A Case for J.B. Shuck

Those of you out there who listen to our podcasts are probably used to hearing me complain about defensive metrics. In the end, my objections to defensive metrics are limited in their scope - I just think they should be approached as pieces of data, rather than definitive, precise measurements. However, that does not mean that I don't care about defense, or that I don't think it's important. For a long time, defense was so underrated that it was one of the market inefficiencies that Billy Beane tried to exploit. Picked up off the scrap heap, J.B. Shuck could provide a lot of value with his glove this year - especially given the White Sox' recent history.

Not to pile on to the recently departed Dayan Viciedo - who may actually have found a good fit in Toronto, given their ability to get the most out of guys whose main tool is power - but the guy could not play defense at all. I have yet to hear anybody argue that he had any range whatsoever, and somehow he managed fielding percentages of .970 and .965 in each of the past two seasons. In left field.  For reference, the league average for fielding percentage in LF last year was .984.  Not only was he not getting to as many balls as he should have been, he was dropping them at an absurd rate when he did. And, perversely, as in so many other areas of his game, it seemed as though Viciedo was getting worse every year. 

Melky Cabrera gets mixed reviews on his defense. He came up as a CF, but he has obviously filled out and aged considerably since then. Complicating matters further is that he hasn't been completely healthy for extended periods of time over the last several years. But those who are analyzing the addition of Melky in a vacuum - "2-3 win player" etc. - aren't taking into account that he is replacing a sub-replacement player. a 2-3 win guy replacing a -1 win guy theoretically means an improvement of 3-4 wins. 

Anyway, yesterday J.B. Shuck did this.  When I first tried to find this catch, I accidentally also found this. While I appreciate that a couple of highlight plays does not a great defender make - I remember Yuniesky Betancourt, after all - there are elements of how Shuck tracked the ball, his route, and the timing of his dive that convey confidence, competence, and comfort. Part of what was so special about Viciedo's outfield butchery was that the optics matched the product. Viciedo looked exactly as uncomfortable as you would expect given his defensive production. It wasn't a situation where he looked smooth out there but then at the end of the year it turned out he had been hemorrhaging runs. It was not a Derek Jeter situation where he looked amazing at everything he could get to, which disguised his statuesque range. Viciedo was a defensive trainwreck in every way (except throwing, which I would argue is a secondary defensive skill in the outfield, although I suppose it matters more when you're running after base hits that you allow because you couldn't just catch it in the first place). 

Watching Shuck's highlight grab from yesterday was jarring to me - I have no longer come to expect anything but stiff incompetence from our corner outfielders. It was visually startling to me to watch someone smoothly glide on a straight trajectory and comfortably make a difficult catch. You can even go back to Jermaine Dye, and in his last years his range was just completely shot. Corner outfield defense is an area they have, essentially, punted for about a decade. Shuck, as I understand it, is good enough that he can back up Eaton in center if need be. 

When trying to measure or predict improvements from year-to-year, part of it is a comparative exercise - juxtaposing what's on the roster now versus what was on the roster last year. And, projections are hard - baseball players' performance can fluctuate significantly from one season to the next.  But it looks like, at a minimum, the defense in left field will be vastly improved, and that's a prediction of talent gained that White Sox fans should feel extremely confident about. 

Shuck's skilled glovework makes him a solid candidate for fourth outfielder. While the presence of both Bonifacio and Beckham makes it a little less clear (prior to Beckham's return I would have just said that Bonifacio would primarily back up the IF while Shuck would take the OF), the bench also looks vastly stronger than the 2014 version. Instead of Konerko - Leury - Viciedo - Nieto, the 2015 iteration will likely be Bonifacio - Beckham - Shuck - Soto. That's probably an upgrade at every spot.

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