In Defense of Delino DeShields

Alex Hooper

Major League Baseball stripped away a key strategy from Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians by moving to the three-batter rule in 2020, but it also added a measure that the future Hall of Famer is sure to exploit.

Francona, the employer of designated-thrower Michael Martinez in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, has shown an affinity for players who bring fringe skills to the table. With the addition of the 26th-roster spot in 2020, that affinity is freer to become a strategy without constraining the roster.

When the Indians acquired Delino DeShields from the Texas Rangers as a part of the Corey Kluber trade, he was obviously not the centerpiece of the deal. The 27-year-old has spent pieces of each of his 10 professional seasons in the minor leagues, for one reason or another, and many surmised the speedster would not even break camp with Cleveland.

Yet, DeShields brings tangible value to a team. He is an elite runner and fielder, ranking in the 97th percentile in both sprint speed (29.5 feet/second), and outs above average (12 in 2019). There has to be room for that somewhere, right?

Perhaps in a world where a team can carry just 25 players, someone with a track record of league-basement exit velocity, barrel-rate, xWOBA, and HardHit% probably does not fit. Add a tiny wrinkle into the mix, and the reason that player has existed for 539 appearances becomes somewhat of a market inefficiency.

Lineup manipulation and bit-role players are not a novel concept. Specialists have been around since the beginning of the game, but the active rosters have never been bigger. With the number of pitchers capped and their specializing stripped away, the onus has been placed on teams to now manipulate their base of position players.

The most common wrinkle for position player spots is a platoon, essentially using two roster spots for one position. On a recent Francona roster, that leaves enough room on the 25-man for a backup catcher and a utility player. With another roster spot, he is free to employ that fringe-skill player without as much adverse effect on the roster. Especially with its payroll limitations.

DeShields presents those two elite tools, which the Indians could either rely on or supplement. Instead of making DeShields a full-time player, the team created another platoon. Not a lefty-righty platoon, but an offense-defense platoon.

With questions about whether or not Franmil Reyes will be capable of playing a full-time role in the outfield, DeShields’s presence allows Reyes to struggle defensively for 6-7 innings, so long as he creates the offense he is expected to. If Reyes gets his 3-4 plate appearances per game, he can churn out his projected 35-37 home runs and mid-.800s OPS, later transforming into the 29.5 ft/s and 12 OAA in DeShields.

Again, these types of platoons are not new either. They generally do not exist to such extremes, or alongside another platoon, but they happen.

The ability to platoon two outfield spots and optimize the corner spots then facilitated the addition of Domingo Santana, who will carry the torch at designated hitter. In place of an OF-DH cycle of Reyes, DeShields, Oscar Mercado, and Jordan Luplow, where Reyes is forced to field full games and DeShields is forced to hit often, both players will be played to their strengths.

By reducing the potential disaster of Reyes’ fielding, the front office has ideally opened the DH spot for Santana, who is projected as a slightly above-average hitter with 20 to 30 homers. The same production would not be expected from Luplow (vs. righties), DeShields, and Jake Bauers.

It is not necessarily that the Indians will exclusively take advantage of the extra spot, it is that so few players like DeShields exist. Even though he has shown little promise at the dish, an extra roster spot allows him to do what he does better than just about any other player, and almost exclusively those things. That talent eases the load on Reyes and his elite power while allowing Luplow to remain in his platoon if necessary.

Any team will put the best player on the field for what they need in a given moment, but for an offense who desperately needed another league-average bat, DeShields and the 26th roster spot have made it doable.