Two days ago, the Seattle Mariners designated William Bloomquist for assignment, replacing him with Chris Taylor on the active roster. To me, as a Mariners fan, this is something of a relief; not because this move is likely to make a significant difference in the Mariners 2015 season, but because Bloomquist serves as a painful reminder of the current front office’s poor choices in allocating resources. Bloomquist is 37 years old, and has been on a major league roster in every season since 2002, accumulating over 12 years of total MLB service time. If this is the end of the line for Bloomquist as an major league player (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t) he will have played in 1055 games, accumulating 3136 plate appearances. He logged 200 innings as a first baseman and over 2,000 innings as a shortstop, the other five non-catcher positions he’s played between 600-1000 innings. Curiously, he started two games as a designated hitter. When he collects the 1.5 million dollars the Seattle Mariners owe him for the remainder of 2015, he will have earned, by my count, just shy of $18 million dollars as a major league baseball player.
What has Bloomquist been worth to his employers? He had one legitimately outstanding baseball skill, as a baserunner and basestealer. He overall success rate at stealing bases (133 steals, 51 time caught) is solid, but has been brought down considerably by a lower success rate the last six years, and perhaps underestimates his skill in this area, given his fair number of high-stakes, everyone knows your running SBs as a pinch runner. Looking for clear positives on his resume beyond this gets a bit murky. He can legitimately claim defensive flexibility as a positive, but that positive value is limited somewhat by his inability to play any position particularly well. He made contact well enough, keeping strikeouts reasonably low and putting the ball in play, resulting in a generally respectable batting average. His utter and complete lack of power and low walk rate combined to make for an offensive skill set you can live with from an elite defender at a premium position, something Bloomquist was most decidedly not. His career ISO of .073, despite his ability to occasionally stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples with his speed, is remarkably low.
What does it all add up to? Depending on which system you prefer, he’s been worth either exactly 1 win above replacement, or 1.9. There’s a decent case to be made that his defensive flexibility might make him more valuable in terms of smart roster construction. He makes the most sense on a team with a few excellent hitters who are poor baserunners and defensive liabilities. “Arguably a non-stupid way to fill the 25th roster spot on some teams” is pretty much the tagline you’d expect for a replacement level player. But how many replacement level players get to enjoy such long careers? Very few, I’d imagine; since they’re pretty much interchangeable, once you’re on the wrong side of 30 it becomes tempting to go with the younger player, who could still plausibly become something better. Most shuffle around the minors, getting maybe a couple of full years, and a handful of other short stints after injuries or trades until fading away by their early 30’s. Yet Bloomquist didn’t just get jobs, he consistently stuck on the major league roster all year, and got guaranteed major league contracts, including multi-year contracts on three separate occasions.
There are lots of potential explanations for his career; he a classic scrappy white guy who works hard, managers like both his attitude and the flexibility his skill set affords him, etc. But I want to flag another possible explanation: September 2002. Even as the Mariners playoff hopes were fading, he played very well. In 38 plate appearances, he walked five times and hit 11 singles and 4 doubles. That was good enough for a 455/526/576 slashline. That single month constitutes less than 2% of his career, but it’s responsible for either 38% or 70% of the WAR value of his entire career. It also served to convince the Mariners, who are as an organization very good at convincing themselves of dubious things they want to believe, that he held real potential. Now, obviously anyone who understands the role of chance in short-term outcomes in baseball would extrapolate no lessons whatsoever from those 38 plate appearances, but that’s now it worked out. As I’ve watched his career chug along, I’ve often wondered what his career might have looked like, had he merely performed at his true talent level in September of 2002, or worse yet had a bad month. That his ground balls were twice as likely not to find a fielder’s glove as they usually were for a month may very well have given him a career, and been worth 10-15 million dollars to him. To many fans, Bloomquist represents how far someone can go with hard work and a positive attitude; to me, he represents the staggeringly large role luck and random chance play in the outcomes of our lives.