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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tejada's Dilemma

I mentioned in my free agent bargains post from earlier in the week that Miguel Tejada's negotiating position in the waning weeks of the offseason could be greatly improve if he is willing to consider becoming something other than a shortstop.  I want to point out, however, that there is more at stake than mere pride.  Tejada has been quietly climbing into the conversation of best hitting shortstops in the history of baseball.  His trails only Cal Ripken Jr. and A-Rod in homers hit as a shortstop during the integration era (I put very little stock in the numbers associated with a time during which a large cross-section of talent was not eligible to compete).  With another year at the position, Tejada would likely climb above 300 HR, at which point it would be hard to ignore him as part of the Hall of Fame debate.

Of course, mentions in the Mitchell Report will work against him, at least for the immediate future, but there is no denying Tejada's statistical credentials.  Sure, he's not quite in the league with Ripken, Rodriguez, and Ernie Banks, and he's never been great with the glove, but consider him in comparison to some of the other great shortstops who were most famous for their offensive contributions:

Miguel Tejada:
1871 G, 2114 H, 1116 R, 285 HR, 1185 RBI, 78 SB, .289 AVG, .341 OBP, .469 SLG
Robin Yount:
2856 G, 3142 H, 1632 R, 251 HR, 1406 RBI, 271 SB, .285 AVG, .342 OBP, .430 SLG
Pee Wee Reese:
2166 G, 2170 H, 1338 R, 126 HR, 885 RBI, 232 SB, .269 AVG, .366 OBP, .377 SLG
Alan Trammell:
2293 G, 2365 H, 1231 R, 185 HR, 1003 RBI, 236 SB, .285 AVG, .352 OBP, .415 SLG
Barry Larkin:
2180 G, 2340 H, 1329 R, 198 HR, 960 RBI, 379 SB, .295 AVG, .371 OBP, .444 SLG

All four of the above players were better than Tejada defensively, some by a wide margin, perhaps because they were all quicker, which also shows up in the steals department, but Tejada makes up for that weakness somewhat with his sizable power advantage.  With another couple years of merely mediocre production, he will eclipse all but Yount in most of the major counting categories, and Yount played a lot more total games (having entered the league when he was still a teenager) and played a lot fewer games at shortstop (his career was split almost perfectly down the middle between shortstop and centerfield).

Tejada also fairs pretty well in Bill James's "ink tests."  He won an MVP (in 2002) and received votes in eight different seasons (his highest finish outside of '02 was 5th)  He also earned two Silver Sluggers and made half a dozen All-Star appearances, including one in which he was awarded the All-Star MVP (in 2005).  He led the league in doubles twice and RBIs once, and has the fifth longest consecutive games streak in MLB history (1152 G).  Only Ripken and Steve Garvey have had longer ones since Gehrig.

Obviously, Miguel knows that his case for enshrinement and his place in the record books improves not only with every season he plays, but with every season he plays at shortstop, the most demanding position on the field (with the exception of the battery).  He's hardly the first to resist the moving on such grounds.  Trammell and Larkin also resisted position changes at the tail end of their careers.  Derek Jeter certainly recognized the advantage to his reputation of being the infield captain when he forced A-Rod to move to third base, despite the fact that Rodriguez was clearly the better defensive player.

It would greatly help Tejada's case if either Larkin or Trammell's campaigns gained some steam in the coming elections, but his greatest challenge (besides the scarlet letter) may be his own contemporaries.  He played shortstop during a renaissance era for the position.  A-Rod should be remembered as the best ever at the position, even though his case would've been even stronger had he stayed there for a couple more years.  Jeter is a future Hall of Famer as well, clearly, although the suggestion that he is better than Ripken is absolutely ludicrous.  Tejada might really fade into the background if Jimmy Rollins, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Troy Tulowitzki are able to maintain their production deep into their thirties.

I think it's important to point out, however, that although Tejada has not had the longevity of Jeter or Yount, he compares quite well when you analyze his peak years (the method which we can probably thank for the elections of Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, which I applaud).  Tejada was a dominating player for most of the noughties.  Here is his average season during his prime years, compared to Jeter's and Yount's.

Miguel Tejada '00-'06:
.297 AVG, .351 OBP, .498 SLG, 102 R, 29 HR, 116 RBI, 7 SB
Derek Jeter '98-'04:
.319 AVG, .390 OBP, .477 SLG, 116 R, 19 HR, 77 RBI, 23 SB
Robin Yount '82-'89:
.309 AVG, .375 OBP, .486 SLG, 98 R, 18 HR, 86 RBI, 16 SB

Obviously, Jeter and Tejada played during a more offensively-charged era, whereas Yount played in the small-ball eighties.  But, of this group, Tejada definitely played in the least friendly confines (most of his prime years came at the Coliseum) and had the least lineup protection.  The A's were potent in '00 and '01 (Giambi, Chavez, Damon, Dye, etc.), but no other team Tejada played on scored more than 800 runs.  On the other hand, every team Jeter played on reached that mark, and many exceeded it by a wide margin.  Again, Yount played during a different time, but the Brew Crew outscored their opponents in five of the years in question, led the AL in scoring once and finished second once (they also finished last once).

If we divide the shortstops of the integration era into tiers (not factoring in defensive wizards like Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, and Luis Aparicio), I believe it would look something like this:

Tier I:
Alex Rodriguez
Cal Ripken Jr.
Ernie Banks

Tier II:
Derek Jeter
Robin Yount
Miguel Tejada

Tier III:
Alan Trammell
Barry Larkin
Pee Wee Reese

Tier IV:
Nomar Garciaparra
Jim Fregosi
Jay Bell
Tony Fernandez
Alvin Dark

Even if we quibble about his defense (which was average for at least part of his career) and knock him down a tier, that still makes him one of best dozen or so at a demanding position.  He moves up slightly, I imagine, with a couple more good years.  Tejada's will be another case which irks the more stingy members of the BBWAA, but there's no denying that he belongs among the premier talent in the game's history.

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