As far as value goes, being a +5.8 WAR player is generally considered quite an accomplishment. After all, only three players have accrued that much value this season (Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay) and the list of those who topped the mark last year is a roll call of stars.
Why, then, is it with a contemptuous sneer that I note that Cesar Izturis is a +5.8 WAR player? Because that’s his career mark. As shocking (or not, if you happen to be an Orioles fan) as this may be, four months of 2010 Josh Hamilton has been more valuable than an entire decade of Cesar Izturis.
And because direct numerical comparisons are always an exhilarating exercise, why don’t we look at the career WAR marks of some other shortstops? Luminaries who have surpassed the “Izturis Line” include Bobby Crosby (in 1,342 fewer plate appearances), Alexei Ramirez (in a whopping 2,637 fewer PA), the significantly-less-than-immortal Damian Jackson (in 1,676 fewer PA), and Pokey Reese (in 1,047 fewer PA). These are but a few members of the list of unspectacular shortstops who were more valuable in fewer plate appearances than Cesar.
In light of this staggering performance, I think the two main points to investigate are why he has been so awful (given his rep as a serviceable option) and what has compelled MLB teams to run him out there on a daily basis since just after George W. Bush took office the first time.
Considering that during every one of my visits to Camden Yards this year I’ve played a mental game of “Is Cesar’s ISO above or below 0.040?” (it currently sits at a tied-for-MLB-worst 0.038), it seems like his prodigious lack of power is a good place to start. Despite posting a very reasonable strikeout rate (9.7%), an OK walk rate (4.9%), and a mediocre but not crippling BABIP (.281) in his career, Izturis boasts a meager .276 lifetime wOBA, a direct result of an equally abysmal .068 career ISO. Never in a full season has he produced an ISO above .100, although he did give the Blue Jays a (comparatively) robust .119 ISO in 46 games in his rookie year in 2001. All of this ineptitude translates to an insane -169.9 batting runs over 4,185 PA spanning the past decade.
But, you argue, he’s not known for his bat. It isn’t fair, hypothetical you argues, to judge him without looking at the superior defense he provides. This segues nicely into my second question, which is why MLB teams continue to pay him to play every day.
As nearly as I can tell, Izturis’ rep among baseball media and traditional fans is that he’s a superb fielder and a decent overall player. After all, you can certainly do worse than a Gold Glove winner at short, right? Unfortunately for anyone who espouses this belief (I’m looking at you, Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer), it just isn’t true.
No matter how much you want to complain about UZR or DRS as defensive metrics, I’m willing to believe that over the course of 8,300+ career innings they paint a fairly accurate picture of Izturis’ true talent level defensively. UZR has him at +6.7 per 150 games at SS (+45.6 runs total among all positions) while DRS has him at 48 career runs saved, so the metrics agree. At that +6-8 runs per season level, Cesar has been above-average but certainly not elite with the glove.
Is this a case of MLB teams overvaluing defensive contributions at the expense of offense? After all, even the two-year, $5 million deal the Orioles gave him prior to the ’09 season has been more than the Venezuelan has been worth (+0.8 WAR during his time with the O’s). Perhaps teams let their scouting departments and Izturis’ hardware (’04 Gold Glove winner) cloud their judgment, or perhaps there just aren’t any other near-replacement-level shortstops out there. Although I’m skeptical about that last possibility.
And yet, for a guy who has hit 15 career home runs (or as many as Jose Bautista has hit since Independence Day), topped the +0.2 WAR mark just thrice in his career, and averaged a paltry +0.4 WAR since 2004, Izturis is certainly doing pretty well for himself. After all, he gets to start every day for a major league team.
Nathan Biemiller is a junior at Franklin and Marshall College who writes regularly for nothing but his college newspaper. If you would like to offer him a place to write consistently (gratis!) or if you just have questions or comments, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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