There is a certain ebb-and-flow to most players' careers. Great players in their peak generally stay productive until the aging curve catches up to them, while there will also be one-hit wonders who benefit from artificially high batting averages on balls in play, or a sudden power surge that few saw coming in their career.
When discussing the least productive players in the game, one assumes it's a list of Quad-A players, in-season injury replacements, and perhaps teams that are rebuilding giving a player a last-ditch shot at the majors before being banished again to the minor leagues. The reality is a mix of that but led by names no one would have guessed going into the season.
Last season, a total of 20 position players cost their team at least one win per FanGraphs wins above replacement. Some of the names on the list are true replacement players who took over for an injured player on a team with limited depth, while others tend to be rostered because there is some defined characteristic that made them attractive going into the season (Matt Joyce for example finished 2015 with a -1.4 fWAR, but was viewed as a solid platoon partner going into the season). Some are simply players on bad teams; Skip Schumaker finished the season with a -1.1 fWAR in 131 games in a revolving door of limited-upside outfielders patrolling the Reds outfield.
|Pablo Sandoval||Red Sox||126||505||10||43||47||.270||.245||.292||.366||75||-15.1||-2|
|Hanley Ramirez||Red Sox||105||430||19||59||53||.257||.249||.291||.426||89||-22.9||-1.8|
|Casey McGehee||Giants / Marlins||109||258||2||14||20||.243||.198||.264||.274||52||-2.2||-1.4|
|Adam LaRoche||White Sox||127||484||12||41||44||.269||.207||.293||.340||75||-12.9||-1.4|
|Conor Gillaspie||White Sox / Angels||75||253||4||14||24||.266||.228||.269||.359||67||-9.4||-1.2|
|Marc Krauss||Angels / Rays / Tigers||27||81||2||3||8||.200||.141||.173||.256||13||-3.9||-1.1|
|Avisail Garcia||White Sox||148||601||13||66||59||.320||.257||.309||.365||83||-13.8||-1.1|
The top tier of this list is really the most mystifying and / or horrifying, if you are a fan of the Tigers or Red Sox. Three players who received significant pay raises appear at the top of the list, and for the foreseeable future, they appear to be penciled into their team's respective lineups.
The least productive position player in baseball in 2015 was Victor Martinez ------ a man who had just received a $68 million contract extension that locked him into Detroit from 2015 to 2018. VMart's 2014 was nothing short of amazing. In his age-35 season, he posted more value than the previous two years combined. It was his most production since he was 28 years old, when he played the majority of his time behind the dish for the Indians.
Martinez crashed hard in 2015, from generating 4.3 fWAR to -2.0 in only twelve months. From a slash line of .335/.409/.565 with 32 home runs, Martinez digressed to a .245/.301/.366 slash line with only 11 home runs. He walked only 31 times all of last season (6.4 percent walk rate) compared to 70 walks in 2014 (a 10.9 percent walk rate).
It's uncharacteristic that a player posts a career year at age 35, and unfortunately for the Tigers, FanGraphs' Steamer projection system expects a modest bounce-back, but one that will not be another renaissance. Martinez is mired at the designated hitter slot, and is projected to put up a .289 average, a modest eight percent walk rate, and 15 home runs. For a Detroit team whose window appears to be closing, even if he improves 2.5 to 3 Wins from last season, he'll still be in the 1-Win range. It's a far cry than what they could have expected after a 2014 surge.
Whether or not you liked the contract the Red Sox gave Sandoval, few if any thought he would be one of the least productive players in the game. From 2014 to 2015, Panda dropped over five Wins Above Replacement. He posted 3.1 Wins for the Giants, in the last year in San Francisco, yet managed to somehow cost Boston two Wins last season.
Everything about Sandoval decreased in his first year with the Red Sox. Per FanGraphs' defensive metric, DEF, his defense largely was positive or neutral during his tenure at the hot corner in San Francisco. Last season, it was second-worst in the majors, only behind Yasmany Tomas (who, surprise, is also on our list of least productive players!).
Sandoval's batting average dove 30 points lower, his on-base percentage slid 49 points, and his slugging 50 points. He hit only 10 home runs, put up his worst strikeout rate and lowest walk rate in his eight-year career. Panda hit more balls on the ground than ever in his career (nearly half of all the balls he hit were on the ground) and put up his lowest solid contact rate, not even reaching a hard-hit percentage of 25 percent.
The projections for 2016 are a little kinder to Sandoval than they are to Martinez. Sandoval is entering his age-29 season, and Steamer projects a bit of a rebound. Though he is a career .288 hitter with a .339 OBP, Steamer projects a .278 average and .330 on-base percentage ----- not quite enough to feel good about a contract that is in year two of five, but decent enough to make 2016 seem like it won't be another lost season for Panda or the Sox.
The Red Sox finished 15 games out of first place with a 78-84 record. Along with Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez had his role in the frustrating season as well, and it comes as no surprise that amassing over 900 plate appearances from two of the league's three worst hitters is not the best road to success.
Ramirez has always been plagued with a challenging reputation in the clubhouse, but the on-field results are indisputable. From 2006 to 2014, he generated over 36 Wins, including four years where he generated more than five Wins. Hanley recovered nicely from an injury-plagued 2011, putting up a 2.6-Win season in 2012, a 5.1-Win season in 2013 and a 3.3-Win season in his last year in Los Angeles.
Like Sandoval, he signed a longterm deal with Boston ---- a four-year contract worth $88 million. However, he struggled mightily in 2015 in nearly all aspects. His shift from third base to left field (to accommodate the aforementioned awful-fielding Sandoval) was an unmitigated disaster. Hanley has never been a strong defender, but his -22.9 DEF was the worst in the American League and only better than the Padres' Matt Kemp ----- a notorious butcher in the outfield.
As can often happen with a defensive change that does not go smoothly, Hanley struggled at the plate as well. He put up the worst wRC+ of his career, where he finished 11 percent below league average. His total extra base hits fell from 48 to 31, and his average plummeted from .283 to .249. His walk rate was half of what it was in 2014, down from 10.9 to 4.9 percent.
Of the three players profiled, Hanley's projection and outlook are the best for 2016. Steamer projects a 2-win year, with a bounceback in extra base hits (from 12 doubles in 2015 to 26). A 50-point improvement in OBP would be music to Boston's ears, as would the projected 120 wRC+. The Red Sox have Ramirez inked to three more years of service; provided he's on the team in 2016, they're hoping they can net a gain of close to four wins from the former slugging shortstop.