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July 02, 2007

Is Ty Wigginton an All-Star?

The Startlegram’s Gil LeBreton argued for Sammy Sosa’s inclusion in the All-Star game and lobbed a grenade at stat-oriented analysis in the process:

If the fans are voting, why not give them some names worth arguing over? Sheffield should have been on the final list, as well as the Rangers' Sammy Sosa.

That's right, Sammy Sosa.

Baseball's history of All-Star Game box scores is lined with the names of superstars who passed through in the twilight of their careers. Sosa's batting average, granted, is only .255, but he has 14 home runs and 63 runs batted in, seventh-most in major league baseball.

The geeks that are trying to measure this season's Sosa by Win Shares, VORP and Runs Created Per 27 need to get a life.

We're trying to fill an All-Star roster, not a Bill James spreadsheet.

What harm would it have done to let baseball fans decide whether Sosa or Sheffield deserved to be the AL final All-Star?

That was the gravest injustice. I'm willing to excuse the fans' choice of Ivan Rodriguez as American League catcher, when a better case easily could be made for the Yankees' Jorge Posada or the Indians' Victor Martinez. The fans understandably want to see Pudge.

Like LeBreton, I have no issue with the fans voting for favorites in decline. Ivan Rodriguez will appear this year, and players like Reggie Jackson and Cal Ripken played in the Midsummer Classic at the tail of their careers. However, players like Pudge and Ripken were voted in. LeBreton argued that Sosa should be included on the supplemental ballot so that the fans can have their say, but they already have. Sosa ranked thirteenth among outfielders in the popular vote. Thirteenth, between Coco Crisp and Craig Monroe. LeBreton appears to accept the voters’ nostalgia-infused desire for Pudge but not their rejection of Sosa.

Except for one player, managers and the players themselves chose the rest of the roster. LeBreton doesn’t address their selections, but they clearly disagree with his yearning for the “superstar in twilight.” Sosa didn’t rank among the top six outfielders in the player voting. Manager Jim Leyland, a 62-year-old graduate of the old school, chose Michael Young over Sosa. Leyland had to insure that each team was represented, but otherwise, he and the players chose purely on merit.

I don’t know why the supplemental vote includes only pitchers. It didn’t in previous years. LeBreton has a point in this regard. I wouldn’t have minded Sosa’s name on the ballot.

Alas, he throws himself under the bus with his derision of “geeks” needing a life. The AL manager, the league’s players and millions of fans have deemed Sammy Sosa unworthy of a spot on the All-Star team. Yet, for some reason, the relative handful of fans who know about Win Shares deserves his special derision. Did a cabal of stat geeks keep Sosa off the supplemental ballot? Can LeBreton speak to the pros and cons of any of the statistics mentioned, or does he feel his blanket condemnation is sufficient?

Everyone, EVERYONE, who has spent his or her free time learning about advanced baseball metrics is by definition a wildly passionate baseball fan. They attend games, purchase caps and shirts, shell out cash for cable and online video, write blogs (for free!), and even buy newspapers. What in the world did they ever do to poor Gil LeBreton?

Nevertheless, let’s take LeBreton’s criticism on its face and assume Sosa is reasonably worthy of All-Star status. (I do agree that the idea is worth exploration.) I hypothesize that if Sosa is worthy, other players with similar statistics are also worthy. Seems reasonable, yes?

So: who is most similar to Sosa using ordinary stats found at any major website? Here are the general criteria that fit Sosa’s season to date:

  • Low batting average and OBP
  • Pretty good slugging percentage
  • Very high in RBI, low-to-average in runs
  • Respectable number of doubles
  • Above average in homers
  • No better than an average walk rate, preferably worse
  • Few steals

I derived the list mathematically, but you could probably imitate it via the eyeball method.

Player Team
S. Sosa TEX
34 17 14 63 21 1
T. Wigginton TAM
36 17 13 41 21 1
E. Chavez OAK
35 20 12 42 28 4
J. Bay PIT
41 16 12 50 34 1
A. Gonzalez CIN
38 17 13 39 14 0
C. Delgado NYM
39 19 13 45 25 2
X. Nady PIT
36 12 13 46 15 2
R. Zimmerman WAS
42 18 12 42 22 3
K. Greene SDG
45 21 13 45 14 1
G. Atkins COL
37 19 11 45 34 3

Sosa actually compares favorably to guys like Jason Bay, Eric Chavez, Carlos Delgado, and Ryan Zimmerman. Unfortunately, each is having a lousy year by his previous standards. Ty Wigginton and Xavier Nady are probably the most apt comparisons to the present-day Sosa. Not bad players, but nobody’s idea of an All-Star.

What sticks out is the lower RBI totals for each of Sosa’s comparables. As you know, Sosa has thrived with runners on base, resulting in a very high number of runners plated despite a mediocre batting line. There’s no one in baseball quite like him.

And that is the essence of his All-Star case. That and nostalgia, which I debunked previously. Does Sosa deserve credit for his 63 RBI? Unquestionably. He ranks among the most fortunate in RBI opportunities and among the best at taking advantage of them. That’s a terrific combination, and it compensates greatly for his lame on-base percentage. (His ability to continue hitting in the clutch is a separate issue.)

But again, that’s the entirety of his case. He doesn’t hit for average, or walk much, or run, or play defense often or well. He doesn’t even play for a good team.

So: Ty Wigginton, anyone?

Posted by Lucas at July 2, 2007 11:37 PM