Since the advent of Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez completely redefining the shortstop position, the all-glove, no-hit shortstop has been a sort of dying breed in today’s game. Where once shortstops were expected to be the backbone of the defense and nothing more, the game’s most prestigious position has certainly become relied on for offensive production as well. Even if it’s not quite the numbers put up by the Nomar, Jeter, A-Rod trifecta a decade ago.
That leads us to Jose Iglesias. Iglesias was the major international signing for the Sox in 2009, inking a record $6.25 million bonus with the club. While fielding has never been a problem, Iglesias has famously struggled to hit throughout his professional career, hitting an absolutely anemic .135/.210/.203 during his abbreviated Major League stints in 2011 and ’12. His minor league numbers aren’t much better either, having hit just .264/.313/.314 with onlytwo (2!) home runs over a 1000 Minor League plate appearances. While Iglesias (deservedly) gets a ton of flak for his overmatched bat, people overlook the fact that even with below average offense, he can still have plenty of value.
In today’s game, the prime example of the no-hit, all-glove shortstop is Seattle’s Brendan Ryan. Ryan’s offense is a little less laughable than Iglesias’, as he is (wait for it) a career .244 hitter. Granted, Ryan has played in one of the more hostile hitting environments the past two seasons (Safeco Field); however, no one is confusing Ryan’s bat as anything more than passable.
Yet, when looking at the annual WAR leaderboards (using Baseball-Reference’s version), Ryan has traditionally been ranked higher than many of his peers, including Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins last year. I know not everyone agrees with WAR and I don’t always agree with it either (for example, I’d still take Jeter over Ryan last season). However, I feel it is a much better measurement of value than traditional, “triple crown” stats (AVG/HR/RBI) because it can determine a player’s entire body of work (hitting, baserunning, and defense) and make one number out of it.
People too often overlook the impact that defense has on ballgames because it doesn’t show up in the box scores (errors are a flawed stat for a multitude of reasons; inability to measure range being one of them). A diving play that prevents two runs from scoring; a laser throw from the outfield grass that keeps the leadoff hitter from reaching base; a heads-up play that stops the opposition from tying up the ballgame. All of these plays have value. Although it might not be quite as obvious as an RBI single or home run, a run is a run, no matter how you chalk it up.
Last year, Ryan posted a 3.5 WAR, a number that made him the 63rd most valuable player in baseball while hitting just .194. While that number was driven by a probably unsustainable league leading 3.6 dWAR (WAR comprised from just defensive contributions) and 27 defensive runs saved (numbers of runs above or below average a fielder was), Ryan provided legitimate value without even hitting his weight. Additionally, albeit last year’s career highs may be a bit extreme, Ryan has a long track record of posting at least 2 WAR and 2.6 dWAR annually since he began receiving steady playing time in 2009. When 2 WAR represents a league average starter, and Ryan is surpassing that without practically any offense whatsoever, it further proves that there is more value in defense than most would usually expect.
Iglesias, by all measures (defensive metrics or the simple “eye” test), is in the same sort of league as Ryan defensively; whether it be because of his extraordinary first-step quickness, unparalleled range, or strong arm, Iglesias is the definition of an elite defender. It is not farfetched that he could produce similar WAR totals to Ryan if just given the opportunity.
If Iglesias’ bat breaks out this year (he is batting a robust .583 this season), then the Red Sox shouldn’t have any doubt as to who is their shortstop of the future. But maybe this year represents more of the same, and Iglesias’ bat will simply lag behind his glove. Count me in the latter, as I still think thousands of at-bats with poor results trump 12 at-bats with good results. Even without competent hitting, Iglesias can still have plenty of value on the diamond, and (I think) possibly more than a healthy Stephen Drew. Just don’t give up on him if he is hitting .230 in June; he’s more valuable than you think.