The tenth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.
LL/USSM Community: .255/.315/.307
Actual Line: .279/.377/.285
And so we can finally put an end to the dreadful grit and hustle jokes that never seemed to stop.
As years go, 2008 could've been kinder to Mr. Ballgame. Never a guy who took much of a shining to his role as a backup, all Willie's ever wanted is more playing time, but playing time he didn't get. His pinch-running job was usurped by Miguel Cairo, which left him scrambling for work in other areas, and while he was able to get a little early time in right field, he started in just ten of the team's first 62 games and didn't get semi-regular action until the season was beyond the point of irrelevance. Then he injured himself running out a grounder in early August and never came back. Willie tried to return, but the team resisted, and come October Willie found himself going into free agency having made the fewest appearances of his career. There are a lot of ways to go into free agency, but that isn't a very popular one among the players looking for cash.
It wasn't just the lack of playing time that frustrated Willie, either - there was also the whole bad hitting thing that kind of got on his nerves. Willie's never had the most potent bat in the world, but it was what he did between 7/18/07 and 7/8/08 that nearly got him into the history books. For over this period of time spanning 356 days, 193 plate appearances, and 87 games, Willie went without an extra-base hit. No doubles. No triples. Certainly no homers. All 42 of Willie's hits during that stretch were singles, including one on July 1st that would've easily gone for a two-bagger had it not won the game. Instead it got marked down as a single, as Raul Ibanez was somehow able to outrun Willie in a 60 yard dash. As the games mounted it felt like things were meant to be, and while Willie would sadly get his first extra-base hit nine days later and fall short of the record, that extra-base hit would be his only extra-base hit, and that wound up tying him with Felix Hernandez. Among players with at least 150 PAs in a season, I believe Willie's .006 isolated power is the lowest of all time.
.279/.377/.285. It's comical is what it is. I remember a bunch of years ago I was amazed that Tom Goodwin's OBP could top his SLG. Not only did Willie's OBP top his SLG - it topped it by damn near a hundred points. It was a page right out of the Reggie Willits playbook, except instead of standing still, Willie would swing sometimes and foul the ball off. It was incredible to watch, because here we had one of the most feeble hitters in the league, and pitchers couldn't throw him consistent strikes. That Willie was able to draw his highest walk total while appearing in the fewest games of his ML career is nothing short of miraculous.
That batting line isn't sustainable going forward, of course. Willie's swing rate at balls out of the zone is only slightly better than the average, so his walk rate will come down, and no matter who you are, it's basically impossible for your power to suck that bad, so his IsoP will go up. His true talent at this point is somewhere around .270/.330/.320, sort of the standard line for a player of his ilk. But no matter who he is or what he does from this point on, nothing will ever change the fact that, in 2008, Willie Ballgame posted one of the strangest slash lines in baseball history. So this season wasn't a total loss.
It's hard to believe that Willie turned 31 last month. It's a combination of effects, I think; for one thing, it still feels like his crazy September debut was just yesterday, and for another, in my head white utility players are always little 26 year old balls of spunk. It's weird to think of Willie as being past his prime, whenever the hell that was. But he is, and now that he's a free agent, he gets to try and pitch himself as an experienced jack-of-all-trades who can fill in at almost any position in a flash without embarrassing himself or the team. And while that's all perfectly true, he doesn't possess the most impressive skillset, and he's highly unlikely to ever land the kind of job he thinks he's capable of doing. There just aren't that many teams willing to throw a lot of regular playing time at a 30+ year old career utility guy who's never once demonstrated the ability to not be bad.
For Willie, I wish him the best of luck, since he never played enough to be a real problem. Hopefully he's able to get used to the fact that he'll always be seen as a backup. For us, things are sure going to be weird without our little Ignitor. Say what you will about how much crap we gave Willie over the years, but (A) it was directed more at Willie's irrational supporters than at Willie himself, and (B) it was all in good fun. The whole time, it was all in good fun. I mean, okay, maybe there were two or three instances in which people got really upset with him, but that's nothing compared to some of the seething rage we've seen pointed towards guys like Horacio Ramirez and Carlos Silva. Willie's just always been there for the easy joke when we needed a break from legitimate anger, and now that he's gone, I'm not sure who's going to take his place. Reegie Corona? I guess we'll have to wait for Rick Rizzs' cue.
Willie Ballgame's not a good player. He's never been a good player, and he's never going to be a good player. But for the past six seasons, he's been a constant source of humor through some of the darkest days in the history of the franchise, and for that I couldn't be more thankful. I'm going to miss you, little buddy. You and your laughable talent. The last thing you ever did in a Mariner uniform was get hurt while running your ass off, and I imagine neither you nor I would have it any other way.