Wade Boggs had one of the most consistently great careers in baseball history. In 381 plate appearances in his 1982 rookie season, Boggs had a batting average of .349 and an on base percentage of .406. He played 17 more seasons, and his career average never dipped below .300, nor did his career OBP ever fall under .400.
While Boggs’s final two seasons were disappointing by his standards, he still managed to get on base at a rate higher than league average—they were his age 40 and 41 seasons. Boggs was a reliably great hitter year in and year out. A regular steady Eddie.
Except for 1992.
Wade Boggs’ 1992, his 11th season, in the Majors, was quite possibly his worst. He hit .259/.353/.358 in 143 games and 598 plate appearances. His slash line contributed to a career worst 91 wRC+. On the leaderboards, he looked up at such underwhelming players as Lance Johnson and Jose Offerman. Boggs hit .289/.360/.391 with a better wRC+ in the final two seasons of his Hall of Fame career when he was in his 40s. Boggs’ uncharacteristic performance didn’t escape the media attention. Questions about Boggs arose just as an anomalously down season from Miguel Cabrera today would provide grist for the blogospheric mill.
The difference between now and 1992 is that we live in a Sabermetric Age. In 1992, Edwin Starr’s "War" had not yet been killed at the hand of over-punning, Voros McCracken was years away from irreversibly bending our perception of the game, and the pitcher win still reigned aside batting average as statistics supreme. But that doesn’t mean that things were that different. So, what were some of the things said about Boggs's 1992 while it was happening? What would an analysis of his season look like if all of today’s statistics were available at the time?
The drama with Boggs began before the season ever started, which set the tone for the year. Boggs was entering the final year of his contract with the Boston Red Sox in 1992. In March, Boggs and the Red Sox attempted to work out a deal, but they couldn’t agree on money or years. Boggs wanted a four-year contract that would pay him $20 million (comical by today's standards), and both figures were too high for the Red Sox. Boggs likely entered the season with the knowledge that it would be his last in Boston.
In a March 22, 1992 article in the Hartford Courant, Sean Horgan made the case for why the Red Sox shouldn’t pay Boggs what he asked and should let him go ----- and this was before Boggs’s poor season even began. Horgon cited aging curves. "The truth is," he wrote, "that even in the current market, Boggs, who turns 34 June 15, probably isn’t worth $5 million a year." The Red Sox didn’t see him as worth the money, even though Boggs had just finished his seventh consecutive (deserved) All-Star season. Horgan went further: "only a franchise of absolute simpletons would sign him beyond two years." Well then!
But Horgan wasn’t just being inflammatory. He gave reasons why he thought the Red Sox should let Boggs finish out his contract and leave. First, he cited "Boggs’ declining performance since 1988." Boggs hit .366/.476/.490 in 1988 and .321/.412/.442 the three years after, which adjusts to about 35 percent above league average. It was a literal decline, but not a figurative one. Horgan also pointed to home/road splits. He claimed that Boggs "wouldn’t be the same hitter if half his games weren’t in Fenway Park." Horgan noted that Boggs’s career average in Fenway was .381, while it was .310 on the road. He also added that it was down to .245 and .282 over the previous two seasons. "The numbers don’t lie," Horgan concluded, "[Boggs] is on the way down at a time when the Red Sox have a payroll and young players on the way up."
Horgan’s pre-season assessment stated that Boggs would not be worth the money he was after and that the Red Sox should let him go. Boggs then proceeded to have a season below average relative to the league and awful relative to his past self. We can track the nature of the commentary about how Boggs’s season unfolded with some selections from the Boston Globe.
Boggs’s 1992 started with a sluggish April. In May, however, he began to improve: he even displayed power. Boggs, who never had much power, hit three home runs in two days, May 22 and 23. It generated a headline that proved to be applicable for the whole season, though in a different way: "For Boggs, nothing is new—except results." At the time, it was easy to make Boggs’s brief power surge the story. Boggs wasn’t hitting quite like he had in the past, but his average was still .289 after the May 23 game, and his OBP was .389.
As the season wore on, Boggs didn’t improve. On July 2, he broke out of an 0-for-18 slump by collecting a couple of hits, one of which was a triple. A Boston Globe article indicated that the dry spell dropped his home average to .223. Boggs was aware of it all: he "had tried changing articles of clothing -- hats, T-shirts and shoes -- plus batting gloves in an effort to alter his luck during the slump." One could say that he was a bit unlucky, as his BABIP was just .261, which was 67 points below his career low. It was new territory for Boggs, so maybe the trick was new shoes. Boggs later turned to something more essential: his eyesight. On July 18, he visited an optometrist. According to the Globe, Boggs "said it may (sic) be the reason his hitting has declined this season."
It might have been his eyes, though he didn’t improve much after July. Back spasms were another oft-cited culprit of Boggs’s season, though the images of age-related decline that accompany back spasms might have contributed to rather than mitigated the worry.
By mid-August, it was clear there was no piece of apparel that would be a magic bullet for Boggs’s season. "For Wade Boggs," one could read in the Globe, "it is new territory." Boggs wasn’t going to challenge "for his sixth American League batting title" and "the door to the 200-hit club will be closed to him for the third straight year." His season was simply not going to turn around. A headline from September 1st summed it up: "Hardest thing Boggs is hitting is the road."
Boggs did hit the road, and he found aforementioned "simpletons" to give him a contract. They turned out to be the exact same New York Yankees that Sean Horgan dismissed due to Boggs’s home/road splits and his record at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees agreed with the Red Sox that Boggs wasn’t worth $5 million per year—they gave him $11 million total—but they did agree to give him a third year.
Jack Curry, writing in the New York Times after the Yankees signed Boggs in December 1992, wrote that "the signing is curious because Boggs, 34, is coming off the worst season of his 11-year career." He also noted that "there is speculation that an ailing back will prevent him from regaining his form." The Yankees, he said, were "bet[ting] on his revival."
These snippets illustrate legitimate concerns regarding Boggs’s future. We know, now, that Boggs’s hitting returned in 1993. He was an above average hitter, and sometimes far above average, for the life of his three year contract, as well as the two extra years the Yankees eventually gave him. It’s important to recognize that the assessments cited weren’t misguided. In fact, they aren’t all that different from what they might sound like today.
Cheers. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Wade Boggs, elite hitter. Name three things that won’t last forever. Wade Boggs finally showed his age in 1992, though we shouldn’t be terribly surprised, as the signs were already there.
After Boggs’s 3.9 fWAR rookie season, he never had a season where he produced fewer than six wins over the next seven. His wRC+ also never sat below 128. The reason has been his preternatural ability to put the ball in play. We saw a possible moment of decline in 1990, when he put up a career worst 3.2 WAR. He hit above .300, as is his wont, but just barely at .302. For an explanation, we can look to his career low .328 BABIP and career high 9.5 percent strikeout rate. Of course, there are many dozens of hitters who would love for those figures to be their career extremes, but Boggs is the type of hitter who needs to put the ball in play with a .350ish BABIP to remain effective. Boggs has no power to speak of—his career ISO of .120 places him next to players like Warren Cromartie. Without a triple slash that puts him next to Pete Rose to go along with that, Boggs becomes a lineup liability.
Boggs returned to form in 1991 with a .322/.421/.460 line with a 135 wRC+. His .338 BABIP approached his career norm, and he limited the strikeouts. This all contributed to another six win season—as is his wont. That BABIP, however, was the second lowest of his career. Throughout Boggs’s entire career, he has illustrated that BABIP is, indeed, a skill. But during the 1990 and 1991 seasons, he’s shown that it is a skill that walks a thin line.
It all came to the fore this year. Boggs’s BABIP tanked to .261, which was a couple points higher than his lackluster .259 batting average. His OBP still sat at .353, but for a player who, once again, doesn’t contribute anything by way of power, it’s an empty line. The result was a career worst 91 wRC+. It seems odd to have "Wade Boggs" in the same sentence as "below average hitter," but here we are.
I am quite willing to accept, as has been cited, that back spasms and less than perfect eyesight are causes can be counted as reasons for the poor season, but I’m not willing to bet that those things are going to improve as Boggs gets older.
Boggs has already done more than enough to ensure a spot in the Hall of Fame. And he will find a new home. Though that home won’t be as friendly to his bat as Fenway, it’s not like a park factor that fluctuates between 104 and 105 turns a listless piece of wood into Wonder Bat. While I wouldn’t expect his 1992 line to be Boggs’s new normal, I also don’t anticipate a batter much above league average going forward.
While one component of sabermetrics is about undermining old orthodoxies (#killthewin), a greater part of it is about sharpening the focus on certain aspects of the game and creating a more refined set of terms (BABIP contextualizes batting average). Some might call those terms opaque, but they do at least refer to specific concepts with a strong foundation not just in math, but with what happens on the field.
Sometimes it sounds like it, but the essence of baseball commentary isn’t drastically different today than it was 20 years ago. It helps that the essence of the subject has also remained the same.