If you can turn your memory back to a time in between Major League Baseball’s lockout and when the Cincinnati Reds spiraled to a 3-22 start to their season, you’ll recall that there was some bit of positional intrigue within the Cincinnati infield. Much of that was, of course, due to the franchise-altering payroll decisions made by ownership and the front office once the transaction freeze was over, but that’s a story for a different day.
This time, I’m talking about how the Reds were going to manage their shortstop position. Kyle Farmer, former catcher and career utility dude, put in a respectable season as the primary option there in 2021 - respectable in a ‘if Kyle Farmer is your 7th or 8th best hitter, you’re probably a decent ball club’ kind of way. Entering his age-31 season, though, there was certainly a question of whether he’d be able to replicate what had clearly been a career year for him so far, and that came on top of the obvious - Jose Barrero, ranked the top prospect in the Reds system by many sources, had torn up AA-AAA and was ready for the opportunity to face big league pitching on the regular.
I’ve further buried the lede here, and whether or not Barrero/Farmer is the shortstop of the future isn’t the point here today, either. Rather, there was a time in mid-March when the shortstop position was deep, if not settled, and one of those two would always be able to competently man said position.
Then began the cavalcade of bad news on the health front for the Reds, one that hasn’t truly slowed much since. On March 21st, we heard that Barrero had been playing all spring with a busted hamate in his wrist, an injury that would require surgery and shelve him for at least 6 weeks (and usually saps some power temporarily after that). That took one shortstop option off the table, and the thin Reds system simply didn’t have much in-house behind him.
Newly signed Donovan Solano had played a bit there, but as another over-30 guy the general consensus was that those days were probably past him. Then, he got hurt.
Max Schrock had played all over the field in the bigs and was knocking the cover off the ball all spring, and if you squinted, you could probably talk yourself into the shifts making him at least passable in a pinch at short on Farmer’s off-days. Then, he got hurt.
Cincinnati’s Opening Day ‘shortstop’ from 2021 was gone, too - Eugenio Suarez, that is. No, he has no business as a shortstop anymore, but if we’ve reached this point on the depth chart, even that in a pinch option was gone.
That very same day that the Barrero news went public, March 21st, the Reds made one of their final signings of the spring, however. That’s the day they put pen to paper on a minor league deal with Brandon Drury, a do-it-all fielder who, if I recall correctly, was the final SS/2B option listed on MLB Trade Rumors free-agent tracker to land a gig prior to the start of the 2022 season. It was a minor-league deal with an invite to what was left of spring camp, and the thought (at the time) was that yes, he had at least appeared as a shorstop in 10 big league games in his career.
I told myself when I sat down to coffee and keyboard this morning that I’d highlight what Drury has done for the Reds so far this year. Frankly, it’s been brilliant, his 147 OPS+ co-pacing the team’s offense while most of his peers have fallen by the wayside. He’s sporting what would clearly be a career-best barrel rate of 17.2% (his previous best was just 8.4%), and his average exit velocity of 90.0 mph is also the best in his career to date. Perhaps most notable among his StatCast numbers, however, is that his launch angle of 13.9 degrees sits significantly different from where it was during the 2016-2017 seasons, the two years in his career so far where he’s had the most PA (499 and 480, respectively). Back then, he sported launch angles of 9.5 and 7.6 degrees, respectively, signaling that he’s clearly got his swing on a different plane altogether than he did back in those line-drive days.
His 2019 season was the lone other nearly ‘full’ season so far in his career, and while he did sock 15 homers for Toronto that year, much of the rest of his overall production (.262 OBP, 70 OPS+) fell completely apart. It was the kind of slump from a player reaching his arbitration years for the first time that pushed him into a ‘business of baseball’ purgatory - meaning that his play slumped at precisely the same time he a) was getting more expensive and b) had no guaranteed money on his contract, a combination that pushed him to the periphery of all rosters. Factor in the cancellation of the 2020 minor leagues during the pandemic, and even his most direct route back to being a full-time big leaguer had been blockaded.
It’s that frustrating 2019 season paired with what we’ve seen so far from him in admittedly very small samples so far this year that have me intrigued, however. Despite the overall cratering of his production in 2019, he’d clearly already begun to change his approach at the plate. Gone were the 9.5 and 7.6 degree launch angles from 2016 and 2017, respectively, and in its place was a 13.8 degree one. His barrel-rate spiked to a then career-best 8.4%, too. Unlike in 2016-2017, though, when his actual slugging percentage far outpaced his expected slugging percentage, that completely reversed in 2019 - whereas he’d been ~40 points better in each of 2016-2017 than what StatCast expected of him, his 2019 season showed that StatCast found him roughly ~40 points slighted.
BABIP tended to reflect that change, too. His 2016-2017 numbers (.327 and .320, respectively), were undoubtedly on the high side given his batted ball profile, but his 2019 number (.259) was probably a significant overcorrection, too.
The 99 PA he’s put together in a Reds uniform this year seems, for now, to be something of a culmination of his evolution as a hitter. The launch-angle adjustment is still there at 13.9 degrees, while his barrel-rate sits at an excellent 17.2%. He’s not getting slighted by BABIP, either, as that’s at a normal .293 (though with his hard-hit rate up over 51%, there’s a chance even that could be a bit unlucky for him so far). More important, at least with the StatCast goggles still on, is that his actual slugging percentage of .558 is much more in line with his expected slugging percentage of .569. In other words, what he’s done so far this season when putting bat to ball has not produced fluky numbers.
Several things could very well be true about this, the obvious being that it’s just about a meager 100 PA sample size. He could well slump, and pitchers will begin to attack him differently. Still, it does appear that there was a clear evolution in approach by Drury over the course of his journeyman career to date, and the results right now seem to be exactly what that evolution was designed to produce.
What’s funny, I guess, is that even though the Reds losing every known shortstop option that ever existed over a week-ish period in late March may well have been what prompted their dive back into the good god is there anyone else out there who has ever done this before end of the market, Drury has only logged 3.0 total innings at short so far this year. To his benefit (and that of the Reds), that he’s been able to play everywhere else, too, has been what’s had him in the lineup almost every single day so far this year, something that should continue to serve both parties well once the likes of Jonathan India, Joey Votto, & Co. inevitably return to the lineup.
For everyone’s sake - especially since Drury will finally have enough service time to reach free agency on his own terms this winter - let’s just hope Brandon keeps on smoking balls with the aplomb we’ve seen so far this year.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.