08 January 2015

The Puzzle of Steve Lombardozzi

At least to many casual fans, the 2014 Orioles' handling of infielder Steve Lombardozzi was inexplicable. The Orioles acquired Lombardozzi near the end of spring training from the Tigers, who had themselves acquired him from Washington in the Doug Fister trade. Lombardozzi had been a useful utility infielder for the Nationals in 2012 and 2013, with over 300 plate appearances in each season, and the Orioles acquired him as another insurance policy in case Jonathan Schoop struggled. Lombardozzi made the Orioles' opening-day roster and spent the first month of the season with them, batting .288. Nevertheless, Lombardozzi was optioned to Norfolk when Manny Machado came off the disabled list. He was recalled on May 24 and optioned back the very next day, not to be recalled again, even though Schoop did struggle and Manny Machado's suffered another season-ending injury. He wasn't promoted even after September 1, when the active rosters expanded. Then, this off-season Lombardozzi was removed from the 40-man roster.

That does look strange - you have an infielder with some significant major-league experience who had been playing well; you have problems with your infield even though the team is playing well; later, one of your infielders goes down with a season-ending injury, yet you don't call up that first infielder. Instead, you promote another infielder with a .159 career major-league batting average and then acquire another infielder with a .233 career batting average. Finally, on the last weekend of the season you promote a third other infielder. Clearly, the Orioles didn't believe in Steve Lombardozzi - confirmed in December when they outrighted him to Norfolk to make room for a pair of Rule 5 draft selections.

Many fans were puzzled when Lombardozzi was sent down, and many remained puzzled when he was kept at Norfolk for the rest of the season. One part of the answer to the puzzle is that Lombardozzi, despite decent batting averages, isn't much of an offensive player. In 829 major-league plate appearances, he has a .266 batting average - but with only 28 career walks, his on-base percentage is just .297, and with only 43 extra-base hits, his slugging percentage is just .341, leaving him with a career OPS+ of 74. And while his minor-league batting record is better, he still didn't draw walks (200 walks in nearly 2300 plate appearances.) But while that may explain why Lombardozzi didn't supplant Jonathan Schoop as the regular second baseman (although his career OPS+ is better than Schoop's 2014 OPS+) or even Ryan Flaherty as the primary backup infielder (Flaherty is a better hitter than Lombardozzi, although not by much), it doesn't really explain why Lombardozzi wasn't recalled when Manny Machado was injured. Especially if he was a good defensive player.

There's an assumption that if a player, especially an infielder, can stay in the major leagues for two seasons despite being a below-average hitter, he must be an outstanding defensive player. Steve Lombardozzi has been primarily a second baseman, although after being sent to Norfolk he played some at shortstop, third base, and the outfield, most likely to make him a better bench player. But the Orioles biggest need was at second base, and Lombardozzi would have been most useful at second base, so I thought I'd look at his defensive performance at Norfolk to see if he was actually an outstanding defensive second baseman. If he wasn't, then that might explain why the Orioles didn't promote him.

I have gathered the scoresheets for 56 2014 Norfolk Tides games, a total of 493 innings. That works out to roughly 39% of the Tides' defensive innings. In those games, six players played second base - alphabetically, Alexi Casilla, Ivan DeJesus, Lombardozzi, Johnny Paredes, Cord Phelps, and Jemile Weeks. I will be comparing Lombardozzi's defensive performance - the manner of which will be described below - to the others. The data is not complete and the conclusions drawn are not going to be 100% reliable. The data may also be biased if certain players played more often behind certain pitchers or against certain teams. But it's safe to say that if Lombardozzi is not better than the average Tides second baseman even in this number of games, it's unlikely that studying more games would show him to be an outstanding defensive second baseman. Or, at least, if I claimed that Lombardozzi was an outstanding second baseman and these 56 games didn't show that, I'd better be prepared to explain why the selected games don't reflect Lombardozzi's skill.

This analysis focuses on the plays that in my opinion reflect a second baseman's defensive skill while ignoring those which do not. The plays which reflect a second baseman's skill are ground balls fielded, pop flies and line drives caught, double-play pivots, and errors. I'm not looking at putouts registered as the result of force plays or tag plays because I don't think they indicate a skill. While it's possible that there's a skill in snagging a poor throw while keeping a foot on the base, the number of such plays is insignificant compared to the number of routine force plays. And while there is unquestionably a skill involved in applying a tag, it's doubtful that that skill affects would-be tag plays as much as the location of the throw or the runner's ability to avoid the tag.

The table below reflects the results of each of the second basemen listed above. The data includes the total number of defensive innings and the number of each type of play per nine innings. Steve Lombardozzi played 126 defensive innings at second base, successfully fielded 2.286 ground balls per nine innings, caught 0.857 pop flies per nine innings, etc.

Pop Flies
Line Drives
Double Plays


Lombardozzi was better than the other Tides second basemen in all categories except errors. However, he wasn't much better than the other Tides second basemen, except in catching pop flies. I don't see any evidence that Lombardozzi was an outstanding defensive second baseman, and consequently it's hard to argue that the Orioles blundered in not recalling Lombardozzi or that they did him an injustice. From this information, he seems to be a no-hit, adequate-field utility infielder.


Anonymous said...

This article will disappoint a lot of people from the Atholton, MD area... Hope the local kid gets another shot someplace else.

Jack said...

Finally someone sees this issue and addresses it in detail- thank you ! I disagree with your conclusions and hope that the Orioles trade Steve before opening day so that he can get back to MLB and prove them all wrong. Thanks for the detailed review of his 2014 lost year though.dauth

Cornell Keith said...

What do you expect. They gave up a 38 year old shortstop to get him. He filled a need at that time, but DD does his best work in season.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I don't think anyone said it was a bad trade, because it wasn't. That doesn't mean it's not worth looking at Lombardozzi's situation, as Joe did.

Philip said...

I cannot fathom why Lombo is so neglected. He isn't the risen Savior, but he cannot possibly offer less than Kelly Johnson or Jimmy Paredes, who has power but fields like a blind man in a wheelchair.
I think sometimes, as with Clevenger and Lombo, Buck just decides he doesn't want them around.
I hope they each catch on with someone else.

Anonymous said...

I was confused why anyone was excited when they acquired him in the first place. Career negative bWAR and fWAR. Below average both offensively and defensively. I'm just happy they didn't keep around for being scrappy, or something like that. It's fun to cheer for a local guy, but he's just not good.

Tom Tom said...

Lombo's a winner. Clear and simple.