Jean Segura and Managing Expectations

Public perception is driven by how one performs compared to expectations. A sardonic cliche in the United States holds that one should “always under-promise and over-deliver.” If co-workers and managers don’t expect anything more than shoddy work, they’ll be impressed by mediocrity. Inflate expectations and/or perform exceptionally well from the beginning, mediocrity suddenly becomes unacceptable.

Jean Segura came to Milwaukee with lofty expectations, headlining the Zack Greinke trade in 2012 as one of the top prospects in the Angels’ farm system. Things ratcheted up another notch when he hit .354/.393/.550 through the first two months of the 2013 season. Brewers fans and baseball analysts thought that Milwaukee unearthed their shortstop of the future, an above-average offensive performer who pleasantly surprised with the glove. He was at least a four-win player in his first full season, and at only 23 years old, that set expectations accordingly.

The Dominican shortstop’s fall from grace has been swift and painful. Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Marlins, Segura had hit .251/.287/.324 over the past two seasons. That sample contains important caveats — such as the unexpected death of his young child — but it’s difficult to describe the young man’s performance at the plate as anything other than putrid.

When compared to his banner start to the 2013 campaign, though, Segura’s offensive production somehow seems worse. He’s not just a poor hitter, but someone who has never lived up to his early promise. Perhaps more cynically, his last season and a half is simply evidence that those projecting a bounce-back 2015 season — like myself — were stupid and wrong. The numbers have clearly shown that he’s been bad and pinning hopes on two months in 2013 has always been akin to panning for gold in Lake Michigan.

Two important things must be addressed:

(1) Just because Segura has been well below-average offensively doesn’t mean he’s not worthwhile or valuable at shortstop. After all, the shortstop position is a barren wasteland across the league. One can easily argue that Segura has been a league-average player, despite his poor work at the dish.

(2) No sane person should have suggested that Segura’s early-2013 performance was sustainable or the true Jean Segura. As such, no one calling for a bounce-back year has ignored his recent track record, nor have they called for a return to 2013. The discussion has always been about making adjustments and living up to his potential — not that his performance in 2014 and 2015 hasn’t actually been bad. It has been quite bad.

Addressing the first point, the league-average shortstop has hit .253/.302/.366 in 2015. That correlates to a wRC+ of 82, or 17 percent worse than the league’s average offensive player. The major-league shortstop, in general, is not a good offensive player, which means that Segura can still be somewhat worthwhile with a .260/.286/.324 slash line. Especially when one considers his 18 stolen bases. Especially when one considers his quality defense at shortstop.

[NOTE: One may desire to bring up Segura’s poor UZR, but that defensive metric is proving more untrustworthy by the year. For example, Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA indicates that Segura has been one of the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball over the last couple seasons. The eye test suggests that the “real” answer is somewhere in the middle, with his being an above-average defender. Personal preference may push the needle one way or the other.]

The shortstop position is a cornucopia of sadness. It includes five different players who have accumulated at least 100 plate appearances, yet are hitting below .200. Somehow Daniel Descalso continues to get regular playing time, despite hitting .218/.288/.353 in the moonball environment of Coors Field. A guy such as Segura, who can hit .270 with 20+ stolen bases and plus defense — regardless of the lack of power and the hacktastic approach — still carries value in a league that features Taylor Featherston and Alexi Amarista getting at-bats.

Again, this isn’t good. This isn’t a desirable situation for the Milwaukee Brewers. But the organization isn’t hemorrhaging production at shortstop. Perhaps the bellyaching about Segura has much more to do with some kind of validation that low expectations were the right expectations, rather than a genuine desire to start someone else at shortstop, but this entire conversation surrounding the Brewers’ shortstop misses the league-wide context of what constitutes a major-league shortstop in today’s era.

On the other hand, my arguments that Jean Segura could actually develop into an above-average offensive performer at shortstop have never hinged on a return to early-2013 levels. Even now, when his statistics since June 2013 have been rather poor, I wouldn’t be surprised if Segura figured it out at the plate. It’s never been about ability, for me, but about consistency. Segura has a tendency to slip into bad habits. He often cleans things up over the winter or in spring training, which leads to tremendous starts, but he loses his power and his swing over the course of a season. He begins drifting at the baseball, not staying back and driving it to all fields. This results in more weak contact and depressed numbers.

He displays glimpses of his ceiling — to different degrees of sustainability — but never can hold onto it for more than a month or two. He shows a willingness to stay on his back foot, limit the rotation in his overall swing, and drive the baseball. It was a huge topic of conversation throughout spring training and seemingly resulted in big things, as Segura was hitting .324/.352/.426 through 18 games. I fell into the trap of thinking that he “found” something and this could be the start of something special. Of course, I underestimated the difficulty of consistency and implementing swing changes over a long period of time. It doesn’t happen often. Assuming he would hit his ceiling, rather than just pointing out that he could, was a mistake.

Thus, for Jean Segura, if he wouldn’t have been a high-profile prospect with lofty expectations established in 2013, I think his near league-average performance would seem incredibly attractive, especially coming on the heels of Yuniesky Betancourt, Alex Gonzalez, Cody Ransom, Cesar Izturis, and Edwin Maysonet. Since fans and the media set the bar high, though, the narrative has been that he’s nothing but a disappointment. Managing expectations is key. Segura made the mistake of figuratively promising too much and not delivering on the deal. As such, perhaps he should learn from his teammate Hernan Perez on how to under-promise and over-deliver.

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