More Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Generally, when we want to assess a player we look at how he stacks up against his peers—the rest of the league. For those of us into stats (which explains why you’re here), when we want a quick and dirty look we’ll pop over to Baseball Reference and check a player’s OPS+ or ERA+ or maybe we’ll fire up Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Encyclopedia and check out its Runs Created/Saved Against Average. A player with an OPS+ or ERA+ of 95-105 or an RCAA/RSAA between -5 and +5 we quickly peg as “average.”

Of course, a lot more goes into a player’s game—especially position players. Guys who were sometimes significantly below average as hitters but amazing fielders are enshrined in Cooperstown. Some terrific offensive players with significant holes in their game have to buy a ticket to get into the Hall.

I thought it would be fun to find some “average” players who enjoyed terrific careers. One thing you’ll note in this section is the large discrepancy between a player’s OPS+ and Runs Created Above Average. For example one player we’ll consider below had an OPS+ of 96 yet an RCAA of -126. What accounts for this is that Run Created takes into account things such as double plays, caught stealing and the like whereas OPS+ focuses on adjusting OBP and SLG.

This is not a comprehensive list. I generally focused on a few criteria. One: A player had to have a significantly long career. That tells us that the sum total of his game doesn’t show up in RCAA/RSAA, OPS+ and ERA+. These players had other talents that made them valuable. Two: A player had to have a career OPS+ or ERA+ within five points of the league average (either way) over the course of that career. Three: The player has to be retired so we can factor in both the early years and decline phase.

I started with a long list and gradually whittled it, choosing players who closely fit those criteria. For close calls, I used personal observation. This is a two-part series and since I don’t want to spoil the surprise (but wish to provide a teaser) … one who made the list is in the Hall of Fame.

So without further ado…

Legend:

  • RCAA: Runs Created Above Average
  • ASG: All-Star Games
  • GG: Gold Gloves
  • PSA: Postseason Appearances

Tim Wallach

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
102  -26   5   3   3

What he did best:

For a slick-fielding hot corner man, Wallach had some serious thump in his bat. Wallach ripped 432 doubles, leading the league twice, and finished his career with 260 home runs. In the mid to late 1980s he was considered one of the better third basemen in the game, winning all his Gold Gloves and being named to five All-Star teams from 1984-1990. However Wallach’s power fell off a cliff. He was a .267/.322/.435 hitter over his first 5,415 at-bats and dropped to .250/.322/.395 over his final 3,310 AB.

What he did worst:

Although he hit near his career norms with runners in scoring position (.257/.344/.422) Wallach hit 141 of his 260 home runs with the bases empty. He also hit poorly after Aug. 1. His OBP was better than league average just five times over 17 seasons. Not surprisingly, he flopped in the postseason with a miserable .071/.212/.107 in 28 AB. He did enjoy a final hurrah with the Dodgers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he posted the best OPS+ of his career (128).

Gary Gaetti

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
 96  -126  2   4   3

What he did best:

Break mirrors. Hey, they didn’t call him “the Rat” for nothing. Leaving aside the fact that Paris Hilton might need a drink or two before hitting on Gaetti, he, like Wallach, had a solid glove and some serious power when he connected.
He totaled 360 HR and 443 two-baggers. From 1986-88 he was a force, copping three Gold Gloves, averaging 33 doubles, 31 HR and 102 RBI, and enjoying a monster postseason in 1987 (.277/.320/.574 and the ALCS MVP). Finally, he was a monster with the bases loaded—11 grand slams with a .300 BA and .514 SLG.

Of interest: He played every position save for center field and catcher.

What he did worst:

Like Wallach, Gaetti went up to the plate hacking. Over 20 major league seasons he averaged less than 32 walks and never topped 60. On the other hand, he topped 100 strikeouts five times and is 21st all time in that category. In a final similarity to Wallach, more than half of Gaetti’s (187) homers were with the bases vacant.

Joe Carter

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
104   28   5   0   3

What he did best:

Rack up 100 RBI seasons. Joe did it 10 times—a realm usually inhabited by first-ballot Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, he paid for those RBI with many outs. Carter tended to be overrated due to his RBI and underrated due to all the outs. Although he never won a Gold Glove, he was sound fundamentally in the field. He generally got a good read on the ball and rarely threw to the wrong base.

He was a heady base runner and base stealer (77% success rate) and could carry a club when he got on a hot streak. He had power. He barely missed the 400-homer club, but topped 400 doubles. He was durable, playing at least 155 games nine times in 16 seasons, and didn’t miss a game from 1989-1991. Best of all, he loved to play and play hard. Of course, he also owns an all-time World Series moment: the game-winning three-run homer off Mitch Williams in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of the 1993 Fall Classic.

What he did worst:

He did rack up those outs. Although he was a good situational hitter, he struggled in late and close situations, (.237.298/.392). He hit 212 of his 398 HR with the bases empty but did rip 254 long balls when his team was within two runs of the lead.

Jimmie Dykes

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
 96  -77   2  NA   3

What he did best:

He’s the only one on the list that I never saw play. Basically, he was an earlier version of Pete Rose. Connie Mack loved him because he could play anywhere on the infield competently and still provide solid offense. He enjoyed a 10-year run from 1921-30 when he batted .295/.374/.434 compared to .283/.353/.386 for non-1B infielders. Dykes was a solid .288/.400/.407 in three World Series (59 AB), winning in 1929-30 but losing in 1931. He led the AL three times in HBP.

What he did worst:

In a power era, Dykes was not a big bopper. He never hit more than 16 HR and had only three seasons over 10. He stole only 70 bases in 125 tries. But he didn’t have an outstanding weakness. He was a very useful ballplayer for a very long time (22 seasons) and managed until 1961.

Tony Fernandez

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
101   35   5   4   5

What he did best:

Make the big play. I know Cleveland Indian fans will disagree with me, but my jaw dropped when he muffed that play in the 1997 World Series. Here’s his career:

RISP           .319/.389/.442  
2 Out RISP     .299/.389/.409  
Three On       .301/.339/.454  
Late and close .306/.374/.398
Post Season    .327/.367/.420

Repeatedly with Toronto, he made the big play and got the big hit. In 1993, the Jays were scuffling around .500. They reacquired Fernandez for Darrin Jackson and in his second game back in Canada, he went 5-for-6. The Jays never looked back. He was an excellent contact hitter and a slick, acrobatic fielder.

What he did worst:

Fernandez didn’t have a major hole in his game. During the bulk of his career, a shortstop wasn’t expected to provide big power. but his 35 RCAA is excellent for the position in his era. Tony’s biggest problem was above the neck. He was moody and he could sulk, and that would cause the occasional misadventure on the base paths. He got better as he matured and as I’ve mentioned in the past I think a full career in Toronto would’ve landed him a spot in the Hall of Fame. One of these days I’ll get around to a column explaining why I feel that way.

Garry Maddox

OPS+ RCAA ASG GG  PSA
101   15   0   8   6

What he did best:

Phillies announcer Harry Kalas put it best: “Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Garry Maddox.” Basically he was Devon White before Devon White: a tremendous flycatcher, slightly better than league average power hitter, good base thief. In fact, White was on this list but they were too similar, save for Devo’s longer career (AB-wise) and prowess in the post season. Maddox hit better with men on base and he was a beast with the bases loaded: .340 BA .497 SLG. And since I already had two members of the 1993 Jays on the list…

What he did worst:

He didn’t do his best hitting in the postseason. His overall production was a bit below average for a center fielder of the 1970s and 1980s. He played 150-plus games only once in his career. He rarely walked and struck out more than twice as often. But he earned his nickname, “The Secretary of Defense,” and was a key cog on a terrific Phillies team.

In these cases, we’ve looked at six players future generations might consider “average,” but as we’ve shown here, they were anything but.

Next week: The “average” pitchers.

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