With a .225/.307/.320 slash line through 201 PA, Nick Ahmed‘s major league resume doesn’t exactly scream “franchise cornerstone.” The fact that he didn’t get the starting shortstop role until after his 25th birthday sends more or less the same message. Ahmed has been a Guy at least since his inclusion in the trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, and yet I probably wasn’t alone in viewing him as a future utility player not long ago.

Maybe you’ve been ahead of me for a while, but if not, it’s time we both adjust our expectations of Ahmed. Despite being a bit short of qualifying for the batting title, Ahmed is now third on the team in both fWAR and bWAR. All this from a player who at the end of April had a .140 batting average. Not bad.

For installing Ahmed at short at the beginning of the season and for sticking with him for six weeks of failed adjustments at the plate, the D-backs deserve a ton of credit — for that, maybe more than any other decisions this year. “Shocking the industry” is probably an overstatement for any kind of D-backs news, and yet when Peter Gammons reported that Ahmed seemed to have the job locked up, it was treated like some kind of bizarre miscommunication, with even the team backing away from the declaration. Looking back at the Gammons piece, it now looks like the legend used a time machine to report from the future:

“I think he’s going to hit, too,” says club president Tony La Russa. “The ball jumps off his bat better than some people realize. He’s aggressive. He’s what we hope Diamondbacks players are like, because he works hard, he plays hard, he does every little thing right.

“You look at Paul Goldschmidt and (third baseman) Jake Lamb and we could have an infield of gold glovers in a short time. Nick Ahmed is going to win gold gloves, I assure you.”

…Nick Ahmed is a big league shortstop, the Diamondbacks starting shortstop, “and,” says La Russa, “he’s going to be here for a long time.”

Talking up one’s own players is so common that I think it frequently sounds like noise. This no longer sounds like noise. And that last line? As pronouncements go, it no longer looks bold or optimistic.


At a family event a couple of weeks ago, I got to explaining a bit about why I enjoy watching the D-backs so much. It’s a very different brand of baseball than you’ll see on Red Sox broadcasts, I said. They play with a ton of energy, I said, and there are so many interesting things going on right now.

I think I may have referenced Ahmed three times in one conversation as my biggest selling point. The “big hit” is exciting, but it’s the stuff of highlight shows — if you watched three-hour broadcasts just for those, you’d be pretty bored most of the time. Defense, on the other hand, is involved almost all of the time. Watching A.J. Pollock or Ender Inciarte track down a ball in the outfield is highly entertaining, but most fly ball outs don’t require anyone to go full speed. Ground ball outs, on the other hand — the play doesn’t end with the ball in the first fielder’s glove.

Ahmed makes every play a show. He’s had his fair share of highlight reel plays, but his range is extraordinary. He’s behind the second base bag, he’s behind the third baseman, he’s everywhere in between — and sometimes it looks much, much easier than it is. Our eyes can deceive us. But Ahmed does one thing especially well in my humble opinion — he is so good at charging the baseball without tripping himself up that he can do it on almost every play, throw without setting himself in a favored throwing position, and give himself and his first baseman a little extra time on the throw. It’s automatic. He’s all out all the time, and having that reliable extra gear on the front end makes a lot of 6-3 plays look routine that might have been infield hits with other fielders. You never see Ahmed wait for the ball. Think about that.

Oh, and in terms of throwing arm… doesn’t really seem like it matters what direction he’s facing or how far he’s traveled.

Our eyes can definitely deceive us. I think it doesn’t take a lot to tell the difference between a great fielder and a poor one — we watch this game so much that we are armchair scouts, too. But just as putting binary labels on players can be dangerous, that can also sell some players short. Cliff Pennington is a defensive shortstop and a fine one at that, but he and Ahmed are not interchangeable. The difference is profound. Our eyes have a hard time distinguishing between very good and great, and between great and elite.

That’s when numbers can be so helpful — and with respect to defense at short, there are so many plays that we couldn’t keep track of them in our minds anyway. At the same time, advanced defensive statistics are largely inferential — they compare what did happen to what was expected to happen, without granular play-by-play adjustments in every respect. For that reason, we’re generally leery to rely on those numbers in samples smaller than three seasons.

Good luck could not explain Ahmed’s numbers to date, however, even with just 58 games (51 started) at short. As noted on Wednedsay, Ahmed ranks third among shortstops in both Defensive Runs Saved (11) and UZR (6.6). If we took those statistics at their word, Ahmed’s defense has been worth about one full win to the D-backs already this season as compared to the average (rather than replacement level) shortstop. That would mean his defense has helped the club about as much as A.J. Pollock’s offense. We don’t really have to take the defensive statistics at their word to come away with the conclusion that Ahmed’s defense is almost definitely above average in a significant way. For a club whose main shortcoming has been its pitching, Ahmed’s defense might justify beginning to plan around him.


Except that no matter how good a player’s defense is, he still has to hit. Possible transcendence in the field could justify starting a player even if his defense were poor. I think what we’re starting to see is that it doesn’t take a ton of offensive production to elevate a player from “startable” to someone worth planning around.

Because Ahmed definitely has started to produce more than nothing at the plate. We use wRC+ as a handy tool to weight different elements of offensive performance in the right ways, and in the last 30 days, Ahmed’s wRC+ has been 125. That’s 25% above average for all non-pitchers at producing runs. Before the season, ZiPS projected Ahmed at a 70 wRC+ for the season, and after a ridiculously horrible 11 wRC+ in April (89% below average at creating runs!!), Ahmed’s wRC+ is already better than that, at 72 for the season. As tempting as it is to suggest that Ahmed’s recent performance is more suggestive than the beginning of the season (and maybe it is), it seems that he’s at least justified that projection.

Jeff broke down Ahmed’s swing just when the night was darkest for Ahmed at the end of April. One of the key takeaways:

So if we look, Ahmed really has two holes in his approach. The secondary stuff down and away, and the fastballs up above the zone. The low and away pitches you’d like to see him learn to master, but that’s a common area for every hitter to be exploited. Pitchers know they rarely get hit hard out there and go to that zone all the time. But the high heat that Ahmed has struggled with has been out of the zone. Those are balls all the way and, given his profile, pitches he just doesn’t have a chance on. He’s not going to pound those pitches over the fence; he’s going to pop them up if anything. That hole should be closed immediately. And while that’s not a large raw number of pitches, every strike changes the complexity of an at-bat and they’re not doing him any favors.

Very good hitters still have iffy parts of the zone; for Paul Goldschmidt it’s low and away (as with most hitters), but up and in can also be a problem, as it seemed to be in the early going for Yasmany Tomas (more). Average-ish hitters tend to not be able to solve that problem (maybe especially with two strikes), as we saw this season with Mark Trumbo. As with Trumbo, a happy zone can help balance the scales — without it, an inability to solve one part of the zone can make for a below-average hitter.

Two holes, though, does not a major league hitter make. In April, Ahmed got almost all of his 8 hits on fastballs in the middle or bottom of the strike zone, with breaking stuff down and fastballs up the two holes that Jeff identified. From ESPN Stats & Info, his batting average in different parts of the zone:


Things look a lot better in May and June:

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On fastballs at the top of the zone, Ahmed has gone 4 for 10, which is a hell of a lot better than 0 for 8. Maybe more importantly: he’s recorded just one out on fastballs above the zone in May or June, and hasn’t whiffed at a single one. In April, it was a steady diet of breaking balls down and fastballs up for Ahmed, but since then, the upstairs cafeteria has been closed.

Ahmed is still swinging at breaking balls low (and, actually, below the zone) more than he should. He’s gone 6 for 26 on those pitches, though (.231), so it’s not the black hole it once was. Ahmed went from having two holes that both posed serious problems to more or less solving one of them completely (upstairs fastballs — by not swinging), and upgrading the other to either “not so bad” or “iffy.” That’s a sea change. And especially with respect to the upstairs fastballs, it does seem like something for Ahmed to hang his hat on. It’s not that Ahmed has simply had better luck with balls in play with the same swing profile; it’s that he’s changed his swing profile (and maybe also had some luck), and that has seemed to pay dividends.

The occasional home run doesn’t hurt, either.

Holding Down the Future

Speed doesn’t slump (well, kind of, right?). Defense really doesn’t, either. I’m not talking about injury, or the yips, or anything psychological — we’re talking about raw ability. A hitter can scorch the ball three times in a game and still come up empty for hits, and with hitting the hardest thing in sports, a slight timing issue can have temporary but lasting consequences. That just doesn’t really happen on defense. If the D-backs commit to Ahmed for the foreseeable future, it’s not going to turn into a complete disaster; it really can’t. At worst, his defense will still make him a bel0w-average regular at the position. He’s a “safe bet” not in that he’s a star, but because it’s very unlikely he’s going to be a real liability.

Still, whether Ahmed’s bat will be useful long term is still a question. In particular, while he definitely improved in May, he’s still picked it up mostly against lefties; at the moment, he has a Goldy-like 175 wRC+ against lefties for the season, but he’s still carrying a 36 wRC+ against righties for the season. That’s akin to what we expected from David Peralta against lefties, and what we expected from Peralta against lefties was enough for the team to commit to using him as only a platoon player (although down two OFs and in DH parks, he still started against lefties the last two days).

And that’s what to watch for, now. The D-backs could commit to Ahmed now. If he improved against righties, they almost have to, even if that improvement was accompanied by less success against lefties. Ahmed’s defense appears to be a cut above that of Didi Gregorius, but it’s worth noting that Gregorius’s platoon splits caused him to be written out of the team plan by the current regime (although there are more RHP than LHP). As we said with respect to Gregorius, having a platoon split actually does make a player more useful (as opposed to a player with the same overall talent), especially on a squad that may have a starting caliber shortstop playing nearly every day in Chris Owings. But that may be the difference between Ahmed becoming a cornerstone of the team’s immediate future and being merely important to its success.

We’ll continue to monitor the issues against RHP. But in the meantime, I don’t think any of us will mind watching the show.

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2 Responses to Nick Ahmed Working His Way Into Long Term Plan

  1. Ben says:

    Ahmed is very fun to watch in the field for sure. I think he is definitely a 2 WAR player at least going forward just with his defense and a very marginal bat. What do you think his ceiling is? Do you think he could ever be a 4 WAR player ?

  2. Ryan P. Morrison says:

    Maybe not a 4 WAR player, but maybe a 4 WAR season? Maybe a lot like Gerardo Parra and 2013, real skills and real playing time, but probably with some luck, too.

    I feel like we know it’s possible — he just put up 1.2 fWAR in the last month alone. Slap a few of those together with one marginal month and two terrible ones, and you’ve got yourself a 4 win season.

    He might be brushing up against 3 wins from a quality standpoint right now. Call me cautiously optimistic that he’s a 3 win player as of next season.

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