Jose Iglesias, Defensive Metrics, and the Value of Going Right

Jose Iglesias is a shortstop capable of doing some pretty terrific things on a baseball field. I say that now because there’s going to be plenty of .gifs in this post that paint Iglesias in a not-so-positive light, and it can be a weird feeling to make a player look bad based solely upon which clips you’ve hand-chosen to show, so here, look at all the incredible things Jose Iglesias is capable of doing on defense. There. Those are the kinds of plays that earn you a reputation.

And Iglesias has certainly earned a reputation. He had earned the reputation before he ever stepped on a big league field. He was named the best defensive infielder in the Red Sox system by Baseball America from 2009 to 2012. In 2010, he was named the best defensive shortstop in the entire Eastern League, and received those same honors in the International League each of the next two seasons. From that same publication’s scouting report of him in 2010, as the No. 1 prospect in Boston’s farm system a year before his MLB debut:

Iglesias is an exceptional defender who could challenge for a Gold Glove in the big leagues right now. He plays low to the ground, using his quick feet, lightning-fast hands and strong arm to make all the plays. His instincts and body control also stand out, and he made just seven errors in 57 games at short last season. He’s fearless in the field, almost to the point of overconfidence, but he makes more web gems than mistakes.

The reputation was what it was, and it’s since carried over to the big-league level. And yet, in about two full season’s worth of major-league playing time at shortstop (1,991 innings), Iglesias has but three Defensive Runs Saved to his name. Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average actually has him below average, crediting him with -0.8 runs saved over the course of his still-short career. Ultimate Zone Rating is the only defensive metric with anything more than an average assessment of Iglesias’ defense, and even that pegs him as a +13 defender over two seasons, which is certainly good, but still comes up short of the perennial Gold Glove types around whom Iglesias’ name is mentioned.

Understandably, folks have been skeptical of these assessments. It’s something our very own Neil Weinberg addressed last fall. As a community, our understanding of how to properly evaluate defense has always lagged behind other facets of the game, but the good news is, it’s getting better every day! It’s still far from perfect, but between the arrival of Statcast and advancements made by Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge, we’ve got more pieces to the puzzle than ever before. And they’re already helping explain some of our outliers, guys whose performance by the metrics have never aligned with the scouting reports or eye tests. Like Dexter Fowler, who we discovered was playing more shallow than any center fielder in baseball, and that it was killing his defensive metrics. The Cubs realized this, and have repositioned him. Let’s see if we can’t use some of these same advancements to better figure out the Jose Iglesias mystery.

While we don’t have the same sort of proper positioning data we had for Fowler, we do have data from Baseball Info Solutions that breaks down a shortstop’s range into four directions: plays made to the right, straight on, to the left, and on balls hit in the air. Last season, Iglesias was credited with -3 DRS, overall, with -3 plays made on ground balls. Iglesias was fine going up the middle to his left, with +8 plays made. He was fine with balls his straight on at him, with +7 plays made. But the area where Iglesias most struggled is also the area where the largest standard deviation between shortstops exists — the area where elite shortstops like Andrelton Simmons can make up the most ground over their peers, and where lesser shortstops can be exposed. Going to his right, Iglesias converted 18 fewer plays than average, the worst mark of any shortstop in baseball.

Plays made to the right, bottom three, per Baseball Info Solutions

Iglesias was chewed up and spit out when he had to range toward his right in the hole last year. For what it’s worth, he’s already down three more plays to the right in fewer than 200 innings this year, putting him on pace to match last year’s total.

Now, I know what some of you are probably thinking. Defensive metrics are noisy enough as is, wouldn’t breaking them down into four smaller categories make them even noisier? It’s a valid point. But I also think there’s real value that could be gleaned from this. Even the metric that calls Iglesias a below-average defender isn’t saying he’s below average everywhere. He’s better than average at making plays up the middle, and he’s better than average at making plays on the balls hit right at him. It makes it a little easier to believe that maybe he just has a deficiency, for whatever reason, on one certain type of play, the play that really separates elite shortstops from the pack.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 11.33.29 AM

It becomes even more believable when you take to the Statcast data, which shows that Iglesias’ 90th-percentile max arm strength ranked 32nd out of 39 shortstops in baseball last season. Maybe he just doesn’t have the arm to routinely make the play in the hole. Maybe he could be positioned better. Maybe there’s other factors we wouldn’t think to consider.

Let’s watch some video. Here come those cherry-picked examples I warned you about earlier. Feel free to refresh yourself with the highlights after we’re done!

It’s an impressive stop in the hole, and a good throw gets Mark Reynolds. Iglesias does not deliver a good throw.

This one you can probably blame on Nick Castellanos, and this wasn’t the only clip where I saw Castellanos overstep his bounds and muddy Iglesias’ path to the ball, so maybe that’s something to consider. But there’s something else in this clip that I think is worth considering, and that’s the way Iglesias fielded the ball. I spent close to two hours watching various Iglesias clips, and one thing I noticed is that, to me, he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his backhand, and it seems like he tries to field the ball straight-on, even when going to his right like this, as often as possible. It’s a more difficult play, and it makes for a more difficult throw.

Another nice catch. Ate up on the transfer.

Fine stop. Probably saved a run. Ate up on the transfer. It’s worth pointing out that I found these clips via Inside Edge, which is completely separate from Baseball Info Solutions — which is to say, I’m not sure whether these two plays were a part of his -18 plays made below average from last season. Something tells me they’re not, because that would be pretty tough grading, but in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t actually know. Anyway, moving on.

Another transfer issue, this one perhaps less forgiving than the previous two. More examples of this exist, and it’s another theory I came up with while watching so many clips of Iglesias playing defense — even when he makes the play, the transfer doesn’t always look smooth. Maybe he rushes the transfer in an attempt to make up for what Statcast sees as well below-average arm strength? Maybe his transfer mechanics just aren’t clean? Whatever the case, this stuck out as something of a recurring theme.

Just booted it.

I decided to stop there, on account of fearing .gif overload. We can say this: those were all difficult plays. Nobody would reasonably expect any shortstop to make all those plays. But those aren’t the only missed plays by Iglesias going to the right, and those are the types of plays that, when made, separate the average shortstops from the elite, which is kind of the point. The metrics haven’t hated Iglesias, they’ve just thought he was closer to average than most people. The reason why? He isn’t converting enough of those would-be plus plays above. And why is that? The most damning evidence, to me, is that Statcast data on his arm strength. And then maybe he could improve his backhand. Or his transfer. Or maybe he’s positioned too far up the middle. Or maybe it’s got something to do with the stress fractures he suffered in both of his shins. Impossible to say for sure. All we can do is keep trying to find the pieces to the puzzle, and then try our best to make sense of them when we have them.

We hoped you liked reading Jose Iglesias, Defensive Metrics, and the Value of Going Right by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Mattabattacola
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Mattabattacola

Austin Jackson has been playing way to shallow in center field. I have seen 4+ balls that have gotten over his head, and they didnt even land on the warning track. Both Jackson and Iglesias are clearly physically gifted, someone needs to sit down with them and show them how to possibly fix their flaws, because they could both be great.