Who’s the Best Shortstop in the American League Right Now?
Not long after Brad Miller’s second HR cleared the fence in Anaheim, and a day or so after Toronto SS Jose Reyes’ latest injury, USSM/Fangraphs leader/strongman took to twitter to pose the following question:
With Jose Reyes on the DL, Brad Miller might very well be the best SS in the AL right now.
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) April 2, 2014
Reactions poured in, and you can generally put them in to three buckets. The first, which we’ll call Sox Fans, points to Xander Bogaerts and his tools – including his very good walk rate – as the best. The second, the forecasters, argue for Elvis Andrus, as he’s got the superior projection by Steamer and ZiPS. The third, M’s fans, argue that Brad Miller is the cream of the Reyes-less crop. It’s a fun question, as we’ve been debating seemingly-hypothetical-but-painfully-real things like how bad a player’s offense could be while remaining deserving of a starting job. To go from that to “best” without modifiers is pretty amazing, and it may be that I’m overrating Miller’s present production BECAUSE I’ve watched way more late-career Jack Wilson/Brendan Ryan than anyone should endure.
But…this is a really interesting question, because it highlights the various component skills that each of these guys possess. They’re really three different solution to the problem of the bigleague shortstop. Andrus is the glove guy whose offense is well above the Wilson/Ryan floor. He’s durable, fairly consistent, and adds value on the basepaths as well. He’s got very little power, but makes a lot of contact and has a surprisingly solid walk rate given his lack of pop. Bogaerts has an above-average walk rate AND legitimate power (for a middle infielder), and his ability to hit for average has improved as he’s moved up the ladder. A righty, he didn’t show extreme platoon splits in the minors (he actually ran reverse splits), and can take advantage of the Green Monster at Fenway. Many expect him to add power as he ages (he’s the youngest of the trio by three full years), though some question whether he’ll stick at SS long term. Miller is the guy with the least amount of prospect hype, coming out of Clemson as a very good-but-flawed hitter, and having some questions about his defense along the way. Thus, while Andrus and Bogaerts were easy top-5 org prospects before breaking into the majors around 20-21, Miller ranked in the back half of the top 10 for the M’s (or didn’t make it at all). His gaudy MiLB lines were driven, in part, by an incredible BABIP – something he didn’t bring with him when he debuted with the M’s last year. His minors slugging percentages were driven by his high BABIP/average, and that’s probably why the projection systems are all over the map on his power numbers.
If you think Andrus is the best, you’re saying he can make up over 10-15 full runs on defense, and that his offense will regress towards his career averages – particularly his 2B/3B-driven ‘power.’ You may also implicitly doubt that Bogaerts is ready to make the leap to an above-league-average *hitter* at age 21. Similarly, you might doubt that Miller will show enough pop, and that the AL West’s managers can attack him with lefty specialists and a flurry of left-handed starters. You might conclude by saying that it’s relevant that there is absolutely no chance that Andrus moves off of SS – that the fact that Bogaerts debuted as a 3B and Miller had to fight off Nick Franklin show that the defensive gulf is real, and that it’s bigger than most fans think.
If you think Bogaerts is the best, you think the offensive gap between the 21-year old and Andrus is much, much larger than heavily-regressed stats would indicate, and that even a 1-WAR gap on defense alone won’t matter unless Andrus hits significantly better than he did last year. His age/speed help him close the gap with Andrus on the basepaths and in the field, and his loud tools mean that his up-side blows Andrus’ out of the water; that is, that if he Bogaerts hits his 60th-70th percentile projection, any comparison with Andrus becomes laughable. You might also point out that Josh Rutledge, pretty much exactly the same age as Miller and the possessor of a 1/2 season line from 2012 that looks near identical to Miller’s 2013 crashed and burned for Colorado last year, and is now back in the minors. On a per-plate appearance or per-game basis, Bogaerts is the best mix of current ability and breakout potential (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a perfect fit for his part).
For the Millerians, the age differential is actually a point in Miller’s favor – with Miller, there’s nothing to project or dream on, and his present ability sets him apart. Miller’s line, and his MiLB BABIP, are signs of a preternatural ability to hit the ball hard. Bogaerts’ hit tool is “developing” and may surpass Miller’s one day when you add in strikeouts/whiffs, but Miller has a better shot at a .280 average – and this partially mitigates Bogaerts’ excellent plate discipline. Moreover, the projection systems are serially underrating Miller’s power. Miller posted a .150 ISO in over 330 plate appearances last year, then added muscle and a year of age, but many systems out there shows that ISO dropping in his first full year. If it doesn’t, or if it actually goes to .160-.170, he’s going to beat Bogaerts handily. Also, park effects matter, especially as we’re dealing with guys who play in Arlington/Boston versus one who toils in Safeco’s marine layer. Once you park adjust and normalize playing time projections, Andrus fades a bit. Bogaerts may be better in 2-5 years (though he might not!), but right now, it’s Miller time.
As you can probably tell, I just love that this is a question to swirl around in my mind. As with the Cano contract, I’m just reveling in having new, or different tough questions after so many years of repetitive and annoying questions. Miller snuck up on the baseball world, frankly, and at some point, it’ll be worth examining how and why – so we can maximize our chance of nabbing an elite player outside of the first round again. But right now, I’m just going to continue wondering if Brad Miller is the best SS in the AL, and what his ultimate ceiling could be.
(If I had to pick, I’d take Miller, though that comes with some pretty obvious bias. I love Bogaerts, but I think a K% of 22-27% would be pretty damaging to his case. He may have to be better than his 50% projection. That said, he’s absolutely incredible, and as we’ve seen with Machado, Tulo, Trout, Harper, etc., there really isn’t a learning curve for great players.)