December 17, 2010
One of the most over-worked tropes of the last three seasons has been the newly assigned importance of defense, as if fielding had been suddenly forgotten or overlooked or undervalued. Where there used to be the suggestion that much—perhaps too much—of sabermetrics was the art of documenting the previously observed, to some extent I wonder if these phenomena are more appropriately chalked up to the need to discover, as opposed to making real discoveries. After all, everyone likes being the first to notice something, and if there wasn't really anything there, well, it was news in 2008, so it has to be newsworthy, right?
As a result, perhaps predictably there has been a lot of attention focused on shortstops this winter. Who was available, or wasn't, and where might Derek Jeter go? (Nowhere, of course.) Does this mean that certain teams are suddenly serious about adding defense, or not? Whatever story you wanted to flog, the subject matter has been beaten within an inch of its life, to the point of making the topic downright equestrian.
It's as overwrought and overheated as a lot of winter coverage, of course—without games, news has to come from somewhere. While I've looked at the subject at some length earlier in the month, let's take a quick look at the winter movement of shortstops, or the lack of it (new 2011 employers are bolded):
Now, take a look at that. The biggest changes have been made by the Astros, Cardinals, Tigers, and Orioles, who in each instance were replacing the people who were supposed to be defensive-minded solutions to their needs at short. In each case, these four teams have replaced some of the worst offensive performers at a defense-first position. The Orioles got the worst offensive performance from their shortstops of any among the 30 teams, with a collective .199 True Average. The Astros rated 28th at .222, while the Cardinals rated 27th. The Tigers managed to wind up "just" 24th after replacing Everett and Santiago late in-season with Peralta, but that was after getting just a .222 TAv from that combo in 2009. Not even past defensive excellence spared men their jobs; Izturis had produced excellent defensive numbers across several metrics' interpretations of his work in 2008 and 2009, while the Cardinals' Brendan Ryan was even better still in '09.
On the other hand, the Reds and the Mariners are the two teams we might claim have continued to favor defense above any other consideration, at least to some extent. In the Reds' case, replacing Cabrera with Paul Janish owes little to his 2010, but much to his work afield in 2009 plus excellent scouting reports plus the low expense of employing him. We'll get to the Mariners in a moment, but let's just acknowledge that they're special for the time being.
The world champs represent the team that was confronted with change at short, but essentially stuck with what worked for them in 2010, replacing their Renteria/Uribe tag-team with Miguel Tejada, another offense-oriented option. They may yet re-ink Renteria, but that isn't exactly a defense-minded move.
Now, keep in mind, these were a group of teams looking for fixes after winding up disappointed with the production of their shortstops. But in the face of their need, consider the solutions: Barmes with the Astros should be a good defender, but Theriot is not a premium defender by any stretch of the imagination. The Orioles acquired an honest-to-god shortstop, but as we'll see, they didn't give up anything to get him. And the Tigers simply re-upped the man they traded for. Open-market solutions were generally overlooked or ignored, as people instead moved to the trade market to make their fixes. Sure, Ned Colletti overpaid for Uribe, but that was to get a multi-positional super-utilityman who will play plenty of second and third while serving as an insurance policy against Rafael Furcal's next injury; Colletti did not land Uribe with the goal of making the former Giant his starting shortstop. And this is without getting into the open-market availability of the likes of Everett or Izturis, who are gunning for reserve roles at best (with the Indians and O's, respectively).
So what happened to the hunger for defense and the pursuit of better help up the middle? Well, the Red Sox appear to be smarter than rumors suggested, since Scutaro is too good an asset to just move, especially when Jed Lowrie isn't exactly a sure thing. Besides, why deal when the returns bandied about were so horrendous? For all of the rumors chasing Bartlett for his last season before free agency, he's rooted in place with the Rays instead of being dealt for a package that amounted to a whopping two organizational arms. You can't blame the Rays for saying no thanks to that, but keep in mind what they were offered: Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell, two guys who might contribute from the back of a big-league bullpen. Might. Someday. Maybe.
If that's all that one of the purported linchpins to the over-reported defensive turnaround of the 2008 Rays will fetch, does that tell us defense still deserves to be seen as the game's big under-valued asset? Or does it put the proposition in its place?
The thing is, this valuation of shortstops wasn't unusual this winter. The Padres' best offer for Bartlett essentially matched what the Twins got for Hardy. Two years of club control of the Brewers' former shortstop had cost them former top center-field prospect Carlos Gomez, but giving up the second season only fetched a pair of organizational arms: James Hoey and Brett Jacobson, or what will amount to a 28-year-old guy still on the way back from shoulder surgery a couple of years ago, and a 24-year-old fourth-year pro who hasn't made it at Double-A yet. "Organizational arm" might be too generous a term for either. Perhaps the Twins were especially sensitive on the subject of Hardy's coming compensation package, but here again, if this is "undervalued," it strikes me that the so-called smart teams would have been able to offer better deals than this, especially since nFRAA and Plus/Minus both suggest Hardy has been a better defender than Bartlett over the last three years.
And what of Brendan Ryan? Arguably the best glove at shortstop across the last three seasons, the Mariners only had to hand the Cardinals young right-hander Maikel Cleto to get three years of service time. While Cleto throws in the high 90s, he just had to endure life in High Desert's frying pan in the Cal League, so whatever his gun readings, it wasn't like he was a premium prospect on the rise after taking a summer's worth of park-generated beatings. He's 22 and interesting, but a lot of people are interesting at 22. If defense is at a premium, you'd think three years of Ryan's potential to again lead the majors in Plus/Minus or nFRAA or any other fielding metric would command something more certain, wouldn't you? All Ryan seems certain to get in Seattle, defense mania central, is a fight to the death with the equally immortal Josh Wilson for the chief middle-infield utilityman's role once Dustin Ackley shows up and makes second base his own, because shortstop belongs to Jack Wilson.
Perhaps the presence of three plus defenders at short will win the Mariners some sort of artistic achievement category, but piling up defensive metric values doesn't guarantee better performance as a team, and carrying three different shortstops who can't reliably get on base at a .300 clip just speaks to a form of mania, not coherent roster design. At best, you can hope Jack Zduriencik's crew flips a Wilson TBNL for something they can actually use, but in the meantime this looks a lot like the decisions to acquire Casey Kotchman and Ryan Garko last year. Just because people you've heard of are available for a song doesn't mean that you should sing.
I suppose it's possible that the Mariners will come back in vogue for some flavor of sabermetric genius or another, but hoarding good-gloved shortstops who can't hit won't fix the team's debilitating issues on offense. If defense has become a new source of competitive advantage, or something teams are placing a premium upon, I don't think we're seeing that from who's on the move, or what it's taking to get them. Instead, we're in an age where defense's vogue looks like it has already have passed out of fashion. That this phenomenon may have come and gone while Derek Jeter shoves yet another Gold Glove in his trophy case just makes the situation all the more amusing, but maybe the proposition that you need more than defense from a position player is a discovery we're still waiting for.