David Fletcher is a nice, solid ballplayer. Since debuting with the Angels in 2018, he’s played all over the field and been above-average defensively wherever he goes, while posting a .292/.346/.386 line with 10 homers and 13 steals in 283 games.
Last year, Fletcher was poised for a breakout. He came into 2020 with a full season under his belt the year before, and turning 26 in May, was at just the right age to pop. Indeed, Fletcher posted a 121 OPS+ and, according to StatCast data, improved his plate discipline, although not his hard-hit rate.
The problem for Fletcher is that last year was shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, so he only played 49 games for a team that went 26-34, well out of playoff contention, meaning that he didn’t really get a chance at a big spotlight as he came into his own more.
As a result, you can see the seeds of what Angels manager Joe Maddon said on Tuesday, proclaiming that Fletcher is “one of the best second basemen in the league” and that when he’s not listed as such, “that pretty much tells me that whoever is doing this reporting is not really watching.”
Spring training is a time for accentuating the positive. Players are always reporting “in the best shape of his life,” pitchers touting a new pitch that they’ll actually drop two weeks before the season starts, and managers pointing toward the playoffs with a team that really has no hope of reaching October. If Maddon wants to call Fletcher one of the league’s best at the keystone sack, fine, but to impugn everyone else as ignorant for not agreeing is baloney.
Of the six sets of projections at Fangraphs, only one sees Fletcher with a wRC+ of league-average 100 this year. But, to be fair to Maddon, projection systems don’t really watch. So what about the people who do?
Well, last season, Fletcher did get a 10th-place vote for American League MVP. He was tied with Mariners rookie Kyle Lewis for the lowest OPS among anyone receiving MVP votes, and Fletcher’s three homers were the fewest among that group. So, it’s not like he was overlooked despite not putting up the flashiest of numbers.
But another big thing is that anyone watching Fletcher saw him play 15 games at second base last year, compared to 27 at shortstop while filling in for the injured Andrelton Simmons, as well as eight games at third base and four innings in right field. In his career, Fletcher has played 100 games at second base, but 131 at third and 73 at shortstop. A big reason that he wouldn’t be seen as one of the top second basemen in the league is that he hasn’t been a second baseman: his career-high in games there is 43, as a rookie.
Even so, when MLB Network ranked the top 10 second basemen in the game right now, Mike Petriello put Fletcher at No. 10 — he wasn’t on any of the other three top 10 lists from the panel.
If we’re just talking about the American League, the names ahead of Fletcher make sense. DJ LeMahieu is the consensus No. 1 in the majors for a reason, trailed by Brandon Lowe. Despite his rough 2020, it would be silly not to put Jose Altuve up there. Luis Arráez of the Twins is younger and a better hitter than Fletcher, and vastly improved his defense last year.
César Hernández didn’t appear on any of those MLB Network lists, and he led the American League in doubles last season while winning a Gold Glove. There’s more of a gripe about not including him among the league’s top keystone sackers than there is Fletcher.
So, that’s three second basemen in the American League who are inarguably better than Fletcher and two more who you’d have to consider, and that’s not to mention Cavan Biggio, who is generally thought to still have more upside, still having played only 159 games in the majors. If nothing else, Biggio already has established himself as a reliable on-base man, with a .368 OBP and 112 walks in 695 plate appearances. If he ever starts to get the bat on the ball more reliably, he’ll be a superstar, and even so, his WAR was on par with Fletcher’s last year while Fletcher was playing his best ball in the majors to date.
Maybe the problem isn’t everyone else’s evaluation. Fletcher is a good player, but hasn’t played a ton of second base. He clearly isn’t at the very top of the list of American League second basemen, and you’d have to be optimistic about him to rank him in the top third in the Junior Circuit, while the National League at second base doesn’t have the LeMahieu/Lowe star power but does have Ozzie Albies, Ketel Marte, Jeff McNeil, Jake Cronenworth, and Kolten Wong. Maybe Maddon is the one who needs to spend some time watching more than just the Angels.