Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Most Average Player of Any Given Season

In one of Kurt Vonnegut's books (I believe it was Player Piano), a visiting dignitary is taken on a tour of the United States. He wants to meet the most average man in America, so the government runs through their massive databases and finds him, using statistics like age, birthplace, job, salary, family size, number of marriages/affairs, and a whole slew of other numbers. He turns out to be a strange guy, and his life doesn't quite end up how you'd expect. The idea of being able to quantify the most average man in America always intrigued me, though, in a "that's a little creepy" kind of way. With all of the data that we have at our fingertips for baseball players, it seemed only logical to extend the concept to ballplayers.

Using the seasonal statistics found in the Lahman Database, I decided to look for the average offensive line put up by all regular players in any given season. By that, I mean, if you were to take every full-time player in a season and find the average number of at-bats, doubles, home runs, strikeouts, walks, etc. that that group put up, what would that statistical line look like? Furthermore, once you have the average statistical line for that season, is it possible to find the one player from that season who is closest to the average across all stats - to find, in effect, the Most Average Player for that season?

The Process
The process wasn't all that difficult. First, I had to decide what players would qualify to count for the average statistics of the season. After all, we wouldn't want those players with only 12 plate appearances on the year to drag down the average. It seemed reasonable, then, to use the same rules as for qualifying for a batting title; that is, the average stats line includes only those players who had 3.1 plate appearances for each number of games in the season. To make things a little easier, I only included the full 162-game seasons (so anything before 1961 and the three strike-shortened years are excluded).

Once the averages were calculated, I had to figure out the best way to find the most average player. I decided to assign each player points for how close each of their stats were to average and then sum the points for a total score. The player with the lowest score in a given season would be the Most Average Player.

An example: in 2008, the average player played in 146.88 games, with 547.97 at-bats, 153.77 hits, 31.9 doubles, and 19.95 home runs (among other stats). Torii Hunter, in 2008, played in 146 games, giving him 0 points in that stat, with 551 at-bats (0 pts), 153 hits (0 pts), 37 doubles (4 pts), and 21 home runs (2 pts). Mike Cameron, on the other hand, played in 120 games (4 pts), with 444 AB (4 pts), 108 hits (7 pts), 25 doubles (5 pts), and 25 home runs (7 pts). Clearly, Torii Hunter put up the much more average season of the two, at least when looking at those stats, and that is reflected in his total score being lower than Cameron's.

The Results
Having done this process for all players in all seasons since 1961, I can now tell you who the most average players were in each season. The list is actually fairly interesting, on the whole. There are plenty of names on the list that you'd expect to see - Mark Ellis, Sid Bream, Doug Decinces - but there are a lot that you wouldn't expect. Among them, you'll find plenty of future (or past) All-Stars, some ROYs, MVPs, and even a couple of Hall of Famers. There are even a couple of players who were All-Stars in the same year that they were the most average player in baseball.

You can see the full list of the Most Average Player in Baseball by Season here.

Here are a couple of notable names on the list:
1973 - Gary Matthews (Score: 38 points), also won Rookie of the Year that year
1976 - Dave Winfield (42 points)
1977, 1980 - Doug Decinces (48 points & 50 points)
1982, 1985 - Willie Upshaw (45 points & 36 points)
1990 - Alan Trammell (49 points), also an All-Star that year
1992 - Barry Larkin (33 points)
1993, 1997 - Luis Gonzalez (41 points & 42 points)
1999 - Miguel Tejada (35 points)
2003 - Ivan Rodriguez (26 points)
You'll notice that most of the "big names" on this list (Winfield, Trammell, etc.) have higher point totals than some of the others. So, although they are the most average player of their respective seasons, they are much less average than some of the other names. This isn't true for Ivan Rodriguez's 2003 season, though. His score of 26 points is actually the second lowest of any of the other Most Average Players.

A quick look at his stats shows why:

Ivan Rodriguez, 2003
Season Avg.
146.16 539.76 81.75 151.7 30.95 3.35 19.63 77.7 9.83 3.92 55.72 88.72 5.17 6.25 2.66 4.64 12.49
Player Stats 26 144 511 90 152 36 3 16 85 10 6 55 92 6 6 1 5 18
Player Points* 26 0 2 3 0 4 0 4 2 0 3 0 1 0 0 2 0 5

In Pudge's '03 campaign, the only stat that he was even remotely off of the average was GIDP, where he had 18 GIDPs to the league average 12.49. His home runs and doubles are both slightly off, though not by much. It's hard to argue that he was not anything but league average, offensively, that year.

But, as hard as it may be to believe, there is still one player who had an even more average season than Pudge's 2003. In 1984, All-Star catcher Tony Pena put up the most average season of all-time. Take a look at the stats:

Tony Pena, 1984
Season Avg.
148.04 548.09 75.74 152.9 25.43 4.37 15.05 71.4 13.78 6.18 52.1 78.54 5.71 2.81 2.82 4.87 11.94
Player Stats 22 147 546 77 156 27 2 15 78 12 8 36 79 5 4 4 2 14
Player Points* 22 0 0 0 1 2 3 0 2 0 2 7 0 1 0 0 3 1

The glaring number in Pena's season is his walks total, where his 36 walks adds 7 points to his score compared to the league average of 52. His other stats are so nearly perfectly average, though, that they more than make up for it.

It should be noted that this is a pure offensive comparison that makes no allowances for positional differences. That should probably be considered, then, when you notice that the two most average seasons in history belong to catchers. Is a purely average offensive output from a superb defensive catcher, like Pena or Rodriguez, something to praise? That's beyond the scope of my little study here, but it probably should be considered. The same question can also be asked of first and second year players, since it is rare that a rookie puts up well-above average numbers.

Like I said, though, that's not what I set out to find. I was just looking for the most average player in any given season, and I think we've found that. I still find it interesting to see so many notable names on the list. I guess that's what makes baseball so interesting, eh?


Ron Rollins said...

Great stuff. Is there any way to do it positionally and get an average all-star team for each year?

lar said...

That's a good idea, Ron. I'll look into doing just that.

Anonymous said...

As Ron Rollins points out above, this really begs to be looked at by position. Looking at Pena in 1984, he OPSed 112 and made the All-Star team (and won a Gold Glove, for what it's worth). As far as catchers went, he was one of the best hitters in the league (though not on par with Gary Carter or the best season of Bob Brenly's career). It seems a little unfair to him to call it an extremely average season.