Sunday, January 20, 2019

Would A Steve Balboni Career Happen Today?

I want to say right up front that I am not going to knock Steve Balboni in this piece. I really like (liked) the guy when he played and I respected his love for the game (for reasons I will explain in a bit). I am using "Bye-Bye" as an example of a type of player that simply might not exist in MLB today. Steve Balboni set a record for homers by a Kansas City Royals' player that stood for 22 years. But if you look at his valuation through the eyes of the statistics we use now, the Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni we liked back then would not fly today.

Balboni is claimed affectionately by both the Royals and the Yankees' fan bases. He started in the Yankees' farm system after he was drafted in the 2nd Round. He had brief glimpses of playing time for the Yankees in 1981, 1982 and 1983 while mashing a prodigious amount of dingers for the Yankees' farm teams in each of those seasons.

He was then traded before the 1984 season, along with Roger Erickson, for Duane Dewey and Mike Armstrong. Nobody remembers any of those other guys. But Balboni hit it just right with the Royals as they made the playoffs in 1984 and won the World Series in 1985. Balboni played in 120 games in 1984 and hit 28 homers. He played in 160 games in 1985 and set the franchise record for homers with 36. That record stood until 2017 when Mike Moustakas broke it.

Balboni's homers and his ascension as a Major League player cemented him in the hearts of Royals' fans and even more so when he hit a single in the bottom of the ninth to start a rally in Game Six of the 1985 World Series (against the Cardinals). Believe it or not, Steve Balboni received regular season MVP votes in both 1984 and 1985.

And there is the rub. He got himself a World Series ring (and check). His Royals' fan base loved him and he received MVP votes. But according to today's valuations, his season that year was worth 1.1 win above replacement. By comparison, in this past seasons MVP vote, the lowest WAR total by someone who received votes was 2.9.

By today's valuation, Steve Balboni was only the 16th best first basemen in the game that season. If that was today, there would be rumbling by MLB Trade Rumors that his team was in the market for an upgrade.

Steve Balboni played in parts of eleven seasons. Four of them were not of the regular playing time variety. He had seven seasons of major playing time. If you add up all the partials, you could argue eight seasons worth of playing baseball at the highest level. Steve Balboni's career WAR total (according to finished out at 0.9 WAR. So if you do the math, his average yearly WAR total for eight seasons came to about 0.11 per season.

Looking at those valuations, would Steve Balboni have seen eleven seasons in MLB today? The answer is probably no. First base is an offensive position. You want your first baseman to be a bopper but also to play decent defense and get on base at an at least league average rate. Balboni only had the first talent of the three. His lifetime OPS+ is 101. So he was basically just a tick above league average for his career (despite hitting 181 homers). His fielding metrics are not pretty at all.

In Balboni's biggest season, he made 18 errors. As a first baseman? Mark Teixeira only reached ten errors once in his entire career. In 1985, rated his defense as costing the Royals to the tune of -1.6 wins.

Steve Balboni made $3.5 million in his career plus the World Series check. With eleven years of service, he has an MLB pension. That is good on him. I always liked him so I'm glad he got those things. On top of his 181 MLB homers, Balboni also hit 239 more homers in the minors including 86 for the Texas Rangers' Triple A team in three years after his MLB career was basically over. After he retired from baseball at its highest level, he went home and played for semi-pro teams. The guy loved the game. You don't ride the buses at the Triple A level for three seasons after your MLB career has set you up for life.

My favorite factoid about Steve Balboni is that he did not play in the Major Leagues in 1991 or 1992 after the Yankees (in his second act there) released him after the 1990 season. He had three very successful Triple A seasons for the Rangers and finally, at the very end of the 1993 season, the Rangers gave him a courtesy call up and he started the last game of his career on October 2 and his second MLB game of 1993. He played all nine innings and had three hits in four at bats.

Steve Balboni had his career at just the right time. He is forever cemented in the hearts of Royals' fans and he did one thing well. He hit the ball over the fence. I imagine he had a heck of a good time playing and I am glad for that. I just do not think today's MLB world would have a Steve Balboni. And maybe that's a little bit sad.