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Delgado and Fernandez: A study in opposites

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The top position players in the history of the Blue Jays were distinctly as opposite as two great players could be.

Tom Szczerbowski

Towards the end of the 2014 season, it was brought to my attention a few times on this site that Jose Bautista was moving closer to overtaking Jesse Barfield for 3rd place on the list of most valuable all-time position playing Jays by Fangraphs WAR. Indeed, with a strong end to the season, Bautista finished 2014 with 29.6 fWAR in a Jays uniform, essentially tying Barfield (Fangraphs puts him ahead, I assume on decimals) and trailing only Tony Fernandez (35.1 fWAR) and Carlos Delgado (34.4 fWAR). Indeed, with a healthy and productive 2015, Bautista could accumulate the 5.5 WAR necessary to claim sole possession of first place (he would rank #3 overall, well behind Roy Halladay and Dave Steib). But this piece is actually not about Bautista; rather, it's about the two who, for now at least, rank ahead of him.

As indicated above, Fernandez ranks ever slightly ahead of Delgado using Fangraphs WAR, and the same is true using Baseball-Reference's version of WAR - Fernandez comes in with a total of 37.4 bWAR whereas Delgado is credited with 36.7 bWAR. However, given the inherent uncertainty in WAR both due to the inputs and the assumptions of the model, this is essentially saying that Fernandez and Delgado were both equally valuable to the Jays.

What's even more interesting to me is that they both did this in essentially the same playing time in Toronto. Fernandez edges out Delgado in terms of games at 1,450 vs. 1,423 (first and second in franchise history), but Delgado accumulated more plate appearance in those games, 6,018 vs. an even 5,900 for Fernandez (first and third in franchise history). So not only were these Level of Excellence inductees very similarly valuable on a counting basis, but also very similarly productive on a rate basis as well.

Beyond these high-level similarities, however, what's interesting is that Delgado and Fernandez were almost polar opposites as baseball players, and consequently in terms of how they contributed that similar amount of value. Consider the following summary of their careers (data from Fangraphs):

Pos. BB% K% ISO wRC+ TTO% HR 3B SB IBB
Fernandez SS 7.4% 8.4% 0.115 107 16.8% 60 72 172/258 32
Delgado 1B 13.7% 20.6% 0.274 139 39.9% 336 11 9/16 128

To start, their primary positions are on opposite ends of the defensive spectrum, with Fernandez playing the most demanding position in the field and Delgado playing the least demanding. At the plate, they were likewise dichotomous. Fernandez walked at roughly a league average rate while rarely striking out, with minimal power. His value derived from controlling the strike zone and putting the ball in play, and overall it added up to a slightly above hitter as a Blue Jay. Delgado walked at a prodigious rate while also whiffing frequently, pairing that with monsterous power, even measured against the standards of the Steroid Era. He was one of the offensive titans of his day, ranking 20th among all qualified hitters from 1996-2004, amassing his value by being reasonably selective but going for the fences when he did swing.

This leads to some huge differences in counting stats. Delgado had over six times as many home runs as Fernandez, and was intentionally walked four times as often. Overall, almost 40% of Delgado's plate appearances ended with one of the Three True Outcomes (walk, whiff or bomb), whereas that only happened 17% of the time for Fernandez (or conversely, he put the ball in play five out of six times). On the bases, the story was the same: Fernandez was not a great baserunner (only 67% success rate stealing), but nonetheless he amassed 16 times as many steal attempts as Delgado. Fernandez hit almost seven times as many triples, despite having a similar amount of opportunities (Delgado had 354 2B+3B, Ferandez had 363 2B+3B).

The same is true looking at how Fangraphs attributes their value to the different parts of the game in runs above average:

Batting Running Position Fielding Total
Fernandez 53 -3 58 42 150
Delgado 302 -16 -103 -36 147

Overall, there is a trivial difference of three runs relative to average, but with huge differences except in baserunning. This gives one more big difference, as Fernandez was considered a well-above average defender relative to his position by Total Zone Rating and/or UZR, whereas Delgado was considered well-below average.

Beyond the numbers, there are some other significant differences in their career arcs. Both were signed at 16 as international free agents, but Fernandez came out the Dominican Republic whereas Delgado hailed from Puerto Rico (which today would make him subject to the draft). Fernandez rocketed through the minor league system, assigned to low-A in 1980, jumping directly to AAA in 1981 at age 19, debuting in late 1982 and cementing himself in the major league lineup for good in mid-1983 at age 21. Conversely, Delgado went methodically level to level, with full seasons at short season low-A (1989-90), low-A (1991), high-A (1992), AA (1993) and then spending two years mostly at AAA in 1994-95 with some major league time before establishing himself as a big leaguer in 1996 at age 24 (editor note, part of the reason for that is that Delgado came up through the system as a catcher).

And finally, there's the nature of their tenure with the Jays. Delgado spent his entire uninterrupted prime with the Jays, a mainstay in their line-up from 1996-2004 when they never really contended and then he departed as the Jays rebuilt. Fernandez's time on the other hand was famously divided into four tours, the bulk in the mid-to-late 1980s when they emerged from the basement and became perennial contenders. Traded away in what remains the most significant trade in franchise history, he returned in mid-1993 to help win it all and then left as a free agent. He returned for two very good years in 1998-99, and then finally once again for a final swan song at age 39 in 2001.

So, two franchise players, two worthy inductees to the Level of Excellence, the top two positions players in franchise history (for now); but two very different players.

Addendum

As noted above, Delgado and Fernandez have both the two highest WAR totals for position players, and the two highest games played totals. The former is partially a function of the latter, as WAR is a counting stat, so for completeness I've included a list of the top-15 players for the Jays by productivity (fWAR / 650 PA), minimum 1,000 PA with the Jays.

Player WAR/650 PA
Jose Bautista 5.65
Fred McGriff 5.51
Jesse Barfield 4.97
Devon White 4.56
Roberto Alomar 4.27
John Olerud 4.07
Troy Glaus 3.88
Tony Fernandez 3.87
Carlos Delgado 3.72
Marco Scutaro 3.63
Brett Lawrie 3.59
Ernie Whitt 3.56
Alex Rios 3.45
Edwin Encarnacion 3.32
Jose Reyes 3.27

Appropriately, Delgado and Fernandez rank back-to-back at 9 and 10. I was a little surprised they weren't higher, but of all the names on the list the one that most surprised me was....Marco Scutaro?