After a terrible start to 2005, Rafael Furcal has contributed much more to the Braves’ cause than Jimmy Rollins has for the Phils in every aspect of the game.
I picked Furcal as a preseason darkhorse to win the National League MVP, calling him the best shortstop in the National League East in a season when defense would generate more respect.
In a poll on my old site, Berks Phillies Fans, most readers said Jimmy Rollins would have the best season among NL East shortstops, building on a strong finish to 2004. I went against the grain and took Furcal, while a handful of others took Jose Reyes of the Mets. No consideration went to Cristian Guzman of Washington and Alex Gonzalez of Florida.
After a miserable start offensively, bottoming out May 21 after going 0-4 against Milwaukee, Furcal was hitting a pitiful .211.
Since then, the Braves shortstop has been climbing to respectability, and has been sizzling hot the last two months. Following a 5-15 series in San Diego, he’s now batting .276, with a so-so .338 on-base percentage and a solid .427 slugging. He also has 35 stolen bases out of the leadoff hole.
Meanwhile, J-Roll is several notches below as a leadoff hitter, slumping to a .264 batting average, with a dismal .306 on-base, .386 slugging and only 26 thefts.
When comparing shortstops, it’s all about the leather. Win Shares are a great measure of true worth because it factors in defense. That’s where Furcal and Rollins truly separate. According to the Hardball Times, Furcal is contributing the most defense of any player in the National League, posting 6.7 fielding Win Shares, second in baseball to Toronto’s Orlando Hudson with 6.9.
In general terms, he’s first in the NL in both put-outs (215) and assists (407), adding up to a 5.4 range factor (PO + A divided by innings), which is the best in baseball by a longshot. To compare:
1. R. Furcal (5.4)
2. J. Wilson (5.1)
3. D. Eckstein (4.9)
4. A. Gonzalez (4.9)
4. J. Lugo (4.9)
23. J. Rollins (4.14)
The difference between Furcal and Rollins is pretty dramatic considering they were on equal ground heading into the season. Furcal has a little more offense (11.4 batting win shares to 9.6 for Rollins) but smokes him on defense (Furcal’s 6.7 fielding win shares is first in the National League among shortstops, while J-Roll’s 3.9 puts him 19th).
It seems a little flawed that J-Roll would be ranked so low. Certainly, nothing seems out of the ordinary to the naked eye, and in terms of zone rating (percentage of plays expected to be made in a player’s zone) they rank about the same, (J-Roll .862, Furcal .857).
However, Baseball Prospectus’ bread-and-butter stat, VORP, verifies the difference. Furcal registers in with 37.6 VORP, doubling up Rollins with a 19.6.
What else does it mean? It means half the shortstops in the National League can start asking for the sky when it’s time to talk contracts. J-Roll recently re-upped on a 5-year, $40 million extension, making him the richest shortstop in the league behind Nomar Garciaparra.