March 13, 2006
You Could Look It Up
Upton Further Review
UPTON FURTHER REVIEW
With readers continuing to express interest in B.J. Upton, we're going to take one last look at the issue of defensive growth among minor league shortstops with high error rates. This is the third and emphatically last column on the topic lest we be forced to re-title this feature "You Could Look It Upton."
Two points were frequently raised by readers in their responses to the first two columns. The first, more easily dealt with, is "The Rays are already drowning in outfielders. Making Upton an outfielder would just add to the glut." This is correct to a degree, though since borderline contributors Joey Gathright and Rocco Baldelli are being counted among the surplus, the pile is not as qualitatively deep as the literal supply of bodies would seem to suggest at first glace. More importantly, a bit of pragmatism is called for here. If Upton is not a shortstop, it is incumbent upon the Rays to figure out a way to exploit his obvious abilities in the major leagues. They can't just leave him at short because moving him presents some inconveniences. To do so would mean avoiding a minor problem--adding one more outfielder to the list--while exacerbating the major problem, which is Upton's indeterminate future.
The second issue, more complicated to evaluate, is a slew of first-hand observations of Upton sent in by readers. "I saw Upton play several times at Durham," they all begin, "and it seems to me that he has tremendous range and a great arm, but he makes a lot of mistakes on routine plays. He clearly has the physical tools to play shortstop." The problem is, no one is disputing Upton's physical tools. It's whether he can harness those tools to become an effective major league shortstop that is at issue, and no one knows the answer to that.
We were able to get it together to do a search of similar defensive seasons in the minors from 1998 through 2005. As you might expect, this sample isn't big enough, or more accurately, too recent, to be really useful; there are too many players still in the minors or just starting out for us to really get a good read on how many difficult shortstops conquer their defensive problems and become useful major league shortstops. Another issue is that although many of these players did stall out in the minors, it's not clear if it was their glove or their bat that ultimately did them in. Despite the Derek Jeter Generation, a great many prospective shortstops are inoffensive at their best.
From 1998 through 2005, there were 181 Upton seasons--which we defined as a season of at least 50 games at any level with a fielding percentage below .925--by a total of 157 players. The list of outstanding major league shortstops that has come out of that group, or will, is very, very small. Among those who have emerged to date include Luis Rivas, who had 113 errors from 1997-1998 and was moved to second base; Felipe Lopez, who flubbed 44 plays as a Southern Leaguer in 2000 before settling down (our defensive metrics still don't love him); Hector Luna; Julio Lugo (42 errors, .805 fielding percentage at Kissimmee in 1998); Bill Hall (fielded .894 in 69 games with Ogden of the Pioneer League, 1999); Nick Green; Chone Figgins (45 errors, .925 fielding percentage at Salem in 1999, though he also fielded .865 as a professional freshman in 1997); Michael Cuddyer (61 virginal errors in 1998); Wilson Betemit, in both 1999 and 2000.
Many players appear on the list twice. Only three make it three times. These are Upton (2003-2005), Robert McIntyre of the Mets (2001-2003), a Hillsborough High (Tampa) product now out of baseball, and Buck Coats of the Cubs (2003-2005), who played last year at Double-A West Tennessee. He played center field in the Arizona Fall League and didn't hit well, but with a name like his he has a future in the adult film industry if baseball doesn't work out.
Another interesting way of looking at this was to take the population of Gold Glove winners at shortstop and see if any of their gloves had grown from such humble beginnings as Upton's. Sixteen players have won a Gold Glove award in the American League, 22 in the National League. Of these, 14 had an Upton season (again defined as 50 or more games with a fielding percentage of .925 or lower). Let's take a quick look at their development and see what we can infer about Upton.
Naturally, this small sample doesn't prove anything about Upton's ultimate ability to decrease his error rate. It's simply another interesting data point.
NEXT TIME (Sooner than you think): A non-Upton topic, plus some follow-up from last Monday's chat.