The Best SS in the American League??

Gone is the Golden Age of Shortstops.  A decade ago, Cal Ripken was exiting the scene, but an exciting crop of future stars had emerged playing the game’s most demanding position – Alex Rodriguez in Seattle, Nomar Garciaparra in Boston and Derek Jeter in the Bronx.

Fast forward to 2011 – Alex Rodriguez is an aging third baseman, Derek Jeter is a shortstop without range, Nomar is married to Mia Hamm and Cal Ripken is in Cooperstown.  By WAR, the AL’s best shortstop in 2011 was . . . Jhonny Peralta.

To recap Jhonny Peralta’s career to date, be broke onto the scene with 24 HRs as the 23 year old SS for the Cleveland Indians in 2005.  Peralta’s 292/366/520 was good for 2nd best among AL shortstops (barely behind Michael Young, and solidly ahead of Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada).   To place Peralta’s breakout season in historical perspective, only 10 shortstops in the history of baseball had posted an OPS+ better than Peralta at the same (or younger) age.

Over the next three seasons, Peralta continued to prove durable and above average, if not star caliber in Cleveland.  Though a good hitter, Peralta never reminded the Tribe faithful of Omar Vizquel and the decision was made to move Peralta to 3B, and he primarily played 3B until his trade to Detroit in 2010.

To begin 2011, Jim Leyland and the Tigers decided that his previous struggles in the middle of the diamond were not compelling, and at age 29 Peralta moved away from 3B and back to SS (this writer can’t think of another player that moved back to SS from any position at such a late age).   The results were nothing short of astonishing — Peralta proceeded to post a 5.2 WAR season – after posting 7.8 WAR in the previous 5 seasons, and was arguably the AL’s best SS:

Name Team G HR SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Jhonny Peralta Tigers 146 21 0 0.299 0.345 0.478 0.353 120 5.2
Alexei Ramirez White Sox 158 15 7 0.269 0.328 0.399 0.319 96 4.9
J.J. Hardy Orioles 129 30 0 0.269 0.310 0.491 0.343 113 4.8
Elvis Andrus Rangers 150 5 37 0.279 0.347 0.361 0.323 96 4.5
Yunel Escobar Blue Jays 133 11 3 0.290 0.369 0.413 0.345 116 4.3
Erick Aybar Angels 143 10 30 0.279 0.322 0.421 0.332 109 4.0
Asdrubal Cabrera Indians 151 25 17 0.273 0.332 0.460 0.345 118 3.6
Derek Jeter Yankees 131 6 16 0.297 0.355 0.388 0.332 104 2.3
Alcides Escobar Royals 158 4 26 0.254 0.290 0.343 0.282 73 2.2
Cliff Pennington Athletics 148 8 14 0.264 0.319 0.369 0.302 90 1.5

What I find most interesting is that I can’t find any good reason to explain Peralta’s resurgence.  Peralta has never been the most patient hitter, but his 2011 walk rate dropped to 6.9% (career 8.4%).  While his LD% came in right on his career number, his GB% decreased significantly (35.8% against a career number of 43.8%).  In addition to the correlated spike in fly balls, Peralta’s infield pop up percentage nearly doubled (11.3% against a 6.3% career rate).  JP’s BABIP came in at .325, almost identical to his career .314 number.  In essence, Peralta was a hitter who walked less, popped up more, hit tons more fly balls (which are converted into outs at a much higher percentage) and somehow managed to post a career best batting average.

Thanks to the good people at Home Run Tracker, we can also look at Peralta’s HRs.  The table below shows that when we look at balls leaving the park (versus merely the batted balls in play above), Peralta’s HRs are travelling shorter and shorter distances each year:

Year HRs HR Distance
2011 21 388.4
2010 15 392.5
2009 11 394.4
2008 23 397.6
2007 21 391.0
2006 13 390.9

So to recap what we know – Jhonny Peralta will turn 30 early this coming season.  He is four years removed from being moved off SS because of his lack of range, and last year he posted a career low walk percentage, a career high FB and pop up rate.  His HRs are shorter than ever before, and he plays in a park that is neutral to slightly pitcher favorable.  Peralta somehow turned those numbers into the league’s best SS, but it is hard to imagine anything but a disappointing 2012 campaign – though it probably wouldn’t be more surprising than his resurgent 2011 season.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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