This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
In the baseball community, we are obsessed with comparing players to league average. The book Baseball Between the Numbers (which is a must-have for any baseball fan), the term “league average” appears 103 times. Wether it’s OPS+, ERA+, FIP-, wRC+ or DRS, we are constantly using it as a comparison. But what exactly is a league average player? Or maybe so we can understand it better, WHO is a league average player?
What I decided to look for was a player who performed closest to league average throughout their entire career. A quick way to do this would be to find which players total career Wins Above Average is closest to zero. This can easily be done using Baseball-Reference’s invaluable play index. I found each player with a career WAA between -0.1 and 0.1 and then sorted by plate appearances.
The top spot belongs to Steve Sax. But while Sax’s overall career performance was almost exactly league average, his individual seasons don’t agree. He was a five time All-Star who posted multiple seasons with an OPS+ above 110 and multiple seasons below 75. Similarly, Melky Cabrera (who ranks third on the above list) has had a full-season WAA as low as -1.8 and as high as 3.2, so it’s obvious his performance has fluctuated greatly.
Clearly, this isn’t the best method in determining the most average player in Major League history. Instead of starting at the career level, I began by looking at each player’s individual seasons. The statistic I decided to use I was waaWL%, which can be found on the “Player Value” chart of each player’s Baseball-Reference page. This stat takes a hypothetical team of exactly league average players and estimates what their winning percentage would be if this player joined them. Obviously, a league average team would have a .500 winning percentage. Adding an above average player would increase the winning percentage while a below average player would decrease it.
For every season in a player’s career, I found the absolute value of the difference between their waaWL% and .500. Players closest to league average will have lower values than those who are farthest from league average. (Example: In 2015, Bryce Harper (.553 waaWL%) receives 53 points, since his waaWL% was 53 percentage points away from .500)
Finally, to give each player a career value, I found the average of each of their seasons, weighted by plate appearances.
I set the minimum career plate appearances at 5000, which will only include players with the equivalent of at least ten full seasons. Here are the qualifying players with the lowest career average point totals:
Jose Cruz Jr tops the list by a considerable margin. Over a twelve season career, Cruz had a waaWL% that was fewer than four percentage points away from .500. While his career total Wins Above Average (1.2) wasn’t exactly zero, he averaged just 0.1 WAA per 500 plate appearances. Cruz was also quite average with both the bat and the glove. When breaking it down even further, he averaged 0.08 offensive WAA and -0.15 defensive WAA per 500 PA.
How did the players in the first list fare using individual season waaWL%? Steve Sax’s average season (8.5 pts) was more than twice as far from league average than Jose Cruz Jr, while Melky Cabrera was almost 3x that of Cruz.
I ran the same process for pitchers, using innings pitched instead of plate appearances for the weighted career average and set the minimum at 200 games started. Here are the results:
Pitchers have more of an impact on the outcome of a particular game than an individual position player, leading to a greater variance in their waaWL%. This explains why their point totals are higher than those of the position players. Jim (Mudcat) Grant tops the list for pitchers, while Harry Gumbert is a close second.
So what kind of value does an average player provide over the course of a major league career? Jose Cruz Jr. racked up 19.5 WAR for his career while Mudcat Grant totaled 19.4. In fact, there were five players on the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot with lower career WAR than these two. To get a sense of present day value, Nori Aoki has a total of 0.1 WAA over last three seasons and just signed a contract for $5.5 million. League average has value. If a player like Nor Aoki is injured, their replacement will almost always be of below average ability.
So if you’re baseball obsessed friend asks you what exactly a league average player is, you can point them to Jose Cruz Jr and Mudcat Grant.
Dan Hirsch is the Creator of The Baseball Gauge. Baseball historian and SABR member for 10 years. Web designer for The Seamheads Negro Leagues Database and The Seamheads Ballparks Database.
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.