by Matt Welch
When Mo Vaughn went down for the season, the first thing I did was call my dad, an Angels season-ticket holder for 30-odd years.
"Did you hear the great news?!" I asked.
"Yea, man! We might have a chance next year!"
My Dad's seats have always been within an underhand toss of first base, so we
have seen generations worth of clubfoots, from Bob Oliver to Cecil Fielder. None
compares to big Mo. He is so excruciatingly slow, he is forced to play two feet
from the first-base line in the late innings of close games (and I've
stillReal Mo: .272/.365/.498
Avg. Mo: .202/.307/.428
Ole. Mo: .169/.279/.396
Even without the defensive adjustment, Mo's offensive numbers stand in the middle of a pack that includes Olerud, David Segui, Fred McGriff, Paul Konerko, and Richie Sexson. Now that he no longer has the Green Monster to lob doubles against, Vaughn is nowhere close to the Giambi/Delgado class, let alone Thome/Palmeiro.
Well, you say, maybe the Angels just weren't a groundball staff. Wrong -- Troy Glaus led major league third basemen in range; on the other side of the infield, Adam Kennedy ranked seventh among all second basemen, and even the unspectacular shortstop combo of Benji Gil and Kevin Stocker was above average. Scott Schoeneweis is among the top five groundball pitchers in baseball.
And last year was no defensive fluke for Mo Vaughn -- he's been this bad a long time. Over his career, he has averaged 15 errors per 147 games (147 is a career high), versus only 81 assists (with a career high of 94). Olerud's career high in errors, by comparison, is 10, and he's had at least 104 assists in each of the past four years, for three different teams.
1Bs' unmeasured stat
As bad as all that sounds, I think Vaughn's defense was much worse. That's because none of the first-base defense stats I've found measures the position's basic function -- catching throws.
I've seen about a dozen Angel games a year from 1998 on, after an eight-year gap of living abroad. The biggest three changes to the game I've noticed are the explosion in offense, the increase in game length, and the official scorers' sudden reluctance to give out errors. Sitting in Mo's back pocket, I've watched him miss throw after throw that required him to do things like jump, move off the base and apply a tag, or bring in a short-hop.
If the play would have been close anyway, the scorer usually rules it a hit, but if Mo fails to catch one in the dirt when the runner is more than a step away, the error goes to the thrower, and shows up in the statistics.
And boy, does it ever. Troy Glaus, a marvelous fielder, led the world in third-base errors last year with 33 (the next closest, former catcher Phil Nevin, had 26). Adam Kennedy tied Ron Belliard for the major league lead in errors by second basemen, with 19. Stocker, Gil, and Gary DiSarcina combined for 30, which would have ranked third among all shortstops.
How many o those 82 errors were on throws to Mo Vaughn? I don't know. (If anyone has that kind of data, please e-mail me.) I do know the Angels committed 64 throwing errors in 2000, third most in the American League. Assuming, generously, that all 13 errors committed by their four main outfielders were errant throws, that leaves 51 in the infield.
Two-thirds of the Angels' putouts were at first base, and given the youth and talent at the other positions, I would guess that a much higher percentage than that were throws to Mo Vaughn.
Infield throwing errors are the great ignored fielding statistic for first basemen. If they typically make eight or nine putouts per game, shouldn't we try to measure their effectiveness at catching baseballs? What's the difference between a short-armed, stone-handed 6'1", 268-pound Mo Vaughn, and a long-armed, soft-handed 6'5", 220-pound John Olerud? Look at the infield errors.
With Olerud playing first base, the 1999 New York Mets set major league records for fewest infield errors and unearned runs. When he left, so did the D: Third baseman Robin Ventura committed 9 errors in 160 games in 1999, 17 in 137 last year. Second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo deteriorated from 5/158 to 10/146. Cuban phenom Rey Ordoņez made more errors (6) in 44 games last year than he did in 154 games (4) the year before.
Meanwhile, Olerud's new team suddenly improved their infield defense greatly. Seattle's 36 team throwing errors was fewest in the American League (the average was 51). Alex Rodriguez, the only real constant between 1999 and 2000, committed 14 errors in 129 games pre-Olerud, 10 in 148 throwing to The Helmet.
Nomar Garciaparra made a similar improvement once he stopped throwing to Mo Vaughn, going from 25 errors in 143 games in 1998, to 17/134 in 1999, and 18/136 last year.
It seems to me that first-base defense is the kind of thing the hardcore sabermetrics nuts and Project Scoresheet volunteers could begin to measure a lot better without too much trouble. Who digs out the most throws, and with the highest percentage? Who makes that jump/swipe tag play the most? How many bang-bang plays with off-kilter but catchable throws are scored base hits?
Without more precise data, I'd guess that Mo cost the Angels another 25 outs last year -- 13 scored errors, 12 scored hits -- with his below-average ability to catch baseballs thrown to him. That's arbitrary, but I would argue it's conservative.
So what's another 25 singles off his already-adjusted offensive line?
Real Mo: .272/.365/.498
1st Adj. Mo: .202/.307/.428
2nd Adj. Mo: .161/.272/.388
This may look too ghastly to be true; then again when the Red Sox let Mo go in 1999 they won two more games without him, while the Angels he was supposed to "lead" were 15 games worse, in no small part due to a clubhouse civil war triggered by Vaughn's refusal to participate in an on-field brawl.
Meanwhile, Seattle improved by 12 games with Olerud (and without Ken Griffey), while the Mets he left won three fewer. Olerud's teams have been to the playoffs five times, and won the World Series twice; Mo has lost in the first round twice, (going 0 for 14 in the Divisional Series in 1995 before busting out in 1998).
Bigger than the team
The statistics, even as crude as they are, show that Mo Vaughn costs his team dozens and dozens of outs on defense every year. He's been the worst defensive first baseman in baseball for a decade, so why isn't he DHing?
The answer may be the best reason of all why Mo Vaughn missing the season is such good news: because Mo insists on playing first base, team be damned. Vaughn is the only player who Manager Mike Scioscia, whom I greatly admire, cannot look in the eye and tell what to do. Scioscia knows Vaughn can't play first better than former second baseman Scott Spiezio, who DHed much of last year, but he and general manager Bill Stoneman inherited Mo, Mo's mythology, and Mo's $80 million contract.
For the last two years Scioscia has told Vaughn to lose weight in the offseason, and for the last two years Mo's showed up unapologetically fat. On a team personified by the no-nonsense hustle of Darin Erstad and humble professionalism of Tim Salmon, Vaughn's third-person schtick sticks out like a dislocated thumb, and competes (unsuccessfully) for the soul of the team.
And, even though 36 homers and 117 RBIs do speak for themselves, it is demoralizing to watch a guy who can't make it to second base when he hits it off the wall, can't hit it to the left half of the infield when the third baseman is playing shallow centerfield on the most exaggerated shift in the big leagues, and can't jump more than about five inches to catch a throw from the third baseman.
The Angels have a young pitching staff with pretty good potential. The 50-75 extra outs will come in handy, Glaus' reduced errors should make him a lock on a Gold Glove, and even Wally Joyner can hit better than .161. Break a leg, Mo.