It’s probably safe to say that few Red Sox fans are thrilled with current shortstop situation. I’ll admit it. It’s underwhelming, meh, milquetoast. Seriously. Mike Aviles? Nick Punto? Jose Iglesias? Thinking about it subjectively, it almost seems as if the floor on these players is higher than the ceiling. Of course, we know this isn’t actually true. For starters, the laws of physics forbid it. Still, it’s a feeling that keeps creeping into my mind. Like a bad Rihanna song (as opposed to the “countless” good), it sneaks in and just won’t go away.
It seems as if we, as fans, can’t even come to a consensus on we’d like to see start at shortstop. According to the latest Fire Brand poll, 38% chose Aviles; 33% Iglesias; 23% a combination of Aviles/Punto; 4% Punto; and 2% Other. Personally, I chose Aviles. I really wanted to choose “Bludgeon my eyes out with a spoon,” but that option wasn’t available. I have a feeling others would have as well. Perhaps that’s what Charlie meant by “Other” when he posted the poll. I guess we’ll never know.
On Monday afternoon, renowned baseball statistician/defensive guru, John Dewan, stopped by Jet Blue Park as part of a publicity tour for the latest edition of his “must read” Fielding Bible. Not surpringly, one of the questions he was asked was: Who should play shortstop? Here was his response. (h/t to Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal)
“Aviles would project at minus-3 runs for the year, Punto at 0. Punto is a good defensive player — better than Aviles. Punto has been good at third, good at short, good at second. He might only be an average shortstop because the shortstop position requires the most athleticism and the most skill.
Iglesias, his (offensive) projection does not look very good so far. Aviles is a much better hitter. I’d take the defensive hit and try Aviles at shortstop, based on these numbers.
This is where the numbers don’t necessarily tell you everything. The coaches can go out there and work with them, see if he’s made progress, see if he’s regressing negatively. But based on the numbers, I’d take a little bit of a defensive hit and play Aviles at shortstop.”
Dewan’s view point makes a lot of sense. Aviles is clearly the superior hitter of the three, although that’s not really saying much. Unlike his two counterparts, Aviles actually has some pop, as evidenced by the fact he’s the only one that has a career ISO exceeding .100. While he won’t surprise anyone with his extra base abilities, he will likely benefit from the short foul lines and vast outfield power alleys at Fenway Park. At the very least, he should be able to meet his career averages of 13 home runs and 31 doubles per 600 plate appearances. This is certainly more than we can expect from Punto and Iglesias, who might not even produce half of that over the course of a full season.
Offensively, one area where Aviles has fallen short is in the on-base department. Over the course of his four year major league career, he has produced a paltry 4.2% walk rate. This hasn’t been a problem in seasons where he’s hit for a high average. Take his rookie year, 2008, for example. During that season, he hit .325, and produced an above average .354 OBP; despite having a brutal 4.1% walk rate. In contrast, last season his batting average dipped all the way to .255. Despite drawing walks at a nearly identical rate to his 2008 season, he ended up producing a replacement level .289 OBP; thus making him an out machine. Even though he posted the second best ISO of his career (.154), his inability to get on base pushed his offensive contributions into slightly below average territory. Punto, on the other hand, excels at drawing walks (10.2% career rate). Unfortunately, his inability to hit for average consistently typically draws his OBP below the league average. Lastly, Iglesias’s .285 OBP in AAA last year is clearly a sign he needs considerable work at the plate before he can be trusted offensively at the major league level.
Defensively, it’s pretty clear Iglesias sits at the head of the class in both skill and potential; Punto is the most steady and versatile; and Aviles is the weakest of the bunch. Luckily, Aviles’s -3 run projection by Dewan for 2012 doesn’t seem to be that bad. Just for the sake of comparison, I looked up last season’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) numbers to see where he would have fallen, assuming his projection were to hold true. Not surprisingly, a -3 DRS would rank him in the latter half (15th) out of the 23 qualifying shortstops. Still, he’d rank well ahead of Jose Reyes (-11), Starlin Castro (-16), and five time Gold Glove winner Derek Jeter (-18).* Again, it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. Certainly, his defense decent enough to the point where it shouldn’t destroy his value.
* If Jeter winning five Gold Gloves at shortstop doesn’t prove the irrelevance of the award, then I’m not sure what does.
While Aviles may not be the shortstop of our dreams, he’s a serviceable player with some notable skills. He has good pop, exhibits acceptable defensive skills, and seems like a decent candidate to outpace his wOBA projections. (He’ll have a chance to experience the Fenway effect for an entire season, which should help him a little bit.) If that still doesn’t work for you, you can all ways look at it this way: Julio Lugo used to be our starting shortstop. We sat through two-and-a-half seasons of watching him provide near replacement level production while playing him $9M a season. Aviles and Punto should be able to provide at least 2 wins above the replacement level combined (at the very least), while making only $2.7M. That’s a pretty huge win right there.