Alden Carrithers is twenty-nine years old, has zero major league at-bats, and has never hit more than three home runs in any minor league season.
Which is kind of why he’s so amazing, because he just might be relevant. Perhaps Carrithers won’t be relevant to the all-star game, or perhaps he’ll never even be relevant to major league baseball. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that he shouldn’t be. Carrithers is never going to play in the midsummer classic — that’s an assumption that can be made with a high degree of certainty — but there is a good case to be made that he belongs in Major League Baseball.
Carrithers has only one really plus tool, but that tool is pretty fantastic. This is Carrithers’ seventh season in the minor leagues, and in every single one of them he has more walks than strikeouts. That likely won’t hold up in the major leagues, but it will continue to at least some extent. Reaching base often for free while rarely taking the automatic trip back to the dugout is the kind of thing that generates value, and it’s the kind of thing that Alden Carrithers is. This isn’t a novel, new concept. But it is something that’s hard to always remember and realize, and really factor in to a player that would otherwise be labeled as Quad-A at best.
Because as much as this is, this really isn’t an article about Alden Carrithers. It could be about Mike O’Neill who had a ridiculous 91 walks with only 37 strikeouts last season, or it could be about Jamie Johnson of the Tigers, who’s had many more walks than strikeouts in his past two seasons. But those guys have flaws in their games that are pretty obvious, and they’re all further away from proving themselves ready for the show than Alden. This is really an article about something-for-nothing guys, and how available they are.
A naïve argument against the necessity for an article that points out the possible worth of a player of Alden Carrithers’ type is that these guys exist in bulk. That argument is more arguing against the very premise of WAR itself, however, since replacement level is very intentionally set to where it represents just that — replacement level players. There aren’t an abundance of one WAR guys hanging around. If there were, WAR would simply be wrong. There are, however, an abundance of zero WAR guys hanging around, which is kind of the idea.
Back to Alden, and why he’s probably not just another one of the zero WAR guys. The bane, of course, is his power. He’s never hit more than three dingers, as mentioned earlier, and his ISO has fluttered in the range of .066 without ever reaching higher than his rookie-ball .114. The literally outstanding plate discipline makes up for a lot of that, but in and of itself the plate discipline isn’t enough to make him a major league player.
His defense projects to be solid without being fantastic. There’s a lack of data on defense in the minor leagues, but the majority of scouting reports on him have been generally agreeable without being glowing. He can play second base, which gives him a little immediate boost in value, while also being able to pitch in at third base as well as left field. He’s only really projectable defensively at second base for any long-term stint, but that’s not a terrible thing. Second base is currently the third-weakest position in baseball from a hitting perspective — only catcher and shortstop are worse. And while shortstops and catchers are often able to add value simply by being capable of playing catcher and/or shortstop, the same often isn’t true with second basemen. The basic point is that second base is probably currently the worst position in baseball. It’s really hard to be good enough to play major league baseball, but if one is inclined to do so then second base is probably a good choice.
His speed is of the same ilk as his defense, in the sense that it is solidly useful as well as unspectacular. He’s stolen bases at a 77% clip throughout his minor league career, but he’s only stolen 89 bases total, suggesting that while his baserunning isn’t prolific it is in fact solid. This is further backed up by his Bill James speed score that has hovered just north of 5 throughout his career (suggesting just north of average). Oliver projects Carrithers to have a WAR/600 of 1.8, which is a reasonable projection although it probably slightly over-rates his defense (6.3 runs above average) while under-rating his running (-1.6 runs above average). The wOBA projection is at .297, which is roughly in line with Steamer and ZiPS.
All that said, if a starter goes down and Carrithers has to play for a quarter of the season or so he will likely contribute about half a win. A second baseman will probably go down this season, and he will probably be replaced with a zero WAR level player. Ryan Goins is currently the starting second baseman for the Blue Jays, and he’s a zero WAR player. Last year Dan Uggla became terrible and the Braves replaced him with Eliot Johnson who ended the season as–wait for it–a zero WAR player. Meanwhile Carrithers was available via a phone call, forty miles down the road at Triple-A Gwinnett.
This past winter, Carrithers was basically available for anyone who wanted him as a minor league free agent. The Oakland Athletics picked him up, and he’s currently at their triple-A affiliate Sacramento in the PCL. The A’s already have Callaspo, Sogard, and Punto playing second base at the major league level, all of whom are probably a little better than Carrithers. But Carrithers also isn’t that much worse than those guys, from a total value perspective. If any or all of those guys go down the A’s won’t be hurt that much, and it cost them nothing. It’s this sort of thing that (along with a lot of other sorts of things) gets a team ahead in a game where everything can feel random. The A’s, after all, are still moneyballing. That hasn’t stopped yet.
Carrithers will probably never wear a uniform in a major league stadium. But if he does, it will probably be the kind of uniform-wearing that will help the team he’s playing for win baseball games. Something for nothing, is a pretty good way to win.