SweetSpot: Tony Armas

Michael Bourn was one of the choices for the final All-Star ballot in the National League, but David Freese was the surprise winner over Bryce Harper and Aaron Hill. Unfortunately, that means none of the Atlanta Braves' superlative outfield trio will be heading to Kansas City, unless as a last-minute injury replacement.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bourn
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireTHe Braves' Michael Bourn has had an All-Star caliber season in 2012.
How good are Bourn, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward?

In Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement, they rank fifth (Bourn, 3.9 WAR), 10th (Prado, 3.2) and 15th (Heyward, 2.5) among all National League position players entering Thursday's action. In FanGraphs' version of WAR, they rank fourth (Bourn, 4.3), seventh (Prado, 3.7) and ninth (Heyward, 3.3).

A major reason all three rate so well is both systems see them as outstanding defensive players. FanGraphs' defensive metric -- UZR -- ranks Bourn, Heyward and Prado first, second and fourth among all NL position players. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved and ranks all three in the top 11. Bourn is a legitimate top-flight center fielder, Heyward gets good reads and has one of the better arms around and while I haven't seen enough of Prado in left field, Braves fans assure me he's that excellent as well. While none are what I would label superstars at the plate, they rank 15th, 18th and 22nd in the NL in wOBA. But all three are also excellent baserunners, so it's their all-around skills that make them so special.

Anyway, what interests me: Does this outfield have a chance to be an all-time great outfield? Where do you even begin with that question?

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, Bill James rated the 1915 Detroit Tigers' outfield the best of all time, using his Win Shares method. That outfield featured two Hall of Famers in Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, plus Bobby Veach, an excellent player who would finish with over 2,000 career hits.

Here, the Baseball-Reference WAR for those 1915 Tigers:

Ty Cobb (.369/.486/.487): 9.3
Bobby Veach (.313/.390/.434): 4.6
Saw Crawford (.299/.367/.431): 3.8

The American League hit just .248 that year and averaged 20 home runs per team, so in the context of 1915 all three were big run producers. James rated another Detroit outfield with Cobb and Crawford, the 1908 outfield with Matty McIntyre, in the second spot along with the 1941 Yankees (Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich). The 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth, Earle Combs and Bob Meusel ranked sixth, just behind the '61 Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.

I'm not sure this is exactly what we're after, however; James just listed the outfields with the most cumulative Win Shares. But Berra, for example, had just 2.0 WAR that year. Ruth (11.5 WAR) and Combs (6.7 WAR) were terrific in 1927, but Meusel was more good than great (3.8 WAR).

Plus, most of James' top outfields were old-timers. As he wrote, "There appears to be a bias in this method toward older teams, since baseball was less competitive a hundred years ago, and the best players were further from the average than they are now."

I was thinking more of outfields where all three outfielders had terrific seasons. All three Braves outfielders have a shot at 5.0 WAR. Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, we find only three outfields since 1901 where all three players reached 5.0 WAR:

  • 1921 Tigers: Harry Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (6.4), Veach (5.1). The Tigers had replaced Crawford with Heilmann, another Hall of Famer. Despite that great outfield -- they finished second, third and seventh in the AL in OPS -- the Tigers finished 71-83.
  • 1925 Tigers: Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (5.5), Al Wingo (5.0). The three outfielders ranked first, third and eighth in the AL in OPS. Wingo hit .370 with a .456 on-base percentage in his only season as a regular. The Tigers finished 81-73 but did lead the league in runs scored.
  • 1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (8.7), Dwyane Murphy (6.7), Tony Armas (5.6). Finally, a more modern group. The A's had lost 108 games in 1979, but Henderson and Murphy were rookies and Armas had been a platoon player. Billy Martin took over as manager in 1980 and realized he had one of the greatest defensive outfields ever assembled, essentially playing three center fielders. If you're old enough to remember Murphy, you know him as a Gold Glove center fielder. All three also produced at the plate: Henderson had a .420 OBP and stole 100 bases; Armas hit .279 with 35 home runs; Murphy hit .274 and drew 102 walks for a .384 OBP. Overall, they ranked second (Henderson), fifth (Murphy) and 11th among AL position players in WAR.

If we lower the standard to 4.5 WAR from each player, we get a list of 19 outfields since 1901, including eight (besides the '80 A's) since 1961. A quick look at those eight, with Baseball-Reference WAR listed:

Anyway, that's a starting point. I'll follow up sometime in the next week with another post that discusses some other great outfields.

The top 10 struggling sluggers since 1950

March, 2, 2011
I hate to say it, but when it comes to evaluating baseball players, I'm a slave to power. I love watching batters launch home runs. I love to see players like Albert Pujols hit tape-measure shots. Power is seductive. However, hitting for power isn't a guaranteed route to success in the majors. In fact, there have been more than just a few players who have hit for power and, at the same time, have been poor offensive players.

For this post, I wanted to rank those players who struggled while hitting for power. Using Baseball Reference's handy-dandy Play Index Tool, I ran a query with the following parameters: At least 500 plate appearances in a season, at least 25 home runs hit, and ranked by Adjusted OPS (or OPS+). I ran this search from 1950-2010.

Our top 10 list for sluggers who struggled looks as follows:

10. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2007, 32 HR, 88 OPS+

You can probably forgive Chris Young's 2007 season depending on how you view his defense. Like most on this list, Young hit for great power but his OBP checked in at a dreadful .295. You can hit all the home runs in the world, but if you can't get your OBP over .300 you're in trouble.

[+] EnlargeTony Batista
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTony Batista had almost as many home runs (221) in his 11-season career as he did walks (287).
9. Tony Batista, Toronto Blue Jays/Baltimore Orioles, 2001, 25 HR, 87 OPS+

The infamous Tony Batista. I have to admit that before I ran this list, I knew I would see a lot of Batista. His batting stance was fun to watch, but all Batista (and I mean all) did in his career was hit home runs. He might be the worst hitter in baseball's history to hit at least 200 career home runs.

8. Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta Braves, 2006, 29 HR, 87 OPS+

This was Francoeur's follow-up season to his promising 2005 rookie year. The homers were nice, the plate discipline (23 walks, 686 PAs) was terrible. Francoeur never met a pitch he didn't like and he's currently set to play 2011 in Kansas City. I'm sorry, Royals fans.

7. Andruw Jones, Atlanta Braves, 2007, 26 HR, 87 OPS+

Jones' lack of productivity, even with power, is forgivable depending on how you rate his defense in center field. And even in 2007, by most metrics, Jones was still a solid plus in center field. This was, however, the downturn in Jones' career as a hitter.

6. Brandon Inge, Detroit Tigers, 2009, 27 HR, 87 OPS+

You would think that you could at least eke out league average production with 27 homers in your back pocket. Inge only batted .230 in '09 to go with a super low OBP of .314 -- that will wreck anyone's season.

5. Tony Armas, Boston Red Sox, 1983, 36 HR, 85 OPS+

In '83 Armas was second in the AL in homers behind only Jim Rice. He slashed (.218/.254/.453) his way to a below-average season. Armas gets the nod for the hitter with the most homers on our list.

4. Vinny Castilla, Colorado Rockies, 1999, 33 HR, 83 OPS+

I'm kind of surprised that Castilla is the only Coors Field bopper to make our list. Before the Rockies installed the humidor, Coors Field played like some weird trumped-up version of spaceball. Fun fact: Castilla hit 20 of his 33 homers at home.

3. Tony Batista, Montreal Expos, 2004, 32 HR, 80 OPS+

Holy Batista! I stand firm by my statement that Batista is the worst hitter to ever accrue 200+ career dingers. Yet, in order to hit 200 career homers, you've got to be given the chance. Making it equally frightening is that he played 11 seasons. Ah, such is the alluring power of the homer.

2. Aaron Hill, Toronto Blue Jays, 2010, 26 HR, 79 OPS+

Coming off a very solid 2009 (114 OPS+), Aaron Hill had a 2010 to forget. The homers mostly carried over from 2009 (36 to 26), but his OBP fell to .271 compared to a career .325. The culprit? A .196 BABIP -- the lowest among all qualified hitters in the majors. Hill seems like a nice rebound candidate next year.

1. Tony Batista, Baltimore Orioles, 2003, 26 HR, 73 OPS+

Were you really expecting anyone else? Batista's 2003 is a masterful display of hitting for power at all costs. He didn't walk (28 BB, 670 PA), and to make things worse he hit into a career-high 20 double plays.

Tony Batista, incredible baseball player or the most incredible baseball player? You decide.

Chris Quick writes for Bay City Ball, which is part of the SweetSpot blog network.

A look at baseball's worst 100-RBI seasons

February, 14, 2011
As most people spending time in this space know already, RBIs are a very poor measure of a hitter’s actual offensive production. So what are the worst seasons ever turned in by players who topped 100 RBIs? The Baseball Reference blog did a list a little like that a while ago using WAR, but WAR includes defense and a positional adjustment; what I’m interested in is a list of guys who got RBIs but were in fact poor offensive players. So I’ve used only the batting component of Baseball Reference’s WAR (rbat), the number of runs above or below average the player’s bat was worth. Here’s the actual list. I’m making a few subjective adjustments to the order of the top 10 below:

[+] EnlargeJoe Carter
US PresswireFormer Toronto outfielder Joe Carter drove in 102 runs in 1997.
10. Jeff Francoeur, 2006 Braves: .260/.293/.449 (-16 rbat), 103 RBIs

This was Francoeur’s first full season, when, at age 22, we could still dream about what might happen if he learned to take a pitch every now and then. He generally hit fifth or sixth in a solid lineup, so he had plenty of runners on base.

9. Ray Pepper, 1934 Browns: .298/.333/.399 (-18 rbat), 101 RBIs

The Browns had one above-average hitter get more than 31 PA. As a team, they had a 77 OPS+, last in the AL, so Pepper’s 83 was right in line. But it was a hitters’ park in a hitter’s time, so Pepper knocked in 101 just by banging out a bunch of singles in a bad lineup, topping 100 RBIs with just six homers. This was Pepper’s only full season; I guess people just didn’t value a proven run producer in those days.

8. Tony Armas, 1983 Red Sox: .218/.254/.453 (-16 rbat), 107 RBI

Armas hit 36 homers in ‘83, then led the league in homers (43), RBIs (123) and strikeouts (156) in ‘84. But he was never able to hit for average or draw walks, and in ‘83, all the non-home-run-hitting aspects of his game were at their very worst.

7. Lou Bierbauer, 1894 Pirates: .303/.337/.407 (-18 rbat), 109 RBI

Bierbauer’s raw numbers don’t look nearly as bad as they were; the entire Pirates team hit .312/.379/.443, and the league averaged more than seven runs per game. Four Pirates starters had an OBP better than .400 and a ton of batters reached on errors, so Bierbauer had plenty of opportunities despite only three homers.

6. Moose Solters, 1936 Browns: .291/.336/.467 (-15 rbat), 134 RBI

These Browns were better hitters than the ones from two seasons prior, and the park and era helped just as much. Solters’ line is no worse than the four others above, but he was that bad and had 134 RBIs! Solters actually surrounded this one with two legitimately good years in 1935 and ‘37, but here he was just in the right place at the right time.

5. Ruben Sierra, 1993 Athletics: .238/.288/.390 (-18 rbat), 101 RBI

As I wrote a few weeks ago, in 1994, Bill James thought Sierra was headed to the Hall. That was written just after this atrocious season. With little patience and just OK power, Sierra depended on maintaining a high batting average to be productive. That aspect of his game fell apart in ‘93. Sierra was never quite this bad again, but also never really recovered, and never drove in 100 again.

4. Lave Cross, 1895 Phillies: .271/.319/.364 (-21 rbat), 101 RBI

See No. 7 above. Cross was one of four Phillies to top 90 RBIs (in just 131 team games). A year before, Cross had played like a star: .387/.424/.528, 132 RBIs. In ‘95, everything about his game dropped through the floor, and he hit just two home runs, but he still reached 100 ribbies. Safe to say that Hall of Fame teammates Billy Hamilton (.490 OBP) and Ed Delahanty (.500) helped.

3. Vinny Castilla, 1999 Rockies: .275/.331/.478 (-20 rbat), 102 RBI

Through his prime, Castilla was a pretty decent hitter who Coors Field made look like a star; this was past that, and he was a very poor hitter who Coors made to look pretty decent. Surprising that Castilla’s partner in crime against unadjusted slash lines, Dante Bichette, doesn’t make this list, but much of Bichette’s negative value came from defense, while Castilla was a solid glove man.

2. Tony Batista, 2004 Expos: .241/.272/.455 (-22 rbat), 110 RBI

If Castilla had never set foot in Coors and had an insane stance, he’d be Batista, whose previous season with Baltimore was one RBI short of No. 1: .235/.270/.393 (-29 rbat), 99 RBI.

1. Joe Carter, 1997 Blue Jays: .234/.284/.399 (-25 rbat), 102 RBI

For Carter, 1997 was his last full season and his worst, but in addition to No. 1, he also occupies spots 11, 15, 47, 105, 129 and 139 on the list. Carter was a more athletic and longer-lasting version of Armas. The Jays plugged Carter into either the number three or four spot in 157 of their 162 games in ‘97, where he cost them significantly in runs and wins on both sides of the ball despite the RBI.

Each of these 10 guys cost his team runs with his bat, while apparently excelling in the category most people seem to associate with “run production” -- RBI are kind of a fun little thing to look at, but it would be nice if we stopped pretending they mean anything.

Bill writes for The Platoon Advantage on ESPN's SweetSpot Network, and you can follow him on Twitter.