I ain’t an athlete lady, I’m a ballplayer.”
That’s the famous quote from John Kruk, after a woman questioned his conditioning after seeing him drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at a restaurant during Spring Training one year. Kruk’s listed height and weight over at Baseball-Reference is 5’10, 170. The former is likely right, the latter likely off somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 pounds by the time he retired.
I thought of that Kruk quote Sunday, when Ruben Tejada was thrown out stealing by about five feet, despite getting a good jump on the pitch and the opposing catcher double-clutching before making the throw. Unlike Kruk, Tejada is 5’11, 185 pounds and looks like a traditional cut athlete, one who we would assume was a fast runner.
In this Olympic year, if Tejada and Jordany Valdespin competed one-on-one in a decathlon, I have little doubt that Valdespin would smoke him. It would not surprise me in the slightest if Valdespin would win all 10 events.
Valdespin’s an athlete while Tejada’s a baseball player.
Tejada’s not fast and he has little over-the-fence power. In 810 ABs in the majors, Tejada has 2 HR. Meanwhile, in 127 ABs this year, Valdespin has 7 HR. He also has 5 SB in 133 PA, compared to 1 SB in 289 PA for Tejada.
But what Tejada lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in baseball ability. Let’s see how these two compare in baseball skills:
Strike Zone Judgment – Tejada’s BB/K rate is 3X better (.36 to .12)
Zone Contact Percentage – Not only is Tejada better at recognizing balls and strikes, he’s better at hitting strikes, with a 92.6 Z-Contact rate compared to 84.2 for Valdespin. Tejada’s also better at hitting pitches out of the strike zone, with a 67.8 O-Contact rate compared to 65.4 for Valdespin.
Line Drive Percentage – Once you hit the ball, the best outcome is a line drive, which results in a hit nearly 72 percent of the time this year in the National League. Tejada has a LD% of 30.7 compared to a 10.6 rate from Valdespin.
Fielding – Valdespin has a (-6 DRS) in 204.2 innings in the field, which is not good. A full season is somewhere around 1,200 innings, meaning at his current rate, Valdespin would cost his team around 3.5 wins on defense alone. In 547 innings at SS, Tejada has a 0 DRS, meaning he’s an average fielder for the position.
Of course, Valdespin is hurt here by his athleticism, as it means he’s playing out of position in the outfield. Let’s compare Valdespin at 2B and SS to Tejada at those same positions in 2010 and 2011, when he bounced back and forth between the two spots. Valdespin is a (-4) in 74.1 innings in the middle infield while Tejada was a (-2) in 609.2 innings in 2010 and he posted a 0 DRS in 810.1 innings in 2011.
Perhaps the sample size is too small to accurately judge Valdespin. But if the 2013 Mets have both players in the starting lineup, there’s absolutely no doubt that Tejada would play the tougher defensive position of shortstop, while Valdespin would be either at 2B or CF.
Valdespin has excelled as a PH this year, with a .259/.333/.815 line, thanks to 5 HR in 27 ABs as a pinch-hitter. But as a starter, he has a .261/.278/.375 line in 91 PA. This is who he is. The PH performance was magical and a lot of fun to see the rookie take veteran closers deep. But if I was asked to sum up those exploits in two words, I would use “exciting” and “unsustainable.” Just because they were exciting does not mean we should take that as his baseline level of performance. We are seeing first hand pitchers exploiting his weaknesses once they face him on a regular basis.
The baseball season is a grind, which rewards reliability and exposes weaknesses. In his brief career, Tejada has proven the ability to take close pitches, go deep in counts, hit line drives and play a solid MLB shortstop. Valdespin has displayed a flair for the dramatic with several exciting homers as a pinch-hitter. He’s not embarrassed himself in CF and the OF is probably his best chance for playing time with the Mets.
At age 24, Valdespin looks like he belongs in the majors, in one role or another. At age 22, Tejada looks like an MLB SS capable of hitting in either of the top spots in the order. Putting on my Carnac the Magnificent hat, in five years it’s easy to see Tejada challenging for an All-Star berth. In five years Valdespin will be hoping that Dayton Moore still believes in his tools enough to give him another shot.
But that’s pure speculation on my part. Let’s watch Valdespin get MLB experience and see if he can adjust to how pitchers are trying to get him out. Let’s see if he can learn some patience at the plate. Let’s see if he can develop into a good bunter to take advantage of his speed. Let’s see if he can learn how to play the outfield. Let’s see if this athlete can become a ballplayer.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy Tejada for the player he already is. And I would like to invite Terry Collins to do the same thing. There is no need to bust Tejada’s chops for not arriving *early* to Spring Training and there’s no reason to get on his case about stealing more bases, either.
Just remember, Tejada’s a ballplayer, not an athlete.