As Harold Ramis once said to Seth Rogen in Knocked Up after Seth knocked up his one night stand, “This is a good thing.” It may have looked tragic at the time, but he got a beautiful daughter out of it and even got to spend the night with Katherine Heigl. Not a bad haul for a drunken mistake.
The same can be said for the signing of Marco Scutaro. It wasn’t quite the way we planned it (myself not included, I like Toronto import, especially given the alternatives), but it’s what we have. Maybe the little guy will grow up to be a Rembrandt, maybe he’ll be an alcoholic, but either way, he’s ours and we need to love him.
But let’s get something straight. There is a lot to like here – and signing Scutaro is like making the best of a bad situation.
The nuts and bolts of Marco Scutaro are that he is an average fielding shortstop with plus offensive skills for his position. These kinds of players do not grow on trees.
In terms of fielding, voices around the MLB like his chops at short, while UZR echoes the optimism, as he has been right about average over the course of his career.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he can handle the shortstop position, so we can be confident in his fielding ability. But then again, the glove has never been the sticking point with Scutaro. It’s his bat that has drawn concerns from the Boston Faithful.
Scutaro really broke out at the plate this past season, posting the best offensive season of his career. Arguably the most valuable improvement was in the walks category, as his free pass totals increased from 9.8 percent in his career to 13.6 percent in ’09. That’s quite the jump. This was primarily the cause of a decrease in his swing percentage, which dropped from 40.3 percent over the course of his career to 34.5 percent in ’09.
This sustainability of his swing percentage is perhaps the shortstop’s biggest question mark, as it is difficult to say whether it will continue or revert back to his career line. While a one-year spike is somewhat concerning, his 2009 line is reflective of the excellent plate discipline he has shown throughout his career.
In addition, pitchers gave Scutaro more respect at the plate. Instead of pounding him with strikes as they have earlier in his career, they backed off a bit, delivering 51.4 percent of pitches in the zone.
If these indicators revert back to their past levels, he will still have a good walk rate, at just under 10 percent. If they do not, then the Sox could have a significant bargain. As scouts like to say, “Once it’s part of your skill set, you own it.” Prudent ball-strike recognition has always been a part of Scutaro’s package, so there is no question that he owns this ability.
His other improved indicator is his increase in fly ball percentage, from 38.2 percent on his career to 43.6 percent, which helps account for some of his home run increase. This helped to improve his slugging percentage. However, unlike many players coming off career years, he did not have a freakishly large HR/FB rate or BABIP. Scutaro’s 2009 HR/FB rate was right in line with his career marks, at 5.5 percent, meaning that he is not enjoying an increase in wall-scrapers or wind-aided home runs.
But that was about it. Other than those two indicators, not a whole lot else changed.
In fact, he has had some excellent indicators over the course of his career that point to his baseline talent. Perhaps most exciting is his ability to judge between balls and strikes. Since 2002, he has posted a combined 4.3 Z-Swing:O-Swing ratio, which is among the better tallies in the league over that time span. Last year, his O-Swing total, 12.3 percent, was second best in the league.
In addition, his contact rate is excellent, standing at 91 percent over the course of his career. These are not flukes. At the very least, we can expect Scutaro to repeat these aspects of his performance, which have also helped him to produce a .721 OPS over the course of his career.
Of anything in his 2009 line, the drop in swing percentage could be fluky, but it’s just as likely that he continues his elite selectivity. Other than that, there aren’t any of the obvious indicators that point to a fluke season, such as an inflated HR/FB rate, a sky-high BABIP, or even a walk rate that is out of line with his plate discipline indicators. He actually drew free passes at a rate that was quite close to where he was expected given his swing rate and batting eye.
If Scutaro still concerns you, take a look at his fly ball and swing percentage early next season to see if he has sustained his increase in fly balls or swing percentage. Of the two, be more concerned with the swing percentage. Scutaro hits so few home runs on flyballs that, if he loses a few points in his fly ball rate, it won’t hurt much. However, if he alters his patient approach, he could have trouble working walks. In this case, he will lose some of his newfound value.
Still, whichever side of the Scutaro argument you stand on, it is hard to argue against the fact that he was the best option available on this weak 2009 free agent market. The options were few, aging, and declining. The trade market had dried up with Arizona pursuing a 2010 winner and Milwaukee having already dealt J.J. Hardy. The Sox had no better internal alternatives with Lowrie battling injury problems and inconsistency.
What is most important about the Scutaro is the length of time he is signed for. According to Michael Silverman’s Twitter account, the deal is two-years with a mutual third year option. Assuming that the “mutual” option is of the variety that both team and player must agree for an extension, then the Scutaro signing should be declared a victory.
Under this scenario, the team will release Scutaro after two seasons if he is inadequate, while possibly extending him for a third if he has success. Considering the lack of options available on the market, the fact that Scutaro’s agent couldn’t secure a guaranteed third year is a coup for the Sox (if it is, in fact, a team-option third year). It minimizes the greatest risk of Scutaro signing, which is him reverting back to his pre-2009 form. If the shortstop is unable to produce in the role, the Sox are only committed to him for one season past 2010 or they can trade him while picking up half of his contract.
If, in the end, this deal includes only two guaranteed seasons, this is a great contract. Sox fans, it’s time to face the music: the team wasn’t going to get a better shortstop for 2010 unless they sold the farm in an overpriced trade. If they moved Pedroia to short, it may have worked, but now they were banking on the transition of not just one free agent, but both the signed free agent AND Pedroia making the defensive switch. On the free agent market, there was the poor-fielding, aging Miguel Tejada and little else. In such a weak market, the team is lucky to get what they got.
The situation is really much rosier than it appears. Scutaro isn’t as much of a one-year wonder as many think. His plate discipline indicators have been good for a number of years now, as have his contact percentage and fielding numbers. The shortstop has a great batting eye and will continue to put a bat on the ball with good fielding from the shortstop position.
Will he win the Sox a championship? No, not by any means. Will he solidify the position in 2010 and 2011? Yes. Did the Sox minimize the risk associated with signing a potential one-year wonder? Absolutely. Three years is too much for Scutaro. Two years is a very favorable, flexible conclusion for a risky shortstop with a great chance to maintain his current level of production.
In the end, he was a great player in 2009 who has a great chance to continue along with success. Given the circumstances, this is a big thumbs up on the Theo-Meter.