The Ruben Tejada Experiment is Over, It’s Time to #FreeWilmer: Part II

By: Brian Mangan

In Part I we argued that the Ruben Tejada Experiment was over (although it might make for a cool band name) by explaining that Tejada’s performance this season, and in his career, was lackluster.  We did this through pointing out three primary facts:

  • Tejada is 161 out of 162 major leaguers in slugging percentage this season
  • Tejada is 22nd out of 28 among all shortstops in WAR
  • Tejada’s poor overall batting line of .233/.353/.292 is similar to his career major league batting line of .255/.329/.314

That was, I thought, the easy part.  Although we concluded by saying that Tejada was indeed a major league caliber player, who would rush to defend Tejada?  Apparently more than a few people, including Dan Haefeli of Rising Apple, who wrote a thoughtful counterpoint.  Unfortunately I need to address that in another article, as now I must address the hard part — the justification behind #FreeWilmer.

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Wilmer Is, And Hits Like, an A+ Prospect

Wilmer Flores, the player, needs little to no introduction to the New York Mets’ fanbase.  Wilmer was born in Venezuela in 1991 (!!) and has been in the Mets organization since 2007, when he signed for $750,000 (he was considered one of the top hitters in the international class that year).  Promoted aggressively throughout the Mets minor league system, Wilmer was often playing with players half a decade older than him, yet performing admirably.  Check this out:

wilmer low minors

Wilmer was regularly 4 and 5 years younger than the average players in his league, yet made his way to Class-A St. Lucie by the time he was only 18 years old.  For those of us who were once 16 years old (I assume all of us) we know what a huge difference 4 or 5 years makes at that age.  Nonetheless, Wilmer prospered, leading Baseball America to rank Wilmer as the Mets #2 prospect three years in a row, from 2008 through 2010, as well as rate him in their Top 100 three times.  When ESPN’s Keith Law named Wilmer the #47 prospect in baseball in 2011, he wrote that Wilmer’s “bat should profile at any position because of his quick wrists, short path to the ball and strong follow-through with good loft for future power as he fills out.”

But that’s ancient history, how about lately?  Well… Wilmer’s bat sure did mature, and he began to crush the ball at every level of the minor leagues that dared to attempt to contain him.  Minor league expert John Sickels wrote this about Wilmer in August of last year:

The power began to surge last year: he hit .289/.336/.463 with 10 homers in 64 games for St. Lucie, followed by a .311/.361/.494 mark with eight more homers in 66 games for Double-A Binghamton. This year, playing for Triple-A Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League, Flores has hit .321/.357/.531 with 15 homers, 36 doubles, 25 walks, 63 strikeouts in 424 at-bats.

Wilmer started setting fire to opposing pitching, with an 855 OPS at Binghamton (at age 20) and his current reign of terror in Triple-A Las Vegas.  He hasn’t slugged less than .494 in three years.

wilmer high minors

Take a look at that batting line in Las Vegas, where he is, give-or-take, half a decade younger than his competition.  Wilmer Flores now has a tidy 162 games played in Triple-A, isn’t that nice?  Here’s his monstrous batting line: .321/.360/.543 with 28 HR and 143 RBI.  Yeah, 143 RBI in one season’s worth of at-bats.  And he’s actually been hitting better since his last demotion, with a .333/.409/.564 line over his last ten games.

Are you concerned because the Triple-A PCL is a notorious hitter’s league?  Well I am, so as a general rule I like to compare a player’s performance to that of his peers, people playing under the same conditions, to put his performance into context.

Wilmer has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.

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Concern About Wilmer’s Defense

If you’re reading this, then you already know the excuse used by folks who want to prevent Wilmer Flores from running away with the starting shortstop job in Flushing: his defense.  For many years we have heard how Wilmer Flores was going to have to “eventually move off the position.” But is it truly the case that Wilmer won’t be able to handle shortstop?  And if it is, when is “eventually”?

Sometimes, a narrative can run away with you and overtake reality and substance.  Rather than speculate based on the copy-and-paste of scouting reports from 2009 and 2010, here’s what we actually know about Wilmer Flores:

  • Wilmer was twice rated by Baseball America as having the “best infield arm” in the entire Mets minor league system.
  • He has 26 starts at 3B in the majors, and 16 starts at SS in the majors, spanning 354.2 innings, and has made only 3 errors.
  • Wilmer’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in those appearances is +3.2.

Side Note on UZR

For those of you unfamiliar with Ultimate Zone Rating, it is a metric provided on fangraphs which attempts to quantify defense.  Like offensive statistics, it takes time, and opportunities, in order for the number to stablize at a number that tells you something (e.g. Chris Young can go 2/4 on any given day, but he’s not a .500 hitter).  We’ve talked in the past about when statistics stabilize — for instance strikeout rate stabilizes around 150 plate appearances, and on-base percentage around 500 plate appearances.  UZR, for what it’s worth, never officially “stabilizes”, but it does sort of get us into the right neighborhood. 

Quick, who is the best defensive centerfielder in baseball?  UZR thinks its Juan Lagares.  I agree!  Behind him on the list are Billy Hamilton, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Sam Fuld.  The only other outfielders near Lagares are Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward, universally regarded as defensive wizards.  On the other end of the spectrum, the worst defensive outfielders according to UZR this season are: Matt Kemp, Torii Hunter, Shin-Soo Choo, Dexter Fowler, and Nelson Cruz.  UZR does a decent job of approximating what we see. 

If you want to learn about UZR, read this recent article by Dave Cameron.  It’s great.

UZR has so far, in a tiny sample, considered Wilmer to be an above-average defender.  Even if he is not an above-average defender, every inning he plays to positive reviews narrows the band of his expected outcomes.  If you thought previously that Wilmer was a defender between 0 and -30 UZR/150, maybe now you think he’s between 0 and -20 instead.

Notice, I’m not arguing here that Wilmer is a plus-plus defensive shortstop.  However, he is a professional baseball player who played shortstop his entire life until he was moved off the position in 2012 (and has continued to intermittently play shortstop since that time).  It’s virtually assured, given what we already know, that Wilmer Flores would not be the worst defensive shortstop in baseball right now.

Wilmer can probably play a passable shortstop — especially in an organization which actually considers (I wish this was a joke) Eric Campbell an actual option as a backup shortstop (Campbell, for his part, has a pretty ugly -3.1 UZR at third base in the few innings he has played there).

The question therefore is — how bad will Wilmer Flores be at shortstop, and how bad does he have to be to outweigh his offensive contributions?  Stated differently, is Wilmer’s offense + defense better than Tejada’s offense + defense?  We’ve got an answer.

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Wilmer’s Offense+Defense Justifies #FreeWilmer

Wilmer doesn’t have to be a great, or even good, defensive shortstop in order to be better than Ruben Tejada.  So long as he’s “not bad” the odds are that he will contribute enough offensively to make up the difference.  But where is that line?

Luckily, the very smart Astromets (@astromets31) tackled a similar question in May, asking what Wilmer would have to bat in order to be a 2 or 3 WAR player even if his defense was terrible.  It’s quite a mathy article, so I will summarize it’s findings here.

wilmer chart

Astromets found that even if Wilmer Flores was a -15 UZR/150 shortstop, he would be a 3 WAR contributor if he batted .297/.346/.464.  If he was a -10 UZR/150 shortstop, he could contribute 3 WAR by batting .295/.337/.446.  If he was only slightly below average at -5 UZR/150, he would contribute 3 WAR by batting .270/.321/.437.

He could hit even less than that if you set the bar at 2 WAR, which would be a more productive season than any Ruben Tejada has ever turned in in his career.   If you don’t understand or like UZR or WAR, then forget the math for a second, it is just a common-sense proposition: the better his defense, the less he will need to hit.

It is unlikely at this point that Wilmer is a -15 UZR/150 or worse shortstop, which would make him twice as bad as Hanley Ramirez, who for his career is only -8.8 UZR/150 out there.  In fact, as another tall shortstop (Hanley is 6’2″, Wilmer is 6’3″) who is a former Top-100 prospect maligned for his defense but with a good bat, Hanley might be an excellent comparable.

All of the evidence, from scouting to stats, says that Wilmer will hit in the major leagues.  His career batting line in the minor leagues, despite being young for each level, is .292/.334/.440, which is weighed down by a bad season he had in Low-A in 2009.  Not only has he hit in Triple-A Vegas, but he hit .311/.361/.494 in Double-A Binghamton in a notorious pitcher’s league.  You’d have to go back to 2011 in order to find a single season where Wilmer did not bat .300 or better (he hit .300 over 547 at bats in 2012, he hit .321 in 463 at bats last year, and he’s batting .323 this year).  Even when discounting the inflated statistics in Vegas, Wilmer Flores’s batting line looks pretty similar to that of his peers — no player at Vegas has with over 200 PA’s has a high of an OPS as Wilmer does, regardless of age.

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Wilmer Flores is an MLB Top Prospect, Time to Treat Him Like One

The bar is not high for Wilmer to be a better option at shortstop than Ruben Tejada.  To do so, he’ll simply have to play -10 UZR/150 defense (essentially Hanley Ramirez defense) and hit only about as well as Manny Machado (.283/.314/.432) or Marco Scutaro (.297/.357/.369) did last year.

But why approach this and argue from the negative?  Why not be aggressive?  Only the Mets would take a Top 100 Prospect and focus only on what reports say he might “someday” not be able to do.  Wilmer has crushed the PCL as a 21 and 22 year old among men.  He’s looked fine on defense at the major league level, and the statistics, so far, back that up.  If given time to play, I expect that Flores can easily surpass his preseason ESPN projections (.267/.309/.400) for the rest of the season.  After so many years, this writer is prepared to see what we have in Wilmer Flores.

Unfortunately, it does not look like #FreeWilmer will be happening for the time being:

But I ask the organization: what is there to lose in letting Wilmer show what he’s got?  The organization at times has revived the idea that Wilmer could play shortstop, with reports indicating that Wilmer improved his agility and quickness at the team’s winter strength and fitness camp, and he certainly didn’t embarrass himself at shortstop the last time he was called up. As a bonus, Ruben Tejada makes a perfect backup at 2B/SS and his bat control (his best attribute) makes him a decent option to pinch hit late in a game when you need more than one run.  We may have something more in Wilmer.

Will Wilmer make errors?  Sure.  Will there be a chance that he can’t handle shortstop?  Sure.  Is there a chance he isn’t ready to hit in the major leagues?  Sure, even that is possible.  But in baseball, like in life, we’ve got to make the best decisions we can, at any given time, with the data that is available to us.  And our data says Wilmer is done hitting .330 in Triple-A and is ready for the Show. It begins today.

#FreeWilmer

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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City.

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