Giving up Avisail Garcia for Jose Iglesias was a tough pill to swallow. Garcia may develop into an All-Star caliber hitter and Iglesias almost certainly won’t, but the new Tigers shortstop of the future doesn’t need a big bat to have a huge impact on games or to be an incredible value to the organization.
Runs are runs are runs (ar wins) no matter how you slice it, and although producing runs with a monster bat makes one’s baseball card numbers look sexier, saving runs with outstanding defense does the same thing for your team. Pretty much no one thinks that Iglesias is a good of a hitter as his .313/.357/.390 slash line suggests, and many don’t think he’s even as good as his .273/.324/.348 career slash line suggests, but that’s OK because Iglesias may be so good at defense that he doesn’t need to be better than a replacement level hitter to be a solid major leaguer.
Here’s what I mean, using Iglesias and Garcia as case studies for a WAR calculation.
We all know that advanced defensive metrics have issues, especially in small sample sizes, but bear with me here. The two major defensive metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, agree on Iglesias in his young career. One says he’s been +8.5 runs at shortstop (UZR) and other says he’s been +9 runs. That translates to roughly +24 runs over a full season (he’s only played 539 career innings at the position). Perhaps he’s not that good, but let’s say that we know he’s still really, really good. Let’s say he’s +20 runs.
Avisail Garcia might also be a plus defender for his position of right field. He’s not elite like Iglesias, but let’s say he’s definitely above average at +5 runs (that’s a little bit better than Torii Hunter over the last four years). Let’s just role with that. That makes it seem like Iglesias would be the more valuable defender by 15 runs, but the gap is actually wider than that. The +20 and +5 ratings are compared to other players at that position, and since it’s much harder to be average at shortstop than it is in right field, we need to add in a positional adjustment to level the playing field. Check out this link if you want to learn more about positional adjustments, but the basic result is this: it’s very hard to find an average shorstop, and in the end they get a +7.5 run adjustment, but it’s not very hard to find a player who could be average in the corner outfield (where many players are stuck because they can’t really play anywhere else), so they get a -7.5 run adjustment.
So here we are: Iglesias’ defensive value (fielding plus positional adjustment) could be worth as many as 27.5 runs above replacement. That’s 2.75 WAR without having to hit a lick. Even if he could only maintain a replacement level bat – basically 20 runs below average offensively or a wOBA of about .271 in 600 plate appearances – he still could end up as a solid average regular (rule of thumb is that an average starter is worth 2-3 WAR). For context, a .271 wOBA is basically the average of what Matt Dominguez (.226/.258/.376) and Maicer Izturis (.232/.285/.310) have done this season.
In order for our semi-hypothetical (+5 defense) Avisail Garcia to be worth that same 2.75 WAR, he’d need to be 10 runs above average with the bat, or hit for a wOBA of about .334. That’s certainly not elite – it’s an attainable batting line for Garcia – but it is similar to what Hunter Pence (.280/.326/.448) and Ian Kinsler (.268/.339/.413) have done at the plate this year.
This isn’t really to attempt to peg the true talent levels of either Iglesias or Garcia, or to say that one is necessarily better (or will be better) than the other, but it does hopefully show why some guys need to hit and others really don’t. Iglesias is one of the guys that won’t need to hit to be a productive member of the organization. If Jose Iglesias is never any better with the bat than he is right now, he could still be worth 10-15 wins to the Detroit Tigers by the time he hits free agency. That would be an incredible value for an organization that might very well be cash strapped two to three years down the road.