Several of us here at Bless You Boys are big fans of the Effectively Wild podcast, now found over at FanGraphs. A combo effort from Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer (and formerly Baseball Prospectus) and Jeff Sullivan, FanGraphs writer/editor extraordinaire, EW is one of the better baseball podcasts around. A few weeks ago, Sullivan re-opened the strange case of Ryan Raburn and Gates Brown. It’s a good introductory episode if you haven’t listened before. Upon reflection, we decided further Detroit Tigers-centric investigation into this phenomena was warranted.
In this case, the ties between the former Tigers pinch-hit specialist and whatever Raburn is revolve around their extraordinary inconsistency. We’re not talking about normal inconsistency. Mediocrity never burned so bright as these two former Tigers hitters. It requires bursts of genius and scorching production to produce inconsistency on this kind of level. It also requires inexplicable levels of disaster and futility. From year to year, like Sisyphus, these two men climbed high and were smote down by the baseball gods again and again.
The Tigers tried Raburn all over the diamond during his 11-year tenure in the organization. They repeatedly envisioned him as a starting second baseman, where he was terrible, and as a starting corner outfielder, where he was more serviceable. Raburn’s career may best be remembered for a run he went on late in 2011 that helped propel the Tigers to their first AL Central title. Raburn hit a pair of late innings home runs in early September to help bury the White Sox, en route to a 214 wRC+ in September.
The first hint that we’re entering an uncertain and perilous realm comes from the hilarious false impression caused by Raburn’s career numbers. For his 10-year career in the majors, he holds a career wRC+ of 100, perfectly average after 2,665 plate appearances. But in the same way that saying the average height of people in a room is six feet when everyone in the room is either five or seven feet tall, Raburn’s career numbers do not, in any way, describe the territory of his actual on field contributions.
Quite the contrary, in fact. Sullivan posits that Ryan Raburn’s last six seasons may represent the wildest volatility of any regular player — minimum 200 plate appearances — in the games’ history.
Just look at this madness. Take the absolute value of the seasonal change in his wRC+ from 2012 through 2016, and you have a total change of 405 points of wRC+. That’s a swing of 81 wRC+ points per season. Sullivan couldn’t identify a single player whose year-to-year sequence approaches Raburn’s for wild swings of fortune over so many seasons. This is easily the most volatile five-year stretch in baseball history. The second and third five-year stretches with the most volatile wRC+ all-time? Also Raburn’s.
To anyone who followed the Tigers during the first half of their decade of resurgence, this won’t come as a complete shocker. Raburn was drafted by the Tigers in 2001, and stayed in the organization until moving to the Cleveland Indians in 2013. Over all those years, opinion on Raburn was nearly as volatile as his production. But the peaks and valleys here are just freakish, even by baseball standards.
Where this gets even stranger, is in the hope of finding a player of similar volatility. As it turns out, another past Tiger rates high on the list. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Gates Brown was the Tigers’ pinch-hitting specialist. He is best remembered for his incredible 1968 season for the World Series champions. That season was freakish enough as it stands, but fit into a five-year pattern, and we have another Tiger whose production featured crazy up-and-down swings from year to year.
The 1968 season was notable for quite a few reasons from a Tigers perspective. However, it was also the famous “Year of the Pitcher.” Seven different starting pitchers posted ERAs under 2.00, and there were 49 qualified starters under 3.00. Yet, in this season of pitching dominance, Gates Brown posted a wRC+ of 237. He only started 17 games, but in game after game, Brown came off the bench to provide key hits that sustained the Tigers’ run to the title. While only getting 104 plate appearances, Brown made them count, slugging .685 with a .370 batting average.
With the gift of hindsight, however, Brown’s 1968 campaign is just a part of uniquely five-year stretch of his own. And let us not forget that, if we lower the plate appearances requirements to just 100 plate appearances, Brown’s 1968 rates as the fourth-highest wRC+ ever recorded in a baseball season. At that lower plate appearance minimum, his wildest five-year stretch surpasses even Raburn’s last five seasons.
From 1967 through 1971, Brown had a total season-to-season change in wRC+ of 472. That’s 67 points more than Raburn’s wildest five-year period. Brown averaged a change of 94 points of wRC+ across that stretch. If the Tigers really are a feast and famine offense right now, it’s a tradition that has some basis in historic fact.
What does all this mean? Well, probably not much. It’s just a weird confluence of facts involving the Tigers. I’m open to suggestions as to the cause of Brown’s wandering fortunes. We know Raburn is a lefty-masher which accounts for some of his volatility, but he is hardly unique in that particular trait. He has just 95 more appearances against righthanders than lefties, so it’s not as though he was just ill-used by his managers. Yet, no one has gone up and down the way Raburn has.
Sullivan is one of the best baseball writers out there, and has a knack like few others for digging up freakish performances, statistical oddities, and spooky connections between far-flung players. These things are often of dubious merit as far as revealing anything deeper about the game, beyond its ability to ceaselessly confound the wise.
Ryan Raburn is now a 36-year-old veteran. Thus far, he remains unsigned heading into the 2017 season. It may be that his wild ride is over. A quick look at Sullivan’s article revisiting the Raburn case indicates that should that be the case, the title of current volatility king may pass to the Oakland Athletics’ Danny Valencia. Or perhaps Raburn gets one more shot to tip the scales back to glory. It would appear he’s due. For a player that never became a regular, what a long strange trip it’s been for Ryan Raburn. Long may he run.