Early last summer, I wrote an article for Baseball Digest magazine that began with a quote from Bobby Cox. The Hall of Fame manager said, “They’ve got their RBIs in their gloves.” He was referring to weak-hitting shortstops with elite defensive ability. A few paragraphs later, I brought up Jose Iglesias.
Whether Iglesias fits that profile is a matter of debate. The 24-year-old ended up far outperforming expectations by hitting .303/.349/.386 between Boston and Detroit. He also had a .356 BABiP. The jury is still out on his bat.
There aren’t any questions about his glove. Iglesias is a human highlight reel at the shortstop position. His one-motion-catch-and-throw of an infield roller last summer was probably the defensive play of the year. His basket catch in short left field, in the ALCS, wasn’t far behind. Simply put, he makes plays no one else — OK, maybe Andrelton Simmons — can. By the eye-test, Iglesias is nothing short of brilliant.
The numbers don’t disagree. According to Baseball Info Solution’s Ben Jedlovec, “Of 41 shortstops to play at least 700 innings at shortstop in the past two seasons, Iglesias’ 18.3 UZR/150 is second only to Andrelton Simmons. In RngR, which is a component of UZR that measures a player’s range, his 6.0 mark was nearly as much as Jhonny Peralta’s 7.1, despite Peralta having nearly a 1,500-innings-played advantage.”
The Tigers acquired Iglesias at last summer’s trade deadline for much that reason. Their infield defense lacked range, and while the flashy Cuban-born infielder did commit a costly error in October, he saves far more runs than he gives up. His Tigers’ teammates certainly took notice.
“He’s unbelievable,” Don Kelly said prior to the ALCS. “He’s one of the best defensive guys I’ve seen play the position. Some of the plays he makes, other guys simply don’t make. He‘s definitely fun to watch.”
“He’s unreal out there on the field,” Austin Jackson added. “With his range, a lot of hard-hit balls, and even balls that would be infield hits, are outs. He somehow gets to them and make plays, which obviously helps our pitchers out a lot. Torii Hunter has told me might be as good defensively as Ozzie Smith.”
Is it hyperbole to compare Iglesias to “The Wizard”? That’s a matter of opinion, but the mere fact it happens — Hunter isn’t the first to offer the comparison — says a lot. Omar Vizquel, who recently joined the Tigers coaching staff, is another name that gets thrown around. Plaudits come from more than just teammates. I asked some of the game’s best defensive shortstops about Iglesias, and all were effusive in their praise.
“Iglesias is pretty special,” said the Yankees’ Brendan Ryan. “He’s got the ability to make big plays, and he’s also solid. He makes the routine plays as well as the spectacular ones. He’s very gifted. The sky is the limit for him defensively. He’s got a great glove and is fun to watch.”
“He’s got tremendous hands,” concurred Colorado’s Paul Janish. “What I find most impressive about him is you can almost see his instincts when he plays. He’s got tremendous feel for the game; he’s got that internal clock. Everything is so instinctual for him. He plays kind of showy, but that’s just who he is.”
“He’s really good defensively,” San Francisco‘s Brandon Crawford said. “He’s got good range and good hands. I’ve only played against him in the Arizona Fall League, but from what I know of him, he saves runs.”
Iglesias promises to save plenty of runs for the Tigers’ pitching staff, which is why he won’t have to repeat last year’s .735 OPS to be valuable. Given the importance of defense at the shortstop position, anything north of what Smith [.522] and Vizquel [.595] put up in their age-24 seasons would suffice.
Fredi Gonzalez wouldn‘t disagree with that opinion. “Defense is invaluable, especially at shortstop” the Atlanta manager said. “To a certain point, it’s more important than offense. It changes the game. We’re lucky to have Andrelton Simmons, who is a game-changer at the position. I obviously haven’t seen as much of Iglesias, but he’s similar [to Simmons] in that respect.”
Veteran southpaw Bruce Chen put it this way in the Baseball Digest article: “A run prevented is like a run scored, and… a ball he doesn’t get to can turn into four or five runs. If he does have good range, that base hit turns into a double play and you don’t give up any.” Right-hander Ryan Dempster had a similar spin: “Everybody talks about, ‘He only drove in 50 runs last year.’ Well, he also saved 50 runs, so in a way he drove in 100.”
Bobby Cox was a wise man. And even if Iglesias doesn’t hit, he’s still an extremely valuable shortstop.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.