The debate: Would the White Sox be better off if their rookie slugger did not play defense? | (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)
Last year, when explaining why Eloy Jiménez was not being promoted to the majors, Chicago general manager Rick Hahn said that the White Sox were not trying to develop a DH. While Jiménez playing adequate defense in left field is the ideal outcome, he is off to a slow start to his career defensively. So, how much would his value change if he never played defense?
Value stats like WAR account for differences in defensive positions, so we should observe the position adjustments for left field and designated hitter. As one might expect, both positions are less valuable than average, but left fielders, obviously, have a greater defensive value. The corner outfield positions are not as premium as say, shortstop or center field, while designated hitters are, well, designated hitters.
Take David Ortiz’s 2016 season, in which he played 140 games at DH and only one at first base. His defensive value for that game at first base was negligible. Throughout the season, the vast majority of which occurred with Ortiz at DH, Ortiz was 15.2 runs less valuable than an average player defensively. That number has two components: defensive performance (Ortiz was 0.0 runs above average in the only game he played defense) and positional adjustment (Ortiz was -15.2 runs above average, or 15.2 runs below average). Had Ortiz played a full season of 162 games, his positional adjustment at DH would have been -17.5 runs above average. By contrast, left fielders get an adjustment of -7.5 runs per 1,458 innings, or 162 games. All of these numbers are courtesy of FanGraphs.
So, for Jiménez to be more valuable as a left fielder than as a designated hitter, he needs to be better than 10 runs below average per full season. As of August 24, Jiménez is barely failing to break that threshold. He has played 731 innings of defense, all in left field. In those innings, his defensive performance has earned him a rating of 5.3 fielding runs below average. If we extrapolate that to a full season, Jiménez would be 10.6 runs below average as a left fielder.
It is no secret that Jiménez has struggled defensively. According to Baseball Savant, he has made 12 catches fewer than an average outfielder would have made. Only one player (Domingo Santana of the Seattle Mariners, with 13 catches below average) is behind him. Jiménez also has had trouble getting to line drives in the gaps, which sometimes has resulted in hitters taking an extra base (singles to doubles, doubles to triples).
Despite his struggles, however, Jiménez’s value this season would only be slightly better if he was playing DH. Going forward, the solution is to continue developing Jiménez’s abilities in left. As frustrating as he has been to watch playing left field, it is mighty difficult to be worse than 10 runs below average over a full season, and Jiménez is barely on pace to do that. Fielding will probably never become a strength of Jiménez’s game (and if it does, make way), but it does not have to be. Jiménez’s defense will develop to a point where he is consistently more valuable in left than as a DH.
One counterpoint is that the White Sox will ideally have multiple corner outfielders whose defensive abilities are better to Jiménez’s if/when they are in the playoff hunt. However, that is far from a lock:
- Jon Jay, 34, is on the worst pace of his career defensively in terms of runs above average. Jay has only played 362 innings in the outfield, so extrapolating might exaggerate his struggles, but he is on pace to be an abysmal 25.7 runs below average over 1,458 innings (mercy). (Jay will be a free agent at the end of the season, and should not be on the 25-man roster next year.)
- Ryan Cordell is a safe bet to be better in left than Jiménez, but he is probably not worth a spot on the roster, either, as his hitting is not up to par. As a result, Cordell has been below replacement level overall.
- Adam Engel is a good defender, but if he is on the roster, the Sox should have him in center to maximize his defensive value — he has played a grand total of one inning outside of CF in the majors. Engel’s hitting has never been his strong suit (his 71 wRC+ this season is his career high, so if Engel is not playing great defense in center, then he isn’t worth a roster spot on a contending team).
- Luis Robert is a beast, but again, ideally a center fielder.
- Leury García fits the bill, but the White Sox only have one more year of control for him, and he is not exactly a cornerstone of the rebuild.
With the current roster and farm system construction, it is hard to see multiple internal corner outfield options with solid defense (players who are worth a roster spot, anyway). Pleasant surprises from the farm system (currently hard to come by in this organization) and free agent signings could solve this issue. But, even in that case, it would be best if Jiménez was serviceable in the outfield because of the importance of depth. If the White Sox find themselves with multiple useful corner outfielders with better defense, great. But, injuries occur, and if one of those theoretical outfielders gets hurt, we would rather not dread watching Jiménez as he runs out to replace one of them in the field.
Now is not the time to punt on Jiménez’s defense. As the former No. 3 overall prospect, Jiménez is vital to what the White Sox are trying to do in the next few years, and improving his defense could go a long way.
A season by a left fielder that should be an attainable goal for Jiménez’s prime is Matt Holiday’s 2012 campaign. That year, Holiday slashed .295/.379/.497 with 27 homers, good for a 140 wRC+. Despite being 2.8 runs below average as a defender in a non-premium position, Holiday was a 4.6 WAR player thanks to his bat. And even if Jiménez falls a bit short of what Holiday pulled off, there is nothing wrong with having a 3.5 WAR guy who sends pitches to Mars as one of the best players on a contending team.