The Importance of Stephen Drew

Stephen Drew is not the Diamondbacks best player – that would be Justin Upton. He’s not the best player at his own position, nor do his numbers (including a career .270/.330/.442 line) jump off the page at first glance. And yet, given the current state of Major League shortstops, Drew’s health might be as critical to the teams success as any other variable.

Drew is recovering from a fractured ankle, and his status for Opening Day is in serious doubt. More likely, he’ll continue to rehab once the season begins and join the team in early May. How quickly he’s able to get back to what he was before the injury could very well determine how successful the Diamondbacks will be in 2012, however.

That’s because a player’s value is directly related to how good he is compared to the alternative options a team can field, and indirectly, how much better he is than his peers at the same position on other teams. And right now, Major League shortstops are a barren wasteland of offensive talent.

There are essentially three guys in the sport who can play shortstop and be significant difference makers at the plate – Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes, and Hanley Ramirez. The latter two are now teammates, so Ramirez has shifted off the position, even further diluting the pool of talent at shortstop around the game. Last year, Major League shortstops hit .263/.317/.380, and only the Rockies and Mets received an .800 OPS or better from their combination of shortstops. For comparison, seven teams got at least that level of production in 1999, and three teams got a .900 OPS or better from their shortstops.

Granted, 1999 was the zenith of offensive shortstops – Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra all had MVP caliber seasons, and even Omar Vizquel had a monster year at the plate – but we’ve still seen a significant loss of offensive production from the position over the last 10 years. When evaluating Drew’s value, we have to account for the enormous black hole that the Diamondbacks have to put in the line-up when he’s not on the field.

Last year, Arizona gave 350 plate appearances to shortstops not named Stephen Drew, and those players combined to hit .246/.292/.328. Their .621 OPS was worse than Carlos Zambrano’s career mark at the plate. Zambrano’s a good hitting pitcher, but he’s still a pitcher, and the non-Drew shortstops provided less offensive value than he has during his big league career. And yet, rather than look for upgrades to help give the team a bit more punch at the plate when Drew isn’t able to play, Arizona rewarded both Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald with two year contract extensions. This isn’t so much a criticism of Kevin Towers as it is an example of just how thin the crop of available players at the position currently is – the bar is now so low that just being able to defend at an adequate level and having a pulse qualifies you for a multi-year deal.

This is why Drew offers such a significant value for the Diamondbacks, and why he’s such an advantage for the Diamondbacks if he’s healthy. Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections have Drew hitting almost exactly at his career numbers, and the .765 OPS he’s projected for is a better total than 25 teams got from their shortstops last year.

Over the last three years, only nine shortstops have posted a higher WAR than Drew, and eight of the nine have needed more plate appearances to beat his total. On a per plate appearance basis, only The Big Three significantly outperformed Drew since the beginning of the 2009 season. And, of course, Ramirez’s move to third means that it’s now really The Big Two.

Drew might not get the recognition of his more famous teammates, but when he’s on the field, he’s one of the best players in the game at his position. The drop-off when he’s out of the line-up is staggering, and he provides a significant advantage for the Diamondbacks when he’s at full health. If the D’Backs are going to repeat as NL West Champions, they’ll need Drew to get healthy in a hurry.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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