Orlando Arcia’s big league career has been a disappointment so far. That is much closer to a matter of fact statement than it is an overly negative spin on his performance. The former top prospect has stepped to the plate over 1,600 times in a Brewers uniform, and the results have been poor, to say the least. He has slashed a meager .243/.292/.350, and his putrid 68 wRC+ is the third-worst in franchise history among players with 1,000 or more plate appearances.
There are a few reasons why the Brewers have stuck with Arcia in spite of his struggles. One is that development is not linear. The talented shortstop is still just 25 years of age, and some players are simply late bloomers. The main reason, however, is his glove.
Orlando’s defense has become a topic of debate among fans and analysts. On the one hand, his defense was highly regarded prior to his MLB debut. Take for example this 2015 description by former professional scout Bernie Pleskoff:
Arcia impressed in the 2015 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. He is very smooth at shortstop, gliding to the ball with quickness. His baseball instincts and coordination lead to excellent range to both sides and will reach many balls that would normally go for base hits.
Arcia has a strong and accurate arm. After the ball disappears in his glove, he plants his feet and routinely throws to first base with accuracy and strength.
Furthermore, it doesn’t take long to find examples of Arcia’s skills on display. We’ve seen him do things like this:
On the other hand, according to defense metrics, Arcia has merely been a good defensive shortstop, not an exceptional one. He has a career +12 DRS, and his career-high for a single season is +6. Similarly, he has a career 12.1 FRAA. For many players, that would be great; however, if these metrics are accurate, Arcia’s glove has not quite lived up to the hype, and it has not been enough to make up for his woeful performance at the plate.
But what if they aren’t accurate?
When approached on the subject, Craig Counsell argued that the club’s strategic positioning of Arcia largely invalidates the metrics.
“That doesn’t measure the value. It just doesn’t. I think the fact that we’re moving him around so much is making it difficult to grade.”
Counsell has utilized the shift as a weapon to complement pitch-to-contact junkballers like Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, and Zach Davies. Arcia is often positioned wherever a batted ball is most likely to be hit. Until a recent update made this winter, DRS did not account for such positioning. It was feasible that the stats were underrating his glove for that very reason.
However, Milwaukee’s evaluation of Orlando’s defense appeared to change during the 2019 season. At the end of June, the Brewers promoted Tyler Saladino to the big league roster, and Counsell promptly announced that he would be splitting time at shortstop with Arcia. One of the reasons given was that the 25-year-old’s defense was not meeting the team’s expectations in recent weeks.
Counsell avoided actively rebuking Arcia in front of the media (that’s not a great way to approach these kinds of things), but he did make it clear that what they were seeing from him in the field was not what they were used to seeing. This development added a new twist to the debate over his true talent level with the glove.
To summarize, here is what we knew about Orlando Arcia’s defense prior to this week: the metrics did not believe it to be exceptional, but the Brewers clearly valued it very highly. Management insisted that fact that he was moving around so much left us in the dark when it came to using numbers to evaluate his performance. His ability to cover ground was one of the reasons why the organization felt comfortable with sticking players like Travis Shaw and Mike Moustakas at second base. However, the Brewers determined in 2019 that his defense had worsened. What was going on?
Fortunately, we now have a new tool at our disposal that answers some of our questions. The brilliant minds at MLB Advanced Media who work with Statcast data finally released their most recent development: Infield Outs Above Average.
• How far the fielder has to go to reach the ball (“the intercept point”)
• How much time he has to get there
• How far he then is from the base the runner is heading to
• On force plays, how fast the batter is, on average
The first two items form the basis (though not the entirety) of the outfield model, though the batter’s speed isn’t accounted for in outfield OAA. In the infield, it of course has to be; a ground ball with Billy Hamilton running is surely a different play than one with Albert Pujols running. The direction of the play from the fielder is accounted for, as well.
What is brilliant about Infield OAA and separates it from other metrics is its detailed breakdowns by positioning. Thanks to Statcast, Arcia’s starting position is tracked for each of his fielding opportunities. Additionally, the amount of distance he must cover and the amount of time he has to do it are calculated for each play. This helps accurately gauge the difficulty level of the play and how much to credit him if he completes it (or punish him if he fails to make it).
Infield OAA values are available dating back to the 2017 season. Here is how Arcia has graded out:
At first glance, the new metric definitely seems to support the organization’s view of Arcia’s glove. In 2018, his OAA was in the 97th percentile, making him an elite defensive shortstop. In 2019, however, his defense took a massive step back, and he was actually a negative fielder.
Once again, we’re left with the question, “Did shifting have an impact on the metrics?” Now we can get a clearer answer. Let’s dive in to Arcia’s positioning.
The short answer is no, positioning was not responsible for Arcia’s defensive ratings plummeting. In fact, much of his poor play actually came when he was positioned as a traditional shortstop. The most notable drop in performance came on plays in the hole. In 2018, Arcia racked up 7.6 OAA from that area with a 90% success rate, which makes plenty of sense given his excellent throwing arm. In 2019, he slumped to a -2 OAA, converting 86% of his attempts.
While he did get more opportunities across the board because he spent the entire season on the roster, the estimated success rate on plays that Arcia was deemed responsible for was identical to his 2018 season. This indicates that he did not face significantly more challenging plays in 2019.
The fact that the Brewers publicly called him out was already plenty of evidence, and Infield OAA makes it clear: Arcia’s defense was not good last summer. On a more encouraging note, OAA was very high on his performance in 2018. Both of these assessments line up with the organization’s review of his glove in each of the past two seasons. While we still do not have publicly available metrics that can measure fielding perfectly, we now have a tool that appears to evaluate the polarizing shortstop’s defense much more accurately than before.
With the acquisition of Luis Urias, shortstop is no longer Orlando Arcia’s position to lose. His poor performance, along with his growing price tag in arbitration, make next season a make-or-break one. Not only does he need to make significant strides with the bat, but he also needs to bounce back defensively. Arcia has a lot to prove, and he is running out of time — if he hasn’t already.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus.