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Confronting the Karros Demon
2003-10-08 08:32
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

"Karros is tumbling from mediocrity to uselessness."
You might want to re-think this. (Unless, of course, you haven't been watching the Cubs in the post-season).

Karen Clark
Dodger Fan

The quote is mine, carefully retrieved by Karen from this January 14 entry.

To which I reply: No, not useless. Still mediocre.

My angst over the all-time Los Angeles Dodger home run leader is better documented in this entry a month later: Eric Karros: Sparring Partner. Karros was once a hero to me - a precursor to Paul Lo Duca, a grinder working his way up the system, becoming a bright light in a particularly dismal season, 1992. However, Karros came to embody much of what was wrong with the Dodgers on the field. He was an overrated player - hitting his 30 home runs a year, but providing little else in offense. He brought no fire to the game - acting aloof, even contrary at times.

Knowing full well the lackluster commodity the Dodgers were getting in Todd Hundley, I was glad to see Karros go. We can all agree that the Dodgers needed help on offense for 2003. Well, Karros was unlikely to be the man who provided it. Further, I did not anticipate that he would accept the part-time role that Dodger manager Jim Tracy would otherwise have had in mind for him.

Still, back in February, I wrote:

I am hoping the Dodgers made the right decision in getting rid of Karros for their sake, but I admit that I also have the same hope for my sake. I really donÕt want my opinion of this move to be wrong.

ItÕs not like IÕm in the minority among those who analyze the game about KarrosÕ potential effectiveness. But for whatever reason, I feel I have a great deal invested in having drawn this particular conclusion. IÕve been on Eric KarrosÕ back the way UCLA basketball fans have been on Steve LavinÕs. For years, weÕve been fed up with the Karros/Lavin weaknesses Š and even fed up with their occasional successes, because those successes would enable the weaknesses to continue.

Well, now Lavin is going, and Karros is gone. The punching bags are being removed. What will take their place? Will a new punching bag emerge? And, if Karros somehow manages to reverse his downward spiral and have a great year, will that punching bag be me?

So, am I the inflatable Bozo?

From a team standpoint, of course, the results aren't pretty. Karros is playing October ball; the Dodgers are not.

But what about the player?

Let's start with the postseason, to address first the specific point raised in Karen's e-mail. With two home runs (and I'll assess no penalty points for them both coming in a losing effort), Karros has an OPS of 1.125 in 16 plate appearances. Look, that's outstanding. At this point. Karros would have to go about 0 for 8 before he reaches mediocre, and 0 for the series before reaching useless. If you only want to judge Karros on what he's done in the playoffs, well, you've got yourself one heck of a first baseman.

But in the postseason, the Cubs have played six games. Karros has played four. Not much to go on. And the fact that he's been benched for two games brings us to the larger point.

In the regular season, Karros played in 114 games. He missed 48 games - 30 percent of the season - and not because of injury. He missed them because Dusty Baker, a manager who places his faith in veterans like almost no other, didn't have a role for him in those games. So right there, you're starting with a player who is 70 percent of your ideal.

You're also talking about a player who plays the game's easiest defensive position, meaning that whatever stats he produces on offense should be at a level better than those of players at any other slot.

When he did play, Karros posted a batting average of .286, his highest since 1999. But again, this was a Slim-Fast stat. Karros had an EQA, according to Baseball Prospectus, of .271. Among major league first basemen with at least as many plate appearances as Karros had, Karros was tied for 18th in EQA.

Using another Baseball Prospectus stat, Runs Above Replacement Value, which accounts for the fact that there were some games in which Karros literally did not produce at all, Karros was tied for 26th among first basemen.

And again, because of the lack of defensive value that Karros provides, here are some Dodgers that Baseball Prospectus ranks as more valuable:

  • Adrian Beltre
  • Jolbert Cabrera
  • David Ross (a catcher who hit only two fewer home runs than Karros in 2003).
Yes, Karros performed a bit better than his replacement in Los Angeles, Fred McGriff, who came in 28th. And certainly, the Cubs got more out of Karros and Mark Grudzielanek than the Dodgers did from McGriff and Hundley.

However, to answer the question of how useful Karros is, that answer is, not very.

Go ahead and be impressed by Karros' performance this season, but realize that you are being impressed by mediocrity.

If you acknowledge that the Dodgers would not have signed McGriff had they retained Karros, then Karros' departure from the team had virtually no negative impact on the Dodger performance this season. That the Dodgers' trade with the Cubs looks bad in hindsight is mainly a reflection of the offensive divergence of second basemen Grudzielanek and Alex Cora, not Karros.

As for me, well, I've documented my desire for the Cubs to seize the opportunity before them and win the World Series. And if Karros contributes to that, then congratulations all around. Though I may have low expectations of the player, I don't wish Karros anything ill at all.

But if the Cubs do find the magic, I would hate to see people in these parts record in their personal histories that Eric Karros was the magic wand.

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