Elvis: The Once (And Future?) King
Elvis Andrus is truly at a crossroads in 2016.
Elvis has been through a lot since he was traded to the Rangers in 2007 and made his major league debut at the age of 19. His baptism by fire was to assume the shortstop position from Rangers legend Michael Young, who was the Gold Glove winner and an All-Star at the position just one year before. He hit the ground running and though some folks scratched their heads over moving the reigning Gold Glover to 3rd base, Elvis performed well.
He won over fans and teammates with his boyish enthusiasm and hustle and came in second in the AL Rookie of the Year vote. Before the age of 24 (the average age of MLB players in their rookie season) he had already been a key player through two World Series runs and emerged as a natural leader on the field. Following the team’s success in 2010 and 2011, he had a breakout year in 2012, prompting Rangers’ management to unload the money truck, giving Andrus a huge contract extension set to kick in for 2015. Based on his prior performance and continued improvement to that point, the ceiling was unlimited. Many fans were on board with the Rangers trying to lock Andrus in but were concerned about tying up so much money and/or so many years.
Thus far, as a good faith gesture to the Rangers for giving him a massive extension two years before his existing deal was up, Elvis has provided a decline in performance on the field and at the plate since 2012, he showed up noticeably out of shape to spring training in 2014, and in 2015 started the season with performance so deplorable that Tony Beasley told him that he wasn’t a very good shortstop. Beasley didn’t say that to be critical but as part of a pep talk designed to motivate Elvis to focus – a scene which has been played out before with Andrus and the previous coaching staff.
Not only was Beasley correct in his assessment, but by most standard and advanced statistics, Elvis was one of the worst shortstops in the AL the first month of 2015 (not that many of the Rangers were any good in April.) Beasley’s pep talk helped Andrus straighten up and fly right, and he posted a solid if not workman-like remainder of the regular season.
The playoffs were a different story; Andrus had poor production at the plate, with only four singles in 22 at-bats, no stolen bases, and only scoring one run. Then came Game 5 in Toronto, which we know all too well and don’t need to dissect further; he had two critical late-inning errors which were instrumental to the Blue Jays’ victory. This is not the kind of performance you want from your future leader, but what is important now is how he responds to it going forward, which we will get to in a moment. At least for the rest of 2015, Andrus seemed to take Beasley’s words to heart and took deliberate steps to be better.
Elvis’ statistical breakdown:
After Elvis joined the major league roster in 2009, his statistical performance increased every year in most categories until they peaked in 2012. Based on the continued improvement and the outstanding season he had in 2012, the Rangers felt that the time was right to start laying the groundwork for signing Andrus to an extension. They reached an agreement just after the season began in 2013 – giving Elvis an 8-year deal worth $118 million, or a little over $15mil/year after factoring in a $2 million signing bonus. Since 2012, Elvis’ statistical performance has declined steadily and significantly. Hits, average, on-base percentage, runs (all career lows in 2015), and stolen bases (second lowest career number in 2015), have all declined over the three-year period. The one statistical rise in 2015 over 2014 was in total bases (and by extension OPS,) which is partially attributable to the increase in home runs, certainly a very low priority in the Elvis Andrus statistical pantheon.[table “5” not found /]
In 2015, Elvis was the third highest paid shortstop in the MLB at $15 million; however he only had the 12th best WAR among shortstops at 1.6. By comparison, Brandon Crawford of the Giants had the highest WAR rating at 4.7 and Xander Bogaerts had 4.3 WAR at #2 (Fangraphs ranking of MLB shortstops by WAR in 2015.) Crawford drew a $3.2 million salary and Bogaerts received $543,000. Crawford is a more valid comparison being closer in age to Andrus and having a similar length of contracts. Compared to Jose Reyes (about .5 WAR) and Troy Tulowitzki (2.3) who each pulled down over $20 million in 2015, Andrus may appear to be a bargain, but when ranked in terms of WAR, Elvis was middle-of-the-pack among all the starting shortstops, yet his salary would indicate that he should be an elite shortstop. Nobody expects Elvis to drive in runs like Tulowitzki, but for $15 million a year, we shouldn’t feel bad for expecting Andrus to significantly elevate himself over the likes of Alcides Escobar and Marcus Semien.
Some folks who are only about advanced metrics will say that they will take a 1.6 WAR for $15 million at shortstop. To these folks, I say that advanced metrics aren’t everything and the expectations that came along with the big contract for Andrus were to continue to improve or at the very least maintain his 2012 form. More, the idea was that Elvis should be the leader on the field, to even carry this team on his shoulders going forward. While he continues to take home the $15M salary paychecks, he hasn’t improved, maintained, or carried the team on his shoulders. That’s hardly a bargain.
It’s not just the expectations for Elvis to maintain or exceed his 2012 high water marks that will weigh on him this season. It’s not just the career low batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored in 2015. It’s not just the Game 5 meltdown in Toronto. There is a shortstop on this Rangers roster who posted a higher WAR in 2015 and is owed about half the money Elvis will receive this season. He just happens to be the likely starting left fielder, Ian Desmond. There is also a (finally) healthy Jurickson Profar who looks like he could be ready to push for some real major league time this season, though the organization appears to be set to do the right thing and give Profar a substantial amount of time in Round Rock to get used to playing baseball again every day.
Will Jeff Banister make a permanent move this season at shortstop? Extremely unlikely, though the fact that Desmond and Profar are both in the system could have Elvis looking over both shoulders all season, wondering if the next error will see him benched in favor of Desmond, or if an extended slump will see him traded to unload the contract, with Profar moving up to fill the role of Rangers shortstop of the future (another article on this site having anointed Profar as the once and future king.)
All of this could weigh very heavily on a young(ish) player, who wants to win, wants to play well, and feels the pressure to live up to the expectations of a big contract. Anyone who saw his post-game interviews after Game 5 in Toronto could tell that he was heartbroken and knew he had blown it (though he wasn’t the only one to blame.) He owned his responsibility – and that showed a good deal of maturity. There is a reason that Elvis is a fan favorite. He plays hard. He can be exciting on the base paths (he stole home against San Diego last season for Pete’s sake!)
He has uncanny reflexes and range in the field and a cannon for an arm. Aside from his skillset, he obviously loves to play baseball. Further, he loves to play for the Rangers and maybe most of all, loves to play next to Adrian Beltre. It’s clear that his favorite place to be is out there on the baseball field, with Belts by his side, doing everything he can to win, but having fun the whole time. If you see his perma-grin on the field, you can’t help but smile yourself. He’s a huge part of the reason that the Rangers fan base is so robust and loyal right now.
There are few who are bigger Elvis fans than I am. I own one authentic Rangers player jersey, and it’s #1. But I was MAD at Elvis after Game 5 last year. Not just for that game, but for 2015 as a whole. I was furious. I contemplated retiring my Andrus jersey. But after I cooled down, I realized that I still loved Elvis. Elvis was once The King of young shortstops. He has the talent and athletic ability to be the king of shortstops again. There’s nobody who wants to see Elvis rebound and have a career year more than me – nobody will be cheering louder than me for that to happen.
He’s already had a few seasons of the weight of his contract on his shoulders, but he’s never had the weight of both an immediate potential usurper and a future usurper on his shoulders along with the weight of the elimination loss in the playoffs on his shoulders as in addition to the weight of the contract. Andrus has been seemingly unflappable during his career – he never seems to let one thing bother him for very long. Here’s to hoping that he shrugs off all the weight and lives up to the expectations and contract; that all of this focuses Elvis and motivates him to have a great season. If he does, it could be a very good 2016 for the Rangers indeed.