Monday, October 22, 2007

Nationals Review: Shortstop

It's hard to remember how we got to where we did -- which was practically nowhere -- but Opening Day started with Cristian Guzman at short. I had practically forgotten it. Given the three years of shortstop play that Nats fans have witnessed, I hope I could be forgiven.

I'd say that short has been the team's black hole, but that implies that the Nats have had just one. It has, however, probably cost the team more wins than any other position, which certainly wasn't what Jim Bowden had in mind when he signed Cristian Guzman to a 4-year contract three years ago.

Guzman's latest attempt to salvage his contract lasted 5 innings, when he left with a hamstring injury, which would cause him to miss a month.

In his place came Josh Wilson, the Quad-Aish "shorstop" who won the utility job out of spring training thanks to line drive after line drive and a .333 average. He started game 2, behind ground-ball machine Shawn Hill and played some of the worst shortstop I've ever seen in my life. He only went in the books for two errors, and I've managed to black out most of the game, but he managed to misplay at least 43 balls -- or at least that's what my memory is telling me. So terrible was his play that the Nats made a move, shifting Felipe Lopez back to his former position and playing Ronnie Belliard at second.

That didn't quite work out either.

Lopez neither hit nor fielded, putting up a miserable .266/ .319/ .294 Carrollesque line through the first month. Lopez deserves a lot of credit for his ability to adjust in that he had been preparing all season (and all spring) long to be the second baseman, only to have plans change 18 innings into the season. But credit can only carry you so far. You have to produce. And he didn't.

So when Guzman's hamstring was healthy, he came off the DL and assumed his mantle as the one true terrible shortstop. But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity. Guzman hit? Guzman hit! For the next 6 weeks, Guzman carried the team offensively!? Let that sink in for a second! While Dmitri was ripping liner after liner, Guzman was pounding out as many hits as anyone on the team.

From his return in May to the end of June, Guzman was an asset at the top of the order, hitting .335/ .388/ .476, numbers that even now don't quite feel right. At the time, it really seemed like he had changes his approach. He had a more patient swing, keeping his hands back further. Too often in '05, he was lunging and slapping at the ball, hitting it weakly. It seemed that by staying back, he was getting more of a base, lunging less and driving the ball more. He certainly found more holes.

It's that finding of holes that's going to present a problem, I think. I remember thinking a few times that he was getting lucky and that fielders were just missing a few of his balls. the stats back that up to a degree.

Guzman's batting average on balls in play was a career high by a mile. That stat is exactly what it sounds like -- what is a player's average once he actually puts the ball into fair territory. In Guzman's case, his .364 BABIP is way higher than his career .300 average. While we have some anecdotal evidence -- changed stance, eye surgery -- to think that his talent/ability may have changed, it also appears that he "got lucky," putting the bell where they ain't more than he had at any time in his career. Is that a repeatable skill? Would you bet on it? I don't think I would.

Plus, if you look at the underlying stats, it was a typical Guzman season. His isolated numbers (slugging minus batting; and on-base minus batting) aren't all that different than his career totals. .380 OBP - .328 BA = .053 ISO for '07 versus .039 for his career. .138 Isolated Power for '07 versus .115 for his career.

In other words, he wasn't walking significantly more or hitting for much more power than he had during his career. He was just getting more singles. That's not a bad thing, of course, but is it a new level of ability or just a 5-week hot streak? Seems to me that that stretch has more in common with a Nook Logan bender than the second coming of Ichiro.

At any rate, the Nats never had a chance to find out. Before he could -- if he would -- regress, he got injured, tearing a ligament in his thumb. He would come back again at the very end of the year, but would only come to the plate once more, his season effectively over.

With him on the shelf, the Nats went back to Plan B to see if Lopez could be any better than his first go-around. They stuck with Lopez for the rest of the season and he played practically every day, save for the odd dalliance with the immobile D'Angelo Jimenez towards the end of the year.

At first, Lopez responded. He had a pretty good July -- at least by the low standards he had accustomed us to. His .274/ .349/ .400 was roughly where most had had him pegged, maybe a bit lower than we'd have liked. But then he fell apart again, hitting poorly in August and September, a combined .250 .324 .357.

I don't have any great insights on Felipe. Was it something mechanical? Did he need a fix like the one that spurred Kearns on to a good second half? Is it all mental? He supposedly had some off-field distractions, and he's always seemed like a fragile kid.

But he's also been someone who's done whatever the team has asked him to do, moving from position to position without publicly complaining. And when he was with the Reds, they jerked him around a little, trying to make him into a different kind of player. And he did that, re-working his game without complaining. (I wrote a little about that here)

So he might seem disinterested, but he's always done what the team asked him. And I usually hate ascribing motive based on body language, since that's what leads us to things like benching Church for 3 months or watching another team trade Jim Edmonds for Kent Bottenfield.

It's enough to know that he's not an instinctive player and that he sometimes makes bad decisions. But he, by past evidence, seems to work hard and doesn't complain. Isn't that really what we want in all our players?

Offense

NL shortstops created 1537 runs while making 8334 outs. Dividing that out, the average NL SS created .18 runs for every out.

Felipe Lopez created 69 runs, the 10th highest total in the National League. (this is for his entire season, not just his time at SS) But Lopez also had a terribly low .308 on-base percentage, so he ended up making the 3rd most outs of any NL SS, 486.

Using 486 outs, an average NL SS would have created 87 runs (.18 * 486), so Lopez was about 18 runs below average. Only Omar Vizquel was worse. (For comparison's sake, JJ Hardy and Khalil Greene were basically league average offensive shortstops.)

If we look at what Cristian Guzman did, it's even more amazing. In those few weeks of play (roughly 6 weeks), he created 33 runs, half of Lopez' seasonal total. And he did so using just 120 outs. 120 * .18 = 22 runs on average, so Lopez was 11 runs better in his short time this year.

Just for giggles...

If we pretend that Guzman could've kept the pace up all year and gave his playing time to Lopez, he would've created 134 runs, 65 runs more than Lopez put up -- roughly double his production!

If the Phillies had had Lopez instead of Jimmy Rollins, they'd have had 48 fewer runs scored. That one makes my head hurt (and is, of course, pure numerical masturbation)

  • Defense

    If you thought the offense was ugly...

    Lopez is as much a major league shortstop as I am. He has little range, and sloppy footwork, leading to wayward throws.

    He's near the bottom in terms of Zone Rating. No shortstop with a similar number of defensive innings made as few plays outside his immediate zone as he did. He led the NL in throwing errors. His total of 15 is 2 higher than Hanley Ramirez' total and Hanley played nearly 400 more defensive innings. His .957 fielding percentage is worst among qualified NL shortstops.

    But, you know what? Guzman isn't much better. His Fielding % was a point lower than Felipe's. His zone rating, had he played enough time to qualify, would've been a neck above Felipe's but still among the worst in the league.

    That Reds Blogger's attempt to convert range into runs tells the ugly story.

    Lopez: -16 runs
    Guzman: -5 runs

    and just for good measure: Jimenez: -1 run.

    Ugly, ugly stuff.

  • Overall

    Terrible offense and terrible defense made Felipe Lopez' '07 season probably the worst of any player in the majors, 30-40 runs or so below an average performance and even below the kind of performance the team could likely get from some stiff picked off the International League Waiver Wire.

    Meanwhile, Guzman's range -- thanks to age and injury -- continues to erode, taking away much of the value of his bat. If he's hitting like he did this year, you can live with it. But expecting him to hit like he did this year is likely a fool's game.

    This is clearly the one position where the Nats could use a clear upgrade. Yet it's likely that they'll stick with Guzman for another year, the last on his contract, and we'll be looking for another upgrade next year, off a season with another below average performance.

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