Last week, after a throwaway comment about his inclusion among the elite shortstops, we had a delightful repartee in the comments section about Jimmy Rollins. I rarely own Rollins because of his first- and second-round cost, but perceive him as elite from afar, so some of the comments surprised me. Was his 2008 “crappy?” Has he really not been elite for years? Do you have to be taken in the first two rounds to be elite? Let’s try and go at this without preconceptions and work forward.
What is elite? I might have a healthy Rollins as the fourth- or fifth-best shortstop in the fantasy baseball this year. Would that be elite? A comparable outfielder would be one that was in the top third at his position, or the ninth- or tenth-best OF. That would be somewhere between Vladimir Guerrero and Hunter Pence so far in 2010. That doesn’t pass the sniff test, so it doesn’t look like Rollins is ‘elite’ if elite means something like the top tenth at a certain position. Certainly, Rollins is not passing Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes is healthier and younger, so that’s debatable as well.
So does Rollins belong in the same tier even? He does own a career 105 wRC+, which looks great compared to the average batting-average qualifying shortstop this year – 86 wRC+. Perhaps a comparison to Troy Tulowitzki will help. Tulo put up 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases to Rollins’ 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases last year, and while that seems fairly comparable, Rollins of course had a .250 batting average while he accrued his stats, compared to Tulo’s much more palatable .297 number. Case closed? Rollins’ batting average sinks him from the tier?
Maybe. It’s pretty stark. But Rollins had a .251 BABIP last year, which pales next to Tulowitzki’s .316 in the same season, and also next to his own .291 career BABIP. So if Rollins had put up something closer to his .273 career batting average, he probably would be a lot closer to fitting in the tier, no?
Then there’s the issue of Tulowitzki’s speed. It’s inconsistent. It’s not something to depend on. His career success rate is 61%, and his career speed score is 5.1 (5.0 is average). He never stole more than six bases in a minor league season, either. It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to predict that he’ll never again steal twenty bases.
So let’s try to ‘normalize’ Tulowitzki’s stats using his career ISO and this analysis of his speed. If he’s a .190 ISO guy, with questionable speed, we might want to guesstimate something like a .290 season with 25 home runs and 10 stolen bases next year. Other guys with .190-.200 ISOs this season include David Wright, Delmon Young and Torii Hunter, and though ISO doesn’t straight up equal home run power, this seems to make sense.
What would a similar guesstimation have to say about Rollins? Let’s take his career batting average, accrued over 6800 plate appearances, add it to his plus speed, and take his .163 career ISO to spit out something like .270, 12 home runs and 35+ stolen bases in a healthy year. That seems comparable to Tulo, even if you give the younger shortstop a nudge for being younger and having more power. Stolen bases are rare, and getting them from a middle infielder is a bonus.
The gorilla in the room is Rollins’ age. He’ll be 32 next year and aging middle infielders can find themselves in precipitous declines – just ask Derek Jeter how 2010 is going. Rollins’ ISO has declined, generally, over the past four years, and his speed scores, though still nice (7.0 this year), have fallen off his elite pace as well. Even though it’s tempting to say he’s been ‘oft-injured’ recently, it’s hard to discern a serious trend in his plate appearance totals. It’s definitely worth noting that his lowest two plate appearance totals will have come in the past three years, though.
Yes, Rollins is declining. Yup, he’s probably not elite. Yes, most people would take Tulowitzki over Rollins. But no, he’s not dead yet. And no, despite his injury-riddled 2010 and poor-luck-addled 2009, he’s not quite ‘crappy’ just yet. Taken at the right moment in 2011, he may just win a few fantasy leagues next year. Heck, his comeback may just win a couple fantasy leagues this year, provided his owners didn’t fall too far off the pace while he was out.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.