Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Mark Kotsay Syndrome Revisited

A week or so ago in this space, we talked about how teams rely on veteran players to fill out their rosters despite that fact that many of them provide no overall value to their teams. Mark Kotsay was used as an example and we used his name for the "syndrome." But we very well could have used Jerry Hairston, Jr., Kotsay's teammate, Craig Counsell or any other of the dozens of players who continue to get jobs years after year despite the fact they provide a wins above replacement (WAR) in the negative numbers. In fact, a further study found that in 2010, there were 123 players (non-pitchers) who had over 100 plate appearances and finished with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. 123!

The Fan read off some of that list on his podcast last night and many of the names are no doubt familiar to you. Some will open the season as starters for their respective teams (Getz, Theriot). But many of the same group of guys that hang around year after year. Many of them are catchers of the Butera, Molina, Hester and Cash variety. If you can squat for five innings, you can play in the major leagues for fifteen years. It doesn't matter if you are any good or not.

The point of the original post was that these guys are kept around because managers and general managers are more comfortable with "proven" major league-experienced players than they are with youngsters. Many of those people will say that these veterans add to the clubhouse. That must be a lot of clubhouse value to those guys to keep so many of them without value around for so long. Kevin Millar made five or six extra years in his career because of his "clubhouse" gifts.

The other point in the original post was that these guys are more expensive than the major league minimum in most cases. Kotsay will make $800,000 or almost double the minimum. Many will make in the millions. Many teams cry poverty and budget restrictions and yet will sign Melky Cabrera, Pedro Feliz and others way above major league minimum despite their history of no or negative value. Feliz finished last year with a WAR of -2.3, the lowest non-pitcher with more than 100 plate appearances. Yet, Feliz has a job (with the Royals) for far over the minimum. It just seems to this observer that teams could save a lot of money and not lose a whole lot of player value by always rounding out their rosters with rookie players to act as their utility people. The Tampa Bay Rays do this to perfection most of the time. If the Fan was running a team, the utility guy would always be a first or second year player making near the minimum.

This topic fascinates the Fan and this writer finds it amazing that so many fringe players hang around so long. Not only does this cost teams money now but also later as these marginal players who hang around for years add to their retirement packages by playing that long. It seems foolish when you think about it. After some careful (unprofessional) study, the Fan found that the 123 total of 2010 was certainly not out of line for the total amount of MLB players with a zero WAR or with a negative number. Below is a little chart the Fan put together of the totals for each decade going back to the 1911. The number on the left is the decade and the number on the right was the amount of players with 100 plate appearances and zero or negative WAR.
At first the Fan was struck by how large the numbers have gotten over the years. If you used a graph to show the increase over the years, it would look like this:

But then the Fan remembered that the teams have increased over the years and so there would be many more players. The number of teams chart looks very similar to the one above. Those early decades had 16 teams and then it moved to 20 and then 24, then 26 and finally 30. So it's more instructive to look at the percentage of players over the years who fit our category. That is, the percentage of total players in a league for a decade.

And the percentage over the years looks like this:

1911 - 20 -   18.78%   Dead ball era.
1921 - 30 -   17.15%   Getting into live ball era
1931 - 40 -   15.70%   Real hitters' era
1941 - 50 -   17.60%   More mediocre players due to WWII
1951 - 60 -   16.38%
1961 - 70 -   18.66%   First wave of expansion. Pitchers' era
1971 - 80 -   19.57%   Still pitchers era?
1981 - 90 -   16.63%
1991 - 00 -   16.55%
2001 - 10 -   16.87%

As you can see, those numbers are pretty consistent over the eras with slight variations due to conditions in the game. You can also see that the last three decades have shown a vast improvement over the 1960s and 1970s, so perhaps we are getting smarter.

The conclusion of all this is that first, sixteen and a half to twenty percent of the majors has been made up of non-pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances that end up with zero or lower value. It also shows that managers across time have held onto players with little value as comfort food. That was okay in the old days when players cost relatively little. But it's simply not financially acceptable to keep pouring money into fringe players that have hung around for five years or more and have proven over and over that they offer little, no or negative value at a rate of pay much higher than the major league minimum.


Graham Womack said...

Great post, though for $800,000 I think I might take a chance having Kotsay on my bench. He doesn't seem like a terrible fourth outfielder.

Thanks for the Twitter follow, too. Glad to make your acquaintance.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks, Graham! And the same here. Do you feel the same about Counsell at $1.4 mil?

Graham Womack said...

I can't get behind a 40-year-old with a career OPS+ of 80, not for $1.4 million at least. But Counsell might be a decent extra glove for half that.