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May 15: 3.55
Season: 3.61
NL Average: 3.73
Cubs' NL Rank: 15th

Cubs Season Record 22-15 (--)

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Final Score: 7-5

Final Score: 4-2

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Final Score: 7-3

Final Score: 4-0

Final Score: 7-3

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08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003
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Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Assuming the Position - Round 3 - Shortstop

I’ve been putting off writing this for a while. The fact is I haven’t been entirely sure where to start. “What’s there to write?” I say to myself. Alex Gonzalez is a solid, if unspectacular defensive shortstop, good enough to support a slightly below average bat. The problem is, he’s an OBP sinkhole in the worst sense of the word, and while he has excellent power for a middle infielder, that and his defense just don’t make up for getting on base less than 30% of the time and striking out in over 20% of his plate appearances. Gonzalez is a millstone around the neck of the Cubs’ offense. That’s beyond debate. However, could my original supposition be wrong? Could his defense actually be good enough to tolerate his offensive shortcomings?

“Alex Gonzalez is a solid, if unspectacular defensive shortstop.”

Let’s examine that statement. Looking at Range Factor throughout his career, Gonzalez hovers a little above or a little below league average (over his career, Gonzalez has a RF of 4.46 compared to a league average of 4.37). Of course, he has a reputation for being a little better than average, and at first glance that looks to be due to his sure-handedness. Since 1996, every year of his career other than his first year with the Cubs (2002) has been marked by above average fielding percentages, sometimes significantly above average. The year before he was traded to the Cubs, Gonzalez posted a .987 fielding percentage, vs. the league average of .973, while helping turn 120 double plays. However, that looks like something of an outlier, as over the course of his career he’s been at .976, while the league has been at .972, again marking him as slightly above average, but nothing to go tell on a mountain.

So far, my statement looks pretty good. According to Range Factor and fielding percentage, Alex Gonzalez is, indeed, a solid but unspectacular shortstop. Then again, those metrics are for saps. No one has yet to invent a defensive metric that one would really consider “good” or “reliable,” but there are options that come closer to the goal.

I’ll start with some of Clay Davenport’s work over at Baseball Prospectus. Just before Thanksgiving, Davenport completed the 2003 versions of his Davenport Translation (DT) Player Cards, and in looking through these I saw something interesting. According to his DT’s, Alex Gonzalez is a kick-ass defensive shortstop. Ridiculously kick-ass. So much so, that I question how accurate they could possibly be. Let me put it this way, the only shortstops I’m finding who are consistent comps with Gonzalez defensively are guys like Phil Rizzuto and (gasp!) Ozzie Smith. Read that again, you know you want to.

In his full seasons, Gonzalez has had two “bad” defensive years, 2000 when he was about 6% below league average, and 2002 when he was exactly league average. He has played five other full seasons in his career, and during them he has been 19%, 15%, 12%, 14%, and 14% better than a league average shortstop defensively. What does that mean?

Table Time!

E Renteria STL 98 -3 8.3 156
O Cabrera MON 104 7 7.0 162
A Gonzalez CHC 114 19 5.3 150
R Furcal ATL 90 -14 5.3 155
A Gonzalez FLA 104 7 5.2 150
J Rollins PHI 101 2 4.5 154
A Cintron ARI 97 -3 4.0 93 (117 Total)
J Reyes NYM 110 7 3.5 69!
R Aurilia SF 98 -3 3.4 123
A Everett HOU 106 7 3.3 128
J Wilson PIT 102 4 2.8 149
C Izturis LA 105 8 2.4 158

I’ve gleaned these stats from the Baseball Prospectus site, and I would direct you there for any in depth questions you might have about them, but the quick and dirty definitions go like this: Rate2 is a defensive rate stat that has been adjusted for league difficulty, with 100 being an average defender. RAA2 is Runs Above Average (since this is defense, it’s more like Runs Prevented Above Average), again adjusted for league difficulty. WARP1 is Wins Above Replacement Player, meaning the number of wins over a predefined “replacement level player” this player was worth when all factors (hitting, defense, pitching) are taken into account, adjusted only for the season in question. Think of it as this players total contribution in 2003. G is games played at shortstop, with total games played tacked on only if they played more than a couple of games at a different position.

According to WARP1, Alex Gonzalez was the third most valuable shortstop in the National League. I know, I don’t believe it either. It’s all defense, too. He rates significantly better than everyone else, and the only player who’s even close is Jose Reyes (who is someone I’d like to build an infield around, by the way, as his numbers projected out over 150 games make him the second best shortstop in the league as a 20 year-old rookie!). My original statement about AGonz may be on shaky ground.

What happens if we take a look at Win Shares (I won’t try to tackle defining them, since Bill James dedicated an entire book to a full explanation of his baby, but suffice it to say, it’s trying to break a player’s contribution down in a way that is similar to WARP by attributing shares of wins (hence the name) to a player’s actions on the field, the mound and the plate, finally coming up with a breakdown of his total contribution)?

Player Team Hit Field Sum
E RenteriaSTL 20.24 5.00 25.23
R Furcal ATL 20.23 4.91 25.14
O Cabrera MON 13.34 6.70 20.04
A Gonzalez FLA 10.73 9.29 20.02
J Rollins PHI 10.66 7.86 18.52
A Gonzalez CHC 6.46 9.11 15.57
A Cintron ARI 10.25 3.81 14.05
R Aurilia SF 7.55 5.56 13.11
J Reyes NYM 8.27 3.79 12.06
J Wilson PIT 6.21 5.09 11.30
C Izturis LA 1.37 9.52 10.89
A Everett HOU 5.78 4.94 10.72

AGonz doesn’t look as spectacular under this system, but he still looks surprisingly good. No longer the best defensive shortstop in the league, he still comes awfully close, barely trailing his Floridian namesake and Cesar Isturis. His offensive contributions are still very weak, but his defense is good enough to make him the sixth most valuable shortstop in the National League. As a sidelight, Jose Reyes is extremely impressive again. His Win Shares extrapolated out to 150 games make him the best shortstop in the NL, and would actually make him the second best in the majors behind some guy in Texas. I’ll take that in a 20 year-old any time. Anyway, back to Gonzo. One more time, what did I say?

“Alex Gonzalez is a solid, if unspectacular defensive shortstop.”

After everything I’ve looked at here, do I still think my previous declaration is accurate? I’ll stop short of saying the statement is dead wrong, but I think the information from BP and Win Shares craft a pretty compelling argument. While they don’t spit out the exact same numbers, they do both make a case that Gonzalez’ defensive contributions make him a valuable shortstop on the whole.

So what to do? Despite his apparent defensive value, any deal that sent Gonzalez away would have to come with a big bag of cash, or the acceptance of someone else’s payroll problem. His offensive woes make it too hard to just trade him for a bag of balls, and what’s your alternative once he’s gone? Sign an unknown quantity from Japan, who will almost certainly sign in New York or in the west anyway, or overpay for several years of an undisciplined (but powerful) hitter who may very well be in his thirties? The risks of signing Tejada or Matsui are too great for my taste, especially in light of the evidence above. If you had asked me before I started to write this, I would have said Gonzalez needs to go.

But Gonzo and His Magic Glove should stay.

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Posted by Derek @ 5:39 PM