Very shortly, the Tigers are going to have to decide whether or not they’ll bring Jhonny Peralta back for the postseason. We’re three weeks from the end of the season and Peralta will presumably require some time to get himself back into game shape. The conversations are happening now, I would imagine, and we should know in the near future. Let’s assess the arguments for and against.
THE CASE AGAINST
There are two primary arguments against bringing Peralta back for the playoff run. First, Peralta’s skills might have atrophied over the course of the fifty game suspension such that he won’t be able to contribute above what a player like Ramon Santiago could. This is entirely possible, but it would require some sort of evaluation in order to believe. Peralta was crushing the ball before the suspension and there is no reason to think the 2013 season was PED aided, so the case would have to be made that he is out of game shape and the only way that case could be made would be to test him with baseball activities and simulated games. If Peralta was on the DL and not suspended, the Tigers would make every effort to get him ready for October even if he missed the same number of games.
The other argument against Peralta coming back is personal. It’s possible that the team is angry with him and wouldn’t be receptive to his presence in the clubhouse. Other than Scherzer, most of the Tigers kept their heads down about Biogenesis and Scherzer tempered his reaction once the full story on Peralta came to light. On top of that, the word is that Peralta was extremely well liked within the organization. I’m open to the idea that his presence could negatively affect the team, but the reactions to his suspension suggests that won’t be the case. The Tigers are a practical and forgiving organization.
So the case against Peralta hinges on two issues. Can he still contribute and would his presence create a hostile environment? We’ll revisit those questions shortly.
THE CASE FOR
Assuming the Peralta wouldn’t shake up the clubhouse, the case to bring him back is based on how well he can play. Entering the suspension, Peralta had what is still the second highest WAR (what’s WAR?) on the team at 3.6. He hit .305/.361/.461. Among the full time guys, only Cabrera has a higher OBP and SLG. Peralta has also been an above average defender for three years running now, although he is clearly no Iglesias in that regard. His value is predicated on his ability to hit and entering the suspension he was one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball. The league average shortstop hits 15% worse than league average and Peralta hit 25% better in 2013.
The argument isn’t really whether or not Peralta will be better than Iglesias in the postseason, the questions is if he is one of the 14 best position players in the organization. It’s hard to make the case that even after 50 games off he wouldn’t at least be better than Santiago or Tuiasosopo. If you leave Iglesias at short and Dirks in left, you have five bench spots to use. One is for Pena, obviously, and you need at least one backup outfielder, but it’s hard to make the case that there are three other Tigers you’d rather have on your bench.
In reality, he’s probably better than Iglesias, but that is still up for debate considering defense and time off, but he’s certainly better than Santiago, Tui, Kelly, and company. No doubt, no question.
So it comes down to this. If the Tigers players view Peralta as a clubhouse cancer, then it’s reasonable to say thanks but no thanks when it’s time to set the playoff roster. But short of that, the Tigers must include him. The Tigers don’t owe it to Peralta – who dug this hole himself – they owe it to everyone else. The players worked too hard and the fans have given too much not to put the best 25 guys on the roster.
It’s perfectly reasonable to say that after this break Peralta won’t be as productive as Iglesias overall, but when the opposing manager brings in a left-handed reliever to face Andy Dirks in the 7th inning of a 2 run game, do you want to go with Tuiasosopo or Jhonny Peralta? In the World Series, when you need to pinch hit for the pitcher, do you want to call on Avila or do you want Jhonny Peralta?
Even a lesser version of Peralta is a better bat off the bench than most of the options the Tigers have. Even if the time off has hurt his skills, it certainly didn’t diminish them to the point that he can’t be a productive postseason pinch hitter. This isn’t a fringe player, this is a guy who was and still is the Tigers second best player in 2013. If you’re going to go all in like the Tigers have for a title, you can’t leave this weapon in the shed.
This isn’t the time to make a stand on morality – a stand the Tigers didn’t make when Miguel Cabrera was arrested during the final weekend of the 2009 season. Peralta will have served his time and the Tigers are lined up for their best chance at a parade since 1984. You have to use him even if you don’t start him. If Iglesias or Infante or Cabrera get hurt in October, surely you would want him then. And you can’t ask him to be ready out of nowhere on October 9th, you have to start now. The practical thing to do is to get him working back into game shape and bring him along as a reserve.
Today is Jhonny Peralta’s 31st birthday. Most major league baseball players have their best seasons at or before they turn 30, but Peralta might be making an attempt to buck that trend. His best MLB season to date was 2011 in which he accumulated 5.0 WAR, while his best offensive season was 2005 in which he he provided 136 wRC+. I separate the two because this post is about Peralta at the plate, so his considerable improvement according to the defensive metrics over the last few years is worth separating out. Let’s take a quick peak at Peralta in 2005 and 2011:
2005: .292/.366/.520, 136 wRC+, 4.4 WAR (570 PA)
2011: .299/.345/.478, 122 wRC+, 5.0 WAR (576 PA)
His best offensive season was 2005, when he was 23, and his second best was in 2011 when he was 29. At 31, he is making a run at his best season yet. So far, he’s hitting .341/.392/.500, 139 wRC+, 2.1 WAR (195 PA). If we assume he will play 150 games based on career norms, he is set to accumulate career best 7.0 WAR.
But he likely won’t keep up this pace because this is a borderline MVP pace and he’s never done that before and players generally don’t get significantly better after age 30. A player’s performance is also not uniform over an entire season and it would be wrong to assume he will play at this pace for the rest of the year simply because that would be unlikely even if he did get tangibly better.
One of the reasons Peralta isn’t going to keep this up is because he has a very high, unsustainable Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which is a statistic we associate with luck. The standard BABIP rule of thumb is that .300 is where you expect most players to converge toward, with better hitters maintaining numbers in the middle .300s. The idea here is that when you put the ball in play, you only have control over how hard you hit it and the precise location is outside of your control. Sometimes you’ll smoke a baseball and it will be caught and sometimes a bloop hit will fall. In general, these take a a couple thousand plate appearances to balance out.
This is not to say that hitters can’t influence their BABIPs with their approach and talent level, but rather that BABIP will regress toward a player’s career norm and that small sample BABIPs can lead you to make mistaken predictions.
Jhonny Peralta’s BABIP in 2013 is .414. That’s very high. His career BABIP entering 2013 was .310, meaning it is unlikely that Peralta will be able to maintain his high BABIP, and with it, his current level of production. It’s possible that he got better, but it is not possible his true talent level is now a .414 BABIP.
The highest BABIP among active players is .367, with a number of the games’ best hitters in the .330 to .360 range. The highest modern day BABIP is Ty Cobb, coming in at .378. League average BABIP for non-pitchers over the last 10 years hovers between .294 and .305.
This is all by way of saying that Peralta’s early season success isn’t around to stay. He’s still very capable of having a great year, but it isn’t going to look like this, don’t fool yourself.
But as I gathered my thoughts last week and discovered his high BABIP, I thought, “Meh, a high BABIP post isn’t interesting. He’ll regress back toward career norms and will have a solid, 2011 type season. Nothing wrong with that, but not super interesting to write about.”
Well, then I thought to myself, perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps Peralta’s good BABIP luck is hiding an actual improvement in his skills. Maybe he’s gotten better and luckier in his 31st year on Earth.
Peralta is walking and striking out at rates almost identical to his career rates and his Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO) is even more identical to his career line. His triple slash line is equally buoyed this year by about 70 points all the way around (74/62/75):
If you erase the BABIP increase, he’s pretty much the Jhonny Peralta you knew. So how much, if at all, is the BABIP increase a change in skill?
Wait a second! Peralta is doing something different if you look at the results:
Peralta is hitting more line drives and more groundballs at the expense of hitting the ball in the air. This is important because line drives and groundballs are more likely to go for hits than flyballs, which could actually make his BABIP shift reasonable in direction if not in magnitude. In other words, the balls are coming off Peralta’s bat this season on a different trajectory that they did in the past. This could be something.
If we look at his spray charts from April and May from 2012 and 2013 we notice he’s using the lines more effectively this year, but the comparison I want to show you is the one between 2010 and 2013 because it shows the difference between a flyball heavy approach and a groundball heavy approach as you can divine from the graph above:
What we see here is that as Peralta has changed as a hitter, he has started to get hits to right field. Everyone knows that. He’s definitely learned to go the other way, but what is also striking to me is that he is also making fewer outs in the air to left field. He’s making fewer outs in the outfield period. He’s getting a band of hits in front of the outfielders in a way that didn’t happen in 2010.
So while Peralta’s numbers this year are great, his high BABIP means he’s not going to keep up this pace. But if you look at the batted ball data, you can see that he changing the way he makes contact to some degree and is inducing different trajectories off the bat. He’s not a 7.0 WAR player like the pace indicates, but there is reason to believe that if he continues to impress the defensive metrics, he may hit well enough to approach another 5.0 win season.
A decent number of Detroit sports personalities hate Jhonny Peralta. They think he’s a bad defender and unimpressive hitter. But they’re wrong and they’re wrong for an important reason. Position matters.
Peralta has been as durable as they come and hasn’t been on the DL in his entire career. He’s a lock for 145+ games and he’ll hit .250, walk a little less than average, and hit for average power. He’s not rangey, but he’s reliable on defense. He’s consistent. He’s shown the ability to hit .300 with a lot of power, but even if you don’t buy that ceiling, the floor is pretty stable and safe.
So if you look at a .264/.327/.422 hitter, you’re not thinking about a great player. But that actually depends. If that guy is hitting third and playing first base for you, you’re in trouble. But if he hits eighth and plays shortstop, you’re thrilled. This is a lesson in context.
In 2012, by WAR, Peralta was the 14th best shortstop in baseball with 2.6 (probably 13th if we don’t count Ben Zobrist who wasn’t a full time shortstop). Fourteenth is dead on average. In order to improve at shortstop, the Tigers would need to find a way to get a player who’s ahead of him on this list:
Alcides Escobar, Zack Cozart, J.J. Hardy, Asdrubal Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Starlin Castro, Erick Aybar, Elvis Adrus, Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Ian Desmond, and Ben Zobrist.
Those are the shortstops who were more valuable in 2012 than Peralta. Those are all big league starters and their teams aren’t giving them away. Those guys were better than Peralta in a down year for Peralta. In 2011, Peralta was third among MLB shortstops in WAR with 5.2, trailing only Reyes and Troy Tulowitzki.
From 2006-2012, Peralta was the 12th best shortstop in baseball. This, remember, is a lesson in context.
The context is the position you play. Peralta is not a great hitter. His .324 wOBA since 2006 is very average. But shortstops are lesser hitters as a group. Peralta’s average-ness is actually quite valuable from the shortstop position. You can’t compare him to everyone, just the players who play his position, and against them, he stacks up well.
He’s an average to slightly above average shortstop. You can’t replace him with Danny Worth or Ramon Santiago and get better. 15-20 teams would be very happy to take Jhonny Peralta from the Tigers and improve their middle infield.
You might think Peralta is lackluster on offense, but you have to realize the bar is lower for shortstops than it is for players on the corners.
His defense is also hotly debated. A lot of people think he’s terrible. The advanced metrics actually seem to love him. He’s posted a 9.9 UZR each of the last two seasons (meaning he’s been a win better than average at short each year). A lot of his critics read these numbers and scoff and say he benefits from good positioning by the coaching staff.
But you can’t deny what UZR is telling you. It might not mean Peralta is great on defense, but it does mean that he is getting to enough balls to be worth a win a season on defense. He might be getting aid from his coaches, but it is happening. Brendan Ryan would outperform him in the same context, but Peralta is performing well, even if someone else could take the Tigers’ coaches and use them even better.
I’ve read other metrics and watched with my own eyes and I think it’s fair to say Peralta is good going to his left and a little less rangey going to his right. He has good hands and generally makes accurate throws. With the help of good positioning, he’s helped the Tigers win on defense. He might not be miraculous himself, but remember, this is a lesson in context. In the situation he plays in, he is doing well.
So while a lot of people complain about Peralta, he’s clearly an average or better shortstop and is very durable. He’s also cheap at $6.5 million a season. Excellent shortstops are rare and expensive. Peralta is cheap, durable, and pretty good. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
The Tigers are a good team with a lot of star power. Peralta is a good compliment. He’s a good, cheap player at a position with few true stars. The people who want to get rid of Peralta need to take a long hard look at the rest of the league.
The league average production at shortstop in 2012 was .256/.310/.375. That looks an awful lot like the Peralta floor. You can’t compare him to Prince Fielder. Fielder plays first base and the league average first baseman in 2012 hit .257/.330/436. Way more walks, way more power. It’s a different position, so it’s a different set of expectations.
Jhonny Peralta is a guy you want to hang on to if you’re the Tigers, not a guy you need to replace.