Orlando Arcia getting the nod for the starting shortstop job in Atlanta raised some eyebrows this spring. After all, he had looked more like a utility infielder in recent years than a viable starting shortstop, and it felt a bit like that ship had long since sailed. The present and future was Vaughn Grissom, our top Braves prospect last year after the graduations of Spencer Strider and Michael Harris II. Grissom didn’t exactly struggle in his debut last fall, whomping pitchers to the tune of a .293/.353/.440 line, a triple-slash that would be viable for a first baseman, let alone a guy who can handle short. Yet it was Arcia who ended up with the job in the spring. It didn’t even seem like the typical service time shenanigans, such as the Cubs swearing that Kris Bryant needed a couple weeks to learn to be a better player than Mike Olt; Grissom already had nearly a third of a year of service time, which would have made it a bit arduous to maintain that façade.
Arcia didn’t disappoint in early play: In 13 games, he hit .330/.400/.511 and looked fairly comfortable playing short regularly for the first time in a few years. Unfortunately, a Hunter Greene fastball had other plans for the position; his upper-90s heat hit Arcia’s wrist during an at-bat, knocking him out of Wednesday’s game against Cincinnati, replaced by Ehire Adrianza. Initial x-rays didn’t reveal a fracture, but an MRI and CT scan on Thursday showed a microfracture, sending him to the injured list. This appears to be a minor injury, and it appears as if Arcia will only miss a couple weeks of play. Cookies don’t crumble in identical ways, but Nick Castellanos suffered this injury in 2021 and only missed a couple of weeks.
If there were service time issues involved, the Braves could have very easily plugged in Adrianza or Braden Shewmake for a couple of weeks and continued to let Grissom work on his defense in the minors (he was so-so at best in the majors last year with the glove). But finding time at short for Grissom, who by all reports took his demotion with humility, was still the upside play. Just as Arcia didn’t disappoint early on, he performed very well for Triple-A Gwinnett, with a 1.044 OPS in 10 games.
Last week, my colleague Jake Mailhot talked about some of the reasons we shouldn’t pooh-pooh Arcia’s skills. Of the many tired Szym tropes, one I like to hit on frequently is my belief that well-run teams always try to give players every opportunity to prove them wrong. There’s at least a chance that I’m guilty of doing that with Arcia, too quick to dismiss his recent performance and letting him remain in the utility infielder barrel in my mind. Because there are even more reasons to be interested in Arcia besides the ones that Jake mentioned.
Spring training doesn’t mean much, but it means something. Back in 2015, economist Dan Rosenheck looked at spring training stats in a study he presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference. He found that they didn’t mean a ton, but also that we should be more careful about laughing off the numbers as meaningless, something I know I’ve been guilty of in the past (I provided Dan the ZiPS projections he used in the study, so I’ve known about his work and tried to be more careful since then). Dan was looking at the “normal” stats: OBP and SLG and their various derivatives. There was no StatCast data to work with at this point, and things like exit velocity and contact rate tend to be less volatile, which means that, at least theoretically, spring improvements in these numbers should be even more important than in the classic sabermetric stats (I think I have a study to do this summer!).
Since Jake posted his piece, Arcia continued to hit, with an average exit velocity of 91.0 mph, as good as his surprising 90.7 last year; entering 2022, his career figure was 87.1. Looking at percentages, his 42.5% hard-hit rate was a huge jump over his 30.4% for his career; that’s continued in a small sample this year at 51.4%, currently 30th of 196 qualifiers. In addition to hitting for more power, Arcia also showed surprising strides in plate discipline, which was one of his bugaboos with the Brewers. StatCast lists 71 total pitches for him, which isn’t exactly the largest pool of data to work with, but even over the short term, his plate discipline data was extremely impressive, something I never expected to say about him. Of the 41 pitches out-of-zone he faced this spring, he only offered at six of them (14.6%), a rate that is in ultra-elite Joey Votto/Juan Soto territory. Even with a low qualifying status of 100 plate appearances, the best in baseball last year falls well short of that (Josh VanMeter at 18.9%). This wasn’t just passivity at work, either; Arcia swung at 70% of in-zone pitches during the spring, right in line with the MLB average of 67.5% in 2023.
What’s more is that both scouts and stats really liked Arcia’s upside as a prospect. He was the ZiPS no. 26 prospect before the 2015 season, then rose to no. 4, sandwiched between J.P. Crawford and Dansby Swanson, before 2016. And while his debut didn’t go well, a .277/.327/.407, 2.0 WAR line at age 22 in 2017 for Milwaukee was extremely promising. Let’s go back to the 2016 projection for a moment; where did ZiPS think Arcia would be now?
ZiPS Projection – Orlando Arcia (pre-2016)
Maybe the mistake wasn’t the projections and expectations for him, but the throwing in of the towel? That 2022 projection is basically the player Arcia actually turned out to be in 2022 (the triple-slashes are superficially higher because ZiPS didn’t project last year’s offensive environment back then). That kinda flips the story around a bit; it would mean that Arcia isn’t a utility infielder who lucked into a starting job, but a former top prospect who made a triumphant comeback.
Should Grissom play well over the rest of April, it may re-ignite the position battle that appeared to be settled for the short term. But maybe that’s not true at all; maybe the question isn’t whether Arcia or Grissom lose their starting gig when they get back, but something else entirely? We didn’t expect the Braves to get much out of left field this year, and so far, they haven’t, as Eddie Rosario, Marcell Ozuna, Kevin Pillar, and a game of Sam Hilliard have combined for a .466 OPS at the position. While the position won’t stay quite that weak, it was long expected that left and DH (held down by Ozuna, who’s been awful) were the team’s weak spots. What if the odd-man out at shortstop becomes the even-man in at third base (if the team wants to revisit Austin Riley in left field temporarily) or in left themselves? An Arcia/Harris/Ronald Acuña Jr. outfield could be quite the boon for the team’s flyball pitchers.
At its core, the Braves having a minor controversy at shortstop is only a problem if they make it one. Having too much talent has been an actual problem for precisely zero teams in baseball history. Atlanta has other needs; Arcia’s injury and Grissom’s stint as the starter may end up with the “Grissom or Arcia?” answer being “why not both?”