February 14, 2014
The Search for Yuni's Successor
The year was 2007, and America’s outlook had never been brighter. A young Arkansas governor named Bill J. Clinton had just been elected president with promises of universal hearth care for everybody’s hearths. An inventor named Steve Jobs was tinkering in his garage on a machine that would one day be called the Splash-Proof Thermapen Thermometer. And a shortstop in Seattle named Yuniesky Betancourt was doing amazing things that we would never see again: Topping replacement level.
That year was undoubtedly Betancourt’s best. He attempted nine steals and was successful five times. He played defense only five runs worse than the average shortstop. He drew 15 walks, in just 559 plate appearances. And among players with at least 250 plate appearances, his isolated power was a lofty 210th, tied with a 41-year-old Jeff Conine. In recognition of his contribution to the nation’s baseball, Congress awarded him two WARs, the highest honor ever received by a Yuniesky.
But like Robert Moses building a parkway to Jones Beach, Betancourt was only beginning his life’s work. Over the next six seasons, he would never top replacement level again. And he would never stop working tirelessly at it:
2008: 153 games, -0.2 wins*
Betancourt was not the first to compile so many worthless seasons, but he was the first (at least in our lifetimes) to compile them in such a condensed career while maintaining full-time status. In a span of six years, he had five in which he batted at least 400 times with negative results. Joe Carter is the only other player since 1980 with as many 400/-0.1 seasons in his career, and his came over the span of nine years—nine years in which he was actually a cumulative six wins above replacement.
Now Betancourt has abandoned us to play sub-replacement baseball in Japan. Where will we find our Yuniesky? The player just attractive enough to play almost every day for six consecutive seasons, yet so poor that he couldn’t even once fluke his way to a level deemed easily attainable, and yet also good enough that two GMs would each choose to acquire him twice, before the burning from the first infection had even subsided?
To appreciate what a rare skill set this is, consider: Your first answer to the question was almost certainly Christopher Getz. Christopher Getz, in his seemingly Yunieskian career, has never had a sub-replacement season. Never above 1.0, but never below 0.0, either. And as omnipresent as he seems to be, he has never had the plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. This is somebody who has to be much worse than Getz, and play much more often.
The search begins:
We’re starting with an unlikely candidate because that’s how these lists are arranged. You know the drill. I start with somebody famous so you don’t think the rest of this piece is going to be about Chris Nelson and wander away. Then I zero in on better and better candidates until finally concluding with a player who is so obviously the right answer that we should have just started with him: “Just kidding," I'll say for the final guys, "it’s obviously going to be _______.” And it is! But we won’t learn anything just going straight to obvious candidate. So we’re starting with Weeks.
The problems with Weeks’ problems: He’s awfully old, so despite his famous name and history of success, it’s less likely that team after team will keep thinking this is the year he puts it all back together, at age 33 or whatever. Yuni’s run coincided with his peak years, 26 to 31. There’s a reason baseball players lie about their age. Further, Weeks can’t be counted on to stay healthy the way Yuni always was. Finally, Weeks hits too much to be this unreliable; once he moves off second base and leaves the -15 and -30 defensive ratings behind, he’ll likely hit enough to manage 0.1 wins at a less demanding defensive home in left field or at first base.
The problems with Stubbs’ problems: “can’t hit” is relative. Stubbs last year had a .250 TAv, the second worst of his career. Yuni hasn’t had a TAv that high since 2007. He’s a very good baserunner, and he draws walks. Further, his being right-handed hurts his chances of getting 500 plate appearances more than it might have hurt Yuni, left-handed platoonmates being easier to find in the outfield than at shortstop.
Middle infielder, insists he can play shortstop; power; young; success on resume; Yuni reference in his BP Annual chapter: “His walk rate dropped below the Yuniesky Line, he underslugged a frat boy’s BAC and FRAA downgraded his defensive credit rating from AA to B.”
The problems with Espinosa’s problems: His sub-replacement 2013 season was an anomaly and, one could fairly assume, was related to a broken wrist. In particular, his defense has always rated well enough that he’ll struggle to get the consistent -10s necessary for sustained sub-replacement scores. To get a sense of how much better Espinosa probably is than Yuni: His projected WARP this year, even after the injury-affected 2013 season, is 0.8. Yuni’s is -0.6.
The problems with Pacheco’s problems: He doesn’t have nearly the resume or the appearance of tools necessary to convince team after team to give him everyday jobs; can’t play shortstop; with a clutch hit or two and a rousing speech in the clubhouse, might be answer to a Who’s The Next Don Kelly search someday, but even accounting for the sort of BABIP bubbles a player like Pacheco is capable of inflating, it's hard to see his avenue to sustained full-time work.
The problems with Hechavarria’s problems: Just kidding, it’s obviously going to be Hechavarria. We might be looking at an all-timer here. You want a comp? Here it is:
Griffin went on to have one of the greatest Yuni careers of all-time, with seven sub-replacement seasons in total and a four-year run in his mid-20s with -3.2 total WARP in full-time play. It’s certainly possible Hechavarria turns into something good, that his defense ends up at +15 instead of -5. (Note that he makes lots of really great plays, and appears to have issues only with positioning.) But for now he’s bad, and he’s not going anywhere. At least until he turns 31 and Japan takes him.
*A note about "wins" in this piece. In all cases we used WARP except when talking about Betancourt's six-year negative streak, for which we used B-Ref WAR. We did this because, by WARP, Betancourt snuck a couple years above replacement level in. And it's more fun if he didn't. Yes, this is cherry picking, but if God didn't want us cherry picking our win-above-replacement figures he wouldn't have invented so many different websites.