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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Best o' the Best 

Over the summer, during one of my (few) breaks in studying for the bar exam, I watched a Pirates game during which the Bucs shortstop Jack Wilson made a spectacular play. “What a play,” the Pirates broadcaster exaulted, “from the best shortstop in the National League!” Wilson had just been selected to the All-Star game, the first time the Pirates had a starter at the All Star game since … I don't know … Anyway, Wilson had a terrific year for the Pirates, hitting .308 (sixty-two points higher than his career average of .246 going into the 2004 season) and playing great defense at short.

But when I was compiling my Season In Review, I was struck by how good a season Jimmy Rollins had for the Phillies. He played great and yet he got little recognition for his achievements in the media. Wilson got the NL Glove Glove at short and the accolades for a great season. But who was really the NL’s best shortstop? Did Rollins fly under the media’s radar because he played his best baseball after the All-Star break, while Wilson played his before? Who is the National League's best shortstop?

Here is a comparison between Jimmy Rollins and Jack Wilson, starting with Win Shares:

NL SS: Win Shares / Win Shares Above Average
Rollins (PHI): 26 / +7
Izturis (LA): 25 / +6
Wilson (PIT): 23 / +4
Greene (SD): 21 / +5
Furcal (ATL): 21 / +4

Rollins has the edge here, but largely because he turned in such a great performance at the plate in 2004:

Batting Win Shares:
Rollins: 20.8
Izturis: 18.2
Greene: 15.4
Furcal: 14.0
Wilson: 13.5

Wilson had the edge in the field:

Fielding Win Shares / Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 Innings
Wilson: 9.3 / 6.9 FWS 1,000
Gonzalez (FLA): 7.8 / 5.8 FWS 1,000
Izturis: 7.1 / 5.1 FWS 1,000
Furcal: 7.0 / 6.2 FWS 1,000
Counsell (MIL): 5.7 / 5.0 FWS 1,000
Greene: 5.6 / 4.7 FWS 1,000
Rollins: 4.9 / 3.6 FWS 1,000

It caught me by surprise that Rollins was rated so low defensively here. More conventional defensive stats give him a much higher rating:

Fielding Percentage:
Clayton (COL): .986
Rollins: .986
Izturis: .985
Renteria: .983
Counsell: .983
Wilson: .977

Fielding percentage certainly gives Rollins a significant edge: he’s just a little behind the league leader, the Rockies Royce Clayton. Wilson, meanwhile, is sixth. However, Fielding Percentage is a stat that I don’t give much attention to because it doesn’t measure a player’s real defensive contribution to the team: his defensive range. Here is a Zone Rating, a stat that measures a player’s ability to deal with balls hit into his “zone”.

Zone Rating:
Izturis: .881
Gonzalez: .862
Wilson: .859
Rollins: .858
Renteria: .855

Jack Wilson actually has a slight edge here, although I found myself thinking that I had to revise my conclusions and award the “best shortstop in the NL” award to the Dodgers Izturis.

It was at the plate that Rollins did his best work in 2004. Here is how Wilson and Rollins stacked up offensively:

Rollins / Wilson / Advantage
BA: .289 / .308 / Wilson: .019
OBP: .348 / .335 / Rollins: .013
SLG: .455 / .459 / Wilson: .004
GPA: .264 / .264 / ---
ISO: .166 / .150 / Rollins: .016
RC: 108 / 87 / Rollins: 21
BA w/ RISP: .313 / .270 / Rollins: .043

A few observations … I was surprised by how little difference there is between Wilson’s BA and his OBP: if I were the Pirates I’d be worried about Wilson’s production in 2005. A player who doesn’t draw walks with any consistency is going to be prone to slumps. Wilson doesn't draw walks. When he slumps, he'll do badly.

Rollins got on base more, was more of a threat to steal (30 steals to Wilson’s 8) and had more raw power at the plate (e.g., his .016 isolated power advantage). Rollins also created more runs for the Phillies: 108 to 87 and hit forty-three points higher with runners in scoring position. Offensively, Wilson might have had a career year, but Rollins was the better bat.

If I were the Pirates I’d worry about Wilson in 2005: he hit forty points lower after the All-Star break (.332 v. .279) and lost one hundred points on his slugging percentage (.501 to .407). Was Wilson’s 2004 a career year, never to be repeated; or was it simply improvement? I suspect a little of both. I can’t see Wilson hitting .300 again, but he’ll be a solid .275 hitter in 2005. To be a real threat at the plate, however, he needs to improve his ability to draw walks.

Rollins didn’t have a career year in 2004. Rollins season was really the culmination of a long path towards improved play, namely his newfound discipline at the plate thanks to the tutiledge of the great Tony Gwynn. I liked what I saw from Rollins: he actually stepped up his play after the break and seemed to play better as the season progressed. I think he’ll hit well leading off for the Phillies.

Here's how Bill James and Baseball Information Solutions projects each player will do in 2005 at the plate:

Wilson: (p.380, 2005 Bill James Handbook)
.276 BA
.313 OBP
.389 SLG
.238 GPA
69 Runs Created
8 HR
30 2B

Rollins: (p.379)
.276 BA
.335 OBP
.429 SLG
.258 GPA
94 Runs Created
13 HR
40 2B

Certainly Bill James thinks Wilson is in for a fall in his numbers next year. Rollins to a lesser degree.

So who is the better shortstop? Let’s call it a tie. For now. I’d give Rollins a slight edge at the plate and I’d give Wilson the slight edge on the field. Check out the 2004 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) stats for NL shortstops:

Rollins: 50.9
Wilson: 50.6
Furcal: 38.0
Greene: 37.6
Izturis: 29.7

Can't get much closer than that. Either way, I think it interesting that there are so many talented shortstops in the NL these days. Just a few years ago everyone talked about how great the AL shortstops were: Vizquel, Tejada, A-Rod, Jeter, Nomar … today I’d say that guys like Wilson and Rollins and Izturis and Greene are every bit as good as the AL’s superstar shortstops, if not better. I can’t wait to see who is going to be the best shortstop in 2005. This one will have people demanding a recount.

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