Fielding stats for college shortstops

Back in May, I looked at some notable defensive performances among college third basemen, especially that of Fresno State’s Tom Mendonca. Thanks to his performance in the 2008 College World Series, Mendonca may have been the most heralded defensive player available in this year’s draft. Now that he’s a Ranger, we’ll soon have an idea of how his defensive numbers hold up among pro competition.

Of course, there’s more to college fielding stats than a talked-up third baseman. Many of the best amateur glovemen are shortstops, and almost as soon as they appear on scouts’ radars, the debate begins as to whether they can stick at the position. With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to shortstop defense.

The data: what we’ve got, and what it’s worth

First, let’s recap a bit of what I wrote in the Mendonca article. I’m working with a college play-by-play database that goes back through 2007. It has much of the information that play-by-play defensive metrics use to measure professional fielding skill, except for the type of batted ball (grounder, line drive, etc.) on base hits.

Between that limitation and small sample sizes, we can’t expect too much out of any such college fielding stat. It can certainly contribute to the discussion, but until a few more years go by and we can combine the data with professional records for these college players, we don’t know just how worthwhile it is.

There is some good news, however. Probably because shortstops field more balls, the shortstop ratings you’re about to see are somewhat more valid than those I presented for third basemen in May. For shortstops who were in the field for 800 or more balls in play (roughly 33 games) in both 2007 and 2008, the year-to-year correlation was approximately 0.29. The 2008-09 correlation was a bit weaker, but still above 0.25. When we’ve got multiple full years of data for a shortstop, it would appear that we have something worth looking at.

The 2009 draft class

Grant Green was the only college shortstop selected in the top 100 picks of this year’s draft. There’s little question he was one of the top available prospects with the bat, but it will be interesting to see how his glove measures up in the pros. Here are some of the top 2009 picks who were above the 800 BIP threshold in each of the last two college seasons:

Player          School                  +/-  
Shields Robbie  Florida Southern         26  
Orloff Ben      Uc Irvine                16  
Jackson Ryan    Miami (Fl)                9  
Dozier Brian    Southern Mississippi     -1  
Karcich Jon     Santa Clara              -2  
Prince Josh     Tulane                   -2  
Wikoff Brandon  Illinois                 -3  
Smith Kyle      Cal Poly                 -4  
Green Grant     Southern California      -4  
Greer Brent     Western Carolina        -11  
Wade Chris      Kentucky                -13

The “+/-” column gives plays above or below average for the combination of the last two seasons per 2400 balls in play (approximately 100 games). The numbers are regressed based on the playing time of each shortstop.

The big surprise to me in this group is Robbie Shields up at the top. His +26 is just percentage points below the top performance of the last two years, which belonged to another D II product, UC San Diego’s Vance Albitz. The fact that the two names at the top are both from D II schools may give us pause. Perhaps Shields racked up the strong numbers because Florida Southern’s weaker competition didn’t generally hit balls as hard as the batters in a top D I conference. I don’t know whether that’s the case, though I can say that the year-to-year correlation is weaker for programs outside of D I. But even if common sense knocks down Shields’ +26, it’s still clear that he turned an awful lot of ground balls into outs.

A couple of other notes. I didn’t include ’07 stats in this calculation because most of these players didn’t get the requisite playing time in their freshman year. However, Green did, and his ’07 performance was in line with the more recent numbers. Ryan Jackson’s +9 is solid, and is more impressive when you know that his ’08 total was slightly negative. He has a reputation as a defensive wizard, and his ’09 season would seem to support that.

Last year’s prospects

While we’re at it, let’s look at a smattering of high draft picks from one year ago. Again, only players above the BIP threshold are included; the numbers include two seasons worth of data, and are regressed based on playing time.

Player            School              +/-  
Crawford Brandon  Ucla                 23  
Beckham Gordon    Georgia              22  
Espinosa Danny    Long Beach State     19  
Marseco Michael   Samford              17  
Mercer Jordy      Oklahoma State        6  
Flaherty Ryan     Vanderbilt            2  
Weems Beamer      Baylor               -1  
Havens Reese      South Carolina       -5  
Figueroa Cole     Florida              -8  
Christian Jason   Michigan            -15

Few fans will be surprised to see Reese Havens in the bottom half of this list, but I can’t imagine many of you expected to see Gordon Beckham (a second baseman? a third baseman? anything but a shortstop!) near the top. He put up nearly equal sterling performances in his last two college seasons.

Interestingly, the best shortstop performance I found for the 2007-08 span, just a hair above Brandon Crawford’s +23, was that of Coastal Carolina’s Tyler Bortnick. His reward? Bumped to second base for the 2009 season. Bortnick was selected by the Rays in the 16th round of this year’s draft.

Ultimately, though, the skills play. Bortnick is barely a dozen games into his professional career, but Tampa Bay has put him back at shortstop in the New York-Penn League. On the flip side, Jason Christian apparently didn’t impress in his first pro season. Oakland promoted him to Kane County thanks to a solid offensive performance last season, but in 79 games this year, he’s played 61 at third base … and zero at shortstop.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jeff Sackmann
14 years ago

In the article, I didn’t try to resolve the sort-of-contradiction between Beckham’s excellent stats and the conventional wisdom that he can’t stick at shortstop.

But, it just occurred to me that it might be a function of aluminum bats.  I don’t think scouts generally talk about Beckham as a liability in the field—just a guy who can’t stick at shortstop.  Many such players end up being solid 3Bs or 2Bs because of lack of speed or range or arm (in the case of switchers to 2B).

A college shortstop playing high-level competition is probably more like a wood-bat-league third baseman.  Sure, there are some opportunities to range either way and make throws from deep in the hole, but when guys make contact, one of two things happens: It gets by you (and it would get by anybody, because it’s going that fast), or it’s a hot shot you can reach. 

In other words, when aluminum is involved, hard hit balls turn every infielder into a third baseman.  Maybe fielding stats for aluminum-bat-league shortstops are at least partly telling us how good the guy will be at third base with wood bats.