Probably. The reason I decided to look at this not-so-pressing issue is that a few days ago I posted a piece in which I stated that I thought the Blue Jays made a mistake giving McDonald, a good-field-no-hit back-up shortstop, a two-year $3.8 million contract before the 2008 season. In response, I received a comment that because I had admitted that I was not familiar with McDonald (and I’ll admit that I’ve never seen him play and could not recall whether I had ever even heard of him when I wrote the piece), I could not possibly have a valid opinion regarding his relative abilities.
Of course, this contention is simply untrue. One of the beauties of baseball is that even if you’ve never seen a player play, you can still evaluate him if you understand what his various statistics mean. This is particularly true of offensive statistics.
John McDonald has a career .593 OPS in over 1,700 major league at-bats. I thought that this would be enough to establish that he is a piss-poor hitter.
OPS is almost certainly the one readily-understandable offensive statistic that most closely correlates with a hitter’s ability to generate runs for his team. For example, Albert Pujols is recognized by almost everyone as being one of the top three, if not the very best, hitters in baseball. Albert has a career 1.055 OPS, and his lowest single season OPS was .955 in 2002 (his sophmore-slump year). ARod has a career .966 OPS and has never had an OPS lower than .846 in any full season he’s played (1997, also his sophmore-slump year).
Meanwhile, I think almost everyone would recognize Cesar Izturis as a light-hitting shortstop who has had a longish major league career only because he plays a key defensive position. Cesar has a .624 career OPS with a single season high of .711 for the 2004 Dodgers.
McDonald’s .593 career OPS is only a little lower than Cesar Izturis’s career .624 career OPS, so just how bad is McDonald really? Let’s look more closely at his numbers.
As I’ve said previously, McDonald is such a bad hitter that his team hopes to bat him as little as possible. Playing in eleven different major league seasons, McDonald has never had more than 341 plate appearances in a season and has had only five seasons in which he managed even 200 plate appearances.
How did McDonald compare to other American League players who had a similar mininum of plate appearances in those five seasons, you ask?
In 2002, McDonald posted a .614 OPS in 281 plate appearances, good for 13th worst in the AL among the 139 players who had at least 275 plate appearances. That put him in the ninth percentile (from the bottom) of all American League hitters. By and large, that was a good season for John.
In 2003, McDonald posted a .538 OPS in 229 plate appearances, good for third worst in the AL for the 151 players with at least 225 plate appearances, behind only Jermaine Dye, who with a .514 OPS had a lost season, and Omar Infante at .538, an overmatched 21 year old middle infielder playing for the Tigers, who went 43-119 in ’03, the worst team since the 1962 Mets. (Infante has improved as a hitter as he’s gotten older and now has a .701 career OPS in just over 2,100 career major league at-bats.
In 2006, McDonald posted a .579 OPS in 280 plate appearances, dead last among the 138 American League hitters who had at least 275 plate appearances that year.
In 2007, McDonald posted a .612 OPS in 341 plate appearances, again good for third worst in the AL among the 128 players with at least 325 plate appearances, behind only Nick Punto (.562) and Josh Barfield (.594).
Finally, in 2008, McDonald posted a .524 OPS in 200 plate appearances, good for second worst out of the 169 American League players who had at least 200 plate appearances that year. McDonald was behind only Royals shortstop Tony Pena, who had an astoundingly bad .398 OPS in ’08.
It’s worth noting that of the 17 players with worse OPS numbers than McDonald during these five seasons in which McDonald played semi-regularly, none was worse than McDonald more than once. The reasons are obvious.
The players who have seasons this bad are almost all (1) decent offensive players having an aberrantly (and usually injury-plagued) bad year, (like Jermaine Dye in 2003 — Dye has a career .826 OPS; (2) players of such marginal talents that they aren’t going to get more than one opportunity to have a season this bad (like Tony Pena last year, or Chris Truby, Ken Huckaby, Brent Abernathy and Chris Magruder in 2002); (3) young players in over their heads (Omar Infante in 2003 and Brandon Inge, also with the Tigers, in 2002); (4) aged veterans with nothing left in the tank (Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Vaughn in 2002; or (5) players who had at least one really good season, thus convincing some team that they’re worth playing regularly (Nick Punto, a solid, defensive middle infielder who had a .725 OPS in 2006 and a .726 OPS in 2008 with relatively high on-base percentages; and Josh Barfield, who had a .741 OPS as a 23-year old rookie 2Bman in 2006.
Actually, it’s a testiment to just how good John McDonald’s defense must be that he has managed to have an 11-year major league career in spite of his hitting numbers. How else could a player who has finished as one of the league’s three worst hitters in four out of the five seasons in which he’s managed even 200 plate appearances hang on this long?
Actually, McDonald is a good pinch runner, he’s great to have in the clubhouse, and the Blue Jays fans apparently love him more than anyone other than Doc Halladay. Still, as the worst hitter in the entire American League, you just can’t convince me that paying him more than $1 million a year is a good idea.
(P.S. Royals’ shortstops also have had a particularly strong claim to the title of “Worst Hitter in the American League” over the last ten years. Aside from Tony Pena’s 2007 and 2008, there’s Angel Berroa in 2006 and Neifi Perez in 2002). With the recent acquisition of Yunieski Betancourt from the Mariners, I expect Royal shortstops’ claim to the title to remain strong for the next couple of seasons.)