It says a lot of good things about the state of Blue Jays blogging when one of the most notoriously overrated fan favorites of all time is signed and the reception online is decidedly underwhelming. The Drunks swore. Tao of Stieb was sarcastic as hell. Wilner exploded in question marks. I guess we grudgingly condoned it. Unfortunately the team’s incumbent underdog shortstop isn’t getting the same ruthless, steely-eyed evaluation, because he’s comparatively showered in praise despite being one of the five worst hitters in the entire league. So here’s a (devil’s advocate) argument for why it was worth bringing in Eckstein.
Yesterday Mike Wilner started the ball rolling on the idea that John McDonald is clearly a better option because he makes up for his lack of offense with his work with the glove. Thankfully he ventures into the world of advanced fielding metrics, because I am sick of people saying that we can obviously afford to have Mac stinking it up in the 9th spot because he’s the best fielder in the league without looking any further into it. At a certain point, a players offense gets so bad that it doesn’t matter if he’s the best fielder of all time, you would be better off having an average bat with an average glove out there.
Is Mac that terrible? Tough call. I tried to figure this out last year when the questions of whether John McDonald should win a Gold Glove and if that made him a legitimate starter were being raised. The result? I learned a lot about modern fielding stats, started to get the feeling that Mac balanced himself into a league average SS, and then got really frustrated with some inconsistencies in the data and gave up. The same weirdness is happening in this case: last year STATS agreed that Eckstein had a off year defensively, but still considered him league average.
But plus-minus is a good, intuitive, system so let’s run with it. It says that John Mcdonald fielded +26 more balls than the average fielder last year, while Eckstein was at -14. What’s more important, a difference of 40 ground balls fielded or 77 points of OBP? Over 420 plate appearaces at-bats (halfway between the two of them), 77 points translates into 32 more times on base. So if you’re willing to accept that a hit saved is worth about as much as getting on base and that their slugging is a wash, Mac wins out by a handful of hits and a couple of runs. This is glossing over a lot, but agrees pretty well with the 1/3 of a win difference between their WARPs (wins above replacement player), if you’re into that sort of thing.
Ok, so Mac was a (slightly) better player last year. But that has to be taken in context of the rest of their careers. McDonald has always flashed the leather, but has never before been among the best in the league. Last year he had the best zone rating of his career, but in comparison his .821 in 2006 was downright mediocre (and not the sort of thing that would be as affected by his late-season fatigue-induced meltdown). When a guy has a career year at the plate at the age of 32, we know to take it with a grain of salt. A career year with the glove should be taken with the same caution. I know, I know…you saw him do things that were just not normal time and time again. But the bottom line of how many balls he gets to is what really matters, and that took a giant spike in 2007.
On the other hand, Eckstein had his worst fielding year ever. Last season, he was ranked 10th best in the league in +/- with a +7, which is average for his career. It’s possible that his small frame has finally caught up with him, or it could have been just a blip. The most likely thing is that both these guys move back a little towards their career numbers, which decreases Macdonald’s edge with the glove.
I know, I know…Mcdonald worked out like mad before last season so he could handle the starting role. Whatever. He still hit .216 in the last two months (as he has for his entire career) his defensive numbers slipped from clearly ahead of the AL pack to “right up there”, and he ended the season injured. He’s 32 and has never played 800 innings in his career. If you don’t have any worries about his ability to go the distance without falling apart, it’s because you’re just as in love with the man as Joe Morgan is with David Eckstein.
The Jays really, really, need a leadoff hitter. Reed Johnson is a big question mark, and there aren’t any other good options for the top of the lineup. Aaron Hill struggled with getting on base last year (not to mention going 1-19 batting first). Rios has way too much power. The numbers call Frank Thomas our best bet. This is actually one of the intangible things Eckstein brings that can have a significant effect on run scoring. A lot is made of the fact that his career OBP is only league average for leadoff hitters, but that’s looking pretty damn good for the the Jays, who were 30 points below average there last season (even as they wasted Rios’ power on solo shots).
The Jays were terrible at hitting right handed pitching last year, and Mcdonald lead the charge of the light brigade. Although he loves those soft-tossing lefties, he hit a mind-boggling .223/.250/.289 against right-handers (not far off his career numbers). Mac wasn’t in a platoon situation that much last year, but his career numbers are inflated (?!!) by being hidden from Lefties. Eckstein is that rare breed who is hardly affected by the handedness of the pitcher he is facing. His average is actually higher, although his OPS ends up lower in the end.
Do splits really matter? Yes, because a consistent offense helps you outperform your pythagorean projection. If the team is constantly racking up blowouts against lefties (the Jays were 23-14 in games decided by +5 runs last year), then they end up winning fewer games than their pitching and hitting numbers would otherwise predict (the Jays ended up 4 games below last year). Having a balanced lineup helps as well, which goes against the idea that it’s ok to have a black hole at the bottom of the order if he can make up for it.
He’s a mediocre shortstop, but for an extra 2.7 million bucks (Paul Lo Duca money!) the X-factor solves a number of problems and eases some doubts that should be lingering about the prime minister of defense’s first starting role. It would be a terrible waste if McDonald was totally banished to the bench, but for 1.8 million we’re paying him that seems unlikely. Instead, he can have a much better season over less time by hitting against lefties and tracking down the Doc’s endless stream of ground balls. Used smartly, these two guys are a great compliment to each other, as they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in almost every way and are both incredibly unlikely to play 162 games.