Why Do We Love “Bad” Players?

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a trend I find intriguing, a pattern of fans building up a cult of personality around players on their favorite team who are, to put it politely, average at best. Now, before we dwell too much on the idea of a “bad” major leaguer, it’s worth noting that even the so-called “bad” players are still elite in terms of their ability to play the sport of baseball. To even make it to the big leagues means having proven yourself in the minors, often for years. They may not stack up compared to All-Star teammates and future Hall of Famers, but I want to emphasize that these players are still among the best in the world at what they do.

Still, even with that in context, there are players who fall into a utility or bench-player role, guys who likely don’t have sell-out jerseys in the team store or even earn the dreaded “Quad-A” moniker. Yet it’s these players who interest me most because for some reason, some of them become magnets for fan interest. Don Kelly, a utility player for the Detroit Tigers, hasn’t appeared on the field for the team since 2014; he has a career line of .230/.294/.334 over nine seasons, a career wRC+ of 72, and 0.2 career WAR. Yet to this day, Tigers fans will argue that it is Kelly, and not Don Mattingly, who is the true “Donnie Baseball.”

I posit there are two parts to what makes these players fan-favorites. The first thing that makes a “bad” player beloved is the positive feeling they create for an audience, be it as a generally likable individual or as a spark-plug who is watchable because you don’t know if they’ll crack a joke or beat the tar out of a Gatorade cooler on any given day. The feeling these players inspire in us, the GIFs and videos that hit Twitter as a result, is part of establishing a mythos that has nothing to do with their stat line. Who among us hasn’t seen a GIF of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Brett Phillips in “airplane mode” after his unexpectedly clutch walk-off in Game Four of the 2020 World Series and smiled?

The second part of the equation, in line with the Phillips moment mentioned above, are their heroics. These players are typically notorious for a handful of moments when their bat or glove came up clutch during a high-leverage situation. They are able to ride the goodwill of those events, often for the duration of their remaining tenure with their club.

Unfortunately, it’s not a simple feat to combine likability and heroics into a single metric that would help us identify players like this, and it’s all but impossible to quantify that lightning in a bottle feeling that is created when fans connect with specific players. That connection is deeply ingrained in the lore of those fanbases, but unless you’re in the know, you might not be able to identify the players who fit the bill. So I went to those who would know best and asked baseball fans on Twitter, “Who is a statistically ‘bad’ player that your fanbase loves anyway?” The answers came fast and furious, and it quickly became apparent that a few names were being mentioned with greater frequency than others. (I’ll note here that I only considered players who are no longer active, as it is easier to assess the full impact those players had on fans.)

We’ve already talked a little bit about Kelly, the beloved Tigers utility player. Without a doubt, Kelly remains a fixture in the hearts and imaginations of Tigers fans. Through his nine-season career, Kelly made appearances at every position, including pitcher and catcher, making him the truest form of a super-utility player. He also had some postseason clutch moments. He hit a first inning home run in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS against the Yankees, scoring the game’s first run and establishing an early Tigers’ lead; they would go on to win 3-2. Then in Game Two of the 2012 ALDS against the A’s, Kelly hit a walk-off sac fly, handing the Tigers the win; they would ultimately find their way to the World Series.

Kelly is not alone in being an unlikely Tigers icon, though. Brandon Inge was the Tigers’ everyday third baseman until the arrival of Miguel Cabrera; he was relegated to a utility role after the young phenom arrived in 2008. Inge, who posted a career slashline of .233/.301/.384 with an 81 wRC+ and 14.5 WAR, was a better player than Kelly statistically but still below average by most accounts. In 2009, largely because of a hot run of 24 consecutive games during which he reached base, he went to his first (and only) All-Star Game thanks to the fan vote. Part of what endeared Inge to fans was his willingness to convert to a utility role after losing his place as an everyday player, though it bothered Inge. When Cabrera joined the team, he actually asked the Tigers to trade him, but they weren’t able to.

Much like with Kelly and the Tigers, a player’s postseason performance can be a huge part of what makes them special to fans. With all the hype surrounding the 2016 Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years, it’s easy to forget some of the individual player performances, but backup catcher — and current Cubs manager — David Ross certainly fits the bill of the type of player we’re talking about here. Ross, who was dubbed “Grandpa Rossy,” was a fan favorite during his tenure as a Cubs player in spite of hitting just .203/.304/.351 with a 33 wRC+ in 2015 and a 101 wRC+ in ’16. And Ross had a history of clutch moments throughout his career even before the part he played in the 2016 World Series run. He hit his first postseason home run with the Braves in the 2012 Wild Card game. During his second stint with the Boston Red Sox, he hit a game-winning RBI double in the fifth game of the 2013 World Series. And of course, in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, he became the oldest player to hit a home run in the Fall Classic. These moments have risen above his statistical offerings and made Ross a beloved part of the lore of several teams. His recent turn as Cubs manager was readily accepted by most fans because they had so recently seen his positive impact on the clubhouse, and in spite of the team’s recent teardown, Ross has still been largely well-liked by the fanbase during his managerial tenure.

Augie Ojeda, Another former Cub, came up time and again in response to my prompt, and it’s easy to see why. In nine seasons, he hit .234/.320/.313 with a 65 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR. Ojeda, a utility infielder who won an Olympic bronze medal at the 1996 Summer Games, never found the same success at the major league level that he did in the minors, but he was signed by the Cubs on three different occasions. His original stint came in 2000 after being traded from the Orioles. He returned in 2006, though he only appeared in the minors, and for a third time in 2011, where again he was relegated to the minors before being released mid-season. Ojeda was small for a ballplayer — just 5-foot-9 and around 175 pounds — the kind of player who usually spends most of their career trying to prove that they aren’t too small to be in the majors. But something about Ojeda’s determination, in spite of his stature, appealed to the Cubs and their fans especially. In 2020, recalling his experience on the team, Ojeda said, “Cubs fans are really supportive, and they do their homework on the minor league guys. And they didn’t know much about me, but they saw my size and thought I was a long shot to make it. I hit a double in my first game and I got a standing ovation, and they started calling my name.”

Finally, there’s Munenori Kawasaki, a journeyman who was largely known for his tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kawasaki, a .237/.320/.289 career hitter with a 74 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR, found a permanent place for himself in the heart of Jays fans. Though he was only in the majors for five seasons, he made a strong impact on the Jays faithful during a vital stretch of the team’s successful mid-2010s run. Like some of the other players we mentioned above, Kawasaki had some memorably clutch moments for his club. In 2013, he had a May walk-off against the Orioles. His excitement and enthusiasm during the postgame interview, as well as the evident love his teammates had for him, immediately endeared him to Blue Jays fans:

Kawasaki was with the team from 2013, when they finished last in the AL East, through 2015, when they made a trip to the postseason, getting all the way to the ALCS before losing to the Royals. Kawasaki only appeared in 23 games in the 2015 season, and did not make any postseason appearances, but his effect on the club across three seasons lingers even today. Kawasaki continued to be an engaging personality and his postgame interviews were frequently delightful to watch.

Ultimately, as we reflect on the so-called “bad” players who find a way to become fan-favorites, we find that what these men do for a club is felt both on and off the field. The players who inspire fans to overlook generally middling overall performances are the ones who bring something different to the table in terms of value. They remind us we are watching a game, and a game that very few are ever lucky enough to play, and they seem to savor every second spent on the field, as if keenly aware their stay in the majors could end at any time. They’re the players who bring a smile to your face, even if their batting average is treading at or below the dreaded Mendoza line. They craft a place for themselves as the guy waiting at the top of the dugout steps to grab a teammate’s helmet and be the first to give him a hug after a home run. Their effusive positivity and good humor can be a balm to a sometimes prickly clubhouse, especially if the team is on a losing streak.

And they don’t suffer the pressure of high expectations the way star players do. When Babe Ruth came up to bat, fans wanted to see him hit home runs; they demanded a consistent level of high performance from him. Following Ruth’s incredible 1920 and ’21 seasons for the Yankees, he had a down year in ’22, at least by Ruthian standards, only hitting 35 home runs instead of the 59 he’d clobbered in the year before. It didn’t help that Ruth served a suspension for insubordination, but the press was ruthless (pun entirely intended) about The Babe’s lackluster performance. “Personally, I doubt if Ruth is ever able to top his record of 59,” declared Billy Evans in 1922 in his syndicated column, “Billy Evans Says.”

Players who are seasoned bench guys don’t need to meet those same demands. Few fans, if any, expected Munenori Kawasaki to post monster home run numbers in 2013. Fans didn’t have the same sense of urgency with him at the plate as they did with say, Edwin Encarnación or José Bautista, but he produced in a few key moments, and helped keep the atmosphere light.

All of this to say is that the specific mix of personality and clutch performance that creates a fondness for certain players over others might defy definition by a tidy metric, though I bet that as you’ve read through this article, one or two players from your own favorite team’s history came to mind. The list of names I’ve offered here is far from exhaustive. For fans of those players, the affection they inspire has less to do with stat lines and more to do with how they make us feel; how they consistently remind us of the fun we can have watching baseball. They may even function as a stand-in for ourselves. Most baseball fans will never be able to take a swing at a big-league fastball, or even set foot on the infield grass. But when we see a player who isn’t a superstar — who might even be, by big league standards, “bad” — we can attach ourselves to them. And even though they are still a thousand times more skilled at baseball than we will ever be, for a few seasons we can, perhaps, see ourselves in their cleats.

There’s a power in that, in being reminded of the fun and excitement of the sport through someone we bond with. Perhaps that, at its heart, is why these players remain so beloved by team fans long after their playing careers are over.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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Left of Centerfield
1 year ago

Interesting timing. I was just reading about how a lot of Cleveland fans are in love with Ernie Clement. If you’re not familiar with Clement (and there’s no reason you should be), he’s a rookie non-prospect who’s currently hitting .247/.297/.294 in 94 PAs while providing average defense. But fans love him because he looks the part, he hustles, he’s gritty, he puts the ball in play, etc. And there’s another person who’s in love with Clement for the same reasons – Tito Francona. Francona has been raving about Clement for the past couple of years based on his spring training performances.

It’s strange though….if Clement were an actual prospect and putting up that slash line, people would be calling him a bust, saying he needs more time in the minors, etc. But because no one expects anything from Clement, he can get away with not performing well.

Anyway, maybe it’s just me, but I tend to prefer players who actually help their teams win…

1 year ago

Every team has a Clement. A player the fanbase likes just because even if he’s actively costing the team wins

1 year ago

I wonder if part of his appeal lies in the name Ernie, which has a throwback feel. Fans tend to like “bad” players who have fun or unique names.