Back in the olden days of baseball writers and fans arguing about wins above replacement—say, five or 10 years ago—there was this claim that the concept of the replacement-level player was completely made-up, something too squishy to define concretely. What are you measuring from? said the wised-up fan. Show me a replacement guy: not a description of a type of guy, but a guy. How the hell are you deciding what a replacement-level player is in the first place? That sort of thing.
Baseball can, of course, show you plenty of examples of such guys every season; the replacement player isn’t just a mathematically-derived value, but an archetype constantly seen on the field. These are the guys literally used as replacements, the ones repeatedly called up as emergency 25th men or constantly bouncing around on waiver claims. But last season had a different sort of replacement-level player, who perhaps didn’t fit the term in spiritual terms but did exactly in statistical ones: Alcides Escobar, who became the first player in decades—the only one under modern standards of measuring defense, and just the second ever—to post a Baseball-Reference WAR of 0.0 while playing every single day of the 162-game season.
This hardly means that Escobar’s 2017 was the ultimate replacement-level season, or anything close to it. A multi-part metric like WAR isn’t even meant to be trusted down to the decimal point. There’s a need for error bars here, and it would be disingenuous to claim that a 0.0 WAR is clearly worse than 0.1, let alone significantly so. Similarly, looking only at players with full 162-game seasons rather than, say, slightly less complete 160-game ones has to do with aesthetic requirements, rather than meaningful technical ones. And this is to say nothing of the fact that Baseball-Reference’s method of calculating WAR is not the only one—FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus each have their own, and they put Escobar last year at 0.5 and 1.3, respectively. Basically, there’s a lot that’s arbitrary in this selection. Still: Baseball-Reference presents a fair fixed standard, and has the most easily searchable records, and gives us this weird little fact, so, for the sake of examining something weird and rare, however arbitrarily defined, it’s fair to say that their metric carries, and that Alcides Escobar’s 2017 can be exactly what a full season of exactly replacement-level play looks like.
It is hitting .250/.272/.357 with six home runs. It is stealing four bases. It is doing the most to statistically help your team’s chances of winning on a day in July when you go 2-for-3 with a single that drives in two much-needed runs with two outs in the eighth inning. It is doing the most to statistically hurt your team’s chances of winning on a day in April when you go 0-for-5, popping out with a runner on when the game is tied in the ninth inning and striking out with a man on first when you are losing in the eleventh. It is being a decent-to-quite-good shortstop in the field, by reputation and by defensive metrics. It is making this pretty sweet catch:
It is doing all this—hitting poorly, fielding solidly—every day, with no games off.
The price of a win gets discussed every winter. But what’s the price of 0.0 wins? A replacement-level player is, in theory, one who can be picked up for the league minimum. Escobar just finalized a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Kansas City this week. The Royals aren’t looking at just the one 0.0 win season here, of course, and they’re doing much more for their statistical analysis besides looking at Baseball-Reference, anyway. There’s reason to believe that all forms of WAR particularly underrate shortstops, and maybe Kansas City’s internal evaluations account for that. (Probably they do!) There are any number of other factors they’re likely considering here, like his durability and his history with the club and his colleagues liking him and who knows what else. And yet there’s still a fair case to be made for Escobar as one of baseball’s worst everyday players—easily replaceable by every measure.
Escobar is the first player with a Baseball-Reference WAR of 0.0. over 162 games as judged by the modern system of evaluating defense, but he’s the second overall. The first was Alfredo Griffin, back in 1983, also a shortstop and just a few years removed at the time from his Rookie of the Year crown. He was bad in 1983, obviously, but even worse in 1984, hitting just .241/.248/.298. And he made the All-Star game for the only time in his career—not because Toronto needed a representative, and not because of a rigged voting system, but because, as recounted by the Washington Post:
“Major league baseball pays the expenses for each player here and for one guest. In most cases, players bring wives or girlfriends. Damaso Garcia, the Toronto Blue Jays’ second baseman, brought his shortstop, Alfredo Griffin. When the Tigers’ Alan Trammell hurt his arm and could not play tonight, Manager Joe Altobelli named Griffin to the team, partly because he’s a fine player, but mostly because he was here.”
He was there. There are higher virtues, but none so easy to take for granted. Maybe there’s hope for Escobar yet.