I’m all for recognizing true defensive excellence in baseball. Far too often, we the fans ignore the runs that were prevented in favor of runs that were scored. Which is why I felt that Tampa Bay’s acquisition of Jason Bartlett from the Minnesota Twins back in November was a pretty good one. Not only were they able to get Matt Garza as well in that trade that sent Delmon Young to Minnesota, but Bartlett was a pretty good defensive shortstop in 2007. His 67 Out of Zone plays was good enough for fourth in MLB among shortstops, which helped make up some for his below average Revised Zone Rating (.804).
But this is 2008, and Bartlett hasn’t been as good this year. His RZR has remained consistent (.808), but even with the 100 fewer innings in the field, his OOZ is just 44, a 35% decrease. His Range Factor is also down from 4.67 last year to 4.22. And with an Adjusted OPS of 83, I really don’t think that he’s helping the team all that much.
So you can imagine my surprise to see that the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America has voted Bartlett as the team MVP this season. Cue the confusion.
While it’s true that he’s still an improvement defensively over Brendan Harris who manned the position last year (which really isn’t saying much, by the way), it’s difficult to understand the logic here. What Bartlett has over Harris with the glove is canceled out by his deficiency with the bat. Harris had 13 Win Shares in 2007. Bartlett has 10 so far this year.
I do think that the BBWAA is on the right track in crediting the Rays’ W-L improvement over the past year to their defense. But I give just as much credit, if not more, to rookie third baseman Evan Longoria’s work at the hot corner. And BJ Upton’s markedly improved performance in center field deserves commending as well. And you know what? Longoria and Upton’s offensive contributions blow Bartlett’s out of those warm Tampa waters (full disclosure – I have no idea if Tampa’s waters are warm. I digress). It’s not even close.
I understand the tendency to point to free agent signings or trades rather than internal moves when we see vast improvements in a team’s performance. We look for what that “missing piece” was for success. And Bartlett fits the bill, I suppose, in that sense. But in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, it was more Upton gaining experience and the performance of Longoria that we ought to be crediting.