Age on Opening Day: 33
2011 stats: 97 games, 381 PAs, .266/.317/.340, 4 HR, 26 RBI
2010 stats: 83 games, 199 PAs, .267/.299/.380, 3 HR, 17 RBI
In the second part of the SnakePit's look at the players on the 2011 NL West Champion D-backs (love that phrase), I'll be taking a look at Arizona's super utility man, Willie Bloomquist.
Now, I can imagine what some of the authors' reactions must have been when they initially saw that my second player choice for this series was Bloomquist. "Oh great, Dan hates Bloomquist, he's gonna give Willie an F- and whine about him hitting lead-off." Believe it not, though, I'm going to completely ignore Bloomquist's spot in the batting order, regardless of how much I may or may not have liked it, because a) Willie had zero control over where he hit in the line-up, and b) there's only so many times I can beat that mangled, fleshy lump that might have once a dead horse (it's been so long since it was intact that I've forgotten...). Instead, I feel it more productive to focus just on the things that Bloomquist could control - as painfully obvious as that is - when judging how he performed relative to the expectations we had for him going into the season.
First, the back-story on how Bloomquist arrived in the desert. Bloomquist was the last free-agent addition the D-backs made in the 2010-2011 off-season, signed to a one-year contract worth $1.1MM guaranteed with a mutual option for 2012, and his addition was met with some, well, apprehension. I think we were fair in doing so at the time, given that Bloomquist had collected a whopping total of 1.0 fWAR in 748 career games prior to his signing and D-backs fans had become rather jaded by two straight years of unfathomable suck. We were told that Bloomquist would bring "veteran leadership" and help with the "culture change" that GM Kevin Towers was trying to bring to the club, and giving the team players off the bench who had experience in bench roles - a mindset that was met with a collective guffaw from the 'Pit. Here's a sampling of some of the more awesome comments from the original FanShot regarding Bloomquist's signing:
(Apparently, jinnah's love is a powerful thing.... don't let her go, Phil)
I think the sentiment is pretty clear. In retrospect, it's also pretty hilarious if I say so myself (and if I had commented in the thread - somehow I didn't, was there a non-FanShot story I missed? - I almost assuredly would have said something equally laughable). Bloomquist's addition to the roster was perceived at the time to be a sure sign that Tony Abreu would be sent to the minor leagues, given that Geoff Blum's spot on the Opening Day roster - which had already banished Ryan Roberts to Triple-A for the year - was all but guaranteed as the backup infielder behind Kelly Johnson, Stephen Drew, and Melvin Mora.
(Go ahead and re-read that last sentence again. Holy crap.)
Thus, with Bloomquist aboard and Abreu reluctantly headed to the minors (yeah, that was another of the SnakePit's better calls...) in favor of Blum, the D-backs' bench unit was essentially set in stone with those two, Henry Blanco, Xavier Nady, and a backup first baseman, be it Brandon Allen, Juan Miranda, or Russell Branyan.
In spite of his multi-positional talents, though, Bloomquist's role seemed uncertain. The job of backup 2B/SS/3B belonged to Blum, with Nady slotted in as the team's primary backup corner outfielder despite his arm woes. Bloomquist could see some time in center field, but Chris Young has a well-earned reputation of being an Iron Man, so it was hard to see where the reps for Bloomquist would come from. On days where Nady got a start over Gerardo Parra, Bloomquist would be the team's primary right-handed-hitting bench option, but "secondary right-handed bench bat" isn't exactly an enthralling job description. It seemed that Bloomquist was a third-string player on a team that wasn't supposed to go anywhere, so the easy question to ask was "what's the point?" This, of course, brings us to...
The 2011 Season:
However, as the season approached, Blum's knees gave out and Stephen Drew was shelved by an ab issue that caused him to miss five of the team's first seven games. Thus, Bloomquist's role as the third middle infield option suddenly included "Opening Day shortstop." Then, once Drew had healed, Nady's shaky right arm brought up concerns as to whether or not he could capably handle playing in the outfield. After Nady had spent Spring Training gently lobbing the ball back into the infield, the regular season struck and the team had had enough of being patient with his recovery. So with Nady limited to first base, the team suddenly needed a new right-handed-hitting outfield compliment to Gerardo Parra, and with Collin Cowgill's upper-level resume still being constructed at Triple-A Reno, Bloomquist became that guy.
Now, sure, Bloomquist doesn't belong in left field. He's an aging, light-hitting utility man who shouldn't be playing at a power position more than a couple times a month, yet he appeared there 24 times from April through July. And, of course, many of us would have rather seen the team give more reps to Gerardo Parra out there, since Parra's defense was visibly superior to Bloomquist's and his bat showed signs of significant improvement. However, for a backup infielder playing left field, it's hard to find fault with Bloomquist's play. A career 79 wRC+ hitter, Bloomquist posted a 75 wRC+ figure for the D-backs in 2011, so it isn't as if his offense was dramatically underwhelming, and his defense out there was visibly palatable - certainly a far better alternative than watching Nady lob in the ball like a hand grenade.
Then came the injury that could have been a catastrophe. Stephen Drew broke his ankle in gruesome fashion at home against the Brewers in July, an injury that would cripple many clubs. After all, some teams struggle to find one shortstop capable of putting up above-replacement-level results, how was Arizona going to find a second one? With Blum still on the shelf - and the state of his knees suggesting he wouldn't be of much use at shortstop even if he were off the DL - Bloomquist became the team's everyday shortstop - in the midst of a playoff hunt, no less. Pretty big change from "third-string player on a team that wasn't supposed to go anywhere" to "starting everyday shortstop on a team in a pennant chase," isn't it?
Bloomquist's job title wouldn't be the only thing that changed. The Drew injury also wound up being the point where Bloomquist went from being "kind of mediocre as expected" to being "shockingly valuable." After spending much of the year hovering around average defensively at a position with a massive negative positional adjustment, one would expect Willie to see his defensive metrics plummet with a move to short, one of the most defensively-challenging positions. Now, the samples are small, but having watched Bloomquist spend half of a season at the position, the good ol'-fashioned eye test bears out the fact that he was shockingly capable at short - which agrees with his 0.4 UZR at the position in 2011.
Yeah, his bat may have been incapable in left field, but a 75 wRC+ at shortstop from a backup is more than acceptable. Heck, playing out Bloomquist's wRC+, UZR, and BsR (more on this later) totals over a full season at shortstop would make him better than the everyday shortstop on two other playoff contenders - Atlanta (Alex Gonzalez: 75 wRC+, -0.3 UZR, -0.1 BsR, 149 games) and Milwaukee (Yuniesky Betancourt: 72 wRC+, -6.9 UZR, 2.5 BsR). Even considering the uncertainty inherent in the UZR numbers, Bloomquist probably performed up to the standards of a fringe-regular in his time at shortstop for Arizona in 2011. For $950,000, that's a phenomenal value.
Then, of course, came the playoffs. Aside from the hilarious fact that Bloomquist was the better of the two starting shortstops of the series (lolYuni), he wound up having one of his better offensive stretches of the season against the Brewers. Bloomquist went 7-22 in the series with a walk, and despite not registering any extra-base hits, a line of .318/.348/.318 from a backup shortstop who plays average defense at the position is a dream scenario. Willie was solid defensively during the series, and delivered what would have been one of the most memorable plays in Arizona post-season history had the D-backs pulled out the series victory, executing a perfect squeeze bunt off of Brewers closer John Axford in the top of the ninth of Game Five, plating Gerardo Parra and tying the game at two runs apiece.
However, I'd be remiss if I ignored mentioning my personal moniker for Bloomquist - Singles TOOTBLAN. At shortstop, the singles-heavy nature of Bloomquist's offensive game played well enough, but the "TOOTBLAN" part of things was particularly frustrating. Well, funny story about that... Bloomquist's stolen base success rate of 66% (20-30 in stolen base attempts) probably was a minor - but very minor - detriment to the team, but FanGraphs kindly incorporates stolen base value in wRC+, so we've already dealt with those mishaps to a certain extent. As for non-stolen base baserunning components, Bloomquist's BsR according to FanGraphs was, believe it or not, a positive 2.2 runs. The value of stolen bases vs. caught stealings is still something that is largely up for debate the last time I checked, but it seems likely that Bloomquist's overall base-running (i.e. first-to-third, scoring from second on a single, etc.) actually, in fact, helped the D-backs in 2011. Guess that goes to show what I know, eh?
Of course, none of what I've covered so far in this post has anything to do with how valuable Bloomquist may have been in the clubhouse or off the field. After thoroughly mocking "veteran presence" and "organizational culture" in the off-season, it seems that the D-backs have had the last laugh in this regard, as several of the D-backs' young core of players had breakout seasons in 2011, coinciding with the introduction of several veteran mentors into the clubhouse. We certainly don't know if it's by luck or by leadership, but the role of veterans like Bloomquist and J.J. Putz off the field cannot be completely discounted. If Justin Upton's off-season training with Bloomquist had any part to do with Upton's "re-breakout" 6.4 fWAR season, then that $950,000 was money very well-spent.
This brings us to my final grading of Bloomquist. I'm giving Willie a B- for his regular-season production - mainly his sterling work at shortstop - and then bumping up his grade by one level for a combination of playoff performance and veteran-y leadership, leaving Willie with a solid grade B for his 2011 campaign with the D-backs.
Pretty far from an F-, isn't it?
Now, for the rest of the SnakePit's grades:
Willie Bloomquist is not Stephen Drew, nor does he play him on TV. However, he did play in his spot for a good chunk of the 2011 season; only once since his debut in 2002 has Bloomquiist started more than the 80 games he did for us. Sure, he certainly shouldn't have been hitting lead-off, but misuse (including 22 starts in left) is hardly Willie's fault, and he was pretty much as expected. Every year from 2003-10, Willie has delivered an OPS between .613 and .679, which is amazingly consistent - 2011 extended that streak, with .657. That's pretty low - there's a reason why, 845 games into his career, Bloomquist has a total of 1.3 fWAR - but as a back-up utility player, earning less than a million bucks, he was okay. When you buy a cheap Swiss Army knife, you don't expect it to carve a masterpiece, just open the odd tin-can.
Despite the respectable numbers that Bloomquist put up when filling in for Stephen Drew, there's one nagging eyesore that hovers over his efforts - his liability on the base-paths. He improved after the All-Star break, stealing nine out of eleven bases in the second half, but his overall productivity was still mired by bad decision making throughout the season. He was among the National League's worst in pickoffs (6) and caught stealing (10). That's how he'll be remembered most. Then again, there's a certain outfielder on the D-backs that was actually worse than Willie on the base-paths...
Willie was never supposed to be as good as Stephen Drew, not even when Drew went down. There's a reason Towers got John McDonald in the package with Aaron Hill. Perhaps lead-off wasn't always his best spot, but his on-base was okay, so were his pitches seen as a lead-off batter. Of course, I always wanted to bolt his shoes to first base once he got there... And without his bunt in Game 5, we.... well, we would've lost in the 9th instead of the 10th. Still, I think Willie was fine as a backup infielder, and his "veteran presence" isn't so bad either. Especially for the price, we got plenty out of Bloomquist.
Maybe I just had lower expectations than everyone else here, but Bloomquist actually played slightly better than I expected him to. His hot streak at the beginning of the season came at a bad time, as it raised expectations for him to unreasonable levels, and made the rest of his season look that much worse by comparison. Unfortunately, it also might have convinced Gibson that he would be an ideal lead-off hitter for the entire season. That said, he filled in capably for Drew after everyone thought that his injury would be the death knell for the season, and Fangraphs actually rates him as 6.2 runs above average on the basepaths, which suggests that his horrors there might be a bit exaggerated. Overall, he did statistically what he has done for most of his career, as he was below-average but above replacement-level for his position, which is really all you can ask for from your backups.
I think Bloomquist got some undo blame for various things (first example being the NLDS where everyone was quick to point out his mistake, but then ignored that he hit .318 in the series). He's a backup infielder, and played a little better than average. You can't ask for much more.