When the Orioles signed José Iglesias before the 2020 season, the move seemed like a clear win. Not only did they upgrade at a thin position with a quality defender, but they did so for the low cost of a couple million bucks.
The thinking heading into the season was that Iglesias, who’s known much more for his glove than his bat, would at minimum field well at shortstop and appear in the lineup often. Even though that isn’t what happened at all, it didn’t stop Iglesias from putting together a baffling season — and also one of the best of his career.
The most bizarre thing about Iglesias’ 2020 is that he never stopped hitting. During O’s summer workouts and intrasquads, beat writers were constantly reporting on Iglesias collecting hit after hit. That continued into the season, when Iglesias batted third on Opening Day, doubled in his second at-bat and never started a game batting anywhere other than second or third.
Even though the O’s lineup was thin without Trey Mancini (out for the season while undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer), it was still an odd sight to see a batter with a career wRC+ under 90 like Iglesias hitting in the top third of any lineup. But Iglesias completely justified it from Day One, all the while dealing first with a sore back and then with a strained left quadriceps that forced him to the injured list once and that he was never able to shake. The quad injury limited him to just 168 defensive innings at shortstop and kept him in a peculiar but understandable SS/DH role.
Truncated season or not, you’d never anticipate Iglesias ranking among the best hitters in the game. But he did just that, with a batting line of .373/.400/.556 (.407 wOBA, 160 wRC+) in 150 plate appearances. Among batters with at least 100 plate appearances, he tied for 13th in wRC+ (with Mike Yastrzemski!), had the highest batting average (nine points better than DJ LeMahieu) and finished tied for 42nd in fWAR (1.6).
The one unsurprising thing about his offensive success is he did it with a contact-oriented approach: only seven batters struck out less than Iglesias’ 11.3 percent, and only three batters walked less often than his 2.0 percent (not even Hanser Alberto, at 2.2 percent).
Weird things can happen in full seasons, let alone in 150 plate appearances during a 60-game sprint. But it’s also fun to peruse Iglesias’ Statcast batting numbers and realize that his fantastic season at the plate wasn’t just the result of a few extra singles dropping in here and there. He routinely made solid contact, and he did more damage than he’s ever done.
Going back to 2015, which is as far back as Statcast data is available, Iglesias posted career highs in:
Average exit velocity: 86.4 mph (previous career high — 84.8 mph)
Barrel percentage: 3.2 (2.5)
Expected batting average: .359 (.271)
Expected slugging percentage: .503 (.376)
Expected wOBA: .372 (.296)
Hard-hit percentage: 37.1 (24.2)
The exit velocity and barrel percentage don’t jump off the page, but that’s because Iglesias isn’t a power hitter. He’ll mostly collect singles and doubles while rarely walking. Despite missing a couple weeks, only four other batters had more doubles than Iglesias’ 17.
Still, 150 plate appearances don’t tell us that much. The improved Statcast data is intriguing, but is it something Iglesias can continue? I don’t think anyone would guess he’d post a wRC+ close to 160 again. Even something north of 100 would be great assuming he’s able to play more shortstop.
That brings us to what happens next. Shrewdly, the O’s tacked on a cheap option to Iglesias’ $2.5 million deal in 2020. It’s a $3.5 million club option with a $500,000 buyout. So it’s a $3 million choice for a 31-year-old who just posted career-high batting numbers (yes, in an abbreviated season) and plays premium defense at a position with little organizational depth (other immediate options include Richie Martin and Ramón Urías). Should be a no-brainer, right?
Not so fast. A couple of O’s reporters hinted that finances could play a part in Iglesias not returning. Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun recently wrote, “… the club’s finances could mean manager Brandon Hyde (and the pitching staff) will be forced to live with a lesser player [at shortstop] at a lesser price.” And last week, Roch Kubatko of MASN mentioned Iglesias’ option and “the only potential glitch [being] tied to finances.”
Yes, the current financial climate is difficult and uncertain. The O’s know that well after laying off or furloughing almost 50 staff members earlier this month. Several other major-league teams have been doing the same, with COVID-related losses being the culprit. It’s a disturbing trend, as is the frustrating possibility of a major-league team either being unable or unwilling to commit $3 million to a quality shortstop who can do things like this when no other clear-cut, solid options are waiting in the wings.
Not picking up Iglesias’ option wouldn’t be a good look for any team in any financial situation, but we can cross that bridge if and when we get there. For now, the minor fascination exists of wondering if maybe, just maybe, Iglesias has discovered a little something that he can keep going. It’s another small reason to watch a not-so-good team play baseball.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox