Here's a pleasant story from the ex-Oriole vein: Rick Short, who toiled in the Orioles' organization from 1994 to 2000 without reaching the majors, is having the season of his life for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Les Carpenter of the Washington Post wrote a feature-length article on Short entitled “Career Minor Leaguer Is Defying the Law of Averages” that appeared on the front page of the paper yesterday. It describes Short's exceptional year and his twelve-year odyssey through pro baseball, during which he has encountered great frustration and responded to it with equally great determination.
To make a long story...longer?
Short's batting average for New Orleans has hovered around the .400 mark for much of this season, although it has dropped of late—this morning it stood at .389, according to updated stats from minorleaguebaseball.com. That still leads the Pacific Coast League by a wide margin, as the second-place hitter, Joe Dillon of the Albuquerque Isotopes, is 30 points behind. (As many of you know, the PCL is a hitter-friendly league. However, the Zephyrs' home field is an extreme pitchers' park, so it's hard to argue that Short has received a boost from his playing environment.) With eleven games left in the season, Short is still within reach of the mystical .400 level that has eluded even the greatest of hitters.
According to the Post and a brief article about Short on the Zephyrs' official site, the last player to exceed .400 in batting over a full season of professional baseball was Aaron Pointer (.402) for Class-A Salisbury (NC) in 1961. Even if Short falls short of .400, he has an excellent chance of setting the modern PCL record for batting average in a season, currently held by Chris Smith with his .379 in 1983.
Short is not just a singles hitter, as he has also posted a .461 on-base percentage (2nd) and a .581 slugging percentage (8th). His 1.042 OPS ranks fourth in the circuit, and he has a fine strikeout-to-walk ratio of 26:45 in 412 plate appearances.
Short, 32, is listed as an infielder, but is really a utility player who serves wherever he is needed (usually at one of the corner positions). This year, for example, he has played 46 games at first base, 28 at second, 25 at third, 4 in the outfield, and even 2 at catcher. His detractors say that he has never stood out at any position defensively, and that his extra-base pop is not sufficient to start at one of the corners. He's always been able to hit for average, though: he has topped .300 at every level of the minors, usually with decent OBP and SLG figures as well. Yet because of his lack of spectacular "tools" and his defensive itinerancy, he has been anathematized with the label of Quadruple-A player.
In many ways Short is the right-handed hitting equivalent of Howie Clark. Clark, 31, is another fine contact hitter without a fixed position who served many years in the Orioles' minor-league system before breaking into the majors briefly in 2002, followed by major-league stints in 2003 and 2004 with Toronto. Lately Clark has batted .375 in about a month of action for the Altoona Curve, the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, although he is on the disabled list at the moment.
Alejandro Freire, who received a call-up to the Orioles this month for his first major-league opportunity at age 30, is another example of a player who has hit at every level of the minors yet has received scant attention from big-league decision-makers because of his defensive peccadilloes. Triple-A is filled with players like this.
Long-time minor-leaguers such as Short, Clark, and Freire often get the short shrift from major-league clubs that decide to fill out their benches with over-the-hill players who have major-league experience (e.g., Carlos Baerga) and younger players who are out of options. Also working against the bush-league vets is the expansion of bullpen specialization, which has reduced the number of spots given to position players on rosters. Typically a club will have six or seven relievers, meaning eleven or twelve pitchers, and that leaves just four or five extra places on the roster for second-line position players. One of those will automatically go to the backup catcher. The other spots will be divided between infielders and outfielders. Some will be capable hitters with subpar gloves, others flashy fielders with subpar bats, and the rest passable on both offense and defense. Often teams overestimate the importance of defense. The situation varies depending on the available personnel, but a good hitter, when deployed intelligently, will provide more value to his club over the course of a season than a good fielder with a weak bat—or, for that matter, a third lefty reliever.
If given a full chance in the majors, Short probably would not be a star. But he could become a useful part-time "roamer" in the mold of B.J. Surhoff or David Newhan. A lot of major-league teams, including the Orioles—and, I should point out, the Nationals—could have used someone like Short this season as a role player to fill in at the corners and hit against tough left-handers.
Perhaps more minor-league veterans should try to put an escape clause in their contracts similar to the one Newhan had with the Texas Rangers in 2004, when he was allowed to look for a major-league job with another organization after he was not promoted to the majors by June 15. Of course, most minor-league vets don't have the negotiating power of Scott Boras on their side to push for such clauses, but the better players may have the leverage to include such an option and increase their chances of reaching the big leagues.
There's gold in them thar bats
Carpenter tells a great anecdote about when the Nationals promoted Short to the majors in midseason:
On the day his big, fat dream came true they showed him a closet next to the clubhouse at RFK. Inside were piles of bats discarded by the Nationals. Short dug through them, amazed at the array of unused equipment. He found a box of bats that shortstop Cristian Guzman didn't want, pulled one out and immediately loved the way it felt. This is what he took with him to home plate when they called him to pinch hit a few innings later.
He hit the ball twice off Seattle pitcher Joel Piñeiro. One was a foul ball, the other a single to left. The contact left two black scuff marks on the bat. When the game was over, he pulled a long sock over the bat to protect it and took it, along with the rest of Guzman's discarded bats, and went back to New Orleans. Which of course brings delicious irony to this story -- while Guzman is having the worst offensive year of any big league regular in nearly two decades, Short is using his bats to chase something that hasn't been done in the minors since 1961.
That irony makes an exceptional story even better. Did Guzmán know how many hits were left in those old bats?
The Nat with no bat
For those who haven't been keeping up with the Nationals, Guzmán is hitting .195, and it's a rather empty .195 at that, with just 18 extra-base hits and 19 walks in 381 plate appearances. His .235 OBP and .277 SLG are just as appalling, if not more so, than his batting average. Although Guzmán's futility is not related to the Orioles, I couldn't resist doing a little research on how low his season ranks historically.
When Carpenter referred to Guzman having “the worst offensive year of any big league regular in nearly two decades,” I think he was using for comparison the 1988 season of Steve Jeltz, who batted .187 as the starting shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies. But despite that low batting average, Jeltz drew a respectable 59 walks in 450 plate appearances to yield an OBP of .295, which was actually right around the average for a National League shortstop that year. Jeltz's .237 slugging average really was horrendous, though; there's no mitigating that number.
But the OBP difference is significant enough to give Jeltz the edge overall. Just about every all-in-one offensive metric that takes into account the differences in league-wide offensive levels affirms that Guzmán's '05 season is inferior to Jeltz's '88 campaign. Clay Davenport's statistical translations, for instance, peg Guzmán with a .175 Equivalent Average and -0.6 Wins Above Replacement Player3, while Jeltz's '88 season registered a .226 EqA and 3.4 WARP3. It's not even a close call; in the context of their eras, Jeltz didn't hurt his team nearly as much as Guzmán has this year.
Although many full-time players have flirted with the .200 mark over the years, I could find only a few instances that truly challenged the offensive ineffectiveness of Guzmán's 2005 as measured by EqA. Not surprisingly, nearly all of them were by shortstops or catchers.
The most recent comparable performance was by Guzmán himself back in 1999, when he was with the Minnesota Twins. In that year, his rookie season, he batted .226/.267/.276 (BA/OBP/SLG) for an era-adjusted EqA of .183. He got into 131 games and had 456 plate appearances that year. That may or may not fit the definition of a regular, depending on whom you ask; in my book it does. I used fairly lenient cutoffs of 120 games or 400 plate appearances (roughly 3/4 of a full season) for this roundup.
Catcher Bob Boone had a long career due to his defensive prowess. He wasn't nearly as accomplished with the bat, and he really bottomed out in 1984, when he batted .202/.242/.262 in 139 games for the team then known as the California Angels. That went for a .192 EqA.
The ledger of sweet-picking shortstop Alfredo Griffin, one of Miguel Tejada's boyhood heroes, contains several offensive low points, but the lowest was probably 1981. That year he "hit" .209/.243/.289 for Toronto, producing a .198 era-adjusted EqA. Of course, that season was shortened by the players' strike, so he played only 101 games. It's possible that, given 50 more games, he could have improved on those numbers. But he also had terrible years at the plate in 1984 (.208 EqA) and 1990 (.202 EqA), so such optimism may not be appropriate in his case. Griffin was an eccentric and remarkable player in many ways; I may write more about him in a future article.
Those were plenty awful seasons. But then there's the 1979 campaign of the legendary shortstop Mario Mendoza (of Mendoza line fame). That year, he saw action in 148 games for the Seattle Mariners and batted .198/.216/.249 with a paltry 9 walks in 401 plate appearances. As measured by EqA, that's about as bad as it gets: a mind-blowing .163. Unsurprisingly, that was the only year in which he played enough to be considered a regular.
As far as I can tell, the only player who came close to Mendoza's mark in the last half-century was Rob Picciolo, who put up a .172 EqA in 1977 as the rookie starting shortstop for the Oakland A's while batting .200/.218/.258.
Other notables: Hal Lanier, who had four consecutive sub-.200 EqA seasons at shortstop for the San Francisco Giants from 1967-1970; Ed Brinkman, shortstop of the Washington Senators in the '60s who had a season on the brink in 1965 with his .196 EqA; Bob Lillis, who flatlined to a .191 EqA manning short for Houston in 1963; and Joe DeMaestri, who among many years of futility punched a .192 EqA for the Kansas City A's in 1958.
One thing most of those players had in common is that they played for atrocious teams that had few alternatives at the players' position. Most of those players also had good defensive reputations and played during eras when defense was more prized. But Guzmán, amazingly, is playing in a high-offense era on a club that remains in playoff contention as we approach the end of August. The team's success is in spite of his failures both at the plate and in the field, where he has been less than sterling. The Nationals' backup at shortstop, Jamey Carroll, has been no great shakes with his .224 EqA, but he's clearly been better than the great sucking sound that is Guzmán.
Mendoza, Picciolo, and Guzmán: may we never see their likes again on a major-league ball field.
But guys like Rick Short are another matter. We need more of them. Perhaps someday, if general managers get smarter, we will.