After the Marlins and the Blue Jays swung that gigantic trade some time back, I found myself researching something with regard to Emilio Bonifacio, since if there was one thing people wanted to read about after that trade, it was Emilio Bonifacio. My research led me somewhere, but it didn’t lead me where I wanted — it led me to Willy Taveras, and I couldn’t think of any reason to write a FanGraphs post about Willy Taveras. The guy hadn’t played in the majors since 2010. The guy didn’t play pro ball anywhere in 2012. Nothing was groundbreaking, and everything was abandoned.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out today the Royals had signed Taveras to a contract. It’s only a minor-league contract, but it comes with a spring-training invite, which means Willy Taveras might be back. He is, at least, back on the big-league radar. Here, now, is the rest of a post about Willy Taveras. Because to my knowledge, the Indians and Reds haven’t yet completed a Shin-Soo Choo pseudo-blockbuster.
The Taveras story is interesting, in that he didn’t play anywhere at 30. Fernando Perez is an example of a guy who just took a year off, but Taveras didn’t intend to take a year off. He just had his representation fall apart, so last offseason Taveras was left without an agent. When you’re Willy Taveras, and you don’t have an agent, people kind of forget about you, so Taveras went without employment. He trained, he’s now participating in winter ball, and he’s now under contract with Kansas City. Taveras is now going to give it another shot, and he says he can still run.
Which is good, because that’s just about Taveras’ entire skillset. He can make contact when he swings, and he can run. He can play some defense, because he can run. I can’t decide if Willy Taveras is a baseball player with running skills, or a professional runner with baseball skills. Probably more of the latter, and Taveras has, historically, taken things to the extreme.
We’ve referred before to the FanGraphs Era, which spans 2002-2012. It’s the era of batted-ball data, and plate-discipline data, and splits. Willy Taveras’ entire big-league career has fallen within the FanGraphs Era, as he debuted on September 6, 2004, replacing Carlos Beltran and striking out against John Riedling. Since 2002, as it happens, we have information about infield hits, and we have information about bunt hits, which are separate. I put them together while researching Bonifacio. That’s how I wound up at Taveras.
I was wondering about players who most frequently reached base without hitting the ball to the outfield. Via hits, I mean, not walks or hit-by-pitches. Or errors, even though I would’ve loved to include them. Taveras reached base 40 times on errors. Eight times, those were on bunts, and 29 times, those were on grounders. I can get this information individually, but it’s a real pain to gather in bulk.
I looked at all players with at least 500 plate appearances between 2002-2012. I added together their infield hits and their bunt hits, then I divided by plate appearances to get a rate. There were 827 total players in the sample, and here’s the top five:
8.8%, Willy Taveras
8.7%, Joey Gathright
7.7%, Julio Borbon
7.6%, Nook Logan
7.5%, Alex Sanchez
According to our numbers, Taveras has 103 infield hits, and 130 bunt hits. Roughly once every 11 plate appearances, Taveras got a hit on a ball that didn’t leave the infield. Somewhat remarkably, those 130 bunt hits between 2004-2010 were more than were laid down by ten whole teams. Taveras had just about twice as many bunt hits as the Blue Jays over that span. This is not a critique of the Blue Jays, nor is it praise of Willy Taveras. It’s just an observation about Willy Taveras — a remark on his skillset.
Taveras at least used to be an extraordinary bunter. I don’t know if he still is — he hasn’t played regularly in the majors since 2009 — but he turned 46% of his bunts into hits, and some of those were deliberate sacrifices. His batting average on bunts was well north of .500, and Taveras, by the way, is right-handed. Here’s what that looks like, if you’ve forgotten what it looks like when a fast righty bunts:
That Taveras had so much success bunting suggests that he wasn’t bunting at an optimal rate. That he should’ve bunted more, and even though that would cost him in terms of batting average on bunts, the adjusted infield defense would be less able to turn his grounders into outs. Willy Taveras was one of the best bunters in the major leagues. Willy Taveras, it seems, was also not enough of a bunter.
So what? Well that’s a good question. I think it’s interesting enough that Willy Taveras comes out as the leader in something. Of course, he might be slower now, and if he does make the majors again, he could jeopardize his position atop the leaderboard. That’s a slim lead he’s got over Joey Gathright, and maybe Taveras isn’t what he used to be. Alternatively, maybe Taveras would bunt more, less confident in his ability to swing away, and, I don’t know. Right now, Willy Taveras stands as the FanGraphs Era king of hits in the infield. That could conceivably change, but so could anything.
You do wonder about Taveras’ offensive value. I mean, Taveras was always a bad hitter, by basic numbers and by linear-weights numbers. He owns a career 68 wRC+. Average is 100. 68 isn’t 100. 68 is two-thirds of 100. The linear-weights numbers assign a run value to singles, but infield singles and bunt singles are less valuable than outfield singles, because they don’t allow for baserunners to take extra bases. To some small degree, Taveras is probably an even worse hitter than he looks like. Runners don’t score from second on singles to the shortstop. I mean, Willy Taveras might, but most runners aren’t Willy Taveras.
If you’ve actually read all this, I think I appreciate it. Odds are Willy Taveras never sees the majors again, because it’s been a long time, and he hasn’t slugged .300 since 2007. Relatively speaking, he’s not a good player. Not that that’s stopping the Royals in right field, but that’s a whole other issue. You wouldn’t immediately think of devoting a whole lot of words in the year 2012 to Willy Taveras. But you’d be more willing to devote a lot of words to a league-leader, to someone who occupies a statistical extreme. Well wouldn’t you know it, but it turns out Willy Taveras counts. We’ll close with a dinger.