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:
- Jimmy Wynn: The top comparable on Upton’s PECOTA list, “The Toy Cannon” played second, third and short in two minor-league seasons and also played 21 games at shortstop during his rookie year in Houston. Wynn was a little guy (5-foot-9) with a howitzer of an arm (hence the nickname), power, plate discipline and speed. He wasn’t the error machine that some of the other players on this list were, but the combination of an above-average number of errors and limited range dictated a move to center field.
- Bobby Murcer: Murcer made his pro debut at 18, playing shortstop for Johnson City of the Appalachian League, and made 34 errors in 32 games for a .775 fielding percentage. We should pause here to note that although fielding percentage has been discredited as a measure of defensive ability, and properly so, for the purposes of this discussion it is a useful shorthand for the degree to which errors affected a player’s game. Murcer returned to shortstop in the Carolina League and led the league with 55 errors, fielding .898. He made another five errors in a September cup of coffee with the Yankees that fall, but did seem to be improving–in 29 major-league games, Murcer made “only” 11 errors. That is a common thread with the players in this group: given major-league trials, they almost always field a bit better than they would have been expected to given their minor-league numbers. This may be due to several factors, including better-maintained infields, superior lighting and paralysis induced by sheer terror. You can’t make errors if you’re too scared to touch the ball.
Murcer played a full season at short with Toledo and again led his circuit in errors, making 36 in 133 games. Murcer then missed two years in service to Lyndon Johnson. When he came back, the Yankees no longer considered him a shortstop, ultimately moving him to center.
- Roy White: A statistical ringer for Bernie Williams through the mid-1990s, White was signed as a second baseman in 1962 and played the position through 1965. The error totals stayed high, and after the Yankees briefly and disastrously moved White to third, he made his way to left field and five seasons of 8+ WARP.
- Reggie Smith: Smith played 66 games as an 18-year-old shortstop at Wytheville of the Appalachian League in 1963 and led the league in both assists and errors (41) for an .851 fielding percentage. The next season he was briefly tried at third, but made nine errors in 17 games (.750) and the march to the outfield was on.
- Chet Lemon: Lemon was Oakland’s first-round pick in the June, 1972 draft. Signed as a shortstop, he spent the first several pro seasons bouncing between short and third, generally fielding below .900. He was moved to the outfield after a 1975 trade to the White Sox. Lemon somehow never won a Gold Glove despite a reputation as one of the best center fielders of his day.
- Tim Raines: Drafted as a shortstop in 1977, Raines was tried there as well as second base, third base and the outfield before finally drifting to left field for good.
- Von Hayes: Cleveland drafted him as an “infielder” in 1979 and played him at third base and shortstop in 1980. He split time at short and third base his first year, then gradually became an outfielder, starting in both center and right field.
- Eric Davis: Drafted as a shortstop in 1980, Davis split 33 games between second and third in his first season, fielded .843 and was in the outfield the next season.
- Gary Sheffield: The sixth player taken in the first round of the 1986 draft was a high-school shortstop who stuck at the position into his second major-league season. It wasn’t errors that moved him to third and then the outfield as much as it was a pronounced lack of range.
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.