The Replacement Player Blues

Felix Pie doing what he does best.

When the video montage of failure from 2011 plays back in my head, there's one game in particular to which I keep returning. There were worse blowouts by far in terms of runs surrendered, but I think that a lot of the story is told by Felix Pie horribly misplaying a ball as an aghast Jim Palmer cries on the MASN telecast, "It's a day game! Play deeper!"

This was not an unusual occurrence throughout the year, as Felix misplayed a lot of balls in his time as a defensive replacement and occasionally as the starting left fielder. One game in particular stands out because of who else was playing, though. The date was August 21, the opponent was the Angels; a day game in Anaheim. Starting for the Orioles was Brian Matusz, and the 7-8-9 hitters were Pie, Craig Tatum and Blake Davis, who went hitless on the day.

On the day, the O's would commit three errors - two by Davis, one by Tatum - and Pie would misplay two balls that probably should have been ruled errors. Davis was playing third base despite having a total of 28 professional games under his belt at 3B. The O's offense scored a single run off of Angels starter Jerome Williams, who hadn't started an MLB game in four seasons. At the time, I could only express my rage about this game by proclaiming the O's to be on a disaster bus, which I attempted to represent with crude MS Paint art.

What's noteworthy about this game is that the Orioles' worst pitcher and worst position player to get any kind of consistent playing time featured prominently. Matusz made 12 starts on the year and ended with a 10.69 ERA. Pie appeared in over half of the Orioles' games despite batting .220/.264/.280 and occasionally not seeming to realize the properties of a batted baseball when fielding.

As Orioles fans, we lament the parade of scrubs we see shuffling through the field, at the plate and on the mound from year to year. We also tend to think that we are unique in this suffering. I had a similar moment as I pondered the Pie-Matusz combo of failure from that desolate August game. Do good teams fans ever put up with this? Do the Yankees have an annual bullpen scrub like Josh Rupe who pitches 14 innings before being DFA'd? Do the Phillies have someone like Josh Bell taking up 65 plate appearances in the middle of the season? I wondered, then remembered I could find out for myself. So I did.

I can make the assertion that Pie and Matusz were the worst on the Orioles at what they did because that's what Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR) number proclaims. WAR is one of those stats that gets a lot of hate. It's not meant to be the be-all, end-all tool for comparing the performance of two different players. For the purposes of this exercise, I hope you'll bear with me even if you don't like newer baseball stats. All we need to know about WAR here is that I am assuming if a player had a negative WAR, he did not play well.

If you're interested in a little bit more behind the theory of WAR, let's first keep in mind that the idea is that a 0.0 WAR player - a replacement-level player - is equivalent to the production that any team should be able to call up from AAA and plug in to the lineup. For a position player, it factors in defense (UZR) and baserunning as well as the hitting contribution. As well, there is an adjustment for position: it's harder to find a decent catcher than it is to find a decent first baseman, so you get more credit for being a decent catcher. For a pitcher, WAR factors in innings pitched and FIP (which itself comes from a pitcher's K/BB rates).

That said, let's return to our question: do we Orioles fans suffer the scrubs more than good teams do? To get at the question, I compared the O's plate appearances by players with 0.0 or less WAR to the same for the eight playoff teams in 2011. With pitchers, I compared the O's innings pitched by players with negative WAR to the same for the eight playoff teams. The idea is to see to what extent the Orioles employ these scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel type players in comparison to actual good baseball teams.

POSITION PLAYERS

Team Players <= 0 fWAR PA by <= 0 fWAR Worst Player Worst Player's fWAR Total Neg. fWAR
Orioles 13 1670 F. Pie -2.1 -4.2
Brewers 7 178 E. Almonte -0.6 -2.1
Cardinals 6 165 C. Patterson -0.3 -0.8
Diamondbacks 9 700 M. Mora -0.5 -0.8
Phillies 10 1998 R. Ibanez -1.3 -3.8
Rangers 5 295 A. Blanco -0.3 -1.2
Rays 6 573 R. Brignac -1.1 -2.8
Tigers 6 924 M. Ordonez -1.0 -1.9
Yankees 7 834 R. Pena -0.9 -2.2

Two quick notes. One, I specify less than or equal to 0.0 fWAR because Vladimir Guerrero and his .290/.317/.416 with clownish baserunning sits at 0.0 WAR. He was paid $7.5 million for production equivalent to if most teams called up their best AAA hitter and had that player do nothing but DH for the MLB minimum salary. Two, for the NL teams I excluded all pitchers, although for the most part, if a pitcher ever got on base at all he gets a positive fWAR: Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo added 0.9 WAR at the plate with a slash line of .221/.254/.324.

The Orioles had the most players without a positive contribution, and the worst total negative value from those players. Fully half of the O's negative value was Pie, who had the second-worst WAR among all players in MLB - the worst was Adam Dunn. What's surprising is the O's aren't the worst culprits, though there's a clear distinction as only one other team of the nine we look at hear had over 1000 PA by players performing at a scrub level. Whether due to contract obligations (Ibanez), desperation (Eduardo Nunez on the Yanks), or poor talent evaluation, all teams have to play scrub players now and again, but for the most part the good teams are lucky/good enough where they don't have to do it for long.

By the way, of the 13 Orioles who had 0.0 WAR or less, only three remain on the 40-man roster: Chris Davis (-0.3), Ryan Adams (-0.3) and Josh Bell (-0.6). Of course, Davis is ticketed for the starting 1B job, but the others should not see playing time if they are not good. In theory, anyway.

PITCHERS

Team Pitchers <0 fWAR IP by <0 fWAR Worst Pitcher Worst Pitcher's fWAR Total Neg. fWAR
Orioles 10 264.1 B. Matusz -1.0 -3.7
Brewers 5 62 D. Herrera -0.2 -0.6
Cardinals 11 259.1 R. Franklin -1.2 -4.0
Diamondbacks 5 152.2 A. Galarraga -0.8 -2.3
Phillies 4 105.2 D. Herndon -0.6 -1.2
Rangers 8 109.2 C. Eppley -0.4 -2.0
Rays 6 165.2 A. Sonnanstine -0.8 -2.1
Tigers 10 184 A. Oliver -0.3 -1.9
Yankees 4 37 S. Proctor -0.7 -1.1

Turns out that the eventual world champion Cardinals had more negative-value pitchers than did the O's and had more total negative value. The early-season immolation of Ryan Franklin was a big factor, and the Cards struggled to find some consistency internally, which is part of why they ultimately traded for Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel from the Blue Jays. Neither of those players was on St. Louis at season's start and both made a positive contribution in leading them into their unlikely championship run.

What kind of Satanic luck is involved with the Yankees having only 37 innings thrown by negative-value pitchers? Even random panic bullpen scrub callups weren't bad for the most part. It's astounding.

One thing that sets apart the Orioles here is that four of their negative-value pitchers were starters. Of the ten pitchers, three remain on the 40-man roster: Matusz (-1.0 fWAR), Jason Berken (-0.5), and Kevin Gregg (-0.3).

Not surprisingly, between the Orioles and playoff teams, the O's are the only ones who were bad in both the pitching and hitting categories here. Teams with high absolute values in one were generally good in the other, and the rest were pretty balanced.

COMMENTARY

These are things where teams can improve on the margins, particularly in the case of bench players, who are subject to less volatility than relievers. One problem with the Orioles, too, is that their scrubs weren't necessarily bench players: Pie appeared in half the team's games. Guerrero sat in the cleanup spot nearly the whole season.

As far as the bullpen goes, any team can be struck by a random Rupe in April, but the good teams can quickly DFA that guy and try the next guy who ends up better. It takes a bad team like the Orioles to ride 31 games from Jeremy Accardo when he ends up with a 5.73 ERA. And only a team as bad as the Orioles would keep throwing Matusz out there when he looked terrible.

The O's had a total of -7.9 fWAR between their hitting and pitching scrub-level players. This is indicative of tremendously poor organizational depth; the Orioles tried numerous players both hitting and pitching and many were bad. After a while there was no one better to try. Has Dan Duquette's tinkering made any improvement here? Endy Chavez ought to be an upgrade over Pie; just like that, the biggest negative is wiped out. As for the rest, we can only hope the marginal players and AAA replacements this year are better than last year's, and only time can tell for that.

In any case, none of these are sexy moves, as we all know. Supposing the Orioles got back 4 fWAR just from replacing negative-value players with zero-value players, and supposing 4 fWAR meant 4 wins (which is no sure thing in any case) then they'd still only have 73 wins. It's one way to help stop the bleeding, though, especially when most all of the moves made on the margins were inexpensive.

The real ticket to the top will be having a few great players and the rest decent-to-good, but that is a battle for another offseason. For now, we can hope for some small improvements and hope that they augur better things for the future.

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