Once blessed with the greatest run of consistency ever achieved at shortstop, it’s now been a few years since the Baltimore Orioles have seen solid all-around play at that position. That probably won’t shock you, given how badly the Orioles have performed all over the diamond in recent seasons, but it has affected the shortstop spot as badly as it has anywhere else. J.J. Hardy still had big league defensive skills in 2017, but his 49 wRC+ that year dragged him down nearly a full win below replacement level. Manny Machado was the reverse of that in 2018 — an MVP-caliber hitter, but bad in the field, though a rebound in his defensive numbers after a trade to Los Angeles suggested he was better than a half season’s worth of defensive metrics made it appear. And Richie Martin might be a productive big league player someday, but bumping him from Double-A to the majors in 2019 after making him the first selection of the 2018 Rule 5 draft resulted in an ugly 50 wRC+ and -1.0 WAR.
With Martin likely better served to start next season in the minors and no one else on the roster with substantial major league experience at shortstop, the Orioles were left with little choice but to go get someone who could field that position. The Orioles opted for competence, signing José Iglesias to a one-year contract, as first reported by MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand.
SS Jose Iglesias has agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal with the Orioles, per source. Deal includes a 2021 club option that would make the deal worth $6 million over two years.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) January 6, 2020
Iglesias, 30, ranked just inside our Top 50 Free Agents list at the start of the winter, coming in at No. 46. At the time, he was seen as a defensive upgrade whose glove would bolster the bench of a team with playoff aspirations. After all, that’s exactly what the Cincinnati Reds had in mind for him last March, when they signed him to a minor league deal. Then Scooter Gennett got hurt, presumptive everyday shortstop Jose Peraza slid over to second base, and Iglesias was a starter again, going on to set career highs in games played (146) and plate appearances (530).
That chain of events was unfortunate for Cincinnati, who were 26th in the majors in shortstop WAR and 24th in second base WAR. But it was largely a positive for Iglesias, whose throwback style of play — flashy defense up the middle, few strikeouts, a high batting average — made him something of a fan favorite.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) April 10, 2019
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) June 19, 2019
This wasn't an out…but we still think you should see this José Iglesias play. pic.twitter.com/2oV04fOo79
— Cut4 (@Cut4) August 29, 2019
That glove is undeniably Iglesias’ most appealing quality. Over the past four seasons, only Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor have racked up more defensive value than Iglesias at shortstop. He ranked seventh in that category in 2019, between Lindor and Arizona’s Nick Ahmed. Whether you’re measuring by Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, Iglesias grades out as well above average, and has for a long time.
Every penny the Orioles will pay Iglesias is for that defense, because there isn’t much value in his bat. Last year was his fourth-straight season finishing well below average offensively, as he hit .288/.318/.407 for a wRC+ of 84. He nearly doubled his career-high in homers, but that only meant his total reached 11, and that batting average came with a bit of a spike in his BABIP compared to recent seasons. He also saw his already paltry walk rate slip to a career-worst 3.8%.
The lack of walks and homers limit Iglesias’ offensive ceiling considerably, while the lack of strikeouts make him even more of an outlier in the modern baseball landscape. League-wide, the strikeout rate rose for an 11th-consecutive season in 2019, and walk rates have been ticking up ever so slightly over the past few seasons as well. With last season also blowing away the all-time record for home run rate, that means three true outcomes are more common now than they’ve ever been. Leaning into three true outcomes isn’t the only way to be a great hitter, but it sure helps — Pete Alonso, the NL’s home run leader and Rookie of the Year, led the majors in three true outcome percentage, with 51.5% of his plate appearances ending in a homer, walk, or strikeout. It’s much more difficult to be a good hitter when you’re on the other end of that spectrum, and that’s precisely where we found Iglesias in 2019:
|Player||PA||HR||BB||K||Total||% of PAs|
Just one of these hitters — Newman — finished with a wRC+ of 100 or better. That’s not to say guys like Fletcher and Alberto weren’t serviceable bats for their clubs, but the point stands. Being an above-average hitter is usually going to require either power or patience, and those two things rarely come without some strikeout risk as well. Being a three true outcome hitter requires patience at the plate, maximizing each swing, and not giving any swing away. In recent seasons, Iglesias has only distanced himself from that sort of approach:
Already not the most patient hitter, Iglesias went all the way to the extreme end in 2019, finishing with the third-highest chase rate and ninth-highest swing rate among all qualified hitters. He swung a lot, and he made a lot of contact, and for two months, it worked. He entered June hitting .308/.340/.443, but then hit .243/.276/.313 over his next 44 games. Then he hit .331/.344/.512 over the 33 games after that, followed by a .241/.293/.296 stretch to close the season. Those ebbs and flows happen when your success is so reliant on fickle batted ball luck, and that’s liable to continue as long as Iglesias’ profile stays the same.
The thing about Iglesias, though, as that when he’s hot, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re watching a star player, and when he’s cold, you probably aren’t going to notice much. When you aren’t expecting much at the plate from a defense-first shortstop, it’s easy to fall in love with him when he goes 8-for-14 with two homers in bases-loaded situations over the course of a season, the way he inexplicably did in Cincinnati in 2019. In 136 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he hit .320/.356/.488. For the season, he was 16% worse than the average hitter, and by WAR, it was his least valuable season since 2015. And yet, he probably showed up in as many highlight reels as any Reds player all season.
Because of where the Orioles find themselves in 2020, still in the early stages of what seems likely to be a long rebuild, spending a ton of money on free agents doesn’t make a lot of sense, and neither does trading prospects for major leaguers. Problem is, good players cost either money or prospect capital. If Baltimore can’t go get really good players like Lindor or Mookie Betts, and there’s no benefit to taking a risk on a contract for someone like Nicholas Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna, the least it can do is populate the roster with fun players. If the Orioles get lucky beyond their wildest dreams, Iglesias will be a 3 WAR player next year. More likely, he’ll be worth between one to two wins (Steamer projects 1.2, to be exact). Those wins won’t mean much to a last place team, but the snazzy defensive plays, the unique hitting profile, and the occasional surprise grand slam will mean a lot to its fans. That alone makes this signing one of the smartest moves the Orioles could have made.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.