If Ozzie Smith was playing baseball in 2019 instead of decades ago, he might be viewed as a below-average major league shortstop.

His career wRC+ statistic of 90 means that his hitting, in terms of runs created, was 10 percent below the average major league player of his era. His career WAR yearly average of 3.55 – which incorporates his defensive contributions — might sway opinions, though.

In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about the merits of Jose Iglesias as an everyday shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, both presently and perhaps moving forward. Those arguing against Iglesias cite his wRC+ number of 88 this season and 84 for his career. wRC+ takes the statistic Runs Created and adjusts that number to account for important external factors — like ballpark or era. It’s adjusted, so a wRC+ of 100 is league average and 150 would be 50 percent above league average.

In 2019, Iglesias is 12 percent below average in runs created, and for his career, he is 16 percent below average.

The primary purpose of this post is to generate discussion, not to argue that Iglesias MUST be retained at all costs, as some might mistakenly perceive without reading on. Your author began following baseball closely in the early 1970s and became passionate about the game and the Reds thanks to watching the Big Red Machine. Many of you reading this article had the chance to watch Ozzie Smith play, and it is my guess that few of you would argue that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Analytics are fascinating

Despite having not grown up in the analytics era, I do embrace it. It is fascinating, and it is most definitely the way talent is judged these days. It certainly gives front offices and managers compelling data for what strengths a certain player brings to a team, as well as deficiencies.

Having watched thousands of baseball games, I still give great weight to the eye test. Iglesias is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game today, and after Wednesday’s action, he was hitting .295 with a season-long record of great success in clutch-hitting situations.

Perhaps like me, some of you watch Iglesias and think, wow, this guy is great defensively, can hit in the clutch, and hits for a high average. Perhaps, like me, he reminds you of Dave Concepcion. Because of my youth with the Big Red Machine, it’s hard to imagine that a player like Concepcion would not be seen as an everyday player in 2019. But that is clearly where we are. It’s not good, it’s not bad. It just is the way it is.

Would these Hall of Famers even be starting today?

How would today’s front offices judge Ozzie Smith? Would they be trying to find someone with a higher wRC+ despite his defensive excellence? Fellow Hall of Fame shortstops Luis Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Tinker and John Ward had career wRC+ numbers of 83, 83, 96, 96 and 97, respectively. They were below average hitters in terms of run creation, but are nevertheless enshrined in Cooperstown. None of those players had 3,000 hits, which is a somewhat unofficial line of demarcation for no-questions-asked admission to the Hall. The above-mentioned shortstops are in the Hall because of the defense and stability they provided at what was once considered the most important defensive position in the infield, if not the entire diamond.

How things have changed! Defensive excellence still has some value, but not as much as a player’s ability to create runs on offense. We haven’t seen much of Freddy Galvis at shortstop (his natural position), but his wRC+ was 101, and he had 22 home runs through Wednesday’s action. If Galvis can play shortstop the way Iglesias does, then it seems at least worth considering having him start at shortstop.

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Would Ozzie Smith or Luis Aparicio, if they played in this era, be replaced next season by a shortstop with a wRC+ of more than 100? Would they be Hall of Famers if they played in this era?

Some of us who are a bit older are faced with the possibility that perhaps what we watched back then wasn’t as good as we thought it was, at least by today’s standards. That helps explain the fierce resistance by some, including veteran announcers, to embrace the state of the game in 2019.

Evaluation of shortstops has changed

Shortstop used to be a position where defensive skill was the top priority, and the hitting ability of a player was considered a bonus. Now it has completely reversed. The top shortstops in the game are now terrific hitters whose defense ranges from adequate to terrific.

If having a shortstop like this will help the Reds win, I’m all for it. But just think – if Ozzie Smith or Dave Concepcion in their respective primes was available to the Reds (or any other team) this offseason, the team’s front office might just say, “Thanks but no thanks, we’re hoping for a guy who can smoke the ball like Didi Gregorius.”

The analytics era has also changed the grading scale on the eye test referenced above. In 2019, a baseball decision-maker’s math and data-gathering skills are more important than observation skills. Again, that’s neither good nor bad – it’s just the way that the game has progressed and matured. Perhaps the letters and numbers chart at the optometrist’s office is not the only eye test many of us who have been watching baseball for decades are failing these days.

25 Responses

  1. RichS

    I have been watching and playing and judging baseball since 1945. Some metrics haven’t changed since then. In today’s sports page, not unlike 1945, are the only measurable that matter…league leaders in Batting Average, RBI’s, Home Runs, ERA and Wins/Losses. Everything else was the Eye Test.
    If today’s metrics would even cause the question of Ozzie Smith in the HOF or quality of Conception, perhaps the metrics are faulty.
    I will stick with the sports page and my own eye test and enjoy the game much more.
    PS: Release RI!!!

    • Rut

      Baseball has “shifted” away from defense first/glove guys.

      I would say that positional flexibility has gained even footing with the ability to really pick it.

      And it does actually make me sad, because it was totally amazing to see Ozzie make plays, to see BP make a defensive play I never thought possible, or to see Iglesias make a throw from an angle that should not have been feasible. Glad we still have him for that, just seems like baseball is giving us less and less of that.

  2. Klugo

    What an interesting question. Thanks for this. I know I’m biased but I like yesterday’s game better than tomorrow’s.

    • Mason Reds

      I agree. For one thing analytics isn’t going to guarantee success. It certainly can be helpful and it’s being used to help make decisions from everything from FO decisions to game time moves by the manager. Success will always be defined by talent and the franchises with the most talent will be more successful. The Reds use of analytics is finding cheap players who are good in certain situations and they believe if they have enough of those players they can be successful. Things would have to work perfectly for the Reds to win with this approach and nothing they’ve done this year shows it’s working perfectly. Talent wins and always will.

  3. MIke Adams

    I think today’s emphasis on home runs and a juiced baseball contributes much to the desire for hitters first and on defensive skills who-cares-he-can-hit!
    Back in the day strong fielding up the middle was considered necessary to win.
    Now, who cares? The attitude is “These guys can rake and hit bombs and it doesn’t matter if they don’t know what that hunk of leather on their hands is for”.
    I agree with Klugo, I like yesterday’s game better than today’s.

  4. MARK MOORE

    I still want a great glove at SS. My Concepcion bobblehead agrees.

  5. Doc

    Free agency followed by guaranteed contracts were the beginning of the slide of my interest in baseball. I’m down to just interest in the Reds, inbred from my days at Crosley Field, and that interest is hanging by a thread. There is no longer a city’s team, just a bunch of itinerant baseball players where their only self-worth is measured by how much money they can score. Arbitration rewards mediocrity, or worse.

    I avoid advanced metrics, avoid all baseball except the Reds, and even that is edging towards the end. Had planned to visit a game in Phoenix in a couple of weeks, but even that enthusiasm has waned, thanks in large part to David Bell’s management, which defies any logic or reasonable explanation; or results. I can make more sense out of local little league games.

    • Mason Red

      When free agency began in the late 70s Bob Howsam said it was the end of the golden age of baseball. He was right.

      • Doug Gray

        And it was the start of what was right to do by the players. Thank God for that. The idea that a player just had to remain with the team that originally signed them as a 16-20-year-old for their entire career is batcrap crazy.

      • Mason Red

        I worked for the same company for 25 years. Making $100,000 a year in the 1970s was a pretty sweet deal. I don’t think too many pro baseball players were in dire straights financially in the 70s before free agency.

      • Doug Gray

        Please don’t confuse “they were broke” with “they deserves more money and the ability to shop their talents to other places within their industry just like literally every other profession on the planet”.

        Being able to get something close to your actual value, monetarily, or to be able to work in a more desirable location if someone will let you should be the right of all workers.

      • greenmtred

        I agree with you wholeheartedly, Doug. It may have made the game less enjoyable, but it was still the right thing to od.

  6. greenmtred

    I also prefer yesterday’s game partly, I’m sure, because that’s what I grew up watching and playing. It does seem to me that team-wide hitting is the issue, though. If you have a bunch of excellent hitters, you could maybe afford the luxury of an outstanding shortstop who is average or below offensively. Would you rather have a guy who can field and hit really well? Of course, but they don’t grow on trees, particularly at the premier defensive positions. Defense does still matter, and great defense is a joy to watch. Baseball is, after all, entertainment.

  7. SteveLV

    3 things to point out in comparing the eras. First, players are so much more athletic now than then – you can expect both good to great defense and hitting in a shortstop. Second, the understanding and evaluation of an out has evolved from instinct, to Bill James, to Moneyball, to advanced metrics and led to the realization that a defense only player is almost certainly going to be a liability. And third, the steroid era and the juiced ball era have accelerated this. Making an out at the plate (or on the basepaths, for that matter) and depriving Barry Bonds or Mark McGuire or Christian Yelich or Aaron Judge another at-bat is exceptionally hard to make up for in the field.

    • Tom Mitsoff

      I agree completely that the athletic ability of players these days is much better. Players these days have played “select” ball from a young age, have played baseball in some cases year-round, and maintaining their playing condition is their full-time job in the offseason. In the Big Red Machine era and earlier, players had actual offseason jobs to supplement their incomes and did not focus on conditioning and honing their skills.

      • Mason Red

        But I would also say the great players of the past may not have been great athletes but they were great baseball players.

      • SteveLV

        As with every sport , the singular dedication has made participants better, but I’m glad I grew up in the era of multiple sports along with a little less obsession.

        Responding to Mason, I think it’s inevitable that the game will move to the extremes of the qualities that produce the most wins – which has become the holy trinity of hitting home runs, walking, or striking out. It’s probably the right answer, but I like the old game better.
        Regardless, I think the answer to Tom’s question is simply no. Teams today would be looking to replace Luis Aparicio. Heck, many of us are looking to replace Jose Iglesias and he’s better than Aparicio in every aspect of the game.

    • greenmtred

      Athleticism has more facets than running and jumping, for one thing, and performance (pitch speed, speed from first to third, in the outfield, etc.)was not routinely measured in earlier eras. It’s probably true that players today who take advantage of year-round conditioning and training are in better shape–particularly when they report to spring training– than players from years ago, but when you consider how much harder, physically, people worked years ago, and that baseball was the only major team sport and thus attracted a higher percentage of premier athletes, and that these athletes were head- and- shoulders better than the more-fit general populace, the assumption gets cloudier. I agree that hitting is very important–always has been– but an offense-only player is a situational liability, too.

  8. Hotto4Votto

    I think looking at WAR, which seems a good method as you can compare players across different eras, then Ozzie Smith would still be considered valuable at 3.5 WAR/season as a SS in today’s game. Looking at bWAR Iglesias, with elite defense, is still looking at 1.5 WAR so far on the season. By comparison, Votto in his worst season as a professional has 1.4 bWAR so far this season at a position where very little value is ever derived from the defensive side. According to baseball reference the average WAR for a SS in 2019 is 2.7. If Iglesias’ numbers were approaching the league average WAR, or at the Wizard of Oz’s career WAR, this it would appear to be a no-brainer to keep him around.

  9. Chuck in Virginia

    I am encouraged that so many of the respondents have a similar opinion as I do. I think defensive measurements with current Analytics underestimates the value of spectacular defense. Jose Iglesias may not walk a lot nor make a lot of hard contact, but his batted balls this year have certainly found a way to get him on base. I think he has been a very positive contributor to the degree of offensive poweress that the Reds have had this year.

    From what I understand, the Reds should have enough financial flexibility to retain Jose Iglesias for a 2-year contract at shortstop and Freddy Galvis at second base. Galvis would be a wonderful backup at short, and the Reds have several strong players who can back up at second. I think this would help field the best Reds team for 2020 (unless they could acquire a Francisco Lindor).

  10. lost11found

    The problem with modern analytics is the same as old school statistics. They are both measurements of what has already happened. Using that as a road map for future events will never be a sure thing. That is why modern and traditional stats should be taken with a grain of salt when looking to next year.

    The other problem I see with modern stats is the fact that they reflect the biases of the creators. You like walks, HR’s, but don’t think K’s, SB’s, or defense matter for hitters, well create a metric to reflect that. You control the unit of measurement, you control the discussion. Look no further than WAR, which can have two different numbers for the same player based on the method used to calculate it. The two versions have gotten closer in recent years maybe but it still points out that things like this and wRC and xOBA and the like will always reflect the bias of the inventor.

    Add to that, the current ball an ballpark effects and offense trumps defense in the discussion, for now.

  11. CFD3000

    There is a fundamental flaw in the logic of how we think about weighted averages. If WRC+ is weighted so that 100 is average, it is literally impossible to have 8 hitters on every NL team with a stat above 100. In practice, because the Trouts and Yelich’s are so far above average, and because hitters equally as far below don’t exist (they do, they just don’t get to keep playing) there will always be more hitters with WRC+ below 100 than above, the idea that every team will stock their lineup with guys at 105 or 110 is literally impossible. They all TRY but it can’t be done. So to dismiss a slick fielding shortstop because he can’t crack 100 is short sighted.

    Perhaps as importantly, we have much better metrics for evaluating offense than we do pitching and defense. The Cardinals are now 30-3 in their last 33 games scoring 3 runs or more. Three. Think they’re winning with offense? Pitching is a bit easier to evaluate, but defense does still matter. But it’s really hard to measure. So is Galvis at 101 better than Iglesias at 88? I don’t know. I think I’d choose Iglesias, mostly because I expect far less variation in his defensive skills than in Galvis’ offensive production. But I know for sure I want only one of them starting every day, because I also want Josh VanMeter at 2nd base every day too.

    This is a very interesting question Tom, but until the metrics for defense are as good as those for offense (which still aren’t perfect) it’s one without an easy answer. But I do know that chasing just the weighted stats can be a bit of a fool’s errand. We all know that Garrison Keillor was pulling our leg when he told us in Lake Wobegone all the children are above average. We know some of them, by definition, are not.

    • greenmtred

      Good posts, great discussion. The trend of the modern game, taken to the extreme to which it appears to be headed, will make it of little or no interest to me. Baseball exists as a professional sport only because of its entertainment value. When it is limited to home runs, walks, strikeouts and 98mph fastballs, it will quickly get boring for me and, I suspect, a lot of older fans. Older people are probably the dominant majority demographic of today’s fan base.

  12. KDJ

    Didi Gregorius. I hated to see the Reds get rid of him. He seemed (and proved to be) such a talented player.