A Pessimist’s Take


The Tigers have made two trades this week, filling a couple of needs for this year and (perhaps more importantly) next year. If the Tigers let Benoit go, they have a backup plan at closer for 2014. Peralta will be suspended and wasn’t likely to be the best use of Detroit free agent dollars this offseason – now they have a new shortstop. What I have been hearing about the Jose Iglesias trade has been one of two takes. Either “Avisail Garcia is going to be a star – the Tigers blew it” or “Iglesias is the next Ozzie Smith/Omar Vizquel – Dave Dombrowski is a genius!” We fans are prone to extreme views when it comes to prospects and trades (and trades of prospects) so that isn’t unusual.

Jul 22, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Lobaton (59) throws out Boston Red Sox

Let’s burst some bubbles, shall we? First: Avisail Garcia is a potential star, true, but he’s also only a potentially adequate major leaguer. He swings too much and when he swings he misses too much. He’s big and strong, but has shown too much of a tendency to hit the ball hard on the ground (like Delmon Young, for example). He has great defensive range, but doesn’t necessarily take the best line to get to the ball. He has speed, but so far in his brief big league career he has been caught stealing three times in three attempts. His OPS in 562 minor league games is .730. The Chicago media is not particularly thrilled that Garcia is the best that the Sox could get for Jake Peavy. It wouldn’t surprise me if Garcia went on to have a career like Alex Rios, but it also wouldn’t surpise me if he went on to have a career like Matt Diaz.

Second: The Tigers are going to be worse in August and September (as far as talent on the roster) than in months prior. While the Tigers definitely needed somebody to play short that wasn’t Ramon Santiago, the Tigers would be a much better team if that guy was Jhonny Peralta. Shortstops that can hit are scarce right now and Peralta is 3rd among major league shortstops in WAR and second in OPS.

Third: Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel are wildly optimistic comps for Jose Iglesias – even if we believe that he is their equal with the glove. Ozzie Smith – using Fangraphs FLD – contributed 24 wins with his glove over a 19 year career, peaking at just over +3 wins and hovering between +1.5 and +2 before he started to slow down in his later years. That’s the benchmark for defensive excellence, really, at short or any other position. One thing to bear in mind, though is that Smith wasn’t the only great defensive shortstop in recent memory and one of the reasons that we come back to him time and again is because he wasn’t just a great defender. Smith didn’t hit for power, even the kind of line drive gap power that gives you more of a boost to BABIP than ISO. But, he didn’t strike out much, he drew a lot of walks and he stole bases. Over his career, Ozzie Smith was good for 4.25 WAR per 162 games played. That is good – right on the borderline between “Hall of Fame” and “almost”. The contribution to that made by FLD was only 1.5 wins per 162 games played – if he had been merely an average defender Smith would have been an above-average shortstop just not HoF good. In the case of Vizquel, he was good for 2.3 WAR per 162 games played over his long career and the contribution made by FLD was only 0.7 wins per 162. That’s a feature of his longevity, in part, but also the fact that by “advanced metrics” Vizquel’s defensive contributions were pretty inconsistent – especially after his first 5 years in Seattle.

Vizquel and Smith had two of the six best defensive seasons by shortstops since 1980, again according to FLD. The other four guys are less favorable comps for Iglesias, as would current players Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan be (who look great according to that more recent statistical invention “Defensive Runs Saved”), but they are by no means less valid. They are less favorable not because they weren’t as good with their gloves as Smith and Vizquel, but because they weren’t as good at the plate (or on the basepaths) as Smith and Vizquel. Ozzie Guillen was good for 1.06 WAR per 162 games (though he was better early in his career) of which 0.86 wins per 162 games came from FLD. Rey Sanchez: 1.6 WAR/162 of which 1.6 came from FLD. Adam Everett: 1.6 WAR/162 of which 1.4 came from FLD. The last of those “top 6” is Rey Ordonez – who was good for an average of 0.4 WAR/162 of which 1.2 came from FLD (he was well below replacement level in all other facets of the game).

Just a few major points: one is that while +3 wins or so is an achievable defensive contribution for the best defenders at the most important positions, it is more of a number that can be reached in a career year by a great defender rather than the expected level of production year-in-year-out from a great defender. +1.5 wins is a much more plausible expectation. +2 is what is takes, roughly, to be an all-around average major leaguer – so in order to do that you have to be able to add some value (at least over replacement level) elsewhere. Vizquel and Smith definitely did that, Rey Ordonez definitely did not and the other three were only able to do so some of the time. You could add Brendan Ryan and Jack Wilson to the latter group – making about half their contributions with the bat but mixing decent years at the plate with ones that were just awful.

What all these guys had in common – what distinguished them from Smith by and large – is that they didn’t balance the lack of power with walks and steals. To some extent they were all decent at avoiding strikeouts (though Everett and Ryan could have benefited from fewer swings and misses) but that can only take you so far. Iglesias does not appear to hit for any power at all, and he doesn’t appear to have Smith’s speed or nose for steals. His minor league numbers, offensively, look worryingly similar to Rey Ordonez. In fact, his minor league OPS is actually a little lower – because he has had less pop. Ordonez had a fairly small dropoff in production from minors to majors – most, but not all, players have a dropoff and they’re usually small for the guys who make it and big for the guys who flop (the OPS drop for Delmon Young was typical – but Delmon Young was a stud in the minors). If things sort of go “as planned” I would say we should expect Ordonez-type offense from Iglesias but cross our fingers and hope for better. One silver lining is that part of the reason that Ordonez WAR numbers are so bad isn’t just that he didn’t hit, but that he was playing at the height of the “Juice Era” when the frame of reference for a shortstop was Alex Rodriguez. A .600 OPS from a glove-first SS won’t look nearly as bad in 2014 as it did in 2003.