Scouting the 2017 Indians: Shortstop

Believe it or not, this is hard piece to do. I try to answer the most important questions about the player– and the questions about Francisco Lindor are all difficult to answer.

How good is he going to be? I don’t know. No matter how hard you look in the history of babseball, there simply aren’t that many players comparable to Lindor.

I’m going to begin by clipping the “Similarity Scores” section of his profile from Baseball Reference and letting you examine the most comparable. Similarity scores use a computer model to look at every player in baseball history, comparing their stats– either for their career (to date) or at the same age. A perfect match would be 1,000, a substantially similar player would be 950 or higher and a similar player would be 900+.

Sometimes a truly unique player doesn’t have anyone comparable. The most similar player to Honus Wagner, the Gold Glove Shortstop who was also the best hitter of his era, was Nap Lajoie (the Gold Glove second basemen who was one of the greatest hitters of the era)  at 828.

If you want more information, here’s the link to their explanation

It’s hard to find good comps for Lindor, for three reasons.

  1. Vern Stephens (959.2)
  2. Troy Tulowitzki (949.9)
  3. Wil Cordero (947.8)
  4. Derek Jeter (940.6)
  5. Joe Sewell (940.1) *
  6. Corey Seager (936.8)
  7. Lou Boudreau (936.1) *
  8. Jim Fregosi (935.0)
  9. Hanley Ramirez (934.7)
  10. Dick Bartell (927.7)

* – Hall of Famer

Issue #1 is defense. Most of the guys on this list were big men who weren’t great fielders. They had to be moved (or should have been) when their bodies matured .

Stephens, Sewell, Boudreau and Bartell are the only players who were under six feet– and, thus, capable of playing high-quality shortstop into their 30’s.

I have to say “capable of” because Stephens never got there. He was a good defensive player, whom I think would have been a hall-of-fame shortstop. But he injured his knee when he was 25– then again the year he turned 30– and that led to third base and early retirement.

Our second obstacle is playing conditions for the eras. Sewell is one of the two Hall of Famers on the list (both from the Indians).. He was 5’6″, and an excellent defensive shortstop (probably would have won a bunch of Gold Gloves), good at drawing walks, impossible to strike out (114 Ks in 8,333 plate appearances). Bartell (who was 5’9″) is the same kind of player as Sewell– just not as good.

But they both played between 1920 and 1940, when the ball was lively, night games mostly hadn’t arrived and anyone who didn’t hit .300 was a pretty sorry fella.

Four other guys– Tulowitzki, Cordero, Jeter and Ramirez– also played in an era when offense was at historic highs (for different reasons). Except for Tulowitzki (who injured his knee at 27 and never reached the same level again), none of them were gold glove shortstops, either.

Yes I know what I just wrote. Derek Jeter was a Gold Glover in the same sense that Bert Cryleven is a Hall of Famer. The players thought they were– they complained very loudly about not being honored– and after extended pressure, got the necessary votes. If you look at the data, it becomes difficult to justify, but people tend not to look at the data unless it supports them.

Also, Tulowuitzki is a good player, but Colorado inflated his offense
something fierce. In his career, he’s hit .312 (.926 OPS) at home. A shortstop who hits .272 with an .800 OPS (his road stats) is a damned fine player– but not as good as his totals suggest.

Jim Fregosi is the opposite problem: he spent his prime years in the 1960’s, when they raised the mound and pitchers dominated. His offensive stats would be better in almost any other era– including today.

Fregosi was not, however, a great defensive shortstop. He was 6’1″ and 200 and his defense was above average– mostly something you accepted in return for the bat. He won a Gold Glove in a year where there wasn’t a lot of competition, but he had to be moved to third– in another era, something that might have happened much sooner.

In the case of the ninth player (Corey Seager), it should already have happened. He’s 6’4″ and his fielding was average as a rookie. He’ll never last, and the Dodgers would be doing him a huge favor if they simply moved him to third.

Which leaves us with the one other player (besides Stephens) who, at 5’11” and 185, wasn’t too large and heavy to play shortstop well– and didn’t play in an era when offensive totals were inflated: Lou Boudreau. Because he played many of his games in Municipal Stadium, back when the fences were 500 miles away, he didn’t hit any home runs. Of his 68 career homers, 18 came in Cleveland. But he averaged 38 doubles, 7 triples and 8 homers for his career. I don’t know if he would have won a Gold Glove with Phil Rizzuto around, but he was an excellent shortstop.

But the problem with comparing Lindor to Stephens and Boudreau: They played in the 40’s, when many players were in the war. Boudreau’s best year (1948) was a season when the league was at full strength, but 1944 wasn’t. And, liek Stephens, he retired very early.

So I can’t lean on history. All I can do is guess.

In his sophomore season, Lindor’s average dropped 12 points and his slugging percentage fell 47 points. His percentage of extra-base hits dropped by 20%. (I know he hit more of them– he also had 246 more plate appearances.)

On the other hand, his walk rate increased by more than 30%. Total walks more than doubled (27 to 57) despite having only 60% more playing time. His strikeout percentage dropped 20% (only 19 more whiffs for the year).

I attribute that to hitting second (where you’re supposed to try to advance the lead runner) in 2015 and third (where you’re supposed to make contact and set the table for the cleanup hitter). I’m assuming it was conscious choice. He was seeing more pitches out of the strike zone, he was in a spot where a strikeout is a problem. He shortened his swing and took more balls.

I know people who would say “Opponents walked him more”– but that doesn’t make any sense. Why walk someone to face the cleanup hitter?

So what will he do this year? A good guess is “Whatever he feels like.” Players normally improve every season up to the age of 27– with a big jump usually coming at 25.

On the other hand, players usually make the majors at 23 or 24– so you could say the big jump comes in year three of their careers. We could see a big jump in production this year.

Whether that comes in the form of singles (high average) or extra-base hits (high slugging) would be up to the player. Going into year three, it still looks like the sky is the limit for Lindor.

The Indians, by the way, would help things along by signing him to a multi-year deal. He’ll be arbitration-eligible next spring, and young players have been known to tie themselves in knots trying to get a big salary. If Lindor knows exactly what he will be making, that doesn’t become an issue. He might not want to sign, but it would be in everyone’s interests if the Indians try very hard to make it happen

I suppose Michael Martinez will be the utility man. I have mixed feeling about it. Erik Gonzalez is 25. He hit .296 in AAA last year; .280 in AA the year before and .289 in a high A league the year before that. He’s an excellent defender, has some power and speed. He probably should be moving into the majors this year– and, had Lindor not been in his way, probably would have.

But as a utility man– someone who gets 20-30 starts and maybe a few hundred PAs? No. If he’s good enough tostart in the majors– as it appears– the Indians should be looking to move him for an outfielder or corner infielder. If he’s hitting .310 in Columbus, he looks attractive. If he’s sitting on the bench– maybe hitting .238 during his occasional appearances– he doesn’t.

The utility infielder should be filled by a guy who’s just happy to be in the majors. Martinez– good with the glove, but absolutely no offensive skills– is the right person to do it.

Sections

Introduction
Catcher
First Base
Second Base

Shortstop

Third Base
Left Field
Center Field
Right Field
DH
Starting Pitching
Bullpen
Outlook
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