The Shortstop Conundrum

On November 21, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Clint Barmes to the largest free agent contract in the 124-year history of the franchise – a 2-year, $10.5 million deal. Prior to the start of the 2012 season, Barmes had a career .252/.301/.401 slash line. He has never been lauded as a good offensive player, with a 78 career OPS+, but he was expected to be a smooth-fielding shortstop. Barmes played the majority of his games at shortstop with the Houston Astros in 2011, and he was an above-average fielder, with a UZR of 7.9. If you take a closer look, however, you would notice he had a 10.8 UZR/150, which would put him in the “great” fielder category, according to this FanGraphs table.

However, to properly decide a player’s defensive value, three years of defensive statistics must be looked at. This is a problem because Barmes hasn’t played most of his games at short in the past few years. In fact, the last time he played over 500 innings at the position was in 2006 with the Colorado Rockies, when he played a bit over 1050 innings. Hedidhave a UZR/150 of 9.4 in that season, but that value is from six seasons ago. His career UZR/150 at shortstop is 7.4, so there is evidence that he is an above-average fielding shortstop.

If all his fielding statistics were compiled into a single statistic for his value as a player, Barmes has saved 4.1 runs from scoring with his glove. Translated to wins, he has saved about two tenths of a win.

Then comes the batting. While nobody was expecting him to have a Silver Slugger season, nobody was expecting this. Barmes’ batting average is barely above the Mendoza Line at .202, and he’s only getting on base less than a quarter of the time with an OBA of .226, which is the lowest in the MLB among players with at least 200 plate appearances. It’s not as if Barmes is either striking out or hitting for extra bases either, because his slugging average is the ninth-lowest  in the MLB among players with at least 200 PAs at .298.

It’s pretty interesting to see a player whose weighted on base average is within a point of his on base percentage, but odder things have happened. Clint Barmes’ wOBA of .225 is only a point away from his OBA, but it’s very far away from the league average. To be exact, his wRC+, which is a wOBA-based version of OPS+, is a mere 36.

As with fielding, a statistic can measure his offensive value to the Pirates. His wRAA, or weighted runs above average, is -18.6, so he’s taking away from the offensive potential of the team every time he digs in. He’s cost the team about two wins with his lackluster offensive play.

Clint Hurdle used Yamaico Navarro as a replacement for Clint Barmes earlier in the season, but it’s not like he performed any better. In limited at-bats, Navarro had an OBA of .255. However, Navarro only played six and two thirds of an inning at shortstop, so he doesn’t even have a UZR.

Josh Harrison has been used at shortstop many times this season – 17 times, in fact – and he’s hitting a slash line of .230/.288/.385, so why not put him in for a few straight games to see if he can replace Barmes there for the second half? Well, there are a few reasons. The first reason, which could probably change if given a few more shots, is his hitting at the position. In his 42 at-bats while playing short, Harrison is hitting for a .298 on base average and a .238 slugging average, which adds to an OPS almost as bad as Barmes’ .524. The second, and more serious, concern, is how badly Harrison plays the shortstop position. In 105 innings at short, Harrison has a -5.2 UZR/150.

Recently, the Pirates have been inquiring about power-hitting corner infielders. Sure, they need a real first baseman, but their real need is a shortstop who can hit the ball more than one out of every five times.

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2 comments

  1. Gary Hayden (@gary_hayden)

    I’ve been thinking that Harrison should take that spot for quite awhile (without studying the numbers that you have so succinctly outlined above). I still think Harrison is the right guy for the SS position (even after Barmes’ couple of stellar defensive plays against the Giants tonight). Given consistent playing time at SS, I think Harrison would put up numbers and plays on offense and defense that would make the team more competitive. Another option could be to give Drew Sutton some time at the 6 position as he has had some time there (about as many innings as Harrison) and has put up defensive stats that are more in line with the league average. He has also provided some decent offensive support (so far) and is a better hitter than Barmes and Harrison (historically).

    • Alex (@Sangys_BBQ)

      The Bucs sent Harrison to Winter Ball to improve his ability at SS, but that hasn’t exactly worked out. I would be pretty interested to see Sutton get a try at short this season. He does have a career .330 OBA and a 21.7 UZR/50 in his career at short (albeit in just 19 games), proving your point that he is a viable option (as Vin Scully once said, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.”). I’d actually love to see Sutton used before any external option is explored by the Pirates.

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