Thairo Estrada has quietly become one of the most important Giants

It’s June 22nd and Thairo Estrada is leading the Giants in at-bats. He leads the team in innings played in the field and is 40 innings—more than four full games—over the runner-up. He’s capable of the dumbest mistakes and the most brilliant defensive plays. He hits the ground more often than almost any hitter in the big leagues, yet he has two game-winning home runs in the ninth inning this year.

Estrada is also absolutely necessary to the Giants’ plans in a way that has been creeping up on us. He somehow became one of the most important players at the Giants in 2022, and it’s time to address that idea. If you’re the type to skim the first few paragraphs and close the tab, here are some spoilers: it’s already helpful, it’s frustrating at times, and it might have a clear path to getting even better.

Start defending. According to StatCast’s Outs Above Average, Estrada ranks 123rd out of 159 qualified infielders with -3 OAA. Don’t forget that the samples for defensive metrics are smaller than for offensive metrics since there will always be fewer defensive chances than plate appearances, so don’t take these numbers as gospel. Estrada is level with Brandon Crawford, which seems menacing, and Carlos Correa, which seems like a statistical hiccup. It’s still a little early in the season to draw firm conclusions based on defensive metrics.

Except that the eyeball test happens to match the metrics. Estrada has made some annoying mistakes on the field while also occasionally making excellent plays. If you’re looking for the full Thairo experience, he gave it to you in back-to-back matches on Monday:

Could have been a double play ended up being a free runner to keep a rally going.

Should have been an RBI single ended up being a double play to quell a rally. Estrada contains a lot, all right.

However, there is context to consider in his overall defense. While those games were played at shortstop, the majority of Estrada’s defensive innings (and therefore his metrics) came at second base. He had transcendent defensive moments there, where he slipped into the outfield grass and was thrown off his knees, and he also had moments where the announcers would simply ask, “What happened?”

He makes the hard plays look easy and the easy plays look hard. If you are looking for a half full analyst to turn this into a positive friend then you are sure to have subscribed to the right site. Having the talent and physical ability to make ingenious, seemingly impossible plays is the part that can’t be taught. There is only a limited amount of technique to teach when it comes to any baseball skill, whether it’s speed, range, or power. At some point there has to be sport. Estrada clearly has that.

What Estrada needs is experience at second base. This is the first season since 2016 that he has logged more innings in the second than in the short game, and most seasons before that he has been primarily a shortstop. He had nearly a third of his chances at second base as a pro in the big leagues. While this may not seem like a big deal, Russell Carleton’s work on defensive versatility helps explain why this is.

The short version goes like this: If you took Ozzie Smith in his prime and dropped him to second base, his defense would suffer. We think second base is “easier” than shortstop, and there’s good reason for that. But that doesn’t mean every old shortstop can slide down to second base right away. There is an adjustment period and it is not short. This helps explain why Estrada has done better in the majors over the past two seasons, and I think his second-place defense will improve over time. Defense is more than going far left or right and doing dive games. It’s about experience and expectations, pre-pitch leans based on your subconscious recognizing a pattern that your conscious brain doesn’t. Trying to learn all of this in the majors, where the game is exponentially faster, is all the more difficult.

My educated guess is that Estrada’s defense will gravitate towards the spectacular and away from the frustrating. This leaves his bat as another open question, and the easiest way to become an Estrada lover is to remember this: With zero improvement, with absolutely no increased production over his current numbers, he’s an average second baseman at the plate. Almost spooky.

Stat Thailand 2022 avg NL2B

avg

.267

.256

OBP

.320

.319

SLG

.396

.396

OPS

.715

.715

OPS+

101

101

HR %

2.0

2.3

Average is good, remember that. A team of average league hitters at their position will score more runs than the average team because of a lack of below-average hitters. The absence of bad is another kind of good. Make sure you give me a few bucks back if you put this on a mug and sell it on Etsy.

Right now, Estrada is an average offensive second baseman. But there’s reason to think he could be more, starting with the obvious: he’s only 26, which is older than a potential player but younger than the typical player. Players aren’t always fully trained at his age and it’s a good sign that he’s already making his mark.

More than that, though, he’s holding his own while having an apparent issue with his batted ball data, something the Giants may want to correct. Estrada has the second highest ground ball to fly ball ratio in baseball, behind Eric Hosmer. While it’s not that easy to pat him on the back and say, “Say, have you thought about hitting more balls in the air?” Getting him to do just that might be an obvious long-term goal for a coaching staff who are very good at polishing racquets.

And again, it doesn’t have to be a problem if he stops hitting balls in the air. He’s already a league hitter with good speed and defensive versatility. If that’s the cap, then it’s a major league cap.

However, my guess is that the ceiling is higher. It’s a positive sign that his bottom may already be that high.

All of this is optimistic about Estrada’s future contributions, which is good because the Giants sure are leaning heavily on him. It looks like he’ll be the de facto second baseman to be more of a DH with Tommy La Stella, but Estrada is also the only reasonable replacement for Crawford, which is expected to miss a couple of games after a game at the plate on Monday. Estrada has hit righties even better than lefties this season, and he did last year too, making him playable against all starters. Having a versatile infielder with no platoon splits is a big deal for a manager heavily focused on platoon advantages and matchups.

This all explains why Estrada leads the team in at-bats and innings played, and why he was one of the top 10 most valuable players on a 38-29 team according to the Baseball Reference. This kind of middle-of-the-road performance doesn’t usually get the feature treatment normally reserved for “What’s wrong with (player)?” or “Here’s How (Player) Became an All-Star,” but right now, Estrada is helping more than hurting, and that can be the full story of his 2022 season if you will.

But don’t be surprised if there’s a little more to it. The defensive mistakes are frustrating and he’s unlikely ever to stay at the top or middle of a lineup, but the Giants use Estrada more than any other player because they can. There’s a chance he can reward her more than he already has.

(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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