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Green Means Go

There are a plethora of middle infielder surprise stories this year. Ben Zobrist‘s breakout season was just dissected by Dave Allen this week, and Dave Cameron touched on Marco Scutaro‘s remarkable penchant for riding the wave this year.

A little less heralded, but no less surprising, has been the play of Nick Green in Boston. All six feet, 180 pounds of Green spent 2008 in the minor leagues in the Yankee organization, playing the middle infield and hitting poorly (.233/.285/.373). Talk about coming back from the dead. Green’s resurrection has brought him all the way to a .281/.337/.433 slash line, and fringe fantasy relevance as the nominal starter at shortstop on a good offensive team.

While defense is not usually a fantasy entity, I covered its importance this week while talking about Fernando Martinez and his chance of sticking in center field over the next couple of weeks in New York. In the same way, a discussion of Nick Green’s defense is in order.

It’s not like he was a player known for his defense at shortstop as he advanced through the Atlanta Braves’ system all those years ago. in fact, the last time he logged significant tries at the position was 2000, in high-A ball. Until Seattle and New York tried him there in 2007 and 2008, he logged about 40 games at the position. But he acquitted himself well while playing short, and his overall minor league Range Factor per nine innings was a decent 3.86.

This year he’s playing to his potential in the field, with a 3.8 RF/9 and a positive UZR rating. His 9 errors are a little worrisome, but he doesn’t have much competition from Julio Lugo, whose hands have turned to bricks this year. Lugo’s career 4.2 RF/9 is down to 2.8, he has 6 errors in half the attempts as Green. And his 14.1 lifetime UZR rating is down to -6.9 this year.

So you have one man whose lifetime .271/.335/.391 slash line and double-digit lifetime UZR rating are up against a hotter player with a lifetime .248/.314/.364 slash line and 9.5 lifetime UZR at the same position. This is a pretty classic battle, and if the difference on lifetime defense or offense was more pronounced, it would be much easier to come down on the side of the seasoned veteran.

It’s tough to parse the team’s attitude about playing time going forward, even if the decision seems to have been made in the present. Lugo has only 20 at-bats in June, which would seem to say that Green has won the battle. However, Lugo’s current .292/.361/.385 slash line may be some ready-made Maalox for the manager when Green’s offense starts to take the predictable slide.

But career seasons do happen. And Lugo is no prized veteran that deserves more tries at the position. The Boston fans certainly aren’t clamoring for more from the slap-hitting Lugo, especially if his defense continues to be putrid. So we come back to defense, because as long as Green plays better on that side of the ball, he’ll probably continue to start. The team has plenty of offense from its other positions.

On offense, ZiPS RoS projections seem about right for Green. They have him finishing the season with a .271/.322/.418 slash line, and some regression will happen. His BABIP is .344 (against a .323 career number), and his strikeout rate is currently significantly lower than his career rate. There’s nothing more damning than his current 40.5% O-Swing%, in the end. Even his career 26.5% reach rate is way too high reaching for a low-power middle infielder.

So for your deep-league fantasy managers that just need anything, anything at all from a starting middle infielder: Green means go… as long as he’s picking it at short. See some more errors in the box score, and you should get nervous.