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March 1, 2006

You Could Look It Up

When You Wish Upton a Star

by Steven Goldman

YOU COULD WRITE IT IN: THE YCLIU MAILBAG
When You Wish Upton a Star

The day after the YCLIU on a possible position change for B.J. Upton went up here at BP, MLB.com posted two stories relevant to the discussion. The first, on Upton himself, emphasized that--like a latter day Curt Flood less concerned with which team he plays for than with what position he plays--he will not be moved. The second, on Dodgers prospect Joel Guzman, reported that from now on he will play--they don't know where, they just know it isn't shortstop. A follow-up on Guzman highlights his pragmatism, making for a strong contrast with Upton's intransigence:

I saw Victor Diaz in winter ball and he moved from second base to the outfield. He said, "I'm an outfielder now, but I'm in the big leagues. If you hit, it doesn't matter." That's where I want to be. I won't get to the big leagues on this team as a shortstop, so I have to move… If that's the best place for me, I'll learn it like Victor. I'll be ready to help this team as a hitter.
Ironically, our translations show Guzman to be less of a problem at short right now than Upton. PECOTA expects Guzman to be one or two runs below average at short over the next several years, whereas Upton is projected to be eight or nine runs below average. That's a win that Upton will give back regardless of what he does with the bat.

The Upton YCLIU was not necessarily an attempt to agree or disagree with those who say he has the makings of a fine shortstop, but to look for historical parallels to his story and skill set and explore the possible upside of a position change. Many of you raised additional issues, some of which we'll explore here.

1: WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE, STARRING CHARLES LAUGHTON AS SIR WILFRID ROBARTS

Upton has INSANE range and a great arm. His problem is two-fold: 1) he gets all amped up and throws air balls to first, and 2) he messes up routine plays.

This type of bad shortstop is precisely the type of guy you want to wait on, right?
--T.

T. supplied his own answer to his question with some video of Upton ranging about six miles to his right, then whirling and throwing out the runner at first. It's a very pretty play, but not having had the opportunity to watch Upton's minor league games on a daily basis, I have no way of knowing whether it is a typical Upton play, or, as I suspect, an outlier. For argument's sake, let's assume he really has the range of the man who tutored him this winter, Ozzie Smith. Now you are confronted with what the Moody Blues called a Question of Balance: Does the shortstop's outstanding range compensate for the 50 misplays he makes a year? Remember that not all of those errors are going to be blown 6-3 groundouts with nobody on. There will be missed double plays, runners getting extra bases on overthrows, third outs not recorded. Actually, 50 is too harsh. Over the last three years, regulars at short in the majors have averaged about 18 errors per 150 games (or 1350 defensive innings), so the true cost of our hypothetical super shortstop is 32 errors above average. Our metrics suggest that Upton's other tools don't make up for the miscues.

If this is true, then Upton's range and arm are beside the point. Casey Stengel once said this of the future Dr. Mike Marshall: "He has wonderful stuff and wonderful control and throws strikes, which shows he's educated. But then, say you're educated and you can't throw strikes. Then they don't leave you in too long." In the end, talent doesn't matter, tools don't matter, and what you know doesn't matter. You have to execute, and if Upton doesn't complete a sustainable number of plays to first base then he could have the greatest tools in the history of the game and they wouldn't be worth a dime.

We pause here to observe that error totals are completely subjective and therefore unreliable. I was in the press box at a Double-A game last summer where the official scorer was saying things like, "I think I feel like giving this guy a hit on that play." Official scorers seem to take their jobs about as seriously as Dick Cheney takes hunting safely. Still, Upton's accumulation of errors has been so consistent that the vast majority of his problems can't be wished away on scorer bias.

As to T's question, is this the kind of shortstop you wait for? I repeat what I said in the original piece: we don't know. We largely have to defer to the men on the ground, because it does seem that many young shortstops have one Derek Jeter '93 season before growing into their gloves. Minor league coaches and scouts determine if the Jeter Moment is transitory or evidence that the shortstop will not develop. What we can do is look at the historical antecedents and see if they suggest any possible outcomes. Last time I showed examples of shortstops who had offensive skills and defensive problems similar to Upton's and the kind of careers they had after a move to the outfield. In most cases, the decision to move the player off of shortstop came early; the teams didn't wait around for Jeter '93 II.

In fact, though a systematic search of minor league statistics over more than the last decade or so is presently not possible, it is safe to say that there have not been many minor league shortstops who have been allowed to remain at the position without dramatically curtailing their errors from one season to the next. Most successful major league shortstops have a good facility with the glove to begin with, then polish their innate skills. Rarely if ever has a player entered the minor leagues a Bobby Meacham and emerged an Omar Vizquel. I'll review a few test cases in the next YCLIU before we close the door on this topic.

One important corollary to the list I presented last time, which was almost all upside: the natural Darwinism of the minor leagues ensured that the list of shortstop-to-outfield transfers was going to be almost entirely successful, yielding All-Star quality players, because only infielders who have above-average offensive ability are allowed to even attempt the change of positions. A shortstop who hits like Mark Belanger but fields like a brachiosaurus doesn't make it out of A-ball. A shortstop who hits and runs like Eric Davis but can't field gets to go to center and become a famous Cincinnati Red. And here's another wrinkle, since we're talking about Jeter moments: the Yankees won four World Series with a shortstop who hits for a .300 EqA but gave back 15 to 20 runs on defense each season. If Upton can hit for a .290 EqA and gives back 10 runs a season, maybe that's something the Devil Rays can live with.

Another impression from the research, and I emphasize that it's an impression, is that for error-prone shortstops the defensive step forward comes at age 21. If true, then this is the year Upton should prove the critics wrong.

2: HERE A COMP, THERE A COMP, EVERYWHERE A COMP-COMP

Welcome back! I thought you had pulled a MacArthur and faded away. I always the Cubs should have done this with Dunston. Great arm, good bat, but always an adventure fielding the ball. Looking forward to your next column.
--DF

No fading away for me, not yet. I've been testing the limits of my stamina, what with BP's Mind Game, our 2006 annual, which I had the honor of co-editing with Chris Kahrl, my contribution to Jonah Keri's Baseball Between the Numbers, which I think you're all going to love (the book, that is, not necessarily my contribution, though I hope you'll love that too), my ongoing work with YES and the New York Sun, and a new addition to my family (Clemens, now eight months old). My hero, Jonah, can juggle all of these things plus his chairmanship of UNICEF and a regular Tuesday night gig playing clawhammer-style banjo at a Seattle bluegrass club. I, as it turns out, cannot, so I've dropped a few threads.

Shawon Dunston makes for an interesting comparison with Upton. From 1982 through 1985, Dunston's age 19-22 seasons, he made 158 errors in 451 games, 74 of those games in the majors with the Cubs. That's one error approximately every 2.9 games. Upton has made 144 errors in 367 minor league games, or one every 2.6 games. Since we have observed that young shortstops sometimes spontaneously decrease their error rates upon reaching the majors (perhaps the result of better field conditions and lighting), we can remove Dunston's major league stint from the equation, leaving him with a minor league error rate of 2.7 per game, or about the same as Upton's (defensive innings are not available in all cases, so "per game" refers to appearances).

At 22, Dunston started to get his famous arm under control, making 29 errors in 147 games split between Iowa and Chicago. Thereafter his error rate remained high in the context of his times, though not unsustainably so. Dunston's bat would not have supported a move to the outfield, regardless of the self-defeating ways in which some of his later managers used him.

3: THE DEFENSIVE WHATCHACALLIT--SPECTRUM AND POSITIONAL SCARCITY

Thanks a lot for this interesting article. What would you think is the influence of maintaining 'Upton's überprospect status' on letting him continue to play Shortstop? I mean, if they would make him a 2b or outfielder, the combination of his abilities/position would also decrease, not only in their own valuation process of Upton, but also towards fans and possibly in trade discussions if they would ever consider to trade him. Thanks a lot for your opinion!
--A.

The new D-Rays administration is supposed to be a lot smarter than the old one, so let's hope that they aren't sitting around, saying, "We have a great talent in B.J. Upton, so we should start planning to get rid of him! Better keep him at short to maintain his trade value!" I could believe that of the old regime, but not the new one. In any case, if they continue to set back Upton's career by keeping him in the minors because of his glove, that's going to diminish his value more than a position change to either second base or center field, positions at which a plus bat is still a rarity.

Thanks to everyone for writing--not just T., DF., and A., but the rest as well. I'll be back with one last look at possible career paths for butterfingered shortstops next time.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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