Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who's Your Shortstop?

While sitting in church today I realized that my favorite way to present information graphically, the scatter graph, could be extremely useful in evaluating player effectiveness by position. As I move through the positions in totally random order, I'll probably change what I use for the axes, but for now, I'll go with fielding percent and batting average. And before you accuse me of drifting off during the sermon, I would instead propose that God merely planted the inspiration.

Why begin with shortstops? Because that's what I was thinking of first when this came to me last night (Saturday, July 13th), and also because shortstop is the most all-around  position on the field. I'll elaborate more on each position as I reach them, but teams may be willing to sacrifice a little hitting for superior glove work--but not much. They also might overlook an error or two in exchange for some pop in the bat--but again, not much. The way modern baseball is played truly requires the slick-fielding/decent-hitting shortstop, but how each team defines those terms is a moving target. I'll introduce the graph and then move through the quadrants from best to worst:
I made adjustments to the axes to get the midpoints to be right where they are for this set of 48 shortstops--in the aggregate, they bat .275 and field .975 (and yes, I'm quite aware that no one can field above 1.000, but thanks for pointing it out). Therefore, our quadrants are:
Upper right        GREAT (batting above .275, fielding above .975)
Upper left           HMMM (batting below .275, fielding above .975)
Lower right         MAAAAYBE (batting above .275, fielding below .975)
Lower left           RUH ROH (batting below .275, fielding below .975)
Learn to love these descriptions--they'll stay the same, but the metrics that determine them will change by position. When we've covered all the positions, we'll have a chart that shows where each team is by position--it won't be perfect, but I'll predict in advance that it will be a decent marker of team success.

So who are these guys? We'll begin with the GREAT ones:
There's a strong argument to be made that Troy Tulowitzki is the best all-around shortstop in the game today, but it's on hold while he's on the DL-lucky for the Rockies, Jonathan Herrera has filled in ably but not enough to stop the Rockies slide to irrelevance. The Red Sox can't decide what to do with Jose Iglesias since they seem committed to Stephen Drew, but Drew is a free agent after this year. Didi Gregorius will be in the race for 2nd place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Jean Segura might be working his way lower than 2nd in the Brewers' batting order for ALL SORTS OF REASONS, Everth Cabrera stole 2nd last night in the Tim Lincecum no-hitter...while the Padres were losing 8-0 (gotta get something started somehow). If you had asked me at the beginning of the year my thoughts on the Tigers' left side of the infield, I'd have said they both sure can hit, but Jhonny Peralta has been fielding the position very well. I wonder if there's a market for Jose Reyes? He's owed over $100 million (i.e., the equivalent of Canada's GDP) through 2018, and he's developing fragility issues, but as we move to the next group of shortstops, I wonder...

I won't comment on everyone on this list, but I'll begin at the bottom by stating the obvious--Reid Brignac and Munenori Kawasaki are obvious stop-gaps (along with Jayson Nix). I also had no clue Kawasaki was that old. Pete Kozma is the rare player who is surrounded by a lineup that makes up for his lack of offensive production, but it's a special situation--almost any other team, he's a borderline liability. Elvis Andrus is having an off-year, J.J. Hardy augments his pedestrian average with power, but he's an exception--as you take note of all these players, the shortstop that hits 25-30 homers is becoming much rarer. Two-thirds of the way through the season only four are in double digits, so any power is a true bonus. Jimmy Rollins is beginning the decline phase of an excellent career and Brad Miller may or may not be making Brendan Ryan expendable in Seattle. Teams can win with shortstops like this, but not if they're considered a key player. Lucky for these players, none of them are.

This is a fascinating list. Hanley Ramirez has always been more hitting than fielding, and if he can return to his 2010 form he'll overcome any fielding issues with his bat and then some, but that's one BIG "if." Alexei Ramirez is having a very uncharacteristic year fielding, and Ian Desmond is in this list because of 2 points of fielding percent. Jed Lowrie is the one that could be an issue--his hitting isn't enough to overcome his fielding woes, but Oakland budget issues make replacing him difficult. I never underestimate Billy Beane, but I'll be very interested in what he does here, because from top to bottom, the A's are an overachieving lineup with little margin for error and need all the help they can get. How about Stephen Drew?

Yeah, I hope you haven't eaten recently before looking at this list, especially if you're a Cubs fan, but you can take solace in the fact that Starlin Castro is only owed $60+ million through 2020--it could be worse, I guess, I'm just not sure how. Brandon Crawford shows the capriciousness of my cut lines as he's 3 points of batting average and fielding percent from being GREAT, but for the rest of these folks, well...If Jake Elmore is the future of the Astros, I'd aim for a different one, the Pirates can really use an improvement over Clint Barmes and may very well have it with Jordy Mercer, but that fielding will need to improve. The rest of these guys are just placeholders as teams see how their prospects develop.

As I go through these positions, it will become very apparent that at each position there's around 8-10 solid players, meaning fully two-thirds of teams are looking for the next big thing--the trick is to not be doing it at three or four positions at once, particularly key ones like shortstop, catcher or center field. This is why the Cardinals are poised for success for quite some time--they've scouted and developed solid talent through their farm system and supplemented it with select free agents. When a team has solid players, it can afford to have a Pete Kozma because it can be overcome elsewhere. Having a great shortstop is no guarantee of team success, but it sure doesn't hurt.

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