Willingham’s Best Season Ends Prematurely

Although it has been partially silenced by the media markets and poor teams in Florida and Washington, Josh Willingham has been one of the most consistently good players in Major League Baseball since 2006. This year, Willingham was on pace to have his best season by WAR and easily his best offensive season by wOBA and wRC+ until a knee injury requiring surgery sidelined him on Thursday. The surgery will force Willingham to miss the rest of the 2010 season.

Willingham has distinguished himself as a solid hitter thanks to above average walk rates and power to go with average contact skills. He has never been below 15 homers in a season since 2006 and has posted a walk rate above 10% every season since 2007. Willingham’s limited defense in the corners prevents him from having a truly star-level impact, but that skillset makes him a 2-3 win player.

Through 450 plate appearances in 2010, Willingham accrued 2.7 WAR, thanks to a career best 137 wRC+. Willingham’s power was down, but an increase in walk rate to 14.9% more than made up for it. ZiPS even saw new heights for Willingham, expecting the power to return and the walk rate to remain high. CHONE isn’t quite as optimstic, projecting a .261/.371/.461 line as opposed to the .263/.370/.500 line projected by ZiPS. With either of those lines, Willingham was looking at a 3.5 WAR season if he could stay healthy.

Unfortunately both for Willingham and his teams, injuries have been a factor in his career. Willingham has only reached 600 plate appearances once in his career, back in 2007. Only twice since 2006 has he reached 500 plate appearances, and the 2010 season marks the second time that he will finish between 400 and 500. Despite this, he has provided great value in these five seasons, delivering his team 12.5 WAR while making only $8.6 million dollars.

Willingham is about to become expensive, as he can probably expect something in the $7-10 million range in his third year of arbitration and then will hit the free agent market before his age 33 season. He should continue to be a solid performer for at least a few more years, but it will be interesting to see how the Nationals, who don’t look like a contender in 2011, handle Willingham. Will they attempt to sign him to an extension? Does he leave in a deadline deal, or does he bring back free agent compensation as Rizzo is attempting with Adam Dunn?

Hopefully, Willingham’s injury doesn’t impact his long term ability. If it doesn’t, whether it’s with Washington or with some other team, Willingham is a good bet to provide value in 2011 and beyond.

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Bad news for the big guy. I was loving his breakout year.

Heres to hoping he continues his break-out in 2011