The Ruben Tejada Experiment is Over, It is Time to #FreeWilmer: Part I

By: Brian Mangan

Perhaps you are an optimist.  If you are a Mets fan, the odds are that you are optimistic by nature (the odds are that you are also a fan of the Jets, for that same reason).

If you were an optimist, it would have been totally defensible for you, in the Spring of 2014 to think that it would be within the realm of possibility for the Mets’ former-incumbent and oft-maligned shortstop Ruben Tejada to return to Flushing and turn in a decent season after two lost years.  I wasn’t optimistic about the chances of that happening, but I was willing to hope.

As you recall, Tejada first appeared in the major leagues as a precocious 21 year old, filling in for the injured and soon-to-be departed Jose Reyes.  The next season, however, was Tejada’s miniature star-turn: in 96 games, he batted .284 with an on-base percentage of .360.  He only slugged .335, but so what?  He posted positive defensive numbers and a total of 1.6 WAR in only 96 games.  And remember, he was only 22 years old.

Since then, however, it has been a up-and-down trip for Tejada (mostly down).  Although he batted .289/.333/.341 in 2012, he hit only .202/.259/.260 in 2013.  His defensive numbers remained strong, but over those two years he was injured, inconsistent, ineffective and, ultimately, banished to the minor leagues by the organization which once considered him the heir apparent at shortstop.

Enter 2014: Ruben Tejada’s chance at redemption.  Without a clear-cut challenger to his position at shortstop, and after allegedly recommitting himself to his fitness after a lost season, Tejada was handed the reins at shortstop and told to run with them.  What has occurred, however, can only be described as a failure (though not a disaster).

After 84 games, Tejada has continued to post his traditional solidly-above-average defensive numbers, with a +1.9 UZR (+3.9 UZR/150).  However his ability with the bat has completely evaporated, as he has hit only .233/.353/.292 for the year.  Overall, Tejada has been worth +0.6 WAR … just barely above replacement-level after a season where he was actually below replacement-level.

Tejada’s .292 slugging percentage is terrible, but you might not appreciate just how terrible it is.  Tejada is second to last out of all major leaguers in slugging percentage — 161st out of 162, ahead of only Everth Cabrera (and just barely).  If you were to lower the qualification standards to include any player with 200 plate appearances, Tejada is only ahead of Jedd Gyorko (demoted) and Raul Ibanez (cut).

In fact, that .292 slugging percentage, if it were to stand, would be the lowest single slugging percentage since 2010, when Cesar Izturis was somehow allowed to hit .230/.277/.268 for the Orioles.  There have only been 17 player-seasons since 1990 in which a player who qualified for the batting title posted a slugging percentage of .297 or less (incl. luminaries such as Alfredo Griffin, Kevin Stocker, and Ramon Santiago).

Overall, Tejada is ranked 22nd out of 28 among shortstops in WAR (250 or more plate appearances):

tejada war

Even worse, Tejada’s one saving grace this season, statistically, has been nothing more than a mirage: that is, his artificially high walk rate.  After walking 9.3%, 5.4%, and 6.6% of the time the last three years, Tejada’s walk rate is up to 14.4% this season.

However that number is inflated by the fact that he has received ten (10!) intentional walks this year batting in front of Mets pitchers.  If you were to remove those ten intentional walks (he had received a grand total of zero intentional walks in his last 171 games prior) his line looks like this:

Including intentional walks: .233/.353/.292

Removing intentional walks: .233/.331/.292

That .331 on-base percentage nearly mimics his .323 career on-base percentage, and does nothing to disguise his atrocious slugging percentage.  And before you say that Tejada may have, in some way, earned those walks… don’t bother.  He has the 4th most intentional walks in baseball.  He has more than twice as many as Mike Trout.  He has as many intentional walks as Buster Posey and Miguel Cabrera… combined.  As far as I can tell, he’s the only player in baseball to have more intentional walks than doubles.  And who knows how many “unintentional” walks are not included in that figure.

Even more troubling, is that Tejada’s strikeout rate has ballooned to 18.4%, his highest ever and nearly league average:

tejada k

Even if you were to spot Tejada the entirety of April, he is still only batting .238/.359/.308.  At the end of the day, he’s had 1663 plate appearances in the major leagues, and with them he has batted .255/.329/.314.

He doesn’t look good.  The stats don’t look good.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  Ruben Tejada is a major leaguer, and at 25, he may have better days ahead of him.  He’s been above replacement this year, and he’s been a couple wins above replacement for his career.  Ruben Tejada by himself will not kill you — if Ruben Tejada was starting at shortstop for the Athletics instead of Jed Lowrie, the Athletics would still be hella amazing and would probably still be leading the majors with 61 wins.

However the Mets are a team looking for ways to improve, and are faced with a conundrum whereby they are okay or good at five out of eight positions on the field (1B, 2B, 3B, CF, RF) and have potential at another (C).  Only shortstop and left field present areas of potential improvement, insofar as every day players are concerned — and only one of those positions has an in-house candidate ready to take over.

In Part II, I will set forth the argument in favor of handing Wilmer Flores the every day job and seeing what happens.

#FreeWilmer

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.

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