So far this season, Marco Scutaro has been playing an incredible shortstop (.278 / .406 / .444; 17.6 UZR/150 at shortstop). No one seems to believe that it's possible for him to keep it up, but looking at his batting average on balls in play (.288) it does not really seem all that impossible, though his Line-Drive rate is way down (does this include bunted balls?) from historic norms. His 17.9% walk-rate does seem like it must come down at some point, but does it really have to? Early last year, everyone thought his defence would regress, that it was an artifact of small sample size, but both anecdotally and statistically Scutaro was incredible last season and has been so far in 2009. Is it actually possible that he could hit and field like this for a whole year?
As far as I can tell, three things could have happened since the Jays signed Scutaro for last season. The first possibility (and the most obvious) is that all we've seen is a very small slice of Scutaro and he will come back down to Earth soon. This is what everyone seems to believe (though some to a larger extent than others), but it is not the only possibility. It is also possible that Scutaro has always been this good, but he's been criminally underused his entire career. The final possibility is that Scutaro was not underused in Oakland, but has actually made himself into a better player since arriving in Toronto. This seems unlikely, considering he's 33 years old, but is it impossible?
It has been suggested in some circles that Scutaro is generally good for an OPS of about 700 (705 career) but how he has reached that has varied throughout his career. Outside of 2006, when he OPSed 747, his OPS has been between 690 and 701 each season, despite having OBPs ranging from .297 (2004, his first full season) to .341 (last season). This doesn't necessarily mean that Scoot has tried to compensate for a loss of power, in fact he may be consciously hitting for less power because he is taking pitches early in counts (he was seeing just 3.6 pitches per plate appearance in 2004 but that number is up to 3.9 so far this season), but that may not be the case either (he only saw 3.6 per plate appearance last year). Whatever the reason, Scutaro has seemed to be able to produce offensively at a pretty consistent level throughout his career. So how could he have improved now?
Well, let me tell you a little story . . .
Back in the '40s there was a player named Eddie Joost, a light-hitting but slick-fielding shortstop who just couldn't seem to hang on. He had trouble getting along with management in Cincinnati, which didn't help him and then he went to Boston and was converted to a third baseman with the Braves. By the time he landed in Philadelphia with the A's he was 31 years old and had a career line of .225 / .311 / .301, good for an OPS+ of 74, not exactly your idea of a player with tremendous upside, though as I said earlier, he was a great fielding shortstop and he'd never been afraid to take a walk when it was offered.
In his first season with the A's, however, he started to look for walks. He led the league in strikeouts and only batted .206, but he walked 114 times en route to a very respectable .348 OBP and somewhat less-respectable .330 SLG (a 124 isolated power thanks to 13 HR). He was 11th in AL MVP voting that season. He got even better the next season, posting a .250 / .393 / .395 line and hitting 16 HR. In 1949, at 33 years old, he had an incredible season, hitting 23 HR, walking 149 times, good for an OBP of .429 and SLG of .453 (OPS+ of 137). Over his six full seasons with the A's, the 31 year old shortstop with a 612 career OPS hit .248 / .391 / .407 with 109 dingers. We're not talking about a guy in a six year period from age 26 - 32, at the close of the 1952 season, he was 36 years old.
Does this seem at all familiar? Because Scoot started off as a relatively light-hitting middle-infielder who was relegated to a utility role. Scoot did not walk as much as Joost did early in his career, though he did walk 57 times last year. Another thing that plays against Scutaro is that Joost's first full season in the majors was at 25, whereas Scoot didn't accrue a 400 plate appearance season until he was 28, so Scutaro's a bit older now than Joost was when he reinvented himself. Nontheless, while this season is a small sample size, 29 walks in just 166 plate appearances is a basis for comparison so far.
So what we see is that it's happened before. Could Scoot be a modern-day Eddie Joost? It certainly isn't likely, but it's possible, right?