Position Roundtables: Starting Second Baseman
Starting Second Baseman: Jose Lopez
Since Dave has taken the initiative on the first few, I figured I’d start us off for number three, which is, fittingly, the second base roundtable.
Franz Kafka’s close friend Max Brod once asked the author whether, with his seemingly bleak literary worldview, he saw any cause for hope. The scribe gave a memorable reply: “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope–but not for us.”
The application to Mariner fandom should be apparent. There’s a difference, though. In our world, hope manifests itself in promising young players like this year’s projected starting second baseman, Jose Lopez. In Kafka’s world, the best you could expect was to turn into an insect.
What to expect from Lopez? More, in three senses. More than we expected from him last year, more than the team received from the second base slot, and more than many fans seem to believe. We’ve talked about this before, doing some player comparisons that demonstrate the different standards people get attached to.
To be sure, there are worries. Lopez doesn’t get on base enough. There are questions about his defense. But he’s a young middle infielder with pop in his bat, PECOTA likes him a lot, and he can be an inexpensive building block for years to come.
Plus, he doesn’t turn 23 until November. There may not have been hope for Franz Kafka. But there is for Jose Lopez, and by extension, the hometown nine.
Can you believe Jose Lopez just turned 22 years old? It feels like I’ve been writing about him for a decade. In trying to kick off this roundtable, I stared at my email for a day trying to figure out exactly what part of his game I haven’t written about in ridiculous depth.
The answer? His defense at second base. When he was coming through the ranks as a shortstop, I wrote several articles suggesting his skills were more suited for second base, and that I was never that impressed with his long term prospects of staying at shortstop. Most of the public comments I’ve made about his defense were negative in nature and regarded his ability to play major league defense at SS. But, since his converstion to second base, I haven’t really written much about his glovework. So, here you go.
Jose Lopez, right now, is a solid defensive second baseman, and he has the skills to be well above average going forward. His footwork is still not the best and he doesn’t have the best hands around, but his lateral range is significantly better than most of his peers at second base. He also has a cannon arm, which matters less than it would at short, but is still an asset, especially on balls hit up the middle.
Due to the small samples, we don’t have reliable statistical information on his defense, though if you’re curious, the advanced metrics rank him somewhere from average to third best in baseball. You can’t find a defensive metric that thinks he played poorly in ’05 at second base. Again, massive small sample size caveats apply, and I’d give those numbers very little weight in the grand scheme of things, but I’m just throwing it out there.
So, does all this matter? I mean, really, how important can second base defense be, anyways?
More important than you’d think. Bret Boone, in half a season, cost the Mariners about 20 runs with his glove last year. Seriously, this is one of those times where every defensive metric out there is in agreement. Boone was awful. Smith’s ZR had him at -18, RANGE had him at -24, Dial’s ZR had him at -33, PMR had him at -36. All of those are prorated to a full season, by the way. But at the rate Boone was letting balls roll past him, he would have cost the M’s something like 20-30 runs over the course of the year just with his defense.
If we accept that Jose Lopez is an average defender, the M’s are going to get a significant bump in how well they turn groundballs into outs next year. If PMR is right and Lopez is well above average, the M’s could have one of the best defensive infields in the game. It’s clear that, either way, replacing the statue of Bret Boone and replacing him with an actual live body is going to have a positive impact.
And that’s not even discussing the breakout potentail his bat has, which we’ve noted many times. Lopez, at his worst, will still be better than Boone was last year, and if he takes a leap forward like is clearly possible for a player for his age and skillset, it could be a massive improvement. Just like with the catcher spot, the M’s have serious upgrade potential here, and almost no chance to be as bad as they were. And, to top it off, Lopez will cost 3.5 percent of what Boone made last year.
Is this the year we finally get to see real production out of Jose Lopez? My Magic 8-Ball says, “Signs point to yes.” The thing I like best about Lopez are the combination of his age and that he has 854 at-bats–nearly two seasons’ worth–above AA. Now, I know what you’re saying… “But Jason, in 398 major league at-bats he’s hit a measly .239 with no walks and just seven homers.”
I can’t help you with the walks, unfortunately, and he might never draw even 50 in a single season in the majors. However, of his 95 major league hits, a full 39 of them — that’s 41% — have gone for extra bases. That’s power for the position, folks, especially given his age.
If the Magic 8-Ball could give more than yes or no answers, it’d tell you to look for a .280/.330/.450 from Lopez next season along with the solid defense Dave mentions above.
I don’t have anything particularly to add to this, except that I really like Lopez, and he’s got a fair shot at being a huge contributor to the team for a long time. I hope they plunk him down at second and work with him. Fortunately for him, it’s not as if there’s a replacement pushing him for playing time.
I do worry about Hargrove getting attached to “veteran leader and bat-control artist” Fernando Vina during spring training, leading to Lopez starting the year in Tacoma again.
That’s a legitimate concern. Lopez has a questionable work ethic, no doubt, and he has a tendancy to get on a coaches bad side fairly quickly. Grover’s the kind of coach who values hustle over talent, and since Jose hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in his major league trials, he can’t afford to dog it in spring training. Let’s hope he shows up motivated enough to keep Grover from going with another plucky white guy.