In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe
The 26-year-old Tigers shortstop, Jose Iglesias, is one of the most mesmerizing players in the game. He certainly lacks the preternatural gifts of guys like Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, but Iglesias provides some of the game’s most jaw-dropping, unable-to-find-words moments of any player in the game. No one disputes this. Remember the running catch in 2013 ALDS? That was preposterous. Remember that weird, sprawling thing he did against the White Sox that year? He’s flashy, and as Nick Castellanos said, he’s probably a good dancer.
From a raw ability standpoint, there aren’t many infielders better than Iglesias. Andrelton Simmons comes to mind, but Iglesias would be right there in the non-Simmons tier when it comes to talent. However, his defensive metrics have been a little uninspired. If you like UZR, he’s been solidly above average for his career, but not in any sort of extraordinary way. And last year, he was only a couple runs better than average for the position. DRS has been even less kind, suggesting that he’s only been slightly better than average for his career and was worse than average in 2015.
While I would absolutely caution you not to put too much weight on 1,800 innings of the metrics, I wrote last year that there is some evidence that Iglesias hasn’t been the vacuum cleaner we seem to think he is. That said, Iglesias’ flaws are fixable. He has tremendous ability (range, hands, and arm) and the runs he gives away are on plays that require a little more focus and execution. If you can make great plays, you can learn to fix the problems you have on easier ones.
So part of Iglesias’ 2016 will be about avoiding miscues on those easier and mid-range plays. He’s going to blow you away with some great defense, but saving a run by making a great play only goes so far if you boot a routine play the next day. Few are better than Iglesias from a talent perspective, but he need to take a step forward defensively so that the Tigers can get the most out of that ability. He’s probably played like a +5 shortstop recently, even though he has +10 to +15 talent. Getting those extra five or ten runs is going to be huge for the Tigers as they chase Cleveland and Kansas City.
Another thing that popped up last year was bad base running numbers. Part of it was stolen base related (he got caught way too much) and part happened while the ball was in play. I think most of that is structural and the Tigers need to address it as a whole, so I won’t focus too much on it here. The only thing I’ll say is that letting Iglesias get caught 8 times in 19 attempts last year indicates a team with a bad base running approach. Based on what I saw from the entire club, I don’t think it reflects the player in question today and will expect to get better now that the team hopefully understands how many runs they gave away being “aggressive.”
I think the real question for Iglesias, and through him the Tigers, is whether he’s really going to be a league average hitter. In 2013 he had a 103 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. The statistical models aren’t buying a repeat because Iglesias wasn’t a great hitter in the minors and has succeeded in the show with high BABIPs. Steamer, ZiPS, etc are expecting something in the 85-90 wRC+ range for 2016.
The average shortstop had an 87 wRC+ in 2015, so the difference here is the projection systems seeing him as an average hitter for the position with a slightly above average glove. Roughly speaking, that’s a 2 WAR player. Two win players are great, and Iglesias is cost-controlled, but if the Tigers are going to be Contenders with a capital C, they need more from Iggy.
FanGraphs also host a projection system called “Fans” which is based on fan estimates of player performance. As I’m writing this, 21 people have voted and they expect something like a 99 wRC+ and solidly above average defense, good for 3.5 WAR over a full season. The defensive difference is easy to understand as the models only know Iglesias’ performance, they can’t watch him do things to base runners that should probably be against the Geneva Convention. The offensive side of the difference is mostly BABIP. The computers and the fans see similar profiles, but the fans add about 20 points of BABIP and an extra 1% to his walk rate.
I obviously don’t know who’s right, but the fans do have a pretty strong case given that Iglesias’ career BABIP is .328 when the projection systems are forecasting it to be around .310. He’s a ground ball/ line drive hitter who gets plenty of infield hits, so a BABIP above .300 is to be expected, it’s just a question of how much higher it will be.
But that’s the question. Iglesias is going to hit a couple dingers, knock 20 doubles, and have a low walk rate. That’s his game. But last year he cut down on his strikeouts by a lot (under 10% after being in the 15-20% range for his career) and has always put up a quality BABIP. If he can rack up plenty of singles, he can be an average MLB hitter.
Just for reference, let’s say he gets 500 PA in 2016. Cut out 30 for walks and HBP, another 50 for strikeouts, and you’re left with about 420 balls in play expected. The difference between a .300 BABIP and .325 BABIP is about 11 hits. Let’s assume the difference is all singles, even if that’s not a sure thing. Trading 11 outs for 11 singles is worth about 80% of a win. Of course you already knew that given the difference in the projections we discussed earlier.
The key here is that it doesn’t take much, roughly two hits a month, to make the difference between an average hitting shortstop and a well-above average hitting shortstop. If Iglesias can continue to hit like the latter and play up to his potential on defense, he could net the Tigers an additional two wins or so for 2016.
Given how close the race figure to be, an Iglesias that plays to his potential would go a long way toward getting the team back to meaningful October baseball.