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Handicapping the race to the bottom

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Predicting the worst performers of 2016, beginning with the hitters.

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Predicting baseball is like riding a motorcycle. I assume; I haven’t ever ridden a motorcycle. Predicting baseball is like how I imagine riding a motorcycle to be: extremely fun, and extremely dangerous. We can’t do it well, but we do it anyways, because it’s awesome until we screw up. It’s possible to do it as safely as possible—I could predict that Mike Trout will be worth between three and fourteen WAR, just like a motorcycle could be designed with six wheels and a roll cage—but doing so removes all the fun. The best we can do is pick the subjects of our prognostication carefully. To torture this metaphor a bit more, this is like wearing a helmet; it doesn’t reduce the likelihood of crashing/being horribly wrong, it just reduces the damage done when that happens. Today I want to scratch my predicting itch, but instead of predicting something important, I’m predicting the worst performers of 2016.

With ~40% of the season in the books already, it’s not entirely futile to make some guesses, but if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, since who cares about the worst players in a year? (I do, and if I get any of these right, I will bring it up at parties.) Moreover, predicting terrible players is almost more fun than predicting good ones, since there are more variables that go into it. I’m only interested in the players who really rack up the awful counting stats, and a lot needs to go right (wrong) for a player bad enough to interest us to stay on the field long enough to do so.

There are a number of ways a bad player might contend for the bottom of the WAR leaderboards, with the truly great (terrible) players having some combination of all of them.

  • Be on a bad team: as mentioned above, I’m not interested in the September call-up who goes 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, nor am I interested in mucking about with playing time minimums. A big avenue to accumulating playing time while also being very bad is playing for a team that can’t be troubled to care about things like on-field performance.
  • Look better than you are: this can take many forms. Hitters at Coors and other offense-inflating parks (and pitchers at their -deflating counterparts) might have unadjusted lines that look merely bad, but are actually quite terrible. A similar effect can happen for hitters at positions that get a drastic positional adjustment downward, as a line that’s bad at most positions is unpalatable at 1B. There are also those defenders who look great but are quite bad—the speedy, skinny outfielder with no arm and terrible instincts, or the catcher who throws and blocks well but loses hundreds of strikes via poor receiving—and their pitching counterparts, whose ERAs are the result of luck and defense rather than pitching skill. Those players probably don’t trick the front office into thinking they’re better than they are, but leaving them on the field invites less flack from the public and might have some subconscious impact.
  • Be owed a lot of money: as Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval showed last year with the Red Sox, owing a player a ton of money can push a team toward leaving them on the field. You can debate whether that’s rational or not—those players often have a lot of time left on their contract, so teams may be incentivized to give them lots of chances to figure things out—but it’s certainly an observed trend.

With those in mind, I’ve selected the batters (this article) and pitchers (next article) in the AL and NL that I think are most likely to end the year in the lead (rear), plus a few other plausible candidates. I am almost certainly wrong about all of them, so disagreement is welcomed and encouraged.

AL Batter: Prince Fielder

Fielder takes my top spot, as he checks a great many of the above boxes. Most important, he’s been downright terrible in his 279 PAs of 2016, worth -1.7 fWAR (the worst in the AL) and -1.1 WARP (fourth-worst in the AL). Getting off to a quick start is very important, as almost every bad player isn’t bad enough to compete for the top. It’s like any other counting stat, like home runs: even if you’re the clear best home run hitter, if someone else opens up a lead early, you’re facing a huge uphill battle. Fielder’s certainly done a good (bad) job in that respect.

The various projection systems do think Fielder will regress back toward normal badness instead of extreme badness, though they range from the pessimistic, with ZiPS projecting Fielder for -0.1 WAR over the rest of the season, to the optimistic, with PECOTA at 1.7 WARP, and Steamer in between, at 0.7 WAR. Projection systems are, as a rule, slow to adjust, and Fielder seems to be a good bet to continue at a below-replacement level pace. I’m more confident going forward about some of his neighbors at the bottom of the WAR leaderboard than I am about him, and if Fielder does continue to play at sub-replacement level, there are also reasons to think he’ll get more playing time than those neighbors.

The first of those reasons is the four years and $96 million remaining on his contract. As mentioned above, money does seem to impact the personnel decisions of teams, and the Rangers are probably loath to spend $24 million a year for a part-time player, even if that money is a sunk cost. Additionally, like Sandoval and Ramirez in 2015, Fielder’s decline was steep and relatively unexpected, meaning the Rangers might be more inclined to think he can regain his form if he keeps getting consistent PAs. With a contract through 2020, if there’s any way they can salvage their investment, you have to think they’ll try, and that makes Fielder likely to get more playing time than he might otherwise.

An important difference between the 2015 Red Sox and the 2016 Rangers, however, is their respective playoff odds. The Rangers are currently at 91.9% to make the playoffs, per Baseball Prospectus, on the back of a 15–4 start to June, including a 5–1 record across two series against the Mariners. For our ignominious pursuit, it’s best if the player’s team is completely out of the playoff picture, as the 2015 Red Sox were, but the next best thing is to be firmly ensconced within it, as the Rangers are quickly becoming. In both situations, there’s less cost to continuing to start a bad player and hoping he rediscovers his stroke, since an extra loss or two won’t change the outcome of the season. If the Rangers keep destroying the opposition, taking PAs away from Fielder perhaps stays a couple steps below a priority.

Of course, if he doesn’t regain his stroke (good for the prediction), the Rangers will likely seek to upgrade as the postseason approaches (bad for the prediction). Luckily for us, Fielder plays in a hitter-friendly park at a purely offensive position, so even an apparently adequate triple slash is extremely un-valuable, increasing his chances of squeezing out even more bad PAs. Plus, it’s not like the Rangers have any ready-made replacements; Joey Gallo is destroying AAA, and Jurickson Profar is making a strong case for more playing time, but the Rangers are unlikely to mess with their trajectories by using either as a full-time DH. In August and September, they might chip away at Fielder’s playing time, but seem unlikely to devour it completely, which is why I’m going with Fielder as my pick for the AL crown.

Runners-up:

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
  • Mark Teixeira—off to a really bad start [-1.1 fWAR (3rd)/-1.4 WARP (1st)], but on a team circling .500 and scraping for any advantage it can find. Plus, injuries reduce the likelihood of him getting the needed playing time, so he’s probably not progressing much further down the scale.
  • Dioner Navarro—not hitting a lick, and per Baseball Prospectus, the worst framer in the majors, costing his team 10 runs already. But as a catcher, the bar for offensive adequacy is so much lower; even a terribly framing catcher adds more defensively than a DH, and the projections think he’ll rebound some.
  • Alcides Escobar—it’s not a surprise Esky has returned to his light-hitting ways, but with both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs showing him failing to contribute defensively as well, he’s been downright terrible. I’m betting on his decent track record with the glove, however, rather than the half-season of metrics, and for the same reasons as Navarro, it’s hard to see him beating Fielder.

NL Batter: Ryan Howard

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I didn’t want this to be the pick. It seemed so obvious. Howard has become such a punchline, shorthand for “former superstar closing out a lucrative contract and playing terribly,” and it’s just not that interesting to write about him. I can’t help it, though; this is still a prediction, and the case for him over his competitors is just too strong.

For one, 2016 has been bad, even by Ryan Howard’s fallen standards. He has such a reputation for being terrible that it’s easy to forget that his hitting in the last few years has been roughly league average. His TAv from 2013–15: .278, .260, .250. His wRC+: 111, 93, 92. Now, that is nowhere near what you want from your first baseman, especially if that first baseman is getting $25 million per year, but it’s a batting line that bears some resemblance to a major leaguer’s. This year, the bottom has completely fallen out, and Howard is sitting on a .199 TAv/39 wRC+. That’s bad, at any position; at first base, it’s how you get to a -1.2 fWAR (worst)/-1.1 WARP (2nd-worst) in only 182 PA.

Unlike Fielder, the Phillies have zero reason to keep running Howard out, beyond sentimentality. He’s not a part of any successful future of theirs, not with only one guaranteed year left on his contract and a long track record of being bad (if not quite this bad). Unlike the Rangers, however, the Phillies are really and truly out of it, and have been since day one, so sentimentality might be enough. Again, there’s no one knocking down the door behind him; Tommy Hunter is probably going to get the bulk of the playing time in the rest of the season, but he’s barely better than Howard, and so not really making a compelling case for himself. Howard is certainly the obvious choice, but I think he’s the best choice, as well.

Runners-up:

  • AJ Pierzynski—goodness gracious, AJP has hit terribly thus far, with a .164 TAv and a 18 wRC+, and he’s on the Braves, who are very bad and thus not likely to cut his playing time too sharply. Even a second-string catcher gets a good chunk of PAs, and so he’s a defensible choice, I think, but he’s also sitting on a .223 BABIP (career average .297), and I’m willing to bet he might rebound a bit. He’s still a catcher, and one with not-altogether-terrible framing numbers, so even a modest rebound would stop his fall down the leaderboard. That said, this might be a pick I come to regret in October, as he’s currently challenging Howard by both WARP and fWAR, and could very easily be out on top (bottom) come fall.
  • Ben Revere—after showing some offensive upside last year, Revere has plummeted down to a .207 TAv/45 wRC+, and he’s exactly who I had in mind when describing the outfielder who looks better than he is, and might steal some PAs as a result. But the Nats have indicated their willingness to bench him, and the projections think he’s likely to rebound, and maybe even reach positive figures by the end of the season. If he’s bad, he won’t play, so ultimately I think he’s not a great choice.
  • Darin Ruf—what he’s done is remarkable, in a way; through only 63 PAs, he’s still challenging for the bottom of the leaderboard, by being incredibly bad at hitting as a left fielder. He’s probably not this bad, however, and the Phillies have demonstrated a willingness to demote him to AAA, so while he doesn’t need many PAs at this pace to win the year, I think he’s unlikely to get the PAs or continue at this pace.

I’ll resume next week with pitchers, but before I do: I don’t mean to be mean. The aforementioned players have performed very, very badly this year, and this is their job, so that probably sucks, a lot. They’re also still among the 500 best baseball players in the world, and extraordinarily good at what they do, so, y’know, take this with a grain of salt. They are more successful than I will ever be, so hopefully they can handle some jokes.


Henry Druschel is a below-replacement level Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @henrydruschel.