In Awe of Jose Iglesias

I’m a big fan of games that summarize entire skillsets. To pick one example, on May 25, 2012, Adam Dunn DH’d and went 1-for-4 with a homer, a walk, and three strikeouts. To pick another example, on July 16, 2004, Wily Mo Pena went 1-for-4 with a homer, no walks, and three strikeouts. I like a game in which a player puts everything about himself on display, and Jose Iglesias had just such a game Monday night. Against the White Sox, Iglesias made two easy outs. In his third at-bat, he picked up an infield single. And though the White Sox emerged victorious by four, the game was of little consequence to either team; what most people are talking about is what Iglesias did to Josh Phegley in the bottom of the sixth.

It wasn’t anything mean, except that it kind of was. The Gameday play-by-play offers, understatedly:

Josh Phegley grounds out softly, shortstop Jose Iglesias to first baseman Prince Fielder. Jordan Danks to 2nd.

That doesn’t exactly do the play justice. Iglesias drew oohs and ahhs from the other team’s audience, and Phegley didn’t think to stage a protest. The out recorded, Iglesias got back on his feet and returned to his position. Ever the professional, at no point did Iglesias crack a smile. Most of the observers were simply too stunned. At the plate Monday night, Jose Iglesias was quiet. In the field Monday night, Jose Iglesias was an afterburner.

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Iglesias was 19 years old when the Red Sox signed him as an international free agent out of Cuba. Like all Cubans, Iglesias had to defect before he could sign with a team, but the Red Sox gave him a four-year major-league deal, suggesting how much they believed in his promise. A quick word from the Herald:

Iglesias is universally considered to be a defensive wizard with reports being split between good and bad on his offensive potential.

Ian Browne went into more detail in early December. The general message was the same: Iglesias had big-league defense and a potentially big-league bat. That hasn’t changed as the years have gone by. But Browne got some quotes that now appear prescient. My favorite:

“He’ll improvise out there. His hands are so quick,” DiSarcina said. “He’ll get to a ball and you don’t think he’ll be able to throw the kid out, but he uses his feet and his hands really well. His arm strength is good. He doesn’t have a plus-plus arm, but he has good enough arm strength where if he makes the play in the hole, he’s going to be capable of throwing a kid out.”

Yasiel Puig drew early comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero. Yoenis Cespedes drew early comparisons to Mike Trout, Adam Jones, Torii Hunter, and Jimmy Wynn. Jose Iglesias drew early comparisons to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel.

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At this writing, Iglesias is batting .324, over exactly 250 at-bats. Among players with at least as much playing time, only eight guys have higher averages, from Puig and Miguel Cabrera to David Ortiz. This for a player in Iglesias who was always glove-first, who nearly embarrassed himself trying to hit in Triple-A. I don’t know which is more remarkable: that Iglesias is batting .324, or that no one expects Iglesias to keep it up and still they don’t mind. No one believes that Iglesias is a .300 hitter. Plenty of people believe Iglesias isn’t a .250 hitter. It takes a long time to convince people you’re not bad, and the burden of proof, offensively, is still with Iglesias. But there’s significance in the fact that people don’t think Iglesias is going to hit, and they still like him as a regular shortstop. Jose Iglesias is evidence that, on some level, everyone thinks in terms of WAR.

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You already know that Iglesias got the out at first. Here we see him having bare-handed the ball. His body is nearly parallel to the ground, and he has one foot on the grass, barely. His momentum is perpendicular to his intended throwing line. He is in the very act of falling. A successful defensive play passed through this intermediate.

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From contact to the time Phegley set foot on first base, the whole play took 4.53 seconds. Iglesias had the ball in his right hand for three-tenths of one second. Looking at the video, Iglesias grabs the ball, and, nine frames later, the ball is gone again, soaring in another direction. Iglesias had no room to pull the ball back behind his body. His throw involved a little forearm and a lot of a flick of the wrist. Iglesias threw with Chad Bradford‘s arm slot and a falling, dying man’s body position.

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This is just for fun. I need to assure you this is just for fun, because I know all about small sample sizes. I’m not an idiot. Please don’t read too much into this, because I’m not trying to say too much with this. But, Iglesias has started ten games now in the Tigers infield. In games without Iglesias, Tigers pitchers have allowed a .305 BABIP. In games with Iglesias, Tigers pitchers have allowed a .285 BABIP. A BABIP of .305 would be baseball’s fifth-worst. A BABIP of .285 would be baseball’s fourth-best.

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Torii Hunter has seen some plays. Hunter’s been around since the late 1990s, and the man himself has won a bunch of Gold Gloves. In May 2010, Hunter got absolutely robbed by Elvis Andrus on a grounder deep in the hole. Said Hunter later on:

“That’s the best play that’s been made on me. Ever,” Hunter said. “That guy can really play. He was in left field and made a heck of a throw. That was a sweet play the more I think about it.”

Hunter, now, is Iglesias’ teammate, and he spoke up once more:

“Iglesias, man, since he’s been here, he’s been making some plays,” said Hunter, who added it was the best play he’s seen live. “You’re talking about plays that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

The best play Torii Hunter has seen live. Yelp reviews tell us everything we need to know about how liberally people throw around terms like “best” and “worst”, and I don’t know a whole lot about Hunter’s personal memory. Now that he plays with Iglesias, he might easily be biased. But Hunter doesn’t have a reputation of over-reactions and exaggerations. He’s always been thoughtful, a careful selector of his own words. According to Torii Hunter, he’s never seen a better play at a ballgame. In Hunter’s big-league debut, he pinch-ran for Terry Steinbach.

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If I really wanted to start a battle in the comments, I’d pick the better defensive shortstop between Iglesias and Andrelton Simmons. I’m not actually going to do that, but I will point out a fact. We have UZR data going back to 2002, and since then, 142 shortstops have played at least 500 innings at the position. By UZR/150, it’s Simmons and Iglesias, then everyone else. Only Simmons and Iglesias come in over 20, standing as the best defensive shortstops by this measurement. Of course, they’re young, and young players make the best defenders. Eventually, both players will be worse. But right now, one has to wonder just how good a shortstop can really be. Both Simmons and Iglesias make us wonder if there’s such thing as a shortstop who’s 20 runs better than average. Both Simmons and Iglesias make us believe.

Given the big error bars around any defensive measurement, it’s impossible, between Simmons and Iglesias, to pick who’s better with a high degree of confidence. We don’t know and can’t know, and that’s part of what makes it such an enjoyable conversation, because there are no firm conclusions. Either one could be correct, meaning both has an argument. All we know for sure is the best defensive shortstop in baseball is one of these two. They can feel free to battle it out over the next several years. Monday, it was Iglesias who squeezed an out from the impossible. Now the ball’s in Simmons’ court, and he’s the only other guy capable of upping the ante. Not that Iglesias couldn’t up it right back. I don’t know how Jose Iglesias might ever top what he did, but there’s a lot I don’t get about wizards.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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