The many faces of averageby Sky Kalkman
February 12, 2009
For many fans, labeling a player as "average" is the same as calling him worthless. But as Colin showed with his series on valuing player production, the average player is actually almost 25 runs more productive than a replacement level player over a full season. In fact, because the pool of major league talent is skewed towards the superstar end of the spectrum, there are many more players with below-average talent in the big leagues than those with above-average talent. By definition, filling a team with average talent yields an 81-win expectation. That's not too shabby, and many fans found themselves wishing their favorite team was more average in 2008.
In addition to average players carrying significant value, there are many types of average players. You can have well-rounded players, players with big bats and no glove, or players who hit like Triple-A veterans but dominate defensively. Here's a quick look at the many faces of average.
Aki's beloved by Rays' fans, a strange phenomenon for a league-average player, especially one without any great strength. Over 707 plate appearances in 2008, he posted a .323 wOBA, played second base (just slightly on the difficult end of the spectrum, and was the definition of an average-fielding second baseman. Throwing that information into a graphical format yields a pretty boring picture of what made up Aki's 25 runs above replacement. Simply put, he was valuable because he was average:
Note that the Hit, Fld, and Pos bars use zero as average, while PT (playing time) and RAR count up from zero as a minimum.
Gomez was no Iwamura with the bat in 2008, and that's really saying something. While he stole 33 bases in 44 attempts, he had an awful .296 OBP and a wOBA to match. He was 16 runs worse than average on offense. But if he was a sink hole offensively, he was the Old Faithful defensively, saving 17 more runs than the average center fielder, which itself isn't an easy job. Gomez's graph shows off his offensive and defensive disparity:
Dye was the antithesis of Gomez in 2008, an offensive tour de force who would have been more valuable defensively had the White Sox not let him ever step on the field. 34 homeruns and 41 doubles helped power Dye to create 22 more runs than the average player in his 645 plate appearances. But his lack of range in right field left him 15 runs worse than the average fielder at the not-so-challenging position. His graph is the mirror image of Gomez's graph, except for the similar playing time:
Yes, Jerry Hairston. He was extremely productive offensively (only eight runs behind Dye), was completely neutral defensively, but only racked up 297 plate appearances, about half a full season's worth. If you add up his Hit, Fld, and Pos runs, he comes out further ahead of the average player than any of the first three guys, but since he did not play full time, the Reds were forced to field a replacement for 300 PAs. While the Reds did have Jay Bruce lying around, Colin did a nice job recently of explaining why the replacement-level baseline is needed in a value analysis. Hairston's adjustment from the average baseline to replacement level is less than the other three players, leaving him (not-so-shockingly) almost exactly as valuable. All four players appear in the last graph:
Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Gomez, Jermaine Dye, and Jerry Hairston were all equally valuable in 2008, but went about producing at the level of a full-time league-average player in extremely different ways. That's the glory of measuring all pieces of the puzzle in runs: you can compare a player's strength on offense with his deficiencies on defense. Instead of trying to compare Carlos Lee's RBIs with Mark Ellis' fielding percentage you can compare runs with runs and find that the two players are remarkably similar in value, even thought Lee earns more than three times as much as Ellis. Different players, different skills, same overall value.
References and Resources
Fangraphs is the one-stop shop for WAR-related statistics.
Sky Kalkman manages and writes for Beyond the Box Score, a baseball community for saber-slanted discussion.