If Ozzie Smith was playing baseball in 2019 instead of decades ago, he might be viewed as a below-average major league shortstop.
His career wRC+ statistic of 90 means that his hitting, in terms of runs created, was 10 percent below the average major league player of his era. His career WAR yearly average of 3.55 – which incorporates his defensive contributions — might sway opinions, though.
In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about the merits of Jose Iglesias as an everyday shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, both presently and perhaps moving forward. Those arguing against Iglesias cite his wRC+ number of 88 this season and 84 for his career. wRC+ takes the statistic Runs Created and adjusts that number to account for important external factors — like ballpark or era. It’s adjusted, so a wRC+ of 100 is league average and 150 would be 50 percent above league average.
In 2019, Iglesias is 12 percent below average in runs created, and for his career, he is 16 percent below average.
The primary purpose of this post is to generate discussion, not to argue that Iglesias MUST be retained at all costs, as some might mistakenly perceive without reading on. Your author began following baseball closely in the early 1970s and became passionate about the game and the Reds thanks to watching the Big Red Machine. Many of you reading this article had the chance to watch Ozzie Smith play, and it is my guess that few of you would argue that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Analytics are fascinating
Despite having not grown up in the analytics era, I do embrace it. It is fascinating, and it is most definitely the way talent is judged these days. It certainly gives front offices and managers compelling data for what strengths a certain player brings to a team, as well as deficiencies.
Having watched thousands of baseball games, I still give great weight to the eye test. Iglesias is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game today, and after Wednesday’s action, he was hitting .295 with a season-long record of great success in clutch-hitting situations.
Perhaps like me, some of you watch Iglesias and think, wow, this guy is great defensively, can hit in the clutch, and hits for a high average. Perhaps, like me, he reminds you of Dave Concepcion. Because of my youth with the Big Red Machine, it’s hard to imagine that a player like Concepcion would not be seen as an everyday player in 2019. But that is clearly where we are. It’s not good, it’s not bad. It just is the way it is.
Would these Hall of Famers even be starting today?
How would today’s front offices judge Ozzie Smith? Would they be trying to find someone with a higher wRC+ despite his defensive excellence? Fellow Hall of Fame shortstops Luis Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Tinker and John Ward had career wRC+ numbers of 83, 83, 96, 96 and 97, respectively. They were below average hitters in terms of run creation, but are nevertheless enshrined in Cooperstown. None of those players had 3,000 hits, which is a somewhat unofficial line of demarcation for no-questions-asked admission to the Hall. The above-mentioned shortstops are in the Hall because of the defense and stability they provided at what was once considered the most important defensive position in the infield, if not the entire diamond.
How things have changed! Defensive excellence still has some value, but not as much as a player’s ability to create runs on offense. We haven’t seen much of Freddy Galvis at shortstop (his natural position), but his wRC+ was 101, and he had 22 home runs through Wednesday’s action. If Galvis can play shortstop the way Iglesias does, then it seems at least worth considering having him start at shortstop.
Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Would Ozzie Smith or Luis Aparicio, if they played in this era, be replaced next season by a shortstop with a wRC+ of more than 100? Would they be Hall of Famers if they played in this era?
Some of us who are a bit older are faced with the possibility that perhaps what we watched back then wasn’t as good as we thought it was, at least by today’s standards. That helps explain the fierce resistance by some, including veteran announcers, to embrace the state of the game in 2019.
Evaluation of shortstops has changed
Shortstop used to be a position where defensive skill was the top priority, and the hitting ability of a player was considered a bonus. Now it has completely reversed. The top shortstops in the game are now terrific hitters whose defense ranges from adequate to terrific.
If having a shortstop like this will help the Reds win, I’m all for it. But just think – if Ozzie Smith or Dave Concepcion in their respective primes was available to the Reds (or any other team) this offseason, the team’s front office might just say, “Thanks but no thanks, we’re hoping for a guy who can smoke the ball like Didi Gregorius.”
The analytics era has also changed the grading scale on the eye test referenced above. In 2019, a baseball decision-maker’s math and data-gathering skills are more important than observation skills. Again, that’s neither good nor bad – it’s just the way that the game has progressed and matured. Perhaps the letters and numbers chart at the optometrist’s office is not the only eye test many of us who have been watching baseball for decades are failing these days.