Lyle Overbay hit the free agent market yesterday after his release by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and there’s a good chance that his big league career is over. In 103 games with the Pirates this year, Overbay hit just .227/.300/.349 with eight homers and 17 doubles in 391 plate appearances. Even in 2011’s severely reduced offensive environment, it’s hard to think of a team that would want to employ a 34-year old first baseman with no pop or on-base skills and declining defensive abilities.
When the Pirates acquired Derrek Lee at the trade deadline and subsequently designated Overbay for assignment, Aaron Gleeman wrote at Hardball Talk that Overbay was one of the least productive first baseman in recent memory, with a .793 OPS that ranked only ahead of Eric Karros and JT Snow over the last 20 years for first basemen with 4,800 plate appearances. Not happy with leaving things at that, I decided to try and find Overbay’s place among all first baseman.
To adjust for era, I used Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to sort big league players with at least 4,800 plate appearances (half or more at first base) by OPS+. The search returned 105 players, with the usual suspects — Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx — at the top. Lyle Overbay’s 108 puts him 87th, just behind Fred Merkle (famous for the play that cost the Giants the 1908 pennant that will forever be remembered as Merkle’s Boner) and High Pockets Kelly (if you’re curious, this is High Pockets Kelly in a disappointingly pocketless picture). Beyond the moderns (Karros, Snow, Scott Hatteberg), the only first baseman you’re likely to be familiar with below Overbay on the all-time OPS+ list are Wally Pipp (101), Bill Buckner (99), Vic Power (97), and Charlie Grimm (94). Overbay got a good defensive reputation, but if you factor in defense and count WAR, he only moves up to 81st on the list.
Now, it’s not really fair to call Overbay bad. There have been hundreds of first basemen since 1901 and only 105 went on to get at least 4,800 plate appearances. Since 1901, only 880 players at any position have recorded 4,800 plate appearances. If you filter out pitchers, 7,606 players have gotten at least one plate appearances, so being good enough to be in the top 880 when it comes to playing time is an accomplishment, no matter how dubious it seems.
Of course, it’s not really a compliment to say that Overbay’s career highlight is probably being just barely good enough to keep finding work. It does make for a fun litmus test, though: when you’re watching your favorite baseball team and you’re not sure if their first baseman is good enough to keep playing on an every day basis, ask yourself if he’s better than Lyle Overbay (career Lyle Overbay that is, not 2011 Lyle Overbay). If he is, he’ll probably keep his job. If he’s not, he probably won’t.
If you think I’m being mean, well, the joke’s still on me. In Overbay’s career, which spanned parts of 11 seasons in which he was the worst regular starting first baseman, he made almost $28 million.