With rumours swirling, we ask if Marwin Gonzalez might be the Toronto Blue Jays’ “Ben Zobrist”?
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There are certain position that can help a team beyond their own Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The classic example is a catcher. Many of the ways that an elite catcher can help a pitching staff are not reflected in WAR, and as a result evaluating a catcher solely on WAR is dangerous. A similar argument can be made about elite closers.
But what about elite utility players?
Yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron. Utility players are usually in that role because they are not strong enough to hold down a full-time gig. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are rare. So how can a player who might only get 100 games and 400 PAs possibly move the win needle enough to make a difference?
Let’s begin with a definition. I call a player who can provide above-average defense (I usually use DRS to measure defense for this purpose) at multiple positions while hitting at close to a mlb level a “Ben Zobrist” (hey – if a complete game shutout with less than 100 pitches is a “Maddux” and a .200 batting average is “the Mendoza line”, I am entitled!).
Well, first of all, there is the player’s own fWAR. A marginal utility player usually has a fWAR of 0-0.5. A Zobrist has 1.0-2.0. So it is a reasonable approximation to say that a Zobrist adds 1 win in his own right. But his value does not stop there. A manager is frequently faced with situations that require flexibility. It could be a short-term injury, or just the desire to give a player rest. It could be a pinch-hitting or pinch-running situation, or a late-game defensive replacement, or an unconventional lineup designed to face a particular pitcher.
In each case, the manager’s decision is affected by the confidence he has in his bench, and the flexibility of that bench. Do you pinch-run for Rowdy in a tight game? Do you have an elite defensive RF to replace Teo (or Vladdy at 3B) in the 9th? Do you have the luxury of giving Vladdy/Bo/Cavan/Marcus a day off, without worrying about how bad a hole it will leave in your lineup? The manager will be more likely to make these kinds of moves to try to squeeze that last drop of advantage, if he has high confidence in his bench backup.
So let’s talk about Marwin Gonzalez.
Marwin is an extraordinary defender in that he has a positive career DRS (i.e. he is above average defensively by that metric) in *SIX* different positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF and RF. He has even played CF (ok, you caught me – for a grand total of 3 career innings!). And he is not just marginally above average – his career DRS/1200 in LF and RF are both over 10 (which is d*ng good). His bat has been less impressive, with the exception of a 2017 year with Houston (*cough*trash can*cough*) but his advanced stats are interesting.
In 2019, for example, MarGo (of should I call him MarZo?) had a very ordinary .264/.313/.414 hitting line, for a 93 wRC+. Decent, but unexciting. But his Statcast expected line was .267/.329/.445. For reference, the average hitter in the AL in 2019 had a line of .253/.323/.439. So in MarZo, we have a potentially slightly above-average hitter with above-average defense in six positions. Do I have your attention yet?
To be fair, Marwin’s experience at shortstop has not been great of late, so I would hesitate to count on him as the primary SS backup in 2021. But the Jays have the advantage that both Bo and Marcus are mlb-level shortstops. So, in a pinch, Marcus could move to short and Marwin (or Cavan) could move to second. Marwin could be the second backup at short, just in case both Bo and Marcus were attacked by the same sprinkler head. Marwin’s relative weakness at short is therefore less critical for the 2021 Jays.
Marwin is not exceptionally fast – his 2020 sprint speed was only in the 20th percentile. But defense is about quickness and intelligence more than sprint speed, and MarZo’s +4 outs above average in 2020 was tied for 19th best in all of mlb. Similarly, baserunning is about more than speed. Marwin’ +0.9 baserunning rating in 2020 would have been 5th on the Blue Jays – behind Joe Panik, Jonathan Villar, Santiago Espinal, and Teo Hernandez (three of whom might not be factors in 2021). So as a combination pinch runner and Swiss Army Knife, Marwin could add substantial value on the basepaths.
Gonzalez signed a two-year deal with Minnesota prior to the 2019 season for $21 million. This was likely driven by his remarkable 2017. It is likely that his 2021 ask will be much lower, possibly in the Kiké Hernandez 2/$14m range, possibly a bit lower, as Marwin’s past two years have been unremarkable.
It is possible that, if Vladdy sticks at 3B, Cavan will be forced into the Zobrist role. But Cavan does not appear to be a Zobrist. With all the usual small sample size caveats, Cavan has a positive career DRS in exactly one position – 2B. Far better in the long term, in my view, to have Cavan play second in 2021 and to ask Marcus to play third (again, assuming that Vladdy does not have a 2019 Devers-type breakout).
The bottom line
The Toronto Blue Jays have added value – and are looking to add more – in many of the conventional places. As the team improves, finding additional wins will be harder, and the team will need to look in less conventional places. Might an uber-bench – with a Zobrist-lite like MarGo – be worth a (cheap) couple of extra wins?
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.