Let me start off by admitting that I haven't been the most optimistic person about Tommy Manzella, who will be the Astros' starting shortstop. My fear has been that his offense will be very bad in his first year, and that his defense will not be as good as advertised. Manzella is having a nice spring so far. He is hitting and bunting as well as can be expected. I haven't watched a game yet (audio only for me, so far this spring), but based on what I've heard, his defense has looked good.
For a number of reasons that we all know about, spring training performance shouldn't be given a lot of weight. And the sample size at this point of the spring training is ridiculously small. So, I won't lean on Manzella's spring performance to say that he is better than we think. However, in keeping with the optimism that surrounds spring training, I asked myself, "What kind of realistically possible comparable performance would I want from Manzella as a starting shortstop?"
Two of the Astros' rivals in the NL Central, Chicago and St. Louis, have starting shortstops who might be reasonably compared to Manzella. Ryan Theriot of the Cubs and Brendan Ryan of the Cardinals were older minor leaguers with the good defense/weak offense reps whom were handed starting shortstop jobs over the last couple of years. Both have had reasonable success so far. Theriot had a 3.1 WAR season in 08 and a 2.8 WAR season in 09. Ryan had a poor 2008 (0.8 WAR) and a good 2009 (3.1 WAR). CHONE and fans predict Theriot with a 2.2 - 3.1 WAR, and Ryan is projected at 2.7 - 2.8 WAR. Looking at their stats, I view Manzella as more similar to Brendan Ryan than Theriot. Theriot profiles as a player with better plate discipline, a better walk rate, and better OBP than Ryan and Manzella.
Looking into their minor league records, I was surprised at the similarity between Brendan Ryan and Tommy Manzella.Ryan is almost exactly one year older than Manzella. Ryan became the St. Louis shortstop for much of 2008 at the age of 27, the same age as Manzella this year. The career minor league offensive stats for both players are shown below.
Ryan 902 AB, .274 BA, .328 OBP, .364 SLG, .692 OPS .309 BABIP, 57% GB, 12.5% LD
Manzella 1977 AB, .268 BA, .321 OBP, .370 SLG, .691 OPS, .318 BABIP, 55% GB, 15.9% LD
I have to tell you that I am surprised at the similarity of the rate stats for Manzella and Ryan as major leaguers. If you neutralize for ballpark and "luck," Manzella's batting average and OPS increase to .270 and .696, and Ryan's batting average and OPS decrease to .271 and .682. It's hard to clearly distinguish the two players' performance, but the advanced stats might suggest that Manzella was a slightly better offensive player in the minors.
For further comparison, I'll look at the triple slash lines for the last two years of significant experience in minor league ball for each player: Manzella 2008 .259, .310, 369, .679; 2009 .292, .342, .418, .760. Ryan 2007 .273, .330, .342, .672; 2008 .250, .299, .417, .716. Again, fairly comparable. But, if anything, Manzella heads to the majors with better offensive performance in his last two minor league seasons.
Ryan and Manzella appear to have similar plate discipline characteristics. CHONE projects a 6.3% BB rate for Ryan and 6.4% for Manzella. Manzella may strike out more than Ryan, with a CHONE projected BB/K rate of .31 for Manzella and .44 for Ryan. The K rates for Manzella and Ryan are roughly the same in the minors (15% range).
The most significant value of Ryan is his defensive contribution. Ryan's ML career UZR/150 at shortstop is +13.9. That is very good, and makes him one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball.
I think this may be one of the question marks about Manzella. He has a reputation for good defense, but is he capable of making the kind of defensive contribution at shortstop which is comparable to Ryan? And I don't know the answer. However, if his defense is as good as Ryan's, we might be quite pleased with Manzella.
From a defensive metric standpoint, all we have for Manzella is Total Zone (TZ), which is a crude measure. Manzella's TZ has been erratic, with good results at a particular level followed by bad results at the next level. Manzella's TZ per 150 innings averages about +8 at AAA. What were Ryan's TZ results? Ryan also has an inconclusive TZ pattern over his minor league career. Ryan's AAA TZ/150 is +8 ---the same as Manzella's. I'm not sure what that tells us. Maybe it just says that TZ isn't a great measure of defense. However, it also could be consistent with the potential for Manzella to perform similarly to Ryan at the ML level.
Overall, Brendan Ryan and Thomas Manzella seem like very comparable players. That's not saying that Manzella is comparable to a star shortstop, because Ryan is far from that level. And, frankly, given his BABIP in 2009, Ryan is due for some offensive regression next year. (Since he is a Cardinal, that's fine with me.) But the comparison could indicate the potential for Manzella to be a decent contributor. However, I hope that Manzella doesn't take this comparison too far. One thing I dislike is the ridiculous high red leggings worn by Ryan last year. I hope we don't see that from Manzella.