If you are like me, sometimes you find yourself looking at random players’ Fangraphs pages. Sometimes you might find yourself thinking “this guy was better than I remember”, or “Oh yeah, I forgot he was really good” or some other third thing. An interesting question from Twitter — along with its answers — prompted me to think about these players more deeply today:
Who's the one MLB player you think people forget how good he was?— Joe (@JoeRiveraSN) September 10, 2019
There seemed to be some variance in how people chose to answer this question, which of course raises the question: what makes a player forgettably good?
This seems to ring true for players that had about somewhat lengthy careers with consistently above average play. Players that have elite peak seasons, and then decline to average or just below average as the years take their toll. Think the Matt Hollidays of the league. Holliday played for fifteen seasons and accumulated 49.7 fWAR — around 3.3 WAR per season — with his peak lasting from 2007 through 2013 where he put up 37.4 WAR (75% of his total). While his final season was recent enough he is still near the front of our thoughts, eventually memory of his time playing baseball might just fade away.
Other players that seem to suffer this fate are the injury-prone or players with careers cut short. During his career Scott Rolen put up 69.9 fWAR in 17 seasons, famously putting up 9.0 WAR in 2004 as part of the Cardinals MV3. The majority of his Hall of Fame caliber career was spent riddle with shoulder injuries. In his 17 season he reached over 145 games played in just five and over 140 in seven. Adam Wainwright might be another player that falls into this category. Wainwright was in the middle of some of his best pitching seasons of his career. Then he ruptured his Achilles and struggled in his first year back. After that the public perception of Waino changed from a rising star to a washed up has-been. Regardless of what his future holds, in 14 seasons the Cardinals veteran amassed 40.2 fWAR.
Another forgettable type of player might be the competent one that people never saw as such for various reasons. For this category we will refer to Kyle Lohse. He has had a 16 season pitching career with a career ERA of 4.40 and a career FIP of 4.35, good for 24 fWAR. His best season was in 2012 were he pitched 211 innings and amassed 3.3 WAR for the Cardinals, so while he was never what we might consider elite, he was reliable and good. He spent most of 2009 and 2010 injured, but was otherwise consistently pitching over 180 innings per season. Those two lost seasons might have turned the Cardinals fanbase against Lohse, making him seem like a bust when he was, in fact, fine.
Why do we forget about certain players? Can our brains only hold so much information? Are we now so wired for instant gratification that recency bias has taken over? Are players from our formative years or important times in our lives gifted a higher priority in our memories? It is hard to say for sure. It is likely we will forget more baseball players than we could ever imagine, their careers just a brief footnote in the pages of our subconscious. Try not be too sad, though. They are still there, just waiting for something to remind of us of them again. Every record broken, every obscure fact, every random dive into Fangraphs unearths some old, forgotten knowledge, just waiting there to be discussed, waiting for that random comment from your buddy...
“Hey... remember J.D. Drew?”
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