2011 AL East Shortstops

I am in the midst of a series examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams in the AL East, on a position-by-position basis. The players at each position are being ranked in relation to their peers within the division, with each team being assigned points based on where their player ranks in comparison to the other players. Today, the series continues with a look at the shortstops.

The best player will earn 10 points for his team, with the remaining players being assigned points as follows: 7-5-3-1.

At the end of the process, I will accumulate all of the points for each team and create a divisional power ranking.

Analysis / Ranking:

Here are the 2010 statistics for each of the five projected starters entering the 2011 season. The chart presents the five basic stats used in fantasy baseball, plus OPS+ and Runs Above Replacement (RAR). The rankings contained herein are based on these stats, plus projections as to what the upcoming year may have in store.

1. Derek Jeter, NYY

Last year, Jeter suffered through the worst season of his Hall-of-Fame career. He established or tied career-lows in batting average, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+, as well as several peripherals. Regardless, he was one of only five shortstops to hit 10 HR, drive in 65 runs, and steal 10 bases, and he led all shortstops in runs scored.

The drop in batting average is likely due to a precipitous increase in his ground ball rate (up to 66%) and a sharp decline in his hit rate (down to 31%). His strikeout rate, walk rate and batting eye are all within the range of his career norms, suggesting last year’s struggles were likely an outlier.

Jeter’s weakness is his defense (his UZR/150 last year was a minus-5.4). To the Yankees fans: Yeah, I know, he won another Gold Glove Award. P-u-h-l-e-a-s-e! Folks, he is a bad defender (the metrics don’t lie). Get over it. The entire baseball world can’t be wrong. He is popular with the other players and coaches in the American League, so he gets votes. If there was ever proof the Gold Glove voting is a popularity contest, Jeter is that proof.

For fantasy owners: Thankfully, UZR/150 is not one of the statistics tracked in fantasy baseball. Coming off his 2010 performance, there should be considerable value with Jeter. I expect most of his stats to track toward his career norms, although his days as a .300 hitter may be dwindling to a precious few.

2. Marco Scutaro, BOS

After a career year in 2009, Scutaro put together a decent follow-up campaign in 2010. He managed to accrue decent numbers in spite of a huge regression in his walk rate (from 13.2% to 7.6%). If manager Terry Francona bats him leadoff again in 2011 he’ll have a chance to score 100 runs, but the more likely scenario has him batting eighth – so he’ll score fewer runs but have more opportunities to tally ribbies.

He is a less-than-adequate defender (his UZR/150 last year has been on the wrong side of zero each of the last two years), so it’s possible Francona will turn to Jed Lowrie to improve his infield defense.

For fantasy owners: Scutaro is a nice ballplayer, but the Red Sox brass loves Jed Lowrie. While Scutaro will start the season as the starting shortstop, he will almost-certainly lose at-bats to Lowrie – and it is possible he’ll lose his starting job to him. Caveat emptor!

3. J J Hardy, BAL

Hardy rebounded from a brutal 2009 season to have a decent year in Minnesota, raising his batting average by more than forty points. The improvement was to be expected, as his ’09 performance was largely the result of a dip in his contact rate and a brutal hit percentage (25%).

Hardy should enjoy moving on to Baltimore, where he will play half his games at a strong hitters ballpark (Oriole Park at Camden Yards). The new park could help his home run total, but he’ll need to improve his fly ball rate from last year (34%) if he is to take full advantage of his new digs.

For fantasy owners: You can expect a similar performance from Hardy in 2011, with better statistical results – owing to improved health (wrist) and playing at Camden Yards: .275, 12 HR and 70 RBI.

4. Yunel Escobar, TOR

Escobar had a horrible season last year, even as he entered his prime years for productivity. His stats improved markedly after a mid-season trade to Toronto, so it may be that his performance in Atlanta (.238, 0 HR, 19 RBI in 261 AB) was a function of unhappiness as much as anything else. He hit .275, with 4 HR and 16 RBI in 60 games after the trade, so it seems likely he’ll return to double-digits in home runs in the homer-happy Rogers Centre.

The metrics suggest that his approach at the plate remained sound. He continued to have a solid batting eye and a high-80s contact rate, while his hit rate and fly ball rate both dipped below 30% and his HR/FB rate plummeted to just 3%.

For fantasy owners: I suspect his performance will progress towards his career norms. It is impossible to imagine that his hit rate, fly ball rate, and HR/FB rate could repeat at such dismal levels. Expect him to hit .275, with 10 HR, 45 RBI, 5 SB and 65 runs scored.

5. Reid Brignac, TB

The question about Brignac at this point is whether he remains a prospect or has become a suspect (bench player). His minor league peripherals suggest he was never much of a prospect and that the hype was not deserved.

In both the minor leagues and the major leagues, his strikeout rate has been above league average, while his contact rate, hit rate and walk rate were well below league average. He hit just .256 last year in spite of posting a hit rate of 32% – significantly above his minor league rate. If he regresses toward his career benchmark, you can expect he will hit somewhere in the vicinity of .220-.230.

For fantasy owners: I looked at Brignac as a possible trade target early in the off-season – until I examined his peripherals. He’ll probably hit 15 home runs, but at what cost. In consideration of his previous hype, I don’t see much value here. Stay away.

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