Thinking Outside the Bun, Part 2: Shortstop, continued

So we aren't going to trade for Chone Figgins or Alfonso Soriano. Nice thought experiments, and I think the ideas can make for good conversations, but those are not things that will happen. But let's not give up on shortstop just yet. So let's talk about...

CODY RANSOM: Now you already love Cody Ransom for muffing that grounder that cost the Giants a shot at the postseason in a bunch of years ago. (Brief aside: Giants fans crucified him way more than he deserved for that. The bullpen choked just as hard as he did.) But no matter how highly publicized a defensive mistake is, it's still just one mistake. Cody Ransom doesn't go out there and boot every ground ball he sees.

If you read Fangraphs regularly, you might remember the little piece they did on Ransom a few months back, when he was DFA'd and then picked up by Milwaukee. The gist of it was, "This guy has played for a lot of teams and has not gotten much playing time." So far, he's been able to hang around with Milwaukee, but he isn't doing so well. So why do I want him? I don't know. Maybe it's because he fits in pretty well with the entire aesthetic and ethos of this A's team. The Brandons Moss and Inge, Bartolo Colon, Josh Reddick, Travis Blackley, Sean Doolittle, Chris Carter, even Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes in a way...this team is not made up of a bunch of regular dudes. Cody Ransom, who has, in his entire career, just about managed to collect enough plate appearances to comprise a good sample size if they had all taken place in one season (609), could fit right in there.

But why take a chance on Ransom? Hasn't he already shown that he doesn't have what it takes?, he hasn't shown that at all. Let's start with offense. He's averaged just under 61 plate appearances in the 10 seasons in which he's played big league ball. His median total for plate appearances in a season is 46. This season is the first one in which he's had more than 86. He has never had more than 200 plate appearances for one team in one season, although he's finally going to this year, for the Brewers. Continuing on this note, the Brewers are actually the first time for which he's cracked 150 plate appearances at all, whether in one season or not. With the Brewers, Ransom has what is arguably his first regular job on a baseball team.

You get what I'm driving at: the man has had a lot of chances in the big leagues, but excluding this current chance he's been given in Milwaukee, they've been of the sort that Chris Carter was given in the past couple of years. A lot of A's fans, myself included, felt that Carter had not been given a reasonable shot at proving or disproving himself. While I had begun to lose faith in his abilities, I still didn't think that he was to be given up on, because if we did that we would be doing it based on nothing at all. Sure enough, he's doing fine this year with a more extended opportunity, and his defense even looks passable.

Ransom has gotten a whole lot of that sort of treatment. In most of the places where he's been called up from AAA, he's been called up as a temporary replacement for an injured or struggling starter that was always slated to come back. He hasn't generally set the world afire, but he's had some decent stints. Given that he's really not been given a serious look against MLB pitching-except maybe this year, and that's arguable-I think he can be forgiven for his lifetime .218/.307/.390 slash line and the accompanying .307 wOBA and 86 WRC+. I even think he can be forgiven for his very similar 2012 line of .214/.313/.403, with a .313 wOBA and a 93 WRC+.

Do you know why I think that? Because, once again, Oakland's production from that position has been abysmal. It has been roundly, unarguably worse, to the tune of .187/.258/.296, with a .250 wOBA and a 55 WRC+ along for the ride. A's shortstops have been worth 0.3 WAR this year in 541 plate appearances, through 111 games. Cody Ransom has been worth 1.2 WAR, and it only took him 226 plate appearances in 70 games to do it. Put another way, one guy has been four times as good as four people that have played his position for the A's, even though he's been given less than half the opportunities.

Put yet another way, let's imagine that Cody Ransom had been our everyday shortstop from square one this season. You figure he'd have had about 475 PAs or so by now, give or take a few, barring injury. Now I know extrapolations are not super-reliable, but just roll with the fantasy for a second. Ransom's pace, so far this season, suggests that if he'd been our guy at shortstop all season long, he'd have been worth about 2.5 WAR to this point in the season. To keep playing this idea out, a full 2012 season of Cody Ransom as the regular shortstop for the A's-let's say he gets 575 PAs over a full season-would be worth, assuming the current pace holds, about 3.1 WAR.

Again, I get that he's not setting the world afire. Guess what? Still better than what we've got going on at shortstop. 162 points better, by OPS. An OPS of .716? That doesn't sound bad to me. For example, a name I've seen tossed around a lot by various ANers as a SS solution so desirable as to be considered basically unattainable is Starlin Castro. Starlin Castro is OPSing exactly one point higher than Cody Ransom. He slugs a little better, OBPs a little worse. And Castro's wOBA and WRC+ are actually lower than Ransom's. They are both nine points lower than Ransom's. If Ransom could hit the way he's been hitting this season over a full season, or even a half-season, he'd be a pretty acceptable shortstop. An OPS of around .700, and a wOBA of around .300, is perfectly acceptable at a position like shortstop, particularly when you look at how badly we've done with our shortstops this season. It's also not that fluky for Ransom. It's pretty much in line with his career OPS of .697 and his career wOBA of .307.

Is it reasonable to expect Cody Ransom to hit like Starlin Castro and Willie Bloomquist and Rafael Furcal, the three shortstops with qualifying PAs whose offensive production (by OPS, wOBA, and WRC+) in 2012 most resembles Ransom's? I can't quite tell. On the one hand, no, it probably isn't. On the other hand, why isn't it? He doesn't go about producing his OPS and wOBA figures in exactly the same way as those guys do, and certainly not in as pretty a way. In fact, Ransom's method of reaching those figures is downright Custian, which is weird to say about a shortstop.

Or perhaps it's more Bartonian. Now before the mere mention of Daric Barton's name gets you madder than a rained-on rooster, think about this. How many of you objected to Barton's production mostly because it came from the cool corner, a traditional offensive powerhouse position, rather than from some place where it would have fit in the middle infield? How many of us have wondered whether, had Barton been a middle infielder, he wouldn't have tinkered with his approach, his mindset, his stance, his swing, or anything else quite so much, and wouldn't have toppled off a cliff into AAAA oblivion? And yet, somehow, Daric Barton got a real opportunity to play baseball in the Major Leagues, and Cody Ransom never did. It's life.

The point is, Ransom has OPS'd .716 this season despite barely hitting over the Mendoza Line. That's a full 502 points of difference between his OPS and his batting average. Those are the kinds of differentials one might expect from a guy like Adam Dunn or Jack Cust, TTO hitters who don't do much in terms of batting average but draw walks and hit for good power. And it turns out, that's kind of what Ransom does too. Almost half of his hits this season (45%, to be precise) have been for extra bases, and almost half of those (47%, to be precise) have been homers. His slugging has been good enough for a .189 ISO. If you're curious, that would be the second-best ISO among major league shortstops if Ransom had done it with a qualifying amount of plate appearances, behind only Ian Desmond, and better than any AL shortstop by 33 points (J.J. Hardy's .156 leads AL shortstops.) He also walks a lot: his OBP is 99 points higher than his batting average. With Ransom, the moneyball adage that "a walk is as good as a hit" is very much the case, as he has literally collected more walks than singles. Of the occasions when Ransom has reached based safely, exactly 40% have come from walks and HBPs.

Now Ransom has been playing in the NL this year. Is he walking so much because of his spot in the batting order? That's often a knock against a guy who has good walk rates and not much else when he's playing in the National League, because we tend to assume he's hitting in the #8 hole, right in front of the pitcher. That's going to give you a lot of walks. In fact, I saw someone make this point about George Kottaras here on AN when we acquired him. It's not like pitchers were intentionally walking George, but they probably weren't too worried about pitching to him, because the pitcher was about to come up. So let's look into Ransom's batting order tendencies. In 70 games, he's appeared as the #5 hitter 3 times, the #6 hitter 11 times, the #7 hitter 25 times, the #8 hitter 18 times, and the #9 hitter 10 times. He PH'd in the other three games, entering twice at the #2 spot and once at the #4 spot. So he's only been hitting in front of the pitcher about a quarter of the time. Yeah, his walk rate might go down if he was in our lineup, but I don't know that it would crater. Proportionally speaking, he does his best BBing in the 7-hole and his worst BBing in the 6-hole.

Finally, I don't know how much people value ZiPS. I've heard folks talk about it as gospel, and I've heard folks talk about it as garbage. Most of us probably fall somewhere between those two extremes. So whatever you think of ZiPS, the projection system thinks Cody Ransom is good for 1.5 WAR, a .214/.304/.393 slash line (adding up to a .697 OPS), and a .304 wOBA in 352 plate appearances. Stretch that out into a full season of production and you get about 2.5 WAR. So whether you like the ZiPS Cody Ransom or the Ben Folds' Nuts Cody Ransom, you're basically looking at a guy worth between 2.5 and 3.1 WAR over a full season, putting up a slash line somewhere in the neighborhood of .210/.310/.400, for .710 OPS and a .310 wOBA and a 90ish WRC+.

I'm fine with being pessimistic, at least to some extent, so let's dial that all the way down to the low end. 2.5 WAR, .700 OPS, .300 wOBA, 90 WRC+. Would we take an ultra-cheap shortstop (who doubles as a super-sub if we ever find a better SS solution) who produces those kinds of numbers? Before you answer, remember what our shortstops are currently doing. If you've forgotten in the paragraphs since I last cited these figures, I'll refresh your memory. A's shortstops are hitting below the Mendoza Line. They are just barely OPSing over .550. Their wOBA is .250 on the nose. Their WRC+ is under 60. Compared to that, Cody Ransom is a revelation.

And fine, let's be even more pessimistic. Let's say that transplanting him to the American League against better pitching, in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly ballparks, in a lineup where he would be one of the weaker links and would therefore be easier to pitch to, let's say that his production drops off a bit. And let's say that a full season of work exposes something about him that we haven't seen yet (even though he's amassed about a full season of PAs over the course of his career, a span which has generated a career stat line that is basically the same as his 2012 one and the same as the various projected ones that have been discussed thus far.) Let's go ahead and assume that all of that will happen, and he's nowhere near as productive for us as he has been for every other team he's played for. I still think he does something in the neighborhood of .200/.275/.375. No, that's not super-fantastic. But neither is .187/.258/.296, and that's what we're getting out of our shortstops so far this year. If Cody Ransom is an easy guy to take a chance on, and I have to assume the Brewers wouldn't make too much of a stink about giving him to us, then I'm happy to take that chance.

We haven't talked yet about Ransom's defense. That's because the most glaring problem with the A's at the shortstop position has been offense. The defense there has actually been basically fine, and is the only reason we've managed even our meager 0.3 WAR from the position. There's another reason I haven't said anything about Ransom's defense: I don't know very much about it. He's logged more innings at shortstop than at any other position, with the only other position at which he's received any appreciable time being third base. But he's only worked 656.2 innings at SS, and 478.1 at 3B. Even taken together, that's only 1135.

We usually talk about a player needing a full three seasons before we can really rely on the currently available fielding metrics to give us a good picture of him. For example, Cliff Pennington, between 2009 and 2012, has played pretty much the equivalent of three full seasons. He's played shortstop in 445 games in that timespan, and he's worked 3828 innings at the position. If spread out over a theoretical three seasons, that averages out to about 148 games and 1276 innings. In the actual four seasons under discussion, he clocked 1304.2 and 1272.1 in his two full seasons, and if we fold 2009 and 2012 together as a makeshift third full season, he has 1251 innings for that season.

If you take a look at the four numbers that have been associated with the word "innings" in the previous paragraph-1276, 1304.2, 1272.1, 1251-you'll find that they all have something in common. That thing is that they are all bigger than 1135. By a small but not insignificant amount. 1135, you'll recall, is the total number of innings that Cody Ransom has worked at shortstop and third base, combined. So not only has Cody Ransom not built up a full three seasons of work at shortstop, and not only has he not built up a full one season of work at shortstop...he hasn't even built up a full season of work on the left side of the infield.* I think it's fair to say that we don't yet know what his true talent level is. But we do have the SSS data from his various and brief stints at SS and 3B. That will have to do.

And what do we find in the SSS data? Nothing encouraging at 3B, that's for sure. He has a career UZR of -7.9 at the position in 478.1 innings. By way of a rough comparison, Yoenis Cespedes has a -7.4 UZR in left field this season. So Ransom's third base defense is about as bad, in a small sample size sense, as that of Cespedes in left field. Things are a lot sunnier, however, at shortstop, where Ransom has a career UZR of 2.0 in 652.2 innings. More happy news: this season, he's played more shortstop than he ever did before. He's got 277.2 innings of work at the position in 2012, easily more than any other three seasons of his career combined, and over a third of his career innings at short. So this season has given us our best-ever look at Cody Ransom as a major-league defensive shortstop. The result has been a UZR of 3.2. Not stellar, but certainly not bad, and if you'll indulge another wild extrapolation, it comes out to around 14.7 for a full season's work.

Moving back to the raw figure of a 3.2 UZR in 277.2 innings, let's find another rough comparison. The best one I can find, in terms of A's players, is none other than the aforementioned Daric Barton who chalked up a UZR of 4.7 in UZR in 285 innings this season. So in other words, you know how good Daric Barton was at playing 1B defense this year? Cody Ransom has been about 70% as good as that at playing SS defense. That doesn't sound very flattering, but it isn't unflattering either. As noted previously, we don't know much about who Cody Ransom is as a defensive shortstop.

So what's the bottom line here? As with almost everybody I've mentioned in this discussion, Cody Ransom is pretty much guaranteed to not be the long-term answer for the A's, at any position. He's 36 years old and if he's still playing ball at 40, you can color me about as surprised as Steve Sax after fielding a ground ball cleanly. But in all of these numbers, do you not see a guy who should have been given his shot at being Ken Phelps? There are some troubling things in his peripheral numbers, and it's entirely possible that he's as bad as every GM who's ever employed him figured him to be. But I really cannot imagine the A's being any weaker at the shortstop position, and here's a guy who is the very definition of affordable, and who is currently outperforming the A's shortstops at the plate-by a lot-and has produced only a couple runs fewer on defense. Take a chance, Billy. Things can't get any worse at shortstop. And as far as "team chemistry" and such mysterious magical ideas, can there possibly be a better fit for this assembled-from-spare-parts ballclub than Cody gawrsh-darned Ransom, participant in all of 301 MLB games in 12 years?

*Ransom does finally reach "one full season of work" territory on defense if we add in his innings at 2B and 1B, which put him at 1302.1 total innings of infield time. At 1B, he sports a cool -20.6 UZR/150. At 2B, he's just as small-sample-size-good as he is small-sample-size-bad at 1B. His UZR/150 at 2B is an unsustainably sexy 22.2. And if you were wondering, he also played one inning of LF. It was in 2004, and he was playing for the Giants. Not a single ball was hit his direction. One assumes he was pleased by that development.

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