Replacement-level players on the Orioles, and other playoff teams

By Fangraphs WAR, Tommy Hunter was the worst Orioles pitcher, but even he contributed positively to the playoff run. - Al Bello

The Orioles' heavy use of sub-replacement players was a problem in the 2011 season. As the team returned to success in 2012, were they able to solve this problem?

When you follow a bad baseball team, it's not usually a difficult proposition to figure out why they are bad. Every bad baseball team is bad in its own way, but they are all bad, and if you watch enough of the games you will know why they are bad. Less of a simple proposition is for Orioles fans like us to figure out why the team was good this past year. There's no one reason, just lots and lots of little things piling up in just the right way.

One factor that contributed to the Orioles' poor play in the 2011 season was their heavy use of players who, measured by Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) were negative-value players. I looked at last season earlier this year and the thing that stands out is that the 2011 Orioles had one of the worst position players (Felix Pie) and one of the worst pitchers (Brian Matusz) - not a recipe for success. Not only that, but the Orioles had 1,670 plate appearances by players who provided no positive value (by fWAR) to the team, and had 264.1 IP by pitchers for whom the same is true.

The question is: how much did the Orioles correct this problem in the 2012 season? And if they did correct it, how much did it contribute towards going from 69 wins to 93 wins in one swoop?

A few words about WAR: the statistic is one that riles a lot of old-school baseball writers, who like to rail against people who "don't watch the games." WAR is merely an attempt to measure player value compared to a hypothetical AAA replacement. The specifics of it are not important for this article, only that I believe in WAR enough as a way to separate players for further consideration. The top 20 players by WAR probably make up most of the 20 best players - even if it doesn't tell us the order, 1-20, of those players. Certainly, you don't get into top 20 if you had a bad season.

By the same token, a player does not end up with a negative WAR if he had a good season. So we can look among all of the playoff teams and see which gave the most time to these players, and whether this is a thing that mattered. Particularly, it will be interesting to see how the Orioles were different as compared to last year.

One other note before the charts: year-to-year comparisons will be a little sloppy for the reason that, last year, I included 0-value WAR players to illustrate how much of a failure it was for the Orioles to have given Vladimir Guerrero $7.5 million and having him suck up the DH and cleanup spot all year. Numbers this year only reflect negative-value players. Most 0-WAR players are those who had only a handful of at-bats and didn't really distinguish themselves either way. (It appears that between February and now, Fangraphs tweaked their formula just enough to make 2011 Vlad a -0.1 fWAR player, but I'm coming clean on the shift all the same.)

POSITION PLAYERS

Playoff Team Players < 0 fWAR PA by < 0 fWAR Worst Player Worst's PA Worst's fWAR Total Neg. fWAR
Orioles 12 1403 Roberts 74 -1.1 -4.5
Yankees 3 93 McGehee 59 -0.6 -0.9
Tigers 10 1893 Raburn 222 -1.5 -5.6
Athletics 4 78 Hughes 13 -0.4 -0.9
Rangers 5 926 Young 651 -1.4 -2.8
Nationals 3 222 Nady 109 -0.9 -1.4
Braves 9 923 Hinske 147 -1.1 -5
Reds 5 449 Valdez 208 -1.1 -3.1
Cardinals 3 470 Greene 197 -0.3 -0.7
Giants 5 349 Burriss 150 -0.7 -1.9

First things first: it hasn't stopped being cool to list the Orioles among playoff teams.

It's not difficult to see which teams had stability and success in their lineups. Whether by solid roster construction, shrewd use of the bench, good fortune, or some kind of Satanic blood pact, most of the playoff teams gave relatively little playing time to bad players. The Yankees and Athletics stand out particularly for having less than 100 plate appearances by negative-value players. Seven of the ten teams have five or fewer negative-value players getting any playing time at all. (Note: I've excluded all pitcher plate appearances for both leagues from the numbers in this chart.) The bizarre suicide pact that Rangers manager Ron Washington has with Michael Young stands out.

The Orioles, we should not be surprised, look a bit like a team that doesn't belong. Their position player situation was less of a hot mess than the Tigers, but it's not difficult to know how the Tigers could overcome 500+ plate appearances by Brennan Boesch (-1.3 fWAR) and Delmon Young (-0.7 fWAR). They had the Triple Crown-winning Miguel Cabrera, and Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder, and a rotation with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister.

In fact, if you look at the total negative fWAR by Orioles position players this year, the -4.5 is actually worse than last year's -4.2! Much of that is thanks to Brian Roberts (-1.1 fWAR in 74 PA) and Endy Chavez (-0.8 in 169 PA), with Robert Andino getting the most playing time of a negative-value player (-0.6 fWAR and 431 PA). These numbers reflect the mess that was second base for most of the season, with another mess in left field until Nate McLouth arrived on the scene. Let's take a moment and ponder the sheer improbability of that phrase.

Obviously, looking simply at the raw negative fWAR of position players doesn't paint the full picture of how the Orioles managed to improve. It's all in perception. Names like Jim Thome, Taylor Teagarden and Ryan Flaherty are in the negatives, but they will all be remembered fondly. Teagarden had only nine hits in 64 PA, but every one seemed to be more clutch than the last. Thome got on base, even if that may have been his only remaining skill. Flaherty showed improvement through the season, ultimately homering in the playoffs. That was a thing that happened. Suck it, WAR.

It seems we will find no answers for the team's improvement by simply looking at position players with negative fWAR. What about the pitching staff?

PITCHERS

Playoff Team P < 0 fWAR IP by < 0 fWAR Worst Pitcher Worst's IP Worst's fWAR Total Neg. fWAR
Orioles 6 198 Hunter 133.2 -0.4 -1.1
Yankees 3 7 Warren 2.1 -0.2 -0.7
Tigers 7 85.2 Balester 18 -0.5 -1.7
Athletics 7 178.2 Straily 39.1 -0.5 -1.6
Rangers 0 0 Tateyama 17 0 0
Nationals 5 145.1 Wang 32.1 -0.4 -1.4
Braves 5 151.1 Durbin 61 -0.4 -1.1
Reds 3 66.2 Ondrusek 54.2 -0.9 -1.7
Cardinals 9 168.1 Rzepcynski 46.2 -0.4 -1.9
Giants 5 174 Hensley 50.2 -0.5 -1.3

Unsurprisingly, the first thing we find is that the Orioles had the most innings thrown by negative-value pitchers. The 198 innings is 66.1 innings fewer than were thrown by negative-value pitchers last season, which represents either about seven nine-inning games or about four 16-inning games. However, this number could have easily been much worse if not for the fact that fWAR loves Jake Arrieta, who had a +1.6 fWAR despite a 6.20 ERA in 114.2 IP; based on his FIP of 4.05, it believes he was unlucky.

Noteworthy that even the much-maligned Kevin Gregg only accounted for a -0.2 fWAR.

The stability of the Yankees and the Rangers here is remarkable. Yankees pitchers threw 1445.1 IP and had 7 innings thrown by total scrub pitchers. Rangers pitchers threw 1442 IP and had no total scrub innings at all. Most of the other staffs are relatively well-off as well, with one ill-fated bullpen guy showing up as worst fWAR and probably an under-performing starter who was jettisoned taking up some of the total innings as well.

Last year's Orioles had a total of -3.7 from their negative-value pitchers, because the ones who were bad were much worse in addition to throwing more innings. So the staff, simply from shedding innings by awful pitchers, comes out ahead 2.6 wins better than last year, without even getting into whether there were more positive contributions.

We can see that most of the playoff teams deal with pitchers like this, and as with the position players it's a matter of making sure the front office has options to replace struggling players and that the manager has the awareness and latitude to make the best moves for the sake of the team.

In the case of the Orioles, Tommy Hunter threw more innings than any other team's worst pitcher, but it's not like the O's were blithely unaware of Hunter's faults. They tried to demote him and stick him in the bullpen at several different points and fluke injuries kept pushing him back into the rotation. The bullpen fired on all cylinders most all of the year, and eventually the rotation stabilized for a push to the playoffs, too.

CONCLUSIONS

Though the raw negative fWAR of the position players was slightly worse, there is something significant in the fact that they had took 267 fewer plate appearances, which probably represents about 6-8 games worth of plate appearances. Add that to six nine-inning games fewer by poor-performing pitchers and that makes much more difference than shows up in saying they were 2.6 WAR better.

This is yet another area where we see how Dan Duquette's roster merry-go-round paid off. Past years Orioles may have been wedded, for instance, to Matusz, Arrieta and Hunter all sticking in the rotation, or Endy Chavez staying in left field, Wilson Betemit staying at third base, and so on. Duquette stocked the system looking for diamonds in the rough, and he ended up with McLouth and Miguel Gonzalez, and he aggressively plugged in Manny Machado as well.

These were all mid-season changes that shored up the team's weaknesses and probably had a greater impact than will simply show up in looking at fWAR numbers. That said, next article I'll be looking at whether the Orioles performed better with positive-value players than they did last year. Maybe they did, or maybe we will continue to see that the 2012 Orioles defy any and all explanation.

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