Josh Willingham: Honoring the Hammer

Someday, an up-and-coming SABR scientist should try to measure the psychic effect that losing has on ballplayers. As everyone knows from watching “The Natural,” losing is a disease — as contagious as polio, syphilis and bubonic plague. Attacking one but infecting all, though some more than others. And no other major leaguer over the past decade, among hitters, lost as frequently as Josh Willingham did.

Willingham, 35, recently announced his retirement after playing nine full seasons and parts of two more. What a relief it must have been for him to finish as a part-timer with the Kansas City Royals, who made it to the seventh game of the World Series. Only once before had Willingham played significant time for winning team (with the Florida Marlins in 2008), and never had he played in the postseason. Cross it off the list, call it a career. And it was a good one, aside from all of the losing.

Overall, his teams went 503-644 in Willingham’s appearances, producing a .439 winning percentage, the worst among anyone who recorded at least 4,000 plate appearances since he broke into the majors in 2004. It usually wasn’t Willingham’s fault that his team lost; he was the best hitter on the Marlins as a rookie, after Miguel Cabrera, and he was better than Hanley Ramirez. He was the fourth-best hitter in ’07, the third-best in ’08 — and in ’09 and ’10 after being traded to the Washington Nationals. He was the best hitter on the Oakland Athletics in 2011, and the Minnesota Twins in 2012.  It’s just that Willingham’s teams lost anyway.

Let’s take a look at the lowest career winning percentages of players with at least 4,000 plate appearances whose careers began in 2004 (Willingham’s first season) or later:

Player Pct. W-L WAR Misery Index
Josh Willingham .439 503-644 17.6 7.72
Jose Lopez .448 464-572 5.2 2.32
Shin-soo Choo .455 444-532 23.7 10.78
Billy Butler .459 535-631 9.6 4.41
Yuniesky Betancourt .464 536-620 -0.8 -0.37
Nick Markakis .468 639-726 22.6 10.57
Ryan Zimmerman .471 564-634 35.3 16.62
Alex Gordon .471 486-546 26.8 12.62
Jeff Francoeur .475 588-649 5.8 2.76
Edwin Encarnacion .477 576-630 19.2 9.15
Kelly Johnson .485 561-596 16.8 8.15
Alexei Ramirez .486 521-551 19.9 9.67
Hunter Pence .487 593-625 29.2 14.22
Adam Jones .490 541-564 22.4 10.98
Troy Tulowitzki .491 472-489 34.0 16.69
*Misery Index is winning pct. multiplied by WAR

This is what Willingham said about losing, right after the Royals won the American League pennant:

“I think it kind of wears on you being on losing teams a lot,” Willingham said. “But definitely, this is a lot more fun. Sure, I thought about it. That’s the goal when you sign up this: Everybody wants to make it to the postseason. I always wondered if I would, so now that it’s come true, it’s really nice.”

Regardless of how most of Willingham’s teams performed, he personally produced 17.6 WAR, a stat weighed down by a poor defensive rating as an outfielder. That deficiency, along with periodic injuries and a late start to his career (Willingham didn’t get a full-time shot in the majors until he was 27 years old) rendered him a shade below a 2-win player. No matter, hitting 195 homers in the majors is not bad for 17th-round draft pick in 2000 from the oxymoronically named University of North Alabama.

A professional at 21, Willingham always had the look of a ballplayer, according to reports at the time, and he hit like one, too. But, as John Sickels pointed out, evaluators worried that the small-time competition against North Alabama was skewing his results. Willingham had some power, and he threw well, but he didn’t have a set position. He transitioned from outfield to third base in his second pro season. Two years later, the Marlins tried turning him into a catcher. An injury the next season, along with a lack of significant progress behind the plate, delayed his ascension to the majors despite obvious progress as a hitter.

Eventually — obviously — he made it. Never an All-Star (though he did win a Silver Slugger as designated hitter with the Twins), Willingham posted a career .359 wOBA and a .212 ISO (better than Vladimir Guerrero, Justin Upton, Adrian Beltre and others), along with a walk rate in Jayson Werth’s neighborhood. Plus, he was good enough to earn the simplistic but effective nickname of “Hammer.” (Although, while we’re on the subject, Willingham actually could have been a real-life “Whammer,” even if his personality isn’t much like that of Joe Don Baker’s “Natural” character.)

Back in July, Willingham said the biggest factor in keeping his baseball career going beyond 2014 wasn’t winning, losing, playing time, health or even money. It was his family. The sight of Willingham’s wife, Ginger, toting their three young boys, ages 2 through 7, around the Kauffman Stadium during the fun times in Kansas City is one that’s easily remembered and relatable. More than once, Mrs. Willingham mentioned how she didn’t want to lose track of the “Li’l Hammers.” (It could have been the “Li’l Whammers,” which isn’t as good as “Hammers.” And THAT’S why you don’t mess with a man’s nickname.)

Dave Brown recently joined Fangraphs and CBS' Eye on Baseball after seven years writing for Big League Stew at Yahoo Sports. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and young daughter — who appears to be a left-hander. Follow him on Twitter @AnswerDave.

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Matt P
9 years ago

Welcome, Dave — another fantastic FA signing by FG!

And props to Willingham for putting together a solid career despite it not being a particularly special or lengthy one. He strung together several seasons in the ~2-3 WAR range, and, honestly, there’s probably a good chance he’d still be more effective as a DH vs. LHP than Billy Butler and a few others (and at a fraction of the cost!). But can’t fault him for hanging it up.