The Mets have a young player currently in the minors. He’s recently joined AAA Las Vegas, whereupon he’ll immediately become one of the younger players in the Pacific Coast League. So young, in fact, there are only twelve offensive players younger than him to have at least 100 plate appearances in the PCL this season. At age 19 he held his own in AA Binghamton, posting a respectable (if unspectacular) 106 wRC+.
Of course, at age 19 he was in the youngest 0.6% of AA players (source). To put it into context – that AA season took place in 2009, and the folks at Baseball-Reference now provide us with batting splits for minor league seasons going back to 2008. According to their data, the first time he faced a pitcher who was younger came some time in the 2011 season. Of his 3,253 combined (minors and majors) professional plate appearances to date, 3,186 have come against an older pitcher.
Ever since GM Sandy Alderson’s claims that Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada aren’t viewed as part of “the core” for the future, fans and prognosticators have ostensibly taken that to mean that these are players who have no business being on a Mets’ team. This, of course, is illogical. Most championship teams, if you will, only have a “core” of 4-5 players. The “core” represents the players you build a franchise around – David Wright, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Travis d’Arnaud, ideally. The incredibly talented but enigmatic Ike Davis may still be a part of that, but it remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the majority of championship teams only have a handful of elite players and an above-average-if-unspectacular supporting cast.
Why can’t, or perhaps more appropriately, why shouldn’t Ruben Tejada be a part of that?
Tejada doesn’t have a very good offensive line, posting a slightly below-average 95 wRC+ over 877 MLB plate appearances between 2011-12. The fortunate caveat to that, however, is that he plays arguably the weakest offensive position on the diamond; major league shortstops aggregated an 87 wRC+ over that span. Even better, the 13 shortstops who ranked ahead of him (list here) averaged nearly six years older (mean age ~28.7 years), the only younger one being Chicago’s Starlin Castro, who has also struggled mightily in 2013.
Though clearly lacking speed, Tejada’s strong defensive instincts have largely made up for that in the field. Of the 29 shortstops to play at least 1500 innings between 2010-2012, Ruben ranked square in the middle at 15th.
Putting that all together, Tejada put up a good, if unspectacular, 3.3 fWAR over 2011-12 which ranked him 20th among shortstops with at least 800 plate appearances over the two seasons. Scaling fWAR to plate appearances, he moves up a bit to 16th in that span (just above another, much more famous, New York shortstop whose jersey numbers add up to 2).
In short, Ruben Tejada in 2011 and 2012 was a slightly above-average player at his position, which was great considering his age and cost.
So what the heck happened?
Well, a lot of it comes down to luck, and some of it on the contact he was making this year. Tejada has been an excellent line drive hitter. So good, in fact, that of all batters with 1000 plate appearances since 2011, only Cincinnati’s Joey Votto has hit a higher rate than Tejada’s 26.4%. That doesn’t tell the entire story, of course, as that number has plummeted from 28.2% over the past two seasons to only 19.1% in 2013, with that loss split somewhat evenly between ground balls and fly balls. [Fun fact: if we take the span of Tejada's entire career (since 2010), he narrowly edges out Votto for the majors' best LD% - 25.8% vs. 25.7%.]
Tejada’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2013 stands at a career-low .238, 94 points below his expected .332 expected mark (xBABIP).For reference, his For a guy who lacks power, this is huge. To put a tangible measure on this – were his BABIP and xBABIP to match, Tejada would’ve had 15 extra hits on the season. Even if we were to assume all 15 were singles, it would bring Tejada’s slashline up to the neighborhood of .289/.342/.342. Over the prior two seasons, Tejada hit a very similar .287/.345/.345 (on a .332 BABIP).
It’s worth noting that his xBABIP over the 2011-12 seasons was .362, about 26 points higher than his actual .336 mark. That doesn’t necessarily mean that using the .332 isn’t a fair expectation, but it necessitates the mention that defenders are working to minimize that. (For reference, the xBABIP ooverall of the majors is .323, which is a bit higher than the actual .296. Nonetheless, there *is* merit in claiming that the drop is a result of the reduced line drive rate.
I’m no scout, and as such can’t give you a definitive reason as to why it dropped, but it seems to be the primary reason why everything has gone downhill this year. His walk rate, while not great, isn’t far off from his career average and he posted a career-low strikeout rate. So, while he’s making more contact (which is generally good if it’s reducing the number of strikeouts), he hasn’t been making as good contact.
What does this mean?
Well, it’s encouraging. His solid contact, coupled with very good plate discipline, suggests that he can have a successful future as a major league shortstop. Given his age, there should still be plenty of encouragement regarding his future. Tejada, at 23 years and 8 months, is still currently slightly younger than the median AA player. His career MLB stats, using the Minor League Equivalency Calculator (found here), correspond to an approximate .348/.430/.432 slashline. If I were to say to you “the Mets have a 23-year-old shortstop who’s currently hitting .348/.430/.432 in AA”, you’d be encouraged. But because he’s taken a step back this year (exacerbated by his poor BABIP luck), we’ve become convinced as a fanbase that this is a player who can’t contribute to a winning team.
What will happen with him? Who knows. He’s now headed to Vegas to begin rehab, and the Mets have about 3 and a half weeks before being forced to activate him. That’s plenty of time to assess where his swing is by then, and if he’s making better contact. Looking toward his future, I could project Tejada’s career to pan out somewhere around a slightly-less-walk-y version of Luis Castillo‘s career .290/.368/.351. Castillo, of course, was an everyday player on the 2003 Florida Marlins team that won the world series, as well as a part-time player (in the regular season) on the 1997 championship team. He may not be a “core” member, and will likely never be regarded as a top player, but if he can hold his own in the field and hit around .280/.350/.350, it would be foolish to not consider him part of the potential solution in Queens.
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