Probably my favorite part of each brand-new baseball season – aside from actually watching the games – is the fact that the statistics are back. They’re new, fresh, and lively; they jump to and fro from game to game and even from plate appearance to plate appearance. Much of baseball, for better or worse, is about the numbers, and if you can appreciate this fact while still relishing in the romance of the game, baseball has simply never been better.
Part of this early-season statistical charm is that the numbers themselves are quirky and peculiar, much like many of the players we celebrate here. When else can a utility infielder hit .625? A slugger have an OPS of .254? Your fifth starter be undefeated? As they accumulate, their rough edges smooth, and while they become more accurate and descriptive, in some ways, they’re simply less fun. Can’t we take a moment to appreciate the dichotomy between the fact that these numbers are at once entirely accurate and wholly false? What good is regression, really, for the soul?
For me, April is that time. It’s just so great to have them both – the players and the numbers – back in my life. Adam Dunn is slugging .111 right now. His ability and numbers are so disparate, it’s impossible not to consider them two separate things. Time will pass, and this gulf will disappear: his slugging percentage will be .520, and the two will be indistinguishable from one another. But for now, I’m able to watch Adam Dunn the player and Adam Dunn the numbers wrestle one another, and man, it’s great.
RAR, or Runs Above Replacement, is a relatively easy statistic to comprehend. Each play a player is involved in (both offensively and defensively) has a value that can be calculated in terms of how many runs that specific contribution was worth to his team. A single is worth a positive fraction of a run; a strikeout is worth a negative fraction of a run, and so forth. RAR is just the sum of all of these individual values. It’s a simple metric for the value of a player, and it allows us to ask questions like: over the first week of the season, who were baseball’s five least-valuable players?
1. Julio Borbon, OF, Texas (-5.2)
Swing and a miss! Coming into the year as a vaunted young speedster with an outside shot at 10HR and 40SB in Texas, Borbon hasn’t done anything thus far: in 25 trips to the plate, he has exactly one hit (a single to shortstop), five strikeouts, and zero walks. The sample size is small, but it certainly seems as though we’re in for some growing pains. Borbon obviously has to start drawing a few walks, especially since the Rangers are batting him atop the order. This placement is owed almost entirely to his speed, and is almost certainly the wrong thing to be doing: he won’t get on base enough in 2010 to justify the leadoff spot, especially in the Rangers’ strong lineup. Even if he does start to hit, he may get dropped to the bottom of the order; if he doesn’t start hitting, he will begin to yield starts to David Murphy.
2. Carlos Lee, OF, Houston (-4.1)
Thanks to his consistent slugging, Carlos Lee has been a very good player for his 8-year career. His age 34-season has started with a whimper: the two-time NL Silver Slugger award winner has been a barren wasteland at the plate, knocking just three singles in 27 ABs with a 9/1 K/BB ratio. He’s also already had to face Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay, and Adam Wainwright, which certainly hasn’t helped. Lee is a miserable fielder, so he needs to mash in order to earn his huge salary (he makes a guaranteed $1.85M/yr through 2012). Complicating Lee’s picture is the fact that the Astros are very, very bad; Geoff Blum is protecting him, and opposing pitchers simply have no reason to pitch to Lee with Berkman out of the lineup. Only 40% of pitches he’s seen have been strikes; he knows that there’s no one behind him to drive him in, so rather than taking all those balls, he’s been trying to hit them. It’s tough to be an Astros fan right now.
3. Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida (-3.8)
Coghlan became a popular player in 2009 when he hit .321 for the Marlins. This is really all there is to say about Chris Coghlan, who doesn’t run particularly well, field particularly well, or have much power. Still, his ability to make consistent contact with the ball fast-tracked him to the top of the Marlins’ order, where he’s gone 5-for-33 with a 9/1 K/BB ratio so far this season. Coghlan’s been oddly swing-happy in 2010; he walked in fewer than 10% of his at-bats last year, but that’s better than the 3% he’s currently managing. He’s inexplicably cutting lose on 53% of the pitches he sees, and has been missing them much more frequently than he did last year. To his credit, he’s turned two of his five hits (all singles) into doubles via the stolen base.
4. Lyle Overbay, 1B, Toronto (-3.5)
Lyle Overbay, easily one of the most boring regulars in the Major Leagues, enters the final year of a 4-year, $24M contract for the Jays this season. Overbay is a slightly-above-average player, which makes him woefully miscast as a first baseman in the AL East. He’s hitting .077; that his only two hits have been a double and a home run have helped him from being higher on this list. He’s also managing a 6/4 K/BB ratio. On Opening Day, Overbay struck out against Darren Oliver with one out, the bases loaded, and the Jays training by 1 in the top of the 8th. A capable doubles hitter and left-handed hitter, Overbay is a candidate to be traded for spare parts later this year. He certainly won’t be back in 2011.
5. Melky Cabrera, OF, Atlanta (-3.1)
Traded to the Braves from the Yankees over the offseason, Cabrera’s been Atlanta’s regular left-fielder this season. He’s actually doing little to suggest that there’s anything terribly wrong here: with a 4/4 K/BB ratio and an 84% contact rate, Cabrera’s been hitting a few too many ground balls, really, and hitting them where fielders are standing. He’s batting leadoff for the Braves, so while he hasn’t been doing anything too miserable, he’s just not accruing any value whatsoever. With two on and his team trailing by two runs in the bottom of the 9th last Thursday, he took a called strike three against Carlos Marmol.