February 24, 2006
You Could Look It Up
One of the reasons a familiarity with history is valuable is that, though every situation is different and every individual unique, situations will recur, perhaps not identical, but strongly similar in their broad outlines. The Devil Rays are a new franchise, so perhaps that's why they don't recognize an old problem when they see one.
B.J. Upton is an old book with a new cover. The Jeter-worshipping athlete very much wants to make it as a major-league shortstop. He has the bat, as his minor-league career rates of .304/.396/.474 attest. His weighted-mean PECOTA projection for 2006 is .270/.348/.425. These aren't All-Star numbers, not yet, but Upton is just 21 years old, so they'll do for now. Upton also has great speed and should be a successful basestealer in the majors. With a good enough knowledge of the strike zone to take an above-average number of walks, Upton may prove to be the rare young player with leadoff skills who can actually function as a leadoff hitter.
The problem is that his glove isn't major-league ready and may never be. Upton makes a lot of errors by current standards. His 53 errors at Triple-A Durham last season are nothing compared to the 72 that Joe Tinker made at the same age, but that was 1902 and he was wearing a glove the size of a baby's sock while playing on infields that not only had pebbles and potholes but ravines and gullies. Nor was this anything new for Upton--he made 56 errors at two levels in 2003 and 44 at three levels, including the majors, in 2004.
Many young shortstops compile high error totals. Some grow out of it and go on to be excellent major-league shortstops. As an 18-year-old professional freshman at Bluefield of the Appalachian League, Cal Ripken Jr. made 33 errors in just 63 games, fielding .900. Ripken slowly tamed his great arm; in 1982, his first full season in the bigs, he made just 19 errors. Conversely, 21-year-old Jose Offerman, splitting his time between Bakersfield of the California League and San Antonio of the Texas League in 1989, made 50 errors in 130 games. Three years later, in the majors with the Dodgers, Offerman earned the appellation "E-6" after being officially credited with 42 miscues.
Errors are in and of themselves not damning if the shortstop is doing enough other things with the glove--showing exceptional range, for example--to make up for his mistakes. In Offerman's case, the errors were indicative of a player who just couldn't play shortstop. In 1992, he was 27 runs below average at short. In 1993, he was 23 runs below average. Worse, the heat Offerman was taking for his defense was affecting his offensive development, where thanks to his ability to hit for average, his advanced strike-zone judgment and his speed, he showed a good deal of potential. It took a change of positions for him to reach it.
Knowing which young, error-prone shortstops are going to go the Ripken route of improvement and which are going to careen down the Offerman path of career stagnation is something that can't be gleaned from the statistical record. That determination is more of an art than a science. It requires a scout's practiced eye to make the evaluation, and even that asset doesn't come with a guarantee. Of the Orioles personnel asked to evaluate Ripken, only Earl Weaver thought he could be a big-league shortstop. The decision-makers in the Dodgers organization thought that Offerman could be developed as a shortstop, and they were wrong. So much for the intuition of the trained observers, at least in that case.
What we do know from the historical/statistical record is that the Upton-model player--good bat, good speed, shaky defense--comes along very frequently. Upton's protestations to the contrary, many players drafted as shortstops don't get to play there in the majors. The benefit of drafting players from the right side of the defensive spectrum is that if they prove to be inadequate defenders at their original positions, they can move leftwards, whereas a second baseman who can't play second probably doesn't have the bat to play first base or left field, and a first baseman who doesn't have the bat to play first doesn't have the defensive ability to play anywhere else. Prospective shortstops with questionable range who can hit and have an accurate arm and good reactions generally get moved to third base. For example, Mike Schmidt was drafted as a shortstop, as were George Brett and Paul Molitor. Those who have some defensive ability but don't have the bat to play the hot corner move across the bag to second base.
Prospective shortstops with great speed tend to go to the outfield, often to center field (Schmidt, Brett and Molitor could have done that too, had their organizations not found more demanding uses for them. In fact, Molitor played center field in the majors for part of one season). Some terrific players, including a number of Hall of Famers and near-Hall of Famers, began life as middle infielders but quickly took their bats to the outfield. Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Carl Yastrzemski played shortstop their first year in organized ball, but they are special cases at any position. Some of the "lesser" players to make the move:
The point I'm making is not that if a team converts a shaky shortstop into an outfielder an Eric Davis automatically results, but rather that these teams were confronted with a choice about how to best deploy these players. The scarcity of hard-hitting shortstops means that any team that can play one reaps a significant competitive advantage. There is no doubt that these teams were aware of that. Having evaluated each player's skill set, they made a determination that the players were better suited to the outfield. Productive center fielders being almost as hard to find as punchy shortstops, they still had a high likelihood of benefiting from the repositioned player. They could have waited and hoped that the shortstops improved, but they ran the risk of getting neither benefit.
The Devil Rays have a choice to make. They can consign themselves to an indefinite wait for Upton to settle in to shortstop, or they can pull the plug and potentially develop a superior outfielder along the lines of Wynn, White or Smith. In choosing to wait, the Rays--or at least Ye Old Regime--would unsurprisingly point to Jeter, who made 56 errors as a minor leaguer in 1993. The Yankees, they'd say, didn't move him, so they shouldn't move Upton. This is a spurious bit of reasoning: what Jeter did as a 19-year-old Sally Leaguer has no relevance to Upton's innate ability to play, or learn to play, shortstop. Further, any argument that rests on the suggestion that Jeter is a defensively accomplished shortstop is ignorant at best, misguided at worst.
Billy Martin used to say that some players are mules and some were racehorses, and no matter how much you beat the former they won't going to turn into the latter. The Rays are experiencing that dilemma with Upton, but only because they've misread the situation. They can still get a racehorse, but only if they choose correctly and decisively.