Ryan Theriot signed with the Giants on Friday, and you could almost instantly hear the howling from the analysis community, and not a few Giants fans. You can understand some of the reasons why. The Giants don’t really have a shortstop, and visions of seeing Theriot put into their middle-infield mix doesn’t really sound like an answer.
There was a point at which a team could contend with Theriot at short, as the Cubs did in 2007 and 2008. But after consecutive .321 OBPs, his value as an offensive patch at the position seems dubious. He used to walk around 10 percent of the time, but that’s down to six percent these days. He’s lost speed on the bases, and what little power he had disappeared shortly after a five-homer May in 2009 that only seemed to encourage him to leap from his shoes, swinging for the fences forever after. As mighty mites go, Theriot was no Jimmy Wynn, so this wasn’t going to end well, and hasn’t.
Giants fans of a certain vintage know that they’ve been here before. Resurrecting the careers of Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe as they briefly patched things up, but even banking on age gets old. Those represent the salad days, Omar Vizquel put up a few lousy seasons, and they even submitted to the indignity of Brian Bocock as an Opening Day starter in 2008.
That’s not even the worst of it as far as Giants history goes. Not that they’re asking, but where have you gone … Johnnie LeMaster? For some or all of seven seasons, LeMaster was the Giants’ shortstop, from 1978-1984. LeMaster hit .222/.277/.289 (or a .566 OPS), for his career. He holds the worst single-season WAR from a regular shortstop since before integration, before Pearl Harbor, since before FDR’s second term as president. Advanced analysis has yet to invent a metric with a kind stat or word to offer in defense of his glove work. The all-time all-bad team has a shortstop, and his name is almost certainly Johnnie LeMaster.
Unfortunately, Brandon Crawford’s .584 OPS last year looks downright LeMaster-ly, especially with the neat feat of not reaching a .300 OBP or SLG. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Crawford to take a big step forward offensively -- all the way up to a .629 OPS, thanks to slugging .341 while putting up a .288 OBP.
Surely the Giants have some other alternative? They surely do, but you can’t really grace with them with any reassuring adjectives like “adequate.” Emmanuel Burriss has struggled to stick at short since getting out of A-ball almost five years ago, lacking the range, hands or arm, and drifting into a utilityman’s aspirations. Mike Fontenot has wound up a shortstop by coming at it from the other direction -- he couldn’t hold down a semi-regular job at second base for the Cubs, and has been shunted into a utility role to hang onto his career.
At least Crawford’s defense gets reasonable marks, but it had better, because the alternatives on hand are almost universally execrable. Theriot’s days as a passable shortstop appear to be history -- he’s spent the past two seasons delivering un-glovely work afield according to Plus-Minus, UZR, Defensive Runs Saved on Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs. Between Crawford’s bat and Theriot’s glove, you’d think Brian Sabean was trying to assemble FrankenLeMaster.
However, to be charitable to Sabean’s design you could flip-flop that idea: Get Crawford’s glove and Theriot’s bat in an ad hoc offense-defense platoon. That might work thanks to baseball’s best pitching staff when it comes to keeping balls out of play: Thanks in large part to Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and the since-dealt Jonathan Sanchez in particular, the Giants have led the majors in strikeout rate in both of the past two seasons. That was while posting two of the seven highest staff-wide strikeout rates ever in major league history. In the current Age of Strikeouts, more Ks equal fewer balls in play, making lead-gloves a little more affordable -- like using former DH Aubrey Huff in the outfield.
So maybe, just maybe, the Giants can get away with starting Theriot at short when fly-ball/strikeout like Lincecum and Bumgarner or Matt Cain are on the mound. Maybe the less dominating Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong need a little more help from their friends in the infield, and that’s Crawford’s role, starting on their days, and coming in for Theriot on defense on the others.
The problem is that Theriot’s bat isn’t really some great boon you really want to plug in. Rising to the standard of “hits better than Johnnie LeMaster” really isn’t one you should gun for. Maybe if Theriot ever got his walk rate back up around 10 percent, you might see a reason why, but there’s a reason why the Cubs moved him off short (and dealt him), and it’s the same reason the Cardinals traded for Rafael Furcal last summer. Ryan Theriot simply isn’t a shortstop. Adding him to the shortstop mix in San Francisco just makes plain that they still don’t really have one.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.