This is the 4th part in my series comparing the Braves' 2011 offense to the rest of the NL and looking forward to the 2012 season. Here are links to Part 1: catchers, Part 2 : 1st basemen, and Part 3: 2nd basemen.
The first three parts of this series were relatively rosy, focusing on three positions where the Braves got good production in 2011 (and seem likely to have good production again in 2012). This part, which focuses on the Braves' shortstops, is where the picture starts to get quite a bit more murky.
Look: it's no surprise that the Braves got little offense out of their shortstops last season. Few teams do. As you'll see below, the offensive standards for the position are quite low. But even by those generous standards, the Braves' shortstops were abysmal at the plate.
The graph below uses Weighted Runs Created (wRC) to compare the Braves' shortstops to their counterparts on the rest of the NL teams. If you're not familiar with wRC, it's just a better version of runs scored or RBIs.
The Braves got just 49 wRC from Alex Gonzalez, Jack Wilson, and Brandon Hicks in 2011. Amazingly, that was still better than 4 other NL teams (the Brewers, Dodgers, Pirates, and Giants), though not by much. That total was 22 runs below the league average.
Gonzalez takes a lot of flack for his poor hitting (mostly deserved), but he does at least offer plus defense, which makes him a not-terrible starter. Still, his horrendous OBP--just .270 in 2011--will certainly not be missed by Braves fans. And fans of his new team (the Brewers) will probably be fairly forgiving, seeing as how they just suffered through a season of Yuniesky Betancourt, who's kind of like Gonzalez without all that good defense.
Looking toward the 2012 season, the Braves seem comfortable handing the position over to rookie Tyler Pastornicky. His hitting stats in the minors are not overwhelming, but the Braves don't need him to hit much. As we saw last year, teams can win a lot of games with crappy hitters at shortstop. All Pastornicky needs to do is play adequate defense and keep his OBP from dipping into Alex Gonzalez territory, two things I think he is very capable of doing.
The projection systems are not all that high on Pastornicky. Rotochamp* thinks he'll be below average for a shortstop, with a .255 / .300 / .335 line and 62 wRC per 700 PAs. Still, that's a bit better than Gonzalez did last year (more OBP for less slugging is a good tradeoff here), so I think the Braves would be OK with that line.
* By the way, Bill James didn't project Pastornicky, so that's why the graphic has the Rotochamp numbers instead.
ZiPS projects a better .261 / .311 / .363 line for Pastornicky, which isn't great but is actually almost a league-average line for the position. ZiPS doesn't give wRC, but I'm estimating that if he puts up those numbers, he'd be worth around 66 to 68 wRC in 700 PAs.
Rookies with little or no MLB experience are the hardest players to project, because we know so little about how their skills will translate to the big-league level. The range of possible values for Pastornicky is really, really large. He could be above-average (for the position) or he could be an utter failure. I trust the Braves' player development people to know when a player is ready, but they're not omniscient.
I am reasonably optimistic about Pastornicky--I think he can put up Ryan Theriot or David Eckstein type numbers (and yes, that's a compliment, though not a large one). It is certainly a decent-sized risk to entrust him with the position, but the Braves have options if he fails. The most likely would be to use some of their many trade chips to acquire a shortstop.
As for the Braves' backups, they were pretty terrible with the bat in 2011, and probably will be again in 2012. You know, just like every other team's backup shortstops. Jack Wilson had just 1 wRC in 45 PAs with the Braves, though he wasn't quite so bad with the Mariners. Brandon Hicks was actually negative: -2 wRC in 22 PAs. You have to be really, really terrible to have a negative wRC--even about a third of pitchers have positive numbers. I like Hicks, but his MLB stat line is painful.
It seems that Wilson will be the primary middle-infield backup. He really can't hit anymore, but he still plays solid defensively and can be a positive influence on Pastornicky. I would expect Wilson to serve as a late-innings defensive replacement and occasional starter, but wouldn't expect him to get more than 150 or so plate appearances. If the Braves need more than that (like if Pastornicky fails or is injured), they'll almost certainly bring someone else in to share the load. Wilson's not an everyday player any more.
All in all, the Braves' shortstop position was a weakness, at least on offense, and probably will continue to be. However, they were so bad last year that it wouldn't take much for an improvement to occur. One upside to ranking so poorly is that there's almost nowhere to go but up.
Side note: In case you're curious, the main reason the Marlins' shortstops had the most wRC in the NL is that both Emilio Bonifacio and Hanley Ramirez qualified there, giving them lots more plate appearances than most teams. The Marlins were 5th in wRC per 700 PAs. And of course, their 2012 prospects look even better at that position, as they signed Jose Reyes, who had the 2nd-highest wRC of any NL shortstop in 2011.
Coming up on Wednesday: a look at the Braves' third basemen, led by the creaky but still productive Chipper Jones.