Ruben Tejada was bad in 2013. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss what’s at hand.
Tejada, 24, has been the Mets’ opening day shortstop each of the past two seasons, and a significant contributor at second base and shortstop in 2011. He was solid for two seasons, hitting .287/.345/.345 and posting a 95 weighted Runs Created+ that rated nearly 10% above the league average 87 wRC+ at shortstop. He averaged 2.5 fWAR per 650 plate appearances over those two years which planted him firmly in the middle of the pack among MLB shortstops.
Keep in mind though that the shortstops above him were, on average, 6 years older. Tejada finished the 2012 season at age 22, at that point the MLB’s second youngest shortstop behind Chicago’s Starlin Castro. He was still nearly two years younger than the average AA player and had amassed more than 1000 plate appearances in the major leagues, and only needed to get about a half win better (per 650 plate appearances) to crack the top-10 at his position.
Then 2013 happened. It was, at best, a lot season for Ruben, who struggled to hit .202/.259/.260 while struggling with a hamstring injury and a broken leg. His AAA numbers, .288/.337/.379, were more respectable but still somewhat underwhelming given the offensive environment that is the Pacific Coast League.
Because of this, there has been a ton of pessimism surrounding Tejada’s name being in the starting lineup this year. That has been compounded by quotes from Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins questioning his work ethic and the organization’s outward willingness to acquire another shortstop. That didn’t happen, as Jhonny Peralta signed a large contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and the organization is reportedly divided over whether to go after Stephen Drew full bore. That likely leaves Ruben Tejada on Collins’ lineup card come spring training next month, and ostensibly on opening day.
Here are three reasons why that’s not a bad thing:
1. BABIP regression
Ruben Tejada’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) in 2011 was .331. In 2012 it was .339. In 2013, it plummeted all the way to .228. There’s a pretty clear why – his line drive rate dropped substantially, and his ground ball and fly ball rates both climbed.
But that doesn’t explain it all. Using the league averages for each batted ball type, we can develop an expected BABIP (xBABIP). In 2013, Tejada’s was .330. Looking at his previous two seasons, we can see that he’s underperformed expectation in the past (.336 actual vs. .362 expected), but that would suggest he should be around .300 or so.
So what happened?
Well, let’s look at how Tejada’s BABIPs on batted ball types compares to the league norms in 2013, as well as to his numbers the prior two seasons:
As we can see, everything went down. Some fluctuation can be expected due to a player’s speed or strength, but generally speaking, a line drive is a line drive and so forth. Thanks to Fangraphs, we can even take it a step farther and look at his spray charts (I recommend checking these out regardless, they’re highly interesting) and compare 2012 to 2013:
In this chart we’re looking at location distribution (i.e. is he pulling more balls?). Aside from the obvious quantity changes, there isn’t a meaningful change (in terms of an explanation for his low BABIP) in where he was hitting baseballs. The fact that fewer balls were being pulled likely corresponds to the reduced line drive rate, but the distribution doesn’t give us enough to explain why the percentage of them that became hits fell so dramatically. This suggests that much of his depressed numbers were due to luck – good defensive play (and, to an extent, hitting balls directly at fielders).
I’m not going to break everything down, but Tejada’s line drive numbers are most alarming. His .514 BABIP on them ranked 396th of the 400 hitters with at least 20 line drives in 2013. If we were to normalize his BABIP (adjust it to his 2011-12 levels), we can see that Tejada would’ve had 7 more hits on line drives, and at least two of those would have been doubles. That alone would bump his OPS by 75 points, to a slashline of .236/.290/.303.
Sure, that’s still not very good, but that brings me to point number 2:
2. Small sample size
Tejada only totaled 227 plate appearances in 2013, or roughly 1/3 of a season’s worth. And aside from the BABIP issues raised above, managed to hit .247/.330/.326 in April, and .274/.348/.371 against left-handed pitching overall.
All of this, however, is insignificant. What it boils down to is that Ruben Tejada had a bad May, and the entire world seemingly gave up on him, after roughly 1050 consecutive solid plate appearances (from September 1, 2010 to May 1, 2013, Tejada hit .283/.345/.349), he had a bad month.
These things happen. In the second half of 2012, David Wright hit .258/.334/.416. Daniel Murphy hit .227/.274/.291 last June. Players slump, and that shouldn’t be enough to lose faith in Ruben Tejada because:
3. Historically, he has been very good at hitting baseballs.
Below is a chart, comparing Tejada to some more renowned hitters in the MLB over 2011-2013, albeit anonymously:
Because Ruben Tejada doesn’t hit for power, his excellent ability to make contact often goes unheralded. Not only does he put the ball in play often, he often makes quality contact. As he matures physically, some potential remains for his gap-to-gap power to allow him to hit a few out of the park and push his ISO up toward Daniel Murphy’s .123 over the past three years.
Ruben isn’t particularly toolsy, but it shouldn’t be ignored that at a young age, he was able to hit above average for his position and show excellent plate discipline. He also has played a good, if unspectacular defensive shortstop (though that took a hit from some throwing errors this season). By all reports, he’s gotten the message that his job is no longer safe. At age 24, he’s still a few years shy of reaching his peak, and with a sense of motivation has a good chance of being a solid player with a lengthy career.