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Stephen Drew still offers something for the Nationals

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It's hard to believe, but a player who hit near the Mendoza line will perform a somewhat valuable service in 2016.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Every player offers something of value to his team. It may not be as blatant as a player who hits 30 homers every year. Or consistently swipes 40 bags. Or wins multiple Gold Gloves (although the best defensive players don't always win GG's). Or annually generates a WAR greater than three. No, no. Not all players are that lucky. Especially shortstops who just signed with the Washington Nationals for one year, $3 million.

What I'm saying is that Stephen Drew is not that lucky to have his value to a team made undeniably obvious. The new-National has had a rough time since he rejected the Red Sox's $14.1 million qualifying offer following the 2013 season. Not only did he sit in free agency limbo in an apparent time out to think about what he had done, he struggled mightily when he returned. Splitting time between Boston and the New York Yankees, Drew ‘batted' to the tune of a .162/.237/.299 slash and 45 wRC+ over 300 plate appearances. Not exactly the greatest offensive contribution in 2014.

However, last season Drew re-emerged. Not to be written off so quickly, bound and determined to fix it in the Bronx, he went on to break the Mendoza line by one one-thousandth of a point and posted a wRC+ greater than 50 (76). Well excuse me if I'm the only one who hears ‘Eye of the Tiger' playing in the background as Drew runs up a flight of stairs during a season-long 80's training montage. He was back. He was reinvented. He was...a giant hyperbole.

Personifying a hyperbole is essentially the same thing as being overrated, which is very hard for a player of Drew's offensive stature to do. While, yes, his overall offensive production seems laughable there is one thing that seems to stick with him. You've probably even heard it. Stephen Drew plays good defense. His defense, apparently, has some mystical powers that result in being the reason teams employ Drew. Come on now, everyone knows that.

OK, I'm not contesting that his defense is one of the better aspects of his game, but this is the same defense that was worth -3 DRS and a -4.1 UZR across 1166.1 innings at second base since 2014. It gets better for Drew at shortstop in that same time span, 4 DRS and a 2.4 UZR over 502 innings, but the sample size is smaller--although he does have a larger career track record at short that is either good (DRS) or bad (UZR) depending on your defensive metric or choice. So ‘better' should be taken with a grain of salt. Falling short of being a reincarnation of Ozzie Smith, though, I doubt that any player would be able to play well enough on defense to make up for the offensive production that Drew has churned out the last two years.

My point is that Drew has been bad these last couple seasons. Yet, somehow, he is a perfect fit for the Washington Nationals. Why is that? Well, it is because Stephen Drew's job is to be the middle-infield equivalent of a back of the rotation starter. A player whom teams employ to eat innings.

He is gaining popularity at his job, too. Think about whom Drew blocked in Boston before he was traded away--Xander Bogaerts. With the Yankees he helped fill the void left by a retiring Derek Jeter and a departing Robinson Cano while also helping to bridge the gap to young players like Rob Refsnyder. Now with the Nats, he will attempt to do the same. He will help provide a veteran safety net for another young player, Trea Turner.

Drew will attempt to be marginally useful through being what is, essentially, a temp. In doing this, Drew does provide a useful service. Playing mediocre innings while his team looks for a long-term option or tries to mature their near-ready prospect into a player who translates his potential to the major leagues is this aforementioned service.

Bridging the gap for prospects is slowly becoming as weird a specialty for Drew as Jonny Gomes' penchant for finding his way onto good playoff teams. For Drew, this is where he is most effective. He is that guy people so often refer to as "a good depth move".

Yes his offense might be pitiful overall, but it isn't without potential upside. Drew made contact 85.7 percent of the time he swung last year. That is a nearly seven percentage point increase from the year before and looks even better when combined with a slight decrease in swinging and nearly ten percentage point decrease in strikeouts. All that means is that Drew put the ball in play a whole lot more than he did the previous year while improving his plate discipline.

Lest we forget putting the ball in play is where we've seen that Drew runs into trouble, he owns a BABIP near .200 over the last two seasons! That is well below his career average (.290) - shouldn't that mean he is ripe for a bounce back season? Well, no. Seeing the rapid BABIP decline and knowing that his fly ball and line drive production have largely remained the same, there is only one more place to look. Ground balls. Take a look at said production:

Season PA AVG Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard% wRC+
2013 107 0.206 57.9% 8.4% 11.2% 25.2% 9
2014 61 0.066 80.3% 4.9% 26.2% 8.2% -81
2015 118 0.144 61.0% 10.2% 22.9% 10.2% -33
Career 1215 0.227 56.3% 13.2% 16.0% 19.6% 15

Oof. That 2015 production isn't just bad, it's the worst in the American League in front of teammate Brian McCann. At the same time, it also is telling of Drew's decline phase. He has become a harvester. No, that doesn't mean Drew is out in a corn field in the middle of the country collecting plants before the winter. The phrase, which was coined by Tony Blengino of FanGraphs, means this:

Once the purer hitters’ raw gifts start to fade, and they begin to impact the baseball with less authority, their opposite field production will begin to decline, and they can then feast on the pull side of the field in their respective decline phases. This is a career phase that I like to call "harvesting". When you get down to it, this excessive pulling is pretty clearly an old player’s skill, or even better put, a late-career skill.

The list of extreme pull ground ball guys above is a combination of older "harvesters", younger, limited one-tool guys trying to squeeze out every last drop of their longball power, and the weird Chris Davis. The harvesters previously used the entire field much more than they do today, progressively lost their ability to do damage to the opposite field, and now go up to the plate hunting a pitch they can drive for distance. Marlon Byrd drastically changed his swing prior to the 2013 season, and enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Raul Ibanez broke the record for homers by a forty-something with this approach. It’s often a crafty, late career sustenance move undertaken by a studious, professional long-term performer (Ibanez, McCann, to some extent Byrd).

[...]Over an extended period, pitchers (and advance scouts) recognize these harvesters, and place the ball where it’s very difficult to pull with authority. These guys are experienced and savvy enough to recognize and cash in their share of mistakes, but that’s it. They no longer control the dialogue.

Pulling the ball more often is definitely something Drew has been doing. He did so 47 percent of the time last season and 52 percent of the time in 2014. Both are well over his career average (~41 percent). Whether it is or isn't a conscious choice we might never know without asking him, but what we do know is that, for a left-handed hitter, Yankee Stadium is a good park for lefty pull hitters due to the short porch in right.

If you had to take a guess, when do you think the left-handed Drew saw a spike in pulling the ball? Ah, yes. Right after joining the New York Yankees. Although Drew still took the ball to his power field often on the road, his percentages at home were still above his career average. While this could be a signal that a change in scenery could work for Drew, he is still making weaker contact on the pitches he is pulling, as signaled by a rapidly declining Hard% on baseballs hit to the right side.

However, teams know what they are getting into. They aren't asking for Drew to lead the league in hitting for an extended period of time. They aren't even asking him to be above average. All they can ask of Drew is to take some walks, put the ball in play, and try to tap in to the remaining power he has left. Combine that with generally average defense at shortstop and there is a player who can provide a useful service. Of course they would like to see him excel offensively, but that would only be a bonus for a player in their decline phase.

So maybe Stephen Drew's value isn't incredibly noticeable, which is fine. His best days are likely behind him, as he will get only deeper into the wrong side of thirty. For this reason it wouldn't be a shock to see Drew continue to float around the league from team to team. Taking innings wherever he can get them. Finding short-term roles for teams with big futures. Slowly but surely turning into a non-reliever journeyman as we reminisce about that one time in 2008 when he finished 26th in the National League MVP voting. Hey, there's value in that, too.

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.