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In-depth: Tejada big-league ready?

The Mets seem committed to giving 20-year-old Ruben Tejada a look as the everyday second baseman. It’s an interesting position, considering that Tejada’s minor league experience at second base totals 40 games, but Mets management clearly liked what it saw enough to push him through the farm system at a quick rate.

Ruben Tejada

Second Base
New York Mets

Profile

The Mets have had light-hitting middle infielders play significant roles previously. They won a World Series in 1969 with light-hitting Al Weis as part of a second base platoon, and won another in 1986 with .218-hitting Rafael Santana at shortstop.

But in this era, it's hard for a player with limited punch to flourish, even if he as an excellent glove. That got us to wondering if Tejada has what it takes.

During his time on Baseball Tonight, current Orioles manager Buck Showalter used to talk a lot about the skills he’d look for in young major-league ready players.

The other day, I asked him for a quick refresher list of those he’d mentioned on the air, related to second basemen, during his time here He passed along a list of evaluative questions we’d previously discussed before he left ESPN.

It struck us as a worthwhile exercise to look at where Tejada stands, and we’ll do that using those questions as a guide.

Does he have a “good clock” as a defender?

What Showalter meant by this was asking whether that player could handle the increased speed of the major league game, of having to make plays and decisions instantly, without fail.

Paul Bereswill/AP

Ruben Tejada's defense has looked major-league ready, but can his bat catch up with his glove?

All indications seem so for Tejada, with one in particular standing out.

Tejada has excelled in turning the double play (you have to have a “good clock” to turn a DP, right?). According to Bill James Online, Tejada has had the chance to turn 20 ground-ball double plays at second base (either as initiator, or pivot-man) and the Mets have successfully turned 13 of them. That’s a 65 percent success rate.

How good is that?

DP Conversion Rate

Mets Second Basemen

For the limited sampling that it is, it’s excellent (for comparative purposes, Luis Castillo and Alex Cora turn them at a 45 percent rate), albeit probably unsustainable.

Monday, we looked through the numbers for the top 10 rated second basemen in the 2009 Fielding Bible Awards (put out by Baseball Info Solutions) and that group collectively turned double plays at a 55 percent clip, with Ian Kinsler’s 60.5 percent rate grading best.

There’s significant value in this attribute. The charts that rate “Win Probability” by situation show that a double play in a tie game in the fourth inning or later spikes the average team’s chance to win by at least 10 percent. A double play turned by the home team in the ninth inning of a tie game is a huge play – a jump of nearly 20 percent.

Remember the multiple times you probably got frustrated in the last few weeks by Castillo failing to start/finish a potential double play? Those moments should be reduced now. And that may mean a few more victories in 2010 and beyond, if Tejada can maintain his everyday status.

How is his range in the air?

This one is meant to evaluate performance on pop flies, in terms of how much ground he can cover in fair and foul territory. This is also important in helping a manager determining the proper depth at which to position his outfielders.

We saw Tejada’s nifty running catch of that flare popup in the middle of the diamond in the ninth inning of the Mets win over the Phillies on Saturday. I'm not sure either Castillo or Cora make that play and there are some numbers to back that up.

Our friends at Baseball Info Solutions track the ability of a fielder to get to balls hit in the air (popups, line drives, etc.)

In these 21 games, Tejada rates a +1 in their plus-minus system on balls hit in the air.

What this means is that Tejada has gotten to one more popup/line drive than the average second baseman, hit the same balls, would have caught.

For what it’s worth, Castillo is a -2 and Cora was a -4 on defending balls hit in the air. The standard-setter would be Orlando Hudson’s +9 last season, though even just reaching Robinson Cano’s current +5 would be a strong positive in Tejada’s favor.

Will his defense allow a manager to keep playing him, when he goes through the struggles that will happen on offense early on?

Let’s use this question to look at Tejada’s struggles, since we've already gone through his defensive successes.

Tejada’s first foray into everyday major league play started alright. He was hitting .279 with four extra-base hits and a .667 OPS through June 30. But since July 1, he’s 4-for-47 with no extra base hits, and 0-for-his-last-16 overall.

Pitchers have avoided making mistakes, because Tejada showed what he could do with those in his first few weeks in the major leagues.

In June, Tejada had three hits on what amounted to “mistake fastballs” (middle of plate, belt high, which he saw about once every 17 fastballs thrown).

But in July/August, he’s seen 120 fastballs, but only two have been of the “mistake” variety (one for every 60 thrown) and he didn’t get a hit on either of them.

What’s happened during the last month is that those "mistake fastballs" are now directed up-and-in, or middle-away, two areas in which Tejada hasn’t been able to get hits. Those would seem to be the first two places to target when looking at his potential growth as a player.

Can he play the game offensively that his skills dictate he should?

In evaluating the idea of Tejada opening the season at shortstop when Jose Reyes was hurt, Baseball Prospectus’ managing partner and minor league analyst Kevin Goldstein wrote:

“He has a near-zero chance of ever being a star, but at the same time, he's one of the most fundamentally sound 20-year-olds you'll ever see. He works the count, makes consistent contact (59 strikeouts in 553 plate appearances last year), and while his range at the position is merely average, he makes the plays on the balls he gets to. Strikeouts and out-of-control fielding are the things that usually spell doom for a rookie, but Tejada has both of those bases covered.”

There are a lot of things that Tejada does very well that would make you think he’s going to eventually be more productive than he’s been.

Mets officials point to his K/BB rate as a 17-year-old in rookie ball (35 strikeouts, 38 walks in 299 plate apprarances) as one indicator.

Ruben Tejada

ZIPS Projections

He’s also shown good basestealing instincts at the minor league level (19-for-21 in 2009 with Double-A Binghamton) and penchants for both bunting and getting hit by pitches.

Those latter two skill sets have surfaced at the major league level . The former two have not … but it’s still very early in Tejada’s career.

Very few players have good plate discipline at an early age. Since 1990, 13 of the 19 players who were 20 or younger and got half-a-year's worth of plate appearances (200) struck out at least twice as often as they walked.

That said, we liked what we saw Tejada's turn against Phillies closer Brad Lidge in the ninth inning on Sunday.

After failing to get the bunt down twice in the ninth inning against Lidge, Tejada was able to put a tough pitch in play with two strikes, advancing a baserunner into scoring position in the process, rather than striking out.

Tejada is 6-out-of-6 in getting a runner in from third base with less than two outs and 6-out-of-7 in advancing a runner from second base if he’s at the plate with nobody out.

When he does get the bunt, he’s 4-of-4 in being successful. And while some may critique the ESPN/Elias Sports Bureau stat “Productive Out Percentage,” (now tracked here at Baseball-Reference.com) those who grasp it and like it can point out that Tejada’s 72 percent success rate is REALLY good (the major league average is 32 percent).

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It may be asking a lot for Tejada to be like Edgardo Alfonzo (the best offensive second baseman the Mets have ever had) offensively, but even just getting to the level of Felix Millan or Doug Flynn (a couple of Gold Glove-caliber notable names from the past) would do wonders for his value.

For now, we'll just watch along with the Mets as this 20-year-old prodigy tries to figure things out. Hopefully by October, our answers to the "Showalter Test" will be a little more well-defined.

Mark Simon is a researcher for Baseball Tonight. Follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn. In-depth is a regular feature on ESPNNY that runs Tuesday's throughout the season.