I was reading a list of MLB offseason superlatives in The Athletic the other day, when I stumbled across this nugget from Jim Bowden about the Trevor Story signing:
“[Story is] a better overall defensive shortstop than the incumbent, Xander Bogaerts. However, the Red Sox made the right decision to leave Bogaerts at shortstop.”
That’s quite the statement to make without any justification to back it up. It’s like saying Coke tastes better than Pepsi, but you drink Pepsi anyway. You can’t just say that and not explain why.
So, I got to thinking: why are the Red Sox doing this? Wouldn’t they be smarter to play Story at shortstop and Bogaerts at second?
According to the Boston Herald, Bogaerts has “been answering questions about a possible position change all spring,” so it stands to reason that those questions would come up even more now that the Red Sox have actually signed a better defensive shortstop.
Yet Red Sox manager Alex Cora has made it very clear: Story will be playing second base and Bogaerts will be playing shortstop.
This decision goes against basic intuition. A professional baseball team’s ultimate goal is to win ballgames. In order to win games, a teams needs to prevent their opponent from scoring. With Story at shortstop, the Red Sox would be better equipped to prevent runs.
In other words, Story provides more value at shortstop than Bogaerts. And that’s often how we think about baseball players. In terms of their value.
We think about the value players provide on the field so we can formulate opinions about the games we’re watching. Understanding players’ on-field value helps us decide which free agents our favorite teams should sign, which prospects they should call up, and which reliever they should use in any particular situation. It’s how we play fantasy sports and video games. It’s how someone like me writes about baseball every week.
But to talk about a human being in terms of their value above all else? It’s actually pretty weird when you stop to think about it. So while it may be our “basic intuition” that Story is a more valuable shortstop than Bogaerts, it’s important to think beyond that intuition.
As baseball fans, baseball writers, or fantasy baseball players we have to think about player value. I’m certainly not saying that it’s wrong to do so. But when thinking like this is the only way we evaluate baseball decisions, it can start to cloud our judgment.
When all we talk about is value, it makes players seem more like weapons in a team’s arsenal rather than individual human beings. We view players through the lens of the runs they score, the balls they hit, and the pitches they throw. And from that perspective, it’s easy to say that Story should play shortstop because he is a better defender at the position. But Bogaerts has been playing shortstop for this organization since he was 16, and he’s done a darn good job of it too. Heck, he’s well on his way to becoming the greatest shortstop in franchise history.
Bogaerts has been Boston’s full-time shortstop for eight years, and in that time he has won four Silver Sluggers, been named to three All-Star teams, and helped the Red Sox win a couple of World Series titles. He does not deserve to lose his job, and in almost any other line of work, it would be preposterous to even entertain the possibility of replacing him.
Not only that, but by the time the Red Sox made the Story signing official, there were less than three weeks to go until Opening Day. That would give Bogaerts very little time to prepare for his new role. Now, of course, Story has the same amount of time to prepare for the role, but that’s what Story signed up for. Story isn’t being shoehorned into a new position the way that Bogaerts would have been.
From a strictly analytical point of view, it makes more sense to play Story at shortstop. But from a purely human point of view, keeping Bogaerts at his natural position is the obvious choice.
I’m not here to say whether the Red Sox made the “right” decision, be that from a moral standpoint or a baseball one. It still seems like the wrong baseball decision to me, and I certainly have no reason to believe the Red Sox are a paragon of virtue, morally speaking.
In fact, I can’t even say why the Red Sox made this decision. Red Sox manager Alex Cora has suggested he doesn’t believe what the defensive metrics say about Bogaerts, so maybe he just genuinely thinks Bogaerts is the better shortstop. But regardless of Boston’s true intentions, it’s refreshing to see a decision that reinforces the humanity and individuality of baseball players.
As we saw time and time again during the owner-imposed lockout, ownership groups want fans to think that players are interchangeable, and that baseball franchises are more important than the individual people who play for them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Baseball players are so much more than the value they provide on the field, and it is imperative that we always keep that in mind.
Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter). All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.