Cesar Izturis’ Inexplicable Continued Employment

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 nbiemill@fandm.edu.

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16 Responses to “Cesar Izturis’ Inexplicable Continued Employment”

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  1. Ben says:

    Fellow O’s fan here (that’s right, I’m the other one). I guess the question is, do you think Andino would be better? I think I probably lean toward yes, albeit not by much. It drove me crazy to hear the praise that was lauded on that guy last year for, as far as I could tell, not being the worst player to ever play baseball. In the case of shortstops, the inability to find a replacement level player might not be as crazy as you suggest. I suspect you’re right and that there are other options, but my guess is that it’s not particularly easy to find them.

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  2. Mitch says:

    Gary Thorne once pointed out that Izturis had more hits than any other #9 hitter in the American League, so he’s got that going for him…

    And someone has to play shortstop, right?

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  3. Matt Slowinski says:

    Reminds me a lot of dealing with Pat Burrell earlier this year and last, maybe if Izturis hops over to the NL he’ll find a magical spark to bring him alive in the same way.
    Also, do the O’s have any good shortstop prospects in their system?

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  4. Nathan says:

    Ben, I’m really not sure about Andino. He was exactly replacement level (+0.0 WAR last year), which, as we both are unfortunately aware of, is better than Cesar has been this year (-0.4 WAR). What’s frustrating to me is that there are guys who don’t start for their own teams (Janish, Brignac) and guys signed as minor league free agents (Josh Wilson) who have been better at the position this year. So while someone does have to play SS, why pay a guy ~$2.6MM (including performance bonuses) to be below replacement level?

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  5. Ben says:

    Matt: As of 11:59 pm Monday night, they’ve got a very good shortstop prospect in their system. But Machado’s pretty much it, and of course he’s ~3+ years away and isn’t a certainty to stay at short. Their 2nd round pick last year, Mychal Givens, was liked by more teams as a pitcher, but they converted him to short. He’s dealt with injuries this year and has 27 PA in low-A.

    So shorter answer: no, not really. I’m not exactly sure what they play to do there next year. Best guess is that they promote Robert Andino (discussed in other comments).

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  6. C.J. says:

    I think it’s important to look at the Izturis signing in context. Let’s not forget that shortstop for the 2008 O’s, the year before they signed Izturis, was an absolute disaster. Among the luminaries they threw out there that season were Juan Castro, Freddie Bynum, Alex Cintron, Brandon Fahey, Luis Hernandez, and Eider Torres, guys who couldn’t hit OR play defense. Say what you want about Izturis being overpaid, at least he can field the ball…which means a lot to any O’s fan who endured that 2008 season!

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  7. Boh says:

    Nathan: Love this article, I’m a huge O’s fan and have grown tired of having Izturis on this team. He’s an above average shortstop who hits like a Pitcher, a bad-hitting pitcher. The reason they didn’t get someone else in the offseason is because Angelos didn’t want to waste 2.6 million on a bench guy/someone who was released.

    C.J.: You’re right, and I was fine with having Izturis for the ’09 season, but after seeing the way he played, and this team’s need for offense I still can’t fathom why MacPhail didn’t find another option.

    I’m an O’s fan, and I think the best solution at short next year is to try to trade for someone, possibly Brignac, and then I’ll just pray that Machado can stay at Short and be at least slightly above-average defensively since his bat will play way above average at that position.

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  8. OsandRoyals says:

    The Os signed Izturis partially because they had had so few options at short. The Os made the decision to go with a defensive specialist since they knew they would be calling up rookie pitchers
    Basically since legitimate shortstops are scarce the Os have turned to a slightly above replacement player in Izturis
    Andino’s offense is close to what Izturis gives but with worse defense
    It’s fairly likely that the Os resign Izturis given the lack of much better options on the free agent market. JJ Hardy would be the best FA to target but after that they can choose between Guzman who doesn’t have the range, Lugo who even the Os won’t play, Alex Gonzalez who’s basically an alternative Izturis and possible Ramon Vasquez from Houston who I’ve never heard of. Gonzalez will probably end up overpaid so the Os are probably out

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  9. Boh says:

    Hardy’s not a Free Agent, the Brewers manipulated his clock by sending him down to the minors last year in order to buy one more year before FA.

    The O’s may want to look to make a trade in order to improve at SS, since the FA class is so scarce.

    They need pitching, SS help, and a 1B bat… kinda like the Rays did going into ’08 when they got Garza, Bartlett, and Pena. The O’s have to be creative this offseason, trade for a SS (maybe also a 1B/SP), and hopefully be able to sign someone at the other position to help the team be more competitive.

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  10. circlechange says:

    Beats the hell out of Rafael Belliard, who played for 17 seasons and had a career fangraphs WAR of -0.6. With his best season a whole 0.8 WAR.

    And Sean Smith’s WAR paints a bleaker picture. A career mark of -3.1 WAR and a single-season high of 0.6 WAR.

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  11. Michael Scott says:

    “I’ve played a mental game of “Is Cesar’s ISO above or below 0.040?”

    I play that game every night, before I go to sleep.

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  12. MM says:

    You’d think MacFail would have learned the first time with Izturis. He sucked for the Cubs several years ago.

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  13. PG says:

    I think the mention of Alexei Ramirez is out of place beside guys such as Pokey Reese and Bobby Crosby. In fact, it’s kind of ludicrous. Alexei’s WAR this year is nearly identical to that other shortstop named Ramirez everyone salivates about.

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  14. Nathan says:

    My point was more that a good-but-not-great SS like Alexei has been as good in about a third as many plate appearances as Cesar, not that Ramirez is by any means a comparable player.

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  15. David says:

    Andino might have been replacement level last year, but that was mostly because of his defense – he had a UZR/150 of 14.3. I think that was a fluke because his career TotalZone in the minors is +7 at shortstop – over 794 games. So his TZ/150 would be like +1 or +2. Also, this season in the minors he has been worse than usual, committing a lot of errors – his current fielding percentage of .946 is his lowest season value since 2003.

    I think also that the decision to sign Izturis was caused by our problems at shortstop in 2008. Luis Hernandez, for instance, was supposed to be a cheap all-glove no-hit shortstop when we gave him the start on Opening Day; unfortunately he turned out to be a no-glove no-hit player, and it all went downhill from there. Seeing as we weren’t going to be contending, MacPhail wanted to sign a guy who he knew would at least give us plus defense on a consistent basis, if nothing else, and even if he had no upside.

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