Jose Iglesias on the Comeback Trail

Most players make it to Major League Baseball without a fully refined skillset. Some players make it to the majors with a particular skill so great it outweighs a lack of skills normally required to function at the major-league level. Sometimes, it is an electric fastball despite a lack of command or secondary pitches. For Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, it was elite speed. For players like Yadier Molina and Jose Iglesias, their defensive skills so outweighed their offensive ineptitude that they were brought to the major leagues without the ability to hit anywhere near a major-league level.

Jose Iglesias never hit well in the minor leagues, but his glove has earned him repeated promotions and a starting shortstop job. Iglesias’s development as a hitter was slowed further by losing 2014 due to stress fractures in both legs, but he’s been very successful putting the ball in play this season, capped by a recent extra-inning single that knocked in the winning run in Detroit’s 4-3 10-inning win against the Cardinals on Saturday. At just 25 years old, he has a hitting profile similar to current BABIP sensation Dee Gordon, and while Iglesias could still develop as a hitter like Yadier Molina or other defensive-first shortstops like Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel, his hot start is not likely to last.

Iglesias was called up for a week in 2011 as a 21-year-old for the Boston Red Sox when he was hitting .259 with just two walks and no extra-base hits in the early part of the season. He received just four plate appearances before returning to the minors. He was called up again in September to receive a couple more trips to the plate, after hitting just .235/.285/.269 in close to a full season in the minors. In 2012, during the Red Sox lost season, Iglesias again earned a callup, this time after hitting .266/.318/.306 in his final full Triple-A season. He notched just eight hits in 77 plate appearances at the big-league level, but already received comparisons to Omar Vizquel. He began 2013 in Triple-A and hit just .202/.262/.319 before making the big leagues for good.

Iglesias did not appear to be hitting much differently for the Red Sox in 2013 than he had in the minors. He still didn’t walk or strike out too much, and he didn’t hit for power, but once he got to Boston, the hits started falling, leading to a .376 BABIP that saw his line reach .330/.376/.409 before being traded to Detroit Tigers. That’s deal that landed the Red Sox Jake Peavy and saw the Tigers send Avisail Garcia to the Chicago White Sox. The Tigers needed a shortstop due to a pending PED suspension for Jhonny Peralta, and the Red Sox felt Iglesias was expendable due to the emergence of top prospect Xander Bogaerts. While Iglesias was seen as a solid starting shortstop, he had fallen off most top-100 prospect lists heading into 2013. Iglesias posted a decent .320 BABIP in his time with Detroit in 2013, but that only got his line up to .259/.306/.348 in limited time with the Tigers.

Iglesias lost important development time last season as he was forced to sit out the entire season with stress fractures in both legs. He played through pain in 2013 with shin splints, but the pain never went away and eventually required an extensive resting period. For a player still struggling to hit professional pitching, losing a year is a major blow — and, given the rarity of stress fractures, the extent to which recovery might be possible was unclear. Among notable players, one finds that Jorge Soler (also from Cuba, it should be noted) lost most of his 2013 season due to a stress fracture in his leg, but recovered to have a solid 2014 and looks to be a major contributor for the Chicago Cubs in 2015.

Iglesias has not played like a player who missed an entire season, hitting .346/.402/.449 for a 140 wRC+ so far this season. Much like his hot streak in Boston, Iglesias’s production has been fueled by a higher-than-expected BABIP, with a .371 mark so far this season. High BABIPs are incredibly difficult to maintain. Last season, the top five players in BABIP at the All-Star break had all kept up high BABIPs roughly twice as long as Iglesias’s current stretch.

Regard:

BABIP 1st Half 2014 2nd Half 2014
Paul Goldschmidt 0.378 0.290
Matt Adams 0.376 0.287
Yasiel Puig 0.371 0.333
Lonnie Chisenhall 0.370 0.284
Casey McGehee 0.369 0.270

The group lost about 80 points on average from the first half to the second half. Iglesias does not hit the ball hard, having produced an average exit velocity of 83 mph this seas — a figure right in line with Dee Gordon’s. Jeff Sullivan recently tackled Dee Gordon’s incredible start, comparing his early season exploits to Ichiro Suzuki. Much of what he wrote about Gordon applies to Iglesias. I’ve excerpted quotes from Sullivan’s piece below and added annotations regarding relevant to Iglesias himself.

Gordon has dropped his strikeout rate this year to 12%

Iglesias’s strikeout rate is down to 7.6% this season, fourth lowest in MLB.

And Gordon’s own contact rate is pushing 90%.

Iglesias’s contact rate is already at 91%.

And Gordon has kept the ball on the ground or on a line. He knows he doesn’t get anything out of fly balls. Doesn’t hit the ball hard enough.

Dee Gordon still has the lowest fly-ball rate in the majors at 15%, but Iglesias is still in the top 20 with just a 23% mark.

I noted Gordon’s hard-hit rate. It’s low — it’s the fifth-lowest hard-hit rate in baseball, among qualified players.

Iglesias’s is the second-lowest in baseball among qualified players.

Out of the 144 players for whom we have at least 40 recorded hit balls, Gordon ranks sixth from the bottom in average exit velocity.

Out of the 200 players with at least 50 recorded hit balls, Iglesias now ranks sixth from the bottom, with Gordon up to fourth.

Both Gordon and Iglesias hit the ball to all fields, pulling the ball roughly a third of the time or less and hitting the ball neither hard nor soft, getting a medium classification on roughly 60% of their batted balls. Iglesias pulls the ball a little more and does not have near the speed Gordon has, although he does have six infield hits. Iglesias is less aggressive at the plate than Gordon, with a swinging percentage of just 53% in the strike zone, third-lowest in the majors. When Iglesias swings, he makes contact, with a swinging-strike rate under four percent and fifth-best in baseball.

Hitting with a high average, even without walks or slugging, can make Iglesias a very good player because of his defense. Even if his BABIP falls below .300, Iglesias is likely to be a serviceable shortstop for years to come. This is not the first fast start with a high BABIP that Iglesias has had, and like the last one, his hitting line should come down in the months to come. He does not need a high BABIP to succeed, however, if he can maintain his elite contact skills. Even as a below-average batter, Iglesias is still a three-win player. His glove will allow him to continue developing as a hitter, and that will determine where he falls on the gigantic spectrum between Omar Vizquel and Rey Ordonez.

We hoped you liked reading Jose Iglesias on the Comeback Trail by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Tangentially related: Rey Ordonez’ 1999 is the second-worst offensive season in MLB history by a player who put up 3 or more WAR.