Last week I ran a piece on the history of futility of Royals middle infielders. The piece struck a nerve with many readers, good and bad, and that in turn led to some introspection. First off, if any of the players profiled were offended, I offer you my sincerest apology. If you’ve played one single inning in the field or taken one at-bat in a game, you are part of a very rare and exclusive fraternity. Only 20,272 men have ever played Major League Baseball and if you are one of them, I give you my respect. Typically, I’m the positive guy in any group. The world can be falling apart and I’m the one saying, don’t worry, it’ll be okay, the sun will still come up tomorrow. But man, the losing, the 90 and 100 loss seasons are sometimes even more than I can bear. In the future, I’ve made a vow to write about more positive topics. So, thank you for reading and for your feedback.
Several readers commented on the absence of Chris Getz and Neifi Perez from the lists. I went back over my original notes and research and neither Getz nor Perez made the initial cutoff. I reviewed the year-by-year statistics for every middle infielder from 1969 to 2022. The initial cutoff covered 21 players, of which I narrowed to nine. Five of those made honorable mention, the other four went onto Mt. Rushmore. Did I make a mistake in my research?
Believe me, I had some bias wanting Perez to be on the list but based on the criteria I used, he wasn’t even the worst middle infielder on the 2001 team. That honor went to Donnie Sadler. Amazingly, Perez wasn’t even the worst offensive player on the 2001 team. On the 2001 team, just counting players with over 100 plate appearances, there were two with OPS+ worse than Perez: A.J. Hinch with a 41 and Sadler, with a -2. Had I incorporated WAR into the conversation, then yes, Perez would have made the Futility team for his glorious -2.10 WAR season in 2002, when he somehow got 585 plate appearances. He did post a 44 OPS+ and slashed .236/.260/.303 in 2002 but it was still an ugly season. Some of that negative WAR can be attributed to his defense, while my analysis concentrated primarily on offense.
That 2002 Royals team was some kind of ugly on the offensive side. They only had three players with OPS+ of over 100 (Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran and Raul Ibanez). That team had 14 players who got more than 100 plate appearances and 8 of them had OPS+ of under 76. The pitching wasn’t much better and predictably, that team lost 100 games. Have you ever seen a Mexican Hairless dog? That was the 2002 Royals.
Getz, whose Royal career spanned from 2010 to 2013, fell well outside of the list as measured by WAR and OPS+ in every season. Getz actually posted a small positive WAR in three of his four Royal seasons. In 2013, Elliott Johnson was easily the worst middle infielder on the team.
What does this tell us? Maybe that there are a plethora of really bad middle infielders drawing major league paychecks, not just with the Royals but with every major league franchise? Yes, no doubt. Could it also mean that there are too many major league teams and not enough decent players to fill out the rosters with competent hitters? One could make that argument. You could also make a solid case that pitchers today are better than they’ve ever been and hitting is tougher than it’s ever been. If I had a time machine, I’d bring back players like Ty Cobb, Oscar Charleston and Ted Williams and see how they’d fare against today’s pitchers.
Dedicated reader, A horse with no name, brought up another point that is worth discussing. How do you measure outs? Some outs are more damaging than others. For example: if Greg Pryor came to the plate as a pinch hitter with nobody on base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Royals trailing 9-to-1, it doesn’t matter much if he strikes out or hits a home run. The Royals probability of losing that game is 99.99% and everyone in the stadium, from the players to the umpires, to the beer vendors and however many fans may be remaining in the stands only want one thing: to get this game over so they can go home. So, if Pryor hits a ground out to short, it really doesn’t matter.
On the other hand, let’s say Neifi Perez comes to the plate in the bottom of the eighth with two outs and a man on second and third and the Royals trailing by a score of 2-to-1. A measly single scores two and puts them in a good position to win. Even a walk keeps the inning going. Perez then hits a soft pop up to the shortstop for the third out and the Royals lose the game by a run. That out was very damaging. Both are recorded as outs but if you graded outs on a scale of one to ten, with a one being an out that is inconsequential or a ten for an out that is very damaging, Pryor’s out is a one while Perez’s out scores a ten. There is a huge difference in those outs.
Maybe a reader who is more sabermetrically inclined can take that on as a project. Maybe the answer already lies in the criteria I was using?
Baseball savants have long discussed what I would call empty stats. An example would be a player who hits 30 home runs in a season, but 20 of them are solo shots late in games where his team is getting blown out. Or the guy who collects 150 hits, with 135 of them being singles with no one on base. At first glance, a player with those numbers appears to have some value, but a deeper dig tells a different story. Those are extreme examples, but you get my drift.
An example would be 1989 Storm Davis. Davis started 31 games for a powerhouse Oakland team and went 19 and 7. That’s a great won-loss record. But, and the but is big, his ERA was 4.36 and he gave up 187 hits in 169 innings while walking 68 and only striking out 91 batters. His ERA+ came in at 85 and his FIP at 4.40. Very pedestrian at best. What happened? Davis’ shortcomings were covered up by a strong Oakland offense and a solid bullpen. He became a free agent at the end of the season and the Royals, duped by the shiny won-loss record, dumped a million-dollar contract on him. Several baseball writers, most notably Bill James, said that the Royals were overpaying for smoke and mirrors, and he was right. Davis was exposed with the Royals in what remains one of the most disappointing free-agent signings in team history. His won-loss record was an empty stat.
The point is, not all players and all stats are created equal. And our frustration as fans shouldn’t fall on the players. They’re just guys who like playing ball and want to keep playing ball while drawing a paycheck. General managers and managers of most teams, and the Royals in particular, have been notoriously slow to cut bait with underperforming players for a variety of reasons. Some teams are loathe to admit that they made a mistake by signing or trading for a player, so they keep running him out there to justify their decision. Other times, the manager thinks the player just needs more at-bats to get his rhythm.
The worse scenario is that the organization is so bereft of talent that there’s no one else available who may be any better. Regardless of the justifications, it’s a problem, as witnessed by the Royals continual love affair with guys like Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier. In 1975, country western singer Ed Bruce wrote a song called “Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys”. If you’re over the age of 50, you’ve heard the Willie Nelson’s version of this song as your radio station probably played it every hour back in 1978. To paraphrase the song, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, or doctors and lawyers and such. Have them be middle infielders or cornerbacks. That’s the two areas that seem to be in dire need in the baseball and football world.