squad. That's the theory, anyway; no one is saying that any particular formulation of WAR is perfect (I'm using fWAR here), and emergencies can and do happen for any team.
But that is not to say that it's a horrible thing for a team to find, in hindsight, that a position player has soaked up hundreds of plate appearances while offering below-replacement production. There are at least two reasons for that. One is that there's too much that's random about baseball for an exact production level to match a player's true talent level. Simulate the season of a 1-WAR talent level outfielder hundreds of times, and you're going to get back at least a few dud seasons.
A second reason is that a team may be trying to get lucky. There are all kinds of ways for a major league team to get lucky by design, but in the end, it frequently comes down to: you can't get lucky without taking some chances, and you can't take chances without giving some questionable players a questionable amount of MLB playing time. If you're a team that has embraced a rebuilding or retooling period, giving playing time to players who might turn into club assets instead of marginal veterans is absolutely defensible. If you're not contending, you might make the same kind of choice in the event of injury. Those kinds of plans might be best done with high-reward types, even if a possibly-high ceiling is matched with a high level of risk. Roll the dice at four such positions on the diamond and you'd probably be getting a high return on that opportunity if just two of the four players in question pan out. At the other two positions, though? You might have a negative WAR player.
Negative WAR players are interesting because on some level, they shouldn't exist. But they always do. Sometimes it just takes a team a while to assess whether a player's subpar production is an accurate sign of his true talent level. Sometimes, players thought to be valuable by big league clubs might mistakenly believe a player is valuable when that may not be true. And throughout it all, it seems that to keep getting playing time beyond a -0.8 WAR per season pace, you either have to have a stunning reputation from the minors or a stunningly over-sized contract.
I got to looking recently at teams' outfield WARs and was taken aback by how most seemed to be no better (or in many cases, worse) than the combined WAR marks of those teams' top two outfielders. Expanding the search was even more interesting. Check out this table, for which I added together all of the negative WAR marks for each team, position players only (with pitchers-as-hitters/fielders filtered out).
|Team||Total WAR||Lowest WAR Player||WAR|
|Blue Jays||-1.8||Moises Sierra||-0.5|
|Red Sox||-1.5||Grady Sizemore||-0.6|
|White Sox||-3.5||Leury Garcia||-0.9|
*actually a tie for worst; Stefen Romero has also had a -1 fWAR for the Mariners, and like Alex Gonzalez, Don Kelly has a -0.4 fWAR for the Tigers.
There is an enormous spread here, with only a few teams avoiding significant damage from any one player, and a few teams getting hit hard by several. Each team has its own explanation for its tolerance level, and in the case of clubs with terrible records so far this year, a collection of negative-WAR players seems to either be a symptom of a major problem (e.g. Rangers, D-backs), or a result of past problems and a decision to lean into the wind (hello, Astros and Twins).
And you're not even seeing the full list of mediocre players. Despite a late start on the season, Kendrys Morales has the fourth-worst WAR among all position players (-1.4) -- it's just that he pulled a Mark McGwire and did it for two different teams. Jordan Pacheco (-1.1) has also spread the love with more than one team. The number 6 guy, Ryan Raburn (-1.2), was fortunate enough to miss the above list by having Nick Swisher "ahead" of him, and the Indians were not the only team to have more than one of the 34 players to record a WAR of -0.8 or worse so far this year.
Oh no you didn't: the Orioles set a standard for impatience with incompetence
Most of the teams that managed to avoid giving a lot of playing time to below-replacement position players were rich teams. That seems to have manifested itself in two ways; yes, there is the obvious, that the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees expected to contend this year, and could afford to spend their way out of long stretches of mediocrity (although Alfonso Soriano was surprisingly immune for much of the season). But there's also this: an expensive roster frequently means an expensive bench (paging Andre Ethier), and an expensive bench often means careful decisions about playing time. Mike Carp actually did just fine in Boston this season (0.1 WAR in very limited playing time), in part because his spots were picked in part because of his strengths. Once Carp made his way to Texas, he put up -0.4 WAR in just 37 PA.
But the Orioles didn't necessarily spend their way into avoiding negative-WAR position players. No, for Baltimore the mother of invention has been necessity. There are boatloads of luck involved, as the Orioles have really only struggled to fill a single (infield) position, but they deserve credit for what they did with it, too. With Manny Machado sidelined at the beginning of the season, Baltimore moved Jonathan Schoop from second to third. Chris Davis (-0.1) notwithstanding, the only real damage done by negative-WAR players was in covering second base during that period of time.
Steve Lombardozzi got the lion's share of the second base starts in April, but before he could reach a WAR gully below his team-trailing -0.3 mark, he was replaced by utility infielder Ryan Flaherty. The Orioles never had much margin for error this season, but they acted like it. And while I limited the scope of this article to position players in part because of the small margins between teams in pitching, it's also worth noting that just two Orioles pitchers have posted negative WAR totals this year (Evan Meek, -0.4, and Josh Stinson, -0.2), and neither were allowed to reach 16 innings pitched.
Into the crevasse: the teams that embraced many negative-WAR players
There are eleven teams that managed to keep their WAR totals from negative-WAR players above the -2 WAR threshold; then there's a good spread of sixteen teams all the way up to the Twins' -4.5 WAR. Then there's a hundred feet of crap, and then there's the Phillies (-5.6), D-backs (-5.7), and Rangers (-6.2). As is frequently the case with outliers, there are several reasons why each of those three teams dug out a home under the local septic tank.
The worst is the Rangers. In an excellent piece that just went up yesterday, Beyond the Box Score's Chris Teeter analyzed some trends in playoff odds for individual divisions. He had this to say about the Rangers:
The Rangers looked to be serious contenders but then got absolutely crushed by injury. Go and look at their transaction list and the injuries involved.
The Rangers' decision to let Michael Choice tally the very worst WAR total in the league (-2.0) seems completely defensible. Craig Gentry could be accurately thought of as one of the best fourth outfielders in the game, a more than trivial price to pay. Once the season got out of control, the Rangers moved to information gathering mode, and it's not like the organization is bursting at the seams with other healthy options right now. I feel similarly about J.P. Arencibia, who filled in as a starter after Geovany Soto was claimed by injury — and it's possible that Arencibia's WAR total (-1.1) is particularly unfair, considering the excellent pitch framing he's been able to provide. Injury, committing to 2015, and bad luck brought the Rangers to their knees.
The Phillies and D-backs may be more responsible for their own fates than the Rangers. The Phillies have been very weighed down waiting for Domonic Brown (-1.9 WAR) to finally show something again; but sticking with Ryan Howard (-0.4) is not a matter of luck, and giving additional chances to tools players (as opposed to skills players) like Tony Gwynn Jr. and Freddy Galvis was also a choice. The D-backs have suffered from injury as well as bad choices; it was only through injuries that players like Andy Marte (-0.2, yes that Andy Marte), Alfredo Marte (-0.2, no not the same Marte), and Xavier Paul (-0.3) have gotten any playing time. An odd fascination with Jordan Pacheco (-0.8 in just 55 PA with Arizona) has also done damage, and while the team could hardly be blamed for giving Cody Ross (-1.0) a chance to show something, Mark Trumbo's injury-shortened season (-0.9) has featured production very similar to what the club seemed to expect.
Looking at negative-WAR players is not an exercise that bears much fruit. But the team totals above do track pretty closely to winning percentage, and given that we can trace the Orioles' great total to behavior, at least in part, one does wonder if being willing to rip off bad player band-aids has helped teams like Baltimore, Oakland (-1.1), Miami (-1.3), and Toronto (-1.8) win more games than expected.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.