Jose Iglesias: Defense in Detroit

Early last summer, I wrote an article for Baseball Digest magazine that began with a quote from Bobby Cox. The Hall of Fame manager said, “They’ve got their RBIs in their gloves.” He was referring to weak-hitting shortstops with elite defensive ability. A few paragraphs later, I brought up Jose Iglesias.

Whether Iglesias fits that profile is a matter of debate. The 24-year-old ended up far outperforming expectations by hitting .303/.349/.386 between Boston and Detroit. He also had a .356 BABiP. The jury is still out on his bat.

There aren’t any questions about his glove. Iglesias is a human highlight reel at the shortstop position. His one-motion-catch-and-throw of an infield roller last summer was probably the defensive play of the year. His basket catch in short left field, in the ALCS, wasn’t far behind. Simply put, he makes plays no one else — OK, maybe Andrelton Simmons — can. By the eye-test, Iglesias is nothing short of brilliant.

The numbers don’t disagree. According to Baseball Info Solution’s Ben Jedlovec, “Of 41 shortstops to play at least 700 innings at shortstop in the past two seasons, Iglesias’ 18.3 UZR/150 is second only to Andrelton Simmons. In RngR, which is a component of UZR that measures a player’s range, his 6.0 mark was nearly as much as Jhonny Peralta‘s 7.1, despite Peralta having nearly a 1,500-innings-played advantage.”

The Tigers acquired Iglesias at last summer’s trade deadline for much that reason. Their infield defense lacked range, and while the flashy Cuban-born infielder did commit a costly error in October, he saves far more runs than he gives up. His Tigers’ teammates certainly took notice.

“He’s unbelievable,” Don Kelly said prior to the ALCS. “He’s one of the best defensive guys I’ve seen play the position. Some of the plays he makes, other guys simply don’t make. He‘s definitely fun to watch.”

“He’s unreal out there on the field,” Austin Jackson added. “With his range, a lot of hard-hit balls, and even balls that would be infield hits, are outs. He somehow gets to them and make plays, which obviously helps our pitchers out a lot. Torii Hunter has told me might be as good defensively as Ozzie Smith.”

Is it hyperbole to compare Iglesias to “The Wizard”? That’s a matter of opinion, but the mere fact it happens — Hunter isn’t the first to offer the comparison — says a lot. Omar Vizquel, who recently joined the Tigers coaching staff, is another name that gets thrown around. Plaudits come from more than just teammates. I asked some of the game’s best defensive shortstops about Iglesias, and all were effusive in their praise.

“Iglesias is pretty special,” said the Yankees’ Brendan Ryan. “He’s got the ability to make big plays, and he’s also solid. He makes the routine plays as well as the spectacular ones. He’s very gifted. The sky is the limit for him defensively. He’s got a great glove and is fun to watch.”

“He’s got tremendous hands,” concurred Colorado’s Paul Janish. “What I find most impressive about him is you can almost see his instincts when he plays. He’s got tremendous feel for the game; he’s got that internal clock. Everything is so instinctual for him. He plays kind of showy, but that’s just who he is.”

“He’s really good defensively,” San Francisco‘s Brandon Crawford said. “He’s got good range and good hands. I’ve only played against him in the Arizona Fall League, but from what I know of him, he saves runs.”

Iglesias promises to save plenty of runs for the Tigers’ pitching staff, which is why he won’t have to repeat last year’s .735 OPS to be valuable. Given the importance of defense at the shortstop position, anything north of what Smith [.522] and Vizquel [.595] put up in their age-24 seasons would suffice.

Fredi Gonzalez wouldn‘t disagree with that opinion. “Defense is invaluable, especially at shortstop” the Atlanta manager said. “To a certain point, it’s more important than offense. It changes the game. We’re lucky to have Andrelton Simmons, who is a game-changer at the position. I obviously haven’t seen as much of Iglesias, but he’s similar [to Simmons] in that respect.”

Veteran southpaw Bruce Chen put it this way in the Baseball Digest article: “A run prevented is like a run scored, and… a ball he doesn’t get to can turn into four or five runs. If he does have good range, that base hit turns into a double play and you don’t give up any.” Right-hander Ryan Dempster had a similar spin: “Everybody talks about, ‘He only drove in 50 runs last year.’ Well, he also saved 50 runs, so in a way he drove in 100.”

Bobby Cox was a wise man. And even if Iglesias doesn’t hit, he’s still an extremely valuable shortstop.

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

24 Responses to “Jose Iglesias: Defense in Detroit”

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  1. Matt in Toledo says:

    I was impressed with how soothing he is as a fielder. He’ll make a play that requires him to be off balance when he throws. Out of his hand, you think it might be high or off target. Then, when the camera trails the ball to the first baseman, it’s chest high and right on target.

    It’s what made his couple of miscues in the postseason so surprising. I audibly gasped at both errors I remember.

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  2. Andrew says:

    This is where I get confused. Iglesias only ranks 24th in defense WAR when compared to other shortstops with at least 100 at bats. Is defensive WAR that bad a stat when analyzing defense?

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    • Spencer00 says:

      It’s a counting stat and he played less than 600 innings at SS last season.

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      That partially explains it.

      He also played 300 innings at 3B, which may incorporated into the WAR measure you were using for comparison. He played below average 3B for those 300 innings, which may bring down the total defensive WAR.

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  3. Before Cox, Herzog and Weaver both had really good understanding of valuing defense too.

    How many teams have had a defensive ‘wizard’ as their highest paid player? Putting their money where their mouth is.

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    • Supply and Demand says:

      Well if that defensive wizard is also an offensive masher, a la Andruw Jones or Mike Schmidt or Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr, then often.

      Not sure if this was a serious question or not. But defense is an undervalued asset to an extent still, and used to be grossly undervalued. I doubt any team was altruistic enough to say “This guy is valued at AND will sign for $3 million on the open market, but we feel he’s worth $15 million so let’s go ahead and pay him 3x more than anyone else would”. No employer would.

      The market dictates contracts. Hence market inefficiencies. I suppose a GM that was allergic to taking advantage of his market inefficiencies wouldn’t be a GM for very long.

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      • Supply and Demand says:

        5x time more. Math.

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      • Orange says:

        Good defensive players are not underpaid. The market for players works just fine. What you’re not taking into consideration is the fact that there are more good defensive shortstops than there are good hitting shortstops (and this is true at all positions – the supply of good defenders is larger than the supply of Major League level hitters). Iglesias just happens to be a good defensive shortstop that can also hit at a decent rate. His salary isn’t higher, because he’s more easily replaceable than a player a highly paid player. There’s plenty of .200 hitting shortstops who are excellent defenders that put downward pressure on Iglesias’s salary.

        Plus, if you are right, that the market is inefficient on defense, then some GM could easily exploit this and become the next Billy Beane. Just go out and sign all the best defenders in the league! Sure, you won’t score many runs or win many games, but you’ll have the best bang for the buck!

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  4. tz says:

    Earl Weaver is the reason why Mark Belanger played over 2000 MLB games despite only 389 career RBIs. Even counting his 71 wRC+, Belanger was worth about 150 runs more than the average major leaguer over his career.

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  5. Alex Bensky says:

    This can be overestimated. According to Baseball Reference in his best season Ozzie Smith, often considered the best shortstop glove of them all, had a 4.7 defensive WAR.

    Iglesias is fun to watch but he’s going to need to hit some to be valuable, and his BABIP and overall batting with the Tigers are causes for concern.

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      He doesn’t need to hit that much to be valuable. Given that his power is fairly consistent (0.08 ISO) with what is seen by eye, he’ll need to get on base 30 percent of the time in order to provide league-average value (2.0 WAR). This is what he was worth last season in 109 games.

      Assuming a reasonable .300 BABIP, and he would reach that range already.

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    • bobby says:

      i disagree, Simmons last year posted a higher defensive WAR (5.4 wins). If this Iglesias is as good as everyone is saying there is no reason he cant be 3-4 win player just defensively. Add in slightly-below to league average offense and you are looking at some real value.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Well, yeah. If he is slightly below average offensively then he will have real value. The problem is that he might be one of the worst hitters in baseball. Last year’s performance came out of the woodworks. In AAA from 2011-2013 his OPS was under .600.

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        • True, but it is important to consider the bulk of his Triple-A at bats came at ages 21 and 22 in his first two full professional seasons.

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        • vivalajeter says:

          It’s certainly possible that he hits better in MLB than he hit in AAA, but I need more than one partial season of success before I’m a believer. My issue is that he was just so bad offensively in AAA over multiple seasons. Maybe he’ll get better with more development, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t have more than one or two seasons when he barely clears a .700 OPS.

          During a hot streak last year, I remember reading an article on espn where they evaluated every hit. It turned out that the vast majority of his hits were bloopers, infield hits, etc, and he also got an inordinate number of pitches right down the pipe. It’s possible that in addition to babip luck, he was also able to take advantage of his reputation – pitchers knew he was a bad hitter, so they threw meatballs like they do to opposing pitchers.

          Just looked it up and here’s the article. There’s also a link within the article to a nice object-oriented page of his hits.

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  6. JustinVerlander35 says:

    It’s a treat watching Iglesias play defense on a daily basis. When he came over from the Red Sox I knew of his defensive capabilities but I was blown away when I got to watch him play every day.

    He will have a hard time reproducing what he did last year with the stick. I think the .259/.306/.348 he posted with the Tigers is more reasonable than the .330/.376/.409 he put up with the Red Sox. I do think he will a bit better than people think because of his ability to get infield singles, but .250-.270 should his range for this year.

    I just wish he’d jump on first pitch fastballs a bit more. I get taking a strike, but sometimes he takes too good of pitch and he chases a lot of breaking balls and gets beat pretty consistently with high heat behind in counts. I think if he swung at the first pitch he’d have a little more extra base power and get a few more hits.

    He hit .406/.472/.594 when swinging at the first pitch last year. I’m not saying he should swing first pitch every time, but he shouldn’t be letting some of these fastballs split the heart of the plate on the first pitch.

    Great article!

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  7. Catoblepas says:

    I think in ~10 years we’ll start seeing defensive specialists at more positions than just shortstop. Perhaps there’s more potential for high numbers of defensive WAR there than at any other position (except maybe catcher?), but a run saved in left field = a run saved at short. The number of guys with negative offensive WAR and positive defensive WAR at other positions is practically nil, however, and I think that’s an inefficiency to be exploited.

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    • Anon21 says:

      Gerardo Parra did that for the DBacks last year… although I’m not familiar enough with the way Fangraphs presents its stats to know if his -3.7 “Off” is relative to the average right fielder or the average position player.

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      • tz says:

        Parra is a good example, like James Loney, of a guy who is clearly a + glove/ – bat compared to their position. But even these guys are fairly close to “average” hitters overall.

        What would be neat would be if an Endy Chavez type OF got a lot of playing time as a LF based strictly on their glove. Gregor Blanco might be the closest to this type right now if he ever becomes a full-time player.

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    • tz says:

      I agree that a run saved is a run saved. However, if you run the comparison of supply and demand of potential shortstops vs say potential left fielders, there’s probably a bigger pool of guys who could play an “adequate” LF vs the pool of potentially adequate shortstops. So if you take 2 sets of 30 pro baseball players, with matching distributions of hitting talent, the spread between the best and worst defensive LF would be smaller than the spread between the best and worst defensive SS.

      BUT, this may be driven a lot by players being shifted one way along the defensive spectrum. If enough teams decide to take players early enough in their careers and shift them to a “tougher” position (like the Cards did with Matt Carpenter), you may end up leveling out the spread of defensive skill across positions. And if that occurs, we would probably start to see more “defensive specialists” at the traditionally “offensive” positions.

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  8. james wilson says:

    Iglesias age 23 season, 303 349 386

    Wizzard age 23 season, 258 311 312 followed by five years of BA 211-248, lifetime 262 337 328

    Vizquel age 22 rookie 220 233 261
    lifetime 272 336 352

    Iglesias didn’t come out of nowhere, he was failing to thrive at AAA and it was only getting worse. He is Vizquel at the minimum, probably better, loves hitting and the study of hitting. Vizquel peaked after ten years at 333 397 436. Iglesias will have a few of those. I’d give him a pass for two years or so, but he won’t be awful. As a Red Sox fan I hate the trade.

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    • RC says:

      Jose Iglesias put up 800 straight plate appearances of sub .600 OPS performance in AAA.

      He then had a 140 PA hot streak in MLB where he hit .414/.461/.538.

      He followed that with another 200+ PA of .580 OPS ball.

      If you think that 140 PA streak is more important than the 1000+ PA of sub .600 OPS hitting its surrounded by, I don’t know what to tell you.

      He’s a terrible hitter. If he rounds into a below average hitter, he’ll be a useful player, but that’s a longshot for him.

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