When Being Medium Is No Mean Feat
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: November 19, 2006
It is baseball’s award season, with headlines and hardware bestowed upon each league’s best rookie, pitcher and what-not. Tomorrow and Tuesday will bring the ever-anticipated Most Valuable Player awards, the season’s ultimate prizes, on which baseball chews as fervently as a fine mix of hay and Skoal.
Yet to team executives milling about the hotel lobby at last week’s general managers meetings in Naples, Fla., scratching out their 2007 shopping lists, all the talk of “best” this and “outstanding” that was well and good, but rather limiting.
After all, award-worthy players like the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and the Yankees’ Derek Jeter are as tied to their teams as Rush Limbaugh is to his. Given this year’s relatively nondescript free-agent market, the G.M. intrigue focused more on a group of players who never receive awards: the truly, unmistakably average.
The belly of a Bell curve is rarely so attractive. As dull as “average” sounds outside baseball, team builders covet these players so highly that the average begins to appear above average. And you wonder why salaries keep going up.
“Is it attractive? Oh yeah,” said Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager. “You have to have a great deal of talent to be an average major leaguer. We all like to have a roster of above-average major league players, but that’s not realistic. You’ll have a few above-average players, and you try to sprinkle the rest of the roster with as many average players as you possibly can. There’s value in their performance.”
If voting were held for a 2006 Most Average Player award, or M.A.P., who would win?
This depends on one’s definition of average, of course, but a fair one is this: the major leaguer whose statistics are closest to average among players with at least 400 plate appearances. (Looking at only starting-caliber players is necessary because total league averages are thrown out of whack by scores of rookies with maybe three at-bats.)
By that standard, this season’s Most Average Player was Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson, who hit .287 with 15 home runs and 67 runs batted in — very close to the major league averages of .283-18-73. His stolen bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentages were almost dead-on with major league norms. So call him Mr. Average. If he objects, perhaps Mr. Mean.
(More than 10 different statistical categories were assessed and weighted for general offensive value to determine the most average player.)
Getting back to Hudson, the statistically minded are surely shaking their heads, knowing that Hudson would never really be considered an average major leaguer, because he put up those statistics as a second baseman. Players should truly be compared to norms at their position. It is those results (see chart) that paint a clearer picture of what is truly average.
The all-Average Team — including the likes of Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay and Royals left fielder Emil Brown — has players who would find dozens of eager suitors on the open market. And the average performance the Tigers received from center fielder Curtis Granderson for just $335,000 last season made him one of the biggest bargains in the majors.
“There’s a misperception that it’s easy to acquire an average player, that those players are readily available,” said Rick Hahn, the White Sox’ assistant general manager. “You can’t denigrate that value.”
Average starting pitchers are even more coveted. Those who made at least 18 starts last season put up an average record of 12-10 with a 4.14 earned run average. While also considering statistics like batting average allowed and innings pitched, the most average pitchers were Jeff Francis of the Colorado Rockies (13-11, 4.16 E.R.A.) and Dave Bush (12-10, 4.25) of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Since Francis put up his numbers in the hitters’ haven of Coors Field, one could normalize the statistics based on home ballpark environment — and teams do just that. “Those guys are really valuable,” Hahn added. “You’re not going to find a pitcher in the minors who can make 30 or 32 starts and put up the league average for you.”
If being average is valuable, how about being far from average? This cuts both ways, naturally.
The two most unaverage players in the big leagues turned out to be Ryan Howard of the Phillies (.313 batting average with 58 homers and 149 R.B.I.) and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals (.331-49-137), and they will deservedly be the consensus top two in the National League M.V.P. voting to be revealed tomorrow afternoon.
Yet their nonaverageness was trailed only narrowly by Yadier Molina, the punchless .216-hitting catcher for the Cardinals (though Mets fans remember him quite differently).
Average is in the eye of the beholder, no doubt. But in building their clubs in off-seasons like this one, most baseball executives grab onto average players like trees in a hurricane.
“They may be average, but they look above average to me,” said Ned Colletti, the Dodgers’ general manager. “They’re definitely closer to positive than negative. You try to make average your minimum, because average is pretty darned good.”