No Black Hole at 2B: The Maicer Izturis Solution


Apr 3, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Maicer Izturis (3) forces out Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) and throws the ball to first for a double play during the third inning at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I recently received my copy of the 2015 Baseball Prospectus.  Turning immediately to the Blue Jays section, I read with interest their comments about players such as Michael Saunders (“licking subway cars”) and Devon Travis (“Hickory Farms gift basket”).  I then looked for Maicer Izturis, only to find that he had been relegated to the “Lineouts” section along with players such as Fields, Gindl and Kalish.  In the minds of Baseball Prospectus, he was not even worth a writeup.

By now, Maicer’s 2013 has become the stuff of legend.  His fangraphs WAR (fWAR) of -2.2 was the very worst in baseball.  Hopes for a rebound in 2014 were dashed after 11 games when he suffered a complete tear of his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) in a fall down the dugout stairs.

The prevailing wisdom going into 2015 is that Maicer is done, and that he will not be a factor in filling the “black hole” that so many writers believe exists at second base.

I am not so sure.

Backround to 2013

Going into 2013, Maicer was coming off a 7-year stretch in which he averaged a fWAR/600 (a fWAR extrapolated to 600 plate appearances) over 2.5, with an average 370 PAs/year .  This is very good, when you consider that a 2.0 fWAR represents an average mlb player.

What happened?

Maicer’s terrible 2013 appears to have been the result of a perfect storm of three negative factors all coming together at once.

The first was the usual effect of moving from Anaheim, where he had played for eight years, to a new team.  He had new coaches, new teammates, and a new fanbase that he wanted to win over.  Adding to that pressure was having to compete for the starting second base job with Emilio Bonifacio, after having been signed on the basis that the job was his to lose.  As Maicer himself put it, he may have tried to do too much, placing too much pressure on himself.

The second factor has nothing to do with baseball.  Maicer was born in Venezuela, and most of his family still lives there.  Venezuela is a beautiful country which loves its baseball, but it has serious problems with organized crime.  One of the most common crimes is kidnapping.  It was estimated in 2009 that as many as 17,000 people were kidnapped each year, and families known to have money were preferred targets.  As a result, professional baseball players were at particular risk.  In 2005, the mother of Ugueth Urbina was kidnapped and held for five months before being rescued.   In 2008, the brother of Henry Blanco was abducted and killed.  And in November 2011, Wilson Ramos was abducted in broad daylight from his home (he was fortunately rescued two days later by Venezuelan security forces).

“Sometimes the fans, they don’t know about that situation.  We are persons.  We try to play ball the right way to make the fans happy, but sometimes the people don’t understand what kind of problems you have.  We have to be strong”

One factor that prevented the situation from degenerating into total anarchy was the presence of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s highly authoritarian leader.  Chavez’s death in March, 2013 – just days before the start of the baseball season – gave rise to a highly contested election and widespread fears of escalating violence.  Maicer’s $10 million contract was both public knowledge and recent, making his family highly visible targets at this very dangerous time.  He was understandably concerned about their safety, calling them every day after work and sometimes from the dugout.   This concern made it very difficult for Maicer to give baseball his full attention.

The final factor was conditioning.  Maicer is 5’8” and has maintained a playing weight of about 155 pounds for many years.  In 2013, possibly due to distraction from the above factors, he reported to camp roughly ten pounds overweight.  For a player like Maicer, who relies on speed and agility, this was significant.  It affected his defensive range as well as causing a change in his leg kick when batting, making it harder to make good contact.

The results of these factors were not surprising.

Maicer’s March/April was terrible, with a wRC+ of 33 and a .193/.221/.289 slash line.  May was better, with a wRC+ of 69, but still far from acceptable.

As the season progressed, things began to improve.  The feared meltdown in Venezuela did not happen – while there were protests, government and military leaders generally supported the new President.  It also appears that Maicer began to regain his playing shape, resolving problems like his leg kick.  His wRC+ in June was 82, and in July was 93.  His BABIP had risen from .187 in March/April to .245, .282 and finally .314 in July.  He had a poor August, fueled by an unnaturally low .208 BABIP, before spraining his ankle on August 24, ending his season.

So, as bad as Maicer’s 2013 was, there were grounds for cautious optimism.  At a minimum, it did not appear that he was truly as bad as his 2013 stats would imply.

2014 – Which Maicer?

Given Maicer’s terrible 2013, he was under considerable scrutiny when he arrived in camp in the spring of 2014.

Initial indications were favourable.  He was clearly more comfortable with his team and teammates, and eager to demonstrate that 2013 was an aberration.  He had lost 10 pounds in the off-season, and infield coach Luis Perez described him as “lighter, quicker and more agile”.  And the situation in Venezuela had stabilized somewhat, with the majority of ongoing demonstrations being peaceful.  Maicer also had the advantage of playing at a single position – 2B, his best – after bouncing between 2B, SS and 3B in 2013.

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Defensively, his abbreviated 2014 season went well.  Not only were his defensive metrics much improved, but Maicer was also impressing in the “eye test” area.  In a game against Houston on April 8th, for example, he made a diving stop behind second and, lying on his stomach, glove-flipped the ball to Jonathan Diaz for a key double play.

His offense was also much improved from his 2013 start, with an 80 wRC+ over those first 11 games.

But the LCL injury, after only 11 games, left a lot of questions.  Was the pre-2013 Maicer really back?  Or had he just had a lucky start?

Which brings us to 2015

Maicer’s LCL injury should be fully healed for spring training 2015. He was described by John Gibbons as being  “in the best shape of his life”.   The new team and Venezuelan issues should also be less distracting.  So which Maicer will we see in 2015?

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Steamer projects a 2015 offensive line of .256/.309/.353 with a wRC+ of 85, just below Maicer’s career averages of .269/.331/.372 and 91.  This is probably fair, given that he turned 34 in September.

Steamer is less optimistic on the subject of Maicer’s defense, projecting a negative defensive rating.  This is surprising, as Maicer has had a positive defensive rating in 7 of his last 8 years (with 2013 being the sole exception).    It is possible that Steamer expects Maicer to fill a bench utility role and accordingly assumes that he will be playing a good portion of the time at shortstop.  It is probably true that Maicer is now a below-average shortstop, so under that assumption the Steamer projection makes sense.

But what if, instead, we assume that Maicer is the starting 2B for as many months as it takes for Devon Travis to force his way into the lineup?  Maicer has a career defensive rating of good to very good (depending on whether you give him a mulligan for 2013) at 2B.  If he maintained that defensive pace, and achieved the offense predicted above, Maicer would project to a fWAR/600 of 1.5 – 2.0, or just slightly below league average.

I believe that the Jays would be more than satisfied with that level of production from 2B, given the strengths that exist elsewhere in the lineup.

Not bad for a Lineout?

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