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Hobbled by injury, Orioles shortstop Jose Iglesias excelled offensively in 2020

In limited playing time, Iglesias impressed at the plate but also underperformed expectations on defense.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays
Orioles infielder Jose Iglesias prepares to make a throw from shortstop.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s ironic that the Orioles brought in a glove-first infielder in January to hold down the shortstop position for the short-term and he ended up being one of their best offensive players. But the big caveat of the situation was that Iglesias’ health limited his playing time for much of the year and relegated him to designated hitter duty more frequently than anyone would have hoped or anticipated.

When Iglesias signed with Baltimore this offseason, he was joining his fourth team at the outset of his ninth year in the league. Expected to be a steady veteran presence in the infield with plus defensive ability, anything Iglesias could offer his new team with the bat would be considered a bonus.

From 2011-2018, he had a .270 batting average and a .678 OPS. Then Iglesias had a coming out party of sorts in 2019 with the Cincinnati Reds, slashing .288/.318/.407 at the plate with a career high 11 home runs.

But again, he was brought to Baltimore for his glove, first and foremost. Before this season began he had a career 7.0 dWAR and in 2020 that number was a measly -0.2, according to Baseball Reference. In 168 innings at shortstop this year, Iglesias had a range factor per game of 2.83, which was almost a full point lower than the 2020 league range factor per game of 3.64.

We will never truly know how much his injuries this season negatively affected his range and mobility in the field, but if you are looking for an easy explanation for the defensive decline, there it is.

Now back to his offensive game. In 150 total plate appearances, Iglesias showed impressive gap-to-gap power, as evidenced by a .556 slugging percentage that was powered by his 17 doubles despite him having only three home runs.

If you are looking for a player who earns a lot of walks, that player is not Iglesias. But at the same time, he made very consistent contact in 2020 and did not strike out much at all. His three walks on the year — versus only 17 strikeouts — helped him reach a .400 OBP, but that number was also aided by his .373 batting average, which was in turn boosted by a .407 BABIP.

Still, Iglesias finished the season with a 160 OPS+.

When he was on the field, he wildly outperformed offensive expectations. The only problem was keeping him on the field consistently, seeing as he missed a lot of time throughout the season due to injury.

He played in 39 of the Orioles 60 games this season, including 35 games started. He had one official stint on the injured list due to a quadriceps strain that knocked out of commission for about 11 days from mid to late August.

Yet even with Baltimore’s roster constructed the way it was in spring training and summer camp, if you had told me newcomer Jose Iglesias would anchor the third spot in the O’s lineup for much of the year, I would have laughed in your face. But that was actually the case. Iglesias held a prominent position in the batting order all year long, hitting third in 21 games and second in 14 games.

Of his 39 total game appearances, 24 came at shortstop and 15 came at designated hitter. Such a time split was surely not what the Orioles expected coming into the season, but they very likely did not expect Iglesias to hit over .300 and slug over .500 either.

When Opening Day 2021 rolls around, the veteran shortstop will be 31 years old. He earned $2.5 million from the O’s in 2020 and the club holds a $3.5 million option for 2021 with a $500k buyout. Seems like a relatively easy decision to bring the shortstop back for another year, right?

Keys to that decision may be the likelihood that any lingering health issues can be cleared up in the offseason and the understanding that it would be unfair (i.e., unrealistic) to expect the same kind of output at the plate next year from Iglesias as he had this past season.

So it does seem unlikely that he will be part of the next good Orioles team. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and is peaking quite late in his career offensively, which makes it more questionable as to whether he can keep it up.

The Orioles signed Iglesias as a stop-gap while they search for their shortstop of the future, and presently, there isn’t anybody exactly banging down the door in the minors. That situation is predicated in part by the tenuous state of minor league baseball due to the pandemic and contraction efforts by MLB that were gaining steam even before Covid struck.

So while Iglesias may be a temporary placeholder, his term as such could very well extend another year or two into the future. Just probably not another four to five.