Adding A Bit of Character into Analysis

For a while, most Sabermetric analysis was very cold and impersonal. Lots of column-sorting in Excel, tabbing through pages in the web browser, and querying databases. The evolution of Sabermetrics has made it simple for a casual fan, a die-hard, and your cadre of baseball writers to criticize and compare your favorite (or least favorite) players.

Somewhere along the line, having the ability to compare and contrast any players at any position in any era has, at times, left us without the perspective we once had in our prior ignorance: that baseball players are people, and as such, are fallible. I don’t level this criticism as an innocent bystander — one need only search the site for any article about Ryan Howard for evidence of my own hand in this.

Here is what sparked this criticism. (Note: This is not to pick on the article’s author, Stephen Gross, who does great work. It’s simply the best example I could find at the time of this writing; others exist.) Gross writes:

Revere is having one of the worst offensive seasons by a .300 hitter major league baseball has ever seen, as The Good Phight website has pointed out.

It used weighted on-base average, a stat that measures overall value on offense and weighs hits — singles, doubles, triples, home runs — differently. It gives a much more accurate value to hitters than typical stats such as batting average or slugging percentage.

Looking at the wOBA of the 3,127 hitters who batted at least .300 over the course of a season in major league history, Revere’s is dead last at .302. In fact, nobody really comes close. Next to last on the list is Maury Wills‘ 1967 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit .302 with a wOBA of .315.

The 26-year-old is ranked 150th out of 151 among qualifying hitters in isolated power, a sabermetrics stat measuring raw power. Only the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter (.056) has a lower isolated power number than Revere’s .060. It doesn’t help that Revere has just one home run this year, the only one of his career.

As far as his walk rate goes, that’s not any better. Out of 151 qualified hitters, he’s dead last with a 2.4 percent rate.

That is solid analysis by Gross, one that you might find on any Sabermetrically-oriented site like FanGraphs, Beyond the Box Score, or even here. But imagine an article that pines for the day Howard cuts his strikeout rate into the teens, rather than nearly 30 percent. It goes against the very nature of the player himself, and is akin to trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Players this side of Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout are who they are: flawed, incomplete players.

Revere is no different. He does several things well: hit for average, avoid strikeouts, steal bases, show range in the outfield. He is poor in other areas, such as his inability to draw walks, his poor reads in center field, and his total lack of power. It’s possible Revere could eschew some poor habits in the future, but for the most part, what we see out of him is what we’re going to get. No amount of coaching or extra batting practice is going to drive Revere’s ISO into the .100’s.

This does not mean Revere is a poor player. Baseball Reference rates Revere as a 0.5 WAR player this season, while FanGraphs puts him at 1.1, due to being less harsh on his defense. Sadly, the rise of Sabermetrics and stats such as WAR — which uses 0 as a baseline for replacement level and 2 for average — have made the descriptor “average” a pejorative. Average players — and, yes, below-average players — have value and are more scarce than we tend to think.

Last season, 633 position players took at least one plate appearance in the major leagues. This includes everybody from your superstars to your 31-year-old lifetime Triple-A player getting a cup of coffee at the end of September. According to Baseball Reference, 261 (41%) of them were worth 0 WAR or less. 207 of them (33%) were worth at least one win above replacement. 168 (26.5%) were worth at least 1.5 WAR, and 137 (22%) at least 2 WAR. There are a multitude of factors explaining the unequal distribution of talent, but generally speaking, we would expect a team that uses 25 position players over the course of a full season (one less than the Phillies did in 2013) to have only five players worth at least 2 WAR and nine at replacement level or worse.

Revere is not Shane Victorino. Victorino has had six seasons of 3+ WAR (per B-R). Revere will be lucky, or will have evolved into a more complete player, if he cracks 3 WAR even once in his career. But Revere is still a player who is valuable to the Phillies and can be a great asset going forward.

Think back to the 1993 Phillies. Remember all of the fun players whose names you can recall at a moment’s notice? Many of them were of similar stature as Revere. Jim Eisenreich posted 2.5 WAR; Wes Chamberlain and Kevin Stocker 1.4; Milt Thompson 1.1; Mickey Morandini 0.3; Mariano Duncan 0.1. But as far as the team went, they had a role and they were utilized in ways that highlighted their strengths and were held out of situations that exposed their weaknesses (e.g. platoons). A team does not need a superstar, or even an average player, at every position to be successful.

This is not to say that any criticism leveled at Revere is wrong. Most of it is valid, particularly concerning his defense. But to look at his .309 average and 32 stolen bases, and wish that he had 10 more doubles and 10 more home runs and a few more walks to go along with it, is to wish that he were an entirely different ballplayer. We mustn’t banish players into the shadows when they fail to live up to our platonic ideal.

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  1. Paul

    August 12, 2014 08:20 AM

    Great piece. Really puts the onus on the manager to leverage players’ strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

  2. Carmine

    August 12, 2014 09:09 AM

    Excellent points, Bill. During the days approaching the trade deadline, there were comments on several sites asking people to put themselves sin the player’s place, trying to do your job not knowing if you and your family will be uprooted. Sometimes a guy has a problem at home and doesn’t focus at the park that day the way he should, or has a sinus headache, so he misses a hanging slider instead of crushing it. Yes, they make millions, but that is due to the economics of the game. The money doesn’t wipe away their humanity.
    Having said all that, I still fault Amaro for trading two serviceable pitchers for Revere while Washington traded only one (out of a surplus of young arms — which the Phillies did not have then and do not have now) for the far superior Denard Span, who, after a year adjusting to the NL, is one of the most valuable players on a first-place team. Again, it’s not that Revere is not a useful player; your point is valid. It’s the fact that Ruben once again paid more than he had to for a lesser player.

    • MattWinks

      August 12, 2014 11:00 AM

      Alex Meyer was at the time and remains a superior prospect to anyone the Phillies traded for Ben Revere. Part of my issue with the sabermetric analysis is that 2 WAR player + 2 WAR player must equal 4 WAR player. The truth is that player is much more valuable than those 2 WAR players, it isn’t linear. Bill in the article brings up how rare “average” major leaguers are, those that are extraordinary are even rarer and Meyer has that ability. Prospects are not fungible, the top ones are far and away better than those below them. The difference in value between Byron Buxton (#1 prospect) and Maikel Franco (#60ish prospect) is not that much different than the difference between Mike Trout and Ben Revere. And as is said above, that doesn’t make Ben Revere bad.

      The Phillies still have 3 more years of control on Ben Revere, Trevor May is probably a #4 starter or a reliever, and Vance Worley was traded for cash (I still don’t believe Worley’s breakout because he still can’t miss bats). The Phillies got a hell of a bargain.

      • tom b

        August 12, 2014 11:08 AM

        i wouldn’t go so far as to say the phillies got a hell of a bargain. doesn.t matter if you believe in worleys breakout since it is happening anyway. if you are saying there is no room for a pitcher that doesn’t miss bats well the rotation is full of them now. anyway i started out to agree with your comment and not sure what happened there. i think if you could put revere in lf to hide his arm he would be more useful. as far as one of the comments here saying reveres singles are like walks because he can’t drive in runs,i choose to say that his singles are more like doubles because he ends up stealing 2nd base so often.

      • Rob Larsen

        August 14, 2014 02:35 PM

        I admit I had to look up fungible. Great word.

  3. Bob

    August 12, 2014 09:31 AM

    Here are a few things I find wrong with Revere.

    1. His arm. Its that bad. It allows people to score from 2nd whenever a ball is hit to center. And also, people are going first to third on him on a ball to CF. Evern tagging from 2nd to 3rd on a fly ball.
    2. His singles are essentially walks. He has no extra base hit power. And since the OFs play so shallow, its tough for other base runners to advance on a first to third or from 2nd to home, as evident of Brown being thrown out at home yesterday.
    3. His routes in the OF are some of the worst.

    The problem with thinking Revere is a more than adequate player is when he is due for extension, a GM like Amaro will look at batting average and give him 10 million a year. The best thing to do is trade him for whatever you can get in the offseason.

    • Chris S.

      August 12, 2014 10:03 AM

      If his singles are basically walks, then his 32 stolen bases has basically made those “walks” into doubles. Again, the Twins have gotten negative value out of the trade the Phillies made with them while the Phillies have picked up an average MLB player. So far the trade is a win for the Phillies not the Twins. Worley produced -0.2 fWAR for the Twins and the Twins released him and he is pitching decently for the Pirates, not the Twins. If you are upset about the Vanimal pitching well now, then be upset about the Phillies not picking him up when he was available, not at the initial trade.

      • Bob

        August 12, 2014 11:34 AM

        He steals a base once every 4-5 games. Still not even close to the value of a guy who has no power. He is useless with guys on. And the worst thing is there isnt much room for improvement, and once his speed goes (as it does with every player who gets older), he will be even more worthless.

        Let him be another team’s mistake.

  4. Dan P

    August 12, 2014 10:52 AM

    I agree. And that last sentence is gold.

  5. bubba0101

    August 12, 2014 11:54 AM

    The guy would be a perfect 8 hole hitter and plays a solid average center field. Not his fault we dont have anyone better to play center. And its not his fault he is hitting where he is in the lineup. I like the piece Bill. Thanks.

    • Bob

      August 12, 2014 12:16 PM

      His arm makes him a well below average.

      In defensive runs saved, he is the WORST CF in baseball. And its by quite a margain. He really isnt that good tracking balls either.

  6. JB Allen

    August 12, 2014 12:02 PM

    Bill, I think your article is well-written and your basic points are sound, but isn’t comparing WAR with those 1993 Phillies players inaccurate? Isn’t WAR a cumulative stat?

    Have there been any studies of each team’s WAR-levels for each position? I bet that would help identify the value of platooning.

  7. Beez Nutz

    August 12, 2014 12:14 PM

    i get that the article used Revere as its subject / example …

    but these comments are hilarious

    All the issues this team has and many of you are wasting your time bashing Ben Revere… laughable

  8. Rob Larsen

    August 12, 2014 01:02 PM

    Old schoolers like me still prefer the eye test to wOBA or WAR comparisons and your explanation of the flaws of the ’93 players puts that into perspective very well. When you boil it down fans can live with, and maybe even root for flawed players as long as the team contends. Defensively, Ben Revere’s biggest defect is his arm, which hasn’t been much of a factor all based on the eye test. Still it is the first thing everyone points out. Ashburn and Dykstra both were packing pop-gun arms as well.

    • dang

      August 12, 2014 02:57 PM

      How good is your eye?

      Do you know the difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter? It’s less than one hit a week. How good is your eye, without looking at the numbers each game, to be able to tell the difference between the two? You wouldn’t be able to keep track without the record books.

    • Carmine

      August 12, 2014 04:31 PM

      Ashburn’s arm was good enough to throw out Cal Abrams at home on the last day of the season against the Dodgers and help keep things tied until Sisler’s home run. Revere couldn’t make that throw in a million years.
      I guess I would consider myself a mix of old and new school and agree with the post above that we waste too much time talking about Revere.

  9. Ryan

    August 12, 2014 01:04 PM

    Great article.

  10. dang

    August 12, 2014 02:54 PM

    Batting average is a descriptive stat. It describes what has happened. Unfortunately, by weighing all hits the same, it is a poor descriptor. If you had 2 pennies, a dime, and a quarter, and I asked you how much money you had, you wouldn’t tell me “4 coins”. You would tell me the value of those coins.

    This is where batting average fails and wOBA is more accurate. Trying to say his .309 BA and 32 SB make him valuable would be tantamount to saying that he’s more valuable than Miguel Cabrera with his .308 BA and 1 SB.

    Ben Revere is below average at the plate, good at stealing bases, and his arm is detrimental in the field. He just isn’t great. He’s far from terrible.

    • Rob Larsen

      August 12, 2014 10:42 PM

      I would be happy as a clam if they could deal Revere before the waiver deadline and get a bag of balls. I could live with Sizemore in center. How does he measure up in the metric department?

      • ASK

        August 15, 2014 07:15 AM

        In the small sample size of Sizemore’s 167 innings in CF this year, he’s been worse in CF than Darin Ruf was in RF last year. Even before this year, understanding that he missed 2012 and 2013 due to injury, you have to go back to 2008 to find the last time he was a positive contributor defensively in CF. Maybe you could live with Sizemore, but I doubt the Phillies pitching staff can. Sizemore has played well defensively in the corner OF this year, but I doubt that he has enough bat to play in RF or LF. When his .373 BABIP (in the small sample size of 100 PA’s in Philly) regresses back closer to his post-2007 career average of .282, he’s likely be somewhere around replacement level going forward.

  11. eddie

    August 12, 2014 08:37 PM

    I think this is like the third article on the site defending Revere this year, all of which boil down to “hey, he’s not totally useless; mediocre players have value, too!”

    Yes, mediocre players have value. He’s not their biggest problem. He’s not the solution, either, and it seems worth pointing out to fans who might put a lot of stock in BA that ” hey, he’s not actually very good, and he will likely have to be replaced along with all the other guys you already knew had to be replaced.” It certainly doesn’t amount to forgetting to see him as a human being.

    Hey Mickey Morandini was my favorite player. But I can be objective enough to acknowledge that he wasn’t really a big part of why that ’93 team won.

    • ASK

      August 15, 2014 07:32 AM

      The “mediocre players have value, too” is probably in response to the many fans who think that Revere sucks and should be cut or traded for a bag of balls. Depending upon which site’s WAR you use, Revere has either produced the 7th or the 12th most WAR this year while being paid less than $2M. When you recognize that the Phils were taking a stars and scrubs approach to the past 3 years and remember all of the players that have produced below replacement level (Wigginton, the Nix brothers, the Youngs, Gwynn, Mini Mart…and the list goes on) since the end of 2011, you realize that the team could have been significantly better if they had more guys like Revere producing ~1 WAR for ~$2M.

      No, Revere’s not great. When all is said and done, he might not ever be an average MLB OF for a full season again. However, while he is relatively low cost, under team control and young, he should be more of an asset than a liability. If they trade him for a bag of baseballs or release him, I would guess that a smart front office would acquire him and get very good value out of him.

  12. Romus

    August 13, 2014 03:57 PM

    For what the Phillies had given in return for Revere, .I think they came out on the plus side.
    In the long run, this may be one of Ruben’s better trades.
    Which is, I know, not saying much.

  13. Jeff

    August 16, 2014 09:14 PM

    It’s all about context and usage. Nobody would complain about Revere being the 4th OF instead of the starting CF. Or if he were the starting CF and #8 hitter on a juggernaut offensive team on track to win 95 games.

    Not yet convinced that the 1993 platooners really are in the same range as Revere. Having an apples-to-apples comparison means looking at their platoon splits and then approximate their full-time WARs. If Eisenreich’s lefty split were 0.5 WAR, then he’s a 3.0 full-time player — is he then still in the same range as Revere? Likewise, some 1993 guys might have declined out of Revere’s range if forced to play full-time against their weaker platoon splits.

    Maybe it’s true — it’s just inconclusive (at best) from the stats given.

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