Editor’s Note: This post utilizes slant-analogy. Similar to slant rhyme, where two syllabic sounds aren’t identical but are close enough for poetic purposes, the opening story isn’t really analogous to the subject of the article, but it’s close enough for rhetorical purposes. This is an attempt at prose by an engineer, and the subject of the post did something that is unprecedented. Cut it some slack.
You’ve probably never heard of Chickenfoot, despite being familiar with every member of the band. Chickenfoot is a supergroup, put together in 2008, that consists of Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony of Van Halen, solo guitarist Joe Satriani, and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I remember first hearing about them when walking into a Best Buy in Douglasville, Georgia, where in front of the store sat a sign with a picture of the band and the cover of their newly released album. I instantly forgot why I had come to Best Buy in the first place and went straight to the music section to pick up the CD. As soon as I checked out and got back into the car, I eagerly jammed it into the CD player of my mom’s Infiniti and cranked the Bose sound system to full blast. Ironically, only 10 minutes into the album, I pulled over to the side of the road, ejected the CD, got out of the car, and threw that God-forsaken album as far as my arm would allow.
On paper, Chickenfoot is an incredible band. They have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vocalist, one of the most exciting bassists of all time, a Grammy Award-winning guitar player, and one of the greatest drummers of our generation. But for all of their talent, they just couldn’t put the pieces together to make a great sound. In the context of those four musicians coming together all at once, the whole was much less than the sum of its parts. This brings us to another on-paper underachiever–perhaps my favorite underachiever of all time. Who, you might ask?
By looking at the typical baseball card statistics for Dante Bichette, you’d think he was an MVP candidate almost every year. From 1993 to 1998 he never hit less than .304, while consistently putting up double digit stolen base totals, triple digit RBI numbers, and high home run counts – 40 in 1995. Bichette even was one of 38 players to ever have a season with at least 30 homeruns and 30 stolen bases. But just like how the cast of stars in Chickenfoot didn’t tell the whole story, these basic statistics don’t tell the whole story on Dante.
One of the first goals of sabermetrics was putting statistics numbers in context to ensure they were telling the correct story. Two of the primary contextual adjustments that must be made are that of the ball park and the era in which the player played. Bichette played for the Rockies during the mid ‘90s, meaning he played in the most run-friendly environment of the most run-friendly era in baseball history. In 1996 alone, 17 different players hit at least 40 homers, 42 went yard at least 30 times, and a whopping 47 guys hit for at least a .300 average. Additionally, Denver’s Coors Field’s overall park factor that year was an insanely high 123, meaning an average team would score 23% more runs in Coors Field than they would in a neutral ballpark. What does this mean for our protagonist? It means that despite having a career average of .299 and a career slugging percentage of .499, Dante struggled to even perform at replacement level during his years in the ‘90s.
Among players with 5000 or more plate appearances, a career average of at least .290, and a career slugging percentage of at least .490, Dante Bichette was worth the least amount of offensive runs. And it’s not even close. His offense produced 34.7 runs above replacement over his 12 full seasons in the majors. The next guy on the list, Robinson Cano, has been worth 188 runs above replacement on offense. That’s a difference of 540 percent between last and next to last place! Add to that the fact that he played horrible defense and you have a guy who was worth less than 9 wins above a replacement player over his entire career. Each of Mike Trout’s first two seasons were worth more than Dante’s entire 274 home run, .299 average, 152 stolen base career. In 1999, Dante’s greatest year of underachievement, he hit 34 home runs, stole 6 bases, had a .298 average to go with his .541 slugging percentage, yet was worth -2.1 wins. Yes, that’s a negative sign. Despite putting up numbers that would normally put a player in the top 5 or 10 in MVP voting, Dante cost the Rockies 2 wins that season. Never before in the history of baseball life has someone done so much and had it be worth so very little.
Chickenfoot is great on paper—a collection of legends that are all supremely talented and technically proficient. Any one of Satch’s solos would sound as magical and impressive out of context as “Dante Bichette hit 40 homers in a season,” does. But context is everything. In a world where Audioslave had set the bar for supergroups, Chickenfoot seems mediocre, self-aggrandizing, and excessive. And the same year Bichette was launching 40 dingers, Mark McGwire was in the middle of an eight-year run where he averaged a .289/.442/.695 line. Dante Bichette was a lot of fun. Dante Bichette had flash, and he had power. But in context, Dante Bichette was uninspiring and mediocre. Dante Bichette was Chickenfoot.