If Everybody Wants Elvis Andrus, Why Isn’t Anybody Calling?

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a lot of time this offseason clicking around on RosterResource’s excellent Free Agent Tracker. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you have friends and family to attend to, or hobbies, or a rich inner life. Good for you. Don’t rub it in.

If you sort the unsigned players either by 2022 WAR or ’23 projected WAR, the same name comes up: Elvis Andrus. You remember him — that guy from the Rangers in the early 2010s. You’re probably aware he’s still kicking around, and also that he was quite good in 2022. And yet he remains without a job for 2023. Curious.

Andrus was part of the last generation of star shortstops who benefited from the Ozzie Smith scouting corona: If a shortstop was fast, hit for a high average, and played defense with skill and joie de vivre, he must be Ozzie Smith. Then the likes of Carlos Correa came along and now shortstops look like 3-4 outside linebackers.

Andrus made his reputation on excellent defense, and here and there he’d throw up an offensive season where his speed and on-base ability got him close to a league-average wRC+. And for a brief moment, at the height of the juiced ball era, he was a legitimately good hitter: He hit .302/.362/.439 in 2016 and followed that up with a 20-homer season in ’17. Elvis Andrus! Hitting 20 homers in a season!

From there, it was a familiar story: Guy who gets by on speed starts to decline as he gets to his age-30 season. His glove always kept him well above replacement-level, but Andrus looked done as a contributor to a contending team.

But 2022 was his best season in half a decade. Andrus posted a 105 wRC+ in 149 games, and was even better after his unusual midseason move from the A’s to the White Sox. (Remember this for later.) In 43 games for Chicago, Andrus hit nine home runs and stole 11 bases in 11 attempts. In September, this renaissance inspired Ben Clemens to investigate Andrus’ approach in a column titled “Elvis Lives.” (The professor of my college copy editing class would talk about headlines you wait your entire career to drop into your lap. Surely this was such a moment.)

Ben found that Andrus hadn’t really altered his swing or approach since joining the White Sox, and his offensive uptick was the result of trading fly balls for line drives. If that’s sustainable, and Andrus has somehow found a way to become a true talent 119 wRC+ guy in his age-33 season, about 29 teams are going to feel quite foolish for letting him sit unsigned this long.

What I’m interested in, as an admitted career-long Andrus skeptic, is not whether the White Sox version of Andrus is repeatable, because that’s somewhere around Willy Adames, even Corey Seager territory. Rather, I’m interested in the gradual evolution to Andrus’ hitting approach that resulted in him becoming a league-average hitter at three different brief points in his career, and in three different ways.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Andrus has had three distinct peaks in his career, and on a regular cycle. He’s like a cicada.

Elvis Andrus, When He’s Good
Year AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Swing% GB/FB Barrel% HardHit% xBA
2012 .286 .349 .378 97 38.6 2.72 n/a n/a n/a
2017 .297 .337 .471 105 47.2 1.54 3.7 31.4 .264
2022 .249 .303 .404 105 45.4 1.28 4.5 34.5 .245

Andrus has always been a good contact hitter, and he’s always had a better feel for the strike zone than he got credit for. This is a guy who had a 9.5% walk rate in a season in which he slugged .301 and hit zero homers in 674 plate appearances. Why would any pitcher in his right mind throw him something outside the zone, let alone enough such pitches to put him on first 64 times?

During Andrus’ youth, he did what most fast guys with good contact skills have been taught to do for most of baseball history: Hit the ball on the ground and run like hell. And that worked to some extent, resulting in three straight seasons of OBPs in the .340s as the Rangers were perennial playoff contenders.

In the mid-2010s, Andrus not only started hitting the ball in the air more, he got much more aggressive. Not that he was hitting the ball hard at any point. The 20-dinger season was the result of a 11.6% HR/FB rate, which is roughly double his career average. He would not hit double digits again until 2022, when he went deep 17 times.

The 2022 season was the most extreme fly ball season yet for Andrus. Insofar as average launch angle matters, he posted the highest mark of his career. And while his xBA of .245 was not his lowest of the Statcast era, it was the lowest of any season in which he was worth a damn offensively. (Fly balls are less likely than groundballs to result in a hit, though they’re far more likely to go for extra bases, for obvious reasons.)

The verdict: Andrus is no longer a 1920s throwback, a shortstop who gets by on his glove and his legs and his guile. He’s just a normal infielder now, albeit one who still neither strikes out a lot nor hits the ball hard. His defense has even fallen back to about average; he was 14th out of 22 qualified shortstops in defensive WAR last year. (UZR and OAA liked him; DRS does not.)

Can that player do a job for most teams in the league? Yes. But let’s go back to how he got to Chicago last year in the first place. In 2022, Andrus was playing out the last year of an eight-year, $120 million contract. The A’s had a $15 million option on him for 2023, which would have turned into a player option if Andrus got to 550 plate appearances, which he was on pace to do as of early August.

Around that time, the A’s told Andrus that he would no longer be the everyday starter at short. This despite Andrus being something like the third-best hitter in Oakland’s everyday lineup. (His named successor, Nick Allen, ended up hitting .207/.256/.291 in 326 plate appearances.) Not knowing the innermost thoughts and feelings of the Athletics brain trust, I can’t say for sure what happened. But I can say what it looks like: the A’s took Andrus out of the lineup so they wouldn’t have to pay him $15 million.

Andrus was furious, and a couple weeks later, received his release. The White Sox, racked by infield injuries, picked him up shortly thereafter, and you know the rest.

Our crowdsourced predictions had Andrus signing a two-year contract for $10 million a year. That isn’t the $15 million he should’ve made, but it’s not a bad consolation prize for a player in the Vegas residency phase of his career.

There are a few teams (the Padres stand out as one example) that literally have more infielders than they can use. But Andrus can play a competent shortstop and, even baking in some regression from 2022, is handling the bat better than he has in years. He has Veteran Presence and Knows How to Win. How many teams, even good ones, could find 400 at-bats across second, third, and short for a player like that? Probably half the league, even at this stage of the offseason.

But Andrus isn’t a utility infielder. He’s a shortstop. Since his debut in 2009, he has played 16,606 defensive innings in the major leagues, and every single one of them has come at shortstop. There’s been quite a bit of movement in the shortstop market this winter; every playoff team from last season either has an established starter at the position or a youngster (Atlanta’s Vaughn Grissom, for example) who’s going to be given every opportunity to claim the position.

One potential landing spot is the Red Sox, who lost Xander Bogaerts to free agency and Trevor Story to injury. Their current plan is to have Enrique Hernández be the everyday shortstop for the first time in his big league career. The Diamondbacks could also make use of Andrus as a stopgap — I’m pretty sure he’s better than Nick Ahmed. Or maybe the Reds, though I doubt they care much whether Andrus can improve their infield, and wouldn’t be willing to pay $10 million or more to find out. Even no-hopers like the Pirates, Rockies, Royals, and Nationals all have young shortstops they need to integrate into the major league lineup.

If Andrus is dead-set on a full-time starting shortstop job, I don’t know where he’ll find one in the majors in 2023. If he wants his payday, or to chase a ring, he’ll probably have to do defensively what he’s already done at the plate: evolve.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

The narrative that there is anything weird about them calling up a Nick Allen that fg has continually pushed is so dumb.

The A’s were the second worst team in baseball. Allen is the best defensive short stop in the minors who had hit well enough in AA before the Olympics, and they have to make a decision on him by next season.

A’s had no use to keep playing Andrus,. He shouldn’t have even been on the team to start the year.

formerly matt w
1 year ago
Reply to  Towel

Allen had already been up for a month and a half and was near full-time at second. It looks like the biggest playing time beneficiary of Andrus losing the shortstop job was Jonah Bride, a 26-year-old rookie.

Honestly Bride’s minor league numbers were good enough that he probably earned more consistent playing time than he got, but even spotting them Allen and Bride, they had a black hole at third. They could’ve found time for all three players–even asked Andrus to try playing third!–if they hadn’t been trying to get out from under the vesting option.

1 year ago

I’d rather have any fringe guy like Kevin Smith or whomever than a known quantity like Andrus. Rebuilding means trying out everyone at AAA who might have even a tiny shot of being a full time major leaguer. Most likely Andrus is better, but there’s no way he’s on the team after 2023 no matter what. There’s also no way they contend while he’s there.

formerly matt w
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Smith was the one guy in their 3B mix (besides Bride) I could see a case for giving a shot to, but he got sent down to AAA in Mid-June and didn’t get called back up.

From July on, the vast majority of the playing time at 3B went to Vimael Machin, who was 28 and before the season had a .200 SLG in a hundred major league PA, and who they cut at the end of the season. It just kinda strains credulity to think that, if there hadn’t been a vesting option, they would’ve benched Andrus because they needed to see what they had in Vimael Machin.

1 year ago
Reply to  Towel

Cmon man. Andrus was one of their best players until he was right up against the vesting threshold, at which point they dropped him like a sack of potatoes. It was an obvious penny-pinching move by the owner, and quite an open and callous one at that. No fan should be rooting for a player to be treated like that.

1 year ago
Reply to  raregokus

I more or less agree with this, but disagree with the remedy: they should have DFA’d him before the year even started. He was coming off a terrible year where the A’s were expected to be bad. Ironically though, if they had done that, he probably wouldn’t have been in a position to go to the White Sox and re establish himself like that.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The irony is, Andrus + whatever salary he gets for 2023 is probably worth more in trade value than Nick Allen with all his remaining years of control.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Nick is young enough to improve.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

My guess is they thought that since they were going to have to pay him anyway, they should see if he could play well enough that they’d get something for him at the deadline. He did play well but no one was interested in taking on Andrus and his possible $15 mil option, so they couldn’t deal him.

formerly matt w
1 year ago
Reply to  darren

Certainly seems like nobody took Andrus at the trade deadline, and as soon as it passed he got benched.