José Iglesias Is Now an Angel

For the last half-decade, Anaheim (the city — the team is just the Los Angeles Angels these days) has been home to the best shortstop defense on the planet. That’s because in 2015 the Angels traded for Andrelton Simmons, the best defender in the game by UZR, DRS, OAA, the eye test, general acclaim, and common sense.

Simmons reached free agency after the 2020 season, and a reunion seemed unlikely after he opted out of the last week of the season. The team is trying its luck in the trade market again, though: last night, they acquired José Iglesias from the Orioles in exchange for two pitching prospects:

Iglesias, too, is a brilliant defender at the position. He’s rangy and sure-handed, but his standout defensive attribute might be his strong, accurate arm. In fact, he graded out as the best defensive shortstop in the majors in 2020 per Statcast’s Outs Above Average. In fairness, he only played 24 games at the position due a strained left quad, which means the sample is even smaller than the already-small 2020 season would normally entail, but still: best in baseball!

After returning from injury, Iglesias split time between shortstop and designated hitter. Cue the record scratch — José Iglesias, a designated hitter? He came into 2020 as a career .273/.315/.371 hitter, good for an 83 wRC+. Was this some kind of Orioles stealth tanking nonsense?

It sure wasn’t! Iglesias absolutely raked in 2020. He hit .373/.400/.556, with nearly as many doubles (17) as he put up in 530 plate appearances in 2019 (21). His .407 BABIP doesn’t scream sustainability, and neither does the fact that he’s still José Iglesias. He did it in the way he’s always accrued value, only cranked up to 11: by excising both strikeouts and walks from his game almost entirely. Seriously, take a look at his season expressed in percentile rankings:

This feels like someone goofing around with the sliders more so than an actual season. First percentile walk rate, 98th percentile strikeout rate? 10th percentile barrel rate and 90th percentile xwOBA? One hundredth percentile xBA? What the heck is going on here?

In a word, flares? 36.2% of Iglesias’s batted balls fell in the “flare/barrel” categorization in 2020. That covers bloopers and low line drives, and while that rate is just a number in the ether, let’s provide some context. In baseball as a whole, 24.2% of batted balls fell into that bucket this year. From 2015 to 2019, Iglesias himself checked in at 25.7%. Given that batting average on flares and burners was .663 and slugging percentage .782 across all of baseball, that extra 12% explains a lot of Iglesias’s breakout.

Even if that rate falls back to earth in 2021, it’s not as though Iglesias is an unplayable bat. Sacrificing offense at key defensive positions has always been a necessary evil unless you happen upon a transcendent star, and Iglesias’ ability to put the ball in play gives his production a solid floor. His worst offensive season, a .255/.288/.369 nightmare in 2017, still came out to a 72 wRC+, which is awful but not Chris Davis awful. He accrued nearly 2 WAR that year due to his customarily excellent defense.

The Angels have a top-heavy roster, built around Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Shohei Ohtani. Their struggle has always been finding role players, both position players and pitchers, to surround that core. With Simmons gone, shortstop threatened to be another hole in the roster. David Fletcher is an excellent defender at second, but to my eyes would be stretched defensively at short. By adding Iglesias, they’re back to having two premium defenders in the middle of the diamond, and Rendon is no slouch at third (for now). It’s not the only move they’ll need to make this offseason, but it’s an excellent start on constructing a supporting cast.

To secure Iglesias, they gave up two pitching prospects: Garrett Stallings and Jean Pinto. Stallings is a 2019 draftee from Tennessee who hasn’t thrown a pitch in a professional game yet — the Angels shut him down after drafting him two summer ago before 2020 went all 2020 on us. He’s a back-end starter type — he walked basically no one in college, but he doesn’t have a true standout tool to turn that strike-throwing into anything exciting. He sat in the lower 90s in college, which is something to keep an eye on — Stallings but with five more miles on his fastball would be a much more exciting pitcher.

Pinto is even more of an unknown. He made three starts late in the Dominican Summer League in 2019 before — well, you know. He turns 20 next month, so there’s room to dream, though scouts see his body type as already mature. He currently sits in the low 90s with a mid-80s slider with firm break. He’ll likely make the Orioles Honorable Mention list in this offseason’s prospect rankings, if for no other reason than that the Orioles valued him highly enough to trade for him.

For the Angels, giving up two long-shot pitching prospects who won’t be ready to make a major league impact anytime soon is a reasonable price to pay. They have Trout and Rendon right now, which means that maximizing their present-day chances is the best thing they can do in any trade. Adding Iglesias improves their team in 2021 — he’s a free agent after the year — and subtracting Stallings and Pinto doesn’t hurt this year’s outlook at all.

As for the Orioles, they’ve been frank about not competing this year. They’re not even making motions toward the 2021 team’s record; it’s all about the process, or whatever baseball-specific term you want to use for a long-term tank and rebuild operation. Viewed through that lens, Iglesias doesn’t help them at all — an excellent player in 2021 isn’t very useful if you’re planning on being terrible in 2021.

Stallings and Pinto might be long-shots to make the major league roster, but if you truly ascribe no value to a win in the 2021 season, the only objective with Iglesias was to find the highest possible return in trade. Two pitching lottery tickets isn’t terrible, particularly given the league-wide context: there are plenty of shortstop options on the free agent market, and the Indians are waving Francisco Lindor around while screaming “payroll flexibility!” at the top of their lungs.

If you accept the Orioles’ framing of things, the worst outcome imaginable would be failing to trade Iglesias. Wait too long for a deal, and things could fall through. If they thought this represented 90% of their best-case return for him, it would be wise to take that rather than risk missing completely.

Of course, the Orioles are going to be less fun to watch in 2021 without a defensive wizard in the field. That isn’t in the equation, though; if you accept the rules of the game as they lay them out, this trade makes perfect sense. It makes sense for the Angels, too. while I considered a joke about the Angels going to churches (Iglesias in English) to get baseball deity Mike Trout into the baseball heaven of the playoffs, it felt too contrived even for me, so instead I’ll just say getting better this year is of utmost import and Iglesias does that at a reasonable cost.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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On January 7, 2021, Freddy Galvis signs a one-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles. The contract is for a nominal sum and a club option for 2022 at the same salary. A guaranteed contract and an inside chance to win the starting shortstop job is the lure; Galvis responds with a career best BABIP. Perry Minasian attempts to retain their defensive wizard at shortstop but are caught between his demands for compensation and Arte Moreno’s insistence that free agents should get a minimum of $30M a year or the league minimum, with nothing in between. The Orioles trade Galvis to the Angels for a teenager who hasn’t made it to the US yet and Adam Seminaris, the Angels’ 5th round draft pick in 2020.

On January 7, 2022, Alcides Escobar–looking for a chance to break back into the major leagues–signs a one-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

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