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Wilson Valdez Isn't That Good at Baseball

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So Matt Gelb of the Inquirer recently suggested on his blog that Wilson Valdez (1) might not be a "stone-cold lock" to make the team out of spring training, and (2) is potentially replaceable. As repayment for this horrible slander, the caveman crowd at philly.com proceeded to heap insults on Gelb in the comments. (A big thumbs-up, by the way, should go out to our very own schmenkman for wading into the thread and trying to do some educatin'. Most of the commenters seemed to be resistant, however.)

TGP's audience probably does not overlap very much with the segment of Phillies fandom that comments frequently on philly.com, and thank goodness for that. Regardless, it never hurts to speak the truth, and the truth is that Gelb was right. Valdez is replaceable, and he shouldn't be a lock to make the team if someone else outperforms him in spring training. Why?

1. Valdez isn't a good offensive player. He doesn't get on base (2010 OBP = .306, lifetime OBP = .289). He has no power (2010 SLG = .360 despite achieving a career high in homers, lifetime SLG = .326). He doesn't steal that many bases (7 SB last year in 111 games). And as we all know, he hits into a veritable s**tload of double plays - while the staggering 20 he hit into last year was a bit flukish, anybody who consistently hits 60% grounders with average-at-best speed is going to collect his fair share of GIDPs.

2. Valdez isn't that great at defense. Yeah he has a great arm. So? That's only one component of defense. It's nice, but if you don't get to the ball first, your arm doesn't matter. And Valdez is okay, but only okay, at getting to grounders. UZR may be a flawed, volatile stat, but it's better than most other stats out there, and Valdez posted a 4.6 UZR/150 at shortstop and a -0.1 UZR/150 at second base last year. That's nothing special. By way of comparison, Jimmy Rollins posted a 12.3 in 2010, a 5.0 in 2009, and a 15.2 in 2008.

Simply put, bad offense + so-so defense = a replaceable player, even at shortstop.

The purpose of all this is not to bury Valdez. He was a nice surprise for us in 2010. We got him for nothing, we had no expectations for him, we needed him to be competent when Rollins and Utley went down, and he was competent. If he had played a full 162 games (shudder), he would have accumulated about 1.4 WAR, which suggests that he played significantly better than a guy off the street would have. (Seriously, it was pretty decent. He played at about the same level as Orlando Cabrera, which is nothing to be ashamed of.) But that was a career-best performance, which came at age 32, and which he may or may not be able to duplicate at age 33. And even if he can duplicate it, it's not as if replacing a 1.4 WAR player with somebody else would be the end of the world. We can appreciate what Valdez did for the Phils in 2010 without losing all perspective about how important he is for their chances to win in 2011.

This is all obvious enough. What's really interesting, and a little puzzling, isn't why Valdez's most rabid defenders are wrong, but why he has rabid defenders in the first place. It's not as if Valdez was a fan favorite for most of 2010: I heard plenty of complaining over the course of the year about all the DPs he was hitting into. And it's not as if he had a ton of "clutch hits" or other memorable moments that might distort the uneducated fan's mental impression of him. And (to people's credit, sort of) it's not as if he's a scrappy white guy who might inspire cultural identification.

No, I think the main explanation is groupthink. At some point late in 2010, somebody came up with the neat counterintuitive idea that "Wilson Valdez is our MVP!" As the idea spread, it somehow evolved into a marker of being part of the "in" crowd and privy to the "in" shoptalk - since no outside observer would ever pick Wilson Valdez out as any team's MVP, saying it yourself signaled that you were a close follower of the Phillies who knew all of the team's secret counterintuitive factoids. And then it turned into conventional wisdom, which now must be defended at all costs.

But it's wrong. Valdez isn't that good. He shouldn't be a "stone-cold" lock to make this team. And if we lose him, he can be replaced. The end.