It’s the sort of graphic they’ll put in Sports Illustrated sometimes: how to build the perfect baseball player. You take Ted William’s eyes, Rickey Henderson’s legs, and Hank Aaron’s wrists. Then mix in Joe DiMaggio’s swing and Roberto Clemente’s right arm, and maybe Ozzie Smith’s back flips. Give him Bob Gibson’s glare, for intimidation. Then you all sow it all together like Frankenstein’s monster, wait for the first lightening storm to pass by, and bring to life the impossibly “perfect” ballplayer. Sports Illustrated recycles this idea every 4-5 years in a creepy photo collage.
I suspect that if you were going to construct a perfect ballplayer out of today’s crop, you would probably just pick a whole bunch of parts from Albert Pujols — you actually might just pick the whole of Albert Pujols, but for the sake of the experiment, maybe you would mix in Jeff Francoeur’s throwing arm, Jose Reyes’ (healthy) legs, and Chase Utley’s glove. Joe Mauer’s plate discipline, too. The serenity of Mariano Rivera. And then just more Pujols.
But, for the all important brain, you can make an strong argument that it should be Alex Cora’s gray matter in command of that powerful body. No player in baseball gets by solely on mental aptness and “doing little things well” as much as Alex Cora does.
Here’s something: Elias and ESPN keep track of a statistic called “productive outs”, which is exactly what it sounds like. To be more specific, a “productive out” is defined as one of three things:
1. Successful sac bunt by a pitcher.
2. Advancing a runner with the first out of an inning.
3. Scoring a runner with the second out of an inning.
Here are the 2009 leaders in Productive Out percentage, i.e. how often they converted their opportunities to make productive outs, when they made an out in such a situation (min of 20 opportunities):
1. Alex Cora – 65%
2. Brian McCann – 51%
3. Yunel Escobar – 51%
4. Jimmy Rollins – 50%
5. Yadier Molina – 50%
6. Jason Kendell – 50%
7. Kaz Matsui – 49%
8. Wil Nieves – 48%
9. Ryan Doumit – 48%
10. Augie Ojeda – 47%
For full disclosure, productive out percentage appears to be a junk stat is smaller sample sizes like this — the leaders vary wildly from year to year. If you drop the minimum opportunities down to ten for 2009, Mike Pelfrey and his sac bunts jump up to second place, with 64%. So . . . take from this what you will. Mostly that Alex Cora makes his outs productive more often than others.
Still, expanded out to career-sized numbers, Alex Cora continues to compare favorably in productive out percentage. Cora’s career productive out percentage is 44%. Over the same period of time, the league’s productive out percentage is 32%, 12 percentage points lower than Cora. So the numbers confirm exactly what everyone already believed to be true: Alex Cora indeed “does the little things well”, like advancing and scoring runners with outs. Other examples of Cora using his baseball IQ:
– Cora’s career sacrifice bunt success rate is 81% — the league rate is 72%.
– Over the past two seasons, he has struck out 41 times and walked 41 times in 487 plate appearances.
– Cora has taken extra bases at a 45% rate for his career — the league has taken 39%. Bill James Online has Cora at +30 bases gained since 2002.
– He is solid defensively. Plus/minus rates Cora as a slightly above-average middle infielder over the past three seasons, while UZR rates him about average.
I find the base running and fielding particularly impressive, because watching Alex Cora play in 2009, I know that Alex Cora:
A.) is slow.
B.) has no range.
Other fans apparently agree with the second assertion — Tom Tango’s fan scouting reports rate Alex Cora as a less talented fielder than Luis Castillo, and Luis Castillo has about as much lateral motion as someone with their shoelaces tied together. Cora is somehow able to position himself such that he compensates for his diminished range in a way Castillo simply doesn’t. Cora seems to always have himself set up perfectly to gobble up the balls just to the right of the second base bag without moving an inch. He knows what pitch is coming, and where the batter is likely to hit it, and he puts himself there before any of it happens. By the same measure, Alex Cora doesn’t take extra bases because he is fast. Cora is not fast — not slow either, but certainly not fast. He is able to do these little things well because he uses his brain. It really might be the best brain in the game.*
*I know some people would like to give this “Best Brain” award to Derek Jeter, but people also like to give Derek Jeter Gold Gloves, and he doesn’t deserve those either. Being really, really good at hitting doesn’t necessarily mean that you must be really, really good at everything else – this seems to be an exceptionally difficult baseball concept.
But for all the little things Alex Cora does right, he also did this in 2009: a slash line of .251/.320/.310. Batting is a big thing — in fact, it’s the biggest thing a player does. Cora has stated that because he played last season without thumbs, he feels he can do better at the plate. I can see how that makes sense — Alex Cora with thumbs should be better than Alex Cora without thumbs. Generally, thumbs are good.
But here’s the thing: Alex Cora put up a paltry .630 OPS in 2009. His career OPS is just 28 points higher, at .658. Cora put up a wOBA of .288 in 2009 — and his career wOBA is .291. So maybe he’ll be a more productive batter in 2009. But probably not by much. He really wasn’t that much worse without thumbs. In fact, the entirety of the offensive damage was done to his slugging percentage. If Cora had popped off just 8 more total bases — so turn two of his singles into home runs, and two more into doubles — the bump in slugging percentage would nudge his OPS right back to his career mark. Thumbs may be overrated.*
Alex Cora does do plenty of the little things well. He runs the bases well. He positions himself intelligently on defense. He makes a whole bunch of productive outs. But he also makes a whole bunch of regular outs, too. Alex Cora gets the most possible out of being Alex Cora. But he ultimately is what he is: a poor hitter, a good base runner, and an average fielder with a fantastic brain. He’s mostly a poor hitter, even by already poor shortstop standards for batting.
And I think the Mets know this, too. They don’t even seem comfortable letting him play with Jose Reyes out. It seems they really, really want Ruben Tejada to step in until Reyes comes back, with Cora getting his normal spot starts in Castillo’s stead. Which makes me wonder: why the hell is Cora on the team, anyway? What’s the point of a backup shortstop no one wants to use to back up the shortstop? Why is he here?
The only answer I can come up with, is that the Mets are trying to build their team like one of those Frankenstein players, and Alex Cora functions as the brain from the dugout. In fact, if you were going to make one of those Frankenstein players, using only parts of Mets players, you might be able to make the better player than any of the other 30 teams. With Reyes’ legs, Francoeur’s arm, Carlos Beltran’s glide, David Wright’s (now-fixed) swing, Castillo’s freak contact abilities, Bay’s power, J
ohan Santana’s “crazy-eyes” face, Oliver Perez’s slider, and Alex Cora’s brain, it would be a real tough combination to beat. I don’t know if any team could top them.
I just don’t know if making an actual baseball team works the same way. But at least there are plenty of interesting parts to watch.