We have had to deal with a lot of speculation about the Rangers’ infield this off-season. It is not as if the Rangers are in trouble, they have the “problem” of a looming logjam. Shortstop super-prospect Jurickson Profar is knocking on the door. The Rangers also have Ian Kinsler at second and under contract through 2017, and Elvis Andrus, who is only 24, at shortstop and under contract through 2014. Most teams would love to have this sort of problem. This is not going to be another post about what the Rangers should do with these players. Instead, prompted by Evan Grant’s discussion of how the Rangers might want to think about a long-term extension for Andrus depending on how he plays this year, I want to look at how Andrus’ bat might develop over the next few years by looking at similar players. They are actually rather scarce, as Andrus has a rather unusual combination of skills.
A big part of Andrus’ value obviously is rooted in his skill on the bases and his fielding. However, a player still has to hit, and that tends to change more than the other skills in a player’s 20s. It is also generally easier to measure, and there is more variation between players. Thus this post will focus on his bat, with the acknowledged limitations about what I have (mostly) left out.
Although Andrus has had four full seasons in the majors, 2013 will be only his age 24 season, so it may seem obvious that he still likely has development left. While it is true that most general hitting curves show that players usually peak in their mid- to late-20s, those are just for all hitters. It works well enough, but we know that the population of historical aging curves includes both Cecil Fielder and Adam Everett. In other words, we might be able to do a bit better by looking at players more like Andrus.
What stands out with Andrus is not just that he is a shortstop with good speed and contact skills, which is not all that unusual. He also combines low power with a slightly above-average walk rate. Most low-power, speed-and-contact infielders tend to have low walk rates, at least in part because pitchers usually are not going to pitch around them.
To get my set of comparable players, I used a method similar to the one I used in my post about Deion Sanders from last week. I compared Andrus’ walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated power and speed score with league averages during his age 23 season in 2012. I then looked for seasons since 1955 by shortstops who had at least 500 plate appearances and above-average walk rates, better-than-average strikeout rates, isolated power substantially below league average (less than .8 of league average), and a speed score higher than average. (Note that while am focusing on hitting, including speed score and positional restrictions does at least somewhat taken baserunning and fielding into account.) To widen the net a bit, I looked for player seasons that were between 22 and 24. Only four player seasons came up in the results. Nonetheless, what might they tell us about Andrus’ possible future? I will proceed in chronological order.
In 1971, 22-year-old Enzo Hernandez was the Padres’ main shortstop and received 618 plate appearances and hit .222/.295/.250 (63 wRC+). He apparently had a great glove. Since the issue here is aging, keep in mind that we are not primarily looking at whether a player was good or bad, just at some of his peripherals compared to the league, and we really want to look at how he developed over his 20s. As a hitter, Hernandez really did not develop, although he did get playing time in eight different seasons and ended up with over 2600 career plate appearances. Still, it is a bit odd that he is on the list. He never struck out, I guess, and had some speed.
It is mind-boggling that in 1971 he managed an above-average walk rate. At first I assumed it was because he was hitting in front of the pitcher, but the Padres actually had him lead off most of the year due to his speed. How that team only won 61 games is an utter mystery. Hernandez is not a great comparison for Andrus, since his playing time fluctuated after that first year, so tracing development in his case is tough. He was worse at 23 and 24, but about the same at 25 and 26. Sadly, Hernandez died last month in an apparent case of suicide.
In 1972, 24-year-old Roger Metzger hit .222/.288/.259 for the Houston Astros (62 wRC+), and in 1973 he would go on to win the Glove Glove, so he was considered to be a good defender when he was in the league. Metzger was basically a slightly better Enzo Hernandez. He received more playing time over his career, being a full-timer in six or seven seasons. His walks fluctuated, but, hilariously, in 1972 he led off the pretty much the whole season despite not being able to OBP or slug over .300. Amazing, even for 1972. He did hit a bit better in 1973 and 1974 (slugging at least .320 each year!), although his speed dropped off. Like Hernandez, it is hard to say he really declined into his mid- and late-20s, but he did not really improve as a hitter, either.
We now take a big jump in both time and quality to 1997, when a 23-year-old shortstop in his second full year in the league put up an impressive .291/.370/.405 line (110 wRC+) line while stealing 23 bags and hitting 10 home runs. It was roughly similar to his previous season. He looked like he might one day be as good as future Hall of Famer (and at that time, future player) Michael Young. Judge that last part for yourself with respect to Derek Jeter. This was probably the most surprising name that came up out of the players I had heard of before.
It did not seem to fit on first glance, given their respective defensive reputations and Jeter’s and subsequent history with the bat. Indeed, even at this young age, Jeter hit for more power than Andrus, and just barely made it under the wire for ISO compared to league average for this comparison. Still, it is not completely nuts as early in Jeter’s development he was not the 15-20 home run hitter he became later. While the comparison does seem to be on the outer limits of reasonableness (over four full seasons, Andrus has not managed hit hit more than six homers in a season while having the most hitter-friendly home park in the American League, so he does not have much to build on), it can tell us a bit about aging.
While it would be crazy to expect any player to player until 40 when he is only 24, or to expect Andrus to hit like Jeter, it is at least another sign that shortstops who display something like Andrus’ skill set in their early 20s age well, as Jeter had some very big years almost immediately afterwards, although again, much of that had to do with a power spike.
Our final and most recent comparison for Andrus is fitting in more than just a statistical sense. In 2000, Rafael Furcal, like Andrus almost a decade later an international signing by Atlanta, burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie and hit .295/.394/.382 with 40 steals. Furcal was a rookie at 22, whereas Andrus was in his third year at that age. Andrus is also listed as being a fewer inches taller and heavier, although I am not overly trusting of listed heights and weights. Statistically the similarities between between Furcal at 22 and Andrus (at both 22 and 23) hold up. Both players hit five or fewer home runs. Their isolated power relative to league was also similar.
At 23 Andrus was not quite as prolific on the bases, but at 22 he stole 37. Furcal struck out and walked more relative to his league, but still better than average, if not quite on Andrus’ level. At 23 (Andrus’ age in 2012) and 24 Furcal struggled, mostly due to low walk rates. In subsequent years his offense improved, and he hit double-digit home runs every year from 2003 to 2006, his age 25 to 28 seasons. Based on his performance in his early 20s, Furcal is probably the best comparison for Andrus, and also pretty favorable. Rafael Furcal developed more home run power, so it is not out of the question for Andrus.
While I expected a few more surprises, it turns out that (given the parameters I set up, which may or may not have been well-chosen) players statistically similar to Andrus relative to their era, while of greatly varying quality, all managed to at least stay the same or improve as the moved through their twenties, as one would expect. The lack of power was not a problem with this. Perhaps predictably, even a hitter without much power can hang improve like most others if he combines good contact skills with good plate discipline.
What all this means for the Rangers’ infield situation and Andrus in particular is a separate question. But the players discussed here do not provide any reason to think that Andrus is going decline earlier or more quickly than most. Furcal even went through a rough patch and bounced back to hit better than ever. Whether the Rangers want to keep to trade Andrus, that is a good sign for his future value.