From the towering home runs of “Hammering” Hank Greenberg to the pitching perfection of Sandy Koufax, Jews have long been a part of major league baseball. Today, there are a handful of players continuing the tradition. All of them are, of course, way better at baseball than you or I will ever be. But a few players stand out from the rest. This article reflects upon the three best Jewish players in the game today.
In recent years, baseball analysis has provided dozens of ways to analyze baseball players above and beyond the standard statistics. For simplicity’s sake this article uses just one method: Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR measures how many games a player will win for his team when compared to a “replacement-level” player. A replacement-level player is not an actual person but represents the concept of the average AAA player waiting to replace his counterpart in the major leagues. If this player contributes zero wins to a major league team, how many more (or fewer) runs will his major-league counterpart contribute?
WAR is useful because it combines offensive and defensive stats into an easy-to-digest number that tells us much of what we want to know about a player’s contribution to his ballclub over the course of a few games, a few seasons, or a career. And because WAR accounts for such factors as a player’s position, the park they play in, and the strength of their league, WAR is useful for comparing players to each other regardless of the position they play, the teams they play for, or even the era they played in.
For some context, Ben Zobrist (who is not Jewish, unfortunately) of the Tampa Bay Rays led baseball last year with 8.6 WAR. This number means that in 2009, Zobrist’s contributions at the plate and in the field were responsible for the Rays winning 84 games instead of just 75 or 76. That is an enormous impact that just one player has on the success of a team.
Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals (8.5 WAR) and Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins (8.1 WAR) finished second and third, respectively, in 2009 WAR totals. In the hotly-contested NL and AL Central divisions, having such players on a team can mean the difference between finishing in first place (as both teams did) or finishing third and missing the playoffs.
At the other end of the spectrum, Yuniesky Betancourt ranked dead last in WAR in 2009. His total was -2.2, which means his poor baseball skills caused his teams to lose more games than they would have if they called up their AAA shortstop.
Our Hebrew Heroes neither reach Zobristian levels nor sink to Betancourtesque depths. Regardless, they are three of the most valuable players in the game. Let’s investigate.
Kevin Youkilis – First Base, Boston Red Sox
With 5.7 WAR in 2009, 14th-highest among major leaguers, Kevin Youkilis stands out as the most productive Jewish player today. During 2008 and 2009, Youk (as the Red Sox fans shout when he’s at the plate) hit .309, cracked 79 doubles, and slammed 56 home runs. He’s no slouch at the bag, either. He won the 2007 Gold Glove at first base and, in 2008, set the major-league record for consecutive error-free games at the position.
The first time most fans heard about Youkilis was in the 2003 book Moneyball. This book chronicled the efforts of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane as he selected players for the 2002 draft. Lewis describes how Beane manages to field a competitive team on a small budget by drafting undervalued players, meaning, players who for one reason or another were overlooked by richer teams.
Whereas most teams valued skills like batting average, Beane focused on lesser-known skills such as on-base percentage (OBP). OBP is the percentage of plate appearances in which a player gets on base via a hit, a walk, or getting hit by a pitch. Walks are a major component of OBP, so Beane paid attention to players who weren’t afraid to work the pitch count and take a walk. This strategy worked for awhile: from 2000 to 2006 the A’s won at least 88 games per season, and in 2001 and 2002 they won over 100 games.
Kevin Youkilis is described in the book as a “fat third baseman who [can’t] run, throw, or field” but who excelled at plate discipline, meaning he wasn’t afraid to wait for a pitch to hit. If he didn’t find one, he’d take a walk. These tendencies caused Beane to nickname Youkilis “The Greek God of Walks”, even though Youkilis is of Romanian descent. Unfortunately for Beane, Youkilis was already with the Boston Red Sox, where he quickly grew into a cornerstone player.
Given his offensive production and defensive value, it’s no surprise Youkilis made the All-Star team in 2008 and 2009. He also finished 3rd and 6th, respectively, in the MVP voting during these years. He is a franchise player, someone you build a team around, even though he is 30 years old and thus probably about to enter his decline phase (data shows that most players peak around age 28). However, all signs point to his decline being long and slow, which means he should continue to be productive for many years to come.
Ryan Braun – Left Field, Milwaukee Brewers
At 26, Braun is the youngest of this bunch, which makes it all the more impressive that he accumulated 4.8 WAR in 2009, the 28th-highest total in the major leagues. He burst onto the scene with the Milwaulkee Brewers in 2007, hitting .324 and belting 34 home runs in just 492 plate appearances. That works out to a home-run rate of 6.9%, well over the MLB average of 2.7%. This insane power display is no doubt what earned Braun the nickname “The Hebrew Hammer”. It’s also why he won the National League Rookie of the Year award that season.
Nearly three years later, Braun has maintained a home run rate of 5.5%. But he’s not just a power threat; he makes good contact and shows patience. His career batting average is .308 and his walk rate has risen each year, reaching 8.1% in 2009. His OBP in 2009 was an astounding .389, meaning you could count on him to reach base almost 40% of the time he stepped up to the plate. Given his age, we can see that he has not yet reached his peak and will contribute to the Brewers’ offense for years to come.
Braun is a spectacular offensive player, moreso than Youkilis. So why did Braun accrue 4.8 WAR in 2009 compared to 5.7 for Youkilis? The answer lies in the fact that WAR considers not only offense, but also defense.
Braun has, to put it nicely, less-than-stellar defense. That’s why he plays left field. Teams know that a strong defense in left field is not important, because most fly balls to left field are home runs on their way into the seats. Since even the best defensive whiz cannot stop such balls consistently, teams stick their some of their worst defenders in left field.
Incidentally, the only defensive position less valuable than left field is first base, where Youkilis plays. It’s telling that Youkilis is such a good first baseman that he makes up for this value gap all on his own, and then some.
Braun’s defense in left field cost the Brewers more than one full game in 2009. One game might seem insignificant until you consider that in 2009, the Brewers had a losing record of 80-82. Had Braun given up just five fewer runs in left field, Milwaukee likely would have finished 81-81 or even had a winning season, boosting the organization’s confidence. They would not have overtaken the Cardinals for first place, but they could have squeaked by the Cubs into second, especially if that one game was against them.
Of course, it’s unfair to single out Braun. The Brewers have many other players who could have improved their contribution to the team. And let’s be realistic: 4.8 WAR from a single player is a major contribution. It’s tempting to say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I doubt the Brewers are complaining about Braun. Even as his salary increases — after his 2007 ROY campaign, he signed a seven-year contract worth at least $45 million — he should still be worth more than what he actually makes.
However, if Braun worked on his defense — took better routes to the ball, positioned himself better — his value would be off the charts. Well, even further off the charts than it is already! He can probably snooze through the defensive part of spring training for a few more years and no one will give him too much grief for it.
Ian Kinsler – Second Base, Texas Rangers
Texas Rangers?! That’s right, if you want to see one of the most talented MOTs in baseball today, just head up I-35 to Arlington. There you can watch Ian Kinsler build upon his breakout year in 2009, where he racked up 4.6 WAR, just four spots below Braun and 32nd in the major leagues.
Unlike Youkilis and Braun, who have been consistently valuable since they entered the major leagues, Kinsler needed some time to reach his current value. In 2007 he accumulated just 1.8 WAR. He was earning his keep as a player but not separating himself from the pack. However in 2008 he dramatically increased his hitting proficiency (hitting .318) while simultaneously improving his defense. The turnaround netted him 4.3 WAR and a reserve spot on the All-Star team.
In 2009, his average dropped to .253 but he hit the ball much harder, smacking 31 home runs compared to 18 the year before. At the same time, his defense made a quantum leap: whereas in 2008 he gave up 7.3 runs compared to the average second basemen, in 2009 he prevented 9.6 runs compared to the average. Suddenly, he was able to get to more balls and throw more accurately. This unexpected defensive renaissance more than compensated for the drop in his batting average.
In addition to hitting 31 home runs in 2009, Kinsler stole 31 bases, which means he had a 30-30 season. This blend of power and speed is rare: only about 50 other players in history have achieved such a feat, which means Kinsler will be watched closely in 2010 to see how he performs. Can he do it again?
It’s not likely to happen. In baseball, when a player goes from hitting 18 home runs one year to 31 in the next, or when they transform overnight from a sieve to a brick wall at second base, the most likely explanation is not talent, but luck. It happens. Kinsler is not as bad as 18 home runs would suggest, nor is he as good as 31 home runs would suggest. He is neither a terrible second baseman nor a superlative one. He is a talented player who got hot for an entire season. He will never again return to his 1.8-WAR campaign of 2007, but he’s not a lock to keep a 4.6-WAR pace up either.
Since his career has not yet peaked, we can give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his 2010 season will be worse than his 2009 one, but not by a whole lot. He will remain a valuable player and one of five best second basemen in the major leagues. Look for him to make the All-Star squad again in 2010 (and perhaps for many years to come).
- FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference are completely awesome and amazing Web sites
- Beyond the Box Score’s explanation of WAR is illuminating
- Lewis, Michael. 2003. Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.