95 games into the season, the deep and wide flaws of the organization known as the Seattle Mariners baseball club have been cruelly exposed to the world. At 37-58, they are the worst team in the American League by a fair margin. (On the senior circuit, only the Nationals are currently worse, the Mariners surely have a decent chance of catching them). This is made all the more pathetic by their payroll in excess of one hundred million dollars.
So many obvious and stupid mistakes have been made by this organization that to attempt to catalog them would simply be too depressing. One stands out for me, though: Jose Vidro. For many superficial baseball analysts, the trade with which we acquired Vidro turned out reasonably well for the Mariners. The prospects they traded haven’t amounted to much of anything, and Vidro hit .314 for them last year. The flaw in this reasoning is that he was still among the worst DH’s in the American League, because he didn’t hit for any power. A closer look at his 2007 season reveals that his high batting average was in large part the product of Vidro’s unusually high infield single rate. Now, if you’re Ichiro, infield singles are part of your skill set. Anyone who thinks Vidro’s infield single rate is the product of his baseball skills clearly has not seen him play in several years. Feed me a large steak dinner and pour a pitcher of beer down my throat, spin me around a few times, and I could still beat Jose Vidro in a footrace without any diffiulty at all. His infield hit rate was clearly a fluke, and if you return it to league average, his 2007 falls below replacement level.
So 2007 contained plenty of evidence that Vidro was quite likely to be done as a useful player. Vidro’s performance in 2008 has given us all the confirmation we could ever need. His on base percentage sits at 261; his slugging percentage at 310. How bad is this? We’ve got a truckload of advanced meta-statistics in baseball these days, and I don’t have the mathematical chops to have strong opinions about most of them, so I’ll choose one at random (others would paint a similar picture). MLVr is an expression of marginal lineup value. The number expresses how many runs would be added (or subtracted) if you shifted from a lineup of 9 perfectly average players to a lineup of 8 perfectly average players and the player in question. The very best in the league (Chipper Jones, Berkman, Pujols) are adding over half a run per game.
There are 199 players in baseball with 250+ plate appearances so far this season. Of these, only five are inept enough offensively to have MLVrs below -.250. Vidro is, of course, one of these five (another is Kenji Johjima, who was just given a three year, 24 million dollar extension by the Mariners, even though their best prospect plays his position). The other four, of course, play difficult defensive positions (CF, 2B, C). To make matters more baffling, Vidro continues to hit cleanup. And, he’s got a vesting option for 9 million dollars in 2009 if he gets enough plate appearances.
Let’s review: One of the worst hitters in baseball is a declining, immobile, weak-groundout hitting machine who plays DH. He continues to not only play most of the time–he’s starting and hitting cleanup.
Is there any precedence for this? The glorious baseball-reference.com allows me to find out. In the history of the DH, there are 160 player-seasons that were full time enough to qualify for the batting title, and where at least 70% of playing time came as DH. Here’s the list. As you might expect, only 10% of these seasons were below average, because these people are paid to hit, and nothing else. The below average seasons are mostly from good to great players (Hank Aaron, Edgar Martinez, Alvin Davis, Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, Paul Molitor, Greg Vaughn, Dave Parker), the sort of player one could reasonably hope would turn it around. If Vidro continues this pace, he will join this list as the very worst DH ever, by a wide and significant margin. Yet he plays, hits 4th, and marches toward a vesting option that further hamstrings whatever fool takes the GM position with even more pointless payroll giveaways.
Some high comedy: placeholder manager Jim Riggleman seems to be making some justificatory argument about “protection” for Raul Ibanez. This might make sense if he also had a secret plan to replace every other team’s scouting report on Vidro with the 2000 version (and if protection was an actual phenomenon). Apparently they think other teams evaluate players based on how good they were five years ago, too. They’re willing to cut bait on other hitters who are clearly done (Sexson, Wilkerson) but who aren’t as done as Vidro.