Rays’ Ryan Roberts and the Fallacy of the Average Player


Monday night was one of Ryan Roberts‘ finest days as a professional baseball player. Starting his first game since June 11th, Roberts came up huge, going 3 for 5 with 2 home runs. Yet following the game, Roberts found himself sent down to Triple-A as the Rays needed to clear a roster spot for David Price.

Ryan Roberts is far from a perfect baseball player. He’s an infielder limited to second and third base who doesn’t really provide enough offense to start in either spot on a contending team and isn’t always a sure-handed defender. He doesn’t hit right-handed pitching very well, managing just a .171/.237/.243 line against them in 76 plate appearances in 2013 and a .233/.310/.363 line for his career. The reason you have Roberts on your team, though, is because he can makes lefty pitchers absolutely miserable. Roberts has an insane .339/.379/.581 line against them in 66 plate appearances this season and a career .296/.345/.451 line. The combination of Roberts’ talents and deficiencies is pretty close to an average player–he has a 96 OPS+ in 2013 and a 92 mark lifetime in the majors to go along with his solid but usually unspectacular defense. Roberts is by no means a cornerstone player, but start him against the right matchups and you can get yourself some real value. Roberts is nothing special but exactly the type of player that teams need to fill out their roster. Yet this season, Roberts has now been sent down twice, first for Wil Myers and now for David Price.

What did Ryan Roberts do wrong to get sent down? Nothing. He is what he is, a platoon player with limited versatility. He showed on Monday how good he can look when he’s going strong, and the Rays would certainly benefit starting him a couple of times a week. But none of that mattered because Roberts was redundant and the Rays needed a roster spot. Roberts is a very similar player to Sean Rodriguez, only Rodriguez is playing better overall (108 OPS+) and can handle the corner outfield spots, first base, shortstop, and even catcher in a pinch. Add in the player that Roberts was sent down for initially, Wil Myers, and the Rays really don’t need Roberts in the lineup versus lefties no matter how he’s playing. How could anyone not want a player with a .959 OPS against left-handed pitching? It’s not that the Rays don’t like Roberts, but he was an unnecessary luxury. Add in the fact that he had a minor league option, and his ticket to Triple-A was punched even if he hit 4 homers on Monday.

It’s insane how so many roster decisions are dictated by not talent, but by who has a minor league option. Roberts’ demotion seems like an obvious case of that. At the same time, though, who is Roberts more valuable than on this Rays roster? Is having Roberts on the roster to play two or three times a week worth designating a player like Sam Fuld or Cesar Ramos for assignment? Even the most ardent Roberts supporters would have to admit that such a move doesn’t make sense. Ryan Roberts deserves to be in the major leagues. He can hit left-handed pitching at a high level and every team needs players who can do that. But the sad part about average players, especially one-dimensional ones like Roberts, is that they so often get overlooked. Teams want them, but when more talented or even just more versatile players come along, they get lost in the shuffle. Having a talented enough roster that sending Ryan Roberts down makes sense speaks volumes about how much the Rays offense has progressed this season. However, from Roberts’ perspective, how is it fair that he’s a productive player getting sent down despite doing nothing wrong at all?