When we talk about players in terms of advanced statistics, we often use the concept of “replacement level”. That’s the basis for Wins Above Replacement (WAR), one of the analytics you’ll see often on this site and others around the baseball universe.
The idea is that there are guys sitting in triple-A or on the free agent market who are easily obtained for around the league minimum, and who will perform at a below-average but not completely inept level. A player’s value in terms of WAR is determined by how much better he is than a generic replacement player at his position.
Remember players like Preston Guilmet, Bill Hall, Lew Ford, and Josh Stinson? These were replacement level players. They were all worth exactly 0.0 WAR during their time with the Orioles. If you could pay the league minimum to a zero WAR player like Henry Urrutia, why would you pay someone more money for equal or even worse production?
The reason this is relevant is that the Orioles’ bench was firmly below replacement level this season. There were three players who spent the majority of the 2016 on the major league roster in a bench role: Ryan Flaherty, Nolan Reimold, and Caleb Joseph. Those three combined for -1.4 WAR. That’s not good.
Let’s start with Flaherty. He was the least terrible of the key bench players, but he still had the worst offensive season of his career. Flaherty hit .217/.291/.318 on the year, good for a 62 wRC+. He also had the fewest plate appearances since his rookie season in 2012.
Jonathan Schoop’s durability at second base had a lot to do with the reduced playing time, but Flaherty’s performance did as well. He tends to hit better when he’s playing consistently, and especially in the second half, that just didn’t happen. Flaherty hit just .147 in only 37 plate appearances after the break.
And yet, Flaherty was the least of the Orioles’ problems when it came to the bench. Nolan Reimold, who seems to be the only 33-year-old prospect in baseball, had yet another disappointing season.
With the Orioles’ left field situation in flux, especially with Hyun Soo Kim glued to the bench until mid-May, Reimold had every opportunity to earn himself some more playing time.
Instead, he hit .222/.300/.365, while playing defense that was poor enough to make that batting line unacceptable. He too lost playing time down the stretch, hitting just .139 in 91 second-half plate appearances. He finished the season at -0.4 WAR.
Finally, we come to Caleb Joseph. I like Caleb a lot, but…yikes. This was not his year. After two years of decent production at the plate, Joseph’s offense completely disappeared.
He famously went 141 plate apperances without a single RBI, which seems impossible until you see his .174/.216/.197 batting line, equal to a wRC+ of 6. That’s not a typo. Six.
Of the 438 players with at least 100 plate appearances, Joseph’s wRC+ was dead last. In far less playing time than he had in 2014 or 2015, Joseph managed to be worth nearly a full win below replacement (Fangraphs had him at -0.9).
Even other bench players struggled for the Orioles. Joey Rickard began the season as a starter, but played himself into a bench/platoon role by the time he was injured.
He managed to accumulate -0.7 WAR in just a half-season’s worth of play, thanks to his below-average offense and – more surprisingly – terrible defense. Turns out the David Lough comparisons were a little off base.
It doesn’t just stop with those three players, either. Drew Stubbs hit just .136 during his month-long stint with the O’s. Francisco Pena had a .513 OPS as the backup catcher when Joseph was recovering from his injury. With the exception of Michael Bourn, the bench seemed to suck the talent out of Orioles’ players like the basketball in Space Jam.
An underperforming bench doesn’t seem like the worst weakness a team could have, and it’s certainly not, but it’s still a problem. First of all, think of the money spent on these players. Reimold and Flaherty combined to make $3 million this year.
That’s obviously not a lot, but the Orioles traded a draft pick to the Dodgers last year just to clear Ryan Webb’s $2.75 million salary. Three million is still significant, and the team likely could’ve gotten equal production for two million less.
Finally, let’s go back to that -1.4 WAR. Based on that, the O’s probably could’ve picked up an extra win somewhere along the way if they had replacement-level production from the bench.
One win doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the difference between a home wild card game and a wild card game in Toronto. If the O’s are at home, there’s no potential extra-inning lead to save Zach Britton for, and.....sorry. I’m so sorry. I never should have brought this up.
The O’s need to improve in a few areas next year, and the bench is far from the top of the list. It’s still a problem, though, and hopefully one that will be addressed. Fortunately, there’s nowhere to go but up.