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March 13, 2006

You Could Look It Up

Upton Further Review

by Steven Goldman

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UPTON FURTHER REVIEW
(OR, THRICE UPTON A TIME)
(OR, WE ARE UPTON HERE WITH THIS)

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.

  • ROY MCMILLAN: The first Gold Glove shortstop. Our Davenport translations show that he evolved into a truly outstanding defensive shortstop, with six straight seasons of +10 Fielding Runs Above Average, peaking at +28 with the 1955 Reds. At 17 and 18, though, he was all butterfingers, making 124 errors in his first 264 games.

  • MAURY WILLS: Wills turned pro at 18, but he didn't experience real defensive reliability problems until his fourth season, making 60 errors in 145 games with Pueblo of the Western League. He played multiple positions that year, so it's likely that not all of the errors came at short. Wills continued to experience problems the next season with Fort Worth of the Texas League, making 38 errors in 123 games for a .924 percentage. Perhaps because of these defensive problems, the Dodgers sent Wills back to Pueblo in 1956. The three years at one level contributed to Wills' late arrival in the majors. Wills was a slightly above-average defensive shortstop in the majors, with one outlier season of +20 runs above average in 1965.

  • BOBBY WINE: Wine had a short career because he had zero offensive ability, but he was a very good glove in the majors. His Upton season came when he was 17 years old, at the lowest rung of the minor leagues. Wine fielded .890 with Johnson City of the Appalachian League, making 24 errors in 54 games. He showed quick improvement, leading the California League in fielding the next season. He led the Eastern and International Leagues in errors the following two seasons, but never had another Upton season.

  • RUBEN AMARO: He spent his first two professional seasons, at ages 18 and 19, in the Arizona-Mexico League and made 109 errors in his first 243 games. He showed vast improvement upon promotion to the Texas League.

  • JIM FREGOSI: Fielded .922 in 112 games as an 18-year-old professional rookie in 1960. He made 53 errors the next season but stayed above our .925 mark. In 1962 he had a .921 in 64 games in the American Association, but the Angels called him up anyway. His error rate quickly declined. Fregosi was not a great fielder but survived because he had a terrific bat for a shortstop of his era.

  • DAL MAXVILL: Wine, Amaro, Maxvill... In the 1960s, the National League was kind enough to set their rosters so that when the eighth and ninth spots came up you could head to the bathroom 100% secure in the knowledge you weren't going to miss any scoring. As a 21-year-old pro rookie playing for Winnipeg of all places, Maxvill fielded .924 in 74 games. Errors were never again a problem.

  • MARK BELANGER: He went Upton only once, his first year in the pros. In 55 games split between the Appalachian and Eastern Leagues, the 18-year-old made 23 errors in 55 games. He missed the next season serving a hitch in the military. When he came back, the errors were gone.

  • ED BRINKMAN: As a 20-year-old in the Carolina League, Brinkman made 20 errors in 58 games, some at third base. The Washington Senators promoted him straight to the bigs that season. Brinkman went to the Show, but the errors stayed in the minors.

  • ROBIN YOUNT: Fielded .877 as a 17-year-old in the New York-Penn League. He never had another Upton.

  • ALFREDO GRIFFIN: In 1974, the 17-year-old Griffin split 60 games between the California and Gulf Coast leagues and made 34 errors. The next year he fielded .909 in 124 games. The next season he fielded .908 in 64 games. That year he moved up to the Eastern League. Although he never became steady, he stopped having Uptons.

  • TONY FERNANDEZ: He was 18. It was a youthful indiscretion. He never repeated it.

  • CAL RIPKEN: We covered him in our first installment. He got over it, natch.

  • JAY BELL: Made 53 errors as a 19-year-old at Visalia. He gradually reduced the error total over the next few years. He came close to another Upton, but never quite got there.

  • DEREK JETER: Another fellow we covered our first time out on this topic. He Uptoned once, but never Uptoned again.

These players have a common history, one that Upton does not share. They largely had their problems in the first, nervous years as professionals, then quickly found stability. Only Griffin took longer to come to grips with his glove, and he was much younger than Upton at the time.

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.

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

Related Content:  Shortstop,  The Who,  Errors

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