The Blue Jays’ first acquisition of this offseason was signing Maicer Izturis to a 3 year contract for about $10M, presumably to replace now-Ray Kelly Johnson at second base. You might have heard that later they traded a bunch of young guys for a bunch of older (but really good) Marlins. The youngest of that group was Emilio Bonifacio, a speedy multiposition player who will play his age 28 season in 2013 and has experience at CF, 2B, and elsewhere.
Since then, there has been lots of excitement about the upcoming season, not the least of which is directed at the 2013 lineup. As everyone reminded our friend Cee Angi a while back, before everyone got hurt, the Jays were the top scoring team in the AL and have since added Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, and others. Some of the excitement has been directed at the prospect of having lots of players at once who derived some or most of their values from speed - Reyes, hold-over and possible-sometime-DH Rajai Davis, and Bonifacio have been highlighted specifically in this mold.
But why the exuberance at this possibility? Why does Bonifacio’s characterization as a speedster and/or the presence of other speedy guys in the lineup make that lineup more desirable than other potential lists? Why does Bonifacio’s speed automatically make him a better choice to be the regular 2B than Izturis?
There is a problem with considering skills in isolation, whether it be on the player level or the team level. The Royals ran into this problem bigtime this offseason when, having decided that their offense was “already good” (or at least “good enough”), they set out to acquire an “ace pitcher,” which was assumed to be the major piece missing from contention. They then made the widely (and correctly, IMHO) panned trade of Wil Myers and some other good prospects for 2 expensive years of James Shields and Wade Davis. Many more accomplished writers than me have skewered this trade better than I can, but suffice it to say that the Royals probably could have improved just as much by sticking Myers in RF to replace Jeff Francouer while saving money to sign other decent FA pitchers to improve even more. Focusing on a single aspect of their club led the Royals’ front office to miss better opportunities for improvement and did a disservice to their team and its fans.
Similar problems can come up when considering players. People often get enamoured by speedy players, and you hear Pat Tabler and other analysts of his ilk opine that “speed never takes a day off” and other such things. Alternately, fans or analysts of a certain team might say that the team's problem is a "lack of power" or that they "strike out too much" and should focus on acquiring a player in the opposite mold to improve the deficit.
But skills in isolation don't matter. All that matters is the totality of a player's ability and how many runs that player creates and prevents for his team. If player A produces more for the team that Player B, then he should play. And if player A can do that through speed, then wonderful. But speed is not the only way a player can contribute, and its the total contribution, not the manner in which that contribution is achieved, that dictates who is the better player and more deserving of playing time. If player B (the non-speeder) provides more for the team than fast player A, then he should play irrespective of the "type" of player he is and how that matches the rest of the lineup.
There are lots of ways to quantify players’ total contribution to the team - wRC+ does a great job of condensing everything a player does on offense (power, patience, contact, SBs) into a neat little package that is even adjusted for park and league. Fangraphs’ UBR and UZR can do the same for baserunning and speed (other metrics do the same thing using slightly different methods). Add these all together and you can compare players pretty accurately and determine who has produced the most (and therefore, who was the best).
Which brings us back to the Blue Jays. Does Bonifacio’s speed actually make him more desirable than Izturis? He has put up wRC+ of 79, 109, and 75 over the past three seasons (the 109 was on the strength of a .372 BABIP, so take that with a grain of salt). Izturis has gone 82, 102, 92 with no anomalous BABIPs over that same time. Using 5-3-2 weighting, we can project Izturis at wRC+=90 and Bonifacio at wRC+=87 (but probably a bit less due to that high BABIP). Izturis is a tick above league average defensively, Bonifcaio a tick below, while Bonifcio is about 3-4 runs per season better by UBR. So overall, I think it’s pretty close between them.
But the point of this exercise was not to determine which of Izturis or Bonifacio is the best choice at 2B. The point is that whether or not Bonifacio is likely the better player in 2013, the reason to play him is not because he is fast, or a certain number of “speed guys” in the lineup is desirable. The reason is because the totality of his skills and contributions are higher than anyone else on the team capable of playing his position. This is true of any team or personnel decision - the player who improves the team most (meaning produces the most runs created + saved) should play, not the one who fits a certain archetype that is perceived to be desirable, lacking, or needed.