Bottom of the pack

These players are close to winning eight unhappy distinctions

Most of my stories are about outstanding performances — the frontrunners for Most Valuable Player Awards, the strongest teams of the past decade, the highest winning percentages during stretch drives, that sort of thing.

I occasionally have to remind myself about the latter half of this blog’s name, the parenthetical “(and Worst)” part.

Two recent entries — the September 3 and September 7 installments — focused on the batters and pitchers who are in position to win 2021 versions of eight awards that I created a year ago. All of these players are displaying remarkable ability, according to the statistics I’m measuring.

But others are struggling, as we’ll see today. I have reversed the standings to pinpoint the worst performances in the same eight categories.

I used stats from the first five months of the 2021 season to determine the frontrunners, and I’ll impose the same September 1 deadline here, even though it’s nearly a couple of weeks in the past.

I have two reasons for this consistency. One is to indicate who entered the final month at the very bottom of the each category; the other is to allow a comparison of the best and worst performances over the same span.

There are eligibility thresholds for each award. A batter must have made at least 400 appearances by the beginning of September, and a pitcher must have worked 130 innings or more.

You’ll find the summaries below. Each section repeats the definition I initially offered a week ago, then shows the worst and best stats in the category. We’ll round up the official winners and losers once the season comes to a close.

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Ted Williams Award (overall batting)

  • Definition: Goes to the batter who reaches the most bases per out (BPO), reflecting the related abilities to hit for average, hit for power, and get on base in any way possible.

  • 2021 worst: Kevin Newman, Pirates, .465 BPO

  • 2021 best: Bryce Harper, Phillies, 1.148

  • Notes: Here is one of this season’s great conundrums. Newman, as you’ll see below, boats the best contact rate in the majors. Yet his ability to put the bat on the ball has not translated into offensive productivity. Newman reached only 159 bases over the first five months of the season, while producing 342 outs.

Lou Gehrig Award (scoring)

  • Definition: Goes to the batter who generates the most runs, as determined by adding runs scored and runs batted in, then subtracting home runs (since an HR is counted in both the R and RBI columns). The abbreviation for scoring is SC.

  • 2021 worst: Maikel Franco, Orioles, and Kevin Newman, Pirates, 67 SC

  • 2021 best: Bo Bichette, Blue Jays, 156

  • Notes: This category normally doesn’t require a minimum number of appearances, since it’s strictly a counting stat. But we’d have a massive tie of 0 SC for last place if I didn’t impose the 400 PA threshold. Newman has actually been a bit less effective at scoring, since his 67 SC came in 454 appearances, compared to 403 for Franco.

Babe Ruth Award (power)

  • Definition: Goes to the batter who has the highest average for isolated power (ISO), which is calculated the same way as batting average, though you substitute extra bases for hits. A batter gets one base for each double, two for each triple, and three for each homer. Add them up, then divide by at-bats.

  • 2021 worst: David Fletcher, Angels, .066 ISO

  • 2021 best: Shohei Ohtani, Angels, .361

  • Notes: Fletcher and Ohtani usually occupy the first two slots in the Angels’ batting order, though their roles are very different. Fletcher simply seeks to get on base, then Ohtani tries to power him home. Only 28 of Fletcher’s 150 hits have been for extra bases: 24 doubles, two triples, two homers.

Nellie Fox Award (contact)

  • Definition: Goes to the batter who excels at putting his bat on the ball, based on contact rate (CT), which is the percentage of at-bats that do not end in strikeouts.

  • 2021 worst: Joey Gallo, Rangers-Yankees, .575 CT

  • 2021 best: Kevin Newman, Pirates, .923

  • Notes: Gallo knows the strike zone, as you’ll see below, but he swings and misses an awful lot. He piled up 176 strikeouts over the season’s first five months, which means that 42.5% of his 414 at-bats ended with third strikes. Hence his anemic contact rate of .575. Nobody else in the majors is below .610.

Rickey Henderson Award (batting eye)

  • Definition: Goes to the batter who demonstrates the best knowledge of the strike zone, as shown by batting eye rate (EY). It’s calculated by dividing unintentional walks by the number of plate appearances after intentional walks have been subtracted.

  • 2021 worst: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Rangers, .029 EY

  • 2021 best: Joey Gallo, Rangers-Yankees, and Juan Soto, Nationals, .184

  • Notes: There’s something about drawing a walk that doesn’t appeal to Kiner-Falefa. It’s not that he’s a free swinger — he suffered only 75 strikeouts in 560 appearances — but he clearly would rather put the ball in play. He totaled just 16 unintentional walks over the season’s first five months.

Juan Marichal Award (overall pitching)

  • Definition: Goes to the pitcher who allows the fewest bases per out.

  • 2021 worst: Jordan Lyles, Rangers, .880 BPO

  • 2021 best: Corbin Burnes, Brewers, .453

  • Notes: Lyles’ BPO is almost two times as high as the figure for Burnes, which means he’s surrendering bases at twice the rate of the Brewers’ ace. Here are the five-month figures for Lyles: 387 bases allowed, 440 outs. It’s no wonder that his earned run average was a steep 5.63 at the start of September.

Randy Johnson Award (strikeouts)

  • Definition: Goes to the pitcher who averages the most strikeouts per six innings.

  • 2021 worst: Dallas Keuchel, White Sox, 3.64 SO per six IP

  • 2021 best: Corbin Burnes, Brewers, 8.16

  • Notes: Strikeouts have never been Keuchel’s primary aim. He rarely throws a fastball, preferring his sinker, cutter, and changeup. He posted an 8-7 record for the White Sox over the first five months, despite inducing only 83 strikeouts over nearly 137 innings. 

Warren Spahn Award (durability)

  • Definition: Goes to the pitcher who averages the highest number of innings per appearance.

  • 2021 worst: Zach Davies, Cubs, 4.85 IP/G

  • 2021 best: Zack Wheeler, Phillies, 6.77

  • Notes: Fifty-three pitchers crossed the threshold of 130 IP. Davies was the only member of that group who failed to last an average of five innings per start. Eight of his 28 starts have been truncated after four innings or less, with his shortest stint being one and two-thirds innings against the Pirates in April.