Jose Iglesias Deserves Playing Time, But Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks Are Better Options for Red Sox Right Now

Mike Carp, Jose Iglesias, Jarrod SaltalamacchiaEvery day, it’s looking more and more like the time of Jose Iglesias is an inevitability. Like Jackie Bradley Jr. in spring training, the prognostications for the young shortstop are becoming not “if” Iglesias will make an impact in the big leagues, but “when.” Also like Bradley in the spring, Iglesias has thoroughly forced the issue, making a valid case that he should be seeing regular playing time now, not some time down the road.

However, though Iglesias has done everything within his power to prove that he deserves the chance to start every day for Boston, the unfortunate truth is the options the team has — Stephen Drew at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base — are better alternatives to help the team win right now.

Before going any further, it needs to be unequivocally stated that Iglesias has done his part, showing significant improvement with the bat to the point that he’s earned regular plate appearances. While his glove is as golden as ever, Iglesias has addressed the one question mark in his game with aplomb, showing that he could not only be a viable bat in the order, but also a plus bat at shortstop – which is something most analysts never would have dreamed possible two years ago.

But that being said, Iglesias has hit so well, it’s almost as if he’s hit too well to believe he’s for real. Indeed, the metrics show that Iglesias is playing way over not only his head, but far above and beyond what any good hitter would be expected to maintain over the long haul. This is not a knock on Iglesias and his improvement at the plate, but, in making the best decisions for the Red Sox going forward, the 23-year-old needs to be judged on what is realistic to expect of him — even by now-higher standards — rather than the outlying performance of a tiny sample size.

In a lot of ways Iglesias’ case is similar to that of Pedro Ciriaco — the man just sent down to the minors Monday so that Iglesias could stay in Boston — a year ago. When Ciriaco first came on the scene, he hit .348 and .322, respectively, his first two months with Boston. However, when looking at the metrics, it was clear that Ciriaco’s performance wasn’t sustainable, and sure enough he regressed to .233 in September and October.

Now, the difference between Iglesias and Ciriaco is approach at the plate — that is to say, Iglesias has a much better approach. While Ciriaco is a total free swinger who will always be exposed when given too much playing time (as evidenced by his grand total of eight walks in 272 plate appearances in 2012), Iglesias has dramatically improved in terms of plate discpline. In fact, if Iglesias had enough at-bats to qualify, his 3.98 pitches seen per plate appearance in 2013 would rank him ahead of plate-discipline notables Nick Swisher, Mike Trout and Lance Berkman.

However, in reconciling Iglesias’ numbers, there’s unfortunately that unsightly BABIP to wrangle with.

To give a short primer on some basic sabermetrics, a hitter’s batting average on balls in play (his batting average discounting all at-bats that ended in a strikeout or home run) will always trend back to .300, no matter who they are. With extremely rare exceptions, hitters with a BABIP over .300 are getting lucky, whereas a BABIP under .300 means some hits are being stolen away.

During the 20 games he played last July, Ciriaco’s BABIP was .414, a clear indication that his level of play at the plate just wasn’t sustainable for him. By contrast, Iglesias’ BABIP is even higher — through the roof, really — at .508 so far in 2013.

In short, not only will Iglesias undoubtedly fall back down to Earth, but he’s likely in for a stark slump in the near future. Of course, Iglesias’ success in the short term and general approach at the plate suggests he’ll be far better than the hitter who looked overmatched in each of his first two big league stints, but he’s also not going to maintain an OPS anywhere near 1.000 for the season.

Of course, decisions are never made in a vacuum, and Iglesias’ impending downturn isn’t really the reason he shouldn’t be starting. In fact, if not for the Monday return of Middlebrooks and presence of Drew, Iglesias would certainly get his shot. But, right now, Middlebrooks and Drew can do more to help the Red Sox win.

While Iglesias did an admirable job filling in for Middlebrooks at third base, and it’s a valid argument that the Middlebrooks wasn’t hitting even before his injury, the 24-year-old has been pretty unlucky, for his part. Middlebrooks owns a BABIP of .237, and while his lack of walks (just seven in 185 plate appearances) doesn’t necessarily bode well going foward, that BABIP suggests a return to form eventually. Moreover, Middlebrooks has power that Iglesias will just never be able to provide — a particularly important tool for a corner infielder.

Drew, meanwhile, has basically been exactly the player the Red Sox thought they were getting. He isn’t as flashy at shortstop as Iglesias, but the difference between their skill there, if any, really is negligible. What’s equally as important is Drew’s superior track record with the bat, and the fact that, after a .154 batting average in April, the 30-year-old has hit .244 and .345, respectively, in the months since, owning a 1.042 OPS in eight games in June. Moreover, Drew’s noted patience at the plate (25 walks in 197 plate appearances) fits right in with the Red Sox’ modus operandi for 2013.

So, the moral here is that baseball, as with life, is often completely unfair. Jose Iglesias has done everything that he can control to show that he deserves a chance to be an everyday shortstop in Major League Baseball, and probably that he can be a darn good one on both sides of the ball.

However, the more relevant question is whether or not Iglesias is the best option the Red Sox have in the here and now. To that query, the answer is still no. Iglesias’ time will undoubtedly come — probably when Drew’s contract expires after this season — but it has not arrived yet.

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