It's rather funny that I'm the one who's having to write this post, because in retrospect, I had to have been one of the loudest when it came to pointing out all of the horrible and debilitating flaws in Julio Borbon's performance last season (including the notation that he was briefly on pace for the single worst offensive season by a center fielder in baseball history), and soon thereafter questioning his level of job security going into 2011 ... and yet here I am, defending him as a late round of furious panic button-pushing breaks out in Surprise. Funny how that has ended up working out.
Here's a rough timeline of how we got to be where we are now: Borbon, despite whatever reservations the organization's decision-makers might privately harbor, enters spring training as the heavy favorite to lock down the center field job, or as "Ron Washington's center fielder," as it were. Borbon proceeds to commit five errors during the Cactus League festivities (including two in his first two games, which elicited little in the way of initial outward concern from Wasington), but also pulls off several quality defensive plays on the opposite side of the spectrum and hits a very average-heavy .380/.404/.460.
Nine days ago, Washington finds himself unsettled by Borbon's bases-loaded error to the point that he says, "Gotta catch those balls, that's for sure." Five days after that, in the wake of another Borbon misplay, Washington decides to give David Murphy some work in center field "just to see how he does." Later that same day, Washington clarifies where he presently stands on Borbon: "He's been up and down. He's been doing a lot of good things, mixed with some things that need to be corrected. The down has only been on the defensive side. He's made some pretty good defensive plays. He just has to be more consistent. We feel like he can play good defense. We hope he straightens it out pretty soon."
All of which culminated yesterday in no fewer than two columns -- one of which I can't actually read, for reasons that you're likely already aware of -- suggesting that starting Borbon in center field at the outset of the season could prove to be a mistake, and with one in particular by Jim Reeves suggesting that the Rangers should give the starting job to David Murphy, with Borbon being jettisoned back to Triple-A Round Rock for the purpose of giving him a "wake-up call" or, failing that, seeing if he can even "figure it out at all."
And, well, there are lots of things that could prove be a mistake. Not signing Cliff Lee could prove to be a mistake. Not finding a roster spot for a supposedly renascent Chris Davis could prove to be a mistake. Baseball Prospectus hiring me could prove to be a mistake (kidding, of course). But the entire point is to make the most informed and intelligent decision possible given the entire dossier of information at your disposal at the time of the decision, and I'm noticing some real cracks in the foundation of the argument that Borbon needs to have his job yanked from his grasp before we even get to enjoy the ceremonial F-16 flyover on Opening Day.
In support of his Murphy-in-center field proposition, Reeves cites his belief that he's an above-average defensive corner outfielder as evidence that he can be at least average in center field. I would find that to be rather gross oversimplification of the issue even if the last couple of seasons of defensive data didn't indicate that Murphy's effectively average in the corners -- marginally above-average, sure (two runs above average in terms of both defensive runs saved and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) between the two positions in 2009-10 combined), but certainly not to the extent where you would want take that and translate it over and automatically project him as a defensively average center fielder. Those numbers were closer to legitimately above-average territory in 2008, but the further away you are chronologically from the year of data in question, the less useful it's going to be in establishing a player's true defensive talent, and it still doesn't materially affect the quantitative outcome.
What's a bit stranger, however, is Reeves' accusation that Washington decided some time back on the basis of only "a few games" that Murphy wasn't a viable center field option, as though he was both unjustly quick and erroneous in his assessment of Murphy's abilities. Let's be precise here -- "a few games" is actually 34 games, 229.1 innings, and 66 putouts. That's still not very much, and though the defensive metrics predictably rate Murphy as horrid in that brief composite showing in center field, you obviously wouldn't want to draw any firm conclusions from merely 34 games' worth of defensive data.
But are we supposed to believe that Washington -- and the rest of his coaching staff, including outfielder coach Gary Pettis -- did not also evaluate Murphy on the basis of his defensive work outside of the games themselves? And are we supposed to believe that this evaluation was solely rendered by Washington and the coaching staff, without any input whatsoever from Jon Daniels, Nolan Ryan, and any other front-office types with constructive insight to offer?
We're obviously not looking at a Billy Beane-Art Howe dynamic here with literally no managerial latitude; in fact, one would figure that that a trip to the World Series has bought Washington more leeway than ever in terms of being able to deploy his players in the manner of his choosing without having to justify every remotely questionable lineup or defensive choice to his bosses. But I also think that he would listen very closely and likely revise his line of thinking if the front office thought Murphy could possibly work out as anything more than an emergency plan in center field. My point? Pinning this down entirely on Washington doesn't feel right logically, because I think there's a strong likelihood that the organization's talent evaluators concur that Murphy isn't a workable option out there.
Bringing this discussion back around to Borbon, what we have here is a classic case of conflicting opinions about the predictive value of spring training versus the regular season. I certainly won't pretend that he didn't amass his fair share of brain-dead or stupid (or whatever pejorative you prefer) plays last year, but our eyes concur with the numbers' assessment of Borbon as still being above average defensively. Not surprisingly, the single most important factor in outfield defense is range, which comprises speed, acceleration, and the ability to get good reads off the bat, and which accounts for around 70-80 percent of the calculation of UZR in itself. Outfield arms come next (e.g. throwing strength, accuracy, target selection, etc.), and then much further down the list come errors.
Guess which of the three Borbon dominated last season en route to a good overall defensive season, in spite of his often perceptible shortcomings in the other two?
And here's the thing: it's going to come across as excuse-making to some, but Borbon insists that there isn't a correlation between how he plays in Arizona and how he plays in the regular season, due in large part to the difficulty of picking up balls in the Arizona sky ... and even given that, he still acknowledges that this component of his overall game isn't where he wants it to be, and he's still putting in extra work on his defense. He knows what he's struggling at, and he's devoting particular attention to that area of weakness in a conscious effort to get better. Isn't that kind of the point of spring training? And wouldn't it be strange to disregard the more significant body of work from last year and place the preponderance of the weight on a poor three-week showing in a unique environment?
Now, of course, I'm certainly not trying to argue that Borbon's job should be bulletproof, or even that the Rangers wouldn't be completely justified in making a relatively fast switch if Borbon's problems persist into the regular season. If he's misreading balls and missing cutoff men and appearing completely unfocused 3-4 weeks into the season, then yeah, you reassess the situation and prescribe whatever changes are deemed necessary to improve the situation. But we're not talking about that. We're talking about undue panic and the proposal of short-sighted "answers" to a problem that simply isn't a problem until it actually becomes a problem. And that's par for the course in spring training, I guess ... but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to read, or to know that other people are reading.