Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins wasn't on anyone's top-prospects list heading into the season, probably because, despite his hitting a soft .314 in 52 major-league plate appearances, it's not at all clear that he has a major league-quality bat -- when you hit .257/.311/.369 as a 25-year-old at Triple-A, it doesn't leave a lot to dream on. Goins was a little better at Double-A last year (.289/.342/.403), but it looks like he's going to be a confirmed No. 9 hitter in the majors. He might play anyway, because the minor-league shortstop has been a revelation at second base.
Small-sample caveats abound in the following discussion, but then Goins' brief track record is what makes him so intriguing. Though he's played just 15 big-league games heading into Tuesday's action, he's already in the American League top 25 of BIS's defensive runs saved metric with eight. He trails Dustin Pedroia, Elliot Johnson, Brian Dozier, and Ian Kinsler, but only because they've had more playing time -- prorated to 1,200 innings, Goins clocks in at a ridiculous 80 runs saved. Total Zone's fielding runs are a bit less generous, but still see his prorated total as a strong 27 runs, which would make him the best defensive infielder in the AL.
There is no telling if Goins will be able to keep up this kind of defensive production over a full season, or if what we're seeing is something of a statistical, observational, or even distributional fluke -- which is to say that hypothetically an unlikely number of balls have been hit towards second base in Goins' short time in the bigs. That happens sometimes; Bill James has written about how 1980s Braves infielder Glenn Hubbard was viewed as a superman in some early attempts at defensive rankings because no adjustment was made for the fact that he played behind a team of low-strikeout ground-ball pitchers. It wasn't so much that he had spectacular range (though he was a good fielder) as he was just having a high volume of balls hit in his general direction.
You might be tempted to guess that is what is happening with Goins and the Jays -- Jays' pitchers, led by Mark Buehrle, are a bit on the high side for grounders -- except that Goins' glove passes the eye test. Given just a couple of weeks to work with, MLB.com has already amassed a small collection of Goins' highlights. For example, here he is robbing Oswaldo Arcia of a hit:
Here he is ranging into short right field to deny Alex Gordon:
Here he is saving J.P. Arencibia from a possible throwing error and finishing a strike-'em-out/throw-'em-out double play through sheer athletic ability:
Following are three double plays started by other infielders, but Goins is the pivot man on each, and he is fast. First, Jose Reyes starts one on a slowly-hit grounder:
Then note him dig out Brett Lawrie's low throw after the third baseman makes a great diving stop:
Finally, here he is making a game-ending double play out of yet another grounder that wasn't necessarily hit hard enough for it to be automatic:
Given all of that and more like it, Goins' defensive strengths don't seem like a fluke. He could be the rare second baseman-artist out there -- the Picasso of the Keystone. He has to be -- his bat might not be enough to keep him out there if he slips to sub-Picasso status and becomes, say, the Norman Rockwell of the Keystone. That's something that will wait for next year. In the meantime, Goins has given the Jays a nice little asterisk at the end of what has been a long and disappointing season -- *something to get excited about.